From Up On Poppy Hill [Kokuriko-zaka Kara] (2011)

Close Knit Family

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Opening a film in which the protagonist is seen getting out of bed and going about their morning routine is one of the most cliché ways of beginning a story (i.e, every student film ever), but From Up On Poppy Hill is so utterly likeable that I don’t care. Set in Japan’s port city of Yokohama circa 1963, the romantic, seaside setting really amps the film’s likeability with the accompanying nostalgic soundtrack being a pure delight from the opening ragtime theme to the Nina Rota style compositions as well as the use of Kyu Sakamoto’s Ue o Muite Arukō (known in the US as Sukiyaki in which it charted at number 1 in 1963). With a script from Miyazaki Sr and directed by Miyazaki Jr, From Up On Poppy Hill is structured like a melodrama with its use of dramatic flashbacks and the common melodramatic trope of a maritime setting. At one point the picture even makes reference to its melodramatic state (“It’s like some cheap melodrama”).

Umi Matsuzaki is the eldest child in her family and has responsibility thrust upon her following her father’s death and her mother’s departure to study abroad resulting in her making everyone’s meals, keeping fiancés in check and raising maritime signal flags every morning. The selfless and humble nature of a character like this could easily come off as aggrandizing but rather the character of Umi does come off as somewhat inspirational with her ability to bring out the best in those around her, earning her the title of “Goddess of good luck”. Umi develops feelings for fellow student Shun Kazama, however, Shun ends up discovering as a result of post-war circumstances, that Umi is actually his sister (although this turns out not to be the case come the film’s end). The two are forced to continue as only friends although it’s evident they are trying to retrain their feelings for each other. This culminates in a scene by a bus stop in which Umi states “I’m in love with you Shun. Even if we’re related, even if you’re my brother, my feelings will never change” to which Shun responds “I feel the same about you”. There is historic precedence for this as From Up On Poppy Hill is set at the time following the war in which young couples in Japan couldn’t be too sure that they were not related in some way but it doesn’t change the fact that the scene is an absolutely jaw-dropping moment. The scene is played out to be romantic and perhaps the movie could have dealt with the subject matter in a different manner as opposed to upping the swoon factor over an incestuous relationship but I digress.

The other major plot point present in From Up On Poppy Hill regards the theme of traditionalism vs modernism as the students of the local high-school try to save their clubhouse known as The Latin Quarter which is set to be demolished and replaced with a new building ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Latin Quarter in its old state is a massive, creaky building with so much character contained within its walls in which every inch is in use – as a viewer I did become invested in its conservation. At a demolition meeting, Shun runs onto the stage like Elmer Gantry and declares “There’s no future for people who worship the future and forget the past”. Unintentionally prescient with this theme is that come the turn of the decade when From Up On Poppy Hill was released, the west had entirely done away with traditional animation on the big screen (bar a few pockets), whereas Japan has so far never let it go. Correspondingly, it is wholesome just how passionate these students are about learning (in particular the overly enthusiastic philosophy-loving giant) with The Latin Quarter having a club for just about every intellectual pursuit. Compare this to any American film set in a frat house where anarchy, mischief and mayhem are the name of the game. Alongside Umi and the responsibility thrust upon her, all these kids are more than ready for adulthood. I for one welcome our new oriental overlords.

Speaking of references to other pictures, in one of the film’s establishing shots, a single factory chimney is shown emitting Pink smoke whereas the others emit regular smoke. Anyone who has seen Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low will understand this possible reference, keeping in mind the Kurosawa picture is also set in Yokohama and was released in 1963 (so I can assume both these movies unofficially take place in the same universe). Likewise, when Umi sees her mother’s red slippers as an indication that she has returned home after months away, is this a nod to The Wizard Of Oz and its famous line “There’s no place like home”?

If there is one great standout supporting character in From Up On Poppy Hill has to be the high school’s chairman Chief Director Tokumaru, a total chad with his rough, gravely voice, larger-than-life figure, flawless posture and upbeat personality. He is not at all a typical, slimy bureaucrat and understands the kids on their level and is sympathetic to their cause. When the kids go to visit his office in Tokyo, he asks Umi in the past tense “what did your father do?”. There is no indication that he knew the kids beforehand and seems to instinctively know her father was dead. Having a figure like this in a position of power probably explains how the students were able to infiltrate the Ikiru level bureaucracy to save The Latin Quarter.  

Whisper Of The Heart [Mimi o Sumaseba] (1995)

I Don’t Think There’s Any Artist Of Any Value Who Doesn’t Doubt What They Are Doing

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Whisper Of The Heart is Studio Ghibli’s love letter to creatives and a picture which contains great insight into the uncertainty derived from growing up and the role of education in this nostalgic coming-of-age tale. Fourteen-year-old Shizuku Tsukishima is the cheerful and infectiously optimistic protagonist of the story. She manages to find the joy in the mundanity of everyday life from something as simple as the sun coming out to seeing a positive message on the side of a blimp. Just observe the pure joy she gets from finding a quirky antiques store in a suburb (perhaps a bit too much as she nearly gets hit by a car while running across the road and never realizes it). The eccentricity of Japan is even on subtle display from the fact that a pork pie hat can be worn in common parlance and a girl can pursue a chonky cat for quite some distance just for the fun of it. It’s this aspect of Whisper Of The Heart which really makes you want to cherish life’s little moments.

Whisper Of The Heart is set over the course of 1994 (as indicated by Shizuku’s calendar), with a number of subtle indications for the passing of time throughout the film. The most noticeable of these being the seasonal variation of Shizuku’s school uniform with a white top for spring/summer and a navy-blue alternative for fall/winter. The initial catalyst of the story is set into motion when Shizuku’s father informs her that the local library is going through a transition from the old-fashioned book card system to a barcode system, much to her disappointment (I can recall my local library still using book cards in the early 2010’s). Goddammit modernity, sometimes the old ways are just better! It’s this tradition which ignites the film’s romance as Shizuku notices someone by the name of Seiji Amasawa has been taking out all the same books as her in this variation on The Shop Around The Corner formula re-imagined for the 1990’s. Shizuku and Seiji themselves aren’t too dissimilar to Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 romantic comedy with Seiji’s initially jerky behaviour and Shizuku’s bookworm personality (unfortunately, when I was off this age any expression of a desire to read was social suicide – sad but true). 

As is a common recurrence in Studio Ghibli’s films, Whisper Of The Heart is the story of a young, teenage girl forced into a position of maturity (it does make sense that the female sex tends to be the focus of these stories as research has shown that girls on average mature faster than boys). One major interlocked aspect of Whisper Of The Heart is the classic conflict of education vs. hands-on/real-world experience. Shizuku is attending middle school (aka junior high school) and is studying for her high-school entrance exams. Her love interest Seiji on-the-other-hand opts to attend a trade school in Cremona, Italy to further learn the craft of making violins rather than attend high school, much against his parent’s wishes (high school is not compulsory in Japan). This disapproval highlights the lack of respect one can entail for a practical hands-on profession over a more middle-class, so-called “real job”. Part of Shizuku’s impetus to embark on her writing of a novel comes from the insecurity that Seiji is far more developed in his own art form. Her focus on writing begins to affect her school grades, feeling that her need to write a first draft of her novel within two months before Seiji returns from Italy is more important than her school grades. Unlike Seiji, Shizuku doesn’t know what she wants to do with her future. She asks her older sister Shiho when she decided on her future, to which she responds with the dubious answer, “I’m at university finding that out”. This quote is particularly prevalent from a UK-centric point-of-view, when official figures state in the year 2017/18, 50.2 per cent of English 17-30-year-olds had participated in higher education, 20 years after the New Labour government set the target of having 50% of young people attend university (with these degrees often being of a useless nature and provide no stepping stone to a future career). From a personal point of view, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life when I was 14 and it’s self-evident very few people of that age either have any idea. Seiji’s oddball choice of profession as a violin maker is an appropriate one at the end of the day as his character is an outlier of a person in their teens who has a definitive idea of what they want to do with their life. The film doesn’t take a position on the question on the role of higher education but does raise many a thought-provoking point as to its effectiveness. Come the film’s end, Shizuku returns to studying for her entrance exams. I can however relate to Shizuku’s unwillingness and nervous disposition to tell the rest of her family about her writing project even though they are aware something is occupying her time, to which her understanding parents sympathize and don’t question her on it any further.

Seiji’s grandfather and owner of the antiques store Shiro explains how artists or writers develop and grow in their talents with a simple metaphor – “The rough stone is inside you. You have to find it and then polish it”. Shizuku holds intense self-doubt about her work, disagreeing with anyone when they praise her work. This intensely self-critical manner and strive for perfection overtakes her and leads to overpowering anxiety when she shows Shiro the first draft of her novel. To quote filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, “I don’t think there’s any artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they are doing.” – It’s this which really drives at the heart of Whisper Of The Heart. The picture showcases the highs and the lows that can be endured by creatives and parallels between the feeling of falling in love and the thrill that comes with creative pursuits. That scene in which a band has an impromptu performance of Country Roads as Shizuku sings her little heart out and gradually falls for Seiji (still unaware he is the boy on her book cards) combines these elements in a wonderfully corny scene. Whisper Of The Heart does hold parallels to fellow Ghibli film Kiki’s Delivery Service with protagonists succumbing to stress, burnout and depression (also is Shizuku’s older sister a recycled character model of Ursula?). Whisper Of The Heart is after all set in a country in which death by overwork is so tragically common that it even has a name – Karoshi (“You doctor yet? No Dad I’m 12. Talk to me when you doctor!”). The ultimate irony of this is that the Whisper Of The Heart’s director Yoshifumi Kondo would pass away 3 years following the film’s release from an aneurysm brought on by overwork. Whisper Of The Heart would be his only directorial feature, with Kondo joining the likes of Charles Laughton or Walter Murch as directors who have helmed only a single film, but what a film it would be.

My first viewing of Whisper Of The Heart was somewhat marred by the film’s misleading (albeit still beautiful) poster, giving me the false assumption that Whisper Of The Heart was going to be a fantasy film in the vein of a picture like Labyrinth. This lead me to wonder when this non-existent fantasy element was going to kick in during the film’s first third, only to then realize it wasn’t that kind of film. The fantasy sequence inside Shizuku’s head which inspired the poster in which Shizuku and an anthropomorphic cat known as The Baron fly Superman ’78 style is a beautiful combination of fantasy and reality as those giant pillars (which do remind me of the backgrounds in Super Mario World) raise high into the sky above the suburbs of Shizuku’s world of West Tokyo. It’s easy to sound like a broken record when talking about the aesthetics of Studio Ghibli’s films, but god, this film is just so beautiful to look at it puts a smile on my face from the eye-popping colour of suburban Tokyo to those urban night-time landscapes. Even the film’s more mundane subjects such as the apartment block in which the Tsukishima family resides would be ugly in real life but has a certain beauty to it in the animated form. Correspondingly, the music score by Yuji Nomi is one of great variety from the whimsical nature of A Hilly Town to the Aussie outback vibe from The Cat Chases and even medieval-themed compositions with the track Engelszimmer. These pieces of orchestrated beauty make for a welcome contrast with the film’s urban setting however the film does also provide some more in-tune accompaniments to the Tokyo landscape with its use of electronic sounds and synthesizers as heard in Taking The Train and Starry Night Sky. Furthermore, I can’t help but notice similarities between the track A Hilly Town and the piece In The Evening Midst from the oddball, Japanese horror movie House, while these two aforementioned pieces of music surely must have influenced Michael Giacchino’s piece Married Life from Pixar’s Up (is it just me or do these three pieces of music work extremely well when listened to in tandem?). Whisper Of The Heart is also a rare instance of Ghibli film to feature licensed music with its recurring use of variations with John Denver’s Country Roads, including a real humdinger of a cover during the film’s end credits in which it is given the city-pop treatment. Correspondingly, like many a Japanese film, the always reliable sound of cicadas increases the atmosphere of anything tenfold.

Whisper Of The Heart concludes with a very sudden marriage proposal from Seiji to Shizuku. In the original manga from which the film is adapted, Seiji only says “I love you” but the film’s screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki changed the line to “I can’t say how soon it’ll be, but would you marry me?“. To quote the big man himself in defending this position – “I wanted to make a conclusion, a definite sense of ending. Too many young people now are afraid of commitment, and stay on moratorium forever. I wanted these two to just commit to something, not just ‘well, we’ll see what will happen”. Putting aside the oddity of receiving and accepting a marriage proposal when neither are of legal marrying age, I do agree this sense of commitment coming from these characters gives the film’s conclusion greater emotional weight (although I will say the film ends very abruptly and could have done with a few seconds to let the viewer take it all in). The Japanese and English dubs have different lines of dialogue in this final scene. In the Japanese version, Seiji makes the aforementioned proposal to which Shizuku nods and Seiji asks if she’s sure to which she replies “That’s exactly what I wanted.” However, in the English dub, their discussion of marriage is more tenuous. Seiji asks, “Could you see us getting married someday?” to which Shizuku nods and they agree that his question was corny. It feels like those responsible for the picture’s English dub had a lack of faith in the source material and outright disrespected it with said changes. Regardless, I am a sucker for a good story of hopeless romantics and this impulsive love present in the original Japanese version of Whisper Of The Heart defiantly delivers on the desired level of swooning.

The Silent Duel [The Quiet Duel/Shizukanaru kettô] (1949)

Anyway, How Is Your Sex Life?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

For unknown reasons, The Silent Duel (with other sources calling it The Quiet Duel) is the one Akira Kurosawa movie which has been neglected. This unsung medical melodrama has no high-quality re-master, no Criterion Collection release whilst my own hard-to-find UK DVD itself comes with some very unattractive packaging and although perfectly watchable, the frame rate is overly smooth in places (unless you’re reading this at a future date in which in a 4K release packed with bonus features exists).

The opening wartime sequence of The Silent Duel is a superb showcase of atmospheric filmmaking from a real master of cinema. Kurosawa employs his trademark use of the elements within a makeshift medical centre as the sight and sound of rain beats down alongside an irritating drip of water and the flickering of lights distracts a surgeon and his aides while their faces are dripping with sweat (not-to-mention doctors who are smoking on the job). Right off the bat, The Silent Duel is a film with many a shot of superb composition with the moment which impressed me the most in this opening prologue is the dramatic tension created by a truck driving past in the background just at the moment when Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki (Toshiro Mifune) discovers he has contracted syphilis. Dr. Fujisaki’s transaction of syphilis is through no fault of his own, rather he received it through the blood of a patient he was operating on, although due to the stigma he chooses to tell no one he has sexually transmitted disease and secretly begins injecting himself with salvarsan as a treatment.

Following the opening wartime prologue, the majority of The Silent Duel takes place in a run-down hospital in an unnamed, bombed-out city circa 1946. Like Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel from the previous year, the story and the setting may be interpreted in a metaphoric sense that reflects the state of Japan following the war. The main driver of conflict in The Silent Duel is that of Dr. Fujisaki refusing to tell his fiancée Misao Matsumoto (Miki Sanjo) about his condition and calling of their marriage with his justification being that he knows she will spend the best years of her young life waiting for him to recover. However, is this act as noble as it first appears or is it one of pure selfishness to make him feel better about himself in this thought-provoking conundrum? His absence of trust in Misao causes her extraordinary pain and robs her of the ability to make her own decision about the matter. The scene in which Misao comes to visit Fujisaki one more time before going to marry another man is utterly heartbreaking. The two can barely look at each other in the face and it’s clearly evident she still so desperately loves him and wants to play the role of his housewife as they take one last cup of tea in the hospital kitchen in which she used to assist in. I feel like I want to shout at the screen, “just tell her the truth, you absolute cretin!”.

Notwithstanding, the big show-stealer of The Silent Duel is Noriko Sengoku as the probationary nurse Rui Minegishi. The downtrodden, scruffy, snarky, cynical character was rescued by Dr. Fujisaki and given a job after she tried to take her own life upon becoming pregnant. The character goes through a remarkable arc of maturity as she gives birth to her baby, studies to become a nurse, metamorphoses a more presentable appearance and acts as a wonderful counterpoint to the long-suffering doctor. There is even a hint at a relationship blossoming between the two after she outright tells him that she loves him although this is never drawn upon again. The Silent Duel is based on the play The Abortion Doctor by Kazuo Kikuta. I’ve been informed an abortion does actually occur in the play whereas none takes place in the film. Dr. Fujisaki criticizes Miss Minegishi for wanting an abortion and even goes as far as calling her a monster. Whether or not The Silent Duel could be classified as a pro-life film, it does take a celebratory tone when it comes to childbirth.

If I were to complain about one aspect of The Silent Duel, it would be the film’s score. The majority of the film features no music and thus alongside its subject matter, it has that same feeling present in American pre-code films (which feature little-to-no music scores) of which I particularly enjoy. When music is used it is over-the-top and interferes with the drama rather than contributing to it. In one extremely odd use of music during the scene in which Fujisaki’s father (the only instance Takashi Shimura played Mifune’s father in their many film pairings) reacts to finding out his son has syphilis, I am not joking, I thought there was an ice cream van driving through my street. The Silent Duel is the only Kurosawa film scored by Akira Ifukube (who would go on to compose for the Godzilla franchise), and I can only speculate if Kurosawa wasn’t pleased with the music.

The Silent Duel could be viewed as a public information film on how syphilis ruins lives. Towards the film’s end, Dr. Fujisaki has a powerful, emotional breakdown in front of Miss Minegishi, as he lets it all bare regarding his restrained sexual desires brought about by his syphilis (“But one day because of the blood of a shameless guy, my body became dirty without knowing any pleasure”). The Silent Duel is the only Kurosawa film to deal to really deals with themes of a sexual nature, from a filmography which is otherwise very much asexual. Man gets an STD without getting laid, perhaps that’s the greatest tragedy of all present in The Silent Duel.

Midway (1976)

Now, Hop In Your Sushi Boat And Git!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Midway is one of the better battle recreation movies to be released in the wake of The Longest Day (1962), detailing the first on-screen recreation of the battle, which was the turning point of the pacific war in this flawed but worthwhile Dubya-Dubya II venture. Universal Studios was the most old-school studio in the 1970s and concurrently Midway is an unashamedly old-school film within the era of New Hollywood and one which plays into the 70’s disaster movie trope of featuring an all-star cast, many of whom were residing in their twilight years. Ensemble pieces of this nature can easily provide an excuse for a cast to phone-it-in but the famed personalities in Midway all do shine even with some players of the cast only getting brief cameos. Much of the film’s roaster were veterans of the war itself including Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Cliff Robertson, Robert Webber, screenwriter Donald S. Sanford and director Jack Smight (something exceedingly rare among contemporary Hollywood). 

The king of larger-than-life actors, Charlton Heston leads the picture and portrays one of the characters not based on a historical figure in the role of Matthew Garth (the same name as Montgomery Clift’s character in Red River), and being fictional he is given his big hero moment at the climax of the battle. Of the cameo appearances I feel Cliff Robertson is given the most memorable in which he delivers a great, cynical monologue about the “the wait and see-ers” in relation to the warnings given in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor, while Robert Mitchum provides some welcome comic relief as the agitated hospital patient William F. “Bull” Halsey Jr (“I know, I’m a son of a b**** of a patient”). I also find it humorous that Joseph Rochefort (Hal Holbrook) wears a dressing gown over his army uniform and Captain Gareth does ask a “very personal” question in regards to the hygiene of him and his men (“You know, it really stinks down here. How often do some of your people take a bath?”). However, the most memorable piece of casting in Midway would have to be that of Japan’s Japan’s all time greatest film star, Toshiro Mifune as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (the third film in which he has portrayed the famed Japanese admiral). Reportedly Mifune’s Japanese accent when speaking English was so thick that his lines had to be dubbed by actor Paul Frees yet regardless, his sheer physical presence alone does bring a great sense of weight to his scenes. I do wish however the film had the Japanese characters actually speak Japanese rather than English. Come on, we’re big boys, we can read a few subtitles. It also doesn’t help that many of the Asian actors in these scenes have obvious American accents.

Much of Midway plays out as men of authority talk battle tactics over giant maps, feeling like a giant game of chess between both sides as we are given much background insight into the decoding methods employed prior to the battle. These scenes are among the best directed in the film with the layers of texture and effective use of interior space. Likewise, very little new combat material was filmed for Midway with footage taken from Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Battle of Britain (1969) and Storm Over the Pacific (Hawai Middouei daikaikusen: Taiheiyo no arashi), the latter of which was made 16 years prior (and also starred Toshiro Mifune). I do love the shot of the Imperial Japanese flag over the upper half of a battleship in the background, only to be disappointed to find out its footage taken from another movie. There is an obvious change in grain structure with this footage although it’s not overly jarring and I have seen worse examples. I am left with spilt feelings on the film’s use of actual combat footage taken from the Battle of Midway itself. On one hand, it completely contrasts with the newly filmed footage but perhaps an argument can be made that it’s taking the documentary-like aspect of the film to its logical endpoint by using actual footage from the battle. The battle itself does feel drawn out and repetitive and is clearly edited around the Sensurround system (which was the big selling point in the film’s promotion), with the same angle shots of pilots flying planes used repeatedly and an overreliance on the use of subtitles to identify locations, ships, squadrons and individuals.

The other major topic Midway explores is the US government’s internment of Japanese-Americans during the war (“execute order 9066”). I enjoyed the subplot involving Gareth’s son Thomas (Edward Albert) having fallen in love with a Japanese-American girl named Haruko Sakura (Christina Kokubo), of whom her family is being interned in Honolulu over their membership of so called Japanese Patriotic Organizations and the owning of subversive magazines (“Damn it, I’m an American! What makes up different from German-Americans or Italian-Americans?”). However I do wish this subplot could have been explored in greater depth as the film only scratches the surfaces of the subject matter nor is the sub-plot given a proper resolution as come the film’s end Haruko sees an injured Tom coming off the boat on a stretcher, but that’s it.

In 1978 a TV version of Midway was broadcast in which newly filmed scenes were added to the film. This TV version inserts an entire section detailing the Coral Sea Battle of which the newly filmed footage is competently made but just feels like filler (and still includes a large amount of stock footage). Also included in this version are scenes in which Charlton Heston reprises his role as Captain Gareth in a relationship with a woman named Ann (Susan Sullivan) who is never mentioned in the original film. These scenes are very cheesy and shot in a manner that is more televisual than cinematic but more significantly, they do not contribute to the narrative or enhance the final demise of Gareth. The final inclusions in this version are two scenes involving the Japanese commanders, the first of which is actually a terrific addition to the film. In the scene, James Shigeta reprises his role as Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo in which he speaks to the son of Yamamoto who he expresses doubts that Japan is fighting a war they cannot win as the two walk through some striking historical Japanese architecture (of which the film states is Nagumo’s residence in Tokyo). The direction and acting of this scene is top-notch and help further humanize the Japanese side in the one worthwhile addition in the TV version. I can’t say the same however for the second of these two scenes as the latter by contrast is poorly directed in which two Japanese commanders react to the defeat at the Coral Sea – a simple static and very bland shot. Midway is already a flawed film as it is and these extra additions (bar the one aforementioned scene) really don’t help matters, with Henry Fonda not even showing up until 57 minutes in. The TV version of Midway is included in the 2021 Powerhouse Films Blu-ray release.

Throughout Midway the American soldiers use the pejorative term “Jap”, yet the film portrays a mutual respect for enemies among the high ranks of both the US and Japanese militaries. Yamamoto speaks of how “I have travelled widely in America, my friends. Their industrial might is awesome” while Admiral Nimitz (Henry Fonda) concludes following the battle, “It doesn’t make any sense, admiral. Yamamoto had everything going for him. Power, experience, confidence. We’re we better than the Japanese, or just luckier?”. Despite being a picture detailing a Japanese military loss, Midway was a big hit in Japan. It is not a jingoistic film and treats both sides in a fair and dignified manner, perhaps nowhere more so than Yamamoto’s final appearance in which he accepts responsibility for the loss and states “I am the only one who must apologize to his majesty”.

Tarzan And His Mate (1934)

Hot Jungle Sex

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Tarzan and His Mate more than compensates for the shortcomings of the first Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan film of which the production values where a mixed bag. Tarzan and His Mate has less reliance on stock footage and rear projection with its use of matte paintings and a large amount of animals on set to recreate deepest darkest Africa in the only film directed by Cedric Gibbons, otherwise famous as an art designer for MGM. I just wish we could do without the men in not so convincing gorilla outfits, especially since the cast appears on screen with real apes (Planet Of The Apes was still 34 years off).

Pre-code cinema doesn’t get any sexier or revealing than Tarzan and His Mate, notably with its use of full-frontal nudity despite having a modern-day PG rating in the UK. During the early portion of the film, topless African natives can be seen in the background but in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Tarzan and Jane going for a swim in which Jane goes full commando. The underwater scene was filmed in three different versions to comply with the individual censorship laws of different US states. Maureen O’Sullivan does not appear as Jane during the swimming sequence, rather she is doubled by Josephine McKim, a member of the 1928 and 1932 U.S. Women’s Olympic Swim Teams. O’Sullivan does nonetheless wear one of the screen’s most revealing costumes of the time, a halter-top and a loincloth that left her thighs and hips exposed. Needless to say, this two-piece costume did not make its way to the post-code Tarzan films. Jane sleeps in the nude and is constantly touched by Tarzan, even just watching the two of them interact while alone, there is such sexual tension portrayed on screen (we are even treated to the Austin Powers style silhouette in the tent of a woman getting undressed).

Tarzan and Jane do refer to themselves as a married couple in Tarzan and His Mate (“Never forget, I love you.” “Love who?” Jane prompts…”Love my wife”), however at this point in their relationship it is unlikely Jane and Tarzan are technically married in the eyes of the law since a justice of the peace isn’t likely to be found in the jungle. Rather you could say Jane considers Tarzan her husband because they have lived together and slept together for a long time by now, married virtually, synonymously and spiritually – a true marriage in the law of love and the jungle. Likewise, the scene at Jane’s father’s burial site, Jane takes the chain of his timepiece and puts it around Tarzan’s wrist and says “always” in which Tarzan repeats “always”. The morning after they repeat this vow, which one could interpret as a short and sweet jungle wedding – therefore monocles can remain firmly in place over the prospect of an unmarried couple living and sleeping together.

The mighty figure of a man that is Johnny Weissmuller – he is Tarzan! His short lines of limited, broken English are highly quotable (“Martin My Friend”), while he also provides moments of humour as the feral man reacts with bemusement at the ways of the civilized world such as curiously inspecting a record player like a cat, as well as inspecting Jane’s dress and stockings from Paris. It’s Jane who has to do the talking on behalf of the couple (and even performs the famous Tarzan yell herself). The pure romantic escapism of Tarzan And His Mate comes from watching these two being deeply in love and having the time of their lives in the wilderness of the jungle. The character of Jane is brilliantly summarized in a single line – “A woman who’s learned the abandon of a savage, yet she’d be at home in Mayfair”.

 It’s easy to feel sympathy for Jane’s old friend (and not so secret lover) Harry (Neil Hamilton) over his love for Jane as he nostalgically reminisces with her about old times back in England (“Those June nights in England, Murray’s Club in Maidenhead, moonlight on the Thames”). Alternatively, Paul Cavanagh as the villainous, womanising Martin Arlington has a touch of Basil Rathbone to him (expecting him at any point to literally twirl his moustache) while Nathan Curry is a striking screen presence as Saidi, the only native whose life is not expendable and even gets to go out in a moment of heroism. That can’t be said for the rest of the safari runners including one who is shot for his cowardice. Yet, its attacks from uncivilized tribes which prove to be their biggest threat, making Tarzan And His Mate one of the more graphic films of the pre-code era (including one particularly gruesome shot of a man having been impaled in the forehead).

Ouch!

I find it difficult to determine if Tarzan And His Mate is an early example of a film with an environmental/conservationist message? The film shows Tarzan has an almost supernatural connection to the non-predatory/ non-carnivorous animals of the jungle, whereas he fights predators such as lions and crocodiles throughout the picture. In particular, Tarzan has the ability to rally up herds of elephants in order to prevent the safari hunters from removing ivory from an elephant graveyard (there is no such thing as an elephant graveyard but the appearance of one in the film with its litany of skeletons is no less eerie). Is the film trying to promote a message or is it just a reflection of Tarzan’s personal feelings over the elephant graveyard being a sacred ground for the creatures and not to be disturbed or violated? Likewise, Tarzan and His Mate was reportedly banned in Germany by the National Socialist Party on the grounds that it showed a nordic man in primitive surroundings, which I do find odd since I could imagine them using Tarzan as a promotion of Aryan supremacy. Then again perhaps part of their motivation to ban the movie was based on the fact that Tarzan is played by a man whose surname is Weissmuller.

The Return of Doctor X (1939)

The Return Of Doctor X is a movie with very little value to it aside from the anomaly of being Humphrey Bogart’s only horror/science fiction film in which he plays the titular Dr Maurice Xavier, a.k.a. Marshall Quesne (pronounced “caine”). Dr. Xavier is essentially a zombie-vampire, a doctor who was sentenced to the electric chair after trying to see how long babies could go without eating (gruesome even for today, let alone 1939), only to be resurrected by a proto Dr Frankenstein, Dr Francis Flegg (John Litel) and is kept alive by regular injections of Type One blood. I do love the Karloff-like design of the character with his pale, white face, punk rock style hair with the white streak and a rabbit which he carries around with him (I’m making this my future Halloween costume). The Return Of Doctor X is a rare instance in which Bogart played a subservient character, of whom is quite Peter Lorre-esque with his tragic and pathetic demeanour, while his unnatural body movements and limping call back to Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster. The film’s climax does, however, venture into more traditional Bogart territory in which Xavier partakes in a gangster-style shootout. Bogart is a consummate professional who doesn’t phone in the role regardless of how much he was known to detest it. Just contrast him to his master played by John Litel, of whom the movie gives him somewhat of an arc in which he eventually regrets his actions playing God, he is a much more generic bad guy.

According to the audio commentary for The Return Of Doctor X featuring director Vincent Sherman (of whom went on to do better work in his career), the film had a troubled production with the original script going in one direction and then being significantly altered during filming. This is evident when watching the film’s trailer of which the majority of footage featured is not in the finished picture not to mention the film’s as various credit errors (Wayne Morris is billed as Walter Barnett but is referred to as Walter Garrett in the film). Likewise, the film oddly gives the “All persons fictitious” disclaimer full-screen treatment before the opening titles, whereas it’s usually in small print at the bottoms of the credits. What was the studio worried about?

It’s Alive!

The premise of The Return Of Doctor X has potential with its mix of vampirism and reincarnation but with the exception of Bogart, the mystery yarn fails to flesh out the story or characters (although I do find it interesting that the movie has to explain the more recent scientific discovery of blood group types, whereas today this is common, layman knowledge). Wayne Morris might have worked at the title character in Kid Galahad but he’s no leading man material in the role of a go-getter reporter from Wichita. The Return Of Doctor X is a typical example of the Warner Bros B-movie product of the late 30’s/early 40’s – the film is by the numbers and has no real flashy moments. Worst of all, it is masquerading as a sequel to the two-tier Technicolor, pre-code gem Doctor X, however, there is no connection between the two films. Many would point to The Return Of Doctor X as an embarrassment in the career of Humphrey Bogart, however I would point to it as another example of how great an actor he is as he brings so much life to an otherwise average film when he’s on-screen. Boris Karloff made a career playing roles like this, why should Bogart’s attempt at playing a monster be looked down upon?

Grand Prix (1966)

I Sleep In A Racing Car, Do You?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Grand Prix may be the best Howard Hawks film he didn’t make – a loosely plotted film following four Formula 1 drivers with the theme of male bonding. There is even a Hawksian woman in the form of Eva Marie Saint as Louise Frederickson in a role similar to that of Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings, an onlooker who  is taken back by this subculture and the reaction or lack thereof the drivers have to death and injury. The loosely plotted structure avoids the cliché of many sports films in which the drama hinges on whether or not the protagonist or team wins the final bout. Rather Grand Prix is an examination of these stoic modern gladiators and the women who come to reject their men’s participation in the sport.

Grand Prix was John Frankenheimer’s first picture in colour and while something is lost when compared to his earlier films which are some of the most visually astounding black & white films of the era, Grand Prix is one colourful and eye-popping film. Grand Prix is one of the best examples of a movie which offers such a vibrant slice of exotic, European flavor; complete with beautiful locations, gorgeous women, an exquisite score by Maurice Jarre and the full glitz and glamour of the sport. It plays like a not so cynical tourism commercial complete with early use of film product placement (the first of two Frankenheimer films to make use of the Good Year brand).

The 1960’s, when every movie was over three hours long, complete with an overture, intermission and entr’acte. Filmed in Super Panavision for display on a Cinerama screen, Grand Prix was a movie designed for the theatrical experience with its astounding racing sequences – no further proof is required that Frankenheimer is one of the screen’s greatest directors of action. During the film’s three major race sequences there are no instances of cars being filmed slowly with footage sped up in post production as seen in many older films – no, this is the real deal. Grand Prix was filmed during the 1966 racing season with the actual actors in the film performing their own driving (bar Brian Bedford).

The location shots during the film’s opening race at the Monaco Grand Prix are a thing of beauty to look at with the winding roads, palm trees and glorious architecture. Combine that with extensive use of shot types and transitions and you have an unforgettable feast for the senses. Right from the Saul Bass opening credits with the extreme use of close-ups and use of checkered frames to the fast-moving ariel footage, POVs, split-screen and quick cuts – Grand Prix is a marvel of editing. In relation to the sound design, just like the sound of galloping horses during the chariot race from Ben-Hur, the sound of Formula 1 engines ramps up the suspense without the aid of music – rather it creates a rhythm of its own. One race in Grand Prix is however scored by Jarre’s music in a surprisingly relaxing and dreamlike montage of overlapping footage of F1 cars which the sounds of their engines subtly in the background. I wonder if Grand Prix played an influence on George Lucas for the pod race sequence in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Well guess who was a young camera operator on Grand Prix back in 1966?

Among the glamour of Grand Prix, things do u-turn on several instances during the film’s bloody and graphic injury scenes of various drivers, not to mention a very upsetting scene involving two young boys who should not have entered the race track as and when they did. With the comparable lack of safety back in 1966, one has to ask does this make the sport more exciting for both the drivers and spectators? There is even one scene in which James Garner is recklessly driving on a country road and no one in the car is wearing a seatbelt.

James Garner headlines Grand Prix as American racer Pete Aron, a bit of jackass but one who has a sympathetic streak to him. Toshiro Mifune makes his Hollywood debut as Japanese automobile magnet Izo Yamura. I’ve read many reviews complaining that Mifune’s English dubbing is on par with a Godzilla film but I beg to ask what copy of the film are they watching? – I can’t see any issue with the quality of the dub. Yves Montand however in the role of Jean-Pierre Sarti brings the highest level of gravitas from the film’s cast. He questions his participation in the sport and has wanted to quit after witnessing many an accident (“Maybe to do something that brings you so close to the possibility of death and to survive it is to feel life and living so much more intensely”). In a sign of mutual respect and good sportsmanship, he even stops in the middle of a race when Pete Aron is trying to escape a burning vehicle. Montand’s character appears to be a stereotype for French existential angst, a man wearied by the absurdity of his existence. This is backed up by the fact that his name is similar to that of French, existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Grand Prix hits its emotional peak with the tragic ending in which Sarti’s body comes flying out of a vehicle and only to lie mangled on a tree, all because he drove into a pipe which came loose from another vehicle. The irony of the character who contemplated most on retiring would see such a bloody end and not to mention the emotional breakdown in which Louise Frederickson screams at the press, while her hands are covered in Sarti’s blood – it leaves much food for thought. Grand Prix is as much a tribute to Formula 1 as it is a reminder of how dangerous it once was – for better or worse.