Thursday, April 19, 2018

Recent Viewings: THE ORGY AT LIL'S PLACE (1963)

Ann, a young woman from a small town, travels to the Big Apple in the 1960s in hopes of becoming an actress. In doing so, she finds it sometimes necessary to take some odd jobs to make ends meet, but she has the constant support of a boyfriend who believes in her.

No, I haven't decided to review Season One of THAT GIRL! I'm talking about the legendary "lost" Adults Only film, THE ORGY AT LIL'S PLACE (1963)! 

In one of the biggest buried headlines in home video history, this tantalizing title - long assumed to be, along with numerous early Andy Milligan titles, a fatality of the bonfires to which distributor William Mishkin assigned prints of his properties that stopped paying their keep in rental fees - has turned up as a bonus co-feature on Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray disc of PICK-UP, a mystical 1973 skin-flick directed and photographed by Bernard Hirschenson, the award-winning cameraman who also shot DAVID AND LISA, SATAN IN HIGH HEELS, the "Keep America Beautiful" ad with Iron Eyes Cody, and... THE ORGY AT LIL'S PLACE.

Directed by Jerald Intrator under the name J. Nehemiah, THE ORGY AT LIL'S PLACE was shot in and around New York City in 1962. In the biggest of the film's surprises, future director Del Tenney (THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE) is credited as assistant director, and furthermore plays what is ultimately the film's male lead, the heroine/narrator's boyfriend Charlie, working under the name "Bob Curtis." At the eponymous orgy (where a group of NY socialites play Strip Dice, a game that quickly turns into Just Roll the Dice and Laugh), he even performs a couple of stanzas of a folk song. In his capacity as assistant director, it seems likely that Tenney may have handled all the second unit NYC travelogue material, which is actually the film's most impressive content. 

The real ace in the film's deck was its cinematographer Bernard "Bernie" Hirschenson, a former GI cameraman whose other achievements include DAVID AND LISA, the "Keep America Beautiful" ads with Iron Eyes Cody, and SATAN IN HIGH HEELS. The ads for the film looked sordid, but the cinematography is excellent throughout and effectively captures the greatest American city at its greatest. For most Adults Only films of this period, a big screen is hardly a requirement but if you have one, it's going to add a great deal to the film's scenic impact. 

The film was successful and attracted a good deal more than the usual mainstream attention; it's rumored to have found its way into at least one Johnny Carson monologue. But somehow it disappeared from any and all circulation until a near-pristine print was recently discovered on file at the Kinsey Institute, where a collection of erotic films had been maintained. I assume there might have been a problem with Kinsey letting the film out of their hands for commercial use, but Vinegar Syndrome was able to acquire it for use as a free bonus feature through the American Genre Film Archive. Otherwise, I suspect ORGY would be the A-title here.

And despite that harsh and somewhat sleazy title, THE ORGY AT LIL'S PLACE turns out to be a surprisingly wholesome movie about - as I mentioned - a small town girl ("Carrie Knudsen" = Kari Knudsen) who joins her sister ("June Ashlyn" = June Ashley) in NYC with naïve dreams of becoming an actress and gets work as a model on some torrid projects. There are nightgown and bubble bath assignments, even a couple of Bondage spreads. She takes on the work in good humor; it’s a living. It's remarkable in light of where the movies generally took such stories in subsequent years, but nobody gets hurt, nobody gets mugged, nobody rubs up against the Mob, nobody gets raped, nobody even gets their career ruined or heart broken for not coming across sexually. Call it naïve, but ORGY seems to have been made with unusual care to appeal to female viewers, unusual for adult films at this time - and the silvery black-and-white photography actually explodes into full color when all our heroine’s dreams come true. 

Among the cast members is '70s soap star Robert Milli (billed as "R.M. Miller"), who had also appeared in Graeme Ferguson's THE SEDUCERS (1962 - written by Wilson Ashley - any relation to June?) and played a key role in Tenney's THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE (1971).

Oh, and this guy strikes me as familiar, maybe with slightly more gray in his har. Does anyone recognize him? If so, drop me an email or message me on Facebook.


(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Claudia Cardinale at 80

I’ve told the story here, at least a couple of times, about how I first saw ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST by accident as the unexpected half of a double feature, and how it so unexpectedly and completely moved me in ways to which my 12 year old self was accustomed that I left afterwards without seeing the Elvis Western I’d come to see. I knew Elvis couldn’t possibly compete with what I’d just experienced, so I picked up my coat and I left. I look back on this moment as the first adult decision of my life.

I was moved by a lot of different things about the film, but I now realize that its female lead Claudia Cardinale - who turned 80 yesterday - gave what was probably the first truly dimensional, empathetic portrayal of a woman I had ever seen in a film. Jill McBain is introduced as a New Orleans hooker who had the good fortune to catch the eye of a rich, romantic widowed landowner. She moves to join him and steps off the train to find him and his three children massacred for standing between some dangerous men and a goal they cravenly coveted - the raw lumber and iron necessary to build a town called Sweetwater, which Jill had somehow inspired in a heart no longer beating.

Jill is not your usual heroine; she is more of a look behind the scenes of a traditional western heroine’s life as she fights to survive and claim what she has earned. Throughout the film she is attended by three different men, each of them vultures of a kind and, in addition to whatever else the story eventually settles, the film is about how these three men interact with her and how her heart finally settles on one of them, who isn’t the worst one but really isn’t the right one either. When we meet her, she is one kind of illusion, the kind of woman whose promenading glance and well-turned ankle that might inspire a man to look at a handful of dust and dirt and believe in a place called Sweetwater. Then her life is blindsided by tragedy and the need to understand what has happened to her dreams and why. To learn the answers, she must navigate her way through the mysterious intersecting motives of these three men. By the end of this journey, she has gone from being confused by the name Sweetwater to becoming a literal waterbearer for the town springing up around her and the first train rails to connect the two halves of America from east to west.

Jill wasn’t the first woman of her kind in a western, but she was the first one I ever encountered. What she taught me that day at the movies, some men never learn.

Auguri e grazie, Claudia Cardinale.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Recent Viewings: THE PSYCHOPATH (1966)

Margaret Johnson in her doll palace.
There is an Amicus production I’ve known for about 15-20 years and have never really liked at all: Freddie Francis' THE PSYCHOPATH. 

Since its original release in 1966, the Paramount release has been all but impossible to see - except in a pan-and-scanned copy that first ran on TNT with commercial interruption way back when I first taped it, eager to see one of the more important titles that eluded me back in the day. It more recently ran on TCM in the same ugly copy. But this past week it was released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber in an actual Techniscope presentation. Imagine how these frames would have looked cut in half to fit your TV screen...

Patrick Wymark interrogates the principal cast.


I am surprised to report that I have done A COMPLETE TURNAROUND! With the full frame revealed, with the contrast corrected, the film has a marvelous look, with a strong cast and an Elisabeth Lutyens score with a eerie lullaby motif. I believe there may also have been a scene or two cut from the version I had previously seen, as some girly photos are taped to a man’s wall, a bit stronger than Paramount would have allowed for an all ages matinee movie in 1966. Not to mention half the screen was missing in every shot of that TV print! Admittedly, the Robert Bloch script is a little obvious, but the actors are top notch and the team responsible for THE SKULL are turning the screws as ably as ever, with some masterful compositions and set pieces.

Judy Huxtable and Alexander Knox.

Seeing it this way, it is also much easier to appreciate that director Freddie Francis must have seen a Bava film or two by this time, because we get some of his giallo atmospherics - the scattered dolls, the strobing lights, the victim trying to elude her killer while wearing a candy apple red mackintosh out of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. Indeed, this film can now be taken into account as a likely inspiration for some of Argento’s later imagery, and his uses of murder fetishes, particularly in DEEP RED (1975). As the title suggests, Bloch’s script is a quirky elaboration on his PSYCHO - it’s a more baroque study of a somewhat similar, somewhat dissimilar situation and - what a nice surprise! - grandly effective at times. The climax of the film achieves a level of simultaneous high camp and grand tragedy - actually operatic - and (this is no spoiler) Margaret Johnson's final flourish must have had matinee kids squirming in their seats back in the day. 

This is now going to be my chief reference when I tell people that presentation has everything to do with how we respond to a film. Mind you, the opening reel of the film has some unavoidable scratches, but they are much easier to ignore when the frame brightens to a day scene - and thereafter it is smooth, enjoyable sailing. On Facebook, Kino Lorber's Frank Tarzi has credited disc producer Bret Wood with being wholly responsible for the reconstruction of the film's Techniscope elements and color correction, making it releasable in the first place as a more elaborate restoration would have been outside the company's budget. The color palette is essential to the film's enjoyment, featuring extraordinary uses of lavender and royal blue that I'd never noticed in my old faded copy. There's also an audio commentary by Troy Howarth and a grab bag of trailers for similar recent Kino Lorber product.

Very happy to scratch this important restoration off my list of disappointments after all these years... but don't get me started on THE DEADLY BEES (also 1966), pretty much an abject failure from the same filmmakers! 

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Recent Viewings: THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU (1967)

Christopher Lee, actually playing Sax Rohmer's Emperor of Crime in Hong Kong.
You've got to hand it to producer Harry Alan Towers: as busy as he was, as productive as he was, he always had his finger on the pulse of what was happening in popular media - not just in English-speaking countries, but around the world. When director Don Sharp moved on to bigger, more mainstream pictures after directing the first two Fu Manchu films, Towers had already groomed Jeremy Summers to take over the pilot seat, having chosen him on the basis of his solid background in British crime programmers (CROOKS IN CLOISTERS, DATELINE DIAMONDS), pop culture (the Gerry and the Pacemakers film FERRY CROSS THE MERSEY), and episodes of DANGER MAN and THE SAINT. Towers would ultimately make four films with Summers, of which this was the second, following FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS (1967), derived from the Sanders novels of Edgar Wallace.

Douglas Wilmer, Howard Marion-Crawford.
Maria Rohm, Horst Frank.
Peter Carsten, Tony Ferrer.
But the actual playing ground of the third Fu Manchu film showed even greater global awareness and ambition. Again working with a German co-production company (actually two, Constantin joining forces this time with Terra-Filmkunst), Towers further extended his partnership to the Shaw Brothers factory in Hong Kong, which availed the film of a scenic splendor that the previous two could only hint at. The principal players - Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, Douglas Wilmer, Howard Marion-Crawford - happily returned, seizing paid vacations to the Far East with both hands. They were joined by Horst Frank, Suzanne Rocquet, Peter Carsten and Wolfgang Kieling from Germany, New Zealand actor Noel Trevarthan, and Filipino superstar Tony Ferrer, cannily cast as Nayland Smith's Eastern counterpart, Inspector Ramos. Ferrer, who since 1965 had been starring in crime and action pictures as the Philippines' answer to James Bond, Agent X-44 (a role he would continue to essay until 2007), is the most interesting element of the film. His participation includes actual martial arts choreography, then rarely seen onscreen, and his arrival on the international scene coincides remarkably closely with that of Bruce Lee. True, he's not as dynamic or charismatic a martial artist as Bruce Lee (who is?), but when he cuts loose, he spikes the film with an authenticity it doesn't often summon otherwise. Also making her debut in the series is actress Maria Rohm, Towers' Viennese wife, as Ingrid Swenson, a torch singer in a sailor bar. She pantomimes to two songs sung by Samantha Jones. Nayland Smith's demure Chinese maid, Lotus, is here replaced by a new one, Jasmin - played by Mona Chong, an actress fresh from ADAM ADAMANT LIVES! and DANGER MAN and bound for ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE.

Douglas Wilmer.

Maria Rohm.
Once again, Sax Rohmer's name appears above the title on a story he never wrote. And it's that same story he never wrote. Fu Manchu abducts the daughter of a leading scientist at work on a potentially devastating formula, and the story builds to the usual klutzy demise for Fu and Company...  However, in this case, the film foregrounds what should have been a more interesting and original storyline involving the abduction of Nayland Smith, who is replaced with one of Fu's murderous minions after some advanced plastic surgery. As things play out, it's an energy-sapping subplot as the replacement is played less as an impersonator than as a zombie, which effectively takes the film's putative hero out of circulation - we see him tediously tried for murder, shots of him looking dead-faced and uncommunicative in the dock with flip-optical cutaways to newspaper headlines (the cinematic equivalent of yawning through a series of "and this happened, then this"). On the plus side, Ferrer and Carsten are actually better equipped for the film's physical heroics, and the subplot gives Marion-Crawford opportunities to emote for a change; he contributes his own finest work in the series. Christopher Lee and Tsai Chin likewise are fully prepared to give their best - Lee has an excellent moment when he receives the news of Nayland Smith's capture - but their characters are surrounded by too much excelsior. At the same time, seemingly important supporting characters are simply present to go through the motions, which now verge on the risible (thanks mostly to Frank's fey, panatela-smoking bad guy with Texas cowboy affectations), or to stand around as the drably predictable happens. Summers' direction capably handles all the onscreen traffic, but never feels involved in it. It should be mentioned that Nayland Smith mentions at one point that he has retired from Scotland Yard and is joining a new organization to be known as Interpol. Interpol was founded in the 1950s, but this may not be an error in the film's period setting, as Wilmer's hair is shown to be fully gray here and there is not much on view to absolutely contradict an early 1950s time period - apart from the fact that our villains have not aged.

Christopher Lee.
Noel Trevarthan, Tony Ferrer and "motley crew" under cover.

Horst Frank and torture chamber props going to waste.
Most observers of this series blame Jesús Franco for bringing about the end of this series with the last two entries, THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (aka KISS AND KILL, THE KISS OF FU MANCHU and AGAINST ALL ODDS) and THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU - and it should be mentioned that Towers himself agreed. But the real problem is fully apparent in the first three: Towers should have allowed someone else to write them - someone with the time to actually read Rohmer, perhaps. The first three films essentially present us with the same story three times, each time served up with a bit more sauce and seasoning. (The spice in this case is some mild profanity; there is almost none of the usual sado-masochism, with the exception of a branding sequence for which a prop of a woman's bare back was obviously built for a close-up that isn't kept in its entirety.)  In a sense, the most significant fault of THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU is that, in its reach for greater (dare I say Bondian?) glamor and spectacle, it loses sight of the character's origins in pulp fiction. The negligence of his alien invasive presence, lurking dangerously on the periphery of a known world, is sacrificed as the series extends beyond mystery into common adventure.

Once again, I have reviewed the film working from the imported Momentum DVD release of THE FU MANCHU TRILOGY of 2001, which includes a trailer. The image grabs used here are from that Kinowelt/Studio Canal-sourced release. The film has since been released domestically as a DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection. I have not seen that version and cannot verify whether or not the American cut differs from this one in any way.

 (c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Recent Viewings: THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966)

With the second film in producer Harry Alan Towers' series, the key participants appear to have studied their previous effort closely, taken note of all the minor mistakes therein and corrected them, though the new work makes a few missteps of its own. Nevertheless, THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU is an appreciably more assured film and perhaps the series' high point. 

Rather than filming in Dublin as before, the production occupied Bray Studios, where all of Hammer's best-loved films had been made. As Fu's subterranean headquarters is secreted this time far below an Egyptian temple, the set flats and decorations are right out of a Mummy series rummage sale and feel familiar in the best way. Again, the budget didn't allow for a Hammer-level composer, but Towers was able to recruit Bruce Montgomery (a veteran of the Doctor in the House and Carry On series), who is described by the IMDb as "a hopeless alcoholic" and whose work here was likely far more than simply buoyed by its credited conductor, Philip Martell - Hammer's musical supervisor since 1962). It was Montgomery's last credited score (though he did not die until 1978 at age 56) and it has the authority of a genuine, if minor, Hammer score. Also significantly, returning director Don Sharp had done another Hammer film with Christopher Lee in the interim, presiding over one of his more celebrated performances in RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK (1965), and he makes immediately clear that he has learned how to use this instrument onscreen to its fullest. Lee's Fu Manchu is a more expressive characterization here, swathed in emerald silks and taking charge of people's minds by wrapping their heads in his large hands. The opening sequence, which drops us immediately into the middle of the action (not to be confused with the needless memory-refreshing excerpts from FACE that open the American version) - reintroducing Fu and his daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) as well as their latest abductees, Michele Merlin (Carole Gray) and her scientist father Jules (Rupert Davies) - may be the most bravura filmmaking in the entire series. Acting, direction, camera blocking, wardrobe, set design, and score - it feels like a foretaste of classic Hammer.

Howard Marion-Crawford and Douglas Wilmer, our heroes.
Then come the aftertastes, which unfortunately include the less satisfactory heroics of Douglas Wilmer as the new Nayland Smith; he hasn't much of the dramatic gravity that Nigel Green brought to the role. Howard Marion-Crawford is back as his stuffy associate Dr. Petrie, with somewhat less to do, and this time the guest German actor slot is handed over to the reliable Heinz Drache (THE MYSTERIOUS MAGICIAN), who gets several opportunities to demonstrate his flair for fisticuffs - which look good but sound like someone off-camera was asked to clap his hands together every time a punch was thrown, the better that we can hear them connect. The primary heroine is surprisingly not Carole Gray (who's a bit far down the cast list for one of her screen time and credentials), but rather a French ingenue, Marie Versini - who isn't remotely equal to Gray but had the advantage to the film's German investors of having been a cast member in several of Rialto Film's Karl May adventures. The Peter Welbeck (Towers) script is a basically a more needlessly complicated retread of the previous story, built to accommodate a fifth-wheel supporting role for another of Rialto's krimi men, Harald Leipnitz.

Carole Gray and Tsai Chin, center stage.

One of the surprising highlights of the film is an abduction staged in a crowded theater during an opera performance - which must have been scripted in expectation of a more opulent budget and had to be pared down to barest essentials as the day of shooting finally came. Technically, it's a tour de force of getting away with murder: we see an audience not particularly dressed for a night at the opera, at least a few rows of faces, all looking at the stage as if they have been asked to imagine it while smelling something awful; we never see a glimpse of performance - we don't even see the stage! - and yet the scene, remarkably, works.

The wonderful character actor Bert Kwouk, best-remembered as Cato in the Pink Panther films, is a marvelous added resource to the Fu Manchu team as their star engineer Feng, but his addition is also problematical. First of all, Kwouk is simply too good an actor; we can see Christopher Lee upping his game when they share scenes together, which has the unwelcome effect of making them interact as equals - something the imperious Fu would never permit. Not only do the two men banter and bicker (!) over important details, but Feng actually questions and ultimately refuses orders. But the primary error of the Welbeck script, also present in the first, is that the reasons for Fu's dreams of world conquest are never explained - as are his intentions for what to do when and if he attains such power. With his goal left so nebulous, the film limits itself to a lower level of entertainment than it might have achieved. Also, when the stakes are raised to their highest in the final reel, Fu blithely ignores numerous danger signs arising between himself and absolute success, which causes him to look crudely sociopathic, insane rather than a villain with a vision. Sharp also does no favors to Fu's dignity when he allows us to see father and daughter scurrying like ordinary mortals on the lam, accessing their executive escape hatch as all Hell breaks loose around them.

In preparing this film, Towers plucked a feather from the cap of American director William Castle, who had recently chosen the cast of his 1965 thriller 13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS from among the discoveries of an international beauty contest for teens. Having a knack for making other people's ideas a little spicier, Towers announced this film by holding a similar pageant for continental starlets above the age of consent! Whether or not the competition was a real contest or just ballyhoo, he got some quick ink in European magazines by having the "brides" pose while tearing off each others' clothes on set, though there is no erotic content in the film whatsoever.

My review is based on a viewing of Momentum's UK disc, dated 2001, though the film has since (2008) also become available domestically as half of an MGM Midnite Movies double feature with 1967's CHAMBER OF HORRORS. I have heard this version (which includes the aforementioned US prologue) also has an anomaly of presentation that causes  a slight vertical stretching of the image, which is reportedly soft to begin with; I have seen grabs online that confirm this. No such anomalies are present on the Momentum disc, which looks infinitely better than the copy of FACE OF FU MANCHU included in the same FU MANCHU TRILOGY box set. There are no extras on the disc. As with the other films in the series, BRIDES is included in its shorter, alternate German cut with music by Gert Wilden in the German box set THE DR. FU-MAN-CHU COLLECTION.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.