Movies Till Dawn: A Month of Mayhem, Week 1

12 a.m. – “Fantômas” – Action-Adventure/Thriller

1337(1913-14, Kino Lorber) Delirious quintet of silent French cliffhanger serials featuring the title character, an urbane but psychotic master criminal with a penchant for elaborate disguise and gruesome murder. Based on a popular series of more than 40 pulp novels (one per month were released between 1911 and 1913), the five serials detail a series of daring and often violent crimes carried out by the mysterious Fantômas (Rene Navarre) for no apparent reason than his own amusement. Opposing him is the seemingly no-nonsense police inspector Juve (Edmond Breon), who grows more obsessed with bringing the villain to justice after each daring escape. Viewers whose previous exposure to serials has been relegated to clunky American superhero stories will find that “Fantômas” moves at breakneck speed: though director Louis (“Les Vampires”) Feuillade’s camera is often rooted in what might be described as a proscenium view (as was the style of the period), his frames are bursting with energy and movement, from train wrecks and waterfront shootouts to an extraordinary escape set piece in which Fantômas escapes a booby-trapped house by means of a modified wine bottle (quelle French!) before the building is blown to smithereens. The serials are also exceptionally dark for escapist fare; Fantômas himself sets the tone with his “Man in Black” costume – black executioner’s hood, black clothes, black gloves – and over the course of the five films, we’re treated to such sights as a corpse serving as the clapper for a church bell, Juve in a fight to the death with a boa constrictor, and Fantômas using the skin of a dead man’s hand as a glove (!) to fool the police. The “Fantomas” novels have been adapted for films and television numerous times, most notably a Pop Art-styled trilogy in the mid-1960s with Jean Marais in the title role, and the character of Fantomas has influenced virtually every criminal mastermind or psychopathic genius who followed in his wake, from Feuillade’s own Judex to Dr. Mabuse, nearly every Bond villain and even Jigsaw from the “Saw” franchise. But it’s the Feuillade films that preserve “Fantomas” at his wildest, and Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray presents a stunning 4K restoration with only minimal wear (for a film series celebrating its centennial) and a new score culled from the Sonimage library that’s worthy of a separate release. Historian David Kalat presents two expert commentary tracks that delve deeply into the history of Fantomas and the enduring influence of the films; a 10-minute biography of Feuillade, who directed more than 600 films during his lifetime, two of his short films (1910’s “The Nativity” and 1912’s “The Dwarf”) and a gallery of Fantomas book covers round out this terrific set.

1 a.m. – “Murder, My Sweet” – Crime Drama/Thriller

81v5iyewOrL._SL1500_(1944, Warner Archives Collection) Edward Dmytryk’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel “Farewell, My Lovely” is not only the one of the most faithful translations of the crime writer’s work to film, but also a cornerstone in both the development of film noir and the screen persona of the world-weary private detective. Former song-and-dance man Dick Powell was an unlikely choice to play Philip Marlowe, but he embodies the character as written by Chandler – smart aleck, reflective loner, hard drinker, nobody’s fool – more succinctly than the better-known turn by Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep” or most other interpretations (though Powers Boothe came close in the ’80s HBO series “Philip Marlowe, Private Eye”). Powell’s take on Marlowe also provides a trustworthy guide through the film’s labyrinthine plot, which begins with a search for the missing girlfriend of hulking lug Mike Mazurki and leads to a missing jade necklace, a malevolent fake psychic (Otto Kruger) and the slinky, predatory Claire Trevor at the dark heart of the whole affair. If the plot sounds familiar, even well-worn, keep in mind that “Murder, My Sweet,” along with “Double Indemnity” and “The Big Sleep,” have been aped, for better or worse, by next half-century-plus of crime films, television and even novels; while dangerous dames, two-fisted palookas and double- and triple-crosses were part of crime fiction from its earliest days, “Murder, My Sweet” helped to coalesce the elements into a stylish and entertaining whole that would serve as the template for the screen detectives that followed. A wealth of lesser antecedents has rendered tropes like the cynical voice-over as near-parodies, but here, Powell’s narration and John Paxton’s crisp dialogue play like the real deal – because they are. Warner Archives’s Blu-ray is near flawless, preserving the deep blacks in Harry J. Wild’s cinematography and enhancing its visual standout moments, most notably a surreal, drug-induced hallucination. It also ports over the scholarly commentary by noir historian Alain Silver and a theatrical trailer, both of which were featured on the 2004 Warner Bros. DVD release.

2:30 a.m. – “Kansas City Confidential” – Crime Drama/Thriller

81wW1es27qL._SL1500_(1952, Film Detective) The doom-laden philosophy of noir is encapsulated in this brutal low-budget heist drama. John Payne (who, like Dick Powell, was transitioning from light musicals to grittier dramatic roles) is a former Army hero and ex-con whose delivery route happens to cross paths with a bank robbery carried out by three masked men. Payne is fingered for the crime and put through the ringer by the Kansas City police, which costs him his job and what little self-esteem he had left; with literally nothing to lose, he takes a tip from the local mob and heads to Mexico, where he falls in with the three goons responsible for the robbery – played by Bad Guy Hall of Famers Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand – in the hopes of finding their boss the man who ruined his life. As is often the case in noir, things are not as they seem and do not go according to plans: everyone involved in the heist, from Payne and the plug-ugly trio to the brains behind the operation (fist-faced Preston Foster), is motivated by desperation, by the need to launch one last-ditch attempt to save their own skins before cruel fate grinds them into the dirt. Marking everyone in the picture as a victim lends depth to the characters and pathos to their predicaments – even stone-faced killers like Brand – and elevate “Kansas City” beyond the limits of its budget and pulpy script (co-written by Harry Essex, who would write “It Came from Outer Space” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” later the same decade). Director Phil Karlson displayed an aptitude for depicting the uglier side of human behavior in dozens of films, including “99 River Street,” which he made with Payne and producer Edward Small the following year, and such equally gritty features as “Scandal Sheet,” “The Brothers Rico” and the original “Walking Tall.” Film Detective’s Blu-ray is a vast improvement over countless other public domain releases, and puts a shine on the grime captured by veteran cinematographer George Diskant (“They Live By Night,” “Narrow Margin”).

4:00 a.m. – “Jack’s Back” – Thriller

product_images_modal_JBCover72dpi__7B26953151-0777-4c1a-8457-b17d5a72e164_7D(1988, Scream Factory) James Spader’s dual turn as a saintly doctor and his edgier twin brother helps to sell this psycho-thriller about a killer repeating the bloody spree of Jack the Ripper in Los Angeles on the 100th anniversary of the crimes. Though much of what transpires in Rowdy (“Road House”) Herrington’s debut as writer/director is well-worn crime movie tropes – twitchy psychiatrist, gentle giant red herring, tough police sergeant spurring his team to “bring this maggot in!” – he also understands how to make them work to his advantage, most notably in a neat double twist that upends audience expectations about two very well-worn plot mechanisms. He also brings a lot of studio picture-grade atmosphere to his low-budget project (credit goes to cinematographer Shelly Johnson, who makes the most of those ‘80s photographic staples, atmospheric smoke and shafts of manufactured light), and makes excellent use of the Echo Park and downtown L.A. locations. But the film’s biggest trump card is Spader in his first turn as leading man. Having made the most of minor and supporting roles as cold-blooded upwardly mobile types in “Pretty in Pink” and “Less Than Zero,” Spader clearly relishes the opportunity to play outside his assigned box, and here lays much of the groundwork for the unsettling-but-magnetic persona that has defined his screen presence for the past two-plus decades. The supporting cast features several other underrated players, like Cynthia Gibb and Chris Mulkey, but “Jack’s Back” is Spader’s show, and he’s the main reason to view this film. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray DVD includes informative commentary by Herrington, who discusses his modest intention for the film – he wanted it to play like a tall tale told over beers – and working with Spader (this would be their first of three projects together), and a making-of featurette with Johnson, Gibb and producer Tim Moore.

530 a.m. – “Welcome to Leith” – Documentary

welcometoleith_flat(2015, First Run Features) It’s tempting to draw parallels between the subjects of this documentary feature – American extremists who take over part of a remote, rural town against the wishes of its residents – and recent events in Oregon, but the film’s antagonists, as it were, represent a much more sinister faction of anti-government belief than Ammon Bundy and his followers. But as with the conflict at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the clash between white supremacist Craig Cobb and the 24 individuals who call Leith, North Dakota home is not a clear-cut case of good against evil. Cobb, who comes to Leith to buy property for a proposed homebase for white supremacists, is a monstrous individual, to be sure, and his tactics for establishing his domain – armed patrols, neo-Nazi propaganda – are the stuff of nightmares. But the savvy Cobb also knows that his actions and behavior all fall within the limits of the First Amendment, which backs the townspeople into a corner with few legal options to protect their homes. Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, who learned about Cobb from a “New York Times” piece (it’s included on the disc) and financed their film largely from their own pockets, fashion the events in “Welcome to Leith” like a thriller, with ominous tones on the soundtrack and images fraught with potential danger – Cobb and his men walking their property with shotguns in hand – but as with the refuge standoff, the climax of the fight is less cinematic, save for one (literally) combustive moment. There are issues of rights, of ownership and home, on both sides at hand, making for a far more complex debate than can be summed up by (most) dramatic interpretations, and if the film’s conclusion feels like a bit elliptical, that’s because issues like there never seem to be fully resolved off-screen as well. Clear-cut winners in life are harder to come by. The DVD includes extended and deleted scenes, as well as an interview with Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which initially brought Cobb’s scheme to national attention. 

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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