A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
July 16: At 2:15 am comes a film from Chinese director King Hu (Hu Jingquan): A Touch of Zen (1971). Combining the artistry and story selection of Kurosawa with the action of a kung-fu programmer, we end up with an action-adventure film with a strong classical feel and a large dose of the spiritual. Think of an earlier incarnation of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was strongly influenced by this film. Gu Shen Chai (Chun Shih), an artist, lives with his mother near an abandoned fort that is thought to be haunted. A stranger arrives in town wanting his portrait painted by Gu. We learn he is really Ouyang Nian (Tien Peng), a disguised army commander whose real objective is to bring a female fugitive back to the city for execution. While investigating strange noises one night, Gu meets the beautiful Yang Hui-ching (Feng Hsu) who is hiding out there from the agents who have murdered her family. Gu befriends her and finds himself caught up in her struggle to survive. It marks a change in his character from a bumbling bystander to a committed man of action. To say this is not your usual Wuxia (literally “martial heroes”) film is an understatement. This is a three-hour film, with the first hour or so devoted to Gu’s daily routine, so get out the popcorn and prepared to be patient. The Shaw Brothers this isn’t.
A highlight is the battle in the bamboo forest (which, I believe, was copied by Lee for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Yang kills Ouyang, and his mission now falls to Men Da (Wang Rui), who marches his men to the village. Gu booby-traps the abandoned fort, and uses night guerrilla tactics to decimate the invaders. Yang and General Shi (Bai Ying), who helped orchestrate her escape and has come to defend her, are able to withdraw to the safety of Abbot Hui-yuan’s (Roy Chiao) monastery, but our hero Gu has set out in pursuit of Yang, with whom he is in love. Though he never finds her, he cares for their infant son.
Gu is now wanted by the Imperial forces, and as Yang and Wei go to aid him, another battle breaks out between them and men led by Xu Xian-chun (Han Ying-jie, the film’s martial arts choreographer). Once the film picks up steam, it never lets down, and therein lies its beauty. It’s one worth the time, loaded with symbolism and marked by masterful cutting from the dialogue scenes to the battle scenes. Fans of Asian cinema will love it and I can only ask those new to the genre to give it a chance. I first saw it around 1979 at a place in Irvington, N.J., called The Sanford Theater, where it was on a double-bill with another kung-fu epic I’ve since forgotten. The theater was packed as I remember, with the first kung-fu film being cheered and marveled at by the audience. But by the time this finished at around 11:30 pm, my friend and I were two of only about 10 people left. There simply wasn’t enough chopsocky for the rest of the audience.
July 23: A repeat showing of Wim Wenders’ 1991 opus, Until the End of the World is airing at 2:00 am. Set in 1999, William Hurt is Sam Farber, an American being chased by the CIA. He runs into Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin), a woman enlisted by bank robbers to take their stolen loot to a drop point in Paris. Sam tells Claire the CIA is actually after a device invented by his father that allows anyone to record their dreams and vision. Fleeing both the bank robbers and the CIA, their flight path eventually takes them to Australia, where they visit his father's (Max von Sydow) research facility in the hopes of playing back recordings Hurt made for his blind mother. There’s also a subplot about a damaged Indian nuclear satellite crashing and causing the end of civilization. We can only recommend this for die-hard Wenders fans. It is a terrible try by the director at making a sci-fi film seemingly without studying any earlier material in the genre. For those who love bad movies, I can promise you many laughs at the seemingly innumerable fatuous moments. Guaranteed you will get the feeling that Wenders made this because he is of the mistaken belief that he is smarter than the rest of us. This film is proof that he isn’t.
June 30: Now we’re talking. A triple-feature of Yasujiro Ozu. Begin at midnight with the 1931 silent Tokyo no Korasu (Tokyo Chorus). As we have come to expect from Ozu, this is a subtle bittersweet drama focused around Shinji Okajima (Tokihiko Okada), a married insurance salesman with three children. On the company's annual bonus day, Shinji protests when an older worker is fired. Seems he had a knack of selling policies to people who kicked off shortly afterward, costing the company much yen. As a result of his protest, Shinji loses his own job as well. Now he and his wife must find ways to cope. After a series of misadventures, he runs into his former professor, who now owns a health food cafe. His former professor promises him help if Shinji will assist with the cafe. Part of that assistance consists of handing out handbills in the street, a major loss of economic and personal status. Unfortunately for Shinji, his wife sees him and is greatly shamed by the family's loss of status. But as time passes, she accepts the need for sacrifice and also begins to help out in the cafe. During the large opening banquet, guaranteeing its success, the old professor receives word that Shinji has been offered a teaching post in a small and distant town.
In showing us how the Depression has affected Japan, Ozu is far more honest than American moviemakers, exploring the connection between employment, self-identity and the status that accompanies it.
Ozu’s opening stresses the irony of events that spiral out of control. He opens with a young Shinji in college as he plays the “class clown,” and makes fun of his exasperated instructor (Tatsuo Saito) for the benefit of his classmates. Of course, the instructor turns out to the be the professor who owns the cafe and to whom Shinji turns for help. Ozu is a keen observer of the human condition, and this is what makes his films such a joy to watch. With excellent performances from Ozu regulars Okada, Saito and Emiko Yagumo, as well as a wonderful and winning performance from future star Hideko Takamine as their daughter.
A bit of real-life irony: Ozu is often praised as the most “Japanese” of Japan’s directors, but in reality, he, more than any of them, was influenced by Hollywood, especially Ernst Lubitsch and Harold Lloyd, and this influence can be seen in Tokyo Chorus. For instance, look for the scene where the salarymen are trying to count their bonus without anyone else looking on.
At 2:00 am comes 1957’s Tokyo boshoku (Tokyo Twilight), one of Ozu’s darkest pictures. Two sisters, Akiko Sugiyama (Ineko Arima) and Takako Numatya (Setsuko Hara), live with their father, Shukichi Sugiyama (Chishu Ryu). Akiko is a college student learning English shorthand. Elder sister Takako is running away from an unhappy marriage, toting along her toddler daughter. Shukichi works in a bank in Tokyo. Akiko becomes pregnant by her college boyfriend, Kenji (Masami Taura), which results in an abortion after she realizes that Kenji does not love her.
While looking for Kenji in a mahjong parlor, Akiko meets its proprietress, Kisako (Isuzu Yamada). Kisako seems to know a lot about Akiko and her family. Back at home, Akiko tells Takako about Kisako, and later Takako is able to figure out that Kisako is their long-lost mother.
Takako pays a visit to the parlour and asks Kisako not to divulge her real identity to Akiko. But this backfires when Akiko learns of Takako’s visit and pries the truth from her. Takako tells her sister that their mother ran away with another man when Akiko was still in diapers. Akiko, badly shaken by the news, confronts Kisako for her side of the story. After the meeting Akiko angrily leaves the parlor, going to a nearby noodle shop for some sake. Kenji enters, looking for her, and the two get into an argument. As Akiko leaves she is hit by a train at an intersection just outside the shop.
Badly injured in the hospital, Akiko passes away in front of her father and Takako, who later angrily confronts Kisako with the news of Akiko’s death. Kisako, distraught, agrees to leave Tokyo with her husband (Nobuo Nakamura) for his new job in Hokkaido. Just prior to departure, she visits the Sugiyamas to offer her condolences and tell Takako of her decision. However, Takako does not go to see her off at the railway station.
As the film ends, Takako tells her father that she is going back to her husband to try to make their marriage work again, for she does not want her daughter to have the same experience Akiko did, lacking the love of one parent. Shukichi agrees with her decision.
One of Ozu’s darkest works, Tokyo Twilight is rarely screened, and because of this and the man who directed it, the film is a must see. It expresses one of Ozu’s strongest held convictions – that tragedy is inevitable in the flow of life.
Finally at 4:30 am comes a film from Ozu’s earlier days, a 1947 opus titled Nagaya Shinshiroku (a.k.a. Record of a Tenement Gentleman). Set in postwar Tokyo, a man named Tashiro (Chishu Ryu) brings a lost boy of about seven named Kohei (Hohi Aoki) to his tenement. No one wants to take the boy in, but finally a widow named Tane (Choko Iida) agrees to take him. The next day, she takes the boy back to his neighborhood in Chigasaki, about 40 miles away. There she finds his father has gone to Tokyo and left Kohei behind. Tane’s instinct is to leave him there, but Kohei follows her home. The next morning he disappears fearing a scolding after wetting the bed. Tane realizes she likes having him there, searches for him, and keeps him when he's found that night. Within days, she considers him her son. Eventually his father (Eitaro Ozawa) turns up and reclaims his son.
Ozu uses all the subtlety and power at his command to present what seems like a simple story of a lost child slowly worming his way into a woman’s heart. But the child’s grubbiness and stoicism, aided by the lack of any cute exchanges, tells us that all is not what it seems. Ozu’s mise-en-scene is so unobtrusively deft we may not notice at first just how deeply the damage of World War II is impressed upon every shot, setting, and character of the film. Taking that into account along with Ozu’s well-known avoidance of close-ups and scenes of emotional outpouring leads us to the conclusion that Record of a Tenement Gentleman is less of a story about how an abandoned waif manages to unlock an elderly widow’s heart than it is more of a commentary on postwar Japanese society delivered in that distinct bittersweet lyrical that is a trademark of Ozu.
July 17: Two Pre-Code Westerns are on the schedule. Leading off at 6:30 am is Way Out West (1930), starring William Haines, Leila Hyams and Polly Moran. Grifter Windy (Haines) has cheated several ranch hands out of their money with a rigged roulette wheel. Caught, the boys want to string him up, but when they learns that he has also been robbed of his ill-gotten gains, they make him work off the debt at the ranch. While there Windy falls for lovely Molly (Hyams), but ranch foreman Steve (Francis X. Bushman) also has his eyes on her. This is a good chance to see William Haines in a talkie. He didn’t make that many of them because, as one of Hollywood’s most outspoken gay actors, he was forced out of film by Louie B. Mayer and went on to become one of Hollywood’s most successful interior decorators.
Following at 8:00 it’s Renegades of the West, from RKO in 1932. Tom Bigby (Tom Keene) has been hired by Curly Bogard (Rockcliffe Fellows) as part of his cattle rustling gang. Tom had previously spent six months in prison looking for the man who killed his father. Learning it was Curly, Tom keeps his identity a secret, but just as he gets the evidence he needs from Curly’s safe, none other than his old cellmate Blackie (Jim Mason) comes by to spill the beans. Directed by Casey Robinson, who later became one of Hollywood’s most notable screenwriters, this isn’t a bad film. Young Betty grable plays the ingenue and it’s a rare chance to see Rockcliffe Fellows. A star in silents since 1915, he made few talkies. His most notable sound role was as gangster Joe Helton in the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business. Film buffs should record this for later viewing.
July 25: William stars as Paul Kroll, a thinly-disguised portrait of real-life swindler and entrepreneur Ivar Kreuger, who before he ended his life in 1932 with a bullet to his heart in Paris, showed the world a thing or two about creative financing, modern capitalism and the art of swindling as he built an empire in the manufacture of matches. As he climbs the financial ladder, breaking commandments and swindling even his girlfriend, Kroll repeats his mantra: ”Stop worrying until something happens – then I’ll take care of it.” It’s this combination of story and performance that makes The Match King (1932, 1:30 pm) compelling viewing.
July 29: On a lighter note, William is a corporate playboy who hires the secretary of everyone’s dreams (Marian Marsh) in 1932’s Beauty and the Boss at 7:45 am. William, who usually dominates his films, gets a run for his money from Marsh, who gives one of the best performances of here all-too-short career. Read our review of it here.
July 19: An entire morning and afternoon is devoted tom Joel McCrea, with almost off the films being Pre-Code. Among the highlights are Bird of Paradise (1932, 7:45 am), The Most Dangerous Game (1932, 12:15 pm), The Sport Parade (1932, 2:45 pm), and Bed of Roses (1933, 4:00 pm).
BETTE PLAYS JOAN
July 22: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had one of the best-publicized feuds in Hollywood, but did you know Bette played a character based on Joan? In 1952’s The Star (10:30 pm), Bette is Margaret Elliot, an Oscar-winning actress who has not worked in several years. Margaret is forced to sell her belongings at an auction, is arrested for drunk driving, and is fired from a job at a department store for getting into a fight with the customers. Jim Johannson (Sterling Hayden), a former co-star of Margaret’s, confesses that he’s in love with her and tries to help her find a modicum of happiness. But Margaret can't give up her role as a star just yet, and to Jim’s despair, auditions for another part. The Star was written by Katherine Albert and Dale Eunson, two close friends of Crawford’s, who fell out with the star after a 25-year-long friendship. Crawford knew the film was about her and had a perfect revenge. Katherine and Dale asked Joan is she could counsel their 17-year-old daughter and talk the youngster out of getting married. Not only did Joan urge the girl to get hitched, she also managed the wedding and neglected to invite the bride’s parents! Though the movie tanked at the box office, Davis still garnered a Best Actress nomination, ultimately losing to Shirley Booth for Come Back, Little Sheba.
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B-HIVE
FRANKIE AND ANNETTE
July 16: AIP’s favorite beach couple, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, star in Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), airing at 2:00 pm. Harvey Lembeck is along as Eric Von Zipper to provide the villainy, and Marta Kristen makes a most alluring mermaid who entrances beach bum Bonehead (Jody McCrea).
MAYNARD AND GIBSON
July 17: Ranchers in Montana who are about be forced off their land by a criminal gang led by Roger Caldwell (Harry Woods) call in the Trail Blazers (Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson) to set things right. We were speaking earlier of Rockcliffe Fellows, but Harry Woods was also in Monkey Business as Alky Briggs, the mobster who is the opponent of Fellows. Woods worked in many B-Westerns as a bad guy. As will all the Trail Blazers films, this one is great fun to watch.
July 18: A mini-marathon of psychotronic films airs this morning and afternoon. We recommend Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) at 6:00 am; the silent version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydestarring John Barrymore (1920) at 7:15 am; Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman (1960) at 8:30 am; Lon Chaney Jr. and Claude Rains in The Wolf Man (1941) at 9:45 am; and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) at 2:30 pm.
July 26: Another all day mini-marathon begins at 6:15 with The Body Snatcher (1945) from producer Val Lawton. Other noteworthy films are The Bat (1959), with Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead, at 8:00 am, Price in House of Wax (1953) at 2:30 pm, Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People (1944) at 4:15 pm, and Price again in William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1958) at 5:30 pm
WOMEN BEHIND BARS
July 22: A late-night double feature sees Phyliss Davis braving the torture of an island prison in Terminal Island (1983) at 2:25 am. Tom Selleck also stars as a mercy killer doctor. Following at 4:30 am is House of Women (1962), a loose remake of Caged (1950) with Shirley Knight in the Eleanor Parker role. Andrew Duggan is the uptight warden who uses the prison as his own harem.
July 25: Beginning at 8:00 pm, the night is devoted to that icon of the 50’s teenager: the hot rod. We start with the aptly named Hot Rod, from Monogram in 1950). James Lydon is a teenager who restores a jalopy behind his father’s back with some unintended results until the requisite happy ending. It’s the first of the genre and worth watching.
At 9:30 pm comes AIP’s Hot Rod Gang (1958), starring John Ashley as John Ashley stars as John Abernathy III, a teenage heir to a fortune who is living a double life. He must live on the straight and narrow to meet the conditions of his inheritance. While he does so by day, at night it’s a different story, as he drive fast cars and sings in a rock combo at the local teen hangout. But when the hangout needs money to survive, Ashley invents yet another persona. He becomes singer Jackson "The Beard" Dalyrimple, replete with beatnik beard and beret. B-western sidekick Dub Taylor plays the hangout’s landlord who shows up for the rent money and offers comments about this young generation. And Helen Spring and Dorothy Newman also star as Abigail and Anastasia, Ashley’s spinster aunts who are oblivious to his double life. Jody Fair is Lois Cavendish, female hot rodder and Ashley’s squeeze.
At 11:00 pm Fair returns as Cavendish in Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (1959), a continuation of the gang’s adventures. This time the gang has to raise money to save their clubhouse. Newman returns as the clueless Aunt Anastasia. The film is notable as the bridge from hot rod films to the Beach Party films of the ‘60s. Read our essay on it here.
At 12:15 am car salesman John Bromfield learns that his boss is stocking stolen cars in Hot Cars (UA, 1956). But as he has a wife and sick kid to support, he reluctantly throws in with his boss, which leads to a chain of events culminating with a fight on top of a roller coaster. Watch for Joi Lansing as a femme fatale who attempts to seduce Broomfield.
The rest of the night sees John Ireland as a wrongly convicted man who takes Dorothy Malone hostage during a road race from California to Mexico while fighting to clear his name in the Roger Corman-produced The Fast and the Furious (1954, American Releasing Corp.). James Dean stars in the oft-shown Rebel Without a Cause (1954) at 3:00 am, and the Bowery Boys enter a road race when Sach (Huntz Hall) invents a new super gas in Jalopy (Monogram, 1953).
July 22: Blackie must help catch an escaped maniac who is posing as Blackie in Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous (1945) at 10:30 am.
July 29: Blackie is framed for murder by femme fatale Lynn Merrick in Boston Blackie’s Close Call (1946) at 10:30 am.
July 29: Matthew Labyorteaux attempts to bring back his neighbor Samantha (Kristy Swanson) with the use of robotics after she’s murdered by her abusive stepfather in Deadly Friend (1986)airing at 3:35 am.
Preceding it at 2:00 am is then sci-fi thriller The Hidden (1987). An alien, slug-like parasite enters its hosts and turns them into killers. Michael Nouri and Kyle MacLachlan star.