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Old School Review: “Le Samouraï” (1967)

Written by Georges Pellegrin and Jean-Pierre Melville, and directed by Melville, “Le Samouraï” is another dip into the criminal world of Paris, though this time the auteur filmmaker has outdone himself and transcended the genre he helped to mold in decades prior. The first ten minutes (or so) of this film are devoid of dialogue, and masterfully precise down from the actions performed onscreen to the shots, editing, and tension building intensity as we watch our silent Samouraï rise from bed and head outside to steal a car right off the street. Just after the opening credits, which play over our Samouraï smoking in bed, a quote appears, “There is no solitude greater than that of the Samurai. Unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle… perhaps…” and although it is ascribed to the Bushidō Code, it was actually an invention of Melville’s. Beyond the accuracy of the quote’s origin, the atmosphere that it conjures is the perfect set-up for the film that is to follow.

After the Samouraï has stolen a car off the street, he heads to a garage just down a side street whose door slides down right after he enters. The Samouraï gets out and stands off to the side, smoking, while the only other man in the garage tends to those pesky license plates. The familiarity and relaxed gestures between the men suggests that this same scenario has played out many times before, still without any dialogue though. After the mechanic has swapped out new license plates, he hands the Samouraï some papers, and our wordless warrior extends his hand- not for a handshake though, as the mechanic reaches into another drawer and pulls out a pistol and places it in the Samouraï’s hand. He then dispenses a wad of money for the mechanic and drives off. This whole sequence is the perfect example of why this movie works so well- it stands out in the execution. If it were any other director running the show, that scene would never have the odd sense of tension that runs alongside the curiosity of the moment. Melville’s pared down and condensed all of the skills he acquired through his previous tough guy noir films and streamlined them into a film that asks you to pay attention to the actions onscreen, for they hold the most narrative weight here. The whole first act is about our Samouraï taking every proactive and methodical step in his code of conduct to assure a clean getaway. He’s busy setting up alibis all over town in preparation for his night. He goes to Jane Lagrange’s (Nathalie Delon) apartment, his lover who promises to vouch for him if the cops come questioning, which is also where we finally get a name for our Samouraï, Jef Costello (Alain Delon). Costello also stops at a game of cards to see if they’ll be awake all night, which they will, so he plans to arrive back later in the dead of night. At this point, we still don’t know what Costello’s goal is, though if the audience is familiar with the director’s work, we can only guess that it is a criminal act of some sort. We get our answer when Costello waltzes into a nightclub and into a back room where he’s face to face with a man behind a desk who asks “Who are you?” Costello responds, “It doesn’t matter.“- perplexed the man then asks, “What do you want?” and Costello responds emotionlessly, “To kill you.” Which he does in that instant while the club’s Pianist (Cathy Rosier) is playfully clanging away on the keys.

Unfortunately for Costello, he was spotted by roughly five witnesses on his escape from the nightclub. He’s brought in for the lineup with the French Police canvassing entire neighborhoods for the killer. What follows is an intense few scenes where the Police Comissioner (François Périer) interrogates the amassed subjects thoroughly. He’s brought in the exact five witnesses that saw Costello leaving the nightclub, though only two believe he’s the culprit. Costello sits through some intensive questioning while the comissioner’s men contact his alibi, Jane, and bring both her and her older, wealthy, partner Wiener (Michel Boisrond) in to the station. Luckily, Costello had planned for this and had made sure that he was seen by Wiener as he was exiting Jane’s apartment earlier in the night at the right time. After both Wiener correctly picks Costello out from a crowd of similarly dressed suspects, and the Pianist (who definitely saw him at the scene of the crime) denies that he’s the killer she saw, the Samouraï is allowed to go.

Even though the Police Comissioner doesn’t have any proof that Costello did anything wrong, he has a gut instinct that the eternally poker-faced Costello is lying. He sends a few men to tail him as he personally goes after Jane, who supported Costello’s alibi, and in a rather slimey scene the Comissioner has a team of men turn her apartment upside down and leaves her with a threatening demeanor. Meanwhile, half the police force tails Costello in an entertaining cat-and-mouse chase scene throughout the Subway Metro. After Costello successfully evades the police he meets with a middle-man from his, let’s call it an Assassin’s Guild, to get paid and to assure his superiors that his being brought in for questioning meant nothing. However, the powers-that-be had already decided that this series of events deemed Costello unfit for their purposes and had a hired gun shoot him from afar during the meeting. Amid the chaos, Costello retreats and sees to his wounds while he becomes the most wanted man in Paris. After he heals a bit, he goes to the nightclub and stares down the Pianist from the bar. While Costello’s facial expression rarely changes in any tangible way, we must assume that his dilemma is one of confusion, perplexed by the Pianist’s choice not to turn him in when questioned by the Comissioner. There’s a short scene where he rides with her to her home and oddly enough, she seems to be unafraid of him despite knowing he’s a killer. He explains his dilemma to her, a stranger, who is probably the only person he could open up to. Later, when he returns home he’s met by a hidden intruder, his contact in the earlier botched meeting. The guild has changed its’ mind after some consideration and the middle-man offers Costello two million francs and another job. When he doesn’t answer, the middle-man inquires, “Nothing to say?” to which Costello replies, “Not with a gun on me.” smirking, the middle-man prods, “Is that a principle?” Face unchanging, Costello remarks, “A habit.” Which prompts the mediator to put his gun away and one of the coolest beats in the film is concluded with an explosion of action as Costello immediately jabs the intruder square in the face and steals his gun. Having turned the tables, he prompts the mediator to give up the address of his boss, Olivier Rey (Jean-Pierre Posier).

So, I may have over indulged in this review in plot description, but it’s mainly because I just adored the film if I’m being honest with you. Though it is less about the things that happened, and more about how these things came to pass. I’ll leave the ending out of this one for you to discover and enjoy, but admittedly I got fairly close to the end in this review. What struck me about this film is how silent it was. This was an incredibly effective use of silence, it only served to strengthen the otherworldliness that permeates the film. From the desaturated color palatte to the dreamlike presentation of people and events, Melville crafted an incredibly unique neo-noir here that probably inspired countless characters and ideas throughout the decades. I could easily see the world of “John Wick” inspired by this film, or something like the stillness of Alain Delon’s performance of Jef Costello being a point of inspiration for Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride in “Ad Astra”. Who knows how much influence the film really had over the years, but what I do know is that this film exceeded my expectations, and is a new favorite of mine. Check it out if you can!

Final Score: 1 Bird

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Old School Review: “Le Deuxième Souffle” (1966)

*Warning: There will be spoilers in this review*

Title translation: “Second Wind”

Written by José Giovanni and Jean-Pierre Melville, and directed by Melville, “Le Deuxième Souffle” is a crime thriller adapted from a novel also written by Giovanni. Of the three films I’ve seen from Melville at this point, this is my new favorite from him. While the cinematography isn’t as showy as previous films, the story and characters are far more engaging and rapturous. The story is mainly focused on recently escaped and infamous Parisian criminal Gustave Minda (Lino Ventura), or “Gu” for short, and the expert Inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse) who relentlessly pursues him. Now, the plot and story at hand may seem familiar, but it is Melville’s stage direction, camera framing, and restrained performances that he pulls from his actors that make this noir film stand out from the crowd. So, after “Gu” breaks out of prison with two others (one unfortunate prisoner missed his jump, the second was eventually chased off a cliff by the police), he heads to Paris to see his loyal sister Simone (Christine Fabréga), who goes by her nickname ‘Manouche’ throughout the film. She and her bodyguard, Alban (Michel Constantin), work various aspects of a bar called “Ricci’s”. Manouche and Alban get caught in the crossfire of an orchaestrated attack on the bar before “Gu” arrives in Paris, but Alban fends them off from behind the bar while Jacques (Raymond Loyer), Manouche’s admirer, is found to be the only casualty. When “Gu” does arrive back in town he takes his sister’s blackmail problems into his own hands. “Gu” catches two more men sent to Manouche’s house after the attack and kills them with his trademark technique. With the blackmail settled, the three of them, Manouche, Alban, and “Gu” plan to smuggle the infamous criminal to Italy by way of Marseille.

Meanwhile, Inspector Blot is all over every possible trace of evidence connected to the infamous Gustave Minda’s recent escape from prison, and in fact, he’s the first person on the scene of the attack at Ricci’s. Though no one there will give Blot any verifiable accounts of the attack, he knows their game all too well and makes his presence well known, for while the attack didn’t resemble “Gu”s handiwork- Blot knew the old gangster would be heavily invested in the safety of his sister. Blot, for his part, is a damn crafty Inspector and knows all the ins and outs of the criminal underworld- he calculates his risks seriously, and his deductive reasoning is unparalled in the world of this film. To fund the escape to Italy, “Gu” decides to join up with a crew for a heist with a gigantic payout, much to Manouche’s objection. “Gu” finds this opportunity through another old friend of his, Orloff (Pierre Zimmer), who was originally asked to be a part of the heist, but declined due to the risk associated. “Gu” finds himself in familiar company with the crew assembled as Paul Ricci (Raymond Pellegrin), brother of Jo Ricci (Marcel Bozzuffi) who owns the bar Ricci’s, is the lead organizer of the operation. Gustave doesn’t find out until later that it was Jo Ricci who blackmailed Manouche at the beginning of the film, though when he does, he lets Paul know that his brother ‘isn’t on the up and up‘ and decides to let it go due to their friendship. The heist is pretty simple as far as heists go, an armored truck carrying one million francs worth of platinum in its cargo has a long route out through the country with two armed police motorcyles escorting it. Once the armored truck and police motorcade enter the mountainous terrain where the gangsters lay in wait, the heist goes surprisingly well. The motorcade is dispatched effectively as planned and the truck drivers are stowed in a nearby shed. The only diversion is a passerby who stopped because he thought he heard shots- but “Gu” solves the issue and tosses the onlooker into the shed with the others. The crew returns and hides the platinum until they can find an approrpriate seller.

Unfortunately for “Gu”, he’s kidnapped in broad daylight and tricked into revealing that Paul Ricci was involved in the heist as Blot’s team impersonated local gangsters from Marseille with insider information. Inspector Fardiano (Paul Frankeur) of the Marseille Police department receives the two gangsters, they’re heavily tortured as they attempt to break both “Gu” and Paul, though eventually “Gu” escapes. Jo Ricci wants revenge for his jailed brother, and to get “Gu”s portion of the platinum’s revenue. Jo Ricci works the other two members of the crew in the heist and convinces them to side with him, fearing that “Gu” could give up their names to the cops as well. After escaping the Marseille Police Department, “Gu” tracks down Inspector Fardiano and kills him after obtaining a written confession that Gustave Minda did not inform on anyone, and the details of the torture techniques they used in their “information gathering”. The film comes down to a shootout between “Gu”, the two remaining heist members, and Jo Ricci as he takes Orloff’s place in a meeting and shows up with two pistols and a whole lot of righteous criminal honor to uphold. All are killed in the commotion, with Blot arriving just as “Gu” dies on the staircase. Blot heads out of the crime scene and into the crowd, as he does, he purposefully leaves Fardiano’s confession at the feet of a journalist- Blot played by the rules, and Fardiano was just another bad cop to be swept under the rug.

This was another really solid noir film from Melville and it only encourages me to seek out more from the Godfather of the French New Wave film movement. Classic genre tropes with tough guy gangsters, prison escapes, heists, shootouts, this film cleverly includes all the usual ingredients of a typical noir film, but the genius here is in the execution. Yes, the film is two-and-a-half hours, but for me at least, the pacing was very manageable and I was engaged for the whole film’s runtime. If you’re looking for a great rivalry between an unflappable Detective and an infamous Gangster then look no further, you’ve found it! Enjoy!

Final Score: 200 Million Francs

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Old School Review: “Le Doulos” (1962)

*Warning: There will be spoilers in this review in order to more effectively discuss the film.*

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and adapted from a novel written by Pierre Lesou, “Le Doulos” is another criminal caper from Melville that examines the paranoia and uneasy friendships between gangsters and thieves. This was an interesting film that effectively utilized confusion and intentionally misleading filmwork to hide the true intentions of the characters involved. It reminded me a lot of “Inherent Vice” or “The Big Lebowski” where the plot can seem fuzzy and incoherent, but the magic comes through when looking back at the film as a whole. This film isn’t exactly about the double crossings, who did what at which location or even at what time, this film feels a bit looser than say “Bob le Flambeur” in its details. “Le Doulos” is more concerned with the look of a gangster in a trenchcoat at night, in the rain, with a snap-brim hat and a slowly burning cigarette hanging from the corner of the shadowy figure’s mouth. That’s not to say the character work isn’t good fun, but it all feels like mere dressing for the actors’ to look cool and be gangsters that are both aloof, yet highly invested in their code of criminal honor.

Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) has just gotten out of prison after serving a six year sentence for a previously botched job, and he’s out for revenge. Maurice makes his way to Gilbert’s (René Lefèvre) place initially. While Gilbert, the fence, and Maurice were once close friends, Maurice found out that Gilbert had his girlfriend killed after he was sent to prison just to make sure she wouldn’t talk to the cops, and thus, Gilbert had to go. Maurice quickly takes the money, jewels, and Gilbert’s gun and buries it all next to a lamppost not far away from the murder scene. Maurice then moves on to a small and uncomplicated robbery in a wealthy suburb and gets in contact with his old friend, Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who helps provide a few essential tools for the low level heist. Silien’s burden in the underworld of crime is his reputation for being a “doulos” (or informant) for his friendship with inspector Salignari (Daniel Crohem). Unfortunately for Maurice and his partner in crime, Remy (Philippe Nahon), their burglary was interrupted by the police and ended with a shootout in which both Remy and Inspector Salignari are shot dead with Maurice only getting a bullet in the shoulder as he ran for his life. This results in the best cinematography of the film in which Maurice darts away from the shootout scene and the camera stays pointedly fixed on him as it keeps pace with him which makes the world racing by seem all that more frantic and fuzzy. Maurice runs until he collapses and a mysterious car pulls up before a cut to Jean’s (Philippe March) apartment, a friend of Maurice’s, in which neither he nor Jean’s wife Anita (Paulette Breil) knows how he got there. There’s a few scenes in which it’s not initially easy to identify if we’re looking at Silien or Maurice at times as the characters are dressed similarly in the stereotypical Noir film ‘outfit‘, and that plays very much into the assumptions the audience builds about Silien throughout the first half of the film. We see Silien tie up and interrogate Maurice’s current girlfriend Thérèse (Monique Hennessy) and tie her to a radiator at one point, we also see him find and take the money, jewels, and gun that Maurice buried at the beginning of the film, and we also get the recurrent theme of the gangster performing a few last tasks before ‘getting out of the game for good’. Due to his plans to get out of the underbelly of Parisian crime, we get a scene with Silien courting the girlfriend, Fabienne (Fabienne Dali), of a notorious local gangster Nuttheccio (Michel Piccoli). She wants out from under the thug’s thumb, so she agrees to a plan formed by Silien. During this time Maurice is furious at Silien as he thinks that his friend could be the only one to have sold him out to the cops, and after the cops previously shook down Silien earlier in the film Maurice was fingered for Gilbert’s death but he couldn’t be pinned down for it so he was returned to jail for refusing to give up information. While in prison Maurice meets Kern (Carl Studer), whom he hires to kill Silien for this transgression.

So, while Maurice is in prison, Silien enacts his plan with Fabienne. They lure Nuttheccio and his business partner Armand (Jacques De Leon) into coming to Nuttheccio’s office where Silien lay hidden in darkness and kills them but not before getting Nuttheccio to open his safe so Silien can plant the money, jewels, and Gilbert’s gun to make it look like they killed each other over the spoils accrued from Gilbert’s death. Fabienne backed up the account of their deaths and Maurice was set free. However, since Maurice still believed that Silien sold him out in the first place, he , Jean, and Silien all meet at a cafe where Silien explains himself, and how the real informant was actually Thérèse- who was mysteriously killed by Silien earlier in the film when he pushed her in a rolling car off a cliff. In truth, Silien was actually looking out for Maurice the whole time. His only two friends in the world were inspector Salignari and Maurice, whom Silien went to great lengths to help out, after all, he had to uphold his honor as a fellow criminal. Silien announces his intent to move out to the country with Fabienne, and then happily departs the cafe. However, it dawns on Maurice that he still has a hit out on Silien and rushes back to his friend’s place to tell Kern that the hit is off. He beats Silien to the house and walks through the doors only to be mistaken by Kern for Silien and is shot immediately. Silien arrives shortly after and finds Maurice dying on the floor who warns him that Kern is there hiding behind the screen divider as he dies in Silien’s arms. Silien then fires into the wooden screen as Kern stumbles forward and falls to the floor- but in the flash of an eye as Silien turns back to Maurice, Kern raises his arm and shoots Silien in the back before dying. Silien stumbles, and haphazardly makes his way to a mirror before adjusting his hat and falling over dead.

This was a solid noir film, and if you’re looking to learn more about the essentials of the sub-genre then I’d highly suggest this one. It’s not the most easily digestible Noir film out there though, if you’ve gotten a lot of the American classics down then this will be a welcome addition. However, if you have not seen a lot of Noir cinema I suggest seeking out “The Maltese Falcon”, “Chinatown”, “The Third Man”, or “Touch of Evil” first. Those will give you a great foundation before bounding deeper into this corner of film history.

Final Score: 2 cases of mistaken identity

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Old School Review: “Bob le Flambeur” (1955)

Written by Auguste Le Breton, and Jean-Pierre Melville and directed by Melville, “Bob le Flambeur” is a French noir film from the oft described Godfather of the infamous New Wave filmmakers who would burst onto the scene with radical new filmmaking techniques in just a few short years. Most of the French films I have seen at this point haven’t quite connected with me as much as I had expected, or even hoped for. That changes with this film however. Recently I noticed that a bunch of Jean-Pierre Melville movies were set to leave the Criterion Collection’s streaming service at the end of February, and I had been meaning to check them out. There’s nothing like a fast approaching deadline to give you a sense of focus. I must say that I loved this film, and I cannot wait to run through more of Melville’s filmography. “Bob le Flambeur” follows Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne), a former Parisian gangster before the war, and now a well known gambler among the many nightclubs and bars of the night life in Paris. Even the cops know Bob, a man of honor and luck, he once saved the life of the local inspector (Guy Decomble) and they forged a long friendship. The owner of the corner bar, Yvonne (Simone Paris), bought the place with a loan from Bob, and with it her loyalty to him. And then there’s Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), an eager young man who hangs around, as his father was a great friend of Bob’s. We get most of our information about Bob by the way people greet and react to his presence and how they speak about Bob when he’s around and when he’s not.

We follow Bob as he moves from room to room throughout the latest hours of the night and the earliest of the morning, as the narration by Melville informs us “in those moments, between night and day … between heaven and hell.” He ends up losing most of his remaining funds, in fact throughout the whole first act Bob never seems to win at all. It isn’t until he hears about a potential heist with a score big enough to offset the risks that he begins to win at games of chance. It is here that a refresher on French vocabularly might be worthwhile; The word being “Flamber” (verb): To wager not only the money you have, but the money you don’t have. This is the epitome of who Bob is at his core. He is a gambler through and through, always rolling dice, flipping coins, and pulling the levers on a slot machine. Risk and chance are the fuel of his existence. Which is why the old gangster perks up when a friend mentions that the safe in the Casino in Deauville occasionally holds extraordinary amounts of money. They quickly begin to assess the situation and start gathering a crew of people with the essential skills and connections that could allow them to pull off this feat. It’s here that movies involving heists over the next fifty plus years have looked back upon for inspiration in the examination of a heist’s plan. Melville was aware enough of the conventions of the genre and chose to have his criminals forgo the usual charts and blueprints used to elaborate on the specifics of the plan. Instead, Melville had his crew go to detailed lengths to plan out their heist by spraying the outlines of the casino’s floorplans on an empty field and having his men walk through the steps. They also get some reconnaissance by driving around the Casino’s walls and having one of the crew accurately sketch the outlines and specific features of the building. They hire an expert safe cracker and acquire an exact replica of the safe they have to crack for practice. Which is all well and good, but I must direct your attention to the side characters who are all given adequate background information and motivations for their choices within the film. First, there’s Anne (Isabelle Corey), a young woman on the verge of falling into the clutches of the many pimps on the streets of Paris. Bob hates pimps, and he goes out of his way to make it known to Marc (Gérard Buhr), a down on his luck former gangster-turned-pimp early in the film. Unfortunately for Bob, Marc’s also dogged by the cops who will let him slide on smaller infractions if he gets them some good insider information from the criminal underworld of Paris. Anne floats around from Bob’s place (he allows her to stay if she has nowhere else to go), to several career paths, into and out of the lovesick arms of poor Paulo, and eventually back to Marc- who is denied her business as a prostitute, but given all too valuable information by accident.

In the end, Bob gets comepletely sidetracked by gambling at the casino. He almost forgets his schedule entirely, but runs out of the tables and into a gunfight. While he earned himself extraordinary wealth, he also missed the worst of the violence and gets there just in time to catch Paulo as he dies in his arms. Tragedy, sparked by an optimistic and oddly cynical note that by becoming so wealthy that he may avoid all jail time with the right lawyer for the right price. It’s one of those eternal ironies that comes through in the third act that adds just the right mix of cinematic magic to the whole affair, you see, Bob had promised his first partner in the scheme that he wouldn’t gamble until after the job had been done, but the allure of the casino was just too much for him. It’s just his nature, as the film likes to remind us. Beyond the plot, the cinematography caught me as something almost mythic in certain shots. That may seem strong, but the farther we get from the black and white films of the twentieth century, the closer that time feels to becoming as large and impenetrable in the cultural zeitgeist as say, the American West in the 1800’s. Maybe it’s just me, but I also love it when a film’s lead character travels through an environment and becomes dwarfed by the landscape, be it man-made skyscrapers or small towns, or natural like trees or mountains. Putting man on the scale of the world in your framing makes humanity seem small in comparison to the world around it- but it makes our acomplishments that much more powerful too.

If you’re looking for some good old school noir and are willing to read subtitles, I highly suggest checking this one out. For fun, try to spot all the people who aren’t smoking onscreen- once you notice it, it’s hard to miss the massive amount of people and time that smoking takes up onscreen. Otherwise, look forward to some more reviews on the films from Jean-Pierre Melville. ‘Til next time film nerds!

Final Score: 800 Million Francs

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Old School Review: “The Hidden Fortress” (1958)

Written by Ryûzô Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “The Hidden Fortress” is an adventure comedy that notably inspired George Lucas in his crafting of the original “Star Wars”. The film follows two peasants, Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) trying to return home after being conscripted into a regional war. They provide the levity in the film, which is more frequently in use here than the majority of Kurosawa’s work (of the films of his that I’ve seen at least). We begin the film with these two bemoaning their predicament after having gotten to the war two days late and forced to bury the dead. They wander across a desolate landscape towards home but find the border now controlled by the recently victorious kingdom, thus forcing them to find an alternate route home through separate kingdoms adjoining one another.

A few scenes later the two stumble across a gold bar lodged inside a wooden stick while making a fire for the night. Bewildered at their luck, Matashichi and Tahei make a mad dash in the morning to find more of the hidden gold. In their frantic efforts, which mostly consist of them bickering over how to divide the gold, they stumble into Rokurota Makabe (Toshirô Mifune), a well known general of the defeated kingdom- though they do not recognize him. After telling him their plan to travel through a neighboring region to avoid the newly established checkpoints, Rokurota recruits them to his cause through clever manipulation as he leads them to the eponymous Hidden Fortress. He keeps them busy for awhile by suggesting that the rest of the gold may be buried near the fortress. During that time he retreats to the waterfall hideout of Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), the nobility left in power after his kingdom’s destruction. There they craft a plan alongside Izumi Nagakura (Takashi Shimura), the elder general, to use the peasants’ idea for their route and to enlist them to help carry the royal family’s remaining gold back home. They also decide to have the Princess pretend to be mute as to avoid detection as she could accidentally reveal herself through speech usually characteristic of nobility. The troupe, consisting of Rokurota, Princess Yuki, Matashichi and Tahei then depart hauling the hidden gold on their backs and in a large cart.

The rest of the adventure is full of high energy moments like the lance (spear?) duel between Rokurota and Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), a general of equivalent rank and status. There’s also quieter beats of tension like the numerous times Matashichi and Tahei create new problems for Rokurota and Yuki by either plotting to steal the gold for themselves or their general fear of getting caught with all this gold. Eventually they sneak into a procession of people marching with hordes of wood towards a fire festival nearby- thus blending into the crowd to avoid being stopped by any watchmen. There’s a lot to like in “The Hidden Fortress” so I’ll spare you all the details for your own discovery, though it is most certainly worth a watch! This film feels like a tonal standout from Kurosawa’s other works. There’s no self serious moral message or compelling heroics, or even universally relatable characters as in other films of his. This film feels most at ease with it’s premise, a high stakes energetic comedy with a sensation similar to those punchy adventure serials from American cinema from the previous two decades before this film’s release. It’s clearly crafted by a master director if you’re paying attention though. Kurosawa’s deft hand at directing and filming is on display for those analyzing shot structure and the handling of movement and blocking. In fact, there’s a scene early in the film before Matashichi and Tahei encounter Rokurota, that’s reminiscent of the ‘Odessa Steps’ scene from “Battleship Potemkin” (also reviewed on the blog @ https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/spacecortezwrites.com/11007) in which dozens upon dozens of people descend down a huge staircase against a horde of guards with guns shooting into the crowd. There’s some question as to whether or not Kurosawa was directly homaging Potemkin, but I imagine he was aware of that uniquely important film at the very least.

If you have any interest in getting into Japanese cinema, this is an easy entry point and I highly recommend it. Especially because it will likely lead you to other excellent films by Kurosawa, or dare I say it, the work of Mizoguchi or Ozu. It’s like recent Academy Award winner Bong Joon-ho infamously said “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” The man couldn’t be more right. So if you’re new to foreign cinema, welcome, and if you’re a well worn visitor to the land of subtitles and a difference in perspective, welcome back! ‘Til next time film nerds!

Final Score: Two Peasants, One Princess

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Old School Review: “Shoot The Piano Player” (1960)

*As this film is sixty years old, there will be spoilers.*

Written and directed by François Truffaut, “Shoot The Piano Player” is an adaption of the noir novel “Down There” by David Goodis. Ironically, this was Truffaut’s 2nd film after “The 400 Blows” and the second film of his I’ve seen (The first being “Breathless” which is also reviewed on this blog). This film has heartened me to the infamous French ‘New Wave’ filmmaker far more than “Breathless” did, which isn’t to say that I disliked that film, “Shoot The Piano Player” simply kept my attention far easier. Perhaps this is due to Truffaut wanting to showcase the influence American films had on his work, or because of it’s non-linear story structure that reveals character development and evolution through elaborate flashbacks. Either way, I rather enjoyed this film by Truffaut.

The film opens with a man in a trenchcoat being pursued for unknown reasons through the streets of Paris at night. We get a short conversation between the man and a stranger who’s helped him off his feet after a short tumble. They stride in a casual pace and ponder the intricacies of love and marriage before the stranger turns off another street and our focus rips back into a hurried flurry as our man enters a small, dingy, jazz bar filled with dancing patrons. There we discover that the man we’ve followed here is Chico Saroyan (Albert Rémy), brother of the pianist Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour), who is irked when Chico flippantly calls him Edouard in a teasing manner. Chico’s on the run from a couple of gangsters that he’d scammed out of their share of a heist, and they’re onto him. He pleads for Charlie’s help, but Charlie’s uninterested- he left his family behind awhile ago- but he still stalls the two thugs when they barge into the bar anyways. Eventually the two gangsters track down Charlie and the waitress Léna (Marie Dubois) from the bar, as they saw him with her later that night, and they nab both off the street at gunpoint. They escape with the help of an inquiring police officer and flee before the film takes a huge flashback that encompasses (what feels like) most of the second act. Léna then takes Charlie back to her apartment to hide out where she reveals that she always knew of his past as Edouard Saroyan, famous piano player that sold out concert halls all over Paris.

We’re then treated to a lengthy deep dive into Edouard’s past as he began practicing piano, courted a waitress, Thérèse (Nicole Berger), at a local diner and eventually married her before he got famous as a world class performer. Eventually they grow apart with the wealth and fame going to Edouard’s head as they continually fight over seemingly trivial issues that are actually clues to the much deeper issues growing between them. A few surprising reveals later and we discover the source of Edouard’s inner sadness and general melancholy towards the world around him before cutting back to the present. After they decide to quit the bar life Edouard and Léna work towards rescuing Fido (Richard Kanayan) the youngest Saroyan brother from the two gangsters. Unfortunately for them, Plyne (Serge Davri) the lummox tending the bar, has become enraged at Edouard’s advances toward Léna. A fight then breaks out between them that ends in the back alley with Edouard stabbing a knife into Plyne’s back! Though Edouard had tried to stop the fight, Plyne would not yield- the women had seen him take up such a cause and he was committed to finishing it, quite the bad luck. Thus, with blood on his hands, Edouard decides to head out to the old Saroyan farmhouse with Chico and Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), the eldest Saroyan brother. It’s not long before the two gangstera arrive with Fido in tow to confront Chico and retrieve their portion of the stolen money. There’s a shootout in the snow and everything essentially gets resolved with Léna informing Edouard that the police absolved him of his crimes as multiple neighbors had seen him try to stop Plyne in the fight. It was self defense after all. Unfortunately, Léna got caught in the ensuing crossfire and didn’t make it back to Paris. Fido was reunited with his brothers though. The film ends with Edouard returning to that same dingy dive bar and sitting back down at his crummy piano to play once more, while staring blankly into space as the film fades out.

This film had a more playful edge than “Breathless”, despite carrying heavier plot points overall, but I believe this helped to buoy the film more evenly as a whole. You can definitely see the influence of American Noir films here in Truffaut’s second film, but more specifically you can feel the presence of Alfred Hitchcock clearly and knowingly. So while this is most certainly a French film in the 1960s (Multiple instances of smoking in bed, sensations of nihilism sparking into poetic manifestos before swinging back into nonchalance, and a very loose and undefinable playfulness when concerned with intimacy and sexuality), you can rest assured that the film has a destination at the end, with a more focused narrative- which might just be preference- but it worked for me! Check this one out if you can.

Final Score: 2 Gangsters

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Old School Review: “The Evil Dead” (1981)

Written and directed by Sam Raimi, “The Evil Dead” is the quintessential archetype of the “Cabin in the Woods” style of horror films. Recently, a group of friends and I rewatched Sam Raimi’s masterpiece indie horror cult classic- and it dawned on me that I had never written about it here in the blog. There’s no time like the present they say, so, here I am. First, there will be spoilers- but I highly recommend the film if you’ve never seen it, it’s one of my all time favorite horror films. In the film, five young Michigan State University students travel through the Tennessee mountains to vacation in a remote cabin. Their journey there takes them through increasingly abandoned roads and eventually through a two-track trail deep into the forest. In a bit of unnerving foreshadowing their final descent involves crossing a rickety wooden bridge in Raimi’s 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88, affectionately nicknamed “The Classic”.

Once the group reaches the cabin, an ominous porch swing continuously slams into the side of the cabin walls until Ash (Bruce Campbell) unlocks the front door with a skeleton key ring above the door’s mantel. The five friends all settle in despite the creeping sense of an ominous force in their midst. One of the girls, Ash’s sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), is drawing the clock on the wall but becomes weakly posessed for a moment as she’s forced to frantically draw a crude rendering of the infamous Necronomicon, or “Book of the Dead”. Then shortly afterwards at dinner, the trapdoor to the cellar abruptly flies open. Ash and Scott (Richard DeManincor) investigate the occurence and wander through the basement, to which they discover a litany of bad omens in a secluded room. Daggers, bones, and a filthy book bound in human flesh and inked in blood are all on display, at which point Ash and Scott laugh at the oddity and decide to take the items upstairs for a goof. They also found an archaeologist’s tape recorder which they play at their peril. In the tape the archaeologist describes the phenomenon that they are about to experience in which ancient Sumerian rituals raise demonic spirits. Cheryl asks them to stop the tape, but Scott insists they hear the end, and when he turns the tape back on the archaeologist has begun reciting the incantations that stir and wake the slumbering demonic forces of evil, eager to posess their latest victims. Initially The Evil Dead stalk their victims from the shadows before going all out on the college students. Cheryl keeps hearing voices clamoring for her to “Join us” and eventually goes out into the woods to confront them- which is a massive mistake as the trees attack her and in one of the most disturbing scenes of the film, rape her with swarming tree branches and sticks. It’s gruesome and horrifying, but it certainly sets up this supernatural phenomenon as one of absolute Evil.

The rest of the film is the blueprint for hundreds of homages, tribute scenes, and essential structure for horror movies utilizing remote locations with teenage protagonists set against something usually quite awful. While the whole film is wrought with excellent suspense and eerie ongoings, the second half of the film is where its at. The practical effects employed in the making of this film are truly stunning and crazily inventive for the time and genre. Once the film gets into it’s third act it gets absolutely bonkers with gore and over the top violence. It’s disgusting, revolting- nauseating even! The fact that the special effects of this indie horror movie still hold up roughly forty years later is effective proof of the film’s cult success and it’s unending rewatchability. Raimi’s direction and camera movement choices help prod the film even further into the absurdism of the third act. His inclusion of extreme dutch angles during Ash’s descent into madness and paranoia are filmed with wonderful speed and ferocity. Especially memorable are the scenes where the mirror turns to water and the comically dark beat where Ash tries to give his obviously dying friend Scott a drink of water that pours down his face as Ash confidentally tries to tell him they’ll all make it out alive.

If you’ve only ever seen Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films from the early 2000’s, I highly recommend you give his earlier work a shot. “The Evil Dead” movies that Raimi and Campbell worked on together share a crazy, manic, and creative spirit, and that’s inspiring. If you’re wondering why so many film nerds are excited by the recent news that Sam Raimi will be directing the “Doctor Strange” sequel, beyond his Spidey films, these horror films showcase a truly intense and massively creative talent behind the camera. We can only hope Raimi’s indie roots stick with him through his introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a bright future in film folks!

Final Score: 1 Ash, 4 Deadites

For fun, check out this article which takes a look at “The Classic”s many appearances throughout Sam Raimi’s filmography:

http://www.filmbuffonline.com/FBOLNewsreel/wordpress/2013/04/09/the-classic-sam-raimi-and-the-1973-oldsmobile-delta-88/