By the time The Silencers was in theaters, producer Irving Allen was already kicking off production on the next Matt Helm film. Originally planned to be The Ambushers, for whatever reason (and not that it mattered, given how thin the connection between books and movies was) Allen moved things around, and Murderers’ Row became the second Matt Helm movie. Although I can’t imagine any fan of Donald Hamilton’s books holding out hope that the movies would be anything like the novels after the drunken hijinks of The Silencers, it still must have given readers pause to hear that Murderers’ Row was the next to get the swingin’ cocktail treatment. The fifth book in the series, published in 1962 immediately after The Silencers, it is among the bleakest and angriest of the Helm stories.
In February of 1966, audiences got their first look at the finished product that started with the dark, violent Matt Helm novels of Donald Hamilton and ended up in the hands of ill-tempered producer Irving Allen and boozy Rat Packer Dean Martin. Leading up to the release of the first film in the series, The Silencers, there had been a barrage of publicity, most of it focused on the bevy of semi-clad beauties populating the film (Dean Martin himself was busy with other film projects and the launch of his very popular new TV variety show). There was little in the pre-release marketing to inspire hope in fans of Donald Hamilton’s books that this Matt Helm would bear any resemblance at all to the character of the same name in the novels. As the lights went down and the curtains parted (yes, we used to have those in movie theaters), it was time for Irving Allen and Dean Martin to deliver their idea of America’s response to James Bond.
Director-producer Irving Allen has been charitably referred to as a bit gruff, or rough around the edges. Less charitably, a bully. Even less charitably, a complete asshole. Working his way from junior editor up through the ranks, he eventually carved out a pretty successful if low-key career as the producer or director of a number of shorts, including the Academy Award winning Climbing the Matterhorn. Wanting more from his career though, he partnered with another struggling producer, Brit Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, to form Warwick Films. Based out of England so they could take advantage of lucrative tax breaks, Warwick made a number of successful “boy’s own adventure” style films that allowed Allen to indulge his taste for costumed mini-epics and Broccoli a chance to make a name for himself with the help of his mercurial but close friend and partner.
“I was taking a martini across the room…”
If that line, the first sentence in the first Matt Helm novel by Donald Hamilton, had been the only sentence in the book, then there would have been very little stylistic conflict between the Matt Helm of the books and the incarnation of the character that eventually fond its way onto movie screens. Of course, a single sentence doesn’t exactly make for a great novel, and we soon learn that Matt Helm is taking the martini across the room to his wife during a dull suburban cocktail party. From there, things get a lot darker and more violent.
When the only country in the world that has had atomic bombs dropped on it puts a mushroom cloud in one of its movies, it tends to have more resonance than when, say, the Italians do it. When the Italians set off an atomic bomb, it almost always heralds the arrival of post-apocalyptic, dune buggy-driving leather-and-shoulderpad aficionados. When Japan does it, however, it is something altogether heavier. It can also usher in not the solemn thoughtfulness one might expect, but at least in the movies I watch, instead signifies something supremely weird is about to happen, as if the sheer destructive capability is so difficult to wrap one’s head around — even when it’s been used on you — that there is no way to deal with it other than through the application of sheer strangeness.
Terror Beneath The Sea is a movie with a lot of charm. There are the wondrous conventions of Sixties science fiction: bold colors and sleek design, underwater cities built in miniature, torpedo battles, a safety-striped submarine, and even a Nehru-suited mad man. But Sonny Chiba is the most charming thing in Terror Beneath The Sea. As the romantic lead, Chiba portrays a character with an endearing sweetness he rarely, if ever, gets to present. In a way, Chiba is playing a character other than his usual “Sonny Chiba.”
The New York Asian Film Festival (read all our past coverage and reviews here) is one of the highlights of my year, and this year has been almost overwhelming. The number of films I want to see far exceeds the number of hours in the day I have to see them. The most impressive part of this year’s program, in my opinion, is the inclusion of some very rare Taiwanese exploitation films: Challenge of the Lady Ninja, A Life of Ninja, Woman Revenger, Lady Avenger, and the granddaddies of all Taiwanese “social issues” exploitation films, On the Society File of Shanghai and Never too Late to Repent, as well as the documentary, Taiwan Black Movies. Of the lot, I’ve heard of all of them but only ever seen Challenge of the Lady Ninja. Unfortunately, that remained the case throughout the festival, but I am hoping the work the NYAFF crew did in unearthing prints of these films might lead to them eventually finding their way onto DVD somewhere.
At first — and even second — glance, Last Tycoon is a movie that seems custom-made for me and based entirely on some of my favorite obsessions: Shanghai during the 20s and 30s, old-time fashion, Jazz Age decadence, shidaiqu (that unique Shanghai brand of jazz that combined American swing with traditional Chinese music), a title stolen from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and Chow Yun-fat in a cool suit blowing suckers away. Pretty perfect set of ingredients, right? Unfortunately, the chef is the frequent butt of jokes here at Teleport City, Wong Jing. Under his stewardship as director, all these wonderful elements almost come together into something great. There are moments of brilliance in this film, and moments of stunning beauty and excitement. But there are also some moments that are just terrible, and many that are just sort of stumbling. The whole thing is a bit awkward. In other words, it’s a pretty typical Wong Jing directorial effort, with more good than bad but not as much great as I was hoping for.
Bloody Tie is an interesting film because it sports all the polish and big budget precision typical of Korean action films but combines it with a frenetic, almost anarchic approach to filmmaking that makes the entire thing feel like it’s totally bonkers and off the rails even when it isn’t. The closest comparison I have for it is Myung-se Lee’s 1999 film, Nowhere to Hide, but you’d have to take that and mix it up with Goodfellas and a healthy dollop of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without and Humanity, maybe with some Michael Mann on the side, to come close to the loopy energy of Bloody Tie. It’s a deliriously colorful, insane celebration of the very seediest and scummiest cops and drug dealers you can conjure up under Korean censorship laws. Even within those confines the movie achieves a level of sleaze I’m not accustomed to seeing in Korean films.
My introduction to modern Korean cinema was a crash course facilitated by a company whose name escapes me at the moment, but it was a Netflix style rental-by-mail service (with blue envelopes) that concentrated on foreign and non-Region 1 DVD releases. Within the span of a couple of weeks, I rented and burned through probably half a dozen Korean films, including Shiri, Nowhere to Hide, something with a lot of electric guitars and flying swordsmen, and Arahan. I didn’t know much about any of the films and was picking them largely on “that title/cover/plot synopsis sounds OK” with occasional input from some fo the few English-language websites that wrote about Korean cinema. Each of them proved to be very impressive in their own way, and while Shiri emerged as my favorite and Nowhere to Hide was the most visually striking, Arahan also earned a special place in my heart with its blend of urban setting, martial arts action, fantasy elements, and ridiculous comedy.