Tag Archives: 1966

CAPSULE: LORD LOVE A DUCK (1966)

DIRECTED BY: George Axelrod

FEATURING: Roddy McDowall, Tuesday Weld, , Lola Albright

PLOT: From his prison cell, preternaturally wise high schooler Alan Musgrave recounts his efforts to transform bubbly teenager Barbara Ann Greene into a star, as well as the insanity and destruction that trailed his efforts along the way.

Still from Lord Love a Duck (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Lord Love a Duck is an angry satire, casting aspersions on the modern obsessions of society alternately with a raised eyebrow and a hoarse scream. This can manifest in odd ways, from sarcastic jabs at timely fads to a blatant disregard for internal logic. It’s plenty strange, but at this point in our listmaking, the end product is ultimately too disjointed to work well, even on its own terms.

COMMENTS: Lord Love a Duck is the kind of movie that makes you pity marketing executives. Faced with a story that calls out America as a place of grotesque ambition and blithe idiocy, particularly in the form of its teenagers, the promoters clearly decided to lean into the thing that the movie purports to loathe, namely a wacky teen sex comedy. Which, to be clear, Lord Love a Duck is decidedly not.

How else to explain hiring George Axelrod, the screenwriter behind the acidic thriller The Manchurian Candidate, to transplant Al Hine’s novel about witless Iowans to that famed black hole of self-obsession, Hollywood? Axelrod wastes no time in savaging the misguided priorities of this society, starting with a high school that resembles a bank office tower and taking aim at every entity it can find. Basic school subjects are renamed to sound easy-going. The police are whiny and needy. The only movies this movie-drenched culture makes have the word “bikini” in the title. The local house of worship joyfully proclaims itself “The First Drive-In Church of Southern California” (a thinly-veiled swipe at the real-life progenitor of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral). Our world is morally bankrupt, this movie says. Look upon thy works and despair.

If this sounds more like a dark tragedy than a goofy farce, Lord Love a Duck‘s response is, “Why can’t it be both?” The film’s tone swings between extremes: the same motion picture that puts Barbara Ann and her estranged father in a taboo-teasing, orgasmic fantasy of fruit-themed cashmere sweaters has no problem turning around and watching the girl’s mother spiral downward into drinking and suicidal depression. This cinematic whiplash applies to characters, too: Martin West’s Bob, whom Barbara Ann will marry in a misguided burst of sexual desire, declines from sly allure to misplaced uprightness to outright blissful incompetence. (“He’s a total idiot,” says his own mother.) Lord Love a Duck is whatever movie it needs to be in the moment, logic or continuity be damned.

By all rights, this should be Barbara Ann’s movie, especially given Tuesday Weld’s powerhouse performance. We are given an early clue to her character when she tells Alan that she fears switching to a new high school will destroy her hard-won popularity and status: “Everybody has got to love me,” she pleads, both fierce and desperate, and without the obviousness that could easily accompany the line. But her character shows very little agency in feeding her insatiable lust. No, that all falls to Alan, who promises to fulfill her every desire, and schemes to deliver.

Which leads to the strange hole in the center of the movie: Alan, or as he alone calls himself, Mollymauk. What does it mean to cast 36-year old Roddy McDowall, with his lilting English accent and prissy demeanor, as the smartest kid in high school, conqueror of muscle-bound quarterbacks, outwitter of adults, and ostensible sole voice of reason in a vulgar world? (And why always white pants?) The cognitive dissonance of his casting is magnified by the utter vacancy of his character. Alan is impossible: plotting blackmail against the principal, installing himself as a resident in Ruth Gordon’s house, establishing “inadvertent” connections with Hollywood producers. He’s a walking deus ex machina, able to supply whatever is needed to advance Barabra Ann (and the plot) forward. And for what? He seeks no personal gain, gainsays his own confession, and even manages to go back and graduate high school after years’ worth of action has transpired. If we hadn’t seen him interact with others (and possibly murder four people), he might easily be mistaken for her Tyler Durden. As it stands, Alan is a cipher, the supporting character somehow sitting at the film’s center.

Some satires are missiles, homing in their targets with precision and righteous anger. Lord Love a Duck is a grenade, spraying shrapnel anywhere and everywhere it can reach. The rage is real, but impotent. The filmmakers want you to be as angry as they are at the state of this pop culture-obsessed world. And like Barbara Ann, who ends the movie with a fame of dubious quality and longevity, they have no idea what to do once they’ve gotten what they wanted.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Axelrod described it as a cross between Love Finds Andy Hardy and Dr. Strangelove, and while that’s apt, no soundbite can do justice to the scope and breadth of its warped vision…the film’s all-encompassing satire and comic density suggests he might have used up all of his ideas in one place. If so, he went out in a blaze of glory, with one of the weirdest, most brilliant teen movies ever made.” – Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club

(This movie was nominated for review by Joseph. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

KAPOW! ZLOPP! TOUCHE! THE BEST OF BATMAN (1966-1968), PART THREE

Begin your Bat-journey with Part 1.

Before resuming Season Two of “Batman”, we’ll cave into the crave of batmania with one of the biggest chunks of studio-backed cinematic cheese ever conceived: 1966’s Batman, the Movie. For years, this was the only Batman vehicle available on home video. Batmaniacs have reason to rejoice, because this gloriously dated, souped-up big screen treatment of the series is an “it has to be seen to believed” extravaganza. The hopelessly dippy plot and dialogue may throw off angsty fanboys, but it’s all about our merry villains: Lee Meriwether in her sole performance as Catwoman, as the Riddler, as the Penguin, Cesar Romero as the Joker,  and the most color-saturated array of (inflatable) henchmen in cinema. After the sexiest psychedelic credits you’ll probably ever see comes Batman infamously fending off a rubber shark with his “Bat-repellent Shark Spray.” That gag’s almost topped later with the “some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb” routine. It only gets loopier from there.

Among the toys on display is the Batcopter, Batboat, and Penguin submarine (with flippers!). Even cooler are the fight scenes. Here’s where the multi-hued henchman get to show their mettle, withstanding the dynamic duo while an arsenal of “Kapow, Zlopp, and Touche!”s fills the screen. Each of the four primary villains is at their maniacal best, and all take turns stealing their scenes. Watching Romero’s Joker today, his influence on is blatantly obvious. Of course, Gorshin (a tad underused) twitches with caffeine; there’s a reason he was the sole actor from the series nominated for an Emmy. Meredith’s Penguin is delightfully obnoxious, and Meriwether’s Catwoman is a walking pheromone . Meriwether is criminally underrated, but they’re all so damned animated that you don’t care one bit that their goal is to turn the United Nations into colored sand.

Still from Batman: The Movie (1966)If we weren’t so close to completing the List, I’d plead with the admin here to at least include Batman as a List Candidate. It’s a rarity in being both weird and absurdly entertaining. Like the series, it’s bound to be considered as blasphemy to modern-day Bat toddlers, who erroneously believe the darker version of the Caped Crusader is truer to the comics. Yes, it is: to the later comics from the likes of Neal Adams, Frank Miller, and Alan Moore. But Batman didn’t start that way. The comics of the 40s and 50s were pure camp. Originally, “Batman” series producer William Dozier planned to create something more serious, akin to “The Adventures of Superman,” but after reading the comics he went high camp instead. That is what the series, and movie bring to life in a way that has never been replicated with such energy and dated Continue reading KAPOW! ZLOPP! TOUCHE! THE BEST OF BATMAN (1966-1968), PART THREE

KAPOW! ZLOPP! TOUCHE! THE BEST OF “BATMAN” (1966-1968), PART TWO

Part 1 of the Bat-series.

On 30 , March 1966, ‘s Riddler returned for “Ring of Wax” (directed by James Clark, written by Jack Paritz and Bob Rodger). The local wax museum is supposed to be unveiling a wax figure of Batman. To the crowd’s horror, that loathsome lithe Riddler is on display instead, and up to his usual atrocious anarchy with a stupendous squirter, spewing crimson crud all over the Gotham gang. Of course, he leaves a pair of baffling riddles behind. In his cauldron of corruption, Riddler concocts a wax that burn its way through any vault in the world, sending him to the local library (!), where he is accompanied by a striped dayglo duo and a purple leather-clad villainess named Moth (Linda Gaye Scott). She’s one in a series of Gorshin’s increasingly bizarre disciples (in “A Riddle A Day,”  Riddler was followed by a girl who talks like a mouse and a trio of henchmen wearing a rainbow of primary colored hoodies, one of whom is the yellowed bug-eyed cheese munching stooge). The Riddler’s inexplicable entourage makes him all the more absurdly frightening. We get such a kick watching Gorshin’s bouncing, blithesome histrionics that the only disappointment is NOT getting to see him lay waste to the Dynamic Duo. However, he does get to stop them in place with “Dr. Riddler’s Instant Forever-Stick Invisible Wax Emulsion,” AKA spray-on superglue.  Escaping with a book on a lost treasure of the Incas, Riddler and his gang head back to their candle factory, where Batman and the Boy Wonder are tied up and lowered into an enormous cauldron. “Will Batman wax serious? For the sake of our heroes, let’s think positively!!! But it looks bad! Very bad! How can we wait until tomorrow night.. same bat-time… same bat-channel !!?”

Their escape in Part Two (“Give ’em the Axe”) is among the series’ most preposterous, and the battle with henchmen hits a garish high, all of which translates into camp delight. When Moth tries to flirt her way out of jail, Batman waxes chaste: “A moth that plays with fire is bound to be burned.” Needless to say, Gorshin owns both episodes.

“The Curse of Tut/Pharaoh’s in a Rut” (directed by Charles Rondeau, written by Robert Dennis and Earl Barret) aired on the 13th  and 14th of April, 1966. “A giant Sphinx is uttering demented threats in Gotham Central Park in a woman’s voice!” “Holy hieroglyphics, this might mean a battle royal” with King Tut (Victor Buono), of course. “Maybe this sphinx will give us a clue!” Tut surrounds himself with 1960s Egyptian babes (including Zoda Rodann as a coney dog eating Nefertiti) and henchmen (including busy character actor and B-Western regular Don Berry), whom Tut dismisses Continue reading KAPOW! ZLOPP! TOUCHE! THE BEST OF “BATMAN” (1966-1968), PART TWO

KAPOW! ZLOPP! TOUCHE! THE BEST OF “BATMAN” (1966-1968), PART ONE

It’s very simple: if you love “Batman” (1966-1968), starring Adam West, you’re in the cool kids club. If you don’t, you’re clueless and need to go away. Only freaks are allowed here.

“Batman” is still the yardstick by which all other live-action superheroes are to be judged. There has never been another series like it. I’ll go even further: it’s not only a genre and cult yardstick, but it’s a yardstick for television, period.

Before we catapult into the Batcave, I’ll share a few childhood memories, of which I’m damned proud. Adam West’s Batman and ‘ Superman  were the epitome of cool (I’ll never forgive for turning them into caped white trash and making them go commando). I caught Superman in syndication and already knew that Superman had blown his brains out. For me, that was part of his appeal. (I was a tad off-kilter. In my defense, Superman was a more appealing martyr than the Pentecostal Jesus). Admittedly, however, Superman had bland villains, and his second Lois Lane was too June Cleaver-Protestant boring.

Then came Adam West’ Batman. I caught the last season in its first-run, then caught up in syndication. Of course, the show was mass-marketed. Among the most cherished mementos was Batman trading cards, which I would often lose. They meant so much to me that my poor Dad would have to drive all the way downtown to buy me replacement cards from the only store that carried them. I found my true rainbow pot of batgold, however, through a wedding. My cousin was getting married and wanted me for a ring bearer. The last thing I wanted to do was climb into a tuxedo in front of a church crowd, but when she promised to buy me a Batman suit AND a Batmobile to pedal around the back porch on, I begged Dad to call the tuxedo shop immediately so I could be fitted. For Christmas, my brother asked for a children’s Bible (he was such a suck-up). In sharp contrast, I asked for, and received, a Batman View-Master set. With all those bat-toys, I was indisputably the coolest kid who ever lived.

“Atomic batteries to power! Turbines to speed!” “Roger. Ready to move out!”

Since I’m hard pressed to come up with a single non-enjoyable episode, a “Best of Batman” list is bit of an oxymoron, although of course there are standout episodes. This is really more an exercise in cherry picking highlights, because by the time I could finish covering the entire series, we might be heading into 366 Weird Movies, the Sequel. So, without further ado, I have to start with the pilot, which features Batman dancing in a disco.

Still from Batman "Hey Diddle Riddle" (1966)On 12, January, 1966  “Batman” premiered with “Hi Diddle Riddle” (directed by Robert Butler, written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr,) and, yes, that means… the Riddler () is our first dastardly criminal. He pranks the World’s Fair with an exploding cake and inspires Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) to dial the batphone. Alfred, the butler (Alan Napier) answers, and rescues Bruce Wayne Continue reading KAPOW! ZLOPP! TOUCHE! THE BEST OF “BATMAN” (1966-1968), PART ONE

ANDREI RUBLEV (1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (originally titled The Passion According to Andrei ) is a 1966 film about a painter whom we never see painting. Furthermore, it’s about a 15th century artist who we know very little about, not even the exact years of his birth and death. Only one existing painting, “The Trinity,” can be authenticated as being entirely painted by Rublev. Yes, Rublev is one of those uncouth religious painters: an iconographer. This is anathema here today—and, when it was made, most especially in his Russian homeland. Despite all that, Rublev is a painter of legendary status. As enigmatic as he is, a film about such a figure would seem to be a recipe for disaster. Someone forgot to advise Tarkovsky, because he not only produced the most substantive film to date about a historical painter, but also one of the most astonishing and vexing accomplishments in cinema.

Rublev, scripted by Andrey Konchalovskiy and Tarkovsky, had a “sky’s the limit” budget (the biggest Soviet budget since ). Its production swallowed up two years. Distribution proved to be an ideological purgatory, however, a politically complex and arduous endeavor. Along the way, it dawned on atheistic Soviet authorities that, as a film about a deeply religious painter directed by the starkly spiritual Tarkovsky, Rublev was an embarrassing reminder of Russia’s faith-contaminated past.

At a private screening, Moscow critics were incensed and demanded cuts. Tarkovsky conceded and trimmed the film from its original three-and-a-half hours to 186 minutes. Not satisfied, authorities demanded additional cuts, which Tarkovsky then refused. The film was cut without him, resulting in various running times, including  an 81 minute travesty. Still, not satisfied, producers sat on Rublev until 1969, when the Cannes Film Festival requested a screening. The USSR submitted the 186 minute cut and Rublev won the International Critics award, despite being pulled from the competition. Soviet authorities were enraged; Leonid Brezhnev stormed out of the showing. Unmoved by its critical accolades, bureaucrats kept Rublev shelved until 1971, when it became a critical and box office success in its homeland.

Andrei Rublev is more of an iconographic than a biographical essay, focusing on a spiritual and artistic struggle, which might be seen as an icon of  sorts for Tarkovsky himself. One is unlikely to encounter a more idiosyncratic and desultory odyssey in cinema. There is a quality about it that could be likened to the inflamed mysticism of Antonin Artaud. Tarkovsky’s mastery is in ample evidence from the enigmatic, tenebrous prologue; attempting to mount a hot-air balloon, a medieval daredevil provokes peasants who woozily chase after him, only to see his endeavor utterly fail when it crashes to the earth below. Cinematographer Vadim Yusov had his work cut out for him. He unquestionably triumphs when his cherubic camera pursues Heaven’s would-be gate crasher in a serpentine take.

The remainder of the film is grounded; and oh, is it grounded. Tarkovsky himself referred to it as a “film of the earth.” Unflinchingly brutal and oppressive, disheartening, experimental, bleak, saturated with nudity and bloodshed, it’s paradoxically intimate and epic; feverish and spiritually crepuscular; chaotic, and austere in its expansive silences; sublime in its depiction of sensual elements (mists, panoramic landscapes, rivers, the fire of candles, torches, and Rublev’s smoldering robe) and factitious symbols (bells, a white church, ladders, crucifixes). The film is equally haunting in its chimerical potpourri of beasts (the decaying corpse of a swan, snakes, birds, cats, geese, a herd of reindeer, and a striking black mare) and visually distressing sights (the pleating of a dead woman’s hair, unfathomable carnage, and extreme closeups of weathered Slavic faces).

Still from Andrei Rublev (1966)When the ethereal Andrei Rublev () remains true to the purity of his art by rejecting a commissioned “Last Judgment,” he virtually dismantles his career and embarks upon a haphazard journey, accompanied by two monks. Along the way, we see the sufferings of peasants (in a memorable scene, a jester is manhandled) and exotic, undiluted paganism (the queerly ritualistic Saint John’s Eve) met with startling, heart-breaking violence.

Rublev’s journey is authentic, deprived of a destination, and largely plays out under an umbrella of the artist’s vow of silence, rendering Tarkovsky’s opus not so much a film as a poem scrawled through the ashes of a dilapidated fresco.

ORSON WELLES’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966)

For fifty years, Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1966) was locked in various disputes over ownership, and was only sporadically seen in wretched prints. It was talked and written about so much that inevitably seeing it (as I did in Chicago in the 90s) amounted to an ordeal. With both poor visual and audio, it was unquestionably a disappointment. Thankfully, Janus Films came to a long overdue rescue in 2015.

The restoration (available on the Criterion Collection) is miraculous, revealing one of Welles’ most astonishing, loving creations. While F for Fake was Welles’ final finished film, Chimes at Midnight is his final completed narrative feature—one that he never could have topped. The character of Falstaff inspired Welles to heights previously unreached (as it did Giuseppe Verdi). Chimes is his most personal and finest foray into Shakespearean terrain. While you’re watching it, you feel he’s peerless. Despite an epic struggle to finish the production, Welles’ direction is assured, but it’s as an actor that he soars in a tour de force performance. Welles himself cited as his best work, fulfilling a lifelong ambition to play Falstaff on film. One is inclined to agree. Welles had first played the part in a high school play that was ambitiously intended to be three hours long. Predictably, the school demanded cuts, forcing him to compromise (it wouldn’t be the last time). He played the part again in the late 1930s and in 1960, although both productions were short-lived financial failures.

Welles’ The Chimes at Midnight screenplay draws a linear chronological portrait of John Falstaff from the plays “Henry IV,” “Henry V,” “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and “Richard III,” with Ralph Richardson’s narration taken from Raphael Holinshed’s “Chronicles.”

Like almost all of Welles’ later films, it was made under ragged conditions. The director was able to obtain meager financing by telling a bold faced lie (see F For Fake) to producer Emiliano Piedra, promising to direct and act in a version of “Treasure Island” in exchange. Welles had no intention of keeping that promise,  which Piedra eventually discovered, complicating the production (it took two years to complete). Despite budgetary struggles, Welles produced a final masterpiece. Only Welles could do so much with so little, crafting a chiaroscuro landscape with an epic ferociously bleak battle scene that can rank with the likes of Kurosawa.

Still from Chimes at Midnight (1965)With his girth and advanced age now a plus, Welles is physically perfect for the role, but the character of a lush, rogue anecdotist on the verge of become a train wreck parody is also close to the actor’s heart.  He doesn’t play Falstaff too broadly (comedy was never Welles’ medium), and there is a touch of smallness in the distended knight living beyond his means. Art imitating life, as far as Welles was concerned. Almost equally fine is ‘s performance as the draconian Henry and (most disturbingly) as the prostitute Doll Tearsheet.

As fine as Laurence Olivier was as Hamlet, Henry, and Richard, there was always a feeling of Shakespeare being too easy for him. The (considerably budgeted) productions went smoothly. One never comes away from Olivier’s Shakespeare with a sense of the artist and the production having grappled with the literary source.  Quintessentially professional, Olivier, like the Berlin Philharmonic conductor , is well-rehearsed in the art of reinterpretation. What makes Chimes at Midnight unique among the great cinematic Shakespeares is that which some critics initially complained of in it. Welles, like Leonard Bernstein, transforms interpretation into a sweaty brawl. In doing so, the director’s idiosyncrasies, or rather personality, is so imposed that it transforms  the work into a bona fide personal manifesto: lusty, often approaching a bacchanal.  It speaks volumes that Olivier, unlike Welles, was an Academy favorite. Yet Welles is as fearless and assured with the text as the more acclaimed examples of Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.

Put Chimes at Midnight at the top of your Shakespeare to do list. You won’t even have to wait a half century to see it as it should be seen.

1966 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: NIGHTMARE CASTLE AND THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z

Coming soon…

“Thunderbird International Pictures Presents The Death Curse of Tartu, a legend black with evil and red with the blood of innocent youth!!! Photographed in the forbidding depths of the Florida Everglades, this is the incredible story of an archeological excursion, planned as an educational attraction and ending as a blood-spattered nightmare!!! Cold and slimy creatures without mercy hunt and kill, controlled by the soul of a rotting corpse. They danced over the grave of Tartu who was restless in his coffin and made passionate love on his burial ground until … they faced the terrible reality of The Death Curse of Tartu! Was it really a killer shark in the swamp waters? Or  was it… Tartu, who had sworn vengeance on all who disturbed his grave?  See the bloody massacre of terrified youngsters as Tartu, the witch doctor, returns to wreak vengeance. See The Death Curse of Tartu, coming soon to this theater.”

And…

“Famous characters of the fairy tale world together for the first time. It’s all new when K. Gordon Murray presents Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters. See the Wicked Witch and all her bad guys. Bad guys? Mr. Hurricane! The Robot! Carrot Head and the Siamese Twins: two-in one. Frankensteen. A giant spectacle in color with a story that children and grownups will never forget.  Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters! 

Our Feature Presentation!

Nightmare Castle (directed by Mario Caiano) rarely makes best-of films lists, with even the star herself seemingly holding it in low esteem. Although a pastiche of Steele’s earlier work, Nightmare Castle is entertainingly tailored to the actress’ idiosyncratic screen persona and remains one of the better-filmed opuses in her oeuvre. As in ‘s Black Sunday (1960), Steele is cast in dual roles, one of which is a revenge-seeking disfigured ghost (hence its alternative title, The Faceless Monster).

Still from Nightmare Castle (1966)Its virtues are hardly found in the narrative about a sadistic husband (Paul Muller) who tortures and kills his unfaithful wife (Steele) along with her lover (Rik Battaglia), then marries her mentally unstable sister to get the inheritance. Exquisite cinematography (Enzo Borboni), a top-rate dissonant score (Ennio Morricone), Steele at her her most beguiling, and Caiano’s attention to detail renders the plot secondary. Almost surrealistic in parts (one scene clearly was a major influence on 1998’s Ringu), Nightmare Castle is shockingly sadistic and misogynistic (Battaglia loses an eye in an unsettling torture scene, and Steele gets acid to the face, followed by an  S &M electrocution). It’s also visually and musically memorable, and yet another director with a Steele fetish allows the star to sear. Unfortunately, the dubbing is poor, but the valuable Blu-ray from Severin Films is a considerable improvement over previous releases. Among its extra features are complete versions of the Steele-starring films Castle of Blood (1964) and Terror Creatures from the Grave (1965).

Good evening. It’s intermission time.

“Flavos: the delicious, oriental treat that’s out of this world for taste-tempting goodness. Light and delicious, full of tender, juicy fresh shrimp meat. America’s favorite shrimp roll. You’ll say they’re shrimply delicious.”

“Free for our patrons… Men, women, boys, girls…through the cooperation of Leading Business Places …You may now have free admission to this theater. Ask for DividenTickets  when you shop at Nelson’s Liquor Mart. Hywy 51 North of Bridge. Tomahawk’s Largest & Finest.”

“See you in CHURCH Sunday! When you attend church, it’s not an ordinary act. It is something worthwhile. When you attend church, you come to GOD’S house to adore, worship and praise. See you in CHURCH Sunday!”

“It’s Showtime.”

1966 may very well be among the most shocking years in the entirety of cinema. It’s the year that actually made a relatively good film with The Diabolical Dr. Z (so maybe there’s hope for yet). Perhaps Alejandro Ulloa’s lensing inspired Franco to move beyond his typical laziness. The titlur mad doctor (Antonio Jimenez) actually gets bumped off early in the film, leaving his daughter (Mabel Karr) to take up a doctoral course in revenge. She gets a bit of help from Miss Death (Estella Blain) at the local jazz club, which naturally means a typical Franco jazz score (by Daniel White, who makes a cameo, along with Franco himself). There is one theory that Franco merely made films to show off his love of jazz, and in many cases that may be factual, but here it’s icing on a cake with macabre set pieces (including an arachnid stage show), kinky mannequins, a doomed sexpot hitchhiker, a hillside strangler, and an off-the-charts fisticuffs finale in a decadent castle. What more could you ask of the prolific hack? He deserves a break today with The Diabolical Dr. Z.

“Please remember to replace the speaker and heater when you leave the theater.”

This review, including the drive-in bumpers, refers to the (currently out-of-print) double-feature DVD from Sinister Cinema.

CAPSULE: TOKYO DRIFTER (1966)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Tetsuya Watari, Tamio Kawaji, Ryuji Kita, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani

PLOT: Tetsu tries to quit the yakuza life after his boss goes straight, but a rival gang leader wants the building they own—and Tetsu’s life.

Still from Tokyo Drifter (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a rare case of a movie being screened out by competition from its own maker. Had Seijun Suzuki never made Branded to Kill, Tokyo Drifter just might stand as the most unusual yakuza picture ever made (at least, until arrived on the scene). But Suzuki took his deconstruction of the genre so much farther the very next year that Tokyo Drifter, while a stunning visual achievement, seems conventional in Branded‘s wake. Unfair to Drifter, which should stand alone on its own strange merits? Perhaps, but these two films, made (almost) back-to-back and leading to Suzuki being blackballed from the Japanese film industry for genre rebellion, will always be linked together in film history—and Branded to Kill will always be remembered as “the weird one.” You are still advised to watch them both.

COMMENTS: A movie so cool they ripped off its title for a Fast and Furious installment, Tokyo Drifter is an exercise in pure style. Seijun Suzuki, bored with the generic gangster scripts Nikkatsu Studios kept giving him as a B-director, amuses himself with outlandish set pieces while deconstructing the genre before our very eyes. The plot is a standard tale of loyalty and betrayal, merely an outline for Suzuki to hang his experiments on. Scenes are clipped—for example, how does Tetsu appear in the driver’s seat of the kidnappers car, other than by magic? How is his showdown on the train tracks resolved? We never see him actually escape. How does he evade certain death time and time again, with Viper showing up each time to drive him to his next drifting destination? It all makes sense, but only mythologically. Tetsu is a heroic archetype, a chosen one, undefeatable but cursed to wander forever without satisfaction. Suzuki simply chooses to cut out a lot of inessential exposition and get right to the cool stuff. He gives us the elements of the myth without bothering with the logistics.

Whereas the followup film, Branded to Kill, is a record of haunted  characters and obsessive themes, Tokyo Drifter is a thrill ride of stylish moments. The film is suffused with comic book colors and Pop Art sensibilities, and magnificent sets inspired equally by German Expressionism and Surrealism. The prologue mixes black and white with color sequences (and one shot incorporating both color and monochrome). Tetsu is seldom caught without his stylish powder-blue suit, which remains unrumpled no matter how many tussles he gets into. His gun blazes with a bright pink muzzle flash. The soundtrack is cool, Bond-ish spy-jazz, with a “drifter” theme song for Tetsu (performed as a torch song by his chanteuse moll, and whistled by Tetsu to announce his presence). Tetsu’s is a world of alleyways of full of jazz bars advertising their disreputable wares with garish neon signs. In an Old West-themed saloon in a U.S. Navy town, he gets caught up in a brawl that turns into havoc-laced slapstick straight out of a Mel Brooks movie. What you’ll probably remember best are the sets: Kurata’s office, which has Roman frescoes on one wall, and an abstract red and white light sculpture on the opposite wall. Even more impressive is the Club Aires cabaret, where the wild finale happens. It features an Expressionist door mounted atop a staircase and a sculpture of a slender, Dali-esque figure hoisting a giant doughnut above his head. At night it’s a complete black void, except for a spotlight, a glowing white piano, and a glowing red torus. Drifter may not have made bank, but Tokyo Drift wishes it could be a fraction as groovy as its swinging forebear.

The Criterion Collection disc (DVD or Blu-ray) includes two Suzuki interviews and the original Japanese trailer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…kitted out with plot ellipses, bizarre sets and colour effects, inappropriate songs, absurd irrelevancies (nice hair-drier gags!), action scenes that verge on the abstract, and some visual jokes tottering precariously between slapstick and surrealism.”–Geoff Andrews, Time Out London

1966 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK, THE REPTILE, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES

The 1966 horror, science fiction, and exploitation slate may be most infamous for what many claim is the worst film of all time: Manos: The Hands of Fate. It’s also the year that made her last Italian Gothic, An Angel for Satan (which we’ll cover later in a Steele retrospective). William “One-Shot” Beaudine was responsible for back-to-back western horrors: Billy The Kid Meets Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Michael Hoey banked on Marilyn-imitator Mamie Van Doren to lift Navy vs. The Night Monsters (it didn’t work) while and made futile attempts to salvage films started by others: Queen of Blood and The She-Beast, respectively. Hy Averback tooted his horror horn to warn us of hooked killer Patrick O’Neil in Chamber of  Horrors and Freddie Francis had us screaming about Deadly Bees. Considerably better was ‘s Kill, Baby Kill. It was and Hammer-related films, however, that owned the year’s genre product.

officially resurrected the Count in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, with and Barbara Shelley trading saliva in Anthony Hinds’ screenplay (written under his usual pseudonym John Elder). Fisher jumped ship and headed to Universal (momentarily) for Island of Terror, starring Lee and , but directed with little enthusiasm.

Lee, Shelly, and Hinds teamed again that same year for Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk, which is effective trash as only Hammer could deliver. Hinds’ previous writing credits include Brides of Dracula (1960), Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and Kiss of the Vampire (1963). 1966 was a busy year for him, having also scripted The Reptile (see below). Hinds continued writing for Hammer up until their cult TV series, “Hammer House Of Horrors” (1980).

Still from Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966)The leftover sets from Prince of Darkness must have affected Lee because he delivers one of his best performance as Rasputin. He is perfectly cast. The film  opens moodily in a pub with a local doctor departing after having dismissed any chances of survival for the innkeeper’s wife. Moments later, Rasputin enters, put his hands on the ill woman and, through the intensity of his look alone, immediately heals her. Now a hero of sorts, Rasputin engages in drunken song and dance with the locals and takes off to have his way with the innkeeper’s daughter in the barn. Interrupted by the girl’s fiancée, Rasputin cuts off the poor man’s hand. When the locals turn into an angry mob, Rasputin escapes via horseback and returns to his monastery. Shocked to discover that Rasputin is a monk, the locals take their grievances to the bishop. As defiant as ever, Continue reading 1966 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK, THE REPTILE, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES

CAPSULE: MODESTY BLAISE (1966)

DIRECTED BY: Joseph Losey

FEATURING: , , Dirk Bogarde, Clive Revell, Harry Andrews, Rossella Falk, Michael Craig

PLOT:  Master thief Modesty Blaise and her associate, Willy Garvin, are enlisted by the British Government to protect a diamond shipment to a Middle Eastern sheik from a heist ring overseen by Master Criminal Gabriel.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It certainly is strange, even for a comic book film, but in very much the spirit of its time.

COMMENTS: The current craze of adapting comic-book characters for the screen isn’t just a recent phenomenon. It’s only the consistent box-office success that’s relatively new. But, as Modesty Blaise proves, satisfying the preexisting fan base has ALWAYS been the fly in the ointment.

Purist fans of the British “Modesty Blaise” strip (which at the time was more known internationally than in the U.S., and still is) have long complained that the film doesn’t truly represent the source material. Not being familiar with the strip, I’ll leave it to those with more knowledge of the character to make those criticisms. What is evident, from what can be seen onscreen, is that director Losey, previously known for dramas such as The Servant and These Are the Damned, was going POP in the largest way possible.

The photography (by Jack Hilyard) and design (by Richard MacDonald and art director Jack Shampan) take precedence over anything else in the movie. In retrospect, that might not have been an altogether bad thing. The script—by Evan Jones, based on an original story and script by “Modesty” creator Peter O’Donnell and an uncredited pass by Harold Pinter(!)—appears to be a mess, though the flaw may be in its execution.

The 60’s Pop-art fascination with the comics had its basis in camp. Losey’s approach is no different, going for an arch, self-aware tone, most blatantly during a scene where Modesty, while searching a friend’s apartment, comes across her own comic strip. The movie’s Modesty also can change her wardrobe and hair color at the snap of a finger. Camp also explains the (horribly sung) duets she and Willie have at two points in the film, the last during the final confrontation with the bad guys. The camp isn’t quite as broad as what would soon be seen on television’s “Batman” series; Losey’s approach is more intellectual and narrow, as if channeling  directing a comic book spy film.

The main complaint about the film from purists is Monica Vitti, who in no way resembles the character as drawn. For the film, however, she’s more than perfect, bringing with her the ennui from her roles for Antonioni. Terence Stamp does a serviceable job in his role, basically a pretty boy-toy. The supporting cast (Clive Revell, Harry Andrews) is good, but it’s Dirk Bogarde who runs away with the film as the villainous but fey Gabriel, followed closely by Rossella Falk as his sadistic wife (and beard), Mrs. Fothergill.

Modesty Blaise is not an especially good a comic adaptation, or very weird. Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik both hew closer to their sources and go even more over the top. As an example of mid-60’s cinema Pop Art, however, it is good on its own terms.

DVD INFO: In 2002, Fox released a DVD that was fairly decent at the time—widescreen and anamorphic, although there were no extras. This past summer (2016) brought a Blu-ray upgrade from Kino-Lorber. It includes a commentary by film historian David Del Valle and director Armand Mastroianni which is entertaining—although Del Valle mistakenly credits camera operator Gerry Fisher as the DP. Also in the release are featurettes with first assistant director (and Joseph Losey’s son) Gavrik Losey; writer Evan Jones; and assistant art director Norman Doane. An image gallery and a trailer round out the special features.