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White Heat: 70th Anniversary of an American Crime Classic

3 Sep

On September 3, 1949, 70 years ago today, Raoul Walsh’s crime thriller, WHITE HEAT, opened in the U.S.  Its star, James Cagney, was renowned in the 1930s for his gangster portrayals in such films as PUBLIC ENEMY, G-MEN, and EACH DAWN I DIE, but he hadn’t made a crime film at all in the ten years since the prohibition saga, THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), also directed by Walsh. During that time, Cagney made war films, comedies, melodramas and the flag-waving musical, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY. By 1949, gangster fans were itching for the old Cagney, while younger filmgoers needed to be reminded what he was most famous for. The original trailer for WHITE HEAT is chock full of violent, graphic action, with Cagney a relentless, murderous force, snarling, punching and shooting his way through a quick, brutal rehash of the film’s plot in three minutes: train robbery, prison, daring escape, pursuit by the Feds, and an explosive climax at a chemical plant in Southern California. Older fans were beside themselves with gleeful anticipation, while the younger ones’ jaws dropped. As the trailer put it, “It’s your kind of Cagney / In his kind of story / Blazing his way to the top of the world!”

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Filming Across Cultures: Cowboys, Samurai and Kung Fu Champs in the 1970s

17 May

In the 1960s and 70s, the neighborhood theater functioned as a Cinematheque of global genre films, offering Italian westerns, French crime thrillers, English horror, Soviet fantasy, Japanese samurai films and Hong Kong kung fu films, among other genres. I still marvel at the recollection of seeing such international movie icons as John Wayne, Jean Gabin and Toshiro Mifune in new movies at local theaters when I was still a teenager. I once wrote about this particular movie culture in a chapter for a proposed book on 42nd Street theaters. I’d like to share an excerpt from the chapter, after a few paragraphs of introduction.

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Kung Fu on 42nd Street

28 Sep

I recently came across files of ads for kung fu movies that played New York theaters back in the 1970s, material I’d accumulated while researching a proposed book in the early 2000s on Manhattan’s 42nd Street and its movie culture. I had planned to include a chapter on kung fu movies and even questioned several friends who’d regularly attended these movies on 42nd street. Add these files to a couple of original newspaper ads I’d saved myself from 1973 and I see that 42nd Street theaters are listed in 95% of them. In fact, all eleven theaters on both sides of the legendary Deuce (between Seventh and Eighth Avenues) are represented in the ads. What struck me as I researched the titles listed was how many I was unfamiliar with. No matter how much I think I know about kung fu movies of the 1970s and ’80s, there are always more to discover. And I never fail to be impressed by the sheer number of these movies that played in Deuce theaters in those years.

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Robert Aldrich Centennial

9 Aug

Robert Aldrich was born on August 9, 1918 and would have turned 100 today. (He died in 1983.) He was one of my earliest favorite movie directors. By the time I saw THE DIRTY DOZEN (pictured above, with Aldrich in the red sweater directing, with Charles Bronson on the right) in high school, I’d already seen three of his earlier films, two in theaters (THE LAST SUNSET, HUSH HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE) and one on TV (VERA CRUZ), and I loved DOZEN so much I made it a point to seek out every one of his films as they came out. In fact, just three weeks after I first saw DOZEN, I went to see his newest movie, TOO LATE THE HERO (1970) when it opened on Broadway. I missed the next one, THE GRISSOM GANG (1971), when it opened, but starting with ULZANA’S RAID (1972), a cavalry-and-Indians western starring Burt Lancaster, I saw every one of his remaining films in theaters on their original release. Also, as I began taking film classes in college and seeing movies in repertory theaters in Manhattan, I sought out Aldrich’s older films, especially as I learned of the high esteem he was held in by auteurists, and discovered for myself some of his very best films, including KISS ME DEADLY (1955), ATTACK (1956), and WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), not to mention the chance to see VERA CRUZ (1954) on the big screen. At the beginning of 2018, I finally caught up with Aldrich’s debut film, THE BIG LEAGUER (1953), a baseball drama starring Edward G. Robinson, and, as of this writing, I have only one Aldrich film left to see, the rarely-screened lesbian drama, THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE (1969).

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The Blaxploitation Era: A Scrapbook from the ’70s

20 Feb

In going through old file boxes from the 1970s, I found a number of clippings that effectively illustrate the Blaxploitation era of Hollywood filmmaking, a period from roughly 1971-75, when action and other genre films showcased black heroes and heroines, usually in reworkings of standard genre formulas. They were made quickly and cheaply to capitalize on a trend that could fade out at any time as it eventually did after its peak in 1972-73. These films played grindhouses and neighborhood theaters but also, for a time, premiered at the biggest Broadway movie palaces and commanded ads and constant press coverage. I usually saw them at Bronx neighborhood theaters where they were often paired with Italian westerns and, later, kung fu films, a trend which gradually displaced Blaxploitation. I’d like to share some of what I clipped 45 or so years ago, supplemented by movie stills from my collection and posters copied from IMDB and other sites.

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“Decoy” (1957): A Policewoman in New York

16 Oct

“Decoy” is a TV cop show that aired from 1957-58. There were 39 half-hour episodes and they were all filmed on location in New York City. There is only one recurring character in every episode and that’s Policewoman Patricia “Casey” Jones, played by Beverly Garland. Yes, this is the first of only a handful of cop shows with a central female protagonist. I knew very little about this series until I read J. Hoberman’s review of it in his Video column in the Sunday New York Times of Sept. 3, 2017. I had no idea it was filmed in New York, a full year before the much more celebrated and much longer-running “Naked City” TV series. I learned that the series was available on Amazon Prime, so I watched the first two episodes. I was so intrigued by them that I immediately ordered the complete series box set (for $11.99!) from Amazon.com. One of the things that excited me in the first episode was the use of Times Square and 42nd Street and the generous views of some of the theater marquees in 1957.

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Happy Birthday, Angela Mao–Kung Fu Diva Supreme

20 Sep

Within the last two years, some of the best Hong Kong movies starring Angela Mao Ying have come out on DVD from Shout Factory, remastered, with cleaned-up soundtracks and new subtitles. My earlier VHS and DVD copies had all sorts of problems, so I’ve been wanting to sit down and watch these new editions and thought I’d use the occasion of her 66th birthday today, September 20th, to offer a write-up on them. I watched what I consider her four best films for this piece: HAPKIDO (1972), WHEN TAEKWONDO STRIKES (1973), THE TOURNAMENT (1974), and BROKEN OATH (1977). I didn’t have time for the fifth of her top five, LADY WHIRLWIND  (1972)

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