Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Godzember, 2019: The Show Era (1954 -- 1975), Volume III

Here's where I watched "Invasion of Astro-Monster" (1965), "Ebirah, Horror of the Deep" aka "Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster (1966).  Also, here's where to my great relief these pictures began to distinguish themselves enough from one another that I could begin to enjoy each one on its own terms.

Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)
Director:  Ishiro Honda
Length: 94 minutes

kaiju appearances (other than, well, you know)
King Ghidora

I'll be honest, when I read the plot synopses for this one I was a little concerned when I saw that Rodan and Ghidora were, once again, making an appearance here.  My concerns were immediately assuaged when I realized this was a throw-back science fiction film to things like "War of the Worlds" or "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" or...basically any of those 50s red scare type of science fiction films.  Also, this is a co-production with Toho and an American studio so I was able to watch the dubbed version.  Of course I watched the dubbed version with the subtitles on so I could see how far off the dubbing was.  This contributed to what was already an immensely enjoyable picture.  Here's an example, occurring late in the film when a character is discussing the chances of Earth not being enslaved by aliens:

dubbed:  the odds are long
subtitle:  our chances are so-so

So, that's like going from "I, for one, welcome our new Alien overlords" to "I don't know, guy, more of the same...whatever...meh".  

The picture opens with a couple of astronauts on a space mission out to mysterious Planet X.  This is a newly discovered planet hidden behind Jupiter.  Apparently it's been the source of some electromagnetic disturbances that have been messing with Earth's orbital path.  I made that last part up, I think.  I'm not sure what it was disrupting exactly but whatever it was it was worth the trillion dollar expedition.  Aboard the ship are, like I said, a couple of astronauts.  We got Glenn (an American) and Fuji (uh....Japanese, I'm assuming).  Fuji's a total asshole throughout the movie but he's the good kind of asshole.  Glenn is predictably brash, cocky, blonde...a bit old looking.  Fuji speaks to Mission Control and makes them give a message to his sister that she'd better behave.  Essentially, his message is she better not bang the inventor she's been dating.  The inventor comes into play later.  So these two fucking asshole astronauts (that I kinda like) make their way to Planet X, land their rocket ship (the science in this film is hilarious, I mean, I don't know a lot but if there's one thing I know it's that you can't land a rocket ship -- you need a lander, right, right?).  So, Glenn immediately disappears on the surface while Fuji is busy planting an amalgamation of the Japanese and American flag.  Stunned by the disappearance of Glenn and, oh, also the rocket ship, Fuji is even more stunned by the disembodied voice that instructs him to get into the elevator that strangely just came up from beneath the surface.  Fuji hems and haws, ultimately relents.  

Beneath the surface he comes into an underground fortress type situation.  Maybe the recent picture "Ad Astra" lifted some of the visuals from this picture.  Within this fortress he's led to a control room where Fuji encounters some aliens, look Japanese, called Xliens for the duration of the picture.  Their leader, named Control, offers them a proposition.  Destroy Monster 00 and they'll reward the people of Earth with a miracle cure for every disease that has ever existed.  Monster 00 is the reason they have to live underground.  Every hour or so he flies around destroying the surface.  Also, Monster Zero is Ghidorah.  I guess that's where he flew to at the end of the last picture.

Well Fuji and Glenn (now reunited) have to wonder what the fuck can we do about that thing.  The plan, outlandish as it is, is to give the Xliens permission (they weirdly need permission) to transport Godzilla (known on Planet X as Monster 01) and Rodan (Monster 02) to Planet X so they can fight Monster 00 (Ghidorah).  Still with me.  After some debate, they tentatively agree, but also have to go back to Earth where that agreement can be made official.  The Xliens agree!  What can go wrong here?  So much agreement.

So, Glen and Fuji return to Earth and we know this because the newspaper splayed across the scene exclaims "Spaceship Returns from Planet X" and also because we now see them walking around Tokyo or some other Japanese city, perhaps.  The government officials aren't sure they can trust these Xliens but the science on the miracle cure checks out so they say 'why the fuck not".  Meanwhile, Fuji and Glenn have lunch with Fuji's sister and her paramour, the Inventor.  It does not go well as Fuji bluntly dubs "Terry" -- the inventor's named Terry, "I'm not sure you can make my sister happy". I can only surmise that Fuji wants to bang his sister.  Hey, whatever works for that guy I guess.  Also, this inventor is working on a pretty cool invention.  It emits awful, ear splitting noises.  I'm pretty sure that's all it does.

So, after lunch Glenn hops in a convertible with some Japanese broad while Fuji and the rest go their separate ways.  Thankfully, the Xliens told them where Godzilla and Rodan were resting.  Both at the bottom of some lake, it turns out.  Suspicions mount when Fuji and Glenn reunite and Glenn recounts his night.  He had just finished bedding his girl and was rolling over to sleep when he saw Control in his room.  Remember that Control was the leader of the Xliens?  Well, turns out that the Xliens had always been on Earth and were going to take Godzilla and Rodan whether they had permission or not.  They apologize for the subterfuge, claim it was necessary for whatever reason.  Then they beam up Godzilla and Rodan from the lake.
The human characters think "hey, maybe we can kill multiple birds with the same stone here".  Get rid of Godzilla and Rodan and walk away with a miracle cure.  Seriously, who wouldn't trust these piece of shit alien...sorry Xliens?  So...Fuji and Glenn also hitch a ride with the aliens so they can witness the battle back on Planet X.  Glenn tells his girl "so long, I'll marry you when I get back" which is a weird thing to say to a girl it seemed like he barely knew.  Anyway, back on Planet X they are "witness to a historical battle where 00 has finally met his match" or so says Control.  It's pretty good.  I can't disagree.  I'd imagine a battle between three giant monsters on a Planet tucked away behind Jupiter would have to be pretty historical and thankfully, there are a couple of humans there to log it into record.  It's my favorite battle of the series.  02 drops a space boulder on 00's head at one point.

It goes on for a while and then Monster 00, wounded, flies away as he always does and 01 salutes him.
So, hey...the movie should end right here with Godzilla (back to their earthbound names) and Rodan stranded on Planet X and the Earth with a new cure-all.  So why the hell are there still thirty minutes left in this thing?  Well, if you've seen any Twilight Zone with aliens (I'm thinking "To Serve Man" of course) you'd know that aliens are almost never to be trusted.  Glen and Fuji fly an exact replica (built by the Xliens) of their rocket ship back to Earth.  They feel bad for stranding Godzilla and Rodan but, hey, what are they gonna do?  

Back on Earth everything is going pretty well for everyone until it turns out that a bunch of their population are Xliens (oh yeah, including Glenn's girl) and that Control has just executed order #2 where all mankind "will place the Earth under our control and serve as our Colony".  The inventor (remember that cuck?) is locked up because apparently they fear him and whatever the hell that thing is that he invented.  Earth resists a bit so the Xliens send down Godzilla, Rodan, and Ghidora (all now under Xlien mind-control) to restore order (i.e., destroy everything).  Meanwhile, Glenn's alien girl, confesses her love for Glenn and is immediately evaporated by Control since emotion is a crime back on Planet X (and their new colony Earth, of course).  Also, these Xlien's have a thing against loud obnoxious noises.  Thankfully the inventor had a prototype of his loud, obnoxious noise emitting machine with him in his jail cell for some reason.  So, look...this is probably my favorite of the sequels so far.  The plot is just tremendously absurd.  These aliens, who are precisely one degree away from conquering the speed of light (honestly, kinda lame that they couldn't even do that) and are capable of telepathy, interstellar travel, giant monster tractor beams, etc...are destroyed by a really annoying dog whistle.  Sorry for the spoiler.   

Of course, once the Xliens are eradicated and the giant monsters are freed from their control they immediately get to fighting each other.  I'm a fan of Godzilla's pre-fight ritual where he hops up and down a few times and shakes his arms.  His arms are getting shorter with each sequel.  So, the last fight is not as good as the first fight in this picture.  How could it be?  It doesn't take place in Space.  It takes place on Earth.  Also, each monster is thrown onto his back at least one time and has to turtle his way upright.  I enjoyed those moments immensely.  The picture ends with Ghidorah thrown into the water, causing a tidal wave (thousands killed) and then flying off into Space again.    I can only imagine the great sadness he'll feel when he arrives back to a deserted Planet X.

Oh yeah and that miracle cure they were promised?  A fucking lemon.

Ebirah, Monster of the Deep (1966)
Director:  Jun Fukuda
Length:  87 minutes

kaiju appearances:

"Ebirah, Horror of the Deep", aka "Godzilla vs the Sea Monster" was originally written to be a King Kong picture and it shows.  That's not a bad thing.  It's just a bit jarring in the way they didn't really change anything in the script except for the name of the monster.  The picture opens, as almost all of these pictures seem to open, with a colossal hurricane.  But, wait....no, not actually.  It opens with on a tribal village beneath Spirit Mountain, on some island, where the villagers pray for some guy named Yata, who is lost somewhere.  The woman, a shaman of sorts, reveals that she's searched the underworld top-to-bottom and could not find him.  Good news!  He's alive!  Also, who's Yata?  The picture then cuts to the mainland where a few guys participate in one of those dance competitions where the last person standing is the winner.  These guys (one is revealed to be the brother of this Yata character) hope to win the grand prize (a yacht) so they can set out to sea and find him (ok).  Too bad, they lose.  Plan b is "let's just steal one instead".  They do...only the guy that owns, and was sleeping, in the yacht is some infamous cat burglar who's been in all the papers lately.  They become friends, all set out to sea....and that's where the typhoon that I falsely claimed opened the picture, finally hits.

A couple things; First, the score.  It's all over the fucking place.  The opening is layered with funky African drum beats which seamlessly transitions into almost Spaghetti Western notes.  Later, we've got surf guitar as we later transition into the 1960s Mod shit (during the dance competition).  So, basically it's enjoyable as all hell.  Second, I'm once again having trouble remembering or identifying any of these characters beyond some basic traits.  The brother is determined, angry.  The thief is good at cracking safes.  

So, the typhoon hits and suddenly this is all feeling very Gilligan's Island as the four sailors struggle to maintain control of their battered yacht.  It doesn't help matters that they suddenly see a giant claw protruding from the sea.  They abandon ship just before they fall into its clutch.

I assumed these guys were all dead but, no, they come to on a deserted island.  Well, not so deserted actually.  They immediately spy some armed men and then later they see a large compound.  Inside the compound, the native islanders have all been enslaved.  Also, Yata is with them.  These guys are not really up to good.  They're led by an eye patch wearing motherfucker and, to be honest, other than  wearing an eye patch, guy doesn't really do much.
He's no Serizawa, that's for sure.  For the first time in these pictures we get an evil human organization that's not just the government or corporatists.  These guys call themselves Red Bamboo and they're on this island working on splitting some atoms, etc.  Also, the slaves mine some sort of yellow liquid to keep the island monster at bay.  It hates the yellow liquid.  Have a look at the guy.

So, now I can only assume the yellow liquid they're mining is some sort of molten butter type deal.  This creature is amazing.  After a couple of the native islanders attempt an escape he smashes their canoe, breaks off a piece of wood, skewers, the islanders (back to back) and devours them kebob style.  Here's the evidence.
So, this creature....Ebirah, is pretty fucking great.  If a bit silly.  Not exactly the Lovecraftian monstrosity the picture's title promises.  Basically, what we got here is a picture where our four heroes (the marooned sailors) run and hide from Red Bamboo and their trigger happy soldiers, while devising a plan to rescue Yata (and I guess the other slaves if everything works out) and also they discover Godzilla asleep in one of the island caves.  He's in a deep sleep, can't be woken unless, I don't know, they rig a lightning rod or something but why would they want to do that?  Turns out these Red Bamboo fellows (they seem incompetent to me) are more than they can handle.  Also, there's Ebirah but he can't get too close to the island because of all that artery clogging butter.  Oh, and there's also Mothra asleep on neighboring Infant Island (another thing that reminded me of Gilligan's Island was the neighboring island that, alas, was not home to cannibals).  They met a native island girl, I forgot to mention.  She filled them in on the Mothra stuff.  But Mothra, like Kon...Godzilla is also in a deep sleep.  Currently, the twins are trying to sing her awake but it's not working.  

Of course, they go with the lightning rod.  It takes a few days of waiting but finally they get a storm, Godzilla wakes up, and immediately rushes out to sea to confront Ebirah.  These monsters have some incredible monster radar.  This fight is mostly entertaining.  Godzilla throws a bunch of rocks.  They fight underwater, at one point, "Top Secret" style.
Ebirah, eventually, scuttles away, a bit wounded.  Godzilla proceeds to stomp his way across the rest of the island, destroying the compound where our heroes have made it inside, finally rescuing Yata.  I'm recalling story out of order, apologies.  I missed an earlier rescue attempt, maybe that's where they rescued Yata and one of our heroes got stuck in a hot air balloon, taking him to Infant Island.  Who knows, can't remember, and my handwriting is terrible.  They discover the nefarious plan (a cache of nuclear materials ready to be turned into ultimate weapons).  The slaves make a plan to instead of, you know, making actual butter that will keep Ebirah at bay, let's just make margarine or something?  Later, the Red Bamboo attempt to flee in their ship (which spews the yellow stuff over its sides -- as a shield) but Ebirah's not having any of that shit, doesn't mind margarine, and that's the end of Red Bamboo.  Oh, but before they left they set a timer on their nuclear cache so in comes, Mothra, having finally woken up, to fly a rescue mission.   

Also, Godzilla and Ebirah fight one last time.  This one does not end well for Ebirah.  He loses a claw.  Godzilla taunts him with it, a trait of King Kong (as he plays with it, opens and closes it), as Ebirah scuttles away for his life.  Later, Godzilla jumps off the island (to the sound of cheering villagers being carried away to safety by Mothra) just as the bomb goes off.  That's it.

Except, the Kong stuff.  There's a scene about 2/3 of the way through this thing where Godzilla encounters the native island girl at the top of the mountain.  It's the first time (maybe the only time) that Godzilla pays any attention to an individual human.  Godzilla is smaller here than usual.  He saves the girl from a flying dinosaur (Pterodactyl) and then sits down to rest.  He even sits down like Kong.  
He's become her protector.  The Red Bamboo launch an air strike and Godzilla, angered, stands up, bats away the onslaught, sits back down to rest.  They acknowledge each other.  She looks at him with what can only be described as a strange sort of yearning.  Finally, she wanders off after he falls asleep.  So, yeah....they basically had a scene in here which encompassed every Kong involved action scene from the 1933 film.   That was a bit weird.  If I didn't know this was written for a Kong film I'd still be a bit dumbfounded.  To be honest, I loved it.  It's lazy, to be sure.  They took the screenplay, as written, and didn't change a damn thing, except for the name of the monster.  Not sure if Mothra was supposed to be in the Kong version or not but based on how little Mothra appears in this picture it wouldn't have shocked me.  I do wonder if Kong was meant to die in the explosion since I don't know, he's not much of a long distance swimmer?  Anyway, masterpiece.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Godzember, 2019: The Showa Era (1954 -- 1975), Volume II

Godzember continues with "Godzilla Raids Again" (1955),  "King Kong vs Godzilla" (1963), "Mothra vs Godzilla" (1964), and "Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster" (1964).

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
Director:  Motoyoshi Oda

Length:  81 minutes

Kailua appearances (other than Godzilla)
The first thing I noticed about "Godzilla Raids Again" released a mere year after the original was hey, this score seems sorta upbeat.  Maybe this one will actually be fun?  Not that the original isn't fun. You know what I mean, or maybe you don't, I don't know.  "Raids" is the Godzilla picture that introduced another kaiju (Japanese for "big monster") for Godzilla to deal with instead of just more of the usual (stomping on miniature cities).  The second thing I noticed about this picture is that they're working to maintain some level of continuity.  As a kid I never watched these things in order.  Hell, we even get an appearance from Dr. Yamane who was the paleontologist from the fist picture.  He showed up to, once again, point out that maybe we should just let it live?  It's a glorified cameo, basically.   The main characters in this one are a couple of pilots and the girl they love.  Second consecutive love triangle in a Godzilla picture.  I guess that's continuity?

The picture opens with these pilots out tracking schools of fish.  One of the pilots goes down.  The other radios in for help.  The downed pilot is ok though since he finds himself on a small island.  Also on this very small island are a couple of giant monsters engaged in a wrestling match.  The pilot (I believe his name was Koboyashi but it could also have been Tsukioka) witnesses the fight until they (the monsters) push each other off a cliff and into the sea.  So, wait....you might ask "wasn't Godzilla killed in the first one by the Oxygen Destroyer?  I mean, not just killed but turned into bones and stuff?"  Well, that did happen but as Dr. Yamane points out during his cameo, it's obviously a 2nd member of the same species.  Let's just call it Godzilla.  So, that's the species.  No individuality here. Anyway, Godzilla in this one looks almost identical to the Godzilla of the first one.

I thought its jowls were a bit flabbier but looking at that picture I'm not so sure.  His teeth look pretty menacing?  Essentially what we got here is a retread of the first film only this time we got another monster to contend with.  That monster being Anguirus.  Apparently, this is what's known as an Ankylosaurus (I looked it up) which is a heavily armored dinosaur with a low center of gravity (for a dinosaur) and spikes everywhere.  Similar to an armadillo, I guess.  Maybe the "Ankly" prefix is because he's always hanging around Godzilla's ankles.  Anyway, I didn't expect this thing to put up as good of a fight as he did.

So, the plot.  As the Newspaper headlines that slaps across the screen wonders "Will Godzilla Come Ashore"?  Duh.  This time the humans have a not-so-awful plan.  They'll institute a city wide blackout and lure Godzilla away with flairs.  Unfortunately, they didn't count on the amazing prison break that would happen as Godzilla is being led away by said flairs that would result in a giant explosion down at the ol' chemical plant.  Not only does the explosion lead Godzilla back to the city but it also draws in Anguirus as well.  They fight for a good 15 minutes or so and when they're done, the city is mostly rubble and Anguirus is more than mostly dead.   So, we got a pretty good picture here.  A nice follow up to a bonafide classic.  It's moves at a fairly rapid clip.  The human characters are not really more than types, but they're played well enough.  The overwhelming sadness that surrounds the first picture is almost entirely non-existent here but it's not the laugh-a-minute romps these things would later become.  The black & white helps Godzilla become scarier than he probably would be otherwise.  I don't know,  I liked how it ended with Godzilla lured to some ice island out in the Pacific where it's blown up around him encasing the poor guy in ice where he'll wait for almost a decade before they break him out for the next picture.

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Director:  Ishiro Honda
Length:  97 minutes

Kaiju appearances (other than Godzilla)
King Kong (American Kaiju?)
Giant Octopus

Remember how Godzilla got encased in ice at the end of "Godzilla Raids Again"?  Well, this one opens with a submarine accidentally shooting a missile at the ice island and freeing the thing.  The sub then crashed into some ice and the cabin flooded, reminded me of the opening of "The Abyss" where an entire crew drowned after crashing into some underwater cave or whatever.  Anyway, I find it somewhat interesting that all three Godzilla pictures so far have involved tragedy at sea.  Also, why did it take eight years to make another Godzilla movie and, when they finally made another, why make it a crossover event with a giant American property? Well, turns out a producer on the original King Kong film stole a treatment for a new King Kong film where Kong fights Frankenstein's monster or some shit and sold it to Toho studios and they just crossed out Frankenstein's monster from the treatment and replaced it with Godzilla.  Brilliant?

So, how does Kong fit into this story where Godzilla is freed from his ice prison and does...I don't know....he's kinda hardly in this one.  Anyway, some science type guys hear about this mysterious island called Faro Island (I guess they didn't steal the rights to Skull Island) where a supposedly pretty giant monster in its own right lives.  On the island there are some natives.  Probably racist depictions, I don't know.  These science guys (I gave up even trying to pretend to distinguish any of the humans in this one) travel to the island just in time to see the village attacked by a giant Octopus.

I guess this counts as a Kaiju.  They used some nifty stop motion.   It's abnormally large.  That's all it takes.  Also, Kong came down and stomped the thing to death pretty quickly, took a drink, passed out, woke up on a giant raft, strapped down, and bound for mainland Japan.  Almost exactly how it happened in the 1933 King Kong.

So, Godzilla was stomping the shit out of Japan when Kong was nearing the shore.  Kong got anxious, freed himself and swam to shore.  He then proceeded to toss rocks at Godzilla, who seemed more annoyed than anything else.  Also, his atomic breath burned Kong's fur so he ran away.  I guess the funniest part of the picture was the human's placing bets.  "Ahh...Kong has no chance".  So, what we really got here is an underdog story, not unlike something like "Rocky IV" where our hero (undersized, scrappy) has to take on the antagonist (oversized, full of steroids -- in this case, radioactive energy, I guess) on the antagonist's home turf.  What these Godzilla movies have started to teach me is that Godzilla has one main weakness.  You can grab him by the tail and apparently throw him around.  Of course it's ridiculous to think that King Kong could ever do that but he does.  The King Kong of the 1933 RKO picture would have zero shot in a fight against Godzilla.  I think Kong is something like 35-40 feet and Godzilla comes in at around 150 feet.  So, clearly this is not that Kong, can't be that Kong.  They scaled him up, fed him some juice.  This Kong ain't really a character like the original Kong.  He's got the same googly eyes at times.  He even briefly grabs a dame in Tokyo and runs around with her before dropping her, I presumed to her death, not really remembering.

Ultimately, this is the film that told TOHO studios that Godzilla was a viable franchise, just not quite in the way it had been envisioned from the beginning.  In a way, this predicted the Hollywood films of today where different properties would engage with each other or fight it out (Aliens, Predators, Batmans, and Supermans, etc).  Or....you know Marvel and all its phases which is really just a knockoff of Godzilla and all its eras.  These pictures as they'd continue would become more colorful and more ridiculous but I'm not sure any of them would ever top the scene where Kong, looking for another round, parachutes down into his final battle with Godzilla.

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
Director:  Ishiro Honda
Length:  88 minutes

Here's another picture where TOHO took a successful property (the Mothra picture that came out in 1961, also directed by Honda) and introduced it to the Godzilla-verse.  At least in this case, Mothra was a property they owned.  I imagine one of the criticisms of "King Kong vs. Godzilla" was about how shitty the human characters were so in this one they go out of their way to make them memorable.  It's funny because they're still not really well drawn out characters.  They all represent types, extreme types.  The truth seeking reporters and the money hungry (also, quite evil) business guys.  The movie opens with a megatyphoon destroying something known as the "Kurata Coast Reclamation Project".  I guess this was just coastline ravaged by years of giant monsters coming out of the sea.  The typhoon also drags inland a rather large dollar sign in the form of a giant egg.  A guy named Kumayama immediately claims ownership.  Kumayama is an executive at a corporation known as Happy Enterprises and envisions the egg as a centerpiece of his brand new theme park (yet to be built).  Also, Kumayama answers to another greedy motherfucker, the CEO of Happy Enterprises (truthfully, forgot his name and can't make it out in my notes).  Another newspaper headline slaps itself across the screen:  "Giant Egg Washes Ashore".  Something tells me "Giant" and "Ashore" are the two most common words used by this particular rag.  Also, what's with a society where something extraordinary, like for example a giant fucking egg, can be claimed by a private multimillion dollar business?  Doesn't that shit need to be protected?  As Kumayama said later, "I didn't see a name on the egg, did you?" (actual quote from the film, not kidding).

So, what we got here is another giant monster picture, this time with a central theme of how greed, as opposed to nuclear proliferation, can be destructive.  Oh, some reporters and scientists also found a radioactive scale on the beach.  Later revealed to be a part that broke off from Godzilla, who spent the first half of this picture napping under the sand, apparently.

So, the big guy (I'm going to start showing him some respect and stop calling him "it" -- I think they clearly gender him in later pictures) wakes up and is pretty pissed off, starts doing what Godzilla does.

Ok, also we got the twins in this picture.  You may remember them from the first Mothra picture or, hell, any Mothra picture.  They live on infant island where they serve as Mothra's protector.  They're less than pint size.  They first try to convince the greedy entrepreneurs to return the egg to Infant island or there'll be trouble.  Instead, the entrepreneurs gawk at these two magical sprites and, seeing dollar signs almost as big as Mothra's eggs try to grab them.  The twins escape and make it to our heroes of the story, the two reporters (well, guy's a reporter the female is his photographer) and try to convince them to help get the egg returned (of course, they agree).
I've always kinda hated the twins but, you know what, I'm starting to like them.  They do a lot of kitschy (term used to describe all Japanese weirdness) stuff like sing songs to Mothra and that's pretty much it.  Anyway, the story:  Godzilla is stomping the coastline and makes his way towards the Happy Enterprises theme park, where Mothra's egg is being housed, because it sees a giant egg that needs stomping and also it hates anything Mothra related, apparently.  The twins and our heroes have little time to convince Mothra to join the fight.  To do so, they need to travel to Infant island, drink some awful ceremonial tea and convince the natives to allow Mothra to fight but, in the end, it's up to Mothra, herself.  It always is.  So, Mothra and Kong hash out their differences.  Godzilla gets dragged, as he does in every picture after the first picture, by his tail.

And here's a better picture of Mothra in case you've never seen her.
So, there's a lot of beauty in this thing.  Mothra and Kong fight for a while.  Mothra protects her egg.  She more than holds her own.  Her special skill is creating hurricane force winds with her wings, keeping Godzilla off his feet.  Unfortunately, Mothra is nearing the end of her natural life.  She fights for as long as she can before succumbing to old age.  It's not often where you see the protagonist die of old age mid-fight.  It's a moment to appreciate.    Of course, she stayed alive just long enough for her egg to hatch.

And, turns out the larvae are just as powerful if not more powerful than their mother.  Oh yeah, did I mention she had twins?  Twins is also a big theme of this picture.  So, these larvae are adept at shooting the stuff that builds cocoons and also hiding behind rocks.  After Godzilla is drawn out to, yet, another island the larvae cocoon the shit out of him and he falls into the sea.  The end.  Seriously, I think the notion of a "kill shot" left these pictures after the first one.  Producers afflicted with sequel-itus, I suppose.  Thank god?

So, pretty good picture where Godzilla unknowingly kills the two human villains by toppling their own building on them and also he gets embarrassed by a couple of babies.  TOHO needs to start working on their endings.

Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964)
Director:  Ishiro Honda
Length:  92 minutes

Kaiju appearances:

This one opens in an observatory where some science type folk are observing a meteor shower.  The meteor shower brings with it some joy (in the observing) and, ultimately, some terror (in the greatest foe Godzilla has yet to face).  Although, before this observing even takes place, we're treated to the first use of freeze frame credits in the series.  If you're not familiar with Honda's 1956 film, "Rodan", you're probably wondering who the hell that bird monster is in the credits.  Let's get the human story out of the way.  We've got a police detective, Shindo, who is assigned to protect a princess, Selina.  She's visiting under the guise of being from an actual earth bound city but, later, in a so-so reveal, turns out she's actually from Venus.  There are some assassins on her trail.  I honestly can't remember if these guys were also from Venus or Earth, likely Mars.  I guess it doesn't matter.  The princess fled her home world because it was basically destroyed by the creature that just arrived on earth via meteor shower (I'm sure you can figure out who we're talking about...here's a hint; more heads than two and less heads than four -- that thing isn't even revealed until there's like twenty minutes left in the picture so sorry for the spoiler.

I liked the human/alien plot.  It reminded me of a Bond film, not so much because of the alien stuff.  More because of the framing.  Is this Bond like?  I'm not sure, not the biggest fan.
But that's not what we're here for.  Basically, we got a movie where Godzilla fights Rodan and then Mothra arrives to convince them that they need to team up to take on an even deadlier foe.  More on that later.  Mothra in this picture is only a single larvae.  The twins (yep, they're back) explained how the other larvae passed away between pictures.  I like how Mothra is essentially a collective.  Larvae, Moth, all Mothra.  Dead, alive, still Mothra.  So, towards the end of the picture the giant meteorite housing the titular monster finally burst open.  First we get this:

Then we get this:
So, now Rodan, Godzilla, and Mothra must team up to take on this new foe.  Honestly, a little disappointed that Godzilla couldn't take this thing on by himself.  I guess the major theme of this picture is teamwork.  Again, it takes a lot of convincing on the part of Godzilla and Rodan.  The twins translate for the human characters.

Mothra:  You guys need to stop fighting and help take out Ghidorah.
Godzilla:  Why should we?
Mothra:  The humans need you.
Rodan:  Fuck that shit, what have they ever done for us?
Godzilla:  I hate people

That's the gist.  Mothra says "fuck you guys, I'll do it myself".  Basically she guilts them into joining the fight.  And it works.

Here's Rodan with a "what the fuck have I gotten myself into look:
So, they fight.  It takes twenty minutes.  It's fucking awesome.  These fights keep improving with each picture.  Of course, this one wraps up with a wounded Ghidorah flying away.  Godzilla and Rodan then watch Mothra swim away.  And immediately after the credits roll I like to imagine them beating the shit out each other again.

Holy shit, I'm starting to realize I need these things to get more crazy with each entry.  I've got ten pictures left for this month.  I've never watched them in order or this close to each other.  I'm starting to worry shit's going to get repetitive.  We'll see.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Godzember, 2019: The Showa Era (1954--1975), Volume I

Alright, here's a thing I'll do for December.  Having recently been gifted the Criterion set containing all of the Godzilla films from the Showa era (a period that coincides with the rule of emperor Showa -- his reign lasted until his death in 1989 but somehow the Godzilla films considered "Showa" films stopped at 1975.  Yet, there was another film in 1985 ("Godzilla 1985") but I guess that's a standalone, era-less film).  Anyway, this set (really it's a giant hardcover book that's too big to fit on any of my shelves) is incredible.  The artwork, the extras, the well-done write-ups for each film.  I'm not going to get into any of the packaging.  I'm just going to do do brief (maybe?) pieces on each film.  Each post will likely cover 4 to 5 films.  So, here we go:

Godzilla (1954)
Director:  Ishiro Honda
Length:  96 minutes
Kaiju appearing:
"Godzilla" was birthed out of real tragedy, an incident involving a Japanese fishing boat whose crew was contaminated by radiation from a U.S. missile test.  And, of course, the U.S. dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a decade earlier.  The idea of using a giant monster amidst all this sadness was inspired by the American film "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" which came out a year before.  This is all on Wikipedia.  Go read about it.  I also knew this, I swear!  "Beast" is also a great picture, check it out.  Some wonderful Harryhausen stop motion animation.  That picture was inspired by a Ray Bradbury short story about a lighthouse.  Like, see that lighthouse over there?  Now picture a giant monster right behind it.  But, enough about "Beast".

I've seen "Godzilla" many times, dating back to my childhood but did not see the original Japanese version until I was a full fledged adult and could actually buy it on DVD.  The Americanized version with Raymond Burr ("Godzilla King of the Monsters") was on TV (usually as a Saturday matinee) constantly.  It's fine?  You get the monster.  Destruction.  And a white guy taking control of the situation.  More on that one in a bit, i guess.  So, "Godzilla"....it's the saddest fucking monster picture I've ever seen.  Imbued with a sense of national grief (again, bombs, radiation, etc) we got the story of a prehistoric creature, stirred awake by atomic bomb tests.  Its natural habitat (a system of underwater caves) destroyed, the creature heads to the surface.  The picture opens with a tragedy mirroring the real life fishing boat tragedy when Godzilla (we don't see Godzilla, but we hear it, feel it) attacks and sinks a Japanese boat, the Eiko-maru.  Later, the ship sent to investigate (the Bingo-maru) is also sunk.  Death for these sailors is almost immediate, except for three survivors who somehow make it to a neighboring island, inhabited by villagers stuck in the turn of the century (19th to 20th) living a peaceful existence and also telling folktales about the mystical creature from the sea, Godzilla.  I guess we'll go with that name says some scientists later on.

The Godzilla series is not really known for its human characters but, here, we've got some pretty good ones.  We're introduced to Ogato (a captain of a ship, he was not involved in the earlier sinkings) and Emiko (his love interest).    Ogato, consumed by vengeance for his dead fellow seamen, would like to see the creature destroyed.  More interesting, we're introduced to Dr. Kyohei Yamane, father of Emiko, and a paleontologist.  He views the creature as a wonder, something they should learn to live with.   This leads to an awkward moment when Ogato and Yamane get into an argument over what to do with the creature just as he was about to ask for permission to marry his daughter.  The engagement will have to wait.  The only other character of note is probably the best human character to ever appear in a Godzilla film, Dr. Serizawa.
First, he's got an eyepatch.  So, that's pretty cool right there.  What makes this guy great, beyond the fact that he is also in love with Emiko, is he spent the war working with German scientists developing weapons of mass destruction.  He regrets all of that shit.  One such weapon, The Oxygen Destroyer, will probably make an appearance later on in this picture, I'm guessing.  His character is full of torment over things he's created.  His ultimate decision will destroy more than a few things, probably.

Anyway, the story.   The island near where the ships were sunk is called Odo.  One night, most of the seaside village was leveled in a nighttime attack.  The devastation the creature leaves, the shots of destroyed houses reminiscent of the images of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, post bomb drop.  So, Dr. Yamane is dispatched to the island to investigate, bring back facts. Yamane takes a geiger counter.  They find a footprint, it's radioactive...also within the footprint they find the remains of a long extinct arthropod (or something).  Where the fuck did that come from?  How did it get there?  That alone could be the scientific discovery of the century if not for the footprint the size of a house.  And then, we hear it.  The stomping sounds, now iconic.  The swelling music, exactly as iconic (seriously, this might be a top ten film score -- credit to Akira Ifukube) and, shit, that probably even more iconic than the stomping and the score, roar.  On the other side of the hill, they see it.  The head, the giant prehistoric head.  It looks down at them, roars once, twice and then disappears.  The villagers flee in a panic.  An old village statesman give it its name, Godzilla.  History is pretty much made.  I gotta say though, that first appearance, in broad daylight, isn't the greatest.  I mean, I love it but just seeing its head was a bit silly.  They appeared to have used stop motion.    It had a goofy look on his face.  His eyes reminded me of Kong's eyes in the 1933 "Kong", twenty years earlier.  Of course, I'll argue with anyone that says King Kong isn't a great special effect so now I'm back to thinking Godzilla's first appearance in this thing is actually great.  It is great.  It's great.  I didn't get a picture, sorry.  Google that shit.

So, Yamane returns to the mainland of Japan with his report.  We've got a giant prehistoric beastie that we're calling Godzilla, a creature over 150 feet tall.  It's radioactive.  Debate commences.  There's a lot of debate in these pictures.  Almost all of these pictures.  Men in rooms, wearing suits.  Newspaper headlines slap on the screen:  "Disaster Response Team Established!" Scientists argue with bureaucrats.  Money versus reason.  One scientist flatly says "Godzilla was born in the fires of the H bomb.  What could possibly kill him now?"  Meanwhile Godzilla approaches Tokyo from the sea.

After overturning a pleasure cruise Godzilla makes landfall and levels the whole god damned city of Tokyo.  This takes a while.  It's also where we get our first look at it and finally, here, it is spectacular.

Like a lot of these giant movie monsters, Godzilla hates trains.

Its rampage across the city is not exhilarating so much as it is soul shattering.  We learn this quickly when the camera keeps cutting to a mother and her young daughter, stranded in the city as the wreckage rains down around them.  Later we see that same young girl in a triage center, her mother lying in a bed beside her, dead.   Godzilla's all hard edges in this picture.  He's an animal out of place, out of time, scared, pissed off.  We see it, here, use its atomic breath for the first time, its three pronged spikes across its back glowing, alarming the city dwellers to impending incineration.  It incinerates pretty much everything in its path.  Well, what it doesn't incinerate it crushes with its tail or its feet.  I spent a lot of time studying the design of Godzilla here.  Its first appearance in this film, basically a disembodied head, may have veered towards goofy but, here, it is decidedly not that.  Its arms are even useful, terrifying, as it picks up a bridge and tosses it aside.  Later iterations began to trend towards silly.  Here it's legitimately scary, that rare moment when sound, effects, (wonderful miniatures and an astoundingly effective man-in-suit design -- As we'll find out in later pictures the man-in-suit design creates a much different tone at night than it will during the day), and music coalesce perfectly.

And then, like in most of the good Godzilla films the big guy begins to grow weary.  The tanks and planes make their attack but it swats them away as if they were gnats, making its way back to the sea, finally disappearing beneath a violent wake.  After it's gone, the sadness overwhelms.  The choiral music gently, sadly sobering us as we take in the aftermath.  Our human characters, Ogato, Emiko, Yamane, and Serizawa reemerge.  The debate is over.  Godzilla must be destroyed.  But how?  Emiko confronts Serizawa.  His weapon, The Oxygen Destroyer, must be used.  He destroys his design notes and then with great regret and resignation says "the notes are one thing but everything is up here" (points to his head).  He knows he can still be used to nefarious purposes by people with power.

So, Ogata and Serizawa volunteer for the assignment.  They will ship out to where Godzilla is believed to be resting and unleash the power of Serizawa's weapon upon it (we've seen it tested, it removed the oxygen from the water and then skeletonized some fishes).  They'll have to submerge themselves using those old fashioned deep diving suits, connected to a line at the surface, on a ship.  It's not long before they find Godzilla.
He stirs, seems to notice them but takes little action.  There is no final battle, just a sort of quiet awfulness.  Serizawa forces Ogata to surface and unleashes his weapon ("you two have a good life together" he laments, I kind of wish he didn't bring that up, to be honest).  Godzilla attempts to surface, struggles, and that's it.  It succumbs.  Honestly, I can't imagine an American picture ever wrapping up this way.  This is a decade of anguish in movie form.  Obviously, I'm not going to worry about spoilers here.  Godzilla is dead.  It's left a skeleton at the bottom of the sea.  The next creature will not be this creature, but it will be Godzilla.

Godzilla King of the Monsters (1956)
Director(s):  Terry O. Morse & Ishiro Honda
Length:  80 minutes

Ok, this is the same Godzilla as the first picture except here the Americans went and mucked it up.  They cut, I don't know, all of the sad shit that made the film unique and replaced it with Raymond Burr on a plane, in a room, etc.  Talking, smoking.  Here he is smoking on a plane, talking in voiceover about going to meet his old school chum, Dr. Serizawa.
So, this is a garbage film that I loved as a kid but there's no reason to watch it now that the original version is readily available.  I'm glad I rewatched it, I guess.   It was my introduction to Godzilla after all but I felt no real nostalgia for any of this shit.  As I said way up above, it's fine question mark.  I mean, I guess show this one to your kids, maybe?

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Noirvember, 2019: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Wrapping up Noirvember with what just might be the best of all Noirs?  Or, at least my favorite (of all the ones that I've seen).  I'm not sure how many "great" Noirs followed up this one (and we're excluding anything that's ever been labeled as a "Neo-Noir") but this is the perfect capper to the genre.  The one that took the basics of the form, expanded on them, and then literally blew it all up.  There was no reason to go forward after this one.  "Kiss Me Deadly" is a great noir but also a great cold war thriller.  Whereas most Noirs tended to focus on a micro-story this one started that way until it's revealed that the fate of the world itself was dangling off the precipice.  The stakes in these films have never been higher than they are here.  While the genre certainly didn't begin here I think it's safe to say that this is where it finishes (or should have finished).  Robert Aldritch, the director, has made some other pictures that I love ("The Dirty Dozen" being my own personal stand-out) but I'm not sure he's ever topped this one (someday, maybe I'll find out for sure).

The movie opens with a woman, at night, stumbling her way down an desolate road trying to flag down a car.  The car that stops, and then starts our story, is one driven by Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker -- just tremendous), Private Dick.  You may know the name of Mike Hammer, a creation of author Mickey Spillane, from either the books or, more likely, the 80s cop show appropriately called "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer" and starring....Stacey Keach?  I'm not sure it aired for very long.  Also, never read the books.  Anyone read the books?  Not sure if this is based on one of the books or if they just used the rights to the character.  Anyway, Hammer stopped and picked up the frantic woman.  He implied (wait, not implied, outright said) that the only reason a woman would be out here alone is if she pissed off her man.  Good ol' Hammer.  The thing that struck me were the sounds she made as they drove through the black.  He drove a convertible.  The woman, still out of sorts, pants...and breathes, heavy.  It's sexualized.  Hammer's intrigued.   He tried to pry some information from her, his car started to veer right, stopped at one of those middle-of-nowhere auto-shops to get it fixed, brush stuck in the axle from when he went off-road (he went a bit off-road to pick her up).   With Hammer unaware, the woman (he finally learned her name -- Christina) handed a letter to the repairman, asked him to put a stamp on it, drop it in the mail (postage was not yet at a rate where that guy might feel put out).  Back on the road, Christina asked Hammer to "remember me".  Then an accident, not caused by them.  Black out city.  They're in a strange room.  Hammer completely out of it.  Strange men, we only see their feet.  The scene was shot at feet level.  A struggle, some screams, increasingly muffled.  Christina's feet in the closet, three feet of empty space beneath them.  They're placed back in the car, guided down a ravine.  Christina's dead.  Hammer woke up in a hospital bed, his doting assistant, Velda stood over him as he woke.  What's going on here?

So, basically we got a pretty standard set-up for these types of pictures.  Guy meets woman, woman disappears (or worse), guy looks for answers.  It's always the guy, right?  I guess some new Noirs might go on to reverse the genders here but I'm not really aware of any.  Anyone aware of any?  Anyway, after getting his car fixed by his preferred local guy (guy named Nick -- holy shit, what a performance by this guy named Nick who also happened to be played by a guy named Nick -- a caricature of a loving, doting, Hispanic car guy) he starts to dig deep into Christina's past.  We got a former roommate (a miss Lilly Carver) who seems...well frightened, paranoid, a bit insane, etc.  His search also leads him to the thugs that abducted them at the beginning of the story (one of them played by the great character actor, Jack Elam -- I also think his name was Jack).  There's a great scene where Hammer searched them out at a beach house and, in a bit of a twist in these type of pictures, beats the ever loving shit out of Jack and his buddy after they attempted to jump him.  Lots of scenes like that one (including another one involving a guy and his switchblade).  Hammer's got a pal on the force, proves to be not much help beyond the usual "don't get in over your head here, you don't know what you're dealing with....also, Manhattan Project blah blah blah..."  Ok, yeah, there's a box, a mysterious box, everyone wants that fucking box.  Christina knew about the box.  Got her killed.  Where is it and who has the key?  Wait till you find out.

So, I've battled all my life with how to label something a masterpiece.  I've been guilty of overusing it, myself.  I'm not sure one guy/gal is even allotted more than one of them in his/her lifetime.  You get one masterpiece, maybe a few great ones, couple of duds, a stinker or two....maybe in your later period a couple unintentional self-parodies, etc.  This one has gotta be Aldritch's masterpiece?  I'm not sure I've earned the right to make that declaration, however.  This thing just crackles from start to finish.  The performances (including the first appearance by Cloris Leachman as Christina) are all dynamite.  The thing that elevates this (over something like "Baby Jane" or even my own beloved "The Dirty Dozen") to the level of incredible (I've decided, no masterpiece label here, as of yet) is the apocalyptic ending.  I didn't see that shit coming, even after the box started to glow a bit.  Hell, the first time Hammer came into contact with it, I wondered if he was dragging ass a bit due to whatever was in the box, that fucking box.  Ok, I'm sure you can make an educated guess, still did not see where this thing ended up.  All the best filmmakers steal I'm told and I'd be fucking shocked if Spielberg wasn't thinking about the end of this picture when he had his Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant.  Shit, anyway...check this one out.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Noirvember, 2019: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Is Billy Wilder the most versatile director that's ever lived?   It's quite possible.  The man has made films across a multitude of genres and, not just films, but masterpieces at that.  Films that make the AFI top 100 list.  Those type of films.  He's got three films in the top 30 alone ("Double Indemnity" at 29,  "Some Like it Hot" at 22, and this one at 15).  That's kind of amazing.  Only two other guys have two in the top 30 (Hitchcock and Coppola).  Note: I scanned the list...I didn't study it so don't get angry if I missed a guy (another note: After scanning the list a 2nd time I missed Spielberg and Capra who both also have two films in the top 30).  Anyway, the point is that this guy Wilder probably deserves to be on the short list for greatest film director of all time.  And this film, "Sunset Boulevard", while deservedly recognized as a classic, might be just a bit too high on that list?  I don't know this is a good one.  Hell, wait, check that.  It is a great one.  Not many films open the way this one does...with a dead man in a pool narrating, from beyond the grave, how he came to be the dead man in that pool.

The film opens in Hollywood with a struggling screenwriter (William Holden as Joe Gillis, future dead man in pool) trying to sell a screenplay while saving his car (also, his home -- some things haven't really changed all that much?).  His script is rejected by a script reader (gal named Betty) and that's as far as it will go on the Paramount lot ("it's trite and flat" she says matter-of-factly).  So, Gillis upset at having his script rejected by the lowest level of the studio system (a script reader -- a glorified secretary is what I'm sure he must have been thinking and -- as he would later think and know -- someone in bed with the producer -- though to be honest, this seems more like a gatekeeper-ish type position so maybe Gillis -- and I -- are wrong in our assessment) becomes increasingly desperate as he flees some repo men (his car is his home, after all) into the Hollywood hills (Is Sunset Boulevard in the hills?  I honestly have no clue, felt like it to me -- might as well have been on another planet -- felt isolated anyway) where he conceals his car in some bushes near what appears to be a long-ago-abandoned mansion.  Turns out, not abandoned at all.  It's occupied by the once famous star of the Silent Film era, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson -- once famous star of the Silent Film era) and her butler Max.  Max leads Gillis inside.  Swanson urges him to help her with her own script (some terrible religious epic), her attempt to reclaim the prestige she once held.   Gillis takes a job, a live-in job, with her as a script doctor and well, her would-be lover, "would-be" being the proper phrasing.  He doesn't sign up for that part.  Max, himself (played by another Silent Film legend, director Erich Von Stroheim) holds some interesting secrets.  Here's a hint, the casting in this thing is really fucking meta.  So, desperation all around I guess.

I don't have much of a connection to the Silent Film era, to be honest.  Who does these days?  What little I've seen was seen in class.  King Vidor's "The Big Parade", "The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari", "Nosferatu".  Bits and pieces of others.  Some Chaplin.  It's an era that's slowly but surely with few exceptions disappearing.  Now let's talk about how Marvel is the culprit here.  Ok, now that I have your attention....the style of acting (big and broad, over-emoting so the guy sitting in the back of the theater would get it, just like stage acting, actually) didn't really translate to sound pictures that well.  And who knew if their voices were even acceptable to general audiences once we knew what they actually sounded like?  Well, thankfully this was not really an issue with Swanson who gives a big, bold, and ultimately sad performance as Norma.  There is a scene where she crashed the set of a new film by Cecil B. Demille (played by himself) that will break your heart by cringe-ing it to pieces.  After having sent the edited script of her religious drama to a Paramount producer and being constantly rebuffed by that producer, Norma and Max drove to the lot where Demille was filming another picture.  She barged onto the set, not rudely exactly...more in the way of actually belonging...and confronted Demille who respectfully demurred talk of her script.  It's clear Demille revered her, loved her pictures, had no plans on putting her in one of his films or even looking at her script.  Turns out Paramount did want to use her car in a picture though.  I mean, it's a pretty cool car.   To his credit (and maybe discredit), Demille exclaimed "Tell (the producer) to forget the car, I'll get another".  It's not worth causing such heartache in even asking.

Things proceed to get sadder.  Norma has a big New Years bash, with a lush orchestra, champagne, rows of tables, wait staff, etc.  Gillis is the only guest to show.  Also, Max.  There's allusions to suicide attempts by Norma as well.  Gillis leaves.  Called back by Max (another suicide attempt).  Norma's desperation to be loved turns into love for Gillis.  She becomes dependent on him, not just him, but his presence.  It could be anyone.  I've got to wonder how old Max feels about all this?  As Gillis slowly begins to put his life back together, things only get worse for Norma who fears, more than anything, being used up and left behind.  As Gillis, William Holden is great in transforming from the desperate sad-sack we meet as the picture begins to the "shit, this might really happen for me" guy he becomes...before ultimately becoming the dead guy in the pool.  He starts a thing with the script reader from the beginning ("I don't want to be a script reader for the rest of my life"), steals her from the producer.  Ok, "steals" may be a bad choice of words.  It's her decision too and all.  Conned her from?  Holden's voice-over narration is probably the noir-est thing about this picture.  Also, the dead guy in the pool.  Like a lot of these noirs, everything is so god damned sad.  Flights of happiness, ultimately destroyed by waves of depression, anxiety, murder, etc.  So, this is a great one, definitely a masterpiece.  Knowing where the thing ends was initially the reason I considered docking this a few spots from #15 on the AFI list (yes, I have that power apparently).  Why?  Because I wasn't surprised by the outcome?  That's a product of an overabundance of 21st century films in my diet...and also being an idiot at times.  Of course, a good-to-great movie is never about what happens...it's almost always about how it happens (to paraphrase Roger Ebert).  And this one covers the "how" in spades.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Noirvember, 2019: They Live By Night (1948)

"They Live by Night" is the first feature directed by Nicholas Ray ("Rebel Without a Cause") and with this one he entered the scene like gangbusters.   This is a small story about two star crossed lovers, Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O'Donnel) whose paths cross when Bowie and some other cons (Chicamaw "One-Eye" Mobley and Henry T-Dub Mansfield) break out of prison and hole up in the house of Chicamaw's brother (the brother is just called Mobley, he's the father of Keechie).  I suppose you could say this is a story of nurture versus nature but it's much more than that.  Ray has created a world of outcasts, characters cast off by society.  For the most part, these are characters hardened by the world they've grown up in.  "One-Eye" and his brother frequently escape into the bottle.  T-Dub is tender one moment and despicable the next.  Bowie, all 23 years of him, was sent to prison at the age of 16.  He was a carnie, got mixed up with the wrong crowd, the wrong scheme, resulting in a murder.  He's a good kid for the most part but he, like most characters in these noirs, cannot outrun his past.  Just like the previous film in this series, "Night And The City" he finds a woman that loves him and, ultimately, will be devastated by him.  Unlike the main guy from "Night And The City", Bowie might actually deserve that love.   The problem is starting over was never going to an option for him, especially once things start to circle the drain.

The unique thing about this picture is the sympathy Ray seems to have for most of these characters.  You can make the argument, I suppose, that Chicamaw and "T-Dub" (the names in this thing!) are the true villains but I don't think that one holds much water.  The villain seems to be the society that has born out these misfits and then, later, tries to destroy them.  The film opens with our three escaped cons hijacking a car and, later, abandoning it after it breaks down.  They savagely beat the driver (the beating obscured by the car itself -- I assumed they killed him, later revealed he lived) and make off on foot.  Bowie, with a broken foot at this point, is left underneath a billboard where he awaits rescue (his two cohorts make off for Chicamaw's brothers house where some money awaits).  Later that night a car appears to bring Bowie back, a car driven by Keechie.  They banter a bit but mostly Bowie wants and needs to rest.  Back at the house, a plan is hatched.  They'll rob another bank in the neighboring town.  T-Dub's sister in-law (Mattie -- a wonderful Helen Craig) gets involved.  She'd like some money to help get her husband out of jail.  They all have their motives.  Bowies plan is to secure some money, hire a lawyer, and overturn what he believes was an unjust conviction.  He's an idealist.   He truly wants a new start.   He's not the smartest guy in the room.

The robbery goes pretty well.  Until the car carrying both Chicamaw and Bowie has an accident (caused by a drunken Chicamaw).  Chicamaw shoots a police officer that stops to investigate the accident (another brutal act of violence that takes place on the other side of the car, obscuring the viewer from the killing -- This film is really well shot).  So now our escaped convicts have a murder on their hands.  The murder of a police officer.  Not something any of these guys can overcome.  Chicamaw drops Bowie off with Keechie and then flees with T-Dub.  Keechie keeps Bowie hidden for a while and then they start talking...and fall in love.  It happens pretty fast.  He still talks about moving to a new town, getting a fresh start and living the life of a good person.  She buys into it wholesale.  They hit the road.  At first by bus.  We see some good in Bowie as they make their getaway, in the way he calms a screeching baby on the bus, the fun dialogue he and Keechie share, the sad dialogue they share ("I wish we could take a chance, go into town and see a movie together.  I've always wanted to hold hands with a girl at a movie"), but these moments are too often broken by reality (upon re-boarding the bus, to Keechie "do you mind sitting by the window"?).

What we got here is a Bonnie & Clyde type deal, lovers on the run from the law and also the past.  Along the way they even get married ("Twenty dollars for a wedding?  Oughta be a law" -- Bowie).  They weigh their options ("I've always wanted to see a big city" but then again that Justice of the Peace did speak fondly of Mexico?).   They settle on a town, even make fun of people in unison (look at those butts bob up and down on the horses), hit the local nightclub where, again, reality smacks them in the face.  Not the law.   The gangsters in town make Bowie immediately, tell him to leave by midnight.  They don't need more heat than they're already producing, themselves.  He's famous apparently.  Regionally famous is still famous.  The local newspapers referring to him as "Bowie the Kid".  So, what choice is there but to leave?  They do.  News travels fast but maybe this new car they bought can travel faster.

The character of Mattie is set up as a villain but she's not that all all, in the end.  She just wants her husband back.  Her "villainy" brought on by circumstance and desperation.  When Bowie and Keechie show up, begging her for a place to stay she relents.  The cops have their mitts all over her, however, and her betrayal, while awful, is understandable.  The lead detective, upon presenting her with the deal (trade in Bowie for her husband) is perplexed by the look on her face ("everyone always has that look when they make this choice").  Again, there are no bad characters in this picture.  The baddest character is probably Chicamaw.  His fate occurred offscreen, involved a failed liquor store robbery.  Ultimately destroyed by his main vice.  I don't know, not much else to say about this one.  I'm not sure I've said much of anything, to be honest.  I enjoyed it and was moved by it.  I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit choked up by the way this thing wrapped up like "Night and the City" with a man done in by fate and the woman that loved him (a noble, earned love unlike "Night") broken by fate.  "Night and the City" is the better picture but this is certainly the more human one.