Sam Fuller’s TV Work Pt. 3: Iron Horse – Hellcat & Volcano Wagon

In Part 3 of my look at the television episodes directed by Samuel Fuller we’re focused on his third and fourth episodes of Iron Horse: Hellcat and Volcano Wagon. According to Fuller in his book, A Third Face, he only remembers one of the six Iron Horse episodes he made, and these ain’t it! I’d think it’d be hard to forget something you made called Volcano Wagon, but this period in Fuller’s career was a definite rough patch. Even though the following years would bring much artistic frustration and strife, they also finally brought The Big Red One to life and Fuller also met his wife Christa in the years following this stint on Iron Horse. So it makes sense if he wiped out this small bit of forgettable work for hire from his memory banks.


ironhorse_hellcat_1Iron Horse: Hellcat (1966)
First aired: 12/26/1966

Starring Dale Robertson, Arlene Martel, Harry Landers, Vincent Beck, John War Eagle, Tony Young

Written by Samuel Fuller & Oliver Crawford

Directed by Samuel Fuller


Hellcat preserves the general structure of the previous two Iron Horse episodes I’ve seen, in that it involves one of the BPS&D (Buffalo Pass, Scalplock, & Defiance Railroad) employees surveying ahead of the train in order to secure the rights to build the railroad through the land. This time it’s Calhoun who’s out on the trail, and he’s also the only main cast member to appear in the episode. Even the train doesn’t make an appearance! Calhoun is out scouting deep in Indian territory when he comes upon a couple of roughneck cowboys attempting to rape a Native American woman. Once again Fuller chooses to favor long shots of stunt people fighting. Modern filmmaking always favors the more visceral up-close approach to bring the viewer in the action, but stepping back and watching these cowboys wail on this struggling woman feels more real to me. It’s like being a powerless bystander, which really enhances the emotional response. I’ve written many times about Fuller using this technique, but it never ceases to impress me.

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Quick Takes: Mark of the Devil, Day of Anger, Blind Woman’s Curse

mark_of_devil_poster_01Mark of the Devil [Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält] (1970)
AKA Hexen

threestar

Starring Herbert Lom, Udo Kier, Olivera Katarina, Reggie Nalder, Herbert Fux, Johannes Buzalski, Michael Maien, Gaby Fuchs
Directed by Michael Armstrong

Set in Austria during the 1700s, Mark of the Devil is a witch hunter film that is surprisingly brutal and graphic for 1970. Although, I guess it probably wasn’t released uncut most places back then. Anyway, Mark of the Devil is one of the ancestors of the torture porn genre, but unlike the Saw films and those that followed, I actually enjoyed Mark of the Devil! A lot of that rides on the shoulders of Reggie Nalder, who is exceptional in the role of the town’s crazed witch hunter. It’s ultimately a hard one to recommend, though, as it’s not much more than a torture-rific exploitation movie. What I can recommend is the newly released Arrow Blu-ray/DVD, which is excellent. I love when Blu-rays manage to retain the general look of watching a film projection (DAT GRAIN). Looks like a million witches burning at the stake.

day_of_angerDay of Anger [I giorni dell’ira] (1967)
AKA Blood and Grit, Gunlaw, Days of Wrath

threehalfstar

Starring Lee Van Cleef, Giuliano Gemma, Walter Rilla, Christa Linder, Yvonne Sanson, Lukas Ammann, Andrea Bosic, Ennio Balbo, José Calvo
Directed by Tonino Valerii

As if you needed any more evidence that Lee Van Cleef is a total badass, Day of Anger presents him in one of his finest roles. He plays the mysterious and ruthless Frank Talby, who rides into the strange town of Clifton and endears himself to a persecuted street cleaner named Scott (Giuliano Gemma). In their first encounter, Talby teaches Scott that he doesn’t necessarily have to accept the lot that life has given him; he can instead create the life he would like to have. This progression of Scott’s character, and his relationship with Talby, are satisfying enough on their own, but Day of Anger also has some incredible scenes that rank among the best the western genre has to offer. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Talby has a duel mid-film that’s just fantastic. Director Tonino Valerii was Sergio Leone’s assistant director before moving on to his own films, and he clearly picked up some tricks. After watching a number of mediocre Spaghetti Westerns over the last few years, Day of Anger is not only one of the best Spaghettis I’ve seen in a while, it’s also one of the best westerns I’ve seen in a while. Genre fans should definitely check it out! The new Arrow Blu-ray/DVD looks absolutely fantastic, too!

Blind Woman’s Curse [怪談昇り竜] (1970)
AKA Black Cat’s Revenge, The Tattooed Swordswoman, Strange Tales of Dragon Tattoo

threehalfstar

Starring Meiko Kaji, Hoki Tokuda, Makoto Satō, Hideo Sunazuka, Shirō Otsuji, Toru Abe, Tatsumi Hijikata, Yoshi Kato, Yoko Takagi
Directed by Teruo Ishii

If you were to look at Blind Woman’s Curse critically, you could find many faults with the plot. It is a film that mixes multiple genres and styles together, and it’s not necessarily concerned with doing them all justice. But honestly, I only noticed this after the film had long been over, because while I was watching I was just having a blast. It’s one of those rare films that satisfies my love for both B-Movies and classically well-made cinema. All the the trashiness you’d expect from a multi-genre B-Movie is present, but Blind Woman’s Curse is made with much more grace and skill than these B-elements would normally suggest. There are some seriously great shots and camera work here, and they make me very excited to see some more of Ishii’s work. The film also reminded me a lot of the work of Takashi Miike, and I have a strong feeling Ishii was an influence on him. I don’t know if Blind Woman’s Curse has a cult following, but it definitely deserves one and the elements to attract one are surely all here. The availability of the recent Arrow Blu-ray/DVD should help it find more fans, too.

The Cape Town Affair (1967)

The_Cape_Town_Affair-256914667-largeStarring James Brolin, Jacqueline Bisset, Claire Trevor, Bob Courtney, John Whiteley, Gordon Mulholland

Directed by Robert D. Webb

Expectations: None.

halfstar


The Cape Town Affair is a beat-by-beat remake of Sam Fuller’s wonderful noir thriller Pickup on South Street, and it’s just painful as all hell to get through. But this is a bad movie unlike any bad movie I’ve ever seen. Remakes are always tricky business when the original is a well-loved film, but the choices here are truly strange. Based on the film’s opening credits, you might be persuaded into thinking that Sam Fuller had actually been involved with this remake, but that was not the case. No, Fuller’s screenwriting credit comes by way of his original script, which was used here almost word for word.

Pickup on South Street is a late-period noir film, and it carries with it a style of hard-edged dialogue that usually typifies the genre. Within the confines of the original film it works; the actors inhabit their characters fully and deliver the lines with conviction and passion. Not so much with The Cape Town Affair. The actors in the remake feel like they’re just passing the time until the catering truck arrives with only mildly interesting food. The once-edgy dialogue now seems out of place in 1960s Cape Town; it’s as if all the film’s characters were scooped up from 1950s New York and dropped into 1960s Cape Town without any knowledge or self-awareness. It’s such a strange thing to watch and try to make sense of. I can understand why you’d want to use Fuller’s original dialogue because it’s often bristlin’ with great wit, but to ignore the passage of time and place is a glaring oversight.

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Dragon Inn (1967)

dragoninn_8Dragon Inn (1967)
AKA Dragon Gate Inn

Starring Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Polly Kuan, Miao Tian, Sit Hon, Cho Kin, Go Ming, Got Siu-Bo, Ko Fei, Tien Peng, Han Ying-Chieh, Man Chung-San

Directed by King Hu

Expectations: High, this is one of the most influential early martial arts films.

fourstar


When it comes to martial arts films, 1967 was a huge, formative year. The first mega-hit of the genre, The One-Armed Swordsman, made Jimmy Wang Yu a star and cemented director Chang Cheh as the genre’s leading visionary. Just a few months after the release of that film, director King Hu, having recently left the Shaw Brothers after creative differences on Come Drink With Me, unleashed Dragon Inn. As an independent film out of Taiwan it may not have had the budget or the clout of the Shaw Brothers studio behind it, but Dragon Inn is arguably more well-known than almost all the 1960s martial arts films from the Shaw studio. I knew all this going into Dragon Inn, and even with an incredible amount of historical hype behind it, Dragon Inn wowed me with its cinematic artistry and an ahead-of-its-time ability to craft thrilling martial arts sequences through editing.

The story of Dragon Inn is a well-known one, but that doesn’t impede the film’s ability to enthrall. The government is corrupt and controlled by devious eunuchs, and our story begins as Zhao Shao Qin, a eunuch with unparalleled power, orders the execution of General Yu, a good man who was framed. Yu’s family is sent to the remote outpost of Dragon Gate, where Zhao has plans to murder them far from the watchful eyes of civilization. He sends a delegation of his most powerful soldiers to await the family’s arrival at the inn, but thankfully there’s a few people at Dragon Gate still loyal to General Yu and his resilient spirit.

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Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967)

whosthatknocking_1Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967)
AKA I Call First

Starring Zina Bethune, Harvey Keitel, Anne Collette, Lennard Kuras, Michael Scala, Harry Northup

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Expectations: Moderate and very interested to see where Scorsese began.

twohalfstar


There’s no dispute that Martin Scorsese is one of the great American filmmakers, so watching his debut film for the first time is something of a loaded experience. Who’s That Knocking at My Door? is definitely not at the same level of quality that his later films deliver, but it shows flashes of his brilliance throughout (though, surprisingly, no Rolling Stones songs :) ). Harvey Keitel also makes his debut here, so even if it’s not an exceptionally great film, it marks the beginning of two great careers in American cinema.

The story is rather loose and free-flowing, like something of an American take on the French New Wave style. There are also elements of the great neorealist Italian films of the ’50s and ’60s, so Who’s That Knocking at My Door? carries a distinctly European flair while also being rooted deep in its New York setting. While this is interesting and admirable, Scorsese is rather blunt about this, having Keitel go on and on about a picture of John Wayne in The Searchers appearing in a French magazine read by a woman he meets (and later falls in love with). At the time I just thought it was a way of Scorsese slipping in references to movies he liked, Tarantino-style (and it is some of that), but it’s clearly a way to push the film’s American identity forward while also tell us something about the main character’s psyche.

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Mini-Review: The Cave of Silken Web (1967)

The Cave of Silken Web [盤絲洞] (1967)

Starring Chow Lung-Cheung, Ho Fan, Pang Pang, Tin Sam, Angela Yu Chien, Lau Leung Wa, Shen Yi, Helen Ma Hoi-Lun, Shirley Wong Qui-Lee, Tin Mung, Yau Ching, Shum Lo, Tang Ti

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Moderate. The last one wasn’t as good as the first.


Third in the Shaw Brother’s series of four films based upon the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West, The Cave of Silken Web is a definite step up from the previous sequel Princess Iron Fan. The focus is tightened here to one story for the entire film and it serves the arc of the story and the film better than the episodic format that the earlier films had. With only one story to focus on, director Ho Meng-Hua and his wonderful group of actors can really settle into their roles and have a great time. Not to mention that the villains here have real weight and pursue our heroes relentlessly. Chow Lung-Cheung takes over the role of the Monkey King for this film, and while he’s not quite as emotive or charismatic as Yuen Hua was, it’s pretty seamless and most viewers probably won’t even notice the difference.

The Cave of Silken Web starts off like any other story from the series, with the monk Tang and his band of protectors riding West in search of Buddhist scriptures. While looking for a place to stay for the night, they are tricked into the evil plans of the seven spider-demon sisters of the Cave of the Silken Web! They are quite devious and before you know it, Tang is turned into mist and captured in a vase and all seems to be lost. Of course nothing is yet written in stone, as the Monkey King, Pigsy and Sandy are all diligent followers of Tang and fight tirelessly to free their master.

The first half of the film is something of a rehash of most of the previous stories, but the film really hits its stride come the second half. The action moves completely within the cave and it’s a non-stop ride to the finale with all kinds of mistaken identity and hijinks that only the Monkey King can provide. Everything else takes a backseat to the last couple of minutes though when Sandy’s acquisition of the deadly Seven Flames is unleashed. The Seven Flames is the only thing capable of counteracting the seven sisters’ spider webs and it’s basically just a flamethrower disguised as a large jug. Watch as Sandy and the Monkey King lay waste to all kinds of shit with a flamethrower! I defy you to not be entertained by that! This is the first flamethrower I’ve seen in a Shaw Brothers film, and I sure hope it isn’t the last. This isn’t the type of movie I’d expect a flamethrower to pop up, but I ain’t complaining!

And if nothing else, The Cave of Silken Web teaches one very important lesson. No matter how powerful or supernatural you are (or think you are), a big rock to the back of the head is always capable of knocking you out. So watch your backs and give this one a shot. It’s not necessary to see the preceding films first, but it will help quite a bit and I recommend it.

The Assassin (1967)

The Assassin [大刺客] (1967)

Starring Jimmy Wang Yu, Lisa Chiao Chiao, Lee Heung-Gwan, Tien Feng, Wong Chung-Shun, Cliff Lok Kam Tung, Lam Jing, Fang Mian, Cheung Pooi-Saan, Cheng Lui, Wang Kuang-Yu, Ma Ying

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High, it’s Chang Cheh’s next movie after The One-Armed Swordsman. I’m pumped!


Chang Cheh does it again with his third film of 1967, after the lackluster Trail of the Broken Blade and the genre-defining The One-Armed Swordsman. As soon as the film starts it’s clear that Chang’s intentions were different for this film. He didn’t go in hoping to directly capitalize on his past success, nor did he set out to make a traditional martial arts picture. Instead, The Assassin opens with a large block of story text about the warring states of China, accompanied by a bombastic, epic musical score. The first frame of footage is a sword graphically plunging through a human torso with a spray of deep red blood. Wow!

This opening betrays the film a bit as it sets up the modern viewer for an over-the-top, exaggerated display of wall-to-wall bloodshed and the film is very far from this expectation. In fact, it is a character-driven historical epic tragedy and it succeeds on every level. Martial arts films are not known for their quality stories and writing, but The Assassin bucks all trends and delivers one of the richest tales the genre has to offer. Instead of being a martial arts film with a few quality scenes of drama, this expectation is flipped on its head. The characters are deep and full of life, their decisions having ripple effects throughout the lives of everyone else in the story. It is all incredibly well told and is a testament to Chang Cheh’s writing ability in addition to his skill behind the camera. The Assassin sits high on top of the heap when it comes to well-written kung fu pictures.

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