Altman and company get gangsta in the heartland.
Auteur and maverick Robert Altman directed several films centered around crime, but perhaps only his 1930s gangster flick Kansas City truly fits the bill as a pulp style effort. The plot tells the tale of Blondie O'Hara, whose petty crook husband Johnny is captured by gangster Seldom Seen and held at a nightclub, prompting Blondie to kidnap the wife of a local politician in an attempt to blackmail him into using his connections to free Johnny. Sounds straightforward, but Altman's approach to this is leisurely and episodic.
Kansas City is generally considered to be a lesser effort from the legendary director, but even if it's not in the class of Short Cuts or M*A*S*H*, it has some points of interest—a slithery jazz score, lots of smoky nightclub scenery, Steve Buscemi warming up for another gangster role in the brilliant Miller's Crossing, Harry Belafonte playing it cool, and Jennifer Jason Leigh giving her actorly all as the drawling, flapperesque Blondie.
Another plus is this killer promo poster. When we saw it we had to watch the movie. But what's the most important reason to watch it? Altman, of course. It's always fun to see what a director does with the 1930s. What's the main drawback? Aside from its narrative quirkiness, we suspect its racial content may be a bit much for those with millennial sensibilities. But don't fault art for holding a mirror to history. When we can't reflect the past in cinema we'll have fallen pretty far. Kansas City premiered in the U.S. today in 1996.
Ahoy there, miss! Do you mind if we pull abreast?
Above, a poster for the Hitomi Kozue roman porno flick Nikutai hanzai kaigan: Piranha no mure, aka Sex-Crime Coast: School of Piranha. In this one Kozue rises out of the sea like Aphrodite, which is how we always suspected she came to be. Well, okay, she isn't actually a deity. Instead she plays an all-too-mortal gangster girl who falls for a gangster boy in the seaside region of Shōnan, along Sagami Bay. But romance is never easy in these films, and a love triangle soon brings jealousy and violence to the idyllic sands of central Japan. It's Nikkatsu Studios, and it's roman porno, so you know exactly what you'll get here. It premiered in Japan today in 1973.
Enough! We'll tell you anything you want to hear! Just please make it stop!
Matchless premiered in Italy in 1967, but it was originally released under the title Sin rival. When and why it also played in Italy as Matchless—as indicated by this Italian and English promo poster—is a mystery. It later played in the U.S. as Matchless but with different poster art. Of all the promos, this one is the nicest, we think. The movie is a bizarre spy flick spoof about a journalist (Patrick O'Neal) who escapes a Chinese military prison with the help of a ring that makes him invisible. He's given this gadget by another prisoner for reasons that are unclear. After he reaches home turf in NYC the U.S. government takes advantage of his disappearing act by turning him into a spy. They send him to take down a criminal mastermind played by Donald Pleasance, who riffs on his own Blofeld character from You Only Live Twice. Chases, crashes, quips, and snafus soon follow.
Here's the thing. Serious films that turn out bad are often unintentionally enjoyable; comedies that turn out bad can be slow torture. Matchless isn't as bad as extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation in a CIA black site, but isn't much of a step up from there either. It's mostly tedious, witless, and punch drunk stupid, but it's redeemed slightly by Nicoletta Machiavelli and Ira von Fürstenberg, and we imagine it can be fun if you watch it with a gaggle of friends and gallons of intoxicants. But then again, almost anything is.
Gemser heats up the deserts of Egypt.
Cinematic sleaze was often fueled, the same as was mainstream filmmaking, by star power, so it was natural to bring two popular erotic performers like Laura Gemser and Annie Belle together. It happened today in 1976 with the Italian premiere of Velluto nero. At some point after its theatrical release it was renamed for English speaking audiences Black Emmanuelle, White Emmanuelle. Gemser was actually Indonesian, born in Surabaya, East Java, however 1976 was the blaxploitation era and everybody wanted a piece of that pie, including, obviously, Gemser's production company Rekord Films. Gemser could have played anything from half black to Persian to southern Italian to Hawaiian to Latina, so it was a canny—if cynical—bit of cultural appropriation. But back then it was seemingly no harm no foul. Audiences wanted to see her naked, and she always delivered.
In Velluto nero Gemser plays a model who vacations in Egypt with her horrible husband and meets the free-spirited Belle, who awakens her to better possibilities in life—ones that don't include her criminally abusive spouse. It's generally agreed that this is one of Gemser's most tepid Emanuelle entries. We have to concur. But Gemser and Annie Belle in the same movie are worth something, at least, and the Egyptian scenery is compelling. We also like that Belle's multi-colored sweater makes another appearance. She must have lifted it from the costume department when she filmed Laure. Velluto nero isn't the last we'll see of her or Gemser, and we'll just have to hope the next encounter is an improvement over this one.
You can't have him. He's the only reliable source of heat in this place.
Above is a poster for Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave, aka Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. The movie premiered in Italy today in 1970, but we're showing you the U.S. poster because its imagery of co-star Edwige Fenech and a devil cat is better, in our opinion, than the Italian one, which you see at bottom. The title is ridiculous, obviously, but how is the film? It's a typically labyrinthine giallo. Anita Strindberg, she of the glorious mouth and astonishing hair, is being tormented by her impotent writer husband Oliviero. When murders begin to occur in the crumbling mansion where they live he begs Strindberg to supply his alibi, claiming he had nothing to do with the crimes. Enter the husband's niece, Fenech. She arrives for a visit and forms an immediate sexual bond with Strindberg. They both think Oliviero is a killer and set out to prove it. The film is interesting, but it's always a problem when a mystery's solution has to be explained at the end because nobody in the film—nor in the audience—could figure it out. Still though, giallo completists will find something here to like. Below are some production photos, as well as a promo shot made for the film of Fenech in a tub. And you thought she'd never let go of that cat.
The money is there. All they have to do is steal it.
Nora-neko rokku: Wairudo janbo, aka Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo, stars Meiko Kaji and Bunjaku Han in a Nikkatsu Studios/Hori Production co-effort. The movie is based on a Satoshi Funachi novel and concerns five obnoxious delinquents who, with the help of an insider, decide to rob a religious group called the Seikyo Society of 30 million yen. There's a festival going on there, which means the organization's coffers will be fat with cash. As usual with these movies, it takes a while to get to the central plot, but the digressions are interesting. A good portion of the running time involves the group's road trip to the religious compound and the various scrapes they get into along the way, including a comical interlude at the beach. When they finally reach their destination does the robbery go as planned? Of course not. They rarely do. As a side note, viewers should know that while Akiko Wada gets top position on the poster she's barely in the movie. But the film is definitely one of the better Japanese juvie flicks and a worthy second entry in the five film Nora-neko rokku series. Nora-neko rokku: Wairudo janbo premiered in Japan today in 1970. Read about the others, here, here, here, and here.
Being diplomatic is one way to get what you want. And then there's Bardot's way.
This is one of the most classic of Brigitte Bardot's movie posters, with the smiling superstar holding an Eiffel Tower in her hands, implying that all France is her plaything. That much is undeniable. It was originally titled Une parisenne, but for its English language release it was given the slightly different title La Parisienne, and in it Bardot does what Bardot always does—stops traffic, generates previously undiscovered quantum states of chaos, and flips reality upside down. This time around she plays Brigitte Laurier, the prime minister's stubborn daughter, in love her father's assistant, who tries as hard as he can not to get involved with her. Why would he resist Bardot? Because she's too young, and he already has a (married) girlfriend. He finally marries Bardot through a set of crazy circumstances, but refuses to give up his mistress, which of course leads to a jealous Brigitte taking matters into her own hands. This is a classic French style sex comedy, with confusion, mistaken assumptions, and people sneaking into each other's beds, all in service of teaching the lesson that what's good for the goose is good for the gander.
Focusing on the poster for a moment, you can see it's a high quality piece of art, but it's attributed to nobody. We checked around and came up with zip. You'll notice it says La Parisienne was Bardot's first big picture. We doubt that—it was her eighteenth movie. We can find no evidence anywhere that this one was different budgetwise than her other headlining efforts. Possibly, “big” is a reference to the plot's focus on international politics and diplomacy. The film does seem to have a larger scope, and take place against a larger backdrop than usual. So maybe that's it. Or maybe the American distributors meant that it was the first of Bardot's films to receive a big promotional push in the U.S. We just don't know. But here's what we're sure about: after a successful run in Europe beginning in late 1957, La Parisienne premiered in New York City today in 1958.
Cinematic encounters of the worst kind.
The sci-fi adventure Starcrash was made to copy the success—as well as the basic blueprint—of Star Wars. But the only aspect of the movie that's comparable is the promo art. We already showed you the great U.S. poster. This is the Colombian poster made for the movie's premiere there today in 1979 as Ataques estelar del tercer tipo. Elsewhere in Latin America the film had titles like Infierno en el cosmos (Argentina), and Starcrash: Ataque interstelar (Mexico).
Looking more closely, you'll notice a ship similar to the Millennium Falcon. The engines are at the opposite end, but it's basically the same design. These guys were shameless. In addition, Ataques estelar del tercer tipo would translate as “star attacks of the third type.” Obviously, not content to merely rip off Stars Wars the producers decided to also borrow from Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But what you get is a cinematic encounter of the worst kind, though a very funny one. We talked about it already. Check here.
Girl meets girl and things get a little twisted.
You'd be surprised how many Japanese movie posters feature swastikas. Or backwards ones, anyway. This particular promo was made for the melodrama Manji, a movie known in English by the name Swastika, or sometimes All Mixed Up. Some of you out there might be saying right now that the crooked cross Westerners know as a Nazi symbol is also a Native American symbol, though turned backward. And you'd be right. Others of you may say it's an ancient Sanskrit symbol, whether turned backward or forward. And you'd also be right. Still others of you, the more widely traveled perhaps, know that in Japan the backward swastika is a symbol used to mark the location of Buddhist temples on maps. And what the hell, we should also mention that younger Japanese sometimes say “manji” instead of “cheese” when posing for a photo.
Why did we go into all that? Because when you put a swastika on your website it's prudent to explain why. There is no discussion of the symbol in Manji. The film is about bored housewife Kyôko Kishida embarking on an affair with a younger woman played by Ayako Wakao. It's all fun and games at first, but Kishida, in the grip of middle age and an unfulfilling marriage, grows increasingly obsessed with her young girltoy. The movie's makers seem to be using the cross ironically—in Sanskrit it symbolizes good luck, but the affair in Manji is anything but. You can find out yourself, though, because the entire thing is on YouTube for the moment—with English subtitles!—at this link. Say goodbye to ninety minutes of your life, cinephiles. Manji premiered in Japan today in 1964.
Neglected baseball comedy reminds viewers that the American pastime was also the African American pastime.
Major League Baseball is known as America's pastime. But for decades it was really only the pastime for whites, due to the fact that black participation was banned by every team, and black spectatorship was limited by apartheid laws. But during that time African Americans formed their own leagues, and those teams and players are part of wider baseball lore. As far as we know The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, which is set in 1939, is the only major movie about black baseballers during the pre-integration era. That alone makes it worth a gander. James Earl Jones, Richard Pryor and Billy Dee Williams in the starring roles are bonuses. The plot involves various Negro League athletes who band together and barnstorm around the U.S. They're trying to get out from under bad contracts with their original teams, or bad jobs in mundane professions, but of course this break toward freedom leads to trouble.
The film benefits from excellent exterior location work. Director John Badham makes use of the old sharecropper cabins, winding rural roads, and rickety wooden stadiums of the American countryside. These would have existed in abundance when the film was made in the mid-1970s, requiring little in the way of set design. The authenticity is palpable. In other areas the film misses the mark, particularly in the tone of the performances, which are Vaudevillian and over-vernacularized. Butone aspect of the film hits a bullseye. James Earl Jones expresses it succinctly when he hears that the Major Leagues are scouting black players: “So the white man is finally moving in,” he says, as if speaking about the mafia. He goes on to predict the death of Negro League Baseball. Jones's point is crystalline: the Major Leagues broke the color line not out of altruism or justice, but in order to protect its product.
The oldest Negro League team had been around since 1885. By the 1940s Negro League players had competed against white players and proved to be capable, and in some instances, superior. MLB had a legitimacy problem. It couldn't truly claim to contain all the best baseball players. People were growing more interested in black baseball. Money was being made on the sport beyond the confines of MLB. A lot of money. Breaking the color line cemented the legitimacy of MLB's talent claims, and it obliterated competition from Negro League baseball, which died on the vine. Today black ownership in Major League Baseball is basically 0%. Only the Miami Marlins, with Derek Jeter possessing 4% of the club, can claim—and just barely—to have minority ownership. But a merger of Negro teams into the league rather than a raid of players might well have led to a different story. MLB integrated the field, but ensured future segregation of the owner's box.
Though the color line for players was broken all the way back in 1947, today MLB has another legitimacy problem. Black participation has declined over the decades. Organized baseball requires fields, equipment, sponsorship, and other elements that are scarce in poor communities. Of course, they've always been scarce, but as public money dries up and individual wages stagnate, community support for baseball and family income allowing for participation in it are lacking. African American rostering on Major League Baseball squads is at 1956 levels. Many consider that a travesty; but America being America, many don't. MLB's front office just lately has made some minimal efforts to address the problem. It will be interesting to see how those go. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings premiered in the U.S. today in 1976.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1920—U.S. Women Gain Right To Vote
The Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution is ratified despite heavy conservative opposition. It states that no U.S. citizen can be denied the right to vote because of their gender.
1958—Lolita is Published in the U.S.
Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel Lolita, about a man's sexual obsession with a pre-pubescent girl, is published in the United States. It had been originally published in Paris three years earlier.
1953—NA Launches Recovery Program
Narcotics Anonymous, a twelve-step program of drug addiction recovery modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, holds its first meeting in Los Angeles, California.
1942—Blimp Crew Disappears without a Trace
The two-person crew of the U.S. naval blimp L-8 disappears on a routine patrol over the Pacific Ocean. The blimp drifts without her crew and crashes in Daly City, California. The mystery of the crew's disappearance is never solved.
1977—Elvis Presley Dies
Music icon Elvis Presley is found unresponsive by his fiancée on the floor of his Graceland bedroom suite. Attempts to revive him fail and he's pronounced dead soon afterward. The cause of death is often cited as drug overdose, but toxicology tests have never found evidence this was the case. More likely, years of drug abuse contributed to generally frail health and an overtaxed heart that suddenly failed.
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