Movie Fan Man: Cinema Connoisseur

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1 Woman + 3 Men = Sensational Intrigue

by Tony Nash

(A Part of The Cycle of the Melodic Gialli)

(Spoiler Free)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

(This review is of the Italian language version)

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Lo Strano Vizio della Signora Wardh (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh) (1971) R *****

George Hilton: George Corro

Edwige Fenech: Julie Wardh

Conchita Airoldi: Caroll Brandt (as Cristina Airoldi)

Ivan Rassimov: Jean

Alberto de Mendoza: Neil Wardh

Manuel Gil: Dottore Arbe (as Manuel Gill)

Carlo Alighiero: Il Commissario

Bruno Corazzari: A Killer

Mira Vidotto: Cameriera Della Wardh

Written by: Eduardo Manzanos (also story) (as Eduardo M. Brochero), Ernesto Gastaldi, & Vittorio Caronia

Directed by: Sergio Martino

Synopsis: Julie Wardh is in a loveless marriage with Wall Street financier Neil Wardh. Their marriage was primarily to save her from a psycho masochist man named Jean. When she finally finds happiness with her friend Caroll’s rich cousin George, she finds reason to live. When she receives threatening notes and a blackmailing phone call, Julie is certain Jean is behind it. She’s also certain he’s behind a series of razor blade murders of young women.

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Sergio Martino, an underdog in the field of the Giallo genre, strikes gold and a solid continuous string of work for the next two decades with Vizio della Signora Wardh, his second feature film as a director. A stunning effort that mixes the intrigue and suspense of the Hitchcockian Thriller with the Psychedelic Surrealism that became one of the staples of both the Giallo and the Counter Culture movement, Signora Wardh proved to be a worthy rival to Dario Argento’s Animal Trilogy as the film that helped to define the genre. Taking a popular story motif, a faceless maniac killer terrorizing a big city as the police scramble to find him, and adding in a bizarre love circle involving an emotionally scarred woman and three distinctly different lovers: a psycho, a workaholic, and a free spirited and worldly playboy, all trying to maker her theirs, spicing up the mystery as the woman slowly begins to fear the masochist who enthralled her is in fact the killer, and is also blackmailing her to come back to him.

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Like with previous Giallos by Mario Bava, Dario Argento etc., the killer’s face is hidden for the majority of the film, leaving viewers to make any number of assumptions and speculations as to the identity of the fiend. The addition of someone, maybe the killer, playing on the leading lady’s psychological trauma of a horrendous previous relationship, makes the film all the more interesting and gives it a unique sense of depth. The color red also plays a huge role within the film as the leading lady has a bizarre fetish with not only the color, but blood as well, which both fascinates and terrifies her, adding highly to her paranoia.

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George Hilton, the South American leading man of Italian genre cinema, who received fine reviews for his debut Giallo supporting role in Il Dolce Corpo di Deborah (The Sweet Body of Deborah), gets his first opportunity as the lead as George Corro. Other than the mention he’s the cousin of Julie Wardh’s best friend Caroll, and co-heir to their late Uncle’s estate, little is known of George, making him a somewhat intriguing enigma. A seemingly happy-go-lucky, easy-going man of the period, George is a playboy that doesn’t play up to the standard stereotypes of the times that people associate with that type of person. While he admits he enjoys the various parties hosted wherever he goes, he feels a connection to Julie he’s never felt with anyone else. Wanting to protect her from the person responsible for threatening both her life and her sanity, George does whatever he can to prove she can trust him. While Hilton was known for overdoing his roles in many of the films he appeared in over the years, in his Giallo roles, especially the Martino films, he exudes a suaveness that is hardly hammy, and uses facial expressions that don’t mask what he’s feeling or thinking, but do exude a consistent coolness that make audiences a little curious to his real motives.

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Edwige Fenech, the Maltese Italian who took the country by storm with her role in the bizarre adult sex comedy Top Sensation, shows she was more than just a pretty face in the title role of Julie Wardh. Not much is known about her past, but from the flashbacks shown of her and Jean, viewers get a good idea that she was a free spirit who loved exploring all forms of sexual experiences. After Jean took things too far, very likely to the point of hurting her psychically, she looked for any means of escape, including entering into a marriage with a nice man, but without love. Her sexual appetites seeming to having drained her of everything that makes a person a person, Julie seemingly wishing for death as little, if anything, seems to matter anymore. When she finally meets a man who accepts her for what she is, and subtly works to bring her out of her shell, she finally begins to feel like life may be finally going in her favor. When the man who nearly permanently ruined her life tries to force her back into his, the trauma of her past begins to become increasingly all to real again, and she begins to question how stable her psyche really is.

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Italian character actor Ivan Rassimov and Argentinian character actor Alberto de Mendoza round out the primary cast. Rassimov, who started out playing leads and villains in the Italian Westerns, began a career as a searing and eerie villain and henchman with the role of Jean. A masochist by nature, his perverse sexual fetish of pain and pleasure border between the containable and the dangerous, and on the psychotic and the strange. When Julie, whom he was completely able to dominate finally stands up to him, sends him over the edge into a near state of homicidal mania. He taunts her by sending notes reminding her of their past and blood red roses, all clearly designed to drive her mad. Whether he’s mad himself, or is playing a bizarre and twisted game to destroy Julie for one reason or another, is all a guess. Mendoza, who was known for playing either smooth con artists and strong silent type heroes, plays a cuckholded husband this go around as Neil Wardh. A hard-working financier for Wall Street, Wardh looks to be the average everyday man, but while clearly caring a great deal for Julie, he doesn’t seem to be able to meet the romantic needs a marriage thrives upon. Knowing something is a miss in their lives, Neil tries what he can to help Julie, but lacking the connection, he can’t reach her.

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Despite many fans’ insistence that Vizio della Signora Wardh is one of the early Giallo Horrors, the film is actually a pure Giallo Thriller. While Julie’s nightmares have a very surreal and horrific feel to them, they’re not part of reality, only a part of the character’s near shattered psyche. Her flashback of Jean breaking the bottle and allowing the shard remnants to splatter all over her again is rooted more in Julie’s memory recollection and not in the standard sense of reality, though that flashback plays more toward a kind of Expressionism rather than Horror.

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Great cinematography, fine performances, and exotic locales all help to magnify the gracefulness of the film. Mixing classic suspense of the novels of Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace and contemporary thrills begun by the likes of Hitchcock, Vizio della Signora Wardh helped to define a genre and create a new visual style that would become a staple of the genre until its decline in the 1980’s.

(I highly recommend this one as it’s beautiful both visually and via the performances of the cast. Martino’s mixing and melding of various camera angles and lighting techniques are both a nod to Hitchcock, and a way of keeping the genre fresh without the worry of falling into any kind of repetition. Out of print for a long time after the fall of NoShame Films who held the rights for years, the UK company Shameless Entertainment does a very nice job in the restoration of the film, offering a crisp image transfer and good quality audio. The subtitle translation seems a little ify at first, but does the job nicely in the long run. The Blu Ray is the way to go, as Shameless’ previous DVD release of the film is cut.)

All images are courtesy of Google.com/Google Images and their respective owners

for more information

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066412/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_66

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Strange_Vice_of_Mrs._Wardh

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Strange-Vice-Wardh-Blu-ray-Region/dp/B071W79FQC/ref=sr_1_4?crid=1KLFO8EDN6ZA&keywords=sergio+martino+blu+ray&qid=1558546388&s=dvd&sprefix=Sergio%2Caps%2C223&sr=1-4

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Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

It’s Not Nice to Anger a Devil of a Cat

by Tony Nash

(A Part of The Cycle of the Melodic Gialli)

(Spoiler Free)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

(This review is of the Italian Language version)

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Il Tuo Vizio e una Stanza Chiusa e Solo Io ne ho la Chiave (Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key/Eye of the Black Cat) (1972) R ****/12

Edwige Fenech: Floriana, the Niece

Anita Strindberg: Irena Rouvigny

Luigi Pistilli: Oliviero Rouvigny

Ivan Rassimov: Walter, a Stranger

Franco Nebbia: The Commissario

Riccardo Salvino: Dario, the Delivery/Race Driver

Angela La Vorgna: Brenda, the Maid

Daniela Giordano: Fausta, Oliviero’s Student Lover

Nerina Montagnani: Signora Molinar

Written by: Ernesto Gastaldi, Adriano Bolzoni, & Sauro Scavolini, from a story by Luciano Martino & Scavolini based on The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe (as E.A. Poe in Italian Version)

Directed by: Sergio Martino

Synopsis: Depraved alcoholic writer and former teacher Oliviero torments his suffering wife with physical, mental, and emotional abuse, sleeping with their maid and the local intellectual hippie students, and even sic’s his equally depraved black cat Satan on her. When one of his former student’s is found dead with her throat cut, the police immediately suspect Oliviero, whose affair with her was widely gossiped on. Complications further arise when Oliviero’s free-spirited and lusty niece Floriana arrives for an extended vacation, discovers the goings on, and sleeps with the suffering wife.

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Sergio Martino, one of the lesser talked about auteurs of the Giallo genre, culminates a brief and exceptionally well crafted collaboration with sister-in-law Edwige Fenech in Vizio. Building an original tale around the famous conclusion to Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story The Black Cat, the Martino brothers and their favorite writers Ernesto Gastaldi and Sauro Scavolini weave a tale of paranoia, murder, revenge, greed, money, and sex, all with a sinister black cat right in the middle of it. While Poe’s tale was more in the lines of Psychological Horror with hints of the Supernatural, Vizio is a full out Mystery and Suspense Thriller that leaves the audience constantly wondering what is going on, who the killer is and what they’re after, and who the killer’s next victim will be. That one of the three main characters is a complete degenerate and psycho, that anyone else could be committing the murders within the film seems impossible. As with any good Thriller, nothing is ever what is seems and characters could very well be hiding dangerous secrets.

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Edwige Fenech, a Maltese/Italian actress born in French Algeria, is an exotic delight in the role of Floriana. The character was originally written as an 18 year old college girl, but was aged slightly to accommodate Fenech, who expressed interest in the part rather than that of the wife. Normally known for playing the seductive and beautiful damsel in distress, Fenech got to show off her talents as an actress with the role of the femme fatale. One of the many symbols of both the Counter-Culture and Feminist Movements, Floriana defies many of the standard cultural and societal roles of women of the day: sexually liberated, independent, and in control. Fenech has the character constantly looking and watching, seemingly waiting for someone to make a mistake so she can take advantage of it, much like a lioness on the hunt. From the get go Floriana makes no bones that she’s sexually promiscuous, exchanging sensual innuendo laden barbs with her lecherous uncle, and easily seducing both her emotionally distraught aunt and later a handsome delivery boy. The latter openly hints that Floriana is possibly bi-sexual, or just knows how to play at sensual triggers. Very little is mentioned of her past, other than that she spent quite a bit of time at a Commune, which does confirm her hippie like lifestyle, but nothing else is ever really said about her. While she clearly sees her uncle as a depraved ego maniac with tendencies to violent reactions when crossed, she seems to be a little less than interested in helping her aunt get away from her uncle’s grasp.

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Anita Strindberg, a Swedish actress who immigrated to Italy for work, gives one of her best performances as Irena. Like with Fenech, Strindberg, who normally played independent and smart women, gets to stretch her range as an actress with the role of a woman driven to the brink of insanity. Also like with Floriana, little of Irena’s life before marrying into Oliviero’s depraved royal family is never mentioned, so it’s impossible to judge if she was a good person or a bad one at an earlier time. While clearly emotionally drained and constantly in fear of both her husband and his pet cat, it’s bizarre that she hasn’t ever attempted to previously break away from him and start a new life somewhere else. Her hatred of the cat Satan is as such that she’s actually threatened to kill him, rather than go after her husband, baffling viewers and characters alike as to why she hates the animal more than her husband.

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Luigi Pistilli, one of Italy’s most prolific and respected character actors, is a real piece of work and louse in the role of Oliviero. A man with failed ambitions to be a great writer, Oliviero seeks to compensate for his lack of talent by drinking, abusing his wife physically, sexually, and mentally/emotionally, treating the students who frequently visit his ancestral home like intellectual inferiors, and having affairs almost at will. He also displays something of a latent Oedipal Complex with his dead mother whom he speaks of in a bizarre way, this idea heightened when Floriana asks him if he and mother ever slept in the same bed together when he reached adulthood. After one of his students, whom he was having an affair via blackmail, is savagely murdered, he becomes a suspect as he had everything to gain from her death, which only heightens his paranoia and drinking. While clearly frustrated by his life and his failed career as a writer, Oliviero has somehow managed to restrain himself from the desire to murder, either not so depraved and mad as he appears, or because he also suffers from a kind of sexual inferiority complex with any woman. When he states clearly intends to kill his wife to be free to pursue a full on decadent way of life, if he realty did commit any of the crimes occurring within the film comes into speculation.

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A very interesting note to the film is the lesbian love scene between Irena and Floriana. While most love scenes in 70’s Italian films were often chaotic and focused primality on the bodies of the actresses, this one focuses on the faces of actresses Fenech and Strindberg. With the character of Irena’s life being so full of misery, pain, and fear, that her initial tryst with Floriana is soft, loving, and beautiful is a nice change of pace to otherwise . Neither Fenech or Strindberg had any qualms about bearing all on camera, but that Martino and his cinematographer decided to focus on their expressions rather than their bodies, though audiences still see the actresses arms and backs, is an interesting choice and one that provides a well needed tenderness to a sense of constant paranoia and fear.

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While many film adaptations of Poe’s classic tale had little if nothing to do with the Cat itself  or the Cat played only a minor role, and changing the story completely around,  Martino focused on the plot element, keeping with Poe’s basic plot outline, but with a unique twist. The only loss on Martino’s end is that the cat isn’t so much a character within the film as Lucio Fulci’s cat in his 1981 adaptation is (Fulci goes as far as to make him a kind of antagonist). Instead, Martino decides to utilize the cat as a kind of symbolic element, the fear of the unknown and death for Irene, and a memory of his mother and a representation of his descent into decadence for Oliviero. While the viewer isn’t necessarily guided through the film by the cat, he is indeed a spectator, a silent witness to the depravity, the violence, and the insanity of a slowly disintegrating family. That he evokes a kind of sadistic enjoyment and pleasure of his own adds to the creepiness he represents. An interesting note to Martino’s film is that the cat is actually referred to by a name throughout the film: Satan, a nod to the Devil. In Poe’s original tale, the cat’s name is Pluto, (Latinized Ancient Italian Plutone), the Ancient Roman name for Hades, also a representation of the Devil. This adds an interesting point of irony as Irena often refers to him as a beast and a demon, and he has shown at times he derives a kind of joy from her pain and suffering.

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What at first seems like a dark and bleak Melodrama, suddenly transforms into a wild, erotic, and suspenseful Thriller that pays homage to the likes of Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler. Martino and the screenwriters take the core elements of Poe’s dark tale and weave an interesting original around it, and leave the audience in constant bewilderment until near the very end. Well paced, finely plotted, and well acted, Vizio is an underrated example of a good Thriller with plenty of twists and turns.

(I highly recommend this film for the performances of the three leads and the fine twist in the last 20 minutes of the film that leaves any viewer dumbfounded if they haven’t suspected anything. While not a direct adaptation of the Poe’s The Black Cat, Martino uses the core elements of Poe’s tale and has his screenwriters fashion something that plays well to both Poe’s subtext and to the contemporary views and feelings of the times. Arrow Video yet again proves they are a company that knows how to treat forgotten genre classics of 60’s and 70’s Italian cinema with crisp imagery and clear audio with translated subtitles. The only negative is a slight error in the subtitle translation, but isn’t anything too distracting.)

All images courtesy of Google.com/Google Images and their respective owners

For more information

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0069421/?ref_=nv_sr_1?ref_=nv_sr_1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Your_Vice_Is_a_Locked_Room_and_Only_I_Have_the_Key

https://www.amazon.com/Edgar-Allan-Poes-Black-Cats/dp/B011CMJJQK/ref=sr_1_4?crid=17HIFI7BIKZCU&keywords=sergio+martino+blu+ray&qid=1557946043&s=movies-tv&sprefix=Sergio%2Caps%2C131&sr=1-4

https://www.amazon.com/Your-Vice-Locked-Special-Blu-ray/dp/B01AGOTP8M/ref=sr_1_9?crid=17HIFI7BIKZCU&keywords=sergio+martino+blu+ray&qid=1557946068&s=movies-tv&sprefix=Sergio%2Caps%2C131&sr=1-9

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

A Giallo/Detective Hybrid: A Bloodstained Beauty

by Tony Nash

(A Part of The Cycle of the Melodic Gialli)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

(Spoiler Free)

(This review is of the Italian language version)

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Una Farfalla con le Ali Insanguinate (The Bloodstained Butterfly) (1971) R *****

Helmut Berger: Giorgio

Giancarlo Sbragia: Alessandro Marchi

Ida Galli: Maria Marchi (as Evelyn Stewart)

Silvano Tranquilli: Inspettore Berardi

Wendy D’Olive: Sarah Marchi (as Wendi D’Olive)

Gunther Stoll: Avvocato Giulio Cordaro

Wolfgang Preiss: The Public Prosecutor

Lorella De Luca: Marta Clerici

Carole Andre: Françoise Pigaut

Written by: Gianfranco Clerici (also story) and Duccio Tessari (inspired from the works of Edgar Wallace)

Directed by: Duccio Tessari

Synopsis: The murder of a French exchange student sends the family caring for her and the man who loved her into turmoil. The father of the family is charged with her murder and her boyfriend begins a torrid affair with her best friend the daughter in an attempt to replace her. When the police in charge of the case discover another woman killed in a similar fashion, the question of a serial killer stalking the area arises.

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By the early 1970’s the Giallo subgenre was in full swing. The success of Dario Argento’s Animal Trilogy led to Giallos being done on regular scale per year, filmmakers able to transition from the slowly declining popularity of the Westerns. Duccio Tessari, most famous for his work on the Ringo films with Giuliano Gemma, had previous success with his “proto” Giallo La Morte Risale a Iieri Sera (The Death Occurred Last Night), a Crime Drama with tinges of Giallo themes, and got to go full on with Farfalla. Like with the former, this film combines the Giallo with other genre’s like Crime, Noir, and Detective Procedural, all melding to form a cohesive and unique mixture that offers the thrills of the Giallo, and the effectiveness of a Crime Thriller. Tessari uniquely goes back and forth between the police investigation into the film’s central murder, the trial of the man accused of killing the victim, and how the people connected to the two figures are coping with the situation. What adds to the film’s aura is that little is shown of the other characters’ personal lives, only what aspects are relevant to the case being probed. Even in this instant the audience learns some pretty crucial and sometimes damning things that leaves them wondering if the suspect on question is being set up. Keeping all events tied to the murder that brings everyone together can be difficult and would leave many plot holes, but Tessari makes it work to full effect.

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While not stated in the credits, Tessari and his co-writer Giancarlo Clerici (two secondary characters bear his surname) were clearly influenced by the novels of Edgar Wallace. Wallace was a British writer whose Mystery/Detective stories were the only direct competition to Agatha Christie. Wallace’s stories usually centered around the death of young women, and often how their deaths led investigators into much bigger conspiracies. Ironically, Wallace was most popular over in Germany, especially after WWII, and a series of films from the late 1950’s to the early 1970’s, were based directly on his books or heavily inspired by them. Other parts of Europe enjoyed his work as well, but it was rare to see films utilize his themes and motifs outside of Germany. The story was taken from a Wallace short piece called Secret of the Black Rose, though how much of the actual plot was used is up for speculation. That Tessari’s film was a co-production with Germany, and with three of the main cast being German/Austrian natives, the Wallace influence is fairly significant.

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Helmut Berger, a German/Austrian leading man known for his successful career in Italy, and as filmmaker Luchino Visconti’s Muse and Life Partner until the director’s death at age 77, is an ambiguous interest as the character of Giorgio. His character isn’t the central figure of the film, but his connection to both the family and the dead girl are fairly important when the film comes to its climax. A vague individual in that very little is said of his past or what he does, save that he was in a relationship with both the murdered girl Françoise Pigaut and her best friend Sarah Marchi, whose father is later accused of her murder. Berger spends most of the film brooding, little reason given for why he’s acting the way he does, and while it’s understandable he’s crushed by Françoise’s death, his bizarre descent into what appears to be paranoia is both perplexing and worrying. While Berger is listed as the lead actor, he only appears sporadically until about the last 40 or so minutes of the film, where it seems to be almost entirely him, and while his character is important as a suspect and as a figure in the dead girl’s past, that he speaks so little and seems to have never been talked to by the police and others makes his role a little confusing.

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Ida Galli, an Italian leading lady and character actress, known more by her Anglo pseudonym Evelyn Stewart, is very good in the role of Maria Marchi. While a loving mother to her only daughter, Maria’s relationship with her husband Alessandro is strained at best. While it’s only hinted that he strayed, Maria’s secretive relationship with the family attorney leaves viewers wondering if she might be involved in the young Françoise’s death and her husband’s subsequent arrest. Surprisingly, Maria never makes qualms she and her husband have had their difficulties, and her husband’s success as a building contractor certainly could cast doubts as to why she would get rid of the source of her luxury and finer things, as it’s never indicated if she would benefit from either his dying or if he was convicted of wrongdoing. Galli, in the period of the Giallo, flourished as either the femme fatale, the victim, or the friend of the heroine, and this, along with Il Corpo di Deborah, made her a key figure within the genre, and a reliable repeat performer with much to offer.

Now there are other great performances in the film, but to keep this write-up relatively spoiler free, these performances must be left off the page to avoid giving away too many key elements that point to the ending.

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For fans of Akira Kurosawa’s Tengoku to Jigoku (Heaven and Hell/High and Low) (like this author), this film splits its action in half, part of it focused on the murder itself and the subsequent investigation by the police and the criminal trial, and the second half looking into what happens upon the discovery of the second murder. By having the plot separated like a stage play, audiences get to see both sides of a Giallo: one half looking at how the police handle a case, and the other half looking at how the people who knew the victim are dealing with her being gone, and how it’s affecting their lives. Flavio Mogherini would attempt something similar almost a decade later with La Ragazza dal Pigiama Giallo, though his was more of a mix and match, while Tessari gives each side its own section.

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Striking imagery/cinematography, moody atmosphere, and fine performances from an ensemble cast, Farfalla is an early spin on the Giallo that takes it outside the influences of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, the key figures of the genre. By taking his story out of the exotic locales and the high-class areas, and setting it in the suburbs with a middle class, though somewhat financially well-off family, Tessari gives the Giallo a realism that, along with his previous La Morte, would help inspire Dick Wolf in his Law & Order franchise, about crime not having prejudices or preferences, and occurring whether others want it to or not. The ending is a complete surprise that nobody sees coming, though how the situation is resolved is a little bit of a letdown, though still satisfying for what it is, and what Tessari wanted to have play out.

(This film comes very highly recommended as there’s nothing else like it within the Giallo genre. Everything about it is well put together, and while some elements seem a little unusual with little or no explanation as to how they tie in to what’s going on, the engrossment Tessari puts the viewer in makes all these flaws minuscule. Arrow Video once shows its elegance in restoring and bringing films like this back from the dead with fine image and sound quality. The Italian language version with translated subtitles is the way to go on this one as it’s how it was originally made and keeps to the plot and structure the most.)

Fans should also check out the Grindhouse Cinema Database where this review also resides, it’s publication here at the author’s decision for one of the many series’ here

All images courtesy of Google.com/Google Images and their respective owners

for more information

IMDB/The Bloodstained Butterfly

Wikipedia/The Bloodstained Butterfly

https://www.amazon.com/Bloodstained-Butterfly-2-Disc-Special-Blu-ray/dp/B01FEE1XCA/ref=tmm_dvd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1557331522&sr=1-1-fkmrnull

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bloodstained-Butterfly-Dual-Format-Blu-ray/dp/B01FCLUVLO/ref=sr_1_1?crid=5BZ06JZBIPZA&keywords=the+bloodstained+butterfly&qid=1557331561&s=dvd&sprefix=the+blood%2Caps%2C219&sr=1-1

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

He Was Sure He Was Out… But He Had to Go Back

by Tony Nash

(A Part of Yakuza & Crime)

(Mild to Spoiler Free)

(All Opinions are of the author alone)

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Kenju Zankoku Monogatari (Cruel Gun Story) (1964) PG-13 ****

Jo Shishido: Togawa (as Joe Shishido)

Chieko Matsubara: Rie

Tamio Kawaji: Takizawa (as Tamio Kawachi)

Yuji Kodaka: Shirai

Minako Katsuki: Keiko

Hiroshi Nihon’yanagi: Matsumoto

Hiroshi Kondo: Kondo

Shobun Inoue: Okada

Saburo Hiromatsu: Saeki

Junichi Yamanobe: Yanagida

Written by: Hisatoshi Kai & Haruhiko Oyabu

Directed by: Takumi Furukawa

Synopsis: After his release from prison for the murder of the truck driver responsible for his sister’s paralysis, ex-hoodlum Togawa intends on spending the rest of his days clean. When he learns from the nuns at the hospital his sister goes to that an operation would guarantee the use of her legs again, Togawa has no choice but to accept a mob boss’s offer to head an armored car heist worth millions.

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Nikkatsu in the mid sixties decided to take their Yakuza sub-genre in a new direction with a new kind of hero/protagonist. Instead of having the dedicated cop or the gangster with an unwavering moral code that can’t be compromised, the hero this time is a morally conflicted ex-con who wants to help those he loves, and at the same time can’t resist the lure of the easy money being a criminal can offer. The tragic loner figure was very prominent in the Hollywood Noir of the 1940’s and early 1950’s, and while most American character types were hard to transfer to European and Asian audiences, this character was universal enough that no matter what setting or country he ended up in, he was easy to connect to and sympathize with. These types of characters weren’t unusual to Japanese audiences at all, but never before had one been portrayed as a hoodlum trying to keep on the straight and narrow, but fate always having other ideas. The classic story of a hoodlum’s last job to set him and his loved ones financially well secured for life gets a nice contemporary setting, and really speaks highly of the financial strides and struggles going on in the swinging 60’s.

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Family values also play a big part within the story as a big part of the protagonist’s reasons for his actions involve relatives. Feeling highly responsible for his sister’s waist down paralysis, and ashamed that he allowed his emotions to send him into a harsh enough rage to murder the hit and run driver who caused the accident, he vows to make sure she’s well cared for the rest of her life. Having both a criminal record and a record of homicide under him makes gaining honest employment practically impossible, Togawa feels both the need to make sure his sister gets the best treatment and medical care possible and the pull of accepting the offer of a charismatic Yakuza boss that would ensure he can afford to provide all necessary care. Torn between two worlds is a primary and common theme in Noir and is used to great effect in this film, along with the strife of family obligations.

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Joe Shishido, who’s mark as a matinee idol was fully cemented by this time, gives a fine performance as Togawa. One of Shishido’s first times playing a loner, he really excels as the isolated man struggling to survive in a world that, while justifiably alienates the criminal element to avoid corruption, unfairly ostracizes those who’ve gotten out and are trying to make honest livings. All Togawa wants to do is live quietly and take care of his sister as their parents are long deceased, but his sister’s medical bills, the result of a careless hit and run truck driver, make trying to steer clear of trouble to make ends meet very difficult. Deciding he’ll avoid fatalities and convincing himself he’s doing this solely so his sister can get well, Togawa succumbs to temptation and agrees to the armored truck job offered him. Shishido adds a nice bit of conflicted moral coding as he feels he’s betrayed himself and the promise he made his parents, and at the same time feels the organization he once knew needs to be cleansed of the riff-raff who’ve contaminated it and giving it a bad name. Shishido then has Togawa decide he’ll honor both his parents and his old companions. Realizing not long after that this new breed of gangster doesn’t hold the same values he and many of his dead compatriots did, Togawa decides to pull the ultimate con to ensure his sister is provided for, and should the inevitable happen, he’ll leave the world with a clear conscience.

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Probably the most American Noir influenced Yakuza film of the period, Monogarari mixes two quintessential themes well: the thrilling and suspense laden heist film and the character driven human drama. That the hero isn’t threatened of forced into the job is an interesting point as it shows him as a willing, but very weary participant who keeps one eye one the job, and the other on the men he feels he can’t trust. Having him not being completely devoid of humanity wasn’t completely rare in the Yakuza genre, but the level that which the character is taken to is very unusual and different. The performances, the story, and the cinematography all make for a unique mixture of suspense, action, and compelling drama.

(Again I highly recommend this one as it takes the Yakuza genre in a nice different direction that keeps it fresh. Jo Shishido’s very humane character is a nice change up from the other Anti-Heroes who indeed had good in them, but still weren’t above using illegal methods to get to the answers. That Shishido’s character had tried to make a real effort to go legit makes him all the more relatable and tragic. Like with the many other titles in the Nikkatsu Noir Criterion Eclipse set, the picture and audio quality are very good and still maintain that local theater feel.)

All images courtesy of Google.com/Google Images and their respective owners

For more information

IMDB/Cruel Gun Story

Wikipedia/Cruel Gun Story

Criterion Collection/Cruel Gun Story

Please see my review of A Colt is My Passport for the Amazon link to purchase Nikkatsu Noir if you’re interested.

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, TV: Special Topics

Going Straight Was Never This Tough

by Tony Nash

(A Part of Yakuza & Crime)

(All Opinions are of the author alone)

(Spoiler Free)

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Sabita Naifu (Rusty Knife) (1958) PG-13 ****1/2

Yujiro Ishihara: Yukihiko Tachibana

Mie Kitahara: Keiko Nishida

Akira Kobayashi: Makoto Terada

Shoji Yasui: Prosecutor Karita

Naoki Sugiura Seiji Katsumata

Mari Shiraki: Yuri

Jo Shishido: Shimabara (as Joe Shishido)

Masao Shimizu: Shingo Mano

Nobuo Kawakami: Detective Kano

Saburo Hiromatsu: Akira Mano

Written by: Shintaro Ishihara & Toshio Masuda

Directed by: Toshio Masuda

Synopsis: Former Yakuza thugs Tachibana and Terada, just recently paroled after serving time for murder, are being sought by the police for knowledge they might have on a politician’s death. Wanting desperately to finger a smug Yakuza chieftain for the crime, the police hound the duo for answers. The duo, wanting to be left alone to start afresh, begin their own investigation which reveals someone in the government may have hired the Yakuza to kill the politician.

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In 1957 Nikkatsu Studios, Japan’s oldest film company, began to rebuild its empire in the post war period with a series of Crime Drama’s in the style of Hollywood Noir’s. 1958’s Sabita Naifu proved to be one of best early period examples of the Hollywood influence on World Cinema, well recreating the classic light and dark contrasts in cinematography and lighting, and of course the tragic, broken characters trying to survive in a world they’re finding harder and harder to understand. Former hoodlums desperately trying to prove they’ve reformed as the police try to insinuate they’re a threat to their ex colleagues is one of the classic themes of the Noir genre, and has the film feeling very real as the characters involved seem like real people trying to reach for the ideal dream the Japanese were going for as hope was reviving in the post war period. When the thugs begin to realize they’re scapegoats for a mysterious government official who’s the real brains behind the Yakuza crime wave, they quickly look to clear their names before the official silences them forever. Taking another of the classic themes of the reformed bad men trying to stay straight and setting it in the post war period as the government of Japan were fighting corrupt officials and gangsters trying to undermine the recent economic boom makes for an interesting story and journey.

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Yujiro Ishihara, the Japanese equivalent of Elvis Presley, successfully made a second image for himself as the world-weary gangster Tachibana. Both tired of having to prove he’s a changed man to the police, and proving to his ex-colleague’s he doesn’t have any intention of reprisals or comebacks, Tachibana tries to navigate his new life in the wake of public opinion and pre-conceptions regarding his past. At first he looks to discover the truth simply to get both the police and former cohorts off his back, but when it looks like he and his close friend are being set up as patsies by a corrupt government official and an ambitious Yakuza leader looking to make a fortune and gain prestige in the new Democratic Japan, Tachibana decides to take on both the official and the Yakuza doing his dirty work. Ishihara, who was primarily a matinee idol and singer of the period, showed he was more than just a smooth voice and unique face with a good set of acting skills as he gives depth and personality to a character not far off from many true-life people in the post war period. Another interesting aspect is that this is one of the few times Ishihara doesn’t sing on camera. Even when he was doing non-musical roles, the filmmakers would often try to include a song for Ishihara to sing, since he was often promoting new albums and new song writers while making movies. He does sing the opening song of the film credits, but off camera, making this a pre-Elvis Charo! type of role.

(Interesting note: Ishihara’s brother Shintaro, now a controversial senator in Japan, co-authored the film’s script when he had dreams of becoming a successful writer.)

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Mie Kitahara, a popular actress of the 50’s and 60’s and the wife of Yujiro Ishihara, also shines bright in the role of Keiko. While not seen too much in the film, her character’s affiliation to another character provides a crucial piece of evidence in the politician’s death. An orphan raised by s kindly court official, Keiko too is world-weary because the role of women in the new Japan seem to be hovering in a kind of limbo, having both a kind of new independent freedom and yet still tied to the formal traditions of their ancestors. While not the typical Film-Noir female character in that she’s neither a femme fatale or a lost soul having difficulty finding her place in the world, Keiko is still a woman who feels she has a place she hasn’t found yet, and soon finds herself falling for the ex-gangster Tachibana, sure she can help him in the new life he wants to live. When it looks like she could hold the key to solving the crime her boyfriend is being hounded for, Tachibana and his buddy find themselves having to protect her as well as themselves.

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Akira Kobayashi, Ishihara’s compatriot in the singing industry and another aspiring actor, got his big break in the role of Terada. A friend of Tachibana who took the rap along with him for a murder charge, Terada is thinking of a similar quiet life for himself as he goes through closure in his old life. When he and Tachibana are fingered as involved in a politician’s death, he helps his friend in figuring out how a second rate, arrogant soldier in their former clan rose to the rank of boss. Kobayashi shows early on he would be a good actor, having a look alike face to Elvis, and a natural charisma that allowed him to well portray a man wanting a new life, but at the time has a time of breaking old friendships despite the risk continued association with said people would mean for him.

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In an early acting role, Joe Shishido, who’d later become one of Nikkatsu’s popular stars, has a brief, but important role as Shimabara. Shimabara is a small-time hoodlum who discovers the identity of the man who’s behind the rise of the local Yakuza boss. When he decides to go to the authorities after his blackmail attempts fail, Shimabara is conveniently thrown from a moving train bound for Tokyo. His death, and the cops’ loss of their only lead, is what catapults their hounding of Tachibana and Terada in what they may or may not know regarding the info Shimabara was about to give the authorities.

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Mixing both commentary on the growing economic prosperity and the corruption that followed in its wake, and pure entertaining mystery and suspense, Sabita Naifu makes for quite the complex and interesting film. Two hoodlums fighting for their lives and their chances to go straight are being thwarted by greedy opportunists and seriously hampered by obsessed police investigators make for exciting entertainment and a lovely homage to the classics of 1940’s Film Noir. Good performances, solid story, and fine use of cinematography and lighting help evoke a mix of new style and classic style.

(I highly recommend this one for its flawless mixture of entertainment value and keeping with showcasing the relevant issues of the period without sounding overtly intellectual or preachy. Yujiro Ishihara and Akira Kobayashi were able to prove to critics and producers alike they were more than just pretty faces and had some serious talent under their belts that would lead to better and better roles for them. The Criterion Collection’s showcasing the of the film in their Eclipse series Nikkatsu Noir set allows it to rise above obscurity and lets new audiences discover it. The audio is fine as always and while the picture shows clear age as the Eclipse series doesn’t do full on restoration, is still clear and fresh enough to not have the problems nearly forgotten prints have)

All images courtesy of Google.com/Google Images and their respective owners

for more information

IMDB/Rusty Knife

Wikipedia/Rusty Knife

The Criterion Collection/Rusty Knife

(Please see my write up of A Colt is My Passport for the link to the Nikkatsu Noir Amazon page)

 

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

Japan Pays Homage to The Italian West

by Tony Nash

(A Part of Yakuza & Crime)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

(Mild to Spoiler free)

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Koruto wa Ore no Pasupooto (A Colt is My Passport) PG-13 (1967) ****

Jo Shishido: Shuji Karmimura (as Joe Shishido)

Jerry Fujio: Shun Shiozaki

Chitose Kobayashi: Mina

Shoki Fukae: Funaki

Kanjuro Arashi: Shimazu

Ryotaro Sugi: Shimazu’s Successor

Eimei Esumi: Senzaki

Jun Hongo: Kaneko

Takamaru Sasaki: Otawara

Asao Uchida: Tsugawa

Written by: Hideichi Nagahara & Nobuo Yamada, based on the novel by Shinji Fujiwara

Directed by: Takashi Namura

Synopsis: A hitman and his partner are targeted for death after an ambitious Yakuza member hires them to murder his boss, then pins the crime on a rival group, saying they ordered the hit to cover up his coup. The duo must now fight both gangs in order to stay alive.

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1967 brought about many changes in the Japanese film industry, the Yakuza genre was going more towards realism and less on the romantic, director Seijun Suzuki was in a bitter battle with his former bosses at Nikkatsu who had framed him for misusing funds, and loyalty among studio employees and executives was being questioned and re-evaluated. Pasupooto represents a border between the classic era of genre cinema and the changes that were soon to be in full place by 1968. Here, the majority of the gangsters are devious from the get-go, others are blinded by misguided loyalty that will lead to their deaths, and only a select few regard the original rules and codes set by the founders of the organization as absolute and unchangeable. The very latter are the ones who matter most to audiences as they recognize these characters as shady, but also have ethics and honor which places them above the lot they associate themselves with. By having the hero and his buddy be totally alone in their battle goes a little more into Western style films, particularly Italian Westerns in that no one will come to their aid while in earlier Yakuza films there would be some characters who get wise to what’s being lied about and come to the hero’s aid to put things right, thus showing a radically different view to how such situations are handled.

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The score by Harumi Ibe offers the most Western influence on the film. While most Yakuza film scores of the period were inspired by Jazz and Rock n’ Roll music, this score has a very Italian Western feel to it, particularly in the use of unique instruments not normally associated with traditional scores. Wind instruments play a big part in Japanese film scores and get to be used quite differently for new and curious sounds for this entertaining and delirious film. Jazz and Rock n’ Roll still play a big part, but Ibe’s decision to spice things up with occasional different sounds is a breath of fresh air.

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Joe Shishido, one of the last of Nikkatsu’s Matinee Idols of the day, does really well in the role of Karmimura. Gearing a little more towards the Anti-Heroes of Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Franco Nero than to the honorable and respectful gangster of earlier Yakuza films, Karmimura blends both the good guys of European cinema and Asian cinema. While a little more withdrawn into himself than most gangsters, Karmimura shows he has an honor and ethics code like his contemporaries and predecessors, and is fairly enraged when a cocky and arrogant underboss decides to cement his power by framing him and his buddy for the assassination of a powerful and respected Yakuza leader. Shishido’s unique facial features, the result of early plastic surgery methods, and a brooding stare made for a good loner character who, while never pledging loyalty to one specific person, honors the contracts and employment he’s offered and tries to treat the client with respect. As the film progresses, Karmimura begins to realize the things he’s missed out on being a hitman, but reminds his buddy and the woman he begins to love that an injustice has been done and the gang that did needs to be stopped.

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Jerry Fujio, a Japanese entertainer and actor, does well in the role of Shiozaki, Karmimura’s partner. While a bit more personable and open than Karmimura, Shiozaki is still very much a gunman and honors the same system and Karmimura. Realizing at the same time they’ve been double-crossed for the assassination of a powerful Yakuza boss, Shiozaki remains loyal to his partner and sticks it out with him as they trade bullets with the lied to Yakuza thugs ordered to kill them. Karmimura and Shiozaki are shown to have a solid friendship, making Shiozaki one of the few people Karmimura really cares about. As it gets closer and closer to the big showdown, Shiozaki firmly states to Karmimura that he’ll see it to the end with him, resulting in Karmimura knocking his buddy over the head so he’ll have a chance to start afresh should anything go wrong, commenting Shiozaki was always true. While loyalty of this kind was not unusual in Japanese cinema, that it came from a character whose profession was in killing for money, this trait would enhance such a character’s humanity by a good stretch.

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While probably one of the more generic films of the genre, Pasupooto still offers up plenty of action, character, and story. The intrigue involving the power hungry Yakuza add quite a bit of spice to the story, and the age old theme of a man having to protect himself when he’s put on the chopping block so as the real perpetrator of the act can save his own skin is done in such a way to keep it from being predictable.

(I highly recommend this film as it offers thrills, action, and good story. Very generic story wise, it’s still very fun and entertaining, and offers up fine characters that evoke the pathos and charm audiences came to know and love. The cinematography and score help to round out the charm of the film. The Criterion Collection DVD as part of their Nikkatsu Noir box-set, via their Eclipse line is very good audio and visual wise, and while there are no special features on the discs, that the Criterion offers the occasional bare bones box-set that presents films that would’ve otherwise fallen into obscurity at an affordable price is quite good.)

All images courtesy of Google.com/Google Images and their respective owners

for more information

IMDB/A Colt is My Passport

Wikipedia/A Colt is My Passort

The Criterion Collection/A Colt is My Passport

https://www.amazon.com/Eclipse-17-Nikkatsu-Criterion-Collection/dp/B002AFX53W/ref=sr_1_2?crid=25FIEQQBV0LQE&keywords=nikkatsu+noir&qid=1555515264&s=movies-tv&sprefix=Nikkatsu+%2Caps%2C130&sr=1-2

(This set is region free for anyone overseas who’s curious about purchasing it)

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

The PI Plays the Thugs Against Each Other

by Tony Nash

(A Part of Yakuza & Crime)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

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Kutabare Akuto-Domo: Tantie Jimusho 23 (Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! /Go to Hell Bastards!: Detective Bureau 2-3) PG-13 (1963) ****

Jo Shishido: Hideo Tajima/Ichiro Tanaka (as Joe Shishido)

Tamio Kawaji: Manabe

Reiko Sassamori: Chiaki

Nobuo Kaneko: Inspector Kumagai

Kinzo Shin: Boss Hatano

Naomi Hoshi: Sally

Asao Sano: Father Tanaka

Yuko Kusunoki: Misa

Kotoe Hatsui: Irie

Hiroshi Hijikata: Horiuchi

Written by: Iwao Yamazaki, based on the novel by Haruhiko Oyabu

Directed by: Seijun Suzuki

Synopsis: Private Investigator Hideo Tajima offers to go undercover for the Tokyo Police to figure out who’s behind a rash of smuggling operations. Realizing this group is forcing two Yakuza mobs into consistent shoot-outs, Tajima decides to bring down both the smugglers and the Yakuza groups. Along the way he falls in love with the scarred mistress of the leader of the smugglers.

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Seijun Suzuki, the Japanese filmmaker who’d become most famous for his psychedelic cinematography of the Yakuza film genre, and later for his lawsuit against the corrupt execs at Nikkatsu studios, gives an early success with Detective Bureau 2-3. What makes the film an interesting early effort is that the hero is actually a private investigator, a rarity in the genre as the leads were usually gangsters trying to maintain their personal codes of ethics or a stoic police officer trying to maintain law and order. Much like with his later hit Youth of the Beast, Suzuki has the protagonist go undercover within the Yakuza to break the gangs up, only the former has an independent entity helping out the police in these actions. The adding of some romantic intrigue between the male lead and both the Yakuza Boss’ mistress and a childhood sweetheart gives the film some extra spice in the audience wondering if these emotions will complicate the investigation.  By playing up the recent economic boom of the 60’s in Japan and the subsequent dirty dealings of the Yakuza underworld to line their own pockets off the honest workers, Suzuki creates a nice mix of mystery and action that keeps the viewer interested and entertained.

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While Tajima has all the criminals wondering where his allegiance’s lie in the turf battles as he helps the cops rid Tokyo of some of the bad guys, this isn’t Suzuki’s take on Yojinbo. Yes, he’s looking to gain some publicity for his Private Investigation Agency, but he’s also a concerned citizen of Japan sick and tired of the Yakuza preying on the innocent and taking the hard earned money away from the middle class. What viewers get is a character who does something because it’s the right thing to do, but if he gets notoriety and money from it isn’t necessarily a bad bonus for his time and effort.

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Joe Shishido, one of Japan’s more interesting looking character actors/matinee idols, shines very brightly in the role of Tajima. While not overtly patriotic or completely selfless in his actions, Tajima is a man looking to put a dent in the criminal activity that disgrace the honor of Japan. Shishido plays the character with his usual fast talking and charming approach, which fits the character like a glove. As the character finds himself going deep into the inner workings of the smugglers, he realizes the harsh realities of the world and the complete unscrupulous nature of the mind of the criminal. Shishido also portrays well the respectful nature of the Japanese people. While he’s very direct and blunt with many of the people he meets, Tajima shows both the respect some of who he meets deserve, and also compassion and apologies to the one woman he knows needs to escape to be free. Shishido’s background in Japanese musicals come into play as the character asks his childhood sweetheart on the fly to help him out so his cover isn’t blown which leads to a well crafted and funny song and dance duet that allow the viewer to feel relaxed in an otherwise tense situation. Shishido also gets to display his physicality, doing the majority of his own stunts and fight scenes, gained from years of involvement in dance and theater.

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A nice irony within the film is the showcasing of Japanese Christians. Tajima, while undercover with the alias Ichiro Tanaka, tells one of the leaders of the smugglers that he’s a devout Catholic and the son of a born again priest. This ruse leads to Tajima having to create a situation with the aid of a local priest to help his cover look legitimate. With Japan being known mostly for the Buddhist and Shinto faiths, it’s quite interesting to see some of the country embracing aspects of Western observances. Even though its an irony, it’s a nice little touch to the film as it showcases Japan’s diversity and openness to the many different aspects of life.

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A little different in the Yakuza genre in that the protagonist is neither a gangster or a policeman, this new take with the genre adds spice and interest in how the film will play out. Mixing thrills, intrigue, suspense, and action, Detective Bureau 2-3 is an entertaining little film from a director right before his successful mix of interesting cinematography and lighting.

(I highly recommend the film for its nice mix of action, suspense, and even a little comedy. A fairly straightforward plot, the film offers nice camera angles and shots, 2 ro 3 dimensional characters that fit the kind of people one would encounter in real life, allowing for sympathy and connection, and of course fine set pieces. Arrow Video does another fantastic job with the restoration and clean up of the film, offering quality audio, subtitles, and visuals that make the film pop and come alive.  Not as deep, complex, or artistic as later efforts of the genre, the film still offers thrills and action, and even takes a look at a growing concern of the public’s during the post war period.)

All images courtesy of Google.com/Google Images and their respective owners

for more information

IMDB/Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!

Wikipedia/Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!

https://www.amazon.com/Detective-Bureau-Bastards-Special-Blu-ray/dp/B07CQR5SRQ/ref=sr_1_2?crid=1F391XR3Z4VHN&keywords=detective+bureau+2-3+go+to+hell+bastards&qid=1554917752&s=movies-tv&sprefix=Detective+B%2Caps%2C130&sr=1-2-catcorr

https://www.amazon.com/Detective-Bureau-2-3-Hell-Bastards/dp/B001U3TPPC/ref=sr_1_2?crid=1F391XR3Z4VHN&keywords=detective+bureau+2-3+go+to+hell+bastards&qid=1554917845&s=movies-tv&sprefix=Detective+B%2Caps%2C130&sr=1-2-catcorr

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Detective-Bureau-Hell-Bastards-Blu-ray/dp/B07CPDKPNX/ref=sr_1_1?crid=KLG1CFKURTO3&keywords=detective+bureau&qid=1554917881&s=dvd&sprefix=Detective+Bu%2Caps%2C209&sr=1-1

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics, Uncategorized

When the Boss Goes too Far

by Tony Nash

(A Part of the Yakuza and Crime Series)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

(Mild Spoilers)

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Minagoroshi no Kenjū (Massacre Gun/Guns of the Massacre) (1967) PG-13 ****

Jō Shishido: Ryûichi Kuroda (as Joe Shishido)

Hideaki Nitani: Shirasaka

Jirō Okazaki: Saburo Kuroda

Tatsuya Fuji: Eiji Kuroda

Takashi Kanda: Boss Akazawa

Ryoji Hayama: Midorikawa

Ken Sanders: Chico the Entertainer

Tamaki Sawa: Shino

Yoko Yamamoto: Aiko

Written by: Yasuharu Hasebe (as Takashi Fuji) & Ryûzō Nakanishi

Directed by: Yasuharo Hasebe

Synopsis: Yakuza hitman Ryûichi Kuroda decides to quit the organization when his boss Akazawa begins abusing his authority and ordering needless hits to prove loyalty, including that of Ryûichi’s girlfriend. With the aid of his brothers Saburo and Eiji, both of whom lost their livelihoods at the hands of Akazawa and his men, Ryûichi intends to take Akazawa down. The one obstacle to this goal is Shirasawa, Ryûichi’s mentor, who obeys the Yakuza law of honoring the boss implicitly, in spite of Akazawa’s clear maddening with power. What follows is a bitter turf war that spares no one in its wake.

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By 1967, the Japanese film studio Nikkatsu was in the early stages of an internal downfall. The executives were being investigated for mismanagement of funds and fraud, filmmaker Seijun Suzuki was suing the studio for wrongful termination of employment and attempts at framing him for the financial crisis the studio was in, and many of their stars were jumping ship to other studios or going freelance, tired of the mediocre work the executives were approving for filming. Massacre Gun was one of the studio’s attempts at putting the company back in the black profit wise, and that it could still turn out good films. Filmmaker Yasuharo Hasebe wasn’t new to the film game when he took on the task, but this was only his second film, and the first where he had creative freedom to tell the story his way. The Yakuza Action Crime Thriller was still very popular at the time, but Hasebe wanted to take the genre in a new direction to keep it fresh. What he came up with threw away the romantic ideals of such earlier efforts as Sabita Naifu (Rusty Knife), Kenjū Zankoku Monogatari (Cruel Gun Story), Akai Hatoba (Red Pier), and Tokyo Nageremono (Tokyo Drifter), and instead presented the Yakuza for what they really were: unscrupulous opportunists and power mad sadists who had no respect for anyone or anything. He did keep the morally conscious Anti-Hero and a few others who were inherently good, but were so brainwashed with the code of the Yakuza, that they’d rather die than betray it.

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Like with so many studio-oriented filmmakers, Hasebe wrote the screenplay under a pseudonym, in this case Takashi Fuji. While he didn’t write every film he was involved with, the ones with his personal touch tended to have something a little more that made them exceptional, so his using a pseudonym seems a little unusual. Whether Nikkatsu made it a practice for directors who also contributed to screenplays use aliases, or if Hasebe preferred to view himself as primarily as a director is anyone’s guess, but what is clear, is that the Hasebe was a very talented filmmaker, whose early successes were almost completely overshadowed when about two years after Nikkatsu declared bankruptcy, he accepted the new owners offer of doing dark and violent pornographic films.

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Jo Shishido, one of Nikkatsu’s most popular on contract players, gives a fine performance as Ryûichi Kuroda. Kuroda is a Yakuza hitman who finally reaches his breaking point when his clearly out of control with power boss orders him to kill his girlfriend. At first, he merely intends to devote his talents to a club he co-owns with his gambling brother Eiji, but when his other brother Saburo, an up-in-coming boxer, has his hands broken by the crazy boss’s henchman, all loyalty to the Yakuza code is off limits and revenge becomes first and foremost. Shishido plays his role as a man clearly in constant internal conflict: on the one hand, he knows his old gang will take revenge on him and his brothers if he attacks the boss, but at the same time he knows the boss has begun abusing the authority he inherited from the previous regime, going to levels that clearly violate the bylaws created in the post war period. Shishido also adds that Kuroda would be happiest simply helping his brother run a club in the Tokyo entertainment district, but again realizes his old life as a gangster will always be following him and that he’ll in one or another revert to relying on those skills. By giving Kuroda a deeper loyalty to his brothers than to the Yakuza, Shishido gives the character a fairly humane side that allows the audience to root for him, in spite of the life he leads, indicating there might be a type of hope of salvation or redemption if Kuroda plays his hands right. This film proved to be Shishido’s last leading role in a Nikkatsu film as the company was slowly declining in popularity and attempts at rebooting the steam of their products did little to nothing.

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Hideaki Nitani, one of Nikkatsu’s first major stars, excels in brooding conflict in the role Shirasaka. A loyal Yakuza thug since boyhood, Shirakasa is the embodiment of the blind dedication the post war youth of Japan were when inducted into the criminal world. Even though Shirasaka trained Kuroda himself and thinks of him as a brother, the blood oath he took upon his induction into the Yakuza forces him to go after his friend for leaving the organization. Nitani, like Shishido, plays Shirasaka as a man with constant internal conflict, only his conflict can end in death. Even though he sees Boss Akazawa is losing his sanity and becoming carless in his orders and actions, his dedication to the group is so deep and ingrained in, he would likely prefer suicide than to betray his employer. This idea hits its core very deep when Shiraska’s girlfriend asks him if he would blindly kill her if Akazawa ordered him to like he did with Kuroda. When he says nothing to her, the audience comes to the realization Shirasaka is completely brainwashed in his loyalty to the gang, and has no hope of ever breaking free from it. That he tries at one point to convince Kuroda to return to the group in a limited capacity or to leave Japan entirely and never return, shows he has sense enough only tragedy will result from Kuroda’s bad blood with Akazawa. When the time comes for Kuroda to take Akazawa to war, Shirasaka decides to die in battle, no longer able to live in the world of the Yakuza, nor in the real world.

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Gritty, realistic, and devoid of the romantic image of the Yakuza Gangster that had been in vogue for the last two decades, Hasebe managed to re-invent the Yakuza Crime film genre that would keep it going for another decade and a half. Thugs blindly loyal to their dangerous bosses, reprisal met with more reprisal, and characters who realize early on that their fate is sealed for their previous involvement in the group, and the price that must be paid for trying to break away from it. All elements harken back to the days of Hollywood’s Film-Noir craze, where life was cheap like liquor, and criminals had no real loyalty to each other, except when it suited them. The film was a real sensation and controversy when it came out, audiences heavily surprised by the dark atmosphere of the film and the desperate characters that inhabited it, but at the same time was popular and reflected the Cold War period the world was in.

(I highly recommend this Yakuza Thriller as it’s very good even with the bleak nature of the characters. Quality action and story abound well, and showed many of the Nikkatsu employees were able to make the budgets and decisions made by the shady executives work and allowed a profit and hit to be made and gain the public’s admiration. Arrow Video once again shows why it’s a great company for films like this with an high quality transfers and fine audio restoration. It’s a limited edition, but is still readily available and worth every penny.)

All images courtesy of Google.com/Google Images and their respective owners

For more information

IMDB/Massacre Gun

Wikipedia/Massacre Gun

https://www.amazon.com/Massacre-Gun-2-Disc-Limited-Blu-ray/dp/B00SA7UGFO/ref=sr_1_3?crid=3RZZULCNZQHDF&keywords=massacre+gun&qid=1554305872&s=movies-tv&sprefix=Massacre+Gun%2Caps%2C136&sr=1-3

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Massacre-Gun-Blu-ray-Tatsuya-Fuji/dp/B071FP8S5L/ref=sr_1_1?crid=35PSSXEGGJ733&keywords=massacre+gun&qid=1554305912&s=dvd&sprefix=Massacre+Gun%2Caps%2C223&sr=1-1

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT #2

Hello to my followers, those who I follow, and curious onlookers,

I’m still on my Birthday Break (I celebrated already), but I’m making an exception here as this item I find very interesting and urge support for the company financing it.

The UK company 88 Films is holding another public support campaign via Indiegogo for another set of Italian Collection Blu Rays. This go around they’re doing the forgotten Lucio Fulci period film Beatrice Cenci (alias The Conspiracy of Torture) starring the late, great Tomas Milian, and Joe D’Amato’s precursor to 50 Shades of Grey, Eleven Days and Eleven Nights (aka 11 Giorni, 11 Notte). Out of the two I prefer the Fulci/Milian collaboration, but I’ve also been curious about D’Amato’s eccentric reputation as a filmmaker, so I might give the latter a try just for the heck of it.

I had planned to make a contribution, but Indiegogo unfortunately doesn’t accept the type of Card I use, so I’m giving 88 Films a little shout out here to help them make the project a reality. I’ll leave a link to their Indiegogo page to see what the perks and goals are of the project. Please, if you can, give this dedicated company a hand in putting out the more obscure and forgotten cult and grindhouse classics back from the dead.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/88-films-italian-restoration-project-part-2#/

Tony Nash, Movie Fan Man

UPDATE: 88 Films has reached 74% of their goal and have added two more goal achievements

UPDATE #2: 88 Films is nearing 80% of their goal, but the contributions are slowing down, so anyone interested, please don’t hesitate to give them a hand.

UPDATE #3: 88 Films announced earlier that Beatrice Cenci (alias Conspiracy of Torture) by Lucio Fulci will get top priority in remastering, followed by D’Amato’s film, so keep up with the donations.

UPDATE #4: 88 Films is nearly at 90% of it’s prime goal for Beatrice Cenci, please keep up donating and giving shout outs.

UPDATE #5: 88 Films has hit 91% of their goal!! They’ve updated their page again and have decided to have Goal One be the restoration of both films simultaneously and Goal 2 the creation of exclusive extras for the releases. Let’s keep the prize alive and please keep spreading the word of what 88 Films is looking to accomplish.

UPDATE #6: Hooray!! 88 Films has reached their initial goal of getting both Beatrice Cenci and Eleven Days and Eleven Nights restored for future release. Now let’s get 88 Films to goal 2 of getting these films slip-covers and special features.

UPDATE #7: 88 Films Campaign has stalled again, so let’s try to keep this thing alive, even with the first, primary goal being reached. Killer Crocodile was their Mystery film had goal 3 been reached, but according to Campaign starter Richard Elliot, it’ll still happen regardless, albeit at a much later date.

UPDATE #8: Only four days left on 88 Films Indiegogo campaign!! Another 5,000 GBP and 88 will be able to do slipcovers for the releases, let’s make this happen.

Filed under: Annoucements

Undercover Work: Italian West Style

by Tony Nash

(A Part of Western Wednesdays)

(Mild Spoilers)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

(This review is of the Italian language version of the film)

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La Morte non Conta i Dollari (Death Does Not Count the Dollars/Death at Owell Rocks) (1967) PG-13 ****

Mark Damon: Harry Boyd/Lawrence White

Stephen Forsyth: Lawrence White/Harry Boyd

Nello Pazzafini: Doc Lester (as Giovanni Pazzafini)

Luciano Pigozzi: Judge Warren (as Allan Collins)

Spartaco Conversi: Old Man Lester

Pamela Tudor: Elisabeth Pearson

Luciana Gilli: Jane White

Dino Strano: Mike Lester

Hardy Reichelt: The Sheriff of Owell Rocks

Ignazio Spalla: Gen. Pablo Rodriguez (as Pedro Sanchez)

Aldo Cecconi: Bernie Nolan

Written by: Luigi (Giuseppi) Masini (story) & Riccardo Freda (as George Lincoln)

Directed by: Riccardo Freda (as George Lincoln)

 

Synopsis: Siblings Lawrence and Jane White learn that Doc Lester and his brothers organized a bank robbery, a takeover of the town of Owell Rocks and the death of their military father to get the White family’s land. Lawrence realizes the Lester Brothers will be looking for him and arranges a scheme with friend Harry Boyd, a skilled gunman and occasional bounty hunter, to fool the brothers into a trap.

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Riccardo Freda (credited here as George Lincoln), one of Italy’s veteran genre filmmakers, tackles his first and only Western with La Morte non Conta. Freda takes the popular American Western story motif of bad guys taking over a little town while trying to steal the land of the area’s popular citizens and transfers it to Italy and Spain. Freda adds Italian West flavor by having a dust laden drifter take interest in the situation, but keeps who his allegiance truly lies with close to the vest. While known more for his Horrors and Thrillers, Freda utilizes this background well in giving his Western a very mysterious feel, keeping the individual helping the White siblings successfully in the shadows as he makes certain those trying to cheat them don’t succeed. Adding that no one has seen the murdered town patron’s son in several years since he went East gives Freda’s Mystery tie in more depth and interest as something shrewd could be taking place behind the outlaw gang’s back. Taking more influence from the American Westerns than from the already influential films of compatriots Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, Freda still manages to evoke a film that puts elements of both worlds together in working harmony. The pacing is similar to Duccio Tessari’s first Ringo film in easygoing lightheartedness, but at the same time keeps the traditional elements of violence having consequences and that no one is spared in the calamity.

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Mark Damon, one of the many American actors who decided to make their fame in Europe, is an intriguing delight in the role of Harry Boyd. Taking pages from Giuliano Gemma’s original Ringo character, Damon has his character cracking jokes, out-conning Lester gang members, and getting into various brawls. Also taking notes from the roles played by Clint Eastwood, Franco Nero, and Lee Van Cleef, Damon adds a hint of mystery to the character as he never really speaks about himself and is always watching and listening. Like Giuliano Gemma, Damon had a handsome face that allowed him to take on a leading man like quality, a rarity for most Italian Western stars. While his character’s reputation is apparently well known, the villains who’ve taken over the town don’t seem too worried about his presence, and even get him to replace the murdered sheriff who had been on their payroll. Damon’s Hollywood background served him well in not only his approach to playing the character of Harry, but also in how he handled action scenes. While the fight scenes go through the traditional rough cuts as punches are thrown and baddies go through walls and windows, Damon’s training in fight choreography helped to enliven the scenes above the usual fray, though are still second to the Gemma fight scenes director Freda was trying to capitalize on.

Stephen Forsyth as Lawrence White (Harry Boyd) in Death at Orwell Rock (1967)

Stephen Forsyth, a Canadian actor who later became a music producer, does a fine job as the sophisticated, but still mysterious Lawrence White. Away for a time living in the East and being educated, White returns to help his sister figure out how their father died and make certain the Lester Brothers don’t take over the town or grab up their father’s lands. Forsyth plays White as calm and professional, and while very concerned about his sister and what the Lester clan has planned for the town, he doesn’t really act like a traditional Easterner of the time. That he really starts digging into what happened regarding the recent events of his father’s death and the sudden bottled up, tight lipped nature of the citizens contradicts how an Easterner would react to such conditions and would normally be minding their own business. When he decks a member of the Lester gang for tripping him in the street, the mystery deepens as an Easterner would never strike another man flat-out and simply apologize for being clumsy. This leaves the audience wondering just what sort of education did Lawrence get while out East and why how he acts totally differs from how he responds to acts of aggression.

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Nello Pazzafini, here credited under his birth name of Giovanni Pazzafini, gets a rare opportunity at playing the central bad guy in Doc Lester. Wanting all the territory owned by the White family for himself and his brothers, Doc Lester organizes a coup that involves not only taking over the town, but getting the sheriff on their side, robbing a bank, and killing the town patriarch. Pazzafini does really well with the role, showing he was more than just a secondary character player or henchman to the main villain, exuding a menace and hulking nature. Both ruthless and cunning, Pazzafini has Doc as someone who the heroes need to catch with his pants down in order to get him. It wasn’t often Pazzafini got to play the main bad guy, but here he does it exceptionally well. Spartaco Conversi, another mostly secondary character player and 2nd Unit production crew worker, gets an equally rare opportunity at a good role with the character of the Old Man Lester, the patriarch. More behind the scenes with making the plans to takeover Owell Rocks while son Doc is out making it happen, the older Lester still abides by his son’s decisions. Conversi doesn’t get as much dialogue or scenes, but he still makes a good second baddie to Pazzafini.

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When it comes out that the two male leads have exchanged identities briefly to ensure the rightful heir to Owell Rocks is able to bring his father’s murderers to justice and free the town from the terror of the killers makes for an interesting plot twist.

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Freda’s attempts at recreating the magic Duccio Tessari achieved with the inaugural Ringo film with Giuliano Gemma fell a little short, but the Mystery aspect of the film more than makes up for what might have at the time been seen as a poor man’s Una Pistola per Ringo. The characters still very much ft the pattern of the typical Italian Western characters: mysterious and keeping their intentions to themselves. The heroes are more humane in their behavior and the baddies fit the typical mode of “B” grade Western villains, but the atmosphere around them helps make them work. The plot is very much generic and typical of the Western genre, but Freda’s years of experience in directing and writing allow the plot to expand and become a little more intricate and interesting. While a bit more American in style, and somewhat void of the more pessimistic Anti-Heroes associated with the genre, Owell Rocks is a fine entertaining genre entry that is certainly a pleaser to people who enjoy both Westerns and Mystery Thrillers.

(I highly recommend this film as even though it’s nothing overtly spectacular, it’s still a lot of fun and extremely entertaining. It might evoke more of an American influence, but that doesn’t stop it from being a good, middle of the road fare for a veteran director’s only crack at the genre. The cast and story are finely done, and there’s not a dull moment in the film. The Mystery aspect is a nice touch from director Freda and makes the film the only Italian Western with that type of twist. The DVD from Germany’s Koch Media is excellent, offering a good transfer, only one or two scenes clearly suffering the effects of irreparable age. The Italian language track is the best one to watch with as it’s the clearest. There’s an English audio, but it’s very subpar and almost unwatchable, so the best bet is either the German or the Italian audio.)

All images courtesy of Google.com/Google Images and their respective owners (including Once Upon a Time in the Italian West)

For more information

IMDB/Death at Owell Rock

Wikipedia/death at Owell Rock

The Spaghetti Western Database/La Morte non Conti i Dollari

https://www.amazon.de/gp/product/B009YQTDI6?ie=UTF8&tag=italowestern-21

 

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics