The Best Movies You've (Probably) Never Heard Of






No question about it, the twentieth century produced a plethora of great artists. Who was the greatest artist of the twentieth century? Impossible to say, especially if you take into account all of the classic arts, especially that cocky new kid on the block, film. Yet if we were to survey the lists of great artists and entertainers of that hundred years we can’t help but find a small clique of artists who not only put out an incredible body of work, both in terms of quantity and quality, but were also constantly re-inventing themselves, going through more periods then a kid does in a school day. Some examples of this would have to be Pablo Picasso, Miles Davis, and even though they were only together for a relatively brief amount of time compared to their peers and successors, the Beatles. One person who also must be added to that list is Federico Fellini, easily one of the most beloved, influential and worshiped film directors of his day.

Oh yes, Fellini was worshiped. All over the world people lined up hours in advance to see what cinematic wonder he came up with this time. He may very well have been the most famous filmmaker on earth during his heyday, which spanned roughly from the mid-fifties to the mid-to-late seventies. Oh he had some challengers to the crown. Naturally there was Alfred Hitchcock. Also Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman. Orson Welles was certainly in the running thanks to Citizen Kane being recognized as the greatest film ever made, but while Welles was always in the limelight thanks to his many acting roles and TV appearances, almost every film he ever directed took a few years to find an audience. Fellini, on the other hand, always had an audience at the ready.

Welles once described Fellini’s films as a small town boy’s view of big city life. Certainly this was something Welles could relate to. Though it has close to 100,000 residents today, his hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin was indeed a fairly small city at the time of his birth. After his parents died he was taken to live in Chicago. He’d spend the rest of his life in the world’s great metropoleis – Dublin, London, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Madrid and Las Vegas. Fellini came from the seaside town of Rimini in Northeast Italy. Though it was a popular vacation destination in Fellini’s day, it too has seen it’s share of growth and today is a popular seaside resort city. But it was still rather provincial in Fellini’s youth. Yet while Welles moved from city to city, Fellini settled permanently in Rome. He moved to the Italian capital in 1938 to study at the University of Rome. He apparently never attended a single class. Instead he eked out a living by sketching patrons in restaurants, working as a cub reporter for a local newspaper and then as a comedy writer for a humor magazine. He then began writing for the radio, a job that introduced him to his future wife and muse, the actress Giulietta Masina. After the war he opened up a small establishment called the Funny Face Shop where he drew caricatures of returning G.I.’s. While working there he met Roberto Rossellini, who would go on to be the father of the Italian neorealist movement, not to mention Isabella Rossellini. Fellini collaborated on the screenplay for the landmark film Rome, Open City and later Paisan, both of which showed the world the harrowing conditions during World War II.

Rome would remain his home and the setting for most of his films until the day he died. Yet he was always haunted by his childhood in Rimini. His movies frequently feature shots of the sea. La Strada ends with the strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn) breaking down and weeping when he learns that the little waif that he traveled with and abused (played by Masina) had died. La Dolce Vita ends with Marcello Mostreoni and his evening revelers finding a sea creature that has washed ashore and a young girl standing in the distance in the surf, saying something he can’t hear. 8 1/2 has a young boy watching a fat, voluptuous whore dance the rumba, only to be harshly punished by the local clergy when he’s found out. And then of course there’s Amarcord, the title of which literally translates into I Remember and paints a sumptuous portrait of life in a seaside town. Amarcord is my favorite Fellini film and one of my favorite movies of all time! Heck, I wish I could live in that film!

Fellini’s first feature film was Variety Lights. Co-directed by Alberto Lattuada and starring Giulietta Masina, the film centered on a troupe of vaudevillians and their lives back stage and in rooming houses. His next film was The White Sheik, his first solo effort and his second film to star Masina. Neither film was a commercial success but the world did indeed take notice with his third feature, I Vitelloni.

According to Fellini, the title refers to “the unemployed of the middle class, mother’s pets. They shine during the holiday season end.  Waiting for it takes up the rest of the year.” The title comes from the Romangnol word for either “veal” or “calf.” The vitelloni of this film refer to Alberto (Alberto Sordi), a daydreamer who is supported by his mother and sister Olga (Claude Farell), who unlike her brother actually has a job, one that allows him to mooch off of her. Ricardo (Ricardo Fellini, brother of Frederico) is a robust tenor who doesn’t seem to have much of a desire to turn pro. Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste) is a poet and aspiring dramatist. Fausto (Franco Fabrizi) is the hansom lothario of the group and Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) is the youngest of the group. While his friends go home after a night of aimless carousing, what we in this country would call “hanging out,” Moraldo sits on a park bench, enjoying the solitude of the night. One night he meets a young boy who works as a station agent. The boy gets up at three o’clock every morning to report to his job. Moraldo feels a bit embarrassed that a kid at least ten years his junior has a job and he doesn’t. He also yearns to one-day get on that train and leave to see the world.

Each year at the end of summer their seaside town holds its annual Mermaid Festival, which culminates with a beauty contest. Moraldo’s sister Sandra (Leonaora Ruffo) wins the contest. Indeed, she’s a beautiful young lady. But no sooner is she crowned mermaid queen that she passes out. When Fausto learns what happened, he immediately goes home and starts packing a suitcase. He tells his father (Jean Borchard) that he’s accepted a job in Milan, though he can’t quite articulate what the job entails. Dad’s not buying it. Soon Moraldo shows up. He informs the father and son that Sandra is pregnant and it’s pretty clear that Fausto is the father. His Dad’s not going to let Fausto run away. He demands that his son do the honorable thing and marry the girl.

Sure enough they have a big, beautiful wedding with everyone in the town attending. Fausto seems somewhat happy and Sandra seems smitten with him. They go off to Rome for their honeymoon. Meanwhile the remaining four vitelloni kill time by doing, well, not much of anything. They sit on a pier and stare out into the ocean. They take a walk on the beach. When a stray dog runs up, Alberto starts an impromptu game of fetch with the canine. Alas, he’s not too happy when he sees his sister carrying on with a man Alberto knows to be married.

Fausto and Sandra eventually return from their honeymoon, he now sporting a debonair mustache. His in-laws have said the newlyweds can live with them until they get up on their feet but in the meantime Fausto needs to get a job. His father-in-law arranges for him to get a job as a clerk in a store that sells religious antiques. Alas, the monotony of work doesn’t seem to agree with him. What’s more, he’s already finding fidelity to be disagreeable. Oh, he loves Sandra and treats her with tenderness the moment he sees her after work. But he still has a wandering eye. One night they go to the movies and Fausto notices an exotic woman (Arlette Sauvage) sitting on his opposite side. When the woman gets up to leave, Fausto excuses himself, claiming he wants to get some air. He instead follows the woman home and once she gets into her building, Fausto grabs and kisses her (Obviously this was way before the #MeToo movement). She rebuffs him and warns him that she’s married. When he arrives back at the cinema he sees a forlorn Sandra standing out front. She’s obviously hurt to have been left alone and suspicious about Fausto’s disappearance. He manages to smooth things over with sweet talk.

Festivals and social gatherings of any kind would go on to be a hallmark of Fellini’s work. In I Vitteloni we are treated to a carnival and a masquerade ball. Taking place in a grand hall with streamers and confetti raining down, it’s hard not to wish you were there. One also can’t help but be swept up by the musical score written by Nino Rota, who first worked with Fellini on The White Sheik and who would score every one of the masters films right up until Noto’s death in 1979. His glorious, distinctly Italian scores (he also wrote the music for Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet and The Godfather) were often a mix of marches, jazz, circus music and other genres that became so closely associated with Fellini that he actually thought about retiring after Noto’s death. Like Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone or Steven Spielberg and John Williams, Fellini and Roto comprise one of the greatest director/composer collaborations in cinema history.

When the festival is over, a drunken Alberto returns home to find that Olga has run off with her married lover. He finds his rather typically dramatic Italian mother weeping uncontrollably. Alberto promises to care for her and to get a job. How serious he is, well, that’s another story.

Fausto arrives at work two hours late and is chastised by his boss (Carlo Romano). “My friends sister ran away last night,” explains Fausto. “Someone’s sister runs away every night,” says his boss. After they close he does something really stupid. Having seen his bosses wife at the ball the previous night, he makes a pass at her. He seems like he’s just fooling around, but obviously he should know better. After closing time, his boss gives Fausto the sack.

That night he confesses to Moraldo that he’s been fired. Not understanding the circumstances, Moraldo tells Fausto that he should have been given a severance, despite his rather short tenure at the shop (maybe this was a law in Italy at the time. I obviously don’t know). That’s when Fausto talks his young brother-in-law into a scheme. They steel a wooden statue of an angel from the shops basement with the intent to sell it and split the money. Easier said then done. They take the statue to a convent and a monetary and are turned down by both. Later that night Moraldo and Sandra’s father comes home in a rage. He learns about their plot and had to talk the police out of arresting them. Moraldo once again goes to bat for Fausto, telling Sandra that it wasn’t really his fault and that the boss’s wife came on to him. She forgives him once again.

One night the group of friends go and see a performance by the great, elderly actor Sergio Natali (Achille Mejeroni). The thespian has apparently read one of the plays written by Leopoldo, the budding playwright. The actor says that he loved the play and would like to perform it. He invites Leopoldo to take a walk and discuss the play. Things get awkward when they get to the sea. Natali asks Leopoldo to walk with him and read the fourth act, but he fears Natali is coming on to him. This is only hinted at, of course. Still it’s worth noting that Fellini originally approached Vittorio De Sica, the master director behind Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief and one of the earliest films I profiled on this blog, Umberto D. Before directing De Sica was a matinee idol. He was interested in the part but eventually got cold feet, fearing that people might actually think he was homosexual. Fellini later claimed that De Sica would have been “too nice, too fascinating, too distracting,” so he instead cast the portly, over-the-hill Achille Majeroni.

While Leopoldo discusses the play with Natali, Fausto’s wandering eye once again focuses in on a good-looking woman. In this case an unattached member of the acting troupe. Clearly a woman of the world, she sleeps with him, not expecting any attachment. Moraldo waits for him in the plaza. He doesn’t berate him but one suspects that he’s getting tired of his best friend cheating on his sister.

When Fausto gets home, Sandra sees him wiping lipstick off his cheek in the mirror. The next morning she takes their chubby, newborn baby and leaves home. Fausto becomes frantic. He and his friends borrow a car and they travel all over looking for Sandra. At one point Fausto runs into the mysterious woman in the cinema. She comes on to him but he’s not interested. He’s finally waking up to what a cad he’s been.

He finally tracks down Sandra at his father’s house. He’s relieved beyond belief to see his wife and child. Dad, on the other hand, has had quite enough of Fausto’s philandering. He takes off his belt and tries to beat Fausto. This freaks Sandra out. The scene is more comical then anything. Moraldo greets Fausto when he gets home. “If she had died I would have killed myself,” he says. “You wouldn’t kill yourself,” Moraldo retorts. “You’re too much of a coward.” It looks as if there’s now a rift between them that cannot be mended.

This leads to a very poignant conclusion. One morning Moraldo heads to the train station. His young friend who works at the station is there. “Where are you going?” he asks. “I don’t know,” Moroldo confesses. As the train pulls out we see all of his friends, fast asleep, sleeping in the beds they probably always will sleep in. There lives are set but Moroldo’s is just beginning.

As a story about young men living in small towns or insular communities, I Vitelloni has influenced a whole number of American films. Martin Scorsese has frequently sighted Fellini’s film as a major influence on Mean Streets. True, the latter film is set in New York City, not a small town. Yet it focuses on a small clique of friends who’s entire lives revolve around their neighborhood of Little Italy. George Lucas has also sighted I Vitelloni as an influence on American Graffiti. That film dealt with four (rather then five) male friends in a small town in Northern California. Like Moraldo, Richard Dreyfuss’s character is sort of the odd man out. He’s apprehensive about leaving home but ultimately he’s the one that leaves. Other films that owe a debt to I Vitteloni include The Last Picture Show, Diner, Stand by Me and St. Elmo’s Fire.

I Vitelloni premiered to great critical acclaim and at the 1953 Venice Film Festival it was awarded the Silver Lion. It would take a few years to be released in the U.S. but when it was it was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Stanley Kubrick even once sighted it s one of his favorite movies of all time.

I Vitelloni does have one foot in the tradition of neorealism, even if it’s largely a-political and doesn’t really deal with the down trodden. His next film, the utterly sublime La Strada added a sense of childlike wonder that made Fellini’s work so unique. Ditto Nights of Cabiria. Later his films became less concerned with narrative and became more mosaic like in their construction and more baroque in their final design. Certainly films like La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2. Juliet of the Spirits, Satyricon, The Clowns, Roma and Amarcord give new meaning to the word spectacle, making the word “Felliniesque” part of the cinematic lexicon.

Fellini was one in a billion. When he died Akira Kurasowa himself lamented that “I can’t believe I’ll never see another Fellini film.” Sadly, there’s a whole generation of film students and other young people who have no idea who Fellini was. Nor do they know Kurasowa, Bergman, Antonioni or many of the other greats of post war cinema. It’s not really their fault. Young minds need to be opened up. Given the fact that we are right now living in a day and age when young people face a bleak future, can’t find work, have to live with their parents longer then expected and may even suffer from a sense of arrested development then I Vitteloni might just be a great introduction to the Italian master.



EDITORIAL: Is Apu the Problem?

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My Oscar Predictions

FRENZY (1972)

via FRENZY (1972)

FRENZY (1972)



In 2012 there was a minor stir in the blogosphere of that ever opinionated creature, the cineast.  That year the British magazine Sight and Sound did their decennial poll where they invited film scholars to list what in their opinion are the ten greatest films ever made.  The poll was first taken in 1952.  That year The Bicycle Theif topped the list.  A decade later Citizen Kane took the top spot and continued to dominate the Sight and Sound poll (not to mention countless others) every decade.  But in 2012 it felt like the earth began spinning in the opposite direction when Kane was bumped to number two in favor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Now I personally don’t think Vertigo is nearly as great as Citizen Kane.  In fact it’s far from my favorite Hitchcock film.  That honor would probably go to either Rear Window, North by Northwest or Psycho.  That’s not to say that Vertigo doesn’t have a wealth of virtues – a top-notch cast, some incredibly passionate moments, arguably the best score Bernard Herman ever wrote and it’s hands down one of the most visually beautiful films of the fifties.  But for my money the sum of the parts were always greater than the whole.  Then again, every film buff has their own favorite Hitchcock picture.  What’s very rare is finding someone who doesn’t like the Master of Suspense at all.

It’s hard to believe now but there was a time when Alfred Hitchcock was not taken very seriously at all by film critics and scholars. For most of his long and storied career he was seen largely as a sort of carnival barker, luring people into his midway tent so that they could get their masochistic jollies gaping at the grotesqueries within. Oh, he got some acclaim. Rebecca, his first Hollywood film (which he personally didn’t care much for) won the Oscar for Best Picture. He was nominated for Best Director but lost to The Grapes of Wrath director John Ford. Hitchcock would later earn a Best Director nom for Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window and Psycho, yet he never won. In 1968 the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences awarded Hitchcock the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which is given out on certain years (it was last awarded in 2010) to “Creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” Lifetime achievement awards are often a bit of a double-edged sword. Sure, it’s an honor and unlike the competitive awards the recipient knows he’s not going home empty-handed. Then again awarding ones lifetime of work seems to indicate that the best years are behind you (not always though. Spielberg was awarded the Thalberg in 1986 before he even turned forty!) The fact that it is awarded to “creative producers” seems to indicate that it’s the business side of things that they are honoring and unlike every other Academy Award the Memorial Award statuette is a bust of Mr. Thalberg, not the familiar Oscar figure. This means that Alfred Hitchcock went to his grave without ever having been awarded an actual Oscar.

The public of course loved Hitchcock. Ever since he directed his silent classic The Lodger in 1927 Hitchcock knew how to frighten the hell out of audiences and how to make the most thrilling of thrillers. While some filmmakers spend their whole careers trying to avoid being pigeonholed, Hitchcock was perfectly happy working almost exclusively in the mystery genre and was proud be called “the Master of Suspense.” At a time when directors were often viewed as mere cogs in the large studio system apparatus, Hitchcock knew he was an artist and was not shy about it. Along with Frank Capra he was one of the only film makers who’s name appeared above the title of his films – Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

His style was unmistakable, his technique was sound. Hitch was notorious for storyboarding his films within an inch of their life, laying out his shots, camera movement and montages like Stravinsky notating his musical score. He frequently designed long, complex shots, showing as much action as he could without breaking the continuity or very deliberately only shooting the coverage that was absolutely necessary to fit his storyboards. Part of it was his meticulous nature but part of it was also the fact that the right to final cut was a pipe dream during the studio era. David O. Selznick, the producer of Gone with the Wind who brought Hitchcock over from Great Britain in 1940 was particularly notorious for re-cutting and reshaping films in the editing room once the director had moved on to other projects. No way Hitchcock was going to allow that to happen with his films.

So why exactly were critics so hostile towards Hitch? Part of it was that he was so blatantly commercial. By putting his name above the title of his films and specializing in a certain type of movie Hitchcock was very consciously turning his name into a brand much like Walt Disney had.  He later spun off a mystery magazine (still published today), a series of mystery books for kids and of course produced, hosted and occasionally directed his hugely successful anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And let’s not forget those cameos he made in virtually every one of his films. For his die-hard fans going to a Hitchcock movie became a little like one of those Where’s Waldo books. There were times when it was particularly difficult for him to make his cameo. Lifeboat took place entirely on a lifeboat. Look closely and you’ll see someone reading a newspaper. There you will see a weight loss ad with Hitchcock, not surprisingly, as the before picture. Dial M for Murder was a chamber drama that took place almost entirely in a London flat with only a few people. Pay close attention and you will see him in a photograph along with a number of other people. Sometimes it became a bit of a nuisance. It got to the point where Hitchcock had to make his cameo as early in the film as possible so that those looking for him could then relax and concentrate on the film. In his 1956 movie The Wrong Man Hitchcock appears in shadow at the very beginning of the film announcing “every word (of the movie) is true.” This was partly due to the fact that it was inspired by a true story (and like any true story the accuracy can be debated forever) but also because it was deliberately filmed in a docudrama style Hitchcock felt that his trademark cameo would only serve as a distraction.

Critics often felt that his films were all style and no content. What exactly did they mean by that? Well, it’s safe to say that he was far less interested in the psychological make-up of his characters then say Orson Welles or Elia Kazan. A favorite protagonist of Hitchcock was the innocent man falsely accused of something. We don’t learn a whole lot about his what makes him tick.  That’s not the point. The point is that the rug has been pulled out from under him or her and they have to restore order to their lives. It doesn’t always work out mind you. In Saboteur, for example, the man wrongly accused of terrorism (Robert Cummings) is unable to prevent the only guy that can clear his name (Norman Lloyd) from falling off the torch of the Statue of Liberty. His villains were often interesting and charismatic. Hitch once said that his favorite movie of his was Shadow of a Doubt, which starred Joseph Cotton as a charming, handsome, beloved uncle who also happens to be a serial killer. What’s important isn’t why he kills but the fact that he’s going to kill. Even after that cross-dressing mama’s boy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is apprehended the rather glib explanation for his behavior is hardly satisfactory. What’s so much more fascinating is the fact that he kills Janet Leigh and then mops up her blood and disposes of the body so that his “mother” won’t get in trouble. When faced with such criticism Hitchcock would protest that condemning his films for their lack of “content” was like asking a painter if the apples in his still life were sweet or sour. Who cares?

And then there was the charge that he was manipulative, that his movies did nothing more than strike certain nerves to give off certain responses. In Hitchcock’s mind that was precisely what an artist, any artist, does. A novelist elicits an emotional response through his use of prose, a playwright through his use of dialog. A composer arranges notes to create a melody, a painter mixes colors to create certain shades and a sculptor molds and shapes certain contours onto a three-dimensional object. The goal is always to stimulate an emotional response. For Hitchcock that response was usually fear. He knew that the world was a chaotic place. That behind the veneer of order in society there was always a storm of chaos waiting to be set free. That evil was omnipresent and that it took many forms. The fact that people needed to exorcise these fears was a strange bit of human nature that Hitchcock was always ready to provide. He always said he liked to play his audience like a piano. What so many of these critics didn’t seem to get is that he made us feel like a Steinway.

Hitchcock had his champions, of course. In France, the famed critic and theorist Andre Bazin assembled a salon of young film enthusiasts to write for his magazine Cashiers du cinema. These young men included Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, Eric Rohmer, Claud Chabrol and others who would go on to make up the core of the French New Wave in the late fifties and early sixties. Before making their own films they wrote volumes about American filmmakers and how they were, despite the fact that they worked for the big studios, artists with their own unique voice and style. Hitchcock was among those that they championed and none was more enthusiastic about the master then Truffaut, the very man who coined the term auteur and later went on to become a great director in his own right. In 1962, after he had already directed The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, Truffaut sat down with Hitch at Universal pictures and conducted a weeklong series of interviews. In 1966 they were published in the volume Hitchcock/Truffaut, unquestionably one of the most important pieces of film criticism ever published. By then popular opinion about Hitchcock was already beginning to change in the U.S. Andrew Sarris began his career at The Village Voice by writing a rave review of Psycho. Younger critics like Peter Bogdonavich (who would soon become a director) and Roger Ebert unabashedly loved the master and soon there was a whole generation of “movie brats” like Spielberg, Scorsese, De Palma, Polanski, Altman and Friedkin (the latter two got their starts directing episodes of Hitchcock’s anthology series) who were quite vocal in their love of the master.

As Hitchcock approached his senior years his movies started to become darker and darker. His somewhat gleeful fascination with death and gallows humor started to be replaced with ever-growing droplets of despair. The Birds was arguably the only out-and-out horror movie Hitchcock ever made. It was as close as he ever came to making a “monster” movie and it was clearly meant to be a doomsday picture, a speculation on how the human race might end. But it isn’t a mushroom cloud or giant radioactive monster that will be the death of us but rather our feathered friends who we usually perceive as harmless and benign. For all man has done to tame the planet we’d be utterly defenseless if mother nature rose up against us (this past year has recorded a frightening number of unusual weather patterns and unnatural occurrences. As our planet gets hotter Mother Nature grows more and more hostile). Marnie (1964) comes to a particularly disturbing conclusion in which the title character played by Tippi Hedren recounts a most harrowing childhood trauma.  The way in which Hitch edits the scene is bound to make anyone uncomfortable.  His espionage film Torn Curtain includes one of the most violent scenes he ever filmed in which Paul Newman and Julie Andrews have to defend themselves against a killer. Whatever faults the film as a whole has this one masterfully directed scene does illustrate how incredibly difficult it can be for an ordinary person to kill but should the need arise we can all take another human life to save our own.

By the end of the sixties the industry had changed considerably. For much of his career Hitchcock often had to do battle with the notorious Hayes office over the violent and sexual content of his films. In 1968 the MPAA introduced a ratings system. Studios would voluntarily submit their films to a board that would then give the film a rating (G, PG, R) based on the film’s content. In theory at least this would give people an idea as to whether or not a film was appropriate for children without resorting to out-and-out censorship. In the ensuing years the methods in which films are classified and the economic pressured placed on studios would cause many critics to condemn the rating system as just another form of censorship. But when it was first introduced it looked as if film makers could finally say what they wanted and a whole flood of movies such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch, Easy Rider, A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather and countless others were released with a seemingly unrestrained amount of sex, violence, nudity, profanity and debauchery. Suddenly a movie like Psycho, so shocking when first released seemed kind of tame compared to, say, Rosemary’s Baby (according to some reports, Hitchcock was offered that film but found the subject matter appalling. Maybe it was his Jesuit upbringing but the master finally found a subject that was too shocking even for him). Could the master hope to keep up?

Fortunately he still had one great movie in him. And for that he returned to London, the city of his youth where his career began. He had left London in 1939 as the war clouds were forming over Europe. He briefly returned in the late forties to direct the films Under Capricorn and Stage Fright. Otherwise he hadn’t made a film in his homeland in over two decades.

Frenzy opens with a sweeping helicopter shot down the Thames River, ending at Tower Bridge. On the promenade along the bank we see a politician holding a press conference where he extolls the clean up effort underway along the river. Just then somebody sees something. The stone cold body of a nude woman with a necktie tied around her neck. Apparently there have been a few of these “necktie murders” going on in London. “He’s a regular Jack the Ripper,” says one of the onlookers. “Not on your life,” another one answers. “He used to carve them up.”

We then meet Richard Blaney (John Finch), a former fighter pilot for the R.A.F. who’s now working as a bartender at a local pub. Things haven’t been going too well for him. He’s divorced, has been locked out of his flat and at the start of the film is fired from his job for pinching some of the liquor. Blaney does seem to be a likable fellow. He’s romantically involved with the pubs barmaid Babs (Anna Massey) who also seems to look out for him. He’s still friendly with his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) who runs a dating service. She offers to take him out to dinner. He spends the night at the Salvation Army.  He only learns after someone tries to pick his pocket that she’s slipped him some much-needed cash.

Another friend of his is Robert Rusk (Barry Foster), a fruit and vegetable wholesaler in Covent Garden.  This is where Hitchcock’s father ran a poultry business.  He knew that the fruit and vegetable market was about to be priced out as London real estate was on the rise. He wanted to capture it on film before it was gone.

Going back to Robert Rusk. He’s a dapper, handsome guy with blonde hair. He also advances Robert some cash. Russ later visits Brenda’s dating service. She apparently doesn’t know that he’s a friend of her ex-husband. She also addresses him as Mr. Robinson. She does know that “certain peculiarities appeal to (him) and he needs certain women to submit to them.” That’s a service she doesn’t provide. It’s soon pretty clear that Rusk plans to use Brenda to quell his “certain peculiarity” and that he is, in fact, the necktie murderer. He removes his tie and proceeds to rape and strangle her.

Hitchcock was always fascinated by deviant human nature but the violent nature of a sex offender was something that could only have been hinted at. Russ rips off Brenda’s dress and paws at her bare breasts. Mercifully Hitchcock doesn’t turn it into something as explicit as, say, the scene of Jodi Foster in The Accused. He relies on some abstract editing and sound (“lovely”). Afterwards Rusk seems tired, a bit nervous but utterly unremorseful. He takes some money from her purse, bites into an apple on her desk and picks his teeth with his tie-pin, adorned with a bejeweled letter “R” which he so strategically placed on his lapel before murdering Brenda. Shortly after he leaves Richard Blaney arrives, only to find the office locked. He leaves just as Brenda’s secretary (Jean Marsh, who had already created her iconic role of Rose Buck on the series Upstairs, Downstairs) returns from lunch and discovers Brenda’s dead body.

Unaware of his ex-wife’s death, Blaney calls up Babs. They then meet up and with the money that Brenda slipped him the night before get a hotel room and enjoy a nice day of lovemaking. But by that evening news of Brenda’s murder has made the paper. The hotel clerk (Jimmy Porter) recognizes him and calls the police. Alas, an evening edition had already been slipped under their door. Richard and Babs make it out of there and later meet up with a friend of Richard’s who’s planning to leave for France. His plan is to lay low while Babs goes to get his things from Richard’s old apartment. Unfortunately she runs into Rusk. There’s no guarantee that the good guys will survive in a Hitchcock film. Rusk leads Babs up to the flat. We follow them as the enter but once they shut the door the camera tracks backwards out onto the busy street. A prime example of how what you don’t show is as important as what you do, this is easily one of the most chilling moments the master ever directed.

In an earlier scene Rusk overhears someone complaining about being in the potato business and that he has to send a truck full of unsold potatoes back to his supplier. Seizing the opportunity, Rusk wraps poor Brenda’s corps in a sack and places it in the potato truck. Unfortunately he notices his tiepin is missing and he remembers Brenda grabbing it while he was rapping her. He climbs onto the truck to get the pin back just as the driver starts the truck up and heads out. Once again it’s one of Hitchcock’s most beautiful set pieces. Also, as reprehensible as we now know Rusk is we can’t help but fear for him and we can’t help but relieved when he isn’t found out. Ever the master manipulator he knows how to make us feel sympathy for the devil. Remember how you first tensed up when you thought that Janet Leigh’s car wouldn’t completely sink into the swamp?

Once again we’re in that familiar territory of a man falsely accused. Hitchcock often told a story about how when he was a boy his Dad sent him to the local constable with a note. After reading the letter the officer lead the chubby boy down to a jail cell and locked him in a cell for about fifteen minutes. When he returned he told little Alfred “this is what we do to naughty boys.” There’s no way of knowing if this story is true or not. Hitchcock always swore that it was but couldn’t for the life of him remember what he did to deserve such punishment. Either way it does illustrate Hitchcock’s unique understanding of fear. The thought of having the rug pulled out from under you, of suddenly being utterly defenseless and not really understanding why is far more terrifying than any individual jolts or shocks life may throw at you.

The cast of Frenzy is quite excellent though it is interesting to note who turned down roles in the film. David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave, both of who co-starred in Blow-Up were offered the roles of Richard and Brenda. Michael Caine was offered the role of Rusk but found the character to be utterly reprehensible. It’s quite interesting to picture him in the role though Barry Foster played the role to perfection. One of the most curious actors to turn down a role in Frenzy was Helen Mirren, who was offered the role of Babs. She would have been around twenty-seven at the time and was working as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Years later she would play Hitchcock’s wife Alma (who played a pivotal role in writing and editing all of his movies) in the film Hitchcock. Mirren has freely admitted that she regrets turning down the role but one has to wonder why such a young and relatively unknown actress would turn down the chance to work with the Master of Suspense? Well, there is his famous statement where he said, “actors should be treated like cattle.” This was a terribly insensitive thing to say but in a sense what he meant was that an actors performance is, in some way or another, manipulated. An actor on stage goes through an entire character arc during the course of the performance. An actor’s performance is pieced together in the editing room. Of course a director who miscasts an actor is doomed. Truth is most actors liked working with Hitch and lord knows he got many a great performance out of them. I went to a lecture once with Farley Granger who acted in Rope and Strangers on a Train. He said “if he liked you he left you alone.” He tended to give very little direction to his actors. He did claim to have trouble with method actors though. He apparently had some difficulty with Montgomery Clift in I Confess and Paul Newman in Torn Curtain. Apparently they needed more direction then being told where to hit their mark.

Either way, Frenzy is a marvelous film filled with many of Hitchcock’s most familiar trademarks, including his droll sense of humor. Alec McGowen plays the police officer assigned to the case. His wife (Vivien Merchant) is studying French cuisine and is frequently preparing some exotic dishes that he doesn’t care for and which frankly look repulsive, even compared to the native cuisine of Britannia.  In one scene McGowan is served a soup with made with fish heads and squid tentacles. He explains to his wife the particulars of the case while trying not to betray his revulsion at the meal sitting in front of him. One has to wonder if Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were thinking about this scene when they came up with the banquet scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom?

When Hitchcock showed a final cut of Frenzy to his beloved wife Alma (who suffered a stroke during the making of the film) she said to him “this is the work of a young director.” Indeed it is. Beyond the explicitness of the film there’s a certain sense of realism and immediacy that no other film of his except maybe The Wrong Man possesses. Hitch always said he preferred shooting in a studio. Perhaps, but he knew the value of location shooting as well. Frenzy is one of the great movies about London, so beautifully captured on celluloid by cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, who also lensed A Hard Days Night, Dr. Strangelove, The Omen and the original Star Wars.

Frenzy was a box office hit but it couldn’t help but to be overshadowed by the work of the new young directors flooding Hollywood.  Hitchcock made one last movie, the rather lighthearted and thoroughly enjoyable Family Plot. He was working on a script called The Short Night when he died in 1980. By then Hitchcock could rest assured that he had earned his place as one of the greatest cinema artists who ever lived.




The Best Movies You've (Probably) Never Heard Of

Harakiri II 

A long time ago I was having dinner with someone who told me a most unusual story. He said that he was visiting Japan and had met an old man. The guy told him that he was in the Japanese Air Force during World War II. “We’re you a pilot?” my friend asked. “Yes,” the old man answered. “I was a Kamikaze.”

A Kamikaze? He must not have been very good at it, I thought to myself. The old man talked about what a great honor it was to be chosen to sacrifice your life for the Emperor. His family would be provided for and any village he visited he was treated like a God. Despite obvious food shortages the villagers would cook and feed the pilots all they had. They would pamper them, clothe them and fathers would offer up their daughters for sexual favors. Eventually my friend…

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via HARAKIRI (1962)


Harakiri II


A long time ago I was having dinner with someone who told me a most unusual story. He said that he was visiting Japan and had met an old man. The guy told him that he was in the Japanese Air Force during World War II. “We’re you a pilot?” my friend asked. “Yes,” the old man answered. “I was a Kamikaze.”

A Kamikaze? He must not have been very good at it, I thought to myself. The old man talked about what a great honor it was to be chosen to sacrifice your life for the Emperor. His family would be provided for and any village he visited he was treated like a God. Despite obvious food shortages the villagers would cook and feed the pilots all they had. They would pamper them, clothe them and fathers would offer up their daughters for sexual favors. Eventually my friend asked the inevitable question, “If you were a Kamikaze then why are you here telling me this story?” The old man smiled and said “Hiroshima.” By the time he had gone through his training and before he had the chance to fly a suicide mission of his own, the Fat Man and Little Boy were dropped on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered and the war was over.

Japan is like no other country in the world. Somehow this volcanic archipelago, completely isolated from the rest of the world for most of its existence, managed to create one of the richest cultures on Earth. Their advancements in the arts – painting, theater sculpture (origami is a kind of sculpture after all) and literature. Many historians consider Tale of Genji, a literary work written and published sometime at the start of the second millennium to be the first novel ever written and, it should be noted, its author was a woman. After World War II this land with very few natural resources of their own became an economic superpower, leading the world in the manufacturing of electronics, automobiles, microchips, all kinds of stuff. And lets not forget their contributions to popular culture. How could college kids eat without Ramen noodles? Two generations of kids have grown up on Nintendo and would happy hour be nearly as happy without karaoke?

Of course, one part of Japanese culture that is does tend to baffle much of the rest of the world is their attitudes towards self-killing. Though the number of suicides in Japan has reportedly been decreeing to less then 30,000 as of 2013, it remains high compared to the rest of the world. Many of the people who decide to kill themselves suffer from depression, are unemployed or have failed to live up to their desired scholastic achievement. Again, this is hardly unique to Japan and is probably the main cause of suicide in the U.S. What makes it different in Japan is that there is a long history of supposedly honorable self-killings. There were the Kamikaze pilots during World War II and also the Banzai charges where whole platoons of soldiers deliberately sacrificed their lives in order to weaken the enemy. All soldiers are meant to lay down their lives for the greater good, of course, but it’s not usually the intended outcome. A pilot who crashes his plane into an aircraft carrier will effectively sink the ship, a whole fleet of aircraft and kill a large number of enemy combatants. I don’t think this is quite the same as a suicide bomber. True, their families are supposed to be well compensated and they expect to be richly rewarded in the afterlife. But they aren’t part of a real army and despite what ISIS calls itself it’s not state (and many would argue not really Islamic). The romantic notion of dying on the battlefield is universal, but INTENTIONALLY turning yourself into a piece of artillery to kill others is anathema in the West. And a reason for that is that while we may have some daft notions of personal sacrifice we don’t have anything like the traditional samurai tradition of Seppuku or Harakiri (frequently mispronounced in the West as Harikari).

Our first impression of Harakiri might be of John Belushi playing a samurai on Saturday Night Live, impulsively retrieving a kantana blade from it’s sheath and pointing it towards his chest. Amusing as this was, a real act of Harakiri was always deliberate, very ritualistic and meticulously performed. Basically, if a samurai had in some way disgraced himself by being captured, by disgracing his lord or even something as simple as losing one of his swords, he could regain his dignity through an act of Seppuku. Much like a duel, witnesses had to be present. The person committing the act required a second – a fellow samurai and preferably a master swordsman. The man committing the act would take out his short bladed sword and cut open his belly. He didn’t just lacerate himself, he actually carved open his gut by sliding the blade across both vertically and horizontally. After disemboweling himself, his second would raise his sword and decapitate him. Essentially, the pain and suffering inflicted on oneself restored ones honor while the decapitation ended their suffering, allowing them to peacefully cross over into the afterlife.

I should warn you; I’m no expert on Japanese culture or, for that matter, Japanese cinema. I’m still learning. Like many movie geeks I absolutely worship Akira Kurosawa, having already profiled two of his films on this blog (Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams and Dersu Uzala) and I hope to write more. I do love the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki and since Godzilla was one of my childhood obsessions, one of many that I refuse to ever grow out of, I do get a kick out of the kaiju (giant monster) movies. I have seen a couple the films of Yasujiro Ozu, a master who came of age during the silent years and in the fifties enjoyed a late career renaissance with Tokyo Story and Floating Weeds (a remake of one of his silent films). I must confess that I find his films to be tedious beyond belief. But to quote Levar Burton on Reading Rainbow, “you don’t have to take my word for it.” Two directors that I’m very behind on are Kenji Mizoguchi, a contemporary of Ozu who directed Ugetzu and The Life of Oharu, both of which I loved.

This brings us to Masaki Kobayashi, a director who I’ve just recently arrived at but must say that I’m now a convert (one of the things I love about writing this blog is making new discoveries and reporting it to you readers immediately after). I had seen one of his films, a mesmerizing horror film called Kwaidan. An amazing film with a deliberately artificial façade. I plan to write about that in the not-too-distant future. His most famous film was a trilogy of films released between 1959 and 1961 called The Human Condition. That’s going to the top of my list. Most recently I had the privilege of seeing Harakiri, a 1962 film by Kobayashi that Netflix sent me months ago and has been sitting by my TV until a few days ago (I gotta admit, putting a disk into a machine and playing it is sort of becoming a chore).


Warning: There will be spoilers.

The movie opens with an impoverished samurai named Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) arrives at the estate of the Li Clan in Edo, the city that would grow into modern day Tokyo. Tsugumo is a ronin, that is to say a samurai without a master. He explains that his clan back in Hiroshima was abolished by the Shogun. His master himself committed Harakiri, which unfortunately left Tsugumo destitute. Since Japan is enjoying a period of relative peace (the year is 1630) there really isn’t much need for warriors at the moment. Now he’s been living hand-to-mouth in Edo, doing whatever piecemeal work he can find (abandoning soldiers when they’re no longer needed is hardly a thing of the past. More then half the homeless people in this country are veterans).   Ashamed to live in poverty he wishes to commit Harakiri and he requests that he be allowed to perform it in the estate with the Lords on site samurai, or retainers, present.

If a samurai arrives at a nobleman’s estate asking permission to commit suicide, then the noble dare not refuse him. However, Tsugumo learns from the Lord’s senior council that they have reason to be reluctant. It turns out that a number of ronin, or people posing as ronin, have been arriving at the homes of nobles asking to commit Harakiri. Instead they convince the Lord to simply give them some money and go on their merry way. He tells a story about a ronin from Tsugumo’s clan named Motome (Akira Ishihama) who showed up requesting to end his life on their property. They have heard of him, his reputation, as a gallant warrior is well known. Still, they’re suspicious. They let Motome in. They draw him a bath and lay out some far more elegant robes for the ritual. While Motome’s bathing three of the Lords retainers take a look at his weaponry. In feudal Japan only the samurai were allowed to carry bladed weapons, which they must carry with them at all times, one long sword and one dagger, usually referred to as a short blade. They are never, ever to part with them. For a samurai to lose his swords is to part with his soul. They discover that his steel weapons aren’t steel at all. They’re made from bamboo. “They wouldn’t cut through tofu,” one of them says. They deduce that Motome is another impostor. They have no intention of letting him leave with his life.

When it’s time to perform the ritual, the Lord and all of his retainers gather in the courtyard. Motome, now dressed in pristine white robes, is positioned on a platform surrounded set in a bed of white pebbles. He insists that he’s ready to take his own life but wishes to have a couple of days leave. The Lord believes that this is just a tactic to get out of committing suicide. No matter how much Motome pleads, the Lord will not be swayed. In accordance with the ritual, a short blade is presented to him on a small table. Motome notices the blade; the very one he arrived at the house with. The one made from bamboo. A swordsman approaches him to act as his second. He tells Motome that he will only bring down his sword when the has brought the blade clear across his belly. Perhaps they expect him to try and make a run for it, or to continue to plead. Instead he picks up the blade and forces it into his gut. He breaks the skin and digs deep enough to start bleeding, but there’s no way a knife that dull can complete the task. So what does he do? He sticks out his tongue and chomps down on it (mercifully, we don’t see this in close-up). His mouth fills up with blood and he leans his head back, allowing himself to choke on the plasma. The Lord feels that he has died an honorable death and orders the second to bring down his sword.

Tsugumo is impressed by the story but remains aloof. He insists that he plans to go through with the Harakiri. He assures the advisor that his blades are made of steel and that he’s willing to perform the ritual right away. He will also go through with it in the threadbare clothing he arrived in.

Once again the Lord and his retainers gather in the courtyard. Tsugumo sits on that same platform. He’s quite familiar with the members of the clan and he requests a certain samurai to act as his second. Turns out that he’s not present but is home sick. A messenger is sent to fetch him but is told that the samurai is incapacitated. Tsugumo nominates two others but they are also ill. Once again the messenger is sent to fetch them. While they wait Tsugumo makes a confession. He actually did know Motome. He knew him quite well. He begins to tell the story of what brought him to this house.

It turns out that Motome’s father was in fact Tsugomo’s comrade-in-arms. Both lost their wives and both found themselves widowers. Neither took a second wife and both have raised their children by themselves. In Tsugomo’s case a young daughter named Miho (Shima Iwashita). We flash back to an utterly idyllic spring afternoon. A fifteen-year old Montome is teaching an eleven-year old Miho calligraphy. All seems well with the world until the Shogun breaks apart his clan. Motome’s father commits Harakiri, leaving a note asking Tsugomo to care for his son.

Years go by. He trains Motome to be a samurai but his small family is soon destitute. They move to Edo and Tsugomo and Miho find work making fans umbrellas out of bamboo and rice paper. Motome teaches Confusion poetry to the children of Nobles. Miho has blossomed into a beautiful woman and Tsugomo fears that she may end up a concubine for the Shogun. He asks Motome to marry her. They grew up together and Motome doesn’t deny that he has feelings for her. The problem is that he barley makes enough to support himself, let alone take a wife and start a family. Tsugomo ultimately convinces him.

Motome and Miho are happily married. She bears him a son named Kingo, whom Tsugomo dotes on. One day while helping her father make his umbrellas, Miho coughs up blood. She had contracted tuberculosis.

Things soon go from bad to worse. Motome tries to get as much piecemeal work as possible to help his ailing wife. Unfortunately there is little to be had and the peasants do not like the idea of a samurai usurping their livelihood. Later little Kingo comes down with a fever. Motome has sold everything of value that he owns, therefore has no money to pay for a doctor to treat his infant son. He tells Tsugomo that there is a moneylender that he can go to, albeit one that charges exorbitant interest. At this point they have no choice. Tsugomo sends Motome to get the money. He watches Miho and Kingo.

Alas, Motome never returns, at least not alive. Eventually three samurai deliver his mutilated corpse back to his home; the same three samurai that Tsugomo requested act as his second and are too ill to perform the deed. When Tsugomo sees the bamboo blades that Motome used to commit suicide with he quickly deduces that Motome must have sold his blades to pay for his family’s medical care. The bamboo weapons were merely a decoy so that at least outwardly he could save face.

Flashing back to the present, Tsugomo condemns the entire clan for not granting Motome his leave. Did they even bother to ask him why he needed two days leave (they did not). True, he had bamboo blades instead of steel but shouldn’t they have at least given Motome the benefit of the doubt that he parted with his swords for a reason? If they truly believed in the code of the samurai then they should not have questioned Motome’s sincerity when he said that he would return.

Tsugomo then has another surprise up his sleeve, or more appropriately in his robe. The three retainers he requested as his second aren’t ill at all. He ambushed them before arriving at the estate. He didn’t kill them, though he doubtlessly could have. Instead he cut off their topknots. Samurai’s often identified which clan they were a part of by the way they wore their hair, the topknot being the point where their excess hair is fastened. To have that removed would be a tremendous humiliation. Rather then face that humiliation and perform their duty as a samurai they have chosen to hide and wait for their hair to grow back.

Kobayashi was a pacifist who none-the-less was drafted into the army when World War II broke out. He couldn’t get out of military service but he did refuse any military promotion above the rank of private. He also spent time as a prisoner of war. Harakiri was his attack on traditional Japanese society, one that had been in decline since the Meiji Restoration of the 1860’s and in the aftermath of World War II. The Land of the Rising Sun had lost a lot of face after the War. Japan went from a military dictatorship to a parliamentary democracy. Emperor Hirohito was allowed to remain on the throne but only in a ceremonial capacity. For many this was a humiliation that was too much to bear and there were some who argued the need to return to the old ways. The author Yukio Mishima put together his own private samurai army and committed a ritualistic suicide in 1970. His life was later the subject of an amazing film by American filmmaker Paul Schrader called Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (it will appear on this blog).

Clearly, Kobayashi disagrees with this statement. To him the violent code of the samurai was but a façade. He comes up with an apt metaphor in the symbol of the symbol of the Li clan, a suit of armor. It’s the first thing we see on screen. It looks awesome and seems to be looking at us. But it is, in fact, just a hollow shell.

Harakiri is a dazzling piece of filmmaking. Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays the lead role of Tsugumo, had previously starred in Kobayashi’s Human Condition trilogy. Years later he would star in Akira Kurosawa’s twin samurai epics Kagamusha and Ran. His performance is one for the ages. When we first meet him he is calm, collective and radiates a quite menace. Later he releases his emotion in bursts of kabuki inspired energy that will probably leave you shaken. The fight scenes are dazzling, particularly the climax. They’re also dazzlingly violent and bloody. The black-and-white cinematography by Yoshio Miyajima is stunning and Kobayashi’s ability to compose images is on par with the best of Kubrick or Antonioni.

An international success, Harakiri received a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival the year after it’s release. A remake, shot in 3-D was released in 2011 and apparently wasn’t as effective.

Harakiri might be a little vexing at times if you don’t have a firm grasp on Japanese history. The Criterion Collection DVD release features an introduction with the great Japanese film historian Donald Richie that, though it too has a few spoilers helps orient the foreign viewer. Yet even if you dive into Harakiri without any proper introduction you’re bound to be drawn into it. Everyone is brought up with certain traditions and everyone, at some point in their lives, finds themselves questioning, altering and in some cases outright rejecting their previously held conceptions about what they were raised to believe was absolute.


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