One fine July day, while better cyclists were battling for a yellow jersey in France, we drove up to Montauk on the far tip of Long Island for a day of trail and mountain biking in Hither Hills state park. It was a gorgeous day, and despite getting caught in crawling parade of Hamptons traffic on our way up and the sundry tailgating, over-aggressive at 10mph assholes those towns seem to attract, there was nothing that could dim our spirits on such a beautifully hot, sunny July day.
Macao starring one of our favorite half-asleep actors, Robert Mitchum, is an exceptionally good thriller, not exactly a noir film but a solid old school crime thriller with good pacing, cool characters, and a great twist. Despite the exotic setting, it doesn’t bank too heavily on the “shadowy Chinatown” style of filmmaking, and there are no Caucasians in fake eyelids parading about. Actually, no, there is apparently one, but it’s so well done that i didn’t even notice. In fact, there are very few Asian characters at all, other than a couple of assassins and a lot of background extras. Instead, the film focuses on a small group of ex-patriots who have converged on the infamously decadent and borderline lawless Portuguese colony.
I was staring directly into the fissure — a ragged scar that ripped across the face of the asphalt and heaved up mounds of broken black rock on either side of the opening, leading off into the swaying scrub that grew alongside the road. I read the sign, photographed for posterity the warning that I was standing on top of an underground fire. This was Centralia, just about smack-dab in the middle of eastern Pennsylvania, the heart of anthracite coal mining country. Below me — I wasn’t sure exactly how deep — was the fire that brought me here and sent everyone else away, burning since 1962 and showing no interest in extinguishing itself or being extinguished by the occasional intervening hand of man.
Common knowledge holds that the character of James Bond is vastly different in the books than he is in the movies, that the literary Bond is far more ruthless, cunning, and mean — a real bastard, if you will — while Bond even as played by Sean Connery is a bit more playful and whimsical. I decided it was high time I filled in the gaps and started reading the Fleming novels, and there seemed no better place to begin than with the first one, Casino Royale. In the end, Casino Royale would prove to be a bit rough around the edges — Fleming’s Titus Andronicus, if you will — but the seeds of what would become a long-lived worldwide phenomena are there. It begins with a simple but highly interesting idea: a Russian agent, Le Chiffre, with a penchant for the good life has “borrowed” a ton of money earmarked for the Communist party in France. And then he lost it all.
It was a good plan for as long as it was working. You’d managed to sneak into the sprawling underground lair disguised as a member of an exotic dance troupe hired to entertain the madman’s private army. The dance number was opulent, and you managed to maneuver yourself close to your target while still maintaining the beat on your tabla. But then his right hand man remembered you from a grainy photo handed over by a traitor somewhere in the ranks of Interpol. Suddenly you find yourself tied down in front of the villain in his egg-shaped plastic chair. He’s going to kill you. An alligator pit perhaps, or some sort of slow moving laser so he can savor your demise. But first, he will do two things: explain his entire nefarious scheme for world domination, and offer you a last drink. That drink will almost certainly be a blended scotch whisky.
“It’s bad enough to have a ship that looks like this and a captain who looks like me without having a chief officer who looks like you.” — Captain Alan Gaskell
When the winds roar and the rain whips at the streaked windows of my abode on tumultuous Saturday nights, plunging the world into an inhospitable maelstrom of rumbling thunder and fury that sinks all aspirations of going out for a gay night on the town, there are few things that make me feel warmer and more comfortable than pouring myself a tumbler of bourbon and curling up with an old black and white movie full or romance, adventure, dashing leads, and bombshell femme fatales. And on nights such as those, the 1935 high seas adventure romance China Seas delivers an abundance of everything I hope for in such a film, along with more uses of the words “Toots” per minute than any film previously or since made.
Inhabiting the skin of hard-drinking steamer captain Alan Gaskell, Clarke Gable is picture perfect as he struggles to pilot his ship from Hong Kong Harbor to Singapore, doing his best to avoid rip roaring typhoons and marauding Malay pirates. This being an adventure movie, of course, he will successfully avoid neither. But he will look damn good while failing. As the tough talking, hard drinking ship captain who trades sneers and insults and kisses with Jean Harlow’s chain smoking, street tough “China Doll” Portland, Gable crackles with energy and charisma. And Harlow’s somewhat obnoxious Portland matches him sneer for sneer, insult for insult as they ply the waters of the South China Seas with a superb cast of characters, including the drunk writer, the sailor with a dark past, the wide-eyed rookie deckhand, the elegant lady, the wise old mentor with a handlebar mustache and pith helmet permanently grafted to his head, and of course the jovial businessman who ends up being a dastardly traitor.
Much of the film is taken up with banter and witty exchanges between the principals, all of whom perform remarkably well. The setting is exotic. Who wouldn’t want to be aboard an old steamer ship — one possibly laden with a secret shipment of gold — sailing across the China Seas while one dons a tux, drinks champagne, and worry about pirates? It’s a picture perfect old-school adventure setting, and that and the chemistry between the actors as they rattle off the whip-smart dialog is all this film needs to propel between its two main action setpieces. Using just the old sets and practical effects, China Seas manages to successfully convey both a ship-rattling typhoon and a pirate attack. Both sequences deliver the thrills with ease, though ultimately this is a movie carried entirely on the shoulders of Gable, and he’s more than up to the task.
If there’s any weakness in the film, it’d be Harlow’s China Doll. Most sassy femme fatales have some characteristic that makes them worthy of redemption, or at the very least, we can understand why the hero would destroy himself over this woman. But China Doll is less fatale and more just irritating. While Harlow delivers clever dialog and obviously works incredibly well alongside Gable, I found I had a hard time understanding why Gable was so haunted by their relationship with one another. And this coming from a man who willingly and actively seeks out dangerous women I know will destroy me and plunge my life into a state of decadent destruction. It’s real easy to believe the scenes where Gable looks like he just wants to haul off and dump her overboard, but less so the scenes where he supposed to be struggling with the smoldering flame of their love. But whatever — that’s love, right? And when I point this out as a potential weakness in the film, I also need to point out that it’s an extremely small weakness, and the sheer force of personality and the interplay between Gable and Harlow is more than enough to carry the film over any tiny rough patch it may hit.
Mystery, pirates, exotica, typhoons, romance, rum drinking, and Clark Gable’s pencil thin mustache and perfect old-school tough, dashing guy hair all get drawn into a script that is lean and streamlined but never crude or lacking in elegance, making China Seas cracking good adventure romance cinema from the golden age of the silver screen.
Release Date: 1935 | Country: United States | Starring: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Rosalind Russell, Dudley Digges, C. Aubrey Smith, Robert Benchley, William Henry, Liev De Maigret, Lilian Bond, Edward Brophy, Soo Yong, Carol Ann Beery, Akim Tamiroff, Ivan Lebedeff | Screenplay: Jules Furthman, James Kevin McGuinness | Director: Tay Garnett | Cinematography: Ray June | Music: Herbert Stothart | Producer: Albert Lewin | Availability: DVD (Amazon)
‘When I’m… er… concentrating,’ he explained, ‘I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad.” – Bond. James Bond.
To call James Bond a thinly veiled wish-fulfillment stand-in for author Ian Fleming is to make the hilarious presumption that there’s any veiling at all. The Bond of the novels was basically a walking, talking catalog of everything that happened to interest and delight Fleming at the time he happened to be writing that particular novel (the movie Bond, on the other hand, was modeled somewhat more closely after British director Terence Young). Whether it was a drink, a meal, or “Pinaud Elixir, that prince among shampoos,” just about everything that fills James Bond’s universe was ported over wholesale from his creator’s life. And as anyone familiar with the books or the movies knows, alcohol occupies an important — more likely the most important — place in Bond’s life. Not to mention my own. And perhaps yours as well.
If you ever want to see a scene that perfectly captures a heady air of decadence and mania without going all over the top and Caligula on you, look no further than the scene in Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture that introduces us to the opulent gambling parlor operated by the enigmatic Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson). Centered above the main gambling floor, the shot assumes a bird’s eye view of the hall and its inhabitants as it spiral downward into the fray, where people drink, gamble, and flirt with an orgiastic glee as the delirious music swells. It’s an incredibly effective and a perfect way to sum up this oddball noir drama set in the indulgent underbelly of Shanghai just prior to World War II.
Shanghai at that time was the hub of Asia, a rich seaport that every country wanted to control and where every two-bit con artist, hustler, adventurer, gambler, mercenary, and romantic could go to chase their dreams of fame, fortune, and power. It was Weimar Germany in Asia, complete with a citizenry too bleary-eyed from the decadent lifestyle prevalent in the city to realize that fascism and war was knocking on their door. The city was split up among various foreign powers all vying for increased control of the city. France had their own concession, but the International Settlement was the hub of Shanghai, and it was controlled largely by the British tai pans with input from American and French representatives as well as, as the war progressed, Japan and Germany. The population of Shanghai was truly diverse, comprised of the aforementioned nationalities as well as a massive number of Indian Sikhs, Russians and Eastern European Jews seeking asylum from the Communist Revolution and escalating Nazi persecution, respectively. The Chinese inhabitants were largely second-class citizens banned from entry into the city’s most popular places, though a number of the country’s most powerful and most famous native criminals flourished.
Set against this backdrop is the story of The Shanghai Gesture, the archetypal story of a collection of “damned souls” collected together to smoke and betray one another. Sitting in the center of the web is Mother Gin Sling, owner of one of the largest gambling and drinking establishments in the city. Ona Munson is obviously not Chinese, but if you watch old movies dealing with Asian characters, that’s nothing out of the ordinary. However, The Shanghai Gesture opts for an almost absurd approach to itself. Everything is larger than life and informed by von Sternberg’s penchant for the highly stylized, artistic approach of German expressionism. Thus Ona Munson isn’t just a Caucasian actor in fake eyelids. She’s an over-the-top near-parody of the commonplace Caucasian actor masquerading as an Asian character. Her costumes are wild, her hair and eye makeup greatly exaggerated. I doubt this was any sort of political or social commentary on whites playing Asians as much as it was simply part of von Sternberg’s overall absurdist aesthetic.
Enter into the picture British tycoon Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), who wants to shut Gin Sling’s debauched palace down to make room for his own plans for the city. Rounding out the cast of characters caught in the web are Charteris’ naive daughter (the always intoxicating Gene Tierney) who becomes corrupted by the pleasures and sins offered at the nightclub, brassy blonde Dixie (Phyllis Brooks) who comes to Shanghai and ends up getting a job at the nightclub, and suave ladies’ man con artist Doctor Omar (Victor Mature), who seduces both Phyllis and Victoria Charteris, who goes by the nickname Poppy, as a not-too-subdued allusion to an addiction and to the original story’s original setting. The Shanghai Gesture was originally a play set in an opium den, but when it made the leap to the silver screen, censors balked at the idea of having it set in such an unsavory place. Since gambling was considered a more Hayes Code-friendly vice than opium smoking, they made the switch. Sir Guy and Mother Gin Sling try to outmaneuver one another, resulting in a Lunar new Year’s feast in which Gin Sling calls together to corrupted souls that form the nucleus of the story and reveals a series of dark secrets that she hopes will keep everything and everyone under her control.
Von Sternberg, who honed his skills at creating decadence in films like The Blue Angel, expertly creates an air of sated over-indulgence in which sin and seduction has become so commonplace that the inhabitants of the city have lost all moral bearing. The sets are grand and spectacular despite this being a relatively low budget production filmed entirely on sound stages. Nothing is realistic, but everything is believable. It has a tremendous sense of style that creates grand scope where there might otherwise be none. Ona Munson’s Gin Sling wardrobe is outlandish and gorgeous, and Victor Mature looks picture-perfect as the chain-smoking Arab playboy in a smart suit and fez. Walter Huston also appears every bit the staunch and condescending British authoritarian, though he manages to invest his character with a sense of dignity and reserve that keeps him from becoming unlikable. This is largely a plot and character driven piece, and the actors have complete command of the characters and dialogue.
Despite the machinations and air of decay, there is also a sweeping sense of romance, though it’s hardly the sort of romance that makes the covers of romance novels. The Shanghai Gesture exaggerates the state of Shanghai at the time, but only just, and the whole thing take son a dreamy, almost narcotic appeal. It’s hard not to want to lose yourself in the neon-drenched back alleys and glittering nightclubs, even though you know it’s ultimately going to destroy you. There are worse ways to go, after all. More than anything else, this movie is about creating a particular atmosphere. You can’t take your eyes off the movie. It completely pulls you into this bizarre Sodom and Gomorrah of alcoholics and romantics, crushed souls and vengeful rivals.
Release Date: 1941 | Country: United States | Starring: Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Victor Mature, Ona Munson, Phyllis Brooks, Albert Bassermann, Maria Ouspenskaya, Eric Blore, Ivan Lebedeff, Mike Mazurki, Clyde Fillmore, Grayce Hampton, Rex Evans, Mikhail Rasumni, Michael Delmatoff, Marcel Dalio | Screenplay: Josef von Sternberg | Director: Josef von Sternberg | Cinematography: Paul Ivano | Music: Richard Hageman | Producer: Arnold Pressburger | Availability: DVD (Amazon)
“This was no disciplined march; it was a stampede–a stampede gigantic and terrible–without order and without a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.” — HG Wells, The War of the Worlds
My parents were always willing to indulge my state as kind of a weird kid. One year for Christmas, they got me an LP with which I would become obsessed as a kid, and one that continues to find it’s way into my playlist. It was a bizarre amalgamation of rock opera and old time radio play, featuring the voice talent of none less than Richard Burton: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. It was an impressive package for a young lad to receive, with artwork that spanned the entirety of the gatefold cover and a full-color booklet of more artwork and the story of how the record came to be. The War of the Worlds was, at the time, one of my all-time favorite books, or as all-time as you can have at the age of eight or nine. It was one of the first novels I read, along with Dracula and Frankenstein and probably something involving Encyclopedia Brown or someone. While those around me devoured the sorts of books one expects elementary school children to read, I reveled in the utter decimation of my planet, the desperation of mankind on the brink of extinction. I watched producer George Pal’s War of the Worlds film adaptation, and while I loved the movie, I was disappointed that it wasn’t the same as the book I’d grown to so adore. Similarly, I used my grass cutting money to buy a copy of the infamous Orson Welles radio broadcast of the story on cassette. Again, though, while it was great, it wasn’t my War of the Worlds — in that it wasn’t really HG Wells’ War of the Worlds.
Of all the castles we visited in Scotland, this one’s probably had the most words written about it, thanks to its being situated on the bonny banks of Loch Ness. Let me just get this out of the way right now: yes, we did commune with Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, but once the venerable beast tried to get us to give it $2000 so that it could in turn get $15 million out of the bank, half of which would be ours, we just tuned out.