Wednesday, July 14, 2021

KILLER FISH 1979

This absurd (and absurdly entertaining) action-adventure flick from the days of polyester, poppers, and Plato’s Retreat has to be one of the most assertively engaging “70s aesthetic” films I’ve ever seen that wasn’t actually set in a disco. The cocaine-thin leading ladies (not divulging anything, that’s what the look was called) sport clunky jewelry, epic perms, and dramatic eye shadow while serving up a veritable fashion parade of outré late-‘70s resort wear. Meanwhile, you can practically smell the Aramis Cologne wafting from the hirsute, heavily-tanned, gold-chained chests peeking out from behind the earth-toned, wide-collared and wide-open Quiana shirts of the film’s blow-dried leading men.

Set in Brazil and cast with what look to be the stragglers from a particularly off night at Studio 54 or Xenon, Killer Fish is a disarmingly fun dishonor-among-thieves jewel heist flick with a bit of post-Jaws perils-of-the-deep action thrown in. And by thrown in, I mean literally. For unbeknownst to his fellow partners in crime, the ringleader behind the theft of an emerald mine tosses 100 deadly, rapidly-breeding piranha into a nearby reservoir to act as razor-toothed security guards protecting the multimillion-dollar cache of stolen jewels stashed way, way down...deep below in the watery depths. 
"I'm gonna have to see some ID."
While rampant greed and mucho-mistrust lead to escalating betrayals and double-crosses among the motley crew of gem grabbers, the arrival at the resort of an American supermodel and her entourage lighten the tone of things by providing romantic interest, labored comedy, and the opportunity for enhanced body-count jeopardy once an ill-timed tropical tornado (!) flings them all together in a sinking ship in piranha-infested waters. 
I might be guilty of making it all sound much better than it actually is (the film's pacing deadlier than the fish), but from its tin-eared screenplay, discordant performances, and "vicissitudes of time" casting (this meager production couldn't have afforded its cast just four short years earlier) Killer Fish is one of those sublime lightning-in-a-bottle epics of ineptitude that I live for.
Thieves Like Us
"Trust me, nobody's gonna notice us in black leather & turtlenecks in sweltering Brazil."


One of the last of a handful of motion pictures to bear the dubious A Fawcett-Majors Production banner (the Fawcett-Majors marital union had already dissolved by this point), this waterlogged French-Italian-Brazilian bouillabaisse (cioppino, moqueca) went through several working titles –The Naked Sun, Greed, and Deadly Treasure of the Piranha– before settling on the throw-up-your-hands, cut-to-the-chase, B-movie obviousness of Killer Fish.  And it’s a good thing, too, because this isn’t the kind of movie that can afford to play it coy (koi?).
Karen Black as Kate Neville

Lee Majors as Robert Lasky

Margaux Hemingway as Gabrielle

James Franciscus as Paul Diller

Marisa Berenson as Ann Hoyt

Looking at the exceptionally attractive roster of talent assembled for Killer Fish from the vantage point of 2021, one would be forgiven if mistaking it for the guest star list of a special two-hour episode of The Love Boat or Murder, She Wrote. But back in 1978 this cast of Oscar-nominees, runway models, TV stars, and Stanley Kubrick alumni were, as one critic put it, “stars in the autumn of their careers” appearing in a leaky, tax-shelter flick produced by Sophia Loren's stepson and promoted as costing $6 million. 
But one look at the cartoonishly shoddy special effects and no-budget production values supports the theory that the budget boast was mere PR puffery calculated to inspire cross-reference association to Lee Majors’ long-running TV program The Six-Million Dollar Man, then in its final season. Killer Fish was Majors' doomed second attempt to parlay his TV fame into movie stardom following The Norsemen (1978), a Viking adventure that was all but laughed off the screen.
No Lies Detected, Ms. Black

From its sunny tropical setting to its don’t-go-near-the-water menace, the PG-rated Killer Fish is just the sort of action-packed, sun-baked escapist fare ideally suited for quickie summer playoffs at Drive-Ins and air-conditioned matinees. Yet in a move as characteristically wrongheaded as most everything associated with this film, Killer Fish was launched in Los Angeles as a Christmas holiday release, opening in December of 1979 on the same day as Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Since no one in their right mind could have possibly considered Killer Fish a serious contender to go head-to-head against that eagerly-anticipated Trekkie wet dream, my guess is that distributors were banking on Killer Fish capturing the spillover demographic of disappointed (and more importantly, desperate) teens and young adults turned away from sold-out screenings of Star Trek.
Killer Fish opened on Friday, December 7, 1979 at the Pacific Theater on Hollywood Blvd. The visual clutter of this ad fails to take advantage of the fact that Killer Fish is loaded with, if not exactly marquee names, certainly recognizable, exploitable ones.


As a non-Trekkie who got caught up in the hype and lined up to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture on opening day, I'm more than a little surprised (given my adoration of Karen Black) that I have absolutely no memory whatsoever of the release of Killer Fish. What's more, it's maddening to realize in hindsight that not only would I have had a better time at Killer Fish, but I more than likely would have had the entire theater to myself.

Part caper film (imagine a soggy, poorly-acted The Treasure of Sierra Madre); part eco-horror/when-animals-attack flick (The Swarm submerged); part action-adventure (lots of things get “blowed up real good”); and part disaster movie (a tornado, a bursting dam, a plane crash, a sinking boat), Killer Fish is one of those “International Market” projects that toss a bit of everything into the mix, hoping something will ultimately land. 


Alas, very little of it does. But what saves Killer Fish from being the bland, by-the-numbers, macho actioner Lee Majors’ participation all but guaranteed, is the startling, obviously inadvertent fashion-focused, supermodel in peril, female-centric, Last Days of Disco feel of it all. Killer Fish is like Halston & Andy Warhol got together to make an action film primer for gay teens raised on Vogue, After Dark Magazine, and Donna Summer. 
Gary Collins as Tom

Former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini as Hans

Disco was everywhere in the late '70s, making it all but mandatory for movie soundtracks to feature at least one disco track. Disco goddess Donna Summer contributed the theme to The Deep in 1977, so, not to be outdone, Killer Fish enlisted Ami Stewart--of "Knock on Wood" fame--to sing the jarringly tension-killing but infectiously booty-shaking disco theme "The Winner Takes All" (no relation to ABBA's similarly-named "The Winner Take It All" which was still a year off).
Disco Duck to Disco Pirahna: Listen

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE 
After I missed its original theatrical release, Killer Fish was entirely off my radar until it resurfaced in 2018 on a particularly riotous episode of Netflix’s rebooted Mystery Science Theater 3000. While my principal interest in the film has always been Karen Black, who could pass up the glam + quirk factor of having Margaux Hemingway (whom I absolutely loved in the widely-reviled Lipstick) and Marisa Berenson (Cabaret and Barry Lyndon) all together in the same movie?  Tack on the random casting addition of dimpled nonentity Gary Collins, and Killer Fish becomes a positively irresistible must-see. 

Given all the aforementioned ingredients, there was no way Killer Fish wasn't going to be my cup of so-bad-it's-good tea anyway. But I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be quite enjoyable on its own merits, and a marvelous time-capsule of that peculiar point in time (Backgammon!) when the ‘70s was ready to morph into the ‘80s. 
Timeless Words, am I right?

Killer Fish looks like one of those movies actors agree to appear in just to get a free vacation in an exotic locale, but it seems the making of this toothy opus was no picnic. For starters, the expensive and uncooperative piranha taxed the film's already strained budget. A bored Lee Majors was dissatisfied with the script and worried about getting a case of the trots. Marisa Berenson, recovering from a marriage break-up, enjoyed a brief fling with the film’s producer Alex Ponti, but during one of their off-set jaunts, she suffered facial lacerations in an auto accident that killed two people. Muriel Hemingway's 2015 memoir Out Came the Sun has big sister Margaux recounting how Karen Black was still breastfeeding her 3-year-old son during production, and his calling out “Tit, mommy!” when hungry. 
Over-the-top comic relief (such as it is) is supplied by Roy Brocksmith as Ollie, the temperamental fashion photographer. Ollie evokes the essence of producer Allan Carr possessed by the spirit of Bruce Vilanch

Gary Collins plays the pilot of a private plane. Marisa Berenson the head of a fashion agency


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I knew Killer Fish was going to be my kind of movie when, during the film’s pre-title sequence, Karen Black is shown committing a dangerous stealth robbery—an act requiring climbing ladders, scrambling across railroad tracks, running in the sand, and climbing over rocks—wearing a pair of extraordinarily impractical, albeit stylish, high-heeled boots. When Ms. Black’s wobbly efforts to maintain her footing (and look good while doing it) proved more compelling to me than the robbery at hand, I knew I’d found MY kind of action film.
And that sequence sets the fashion-over-function sartorial standard for the entire movie: meaning that in every scene, no matter how life-and-death the circumstances, at least one character can be relied upon to be preposterously overdressed. Which in the ‘70s meant…dressed.
Indeed, both the frequency of costume changes and sheer volume of fashions on display suggests the actors supplied their own clothing with the enticement of a tax write-off for all items appearing onscreen. This would certainly account for the scene where Lee Majors, in hot pursuit of Karen Black (wearing yet another outlandishly chic getup while commandeering a boat), appears to change into a new outfit mid-chase.
From start to finish Killer Fish is a cavalcade of flowing scarves, patterned fabrics, rakish hats, fetching short-shorts, plunging necklines, and gold accessories…and that’s just the men.
Brothers in crime Lloyd (Charles Guardino) & Warren (Frank Pesce) play "I'm a Little Tea Pot" while letting Kate (Black) know what they think of her "uptown" talk while an uncomfortable Lasky (Majors) adjusts his kicky leather shoulder bag.


PERFORMANCES
Poor Karen Black. Here she is doing her best in trying to invest a bit of authenticity and genuine human drama into Killer Fish...just as she did with Trilogy of Terror (where her commitment made us believe a plastic doll was a homicidal threat) and Airport 1975 (her terror-stricken stewardess flying the plane providing the only tether to reality in a relentlessly silly movie); but in this case, it’s clear she’s met her match.
Bearing out the axiom that no one is as bad as a good actor in a film where no acting is required (Cicely Tyson in The Concorde: Airport '79, Anne Bancroft in The Hindenburg, the entire cast of Bloodline), Karen Black is surrounded by so many non-actors in Killer Fish that she—the lone individual giving anything even resembling a real performance—actually winds up coming off the worst. 

Refusing to play down to the material (she's like late-career Joan Crawford in that respect) Black is serious as a heart attack as she brings the "major motion picture" big guns to her underwritten role. Meanwhile, her breezy castmates are fine serving up TV movie-of-the-week "This'll do" energy. This leaves Black, who's never less than fascinating to watch, playing entire scenes in a vacuum, giving the impression she's acting in an entirely different movie.
Karen Black's realistic reaction to witnessing a violent and gory death comes off as hysterical and shrill when her co-stars are responding to the same sight with looks of mild annoyance

Speaking of Joan Crawford, the last time I saw Lee Majors, she was lopping his head off with an ax in Strait-Jacket -1964. Yet even in that bisected state, he was more animated than he is in Killer Fish. The eminently likable Majors is one of those bafflingly always-employed TV actors who (like Susan Lucci of All My Children) works a lifetime at their craft—The Big Valley, The Six-Million Dollar Man, The Fall Guy—without showing signs of getting one iota better at it.
Lee Majors' talents are confined to staying out of the way of explosions, squinting, conveying an easygoing charm, and arching his left eyebrow. The latter he's very good at.


Pictured at far right is Chico Arago as Ben, the photographer's assistant

I'm not sure there are many who would find Killer Fish watchable without the MST3K wisecracks. I suspect genuine fans of action movies are given little bang for their buck, what with the underwater footage of the obviously-in-a-tank piranha being murky, the thrills low-wattage, and the laid-back leading men looking reluctant to engage in any heroics that might disturb their frosted haircuts. 
My personal recommendation....come for the carnage, stay for the clothes.


BONUS MATERIAL
Before wrangling with piranha in Killer Fish, Lee Majors grappled with Sharks! (1977) 
I tend to forget that 1975's Jaws-mania lasted well into the '80s, with knock-off aquatic adventure movies proliferating until 1987's self-parodistic Jaws: The Revenge (1987) provided the long-overdue final coffin nail. In 1977, with the summer success of The Deep keeping alive the public's interest in soggy sea sagas, Lee Majors' TV show The Six Million Dollar Man kicked off its 5th and final season with a 2-parter episode about killer sharks. I have no idea if those one-hour TV episodes were ever combined and released as a feature film in foreign markets or for VHS, but the indifferent poster above (which makes no mention of the TV program) certainly presents the possibility. 

Play-mates Dan Pastorini and Margaux Hemingway
Although Pastorini & Hemingway share no scenes in Killer Fish, offscreen the pair did share the similar naive, cash-grab hope that a nude photo spread for a magazine might help jump-start (Pastorini) or resuscitate (Hemingway) their careers. Pastorini appeared twice in the pages of Playgirl (December 1980 and January 1982). Hemingway appeared in and graced the cover of the May 1990 issue of Playboy
Not every film can boast of having two members of its cast appear on the cover of Time Magazine.


In 1977 Margaux Hemingway became the million-dollar face that launched Faberge's Babe perfume. The song featured in TV commercials for the affordable fragrance--(You're) Fabulous Babe-- was performed by singer Kenny Williams and released as an infectiously lush (all those soaring strings!) & cheesy (those spoken interludes - "You're one of the boys, but you're a real girl, Babe!") disco single. One that calls to mind the theme from The Love Boat (which debuted as a series that year). Listen: (You're) Fabulous Babe.


Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2021

Friday, June 4, 2021

L'INNOCENTE 1976

The hands of 69-year-old director Luchino Visconti are shown turning the pages of the 1892 Gabriele D'Annunzio novel upon which this, Visconti's final film, is based. 


During the pandemic lockdown of 2020, between panic attacks and bouts of binge-eating, I also managed to find time to watch a great many wonderful movies. A year-long, borderless flow from night to day provided the perfect conditions for indulging my passion for the long-form motion picture: aka movies with lengthy running times. With no worries about having to get up early the next day (indeed, at the height of lockdown “next day” was more an abstract concept than a reality), I breezed through Bergman’s 5hr 26min Fanny & Alexander; aced Scorsese’s 3hr 30min The Irishman, and Kubrick’s 3hr 7min Barry Lyndon felt like it was over before I’d even settled into my chair. 

Of particular interest and appeal to me during this period were the films of Luchino Visconti. And not simply because he’s a director whose visually sumptuous epics are as heedless of time constraints as I suddenly found myself to be. No, given the almost surreal socio-political climate of America in 2020, I drew ceaseless comfort and solace from Visconti's flagrant surrender to beauty and staunch respect for intelligence. But chiefly I reveled in the vehement strain of anti-Fascism that underscore the narratives of the deeply poetic and majestic films made by the late Italian director. His films--each a repudiation of moral ugliness and spiritual ignorance--were like an anchor to a sane and humane world that was slipping away.
I revisited old favorites: Death in Venice, Ludwig, The Damned, Conversation Piece. And discovered a treasure trove of heretofore unseen-by-me masterworks that further solidified in my mind the conviction that Visconti is unsurpassed as cinema's painterly pundit of aristocratic foibles. A peerless chronicler of corrupted ideals and self-immolating passions. Each newly discovered (and gloriously restored) film felt richer than the last: Ossessione, Rocco & His Brothers, Senso, & The Leopard --his final film, the tragic L’Innocente, catching me totally off guard by being far more poetically moving than I'd expected. 
Giancarlo Giannini as Tullio Hermil

Jennifer O'Neill as Countess Teresa Raffo

Laura Antonelli as Giuliana Hermil

Marc Porel as Filippo d'Arborio

Italian aristocrat Tullio Hermil (Giannini) is the self-styled embodiment of Nietzsche’s Higher Man. A handsome, athletic gentleman of wealth, intelligence, and taste who, by nature of his philosophical beliefs and self-discerned status as a superior being, answers to no man, no social mores, and certainly no god. An avowed atheist, Tulio professes to be a self-regulating free man and free-thinker. One whose idleness of occupation (coupled with a self-serving disdain for convention) affords the unimpeded indulgence of all manner of hedonistic pursuits and sensual gratifications...all outside of the confines of his marriage.  

Given his libertine worldview, Tullio’s marriage to the docile and religiously devout Giuliana (Antonelli) suggests, at first glance, a contradiction. That is, until one is reminded that all narcissists require a mirror. And in the eyes of Giuliana—who remains somewhat masochistically devoted to him in the face of countless infidelities and humiliations—Tullio sees the confirmation of his superior image of himself. Ascribing nobility to Guiliana’s martyred suffering, Tullio reasons that if a woman so good and pure of heart can love a man who gives so little and treats her so shabbily, then that man must be a great man, indeed.
Übermensch or Überjerk?
After informing Giuliana of his plans to take temporary leave with his mistress, Tullio takes a moment to overshare ("No woman has ever succeeded in seducing me like she does") before asking her to remain his wife and be there for him as platonic companion and confessor.

But as is so often the case with individuals harboring a God complex (or Yeezus complex, for that matter); Tullio’s professed self-possession is simply self-absorption left to flourish in the absence of either introspection or self-awareness. And it’s Tullio’s arrogant lack of self-awareness that proves to be the source of his unexpected anguish when, after abandoning Giuliana for the beautiful Teresa Raffo (O’Neill)—a widowed countess arguably as independent-minded as Tullio, but lacking his gift for self-deception—he begins to suspect his wife of having fallen in love with Filippo d’Arborio, a dashing author (Porel) renowned for his compassionate nature.
Merely the thought of his wife’s infidelity is enough to throw Tullio into an existential tailspin that has him grappling not only with the untenable prospect of her choosing to exercise the same sexual agency he affords himself, but the dreaded notion that he, a man superior, should find himself falling prey to the lowborn sensations of jealousy, envy, and rivalry. Most confounding of all (more so for Tullio than the viewer), his suspicions have the effect of rekindling his passion and reawakening his love for his wife.
But is love something Tullio is capable of?  
Tullio's high opinion of himself induces the desire to vanquish all rivals 

Luchino Visconti used the traditional family saga to chronicle the dissolution of Italian aristocracy in The Leopard (1963). With L’Innocente, the classic romantic triangle scaffolds a critique of the hypocrisy and amorality of bourgeois society while delivering a bitter requiem to Italian patriarchy (perhaps even Visconti's own). The film is set in a world rigid in its governance and regulation of women's sexuality and bodies, but Visconti's vision—one less nihilistic than D'Annunzio's morally myopic and proto-fascist source novel I was inspired to read after watching L'Innocente...twice—questions the value of a life lived in pursuit of sensual experience if starved of a spiritual existence. 
"I don't have a hell to fear or a heaven to hope for."


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Given my cinematic attraction to high-style debauchery, grand passions, male nudity, and directors of whose visual style the term “operatic dimensions” is oft applied, I’ve a natural affinity for the films of Luchino Visconti. A born aesthete, Visconti’s eye finds rapturous beauty even in his stark neorealist melodramas. 
Inaccessibility and maturity of content played a part in my not seeing any of his films until college (Death in Venice being the 1st unless you count Visconti’s contribution to the 1962 anthology film Boccaccio ’70 which popped up often on late-late night TV). But my heel-dragging paid off in that I was introduced to the bulk of Visconti’s masterworks in pristine condition; when released on DVD/Blu-ray digitally enhanced, restored to their original lengths, and subtitled, not English-dubbed.
Making films that were political, sensual, and courageously Queer in subtext if not in theme, Visconti, like my other fave Ken Russell, was one of the last of the truly fearless filmmakers. The ambitious visual scope of Visconti’s films was matched only by how ambitiously his films sought to explore the dark extremes of human relationships. 

In synopsis, L’Innocente sounds like another one of those movies about men who profess to love women so much that they can’t seem to treat them like real people (making it something of a 19th-century cousin to Shampoo, Boomerang, Carnal Knowledge, and All That Jazz). Visconti takes the framework of the romantic tragedy to breathe life into the sexual double-standard narrative, making the struggle representative of larger socio-political conflicts related to morality and religion.

Luchino Visconti died on March 17, 1976 while L'Innocente was still being edited. The film didn't premiere in the U.S. until 1979. 


Didier Haudepin as Federico Hermil, Tullio's younger brother

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
“We’re intelligent, we’ve studied, we’ve traveled. We’ve enjoyed ourselves so much, we’re so rich…and then?"   Federico  L'Innocente -1976  

“We're rich, we’re famous, we’re beautiful…and miserable.” Holly  Andy Warhol’s Women in Revolt -1977

Identical sentiments, albeit from absurdly dissimilar sources. Movies tasked with depicting the empty existence of the wealthy usually fail miserably when faced with the challenge of how to visually represent a world of material excess without inadvertently glamorizing what they’re trying to condemn. My theory behind movies that fall into this trap (e.g., both the 1974 and 2013 adaptations of The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street - 2013) is that the filmmakers themselves simply don’t believe it. The movie narrative dictates it, but these directors, like many working in an industry tentpoled on glorifying its own overindulgence in greed and money-worship, come across as being too in awe (and covetous) of wealth to even recognize when their opulence gaze turns more fetishistic and admiring than critical.
Visconti, the father of Italian neorealist cinema, was born into nobility (his full title is Count Don Luchino Visconti di Modrone). Yet when his filmmaker's gaze shifted from the gritty realism of Italy’s working classes to the ornate drawing rooms of the Italian aristocracy, his vision reflected the eye of someone both familiar and disenchanted with this world. A lover of beauty, Visconti’s films are overflowing with lavishly operatic images of wealth and elegance, but his aesthetic eye for detail works in service of creating a verisimilitude that draws us into this world; a world we know only from paintings and books. The breathtaking authenticity he brings to his films via costuming (Piero Tosi), production design (Mario Garbuglia), & cinematography (Pasqualino De Santis) create environments that don't call to mind enviable splendors and worlds of happiness and comfort. Rather, they bring forth images of ornamentally lush prisons or gilded birdcages entrapping his decadent and morally-adrift characters.
Luchino Visconti's films tend to reflect periods of social, political, or ideological change. Given the director's Marxist leanings, the displays of affluence and luxury in his movies are more representative of the moral dissipation of fashionable society than an opportunity for audiences to "ooh" and "aah" at the Lifestyles of the Rich and Fascist.

PERFORMANCES

If I think back to the first time I saw L’Innocente…replaying it in my mind, trying to figure out just what in particular it is about this movie that brought me to such stinging tears by the finale,  affecting me far more deeply than any of Visconti’s arguably more masterful works; I always come back to the same thing…the eyes have it.
Visconti’s gift for vivid tableau is ideal for capturing L’Innocente’s lives of stiff formality (where bedroom-hopping, fencing, and the occasional duel seem to be the only modes of physical exertion). Amid such evocative stillness and voices not always so artfully dubbed, it’s remarkable the degree to which the film’s talented cast can convey and communicate a wealth of complex emotions solely through their eyes. That they can do so with a depth and virtuosity that is often  positively heartbreaking confirms Giancarlo Giannini’s 1975 comment to the NYT: “The eyes are the most mobile part of the body.”
Giannini’s expressive eyes were practically his calling card during the early ‘70s when his films with director Lina Wertmüller made him the darling of the foreign film scene. So it's no surprise he’s able to make the rather repugnant Tullio creepily relatable (like Daffy Duck, he’s all our worst instincts consolidated) and imbue him with a kind of pitiable humanity lacking in the novel. Laura Antonelli, whose propensity for consistently doffing her period britches made her something of an arthouse pinup during the ‘70s, is hampered somewhat by a character so compliant she risks becoming infuriating before the story reveals her truth, but Antonelli is the heart of L’Innocente and gives one of those radiant, delicate performances that gets better each time you see it.
To my utter and unending astonishment, American actress Jennifer O’Neill turned out to be my personal favorite in the entire film. Indeed, it’s O’Neill’s mournful eyes - which Visconti is wise to keep his camera trained on in the film’s heart-rending final sequence - that remains the single most haunting image my mind returns to each time I think of how much I love this movie. Known more for her beauty than her acting chops (and she looks positively stunning here), O’Neill leaves her Summer of ’42 girlishness behind in Nantucket (along with her voice, mercifully, as she is dubbed in Italian by actress Valeria Moriconi), evincing a heretofore untapped womanly bearing that's alluringly hard-edged and impassioned. 
Rina Morelli as Mrs. Hermil (mother of Tullio & Federico)
L'Innocente was the actress' last film. She also appeared in Visconti's The Leopard 


THE STUFF OF DREAMS 
Depending on the translation, Gabriele D'Annunzio's novel is known as The Innocent, The Intruder, or The Victim (US). Each title suggesting a subtle shift in the narrative interpretation of the object of Tullio’s obsession. The book is written as a first-person, past-tense confessional told from Tullio’s point of view, his warped perspective the only version of reality to which we're we're privy.  
L’Innocente’s screenplay (written by Visconti, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, & Enrico Medio) is linear in form, providing glimpses of events outside the sphere of Tullio's awareness. In essence, we're given a God’s eye view of an atheist. While the novel remains staunchly immoral and self-serving in its point of view, the religious Visconti (“My ideas may be unorthodox, but I am still a Catholic” ) who was ailing and directed from a wheelchair, has no problem coming right out and labeling his protagonist a monster.
It was poignant watching Luchino Visconti’s last film L’Innocente, during the pandemic lockdown mere months after the insurrectionist riot of January 2021. When I saw L’Innocente I was seeing a work of the artist as revolutionary—an Italian bisexual Marxist, at that—wresting the mike from the hand of history and not allowing the oppressor to control the narrative. Visconti takes an amoral chronicle written by a poet dubbed “the father of fascism” and transforms a self-aggrandizing, masturbatory exercise in nihilism into a theological, protofeminist evisceration of the kind of louche narcissist who fancies himself as a towering superman, when in reality he is simply self-loathing and morally bereft.
"I wonder why you men raise us up with one hand and drag us down with the other? Why won't you let us walk by your side, as one being next to another? A woman next to a man. Nothing more, nothing less."

Luchino Visconti’s first film was Ossessione (1943) an unauthorized adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. That film’s realism, upfront sexuality, core antifascism, and Queer sensibility flew rebelliously in the face of Mussolini’s regime and was banned.
As much as I adore it, I don’t think L’Innocente is Visconti’s best film. But in its own way, it’s a work as deceptively and sublimely subversive as his first.




BONUS MATERIAL 
Can't tell you how happy it made me feel to see the handsome star of Luchino Visconti's very first film, return, handsome as ever, 33-years later, to make an appearance in the director's swan song.

Massimo Girotti as Gino in Ossessione (1943) - Visconti's first film

Massimo  Girotti as Count Stefano in L'Innocente (1976) - Visconti's last film



Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2021

Saturday, May 1, 2021

CHINATOWN 1974

"Mrs. Mulwray, I think you're hiding something."

Whether for the prestige, visual opulence, short-hand history, or easy-access sentimentality, period films and costume dramas have always been a Hollywood staple and a vital part of movie storytelling. But in the 1970s, the need for some kind of collective breather from the relentless tensions of the “Now” (i.e., Vietnam War, Watergate, impeachment, oil crisis, inflation) produced a market-surge interest in movies set in the “Then.” Particularly the then of the 1920s and 1930s.
Some of these films were escapist homages to retro genres (At Long Last Love -1975). Some were style-fetish showcases devoted to the detailed reconstruction of the fashions, furnishings, and décor of the era (The Great Gatsby -1974). And some were trenchant exercises in ‘70s disillusionment whose nihilist themes were tempered by the distancing device of taking place in America's recent past (The Day of the Locust -1975). Roman Polanski’s Chinatown managed to be all three.
Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes

Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray

John Huston as Noah Cross

The collaborative effort of the members of the “New Hollywood” Boys Club: producer Robert Evans (The Godfather, Marathon Man), screenwriter Robert Towne (Shampoo, The Last Detail), and director Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth), Chinatown had a bumpy, three-year journey to the screen (covered in deliciously intricate detail in Sam Wesson’s book The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last years of Hollywood). But when Chinatown premiered in theaters in the summer of 1974, the many arguments, rewrites, firings, walkouts, and endless weeks of tinkering proved not only to be more than worth the effort, but stood as evidence of the degree of care and artistry that went into fashioning a film that many today regard as a modern masterpiece of American cinema. 
Love the composition of this shot. Even the body language of the characters is perfect

Hardly considered the sure-fire success its current reputation would suggest, Chinatown struggled through disastrous previews and a difficulty generating pre-release interest in a 1974 movie marketplace dominated by the twin publicity blitzkriegs of Lucille Ball's ill-conceived Mame and Robert Redford's The Great Gatsby. Three-time Oscar nominee Jack Nicholson (his most recent being a Best Actor nod for 1973's The Last Detail) was hot at the time, but there existed considerable doubt among many as to how he would come across in this, his first stab at a leading man glamour role. 
Meanwhile, Faye Dunaway's post-Bonnie and Clyde screen output had proved erratic at best, with her The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) golden girl patina coming perilously close to tarnishing after a string of arty flops and effective but unfruitful supporting roles. Then there was Roman Polanski...with his days as New Hollywood's European wunderkind a matter of history and coming fresh off two back-to-back boxoffice bombs (Macbeth -1971 and What? -1972), his name carried about it an aura of fall-from-grace tragedy (the Manson murders) in a town ruled by superstition.
Darrell Zwerling as Hollis Mulwray

Further contributing to the uncertainty surrounding the film's reception was the fact that a quick recounting of Chinatown's plot-- "A private eye in 1937 Los Angeles investigates a mystery involving a real estate swindle and the city's water rights!" --didn't exactly set the pulse racing. 
But what Chinatown had going for it was that it was an original. Not an adaptation of a previously-produced novel, film, or theatrical production. As '70s movies became more formulaically bloated (The Way We Were -1973) and market-driven slick (The Sting - 1973), Chinatown's creative integrity vs its dubious box-office prospects felt like a throwback to Hollywood's very recent past. Back to the start of the decade when difficult-to-categorize films like Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Five Easy Pieces (1970) were being made because they were stories the filmmakers wanted to tell, not because they were sure-fire blockbuster material.

The first time I saw Chinatown, it had me in its hip pocket the minute those stylish opening titles appeared to the accompaniment of Jerry Goldsmith's mysteriously forlorn theme music. And though the film had an alluringly old-fashioned sound and succeeded in creating a vision of a past that felt lived-in, not decorative, Chinatown somehow managed to sidestep things that might have made it feel imitative or as paying affectionate homage to another movie…Chinatown looked and felt like the genuine article.

It didn't seem quite possible that Polanski and Co. had managed to make a film that worked magnificently as a mystery (the particulars of the twisty plot--murder, political swindling, family secrets ---are not exactly easy-to-follow on first viewing); achieved a kind of visual poetry (the movie looks swelteringly hot! How did they do that?), and was propelled by the emotional connection of compelling characters whose fates you came to care about (the performances are uniformly first-rate...right across the board). 
Chinatown, in both style and execution, is a jet-black neo-noir that realizes--with a persuasive canniness I still can't quite put my finger on--both Robert Towne's goal of writing a story in the tradition of Raymond Chandler Dashiell Hammett, and Roman Polanski's desire to create: “A film about the ‘30s seen through the camera eye of the ‘70s.” 
Chinatown gets everything right. In creating the slightly artificial authenticity of Los Angeles in the '30s, Polanski nailed it when he observed "People know this time because of the movies, not because of what was real."

Given a contemporary sheen thanks to its widescreen Panavision color photography that "feels" like B&W, Chinatown evokes the classic detective movies of the past via its keen eye for period detail and avoidance of so many of the nostalgia-craze movie gimmicks of the time: no diffused lighting, no voiceover narration, no self-conscious “period” jargon, and no knowing winks to the audience. And here's a bonus...the actors actually look comfortable and convincing in their period clothes! (For the alternative, aka, kids playing dress-up, see Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby - 2013 or  Mank - 2020). 
The result is a movie that's as satisfying as a genre entertainment as it is a dark and existentially layered contemplation on corruption, the destruction of innocence, and, as per Towne, "The futility of good intentions."
Chinatown provides many memorable "goosebump moments," this scene being one of my favorites. I absolutely love Dunaway's delivery and the struck look in Nicholson's eyes when Evelyn asks about the mystery woman in Jake's past. As we'll discover, Evelyn & Jake are two people united by the things they're trying to forget.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
One of the main reasons Chinatown made such an impression on me is that it was the very first noirish private eye movie I ever saw. 
In 1971 LIFE magazine devoted its February cover to America’s burgeoning nostalgia craze, and by 1974, everything from fashion to music reflected the nation’s fascination with life enjoyed in the rear-view. The summer of 1974 saw San Francisco movie theaters so overflowing with retro fare, it took considerable effort to find a film set in the present day: Chinatown, The Great Gatsby, The Lords of Flatbush, That’s Entertainment!, Mame, The Three Musketeers, Daisy Miller, Thomasine and Bushrod, Blazing Saddles, Jeremiah Johnson, Huckleberry Finn (of all things), and Our Time (a little-seen coming-of-age movie set in the ‘50s that opened at the Alhambra during the summer I worked there as an usher). 
The Two Mrs. Mulwrays
Diane Ladd as Ida Sessions. There is a subtle wit to Ladd's performance as the prostitute/movie bit player hired to impersonate Evelyn Mulwray. Miss Session's attempt to affect an air of moneyed aristocracy hints at her lack of success as an actress.

When Chinatown came out I was a 16-year-old movie buff with a passion for contemporary films almost to the exclusion of all else. Back then, my appreciation for classic movies was largely academic and aesthetic (i.e., I enjoyed reading about them and decorated the walls of my bedroom with posters of Marilyn Monroe, Glark Gable, and WC Fields), not practical. Which meant I hadn’t yet seen The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, or any of those classics on The Late Show about hard-boiled detectives and dangerous women. At sixteen I was much too in thrall of the then taboo-shattering adult themes and newfound unrestricted nudity, sex, & violence of ‘70s films to ever find the Production Code coyness of old movies to be of much interest. That is, except for musicals. Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend (1971) ignited my love for old MGM musicals and the films of Busby Berekely, but that’s pretty much where my interest in “Golden Age" Hollywood films began and ended. 

The latter point, my love of musicals, goes to plain why, when That’s Entertainment! and Chinatown both opened on the same day in San Francisco (Wednesday, June 26th), I opted for That’s Entertainment!. An option I exercised for two more weekends before getting around to seeing Chinatown.
Roman Polanski as Man with Knife

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Maybe it’s the Blu-ray talking, but I’m obsessed with what a fabulous-looking movie Chinatown is. The Oscar-nominated team of cinematographer John A. Alonzo, production designer Richard Sylbert, and art director W. Stewart Campbell give Chinatown an atmospheric sheen that is often breathtaking in its evocation of sun-baked Los Angles in the late ‘30s. 
But despite the obvious care and expense lavished on every frame, Chinatown's distinction is that it is a period film that has no interest in romanticizing the past. With traditionally swept-under-the-nostalgia-carpet realities like racism and classist privilege flowing like an undercurrent in a narrative propelled by graft, collusion, murder, and incest; Chinatown’s surface sheen creates a dichotomy that challenges the dreamy ideals one associates with old movies. Cynicism has always been a part of the detective movie genre, but no matter how nihilist the theme, by fade-out, the requisite virtues of honor, heroism, and the triumph of good had to be reinstalled. Chinatown, however, ends with a punch to the gut and the ground knocked out from under us.
Me in 1974:  "Wow, even in so-called simpler times, rich people were greedy and corrupt!"
Me in 2021: "Wow, this movie is almost 50 years old and the rich are still as corrupt and greedy as ever!"

PERFORMANCES
Robert Towne wrote the character of J. J. Gittes with pal Jack Nicholson in mind, so the star-making role of the principled private eye with a taste for Florsheim shoes and words like “métier” fits the actor as perfectly as one of Jake’s tailored suits. This is my favorite of all Nicholson’s performances and arguably his last real immersion in character before entering the “Wink-wink, it’s me! Jack Nicholson!” phase of his career. The entire film is from his perspective...Chinatown is Jake’s journey. But its mystery, tragedy, and heart (and my favorite character) is Evelyn Mulwray.
Jane Fonda in Julia (1977) - Even Robert Towne had Fonda in mind when he wrote Chinatown

Both Robert Evans and Roman Polanski have made it known that Jane Fonda was their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choice for the role of Evelyn Mulwray. But when Fonda declined (something the actress denies), Chinatown gained Faye Dunaway…the jewel in Chinatown’s crown and the only ‘70s actress in my eyes to possess the combined intensity, inscrutability, aristocratic bearing, neurotic edge, old-fashioned movie star glamour, and grown-woman gravitas required to bring Evelyn Mulwray to life as something more than just another vaguely-drawn film noir femme fatale cliché. 
As Chinatown’s woman of mystery (she who must not be known until Act III), Evelyn Mulwrays’s impact has to be visual. A guarded woman who’s erected an immaculate façade to conceal just how badly she’s damaged, Evelyn intrigues because she is not at all what she seems. So defining a character trait is Evelyn’s appearance that when the film starts to peel away the layers of Evelyn’s very literal “mask” of makeup as her vulnerability is exposed, those moments achieve a poignancy that makes the film's tragic denouement all the more devastating. Faye Dunaway captures all this magnificently, but is seldom given credit.
Journalists applauded Polanski's time-consuming multiple takes and Towne's glacially slow writing pace as examples of their artistic perfectionism. Meanwhile, Dunaway's painstaking commitment to her character's obsession with appearance was dismissed as prima donna "difficulty" and made her behind-the-scenes clashes the only things people talk about when speaking of her contribution to Chinatown. Despite his early reservations, in the end, Robert Evans came to praise Dunaway's performance to the skies, albeit in his usual self-congratulatory way: "Dunaway's singular mystery on the screen was among the best casting choices of my career!"


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
There are a great many '70s films that I love in spite of (or because of) their flaws. But only a few I'd call perfect. Robert Altman's 3 Women (1977) gets my vote for being a wholly perfect film, so does Ken Russell's Women in Love (actually a 1969 film, but I'm cutting myself some slack because it wasn't released in SF until 1970), and most definitely Chinatown qualifies. 
And by perfect I don't mean an absence of technical goofs or anachronism errors... it's more the feeling of everything fitting so well together that you can't imagine anything being improved upon. The feeling that a story has been told in precisely the manner the filmmakers wanted to tell it. In the case of Chinatown, everything falls into place so ideally, from the cast to the music to the dialogue to the score...watching it becomes an immersive, deeply satisfying experience that engages on so many levels. I never tire of revisiting it, and the film seems boundless in offering new things to discover even after all this time. But best of all, it still manages to move me. 
I'm no longer as totally destroyed by it as I was when I was 16, but at age 63, this masterwork of cinema persists in giving me waterworks every single time.   

Thankfully, films are frozen in time. People, alas, are not. In 1974, audiences drew subconscious parallels between the dogged tragedies of Roman Polanski's personal life and the cursed fate of J.J. Gittes. Today, I'm afraid the parallels linking Polanski and Noah Cross fairly hit one over the head.




BONUS MATERIAL
Actor Paul Jenkins, who plays Policeman #1 in Chinatown (1974), made his film debut as a policeman in Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968).


Chinatown was planned as the first film in a trilogy. A plan which ground to a halt after the weak boxoffice performance of the second entry, The Two Jakes (1990). Set in 1948, the Jack Nicholson-directed sequel sorely misses Polanski's gift for cinematic storytelling and gets my vote for film most likely to convince you that Chinatown didn't need a sequel in the first place. Still, I did get a kick out of seeing these actors from the original return. 

Poster art by Jim Pearsall 
Chinatown was a summer release, opening on Wednesday, June 26, 1974 at San Francisco's Coronet Theater (which had just hosted The Great Gatsby for 11 weeks). I fell in love with the movie poster the instant I saw it, purchasing it a full month before seeing the film. The artwork captures just the right tone of nostalgia, the shadowy figure of the hatted and pinstriped Nicholson leaving no doubt as to the film's noirish roots, the dreamy image of Dunaway's face framed by the trails of cigarette smoke. the essence of romantic longing. 
The water motif is worked in with the wave crashing against Nicholson's sleeve, it being one of several elements of the poster that refuse to stay within the boundaries of the frame. From the lettering to the heat-glare effect of the coloring, everything about this poster is just perfect.  


Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2021