Shanghai Gesture

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.

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Urquhart Castle & Loch Ness

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.

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FDR’s Secret Train

2013 marks the centennial anniversary of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. We’ll be writing plenty about the storied train station in the coming weeks and months, but I thought we’d kick off the celebration with one of our favorite weird facts about the place. Behind a nondescript, locked and ignored brass door set into the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on 49th Street  is an elevator to a secret Grand Central train platform that was used by President Franklin Roosevelt when he visited the city and did not want to deal with reporters and photographers. That door is about as close as you or me or most of the rest of the public is ever going to get to the secret station, dubbed simply Track 61 by Grand Central authorities, but behind that door and below the street is a wealth of fascinating history that includes not just Roosevelt’s secret train, but also a lavish underground party thrown by Andy Warhol.

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Noble War

Sompote Sands is one of those figures in cult cinema who casts a long shadow. Granted it’s a shadow that twists around and warps into a demon like Calibos’ shadow in Clash of the Titans, but it’s a shadow never the less. Regarding the origin story of this supremely interesting and bizarre film maker, that was spoken to when we reviewed his Ultraman-meets-Hanuman epic Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, so rather than paraphrase here, I encourage you to mosey on over and check that one out. The twisted saga of Sands’ relationship with and claim of stewardship over the work of Japanese effects pioneer Eiji Tsuburaya is one of my favorite film stories. For our purposes here, let us fast forward a decade or so, into the 1980s and a point where Sands had moved on from remaking Japanese superhero properties for the Thai market and had decided to indulge more substantially in his fondness for Thai mythology.

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Think Fast, Mr. Moto

“Mr. Moto is a very difficult fellow to kill.” — Mr. Moto

1937’s Think Fast, Mr. Moto, starring Hungarian actor Peter Lorre as a witty, karate-chopping Japanese man of mystery, introduces us to the budget films version of Charlie Chan. It seems that the specific nature of Mr. Moto changes as the series progresses, and while he is an adventuring spymaster later in the series, at least for this first film he is identified as an import-export businessman who, like Bulldog Drummond and Nick and Nora Charles, dabbles in detective work and sleuthing as a hobby. But while it’s fair to compare Chan and Moto, other than the detective work and the fact that a white actor is playing an Asian, Moto and Chan are pretty different, both in terms of character and the movies they inhabit.

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Bagpiper From Bombay

Dev was secured to the rotating chair and flanked on either side by bald goons wearing a tight t-shirt and flamboyantly colored scarf. The man standing behind the vast desk was wearing a silver Nehru jacket accented with ribbons and golden cords of a vaguely military style. Behind the desk was a Plexiglass window looking out into the deep blue of an aquarium filled with sharks, and on the desk was the oval shaped viewscreen the fiend sometimes used to randomly call up and taunt officials in Mumbai. Dev’s own lime green shirt with a playfully clashing tie that seemed to contain more colors than exist in the known universe was a splash of sharp contrast amid the austere modern decor of the room. The man behind the desk smiled at his captive.

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