Wrath of the Sword (1970)

wrathofthesword_1Wrath of the Sword [怒劍狂刀] (1970)

Starring Tang Ching, Shu Pei-Pei, Sek Kin, Chiang Nan, Paul Wei Ping-Ao, Yip Ching, Lan Wei-Lieh, Wu Ma

Directed by Wu Ma

Expectations: Fairly high.

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I had high hopes that Wrath of the Sword would be some kind of unsung hidden gem of martial arts cinema. Instead, as the film went on it only became more apparent why Wrath of the Sword wasn’t well known. It’s not a horrible movie — it does entertain — but it has little in the way of originality or flair. Wrath of the Sword simply exists, and for martial arts fans these days, when hundreds upon hundreds of films are readily available, that is definitely not enough. Evidently it wasn’t enough in 1970 either, though, as the film tanked at the box office. Placed into context against the Shaw catalog, Wrath of the Sword came out in-between Vengeance! and The Twelve Gold Medallions, a place that no film would want to be, let alone a mediocre one.

As you might guess, Wrath of the Sword tells an uninspired story told better in many similar wuxia films. The film opens with the massacre of the Bai family, but one descendant remains: Bai Ying (Shu Pei-Pei), and she’s out for vengeance. For unexplained reasons a mysterious swordsman, Yu Qing-Hua (Tang Ching), seems intent on helping Bai Ying on her mission, but as he points out to her, she doesn’t even know who her enemies are. Good thing those evil bastards aren’t shy at all, ambushing Bai Ying whenever the opportunity presents itself.

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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.

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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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Scandal Sheet (1952)

scandal_sheet_xlgScandal Sheet (1952)
AKA The Dark Page

Starring Broderick Crawford, Donna Reed, John Derek, Rosemary DeCamp, Henry O’Neill, Harry Morgan, James Millican, Griff Barnett

Directed by Phil Karlson

Expectations: Fairly high.

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At this point in my review series on the writing and story credits of Sam Fuller (that he did not direct), I’ve learned to expect few returns. The films rarely recall the work of Sam Fuller himself, as his fiery style had usually been watered down by a few studio writers before the films made it to the screen. But right from the opening scene, Scandal Sheet evokes the spirit of Fuller’s work. It definitely doesn’t feel like something Fuller made or anything, but there is a raw, pulpy vibe that will likely satisfy all but the most critical Fuller fans.

One of these critics was apparently Sam Fuller himself, as the film’s only mention in his memoir, A Third Face, is to quickly dismiss it as “disappointing.” I have no doubt that to Fuller Scandal Sheet was indeed a total disappointment. The film was based upon his first novel, The Dark Page, which he finished writing right before leaving for the front lines of World War II. While overseas, he learned that his mother had been successful in finding a publisher for the novel, and later (while Fuller was still at war) the novel’s film rights were sold to Howard Hawks, who hoped to direct a film version starring Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson.

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Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

angelswithdirtyfaces_11Starring James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, George Bancroft, The Dead End Kids (Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Gabriel Dell, Huntz Hall, Bernard Punsly), Frankie Burke, William Tracy

Directed by Michael Curtiz

Expectations: High.

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The future of our society is ultimately up to our children to carry forward, and thus it is our responsibility as adults to help make sure that these children grow up to be productive, responsible individuals. Angel with Dirty Faces builds its narrative around this idea, crafting a film that is equal parts entertainment and moral tale. It is usually billed as a gangster picture, and it does feature gangsters doing a lot of gangster stuff, but by focusing more on the next generation it transcends what we think of as the traditional gangster film.

Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly are a couple of teenagers up to no good. They seem bored and disinterested in the normalcy of everyday life, always on the lookout for a good time. Rocky is clearly the more forceful of the two, goading Jerry into breaking into a train car with him to steal some fountain pens. They are quickly caught in the act and forced to make a break for it, but Rocky can’t quite run as fast as Jerry and he is arrested. Rocky’s fate is sealed in this event, marking the beginning to his life of crime and more than a few multi-year stays in prison.

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Double Indemnity (1944)

doubleindemnity_6Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers, Byron Barr, Richard Gaines, Fortunio Bonanova, John Philliber

Directed by Billy Wilder

Expectations: Very high. I love this one.

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Double Indemnity is the film noir genre at the top of its game. Fred MacMurray stars as Walter Neff, an insurance salesman, and the film opens as he staggers into his office in the middle of the night. He sits down at his desk, grabs the Dictaphone mic and begins to record his tale for the benefit of his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). This “opening at the ending” trick is always a good one, and the framing bits in Double Indemnity are among the best that cinema has to offer. As Neff’s story begins, he’s out on a routine policy renewal for the auto insurance of a Mr. Dietrichson. But he’s not home, so Neff deals with Dietrichson’s wife, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck). After some quick banter and a ton of sexual energy centered around Phyllis’s anklet, the film is off to a juicy start, unfolding its engaging plot at a flawless, even pace that never dulls.

Adapted from a James M. Cain novel, Double Indemnity‘s script is a thing of beauty. Written by Billy Wilder and detective novelist Raymond Chandler, the dialogue zings off the page at a 100 mph. This isn’t quite the rapid-fire of His Girl Friday, but the sleazy, double-crossing characters knock witty lines back and forth as effortlessly as a couple of tennis pros. There are moments when the dialogue does feel a bit overwritten, but when the acting is as superb as it is here, little things like that just fall by the wayside.

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The Naked Kiss (1964)

thenakedkiss_1Starring Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante, Virginia Grey, Patsy Kelly, Marie Devereux, Karen Conrad, Linda Francis, Bill Sampson

Directed by Samuel Fuller

Expectations: Moderate.

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Sam Fuller always kicks off his movies with something gripping and impressive, but the opening of The Naked Kiss is perhaps the most memorable of them all. The film opens with Kelly (Constance Towers), a prostitute, beating the living hell out of the pimp that stiffed her of $75. In the scuffle, Kelly’s wig falls off and reveals that she has a completely bald head. Unfazed, Kelly continues giving the pimp everything she’s got. It’s a striking set of images to say the least, made all the more impressive by the year of release. The Naked Kiss is definitely the type of movie that could have never been made from within the studio system.

From here, the film jumps forward a couple of years. We reconnect with Kelly as she arrives in Grantville, an idyllic small town. Her first contact is with Griff, the local police chief. He’s quick on the uptake, seeing through her “traveling champagne saleswoman” ruse for what it is, a thinly veiled front for a roving prostitution business. But after her night with Griff, Kelly wakes up and stares at herself in the mirror. Something’s changed, and from that moment on she does her best to start a new life for herself in Grantville. The only problem is that Griff wants her to get a job at the cathouse across the river, so that he can still slyly partake in her pleasures without jeopardizing his job.

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Underworld U.S.A. (1961)

UnderworldUSA_1Starring Cliff Robertson, Dolores Dorn, Beatrice Kay, Paul Dubov, Robert Emhardt, Larry Gates, Richard Rust, Gerald Milton, Allan Gruener, David Kent

Directed by Samuel Fuller

Expectations: High.

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Samuel Fuller is known as the director who makes direct films that punch you viscerally with their ferocity, but Underworld USA is perhaps the leanest, meanest, most consistently thrilling Sam Fuller picture I’ve seen yet. Not only is this one instantly rocketing up near the top of my favorite Sam Fuller movies, there are few noir films that I enjoy as much as this one. I must admit that I’m not as well-versed as I ought to be in the noir genre, but if there were more noir films as jam-packed with excitement as Underworld USA is, that might be a different story. It’s absolutely criminal that Underworld USA isn’t better known and respected. Who knew that one of the best noirs out there was made in the ’60s?

As all Fuller films do, Underworld USA begins with a strong premise. We meet Tolly Devlin, a 14-year-old kid hiding out in an alleyway, waiting for his opportunity to lift some valuables from drunk New Year’s Eve partygoers. He is firmly entrenched in the criminal lifestyle, and soon we learn why. His father is a career criminal, but tonight is not his lucky night. Tolly watches four men beat his father to death in the alley. He only sees the face of one of the men, but when given the opportunity to tell the cops what he saw, he refuses. Instead, he bides his time as a career criminal like his father, working towards the day when he might exact revenge on the men responsible for his father’s murder.

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