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.
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)
“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.
Blue Movie Blackmail is known by a variety of names, the original being Si può essere più bastardi dell’ispettore Cliff? My Italian is nonexistent and Google Translate isn’t exactly helpful (“It may be more bastards Inspector Cliff?”), but I think the general gist of the name is something like ‘Is anyone more of a bastard than Inspector Cliff?’ When eventually looped into English (in a few cases by the Anglo cast themselves) it was released in the USA as the somewhat baffling Mafia Junction and in Britain as the rather more accurate Blue Movie Blackmail. It does also have the distinction of being shot mostly in London, so I may be able to relate some interesting titbits as a resident of these parts.
You know how some people say if they go back in time and do it all over again, they wouldn’t change a thing? Well, I’m not one of those people. I would do a ridiculous number of things differently and space-time paradoxes be damned. Among the things I’d do differently, especially if I quantum leapt back to around 1986 or so, would be to tell myself not to be such a smug, condescending dickweed my then newly discovered punk rock lifestyle. But what can you do? I was fourteen and high on self-righteous non-conformist fury, certain beyond any sense of doubt that I had it right and everyone else was a poseur or mindless drone. And nothing set me off with a more fiery passion than when some dreg of mainstream entertainment dared play at having some sort of punk rock street cred. They thing they understand my world? Let me take you down to my world, baby, and show you what life on the wicked streets of Buckner, Kentucky is really like.
Hot on the heels of the spectacular High Crime, director Enzo Castellari and actor Franco Nero take another stab at the burgeoning poliziotteschi genre, this time eschewing the popular “cop on the edge/Dirty Harry” approach and instead turning to the template established in 1974 by Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. The primary difference between the two is that Bronson’s character was a man of peace pushed to violent extremes, constantly grappling with the morality of vigilantism even in the face of his family suffering a truly nightmarish crime. Franco Nero’s Carlo Antonelli, by contrast, gets roughed up by some crooks and almost instantly launches a campaign of murderous violence against them without any real philosophical debate. It’s like he was already a well-mustached powder keg of vigilante vengeance just waiting to be unleashed. Instead of confronting the moral ambiguity of vigilantism through the doubts of its protagonist, Street Law elects instead to address it on a slightly more meta level, one in which the hero’s actions aren’t questioned by the hero himself but instead by the fact that, at the bloody end of all things, he is just as frustrated and unfulfilled as he was at the beginning.
Eight. Nine. Three. In the Japanese card game known as hana-fuda, it’s the worst hand you can get. Eight, nine, and three — ya, ku, and sa. Japanese organized crime families adopted the name “yakuza” because of this hand. Because you need to be lucky to be a yakuza. Because you’ve drawn the worst hand if you cross them. Because winning with a ya-ku-sa hand requires the utmost skill at reading an opponent. Others may claim it’s because it’s bad luck that leads to a life of crime, or because yakuza are born losers. Or because in the Edo period, when the yakuza first emerged on the scene, they might have evolved at least in part out of the tekiya and bakuto social groups.