I’ve been sitting here trying to think of an adequate way to describe exactly what it is that Sonny Chiba does and wears in this second film in Kinji Fukasaku’s highly enjoyable, highly influential Battles without Honor and Humanity series of films that delve into the world of organized crime and the role it played in rebuilding post-war Japan. The closest I can come up with to summarize the acting display by Chiba is to say that you should try to imagine William Shatner and Jimmy Walker being merged into one creature, which the director then instructs to “stop being so subtle.”
When I wrote about L.A. Confidential, I confessed that I had never been to Los Angeles (well, other than Disneyland), and had a fascination with the city that could not possibly be the least bit reflective of the reality of L.A., born as it was by my knowingly incorrect assumption that the city is nothing but a strange, hypnotic amalgamation of Raymond Chandler novels, the romance of Old Hollywood, and David Lynch movies — in particular, Mulholland Drive. In many ways, I suppose this makes me very similar to Naomi Watts’ character in this movie, albeit one I hope comes to a slightly less tragic sort of ending. And it’s fitting that all these inaccurate elements should form my amalgamated notion of Los Angeles, because they all come together in Mulholland Drive. This movie is one of Raymond Chandler “Philip Marlowe” novel — only it’s missing Philip Marlowe.
“Demobilized officer, finding peace unbearably tedious, would welcome any excitement. Legitimate, if possible, but crime of humorous description, no objection.” — Bulldog Drummond, 1929
Basil Dearden’s 1960 caper film League of Gentlemen is a little bit like if, instead of ending up solving crimes for a living, Bulldog Drummond ended up committing them; as if his humorous classified ad was answered by a fellow demobilized officer putting together a crew for a heist. Surely the overly complicated ladder theft that results would appeal to Drummond’s sense of humor. Unlike the old Bulldog Drummond movies however, beneath the breezy, dryly comical veneer of League of Gentlemen is the sort of political and social unrest that characterized much of Dearden’s work in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. The man was a master at making mainstream, commercial films that packed powerful, at times very pro-counter culture messages.
The small town of Wasseypur is located in northeastern India, absorbed in many ways by the larger city of Dhanbad. Wasseypur is sort of the Newburgh, New York or Camden, New Jersey to Dhanbad’s New York City or Philadelphia — a small, incredibly dangerous, largely lawless enclave attached to the outskirts of a much larger town. Or maybe like one of the many towns controlled by narco-syndicates south of the border. It was a coal company town. In the case of Wasseypur, it’s lawlessness was derived from when the British packed up and called it a day, and India was once again a sovereign nation. The coal mines, which had been entirely British-owned, were turned over to India, but they were basically dumped into the laps of a lot of people who may have been skilled laborers and assistant managers but had no experience whatsoever with how to run a single mine, let alone an entire network and industry. Sort of like the United States freeing its slaves with no real interest in actually equipping them for life, Great Britain folded its flag and wished the Indians good luck.
Golgo 13 was (is) a long-running Japanese comic book aimed primarily at bitter guys in dead-end salaryman jobs who harbored daydreams of being tough-as-nails murderous sex machines but, in reality, were just nerdy guys reading a comic book on the train before they started a day full of kissing their boss’s ass and shouting out the company cheer. So, much like me, except we don’t have a company cheer that I know of. The series was created by an enterprising writer named Takao Saito, who got his big break in the business doing manga adaptations of the James Bond stories. Saito’s Bond comics were fully licensed components of the James Bond world, but they played fast and loose with the original books, often having very little to do with them other than the title and some character names (basically the same as what would happen to the movies).
In 1971, audiences were delivered the message that the freewheelin’ sixties were over, and so were the innocent fifties for that matter, when long-legged Clint Eastwood stepped onto the screen as “cop on the edge” Harry Callahan in the groundbreaking crime thriller, Dirty Harry. Other tough-as-nails cops and private eyes followed in Harry’s cynical footsteps, including Shaft, Serpico, and a guy named Popeye Doyle. This new generation of cop film was a marked departure from past crime films, where guys like G-Man Jimmy Stewart would walk proudly through spotless backlots dispatching ne’r-do-wells with precision shots from six-shooters balanced on their wrist. They were a return to the hardboiled, world-weary detectives of the 1940s. Callahan and his compatriots were angry, disillusioned, and cynical.
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.
In the spirit of sleazy old “true confessions” magazines, here’s my confession: I am a life-long easterner, raised in Kentucky, schooled in Florida, happily living the rest of my life in New York City. All three locations are awash in hardboiled, noirish, and/or Southern Gothic credibility. And while I have no intention of leaving New York, and even less intention of moving to the West Coast, I never the less have a strange fascination with Los Angeles. Granted, this fascination is built entirely on assumptions I know to be wholly inaccurate — that L.A. is or ever was the L.A. of Philip Marlowe, seedy detective magazines, and faded Hollywood glory. Residents of Los Angeles, feel free to do the same with New York. I would love to, but I deal with the city on a daily basis so my image of Gotham as Gotham, full of Prohibition-era suits and Weegee crime scenes is too often undercut by the reality of pleated Dockers and people wearing sweatpants. In my misconception of L.A., there is no room for what Los Angeles actually is. And since there is an entire country between it and me, I am going to ignorantly cling to my illusion of a city designed entirely by Raymond Chandler and David Lynch, safe in the knowledge that it makes no difference to me what L.A. “is really like.”
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.
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.