Criterion Cuts - The BBS Summer 4: "Drive, He Said"Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
We've been working through the early successes of Criterion's America: Lost and Found: The BBS Story box set, the history of which you should absolutely read HERE before continuing on into today's piece if you want some historical context. For the sake of brevity, I'm not going to be covering that ground again, which I'm sure those of you playing along at home will thank me for. Regardless, following last installment's film, Five Easy Pieces, writer/actor Jack Nicholson had suddenly found himself thrust into the spotlight, becoming the voice of a generation. With that sudden fame came the ability to parlay it into a small directorial debut, which Nicholson did with today's film.
Remember how I said last time that Five Easy Pieces reminded me a lot of mumblecore, except it actually was about something and thus every scene had narrative momentum and thus the audience wasn't bored by the lack of direction, but empathized with it because it accurately resembled the emotional journey they and the hero were going on? That was a nice dream, and apparently a fleeting one, because right after it we have Drive, He Said to remind us just how the other, shittier half lives.
The movie opens with a college basketball game being played over the opening credits, which will actually be the best part of the movie (though I, poor sap, didn't know it). Nicholson is a huge basketball fan, not just of the game but of the whole experience, and it shows in these opening sequences. There's the gracefulness of the players, the rhythms of the game, the ebb and flow of the crowd as they cheer or jeer, and the other accompanying hustle of any well-attended sporting event. Into this scene, however, intrudes a small group of student protesters, who cut the lights and co-opt the PA to say they're holding the group hostage. They drag someone out onto the court, and hold a gun to their head. They pull the trigger, and out pops an American flag, right before the police rush in to arrest them all.
In a reaction that is baffling to anyone alive today, everyone has a big laugh about the whole thing and carries on with the game. Sure, what they did gets the students in trouble, but nobody seems too awfully concerned about it, and as the game carries on to its conclusion the movie refocuses on the star athlete, Hector Bloom (William Tepper), a kid with aspirations of going pro and not much else to recommend him. He's our hero, giving an interview and then running off to hook up with the wife of one of his professors, Olive (Karen Black), who he's having a barely-secret affair with. For her part, she seems happy to fuck the star athlete in the back seat of his run down car, living out a dream of youth before going back home to her potentially oblivious stuffed shirt of a husband.
Hector lives with a roommate named Gabriel (Michael Margotta), revealed to be one of the students behind the protest. He's a typical burnout type, railing against the world and using a fairly ruinous amount of various drugs to keep his high-energy paranoia binge going. He isn't particularly threatening (at least at first), but just boring in the way self-absorbed drug users are, pontificating 'deep' thoughts with the rest of his friends in an endless series of smoke filled rooms. The most interesting part is his juxtaposition with Hector, who he looks at mostly with derision for daring to care about anything, especially something as silly as basketball. The problem is, Hector doesn't really care at all, he only seems to bother because he likes the pressure to excel. When it becomes easy, he gets as bored as anyone, and the laziness starts creeping into his game.
All of this takes place in a setting of increasing unrest due to everyone out of this generation being called up for the draft, with a weird, bizarrely out of place set of sequences where Gabriel goes in for his draft physical and throws a fit to try to get thrown out, acting out and even assaulting a psychiatrist in order to prove that he's unfit to serve. It should work, but it really doesn't, mostly because the tone of the movie is all over the place. This scene drops right in the middle of smaller human drama with Hector and Olive struggling in their relationship, with him falling for her and her finding that she's pregnant and neither of them really equipped to break out of the normal roles expected of them in the rest of their life.
It tries to put a lot of things out onto the film: the competitive expectations of the mainstream, the quickly burning out counterculture that blows all its energy on drugs and self-indulgence, the quiet desperation of youth and age trying to emulate one another, the undercurrent of anger at responsibility and the difficulty of accepting it. Any of these probably would have made an okay movie on its own, but together it's just too much, and the movie dances from point to point without landing any of them with any actual emotional resonance. When they begin to collide late in the film, with a drug-addled Gabriel breaking into Olive's house and assaulting her, it just feels like a cheap grab at scandal than it does any sort of threat. And when Gabriel goes on to run naked through the campus and free the animals in the biology lab, what tries for poignancy comes off as comically overwrought, well worthy of the not-kind laughter I find myself having at its expense.
I try to treat these movies fairly, but honestly Drive, He Said is a bad movie, an indulgent waste of 90 minutes that makes all reflective art films of this type look bad by comparison, full of an array of half articulated ideas that should have been beaten out of the script in the second draft, not put on screen for us to suffer through. I appreciate its inclusion on the set, because historically it shows just how quickly BBS fell into the easy traps of their own new niche of film making, and how not every movie was a smash success. It's a painful lesson, both for Nicholson (who wouldn't direct again for 7 years), and for me having to watch and write about it. Sometimes obscure movies reveal hidden treasures, and sometimes you step in a pile of rotten garbage, and sadly this is a clear example of the latter.
A New Hollywood Summer — BBS Box Schedule
Head (1968) – 6/11
Easy Rider (1969) – 6/25
Five Easy Pieces (1970) – 7/9
Drive, He Said (1971) – 7/23 You are here!
A Safe Place (1971) – 8/6
The Last Picture Show (1971) – 8/20
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) – 9/3
Bond, James Bond. For fifty years that has been the cinematic calling card of one of films most enduring heroes. Sure, Bond was born in books, but it was through film that he became a household name and one of the movies' most enduring legends. He is a character so archetypal that he is bigger than the half dozen men who have played him across nearly two dozen films, and that kind of longevity is both unheard of and a little bit magical.
Light Bondage is my attempt to rewatch the series and try to recapture some of what made these movies worthwhile. I might not always succeed (I'm looking at you, Roger Moore!) but in this biweekly series of articles we're going to take a ride through the time capsule of the last half century with the world's most famous spy/action star.
Oh, this is an exciting day. Why? Come on, you've come this far you should know: Roger Moore is no longer James Bond! Not through lack of trying, though, as they had originally intended this production to star the then 59-year-old Roger Moore. It sounds unfathomable, until I realize that Liam Neeson is that age and he's just now come into the full flower of his badassery (I'm writing this waaaaay back on January 26th, for reference, a day before I probably go and hopefully enjoy the hell out of The Grey [note from July: funny enough, The Grey is still probably my favorite movie this year so far]). But regardless, good ol' George is gone, and it's time for a new Bond.
Which brings us to Timothy Dalton, who starts his short but fairly brilliant Bond career with The Living Daylights. I had never seen the Dalton films growing up, as they seemed to a child of the 80s watching movies in the 90s embarrassingly dated but not old enough to be interesting again. I was a stupid child, and we all go through such a phase (indeed some of us never escape it). I say stupid because man, watching The Living Daylights is like being reminded of what goodness and quality is. After trying to find bright spots in the swath of destruction the Dark Age of Bond left upon my enthusiasm for life, I forgot that these movies, if done properly, are actually pretty awesome!
It starts with the action: the movie opens with a war games exercise on a British base at Gibraltar. Three MI6 agents jump out of an airplane and parachute down onto the military base. Two of them are nearly instantly tagged out of the game. The third, revealed to be Bond, discovers that a Russian agent has snuck onto the base and is using this as a cover to steal arms right out from under the paintball-wielding soldiers' noses. Bond manages to spring into action, defuse the situation, blow up the truck being stolen, and him and his flaming parachute land onto a nearby yacht, inhabited by a bored, beautiful socialite.
This isn't outside the norm for a Bond action intro, but it's so much better done than anything in the Moore years. Part of it is effects are getting better, the composite shots not quite so obvious. But a lot of it is the change of lead. Dalton is a much younger guy, and when he leaps on stuff and punches guys and climbs around various pieces of equipment it's obvious he is a guy who can do it. It doesn't hurt that I'm fairly certain he did a lot of his own stunt work in the movie, and even if he didn't you believe that he did. I hadn't quite realized how far that sense of truthfulness about the action went until I hadn't had it in a long time.
The plot on the whole is a nice improvement, and suited to a new interpretation of the character, as well. Bond is sent to help a KGB general defect, acting as a counter-sniper on a mission that goes awry. He manages to abscond with the general only to have him stolen back. Going searching for him uncovers an elaborate triple cross of Russian agents, in-fighting among the highest ranks of Soviet generals, the increasing presence of American financial interests in propping up every side through arms deal, and even an appearance by the Afghani mujahideen, playing a similar romantic freedom fighter role (though far less hilariously ironic in retrospect) to what they did in Rambo III.
What's more important is how low key it all is. There's no real gimmicks, a lack of gadgets, and it plays out much closer to real spy stuff than we've seen in a long time from the series. In fact, it presages the roughshod truth of the Cold War that GoldenEye will touch on and that From Russia With Love meandered through: enough time spying on each other and eventually everyone knows everyone. Bond goes through the film as a known quantity by just about every character. He's on friendly terms with villains and barely on speaking terms with allies. The truth of the matter is that after decades spinning around the same theaters of subterfuge, it all becomes an elaborate game. A dangerous one, to be sure, but everyone is on pretty clear terms about that.
For this complex, nuanced world we get a Bond that's less superhero and more hyper-competent special agent. He shoots and schemes with the best of them, not particularly jokey and while womanizing beginning to tone it down and finally get ridiculed for outdated ideas. Dalton plays this all straighter than any Bond outside of maybe Daniel Craig, portraying a man who tries to hold an increasingly unraveling situation together. Unlike most of the Bonds, he is portrayed as much angrier, driven by a general aggression and fits of outright rage when pushed that seem almost antithetical to the character we've seen for fourteen prior movies.
The Living Daylights isn't an amazing movie, but it's a solid one, competent and smart and with very little fat to it's globe-trotting intrigue. But put next to what came before it I'm ready to give it all the awards for best everything. It's a wild improvement on the formula, not necessarily bringing anything new but investing it with an enthusiasm and sense of giving a shit that makes me genuinely excited to watch more of these again. Thank god something did.
The Theme Song/Opening Title:
Well, okay, there is something wrong. You see, the main title, performed by A-ha of all people, is absolutely terrible. It comes with an opening sequence that is pretty generic and inoffensive, but nothing really overcomes the atrocious, forgettable mess of a main theme. Maybe if you're a big A-ha fan? Are those actual people who exist?
Most Ridiculous Gadget:
The best, coolest gadget is one that isn't technically a gadget at all. Trying to smuggle the KGB defector out of Russia, Bond concocts an elaborate way to get him past the border patrols. Sneaking into an oil refinery, he has a scout plug modified to fit a human passenger and builds up enough pressure to shoot him down the trans-Siberian pipeline towards British territory. There is a rather amazing scene of the border guards, Russian agents, and even Bond's liaison in the region cluelessly staring at the pipeline for miles as a giant metallic swish of their target escaping reverberates down the tube. It's grandiose, funny, but not wild fairy tale stuff. Not quite a gadget, but perfectly Bond.
Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:
Maryam d'Abo plays Kara Milovy, the girlfriend of the defector-turned-double-agent KGB general Bond sneaks out of Russia only to have to track back down over the course of the movie. She's introduced as a cellist who is the sniper supposedly Bond is to take out early on in the movie, but he demurs recognizing that she barely knows how to handle a gun. He ends up spending most of the movie with her, trying to get information out of her by pretending to be the friend of the man he's hunting, her boyfriend. As expected, she ends up siding with Bond when he reveals himself to her, but not before freaking out and drugging his drink and getting them both captured.
She wins this award mostly because she's the only significant female role, not because she's interesting--in fact, given her penchant for getting them both in trouble just because the movie needs a clean break into its final act, I'm tempted to just not give this award to anybody, or maybe to Moneypenny. Moneypenny's too good for this shitty award, though. She's classy in every movie, without thanks. No matter how many weird woman drop in and out of this series, she'll always be the best.
You know, there honestly isn't a whole lot of shitty behavior Bond offers up in this movie. So for the first time, I'm going to offer a particularly amazing kill instead. Yeah, I know, it's outside the scope of this piece but I'm allowed to reach once in 15 movies aren't I? Anyway, Bond is meeting his liaison in a public place, namely an amusement park. They're to meet and exchange messages in a restaurant. The restaurant's doors are giant sheets of glass opening automatically on a neat piston device. The KGB assassin tracking them down manages to rig an explosive in the door mechanism, so when Bond's partner walks through the door he detonates the piston forward. The result, instant and brutal and messy, is more horror movie than Bond, even if it's not shown on-screen. Still, the blood-splattered door retracting is one of the more gruesome images we've seen in these movies in quite some time, and bears special mention for its inventiveness.
JAMES BOND will return in LICENSE TO KILL
Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.
The Dogme movement we discussed last time was something of an estranging period for von Trier. He found himself more famous as the headliner of a movement than as a film director for a little while, and the whole experiment with The Idiots only further drew a line in the sand between people who found interest in this approach and people who accused him of the worst cinematic atrocities. For a director who ultimately seems interested in making movies more than being involved with the other parts of film culture, I wonder if this didn't bother von Trier. It certainly seems to have affected his work.
While his Golden Heart trilogy continues, it's interesting just how stridently he moved away from the Dogme structures in his next movie. In fact, he picked a genre that seems like the natural arch-nemesis of honesty—the musical—and there sowed the seeds for what would become a new leg of his career: a stylized mesh of filming techniques, both low-budget and the height of cinematic artifice, that continue even into his most recent work.
Set in 1964 and in rural Washington, Dancer in the Dark is totally set apart from the rest of von Trier's filmography geographically and temporally, but the story is immediately of the type that make up the entire middle and modern periods of his career to date. Selma Jezkova (Bjork, in one of her only acting roles) is a Czech immigrant who has moved to the United States with her son Gene, living in a trailer on property owned by a couple, the locla sheriff Bill and his wife Linda (David Morse and Cara Seymour), who have taken in the mother and son as almost extended family. Selma spends her days working in a factory and her nights making things to sell, spending only a scant few hours training for a local musical production of The Sound of Music that seems doomed to never happen. She spends little, even going so far as to deprive her son birthday presents, saying that she sends most of her pay back home to a father.
What nobody knows aside from Selma's coworker Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) is that Selma has a degenerative disease that is slowly rendering her blind. Even now she can barely see, using cheat sheets to pass eye exams and the help of Kathy to navigate her monotonous factory job. Her son has the same problem, and Selma moved to the US with the intent of saving up and paying for an operation when he turns 13. It's a thankless job that she keeps secret from everyone (including her son), and the only moments of escape that she has are the weekends her and Kathy go to the theater to watch old Hollywood musicals (or rather, Kathy explains what's going on to Selma), and as Selma retreats more and more into a world of darkness she begins to slip deeper and deeper into daydreams.
The truth of those daydreams invades the movie at the 40 minute point, when suddenly we see the world as Selma 'sees' it, as her humdrum factory job turns into a found-noise musical sequence, as her and her coworkers parade around the machines. And that's when you realize, far too late to escape, that Dancer in the Dark is a musical. It's a really fantastic musical, too, with music all composed by Bjork with lyrics by von Trier, performed with an immediacy that feels somewhere between old Hollywood spectacle and modern dance, often ferocious in its emotional rawness. Here the casting of Bjork, otherwise baffling, makes sense: she brings an otherworldly grace to the whole affair, a sense of wonder and child-like naivete that dovetails out of her professional persona and into a character that feels like she belongs in a Bjork video.
It's an interesting shift for the director, but he doesn't really jump in with both feet. Dancer in the Dark is usually filmed handheld, and is an early example of a movie filmed entirely with digital cameras. It gives it almost the look of his early work or a Dogme film, especially in the 'real life' sequences, which have a lazy sensibility to them. But von Trier really steps it up in the musical sequences, a dizzying array of shot choices that emulate classic big 30s musicals even with the more modest scale, and those sequences change in look and staging to be brighter, more color saturated, and far more affected in terms of posing and composition. What interests me is how much the musical shots resemble, then, the entirety of his later films. Antichrist and Melancholia take that heightened world aesthetic into the very core of what they are, living in operatic, dreamlike worlds. It's fascinating seeing him dip his toe into what would become the style that so endeared him to me on first viewing, even if he didn't come back to it for another few films.
Eventually Bill and Selma, already close friends, have a moment one night where they reveal their secrets to each other. Selma admits to being almost close to blind, and Bill admits that the money his wife thinks he's rich off of from an inheritance is already gone, and that he's about to lose his house. Unable to help each other, they find a sort of camaraderie in their helplessness, until Bill takes an out. One night, he feigns leaving, and stands in the corner of the room to watch where Selma puts her money. The next night, when Selma goes to deposit her day's wages, she finds it gone. Instantly, she knows who took it, and heads over to the house across the yard to confront Bill.
It's here that everything takes a sharp turn. Bill, unable to admit their poverty to his wife, instead intimates that Selma came onto him, and when she demands the money back acts as though she's stealing the savings he brought home from the bank. The two fight over the money, and Bill eventually gives in, unable to actually fight Selma, but as a last ditch effort pulls out the gun he owns and threatens to shoot Selma. The two fight over the gun, then, and it accidentally goes off, shooting Bill. As he apologizes to Selma, his wife concludes that she shot him and runs out to get the police, as Bill continues to apologize, saying that he only wanted to take care of his family, and asks Selma to put him out of his misery. When in her blindness she can't even accurately hit him with the gun, she uses the safety deposit box on his desk to beat him to death, imagining after a sequence where Bill gets up and dances with her, thanking her for helping him and urging her to run.
She takes the money and secretly pays the doctor for the operation Gene needs when he turns 13, before allowing herself to be caught when she shows up to her dance practice and the people who were supposedly her friends turn her in. The trial is a quick and painful affair, as Selma resolutely keeps her plans secret, and refuses to break the promise she made to Bill that she wouldn't reveal that he had died penniless. The lawyer uses this opportunity to paint her as a delusional Communist, using the story that she was sending money to her father to point out that she was lying about where all her money went, and using witness testimony from Bill's wife that Selma refuses to fight against. The jury quickly turns around a guilty verdict, and the judge sentences her to death.
The entirety of von Trier's Golden Heart movies has revolved around the suffering taken up by women who were used by the society around them and rather willingly become martyrs, but none of them is more profoundly to type than Selma. In jail, she befriends most of the people she's around, who all become convinced of her innocence but have no means to change her fate. Even when Kathy eventually discovers what happened, Selma refuses to cooperate, as reopening her case would require using the money for the operation for Gene to pay for a lawyer good enough to free her or get her sentence reduced. Willing to die rather than let her child suffer her fate, she simply allows the inevitable to happen, spending her last days falling deeper and deeper into her daydreams of song and dance. It's the kind of naive stubbornness that can be infuriating if you aren't willing to take it on its own terms, and indeed critical opinion seems like it was sharply divided on the film when it came out along the lines of the people who 'bought it' and the people who wouldn't, or couldn't.
What's most genius about von Trier's choices in this movie, though, is how perfectly the plot merges into the genre to make both work better than they would otherwise. The story is rife with implausible coincidence and emotional manipulation so obvious that in another genre it would be insulting, but with the artifice of the musical laid over it it takes on the flavor of grand tragedy, a mythic quality to this suffering that Bjork expresses better through plaintive song than she ever could simply acting in front of a camera. It also puts a lot of actual plot emotion behind a genre that usually suffers in trying to feel genuine, turning a fun musical into a heartbreakingly whimsical look at human suffering. Neither part would work on their own, but together they make a genius sort of magic that can only exist in this particular, oft-neglected genre.
Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
Today's movie is one of those that I ended up picking up almost by accident. I have a rental account with Classicflix, which I'll link and plug but in no way am associated with (for the record). I found it when I was looking for a Netflix alternative, not to replace Netflix but to help augment it. As much as I like Netflix, their back catalog, especially when you get to actual old movies, is just this side of atrocious. They rarely pick up new home video releases of old movies, particularly the new trend for studios to release deep catalog stuff on print-on-demand DVDs.
Classicflix, however, counters this by selling and renting only movies made on or before 1970, with a real focus on the early decades. They're shockingly comprehensive, and also great about picking up Criterion Blu-Ray releases, something Netflix seems to mostly ignore. As if people want to watch old movies on Blu-Ray. What a crazy idea. Right? Ugh. Either way, I have a one-disk rental plan through them, and for $10 a month it's a solid deal if you're interested in obscure movies and get them watched/shipped quickly. They aren't nearly as fast as Netflix, to be fair, but as a smaller company I wouldn't expect them to be. Anyway, plug over.
What this intro mostly means is that I watched this movie not because of its status in the Criterion Collection, but mostly because I just wanted to get some noir on Blu on my TV and into my eyeballs, because black and white movies look amazing if you have good transfers. It's only when I popped in the movie and saw the familiar 3/4 circle logo that I realized that I can never escape this series. No matter how far I run, it'll pull me right back in again.
A seedy motel room. A woman swings at the camera, a man reels back from the blow. With no warning, we're in the middle of a war zone: the beautiful, half dressed Kelly (Constance Towers) beating the hell out of a man who begs her again and again to relent. In the struggle, he reaches for her, and pulls off her wig, revealing a shockingly bald head. When she knocks him to the ground, she reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wad of cash. She counts out an amount, says 'All I want is what's coming to me', and tosses the rest on top of the reeling body. She stops, composes herself, tugs her wig back into place, and walks out of the room.
The opening of Samuel Fuller's 1964 The Naked Kiss is a punch in the gut. It's a noir film made far after the genre had mostly wound down in film, and with a new era comes new sensibilities. There's not much kindness here, and little decorum. The things that are beautiful are often equally ugly or violent, and nothing is what it initially seems. From that initial scene, The Naked Kiss plants its feet as a movie aware of the tropes and ready to tell its story anyway, a film out of time, two decades too late but angrier due to the long hibernation.
The movie picks back up with Kelly some time later, coming into the idyllic small town of Grantville on the back of a bus. She seems smaller, less ferocious, dressed plainly and with her own head of hair. She parks herself on a bench and goes about her business, planning how to make money as she drifts from one town to another. Grantville isn't like the others, however, and the town sheriff Griff (Anthony Eisley) quickly spots her as an outsider and picks her up. Griff, the kind to assume first and trust later, identifies her quickly as a prostitute, and when confronted she admits that's what she used to be, but is trying to reform. Griff, seeing an opportunity, talks her into his bed to keep her out of trouble, and then afterwards points her towards the nearest brothel in the state next door.
Somewhere between the first scene and the scene we see now, however, something has changed in Kelly, and she seems to up and decide not to take his warning, but instead to prove him wrong and show him up for using her. The best way she knows how is to go legit, to stick around and become part of the town, so instead of skipping out on the next bus she gets a room and starts looking for a job in town, all while carefully avoiding the attentions of Griff until it's too late. Soon enough, she's working as a nurse at the local hospital, taking care of children, and by the time Griff realizes she never left it's too late. He can't out her without admitting the virtuous sheriff took advantage of her before she left, and she's already become a bit of a town darling, a bright, beautiful new woman of seemingly irreproachable virtue.
It's as she settles into this idyllic lifestyle that she meets and falls in love with J. L. Grant (Michael Dante), son of the man who founded the town, one of the most popular people in the community, and Griff's best friend. Kelly, wanting to believe that this fairy tale of a romance can work out, pressures Griff into not revealing her secret to J. L. Griff, believing that a woman like her could never be good enough for someone like J. L., insists that if she doesn't tell him by the time they get married that she will, and so she brings herself to tell him. Surprisingly, J. L. doesn't seem particularly bothered by it, and even insists that they go through with the wedding anyway, as he loves her despite her past deviance. All seems well, and Kelly and Griff even come to a sort of agreement to let their animosity go, as the wedding goes forward.
It's here that the movie has lulled us into a sense of domesticity, a weird idyllic romance and picturesque small town setting that, while not without its bumps, seems totally at odds with the opening scene. In fact, so much time has passed that when I was watching it, I had almost forgotten that was how the movie opened: not with her drifting into town but with a stridently unromantic look at her beating the hell out of a pimp to get her money. But good things never last forever, especially in noir, and this whole life is just a house of cards waiting for the lightest push to topple it over.
Shortly before the wedding, Kelly gets off work early one afternoon and heads over to Grant's house, letting herself in only to find that he's not alone. Grant, in his house, with a young girl from town. We never see what they're doing, but only Kelly's horrified face as she stands in the doorway, and the girl shyly skipping out of the house before Kelly can react. Before her surprise turns to anger, J. L. tries to circumvent it, pointing out that it shouldn't be any shock, that the reason he forgave her so easily was that he saw her as a kindred spirit, someone who had tastes and proclivities that the rest of the world couldn't hope to understand. As he professes his love, one deviant to another, she responds by grabbing the phone receiver and braining him, killing him with the force of her blow.
Griff, happy to arrest her for killing his best friend, locks her away. And suddenly, the whole town is against her, and all her protests as to what J. L. was doing fall on deaf ears. No girl has come forward to admit to being there, and it's just the word of an outsider woman with a mysterious past versus that of the most beloved son of Grantville. Not only is she under investigation, but quickly people start coming forward as character witnesses against her, friends turning under town pressure and people from her past (including the pimp she beat at the start of the film) finally catching up with her after so much time in one place. It's the flip side of this small town vision, the gossip and the fear of outsiders, the tendency to pave over the monsters at home in order to present a united front.
And really, this is where The Naked Kiss finally begins to shine. It's a noir that throws away much of what is held as obvious about the genre, the seedy cities and back alleys. Fuller's world is one where the real villains aren't trench-coated killers or gangsters, but smiling faces you see on the street every day. Injustice isn't meted out via a smoking gun, but the assumptions and attitudes of seemingly normal people who are quick to make judgments that can destroy lives. And the smartest way to subvert noir tropes is to take them all away and show that noir isn't about the elements, but about the tone. It's not about the stock characters or harsh lighting, it's about a world where danger lurks in familiar places and the only way things can go is bad, all the time. And in that respect, The Naked Kiss is a beautiful, perfect noir, the kind of subversion that could never have existed in the heyday of the genre, but smartly not revisionist or derisive of what came before. It's simply another brilliant entry, with a heart as black as night even in the quiet, brightly lit streets of small town America.
The Magnificent Seven is one of the most notorious American remakes in film history. An adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (a top contender for most film lists of the best movie ever made), it seems almost baffling looking back that taking that idea and totally Americanizing it not only worked, but created a great film in its own right. The Magnificent Seven was not only a success, but over the years has grown into a true action classic, a rogue's gallery of leading men who created such an indelible movie that it spun off into its own series of parodies and homages, as much as the original Seven Samurai.
It also, bafflingly, spawned three sequels of its own, with a rotating cast of characters (some playing the same roles) and creating a franchise out of a movie based on a movie where nearly everyone dies at the end. I was so delighted at the idea of there being four Magnificent Seven movies that I was inspired to create this project: A Series of Sevens, taking a look at all four movies, a descent down a dead end of Western adaptation and a nice, depressing look at how a surprise action classic gets exploited into a franchise. Don't think you have a monopoly on that, modern Hollywood!
Last time we got nice and comfortable with the first movie, a smart adaptation of an already great movie, an account of which you can find HERE. After that movie came out and hit it really big, the question became not if that would be capitalized on, but when and how. Surprisingly, it took six years for them to actually get around to it, and a change in location, subgenre, and even cast. But never doubt the determination of franchise film making, which can overcome even the most obvious divine intervention to bring you sequels long after you've stopped caring about the original concept in the first place.
In the small Mexican village in which the last film ended, a bunch of farmers work in the fields and go about their modest lives when they're interrupted by a threat from the wilderness. Dozens of gunmen pouring from the hills assault the town, capturing all of the men and dragging them off. Among the men in the town who try to fight back is Chico, former youngest member of the prior seven men who defended the town, torn from his young wife when he dares to pull a gun on the bandits and dragged out of town on the end of a lasso. The town, now populated only with women and children, don't have the manpower to farm and survive.
Chico's wife Petra, hoping to repeat past successes, rides to the nearest big town to find gunmen who she can hire to help reclaim the men and fight the abductors in order to restore peace to the town. Thankfully, she doesn't have to look hard, as she soon comes across Chris and Vin (the only other surviving members of the first group of seven), who have just met up again after years apart. Chris, being the noble guy he is, agrees to help assemble as many men as he can find in a single night in town, and at dawn set out with Petra to go rescue Chico. And thus the second not-quite-magnificent seven are created:
Chris (Yul Brynner): The only returning cast member, Chris is older and even more weary than before. Brynner dictated a lot of the casting choices in this movie, including the replacing of Steve McQueen as his co-star after the two famously didn't get along on set during the first movie. Also, apparently, Chris is a popular guy, as we'll soon see.
Vin (Robert Fuller): Chris' old gunslinging partner and friend, who seeks out Chris and finds him during a bull fight at the beginning of the movie. Vin claims to be a bounty hunter looking for Chris, but mostly just seems bored and ready for another adventure.
Frank (Claude Akins): the taciturn one, and an old friend of Chris', pulled from a jail cell by Chris after paying for his release.
Luis (Virgilio Teixeira): A famous bandit who Chris finds in the jail cell next to Frank. Chris arranges an escape with the guard, as Luis is too famous to release via bribe, and is scheduled for execution at daybreak.
Colbee (Warren Oates): A womanizer who Chris knows from way back, who literally falls in Chris' path during a gunfight with the husband of a woman he was bedding. He mostly follows Chris after Chris points out they're going to a town with no men (more on that later).
Manuel (Jordan Christopher): A young cockfighter who Chris recruits mostly for being compassionate in stopping a cockfight and getting beaten up for it. Manuel can't even speak English, and mostly becomes the Chico surrogate in this movie, the young kid who seems to get in the way as much as he helps.
And finally Chico (Julian Mateos replacing Horst Buchholz): the young gunfighter turned farmer who will supposedly round out the seven when they're able to release him from captivity and give him his gun back.
If that seems like a far lest interesting set of men, that's because it is. I mean, outside of Robert Fuller, there really isn't much more than an assembling of character actors and forgotten names here. But then, given the rest of the film, it's no surprise. I have no idea how much money went to Yul Brynner for him to be in this movie, but I assume it was a sizable amount, because they obviously didn't spend it on much else. This feels like a quick and dirty sequel, and coming six years later is pretty baffling, all things considered. By 1966 Westerns had changed, mostly falling out of favor aside from the spaghetti variety. Leone was already deep into the Dollars 'trilogy' when this movie was made.
It's no surprise then that The Return of the Seven is a Spanish production, with the mountains of Spain and locals filling the roles of Mexico and Mexicans. It's painfully obvious to anyone who has ever seen movies shot in Mexico and Spain that they do not stand in well for one another, and it's spaghetti roots show in nearly every shot, from the inappropriate mountain features to the European heritage of the locals. It's jarring, but in a fun sort of way, watching them try to make it pass and failing pretty spectacularly. Which is fine. Part of the charm of the spaghetti western as an aesthetic is how slightly-wrong everything looks, an imaginary American southwest via Europe that only exists on film.
Sadly, that's kind of the only good part about this movie, as the script is relentlessly uninspired and contrived. The same village attacked and people carried away? I thought they trained the farmers to fight, and had Chico there to help back them up? One night to gather the team? Good thing Chris seemingly knows everybody who has ever slung a gun, and they're all on good enough terms that even without the promise of pay they run off to likely die in a pointless battle. Hell, even the villain's motivations are stupid, as he turns out to be a rancher who is capturing slave labor to help rebuilt a desert village to memoralize the two sons who died there during a battle. There are two baffling parts to this, though: a) he seemingly knows and was once on good terms with Chris, who seems generally opposed to things like casual slavery and b) if he's rich enough to afford the tools and to hire 50 gunmen to enforce the labor, why didn't he just hire laborers? That'd be cheaper than guns, and he'd get better work out of them. Sadly, nobody asks him to defend his employment practices, though I would have liked to have heard the answer.
On the whole the entire script feels like a retread of the ideas that came before, lesser in imitation and less inspired in execution. The great series of routs from the first film becomes Chris & co. successfully driving the gunmen out of the constructed village and then defending it for no discernible reason. The training of the farmers from the first movie was apparently completely forgotten in six years, as they're all worthless and fearful and admit to as much before mostly disappearing. Even the climactic gunfight manages to be far worse for wear, taking place mostly in a single setpiece where the bad guys run in, everyone gets shot, and then someone starts throwing dynamite (one of the best, least used Western tropes, if you ask me) and blows up all the bad guys. There's just no narrative momentum to the whole thing, and it ends up feeling like a boring 10 minutes of gunfire because that's what happens at the end of a movie.
Most importantly, all the themes and messages are horrifically muddled. I went on at length last time about how I felt like The Magnificent Seven was an early examination of US foreign policy. Well, this movie seems to never even get that far, aside from the part where it's a retread of the first movie's plot, though it does feel incredibly imperialistic in exchange. The class issues that drive the villain (no matter how silly) are routed by the Americans who ride in not for money but because it's right, though even that isn't necessarily true. They ride in because one of their own is at risk, otherwise nobody would probably have lifted a finger. And even then it took Chris dangling vulnerable foreign women in front of one of his men to get them to agree. The first film went out of its way to establish that the original seven we're there to pillage or rape after the farmers tried to hide their women out of concern for the brutality of gunmen, but apparently six years is enough time to fall so far morally that Chris has changed his mind about why they're risking their lives.
It's no surprise that a sequel to The Magnificent Seven isn't very good, but it's amazing how spectacularly not good it is. It's boring, scatterbrained, and just plain lazy throughout most of its run time. There's always something to be enjoyed in the eternal cliche of building a team to go do a job, but that's the first half hour and after that you're treated to a third rate western that probably wouldn't even be remembered if not for the film that preceded it. I don't know how they managed to drag two more movies out of this premise after this, but I sure hope they're better than this one was, or this is going to be a damn depressing trip.