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Toshiro Mifune Centennial, Part 2: SHINSENGUMI – ASSASSINS OF HONOR

26 Mar

As part of my ongoing celebration of Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, leading up to his centennial on April 1, 2020, I decided to re-watch one of his most important films, SHINSENGUMI: ASSASSINS OF HONOR (1970), arguably his best film that wasn’t directed by Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, Hiroshi Inagaki or Kihachi Okamoto. Mifune produced the film himself for Toho Pictures and had Tadashi Sawashima direct him for the first time. (It was also Sawashima’s very last feature and the only one of his films I’ve seen.) In the film, Mifune plays Isami Kondo, leader of the Shinsengumi, a sort-of paramilitary group formed in 1863 by sword-wielding farmers and ronin (masterless samurai) eager to defend the Shogun, Iemochi Tokugawa, and his entourage during meetings with the Emperor in Kyoto at a crucial time in Japan’s history. In the course of their self-imposed mission, they get into pitched battles with pro-Imperialist factions and kill dozens of their political opponents, often as a result of murderous raids on Imperialist meeting places. With the exception of small details here and there, the events depicted in the film are generally historically accurate, as far as I can determine.

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Toshiro Mifune Centennial, Part 1: The Samurai Trilogy

11 Mar

April 1, 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, arguably the greatest film actor in history. (He died in 1997.) I have tons of Mifune films I want to write about and I realize I can’t do it all in one piece, so I’m putting together a series on Mifune leading up to his centennial date. I’ve written about the Samurai Trilogy before, including a planned blog post that got delayed once I learned Criterion had released a new, updated, remastered edition that I needed to acquire and watch first. (The previous Criterion edition suffered from inferior print quality and inadequate subtitles.) I watched the new edition this month.

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Kirk Douglas: A Painter, a Gambler and a Warrior

8 Feb

Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas died on February 5, 2020, at the age of 103. I’ve seen 45 of his 74 movies. In a nearly 60-year film career, he made more than his share of classics. My favorites include THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946), OUT OF THE PAST (1947), ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE (1949), YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (1950), ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), DETECTIVE STORY (1951), THE BIG SKY (1952), LUST FOR LIFE (1956), GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957), PATHS OF GLORY (1957), THE VIKINGS (1958), SPARTACUS (1960), THE LAST SUNSET (1961), LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (1962), SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964), IN HARM’S WAY (1965), HOLOCAUST 2000 (1977), and THE FURY (1978). Among the great directors he worked with were Lewis Milestone, Jacques Tourneur, Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, Vincente Minnelli, King Vidor, John Sturges, Richard Fleischer, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Aldrich, John Huston, John Frankenheimer, Otto Preminger, Anthony Mann, Martin Ritt, Elia Kazan, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Brian De Palma. That’s quite a record.

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Great Moments in Classic TV 2019

25 Jan

In 2019, I saw 425 TV episodes, 325 of them American and 100 Japanese. I will focus here on highlights from classic American TV that I discovered this past year.

The single series I watched the most episodes from was “Perry Mason,” for a total of 70. I’ve been going slowly, but methodically, through the nine-season box set I purchased in 2017 and I watched from “The Case of the Renegade Refugee” (Season 5 / #13, Dec. 9, 1961) to “The Case of the Simple Simon” (Season 7 / #24, April 2, 1964).

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Actors We Lost in 2019

31 Dec

I regularly keep a running tally of celebrity deaths during the year and what struck me about 2019 was the sheer number of actors I was familiar with who died, more, I believe, than any other year I’ve been keeping tab. There were 83. And this number was followed by a large number of actors from other countries whom I was unfamiliar with who died during the year, including many English ones (e.g., Nicky Henson). I’m astounded by the longevity of so many of these performers. I decided to pay tribute to the 44 actors on the list that I’m most familiar with, listed here in descending order by their age when they died, oldest first, with remarks on what I’ve seen them in and how I remember them. I realize that many of these actors are more famous for their work in recent popular TV series, but that’s not how I know them, so forgive me if I don’t cite those series.

Doris Day (97)

One of the biggest Hollywood movie stars in the 1950s and ’60s. I especially like her comedies with Rock Hudson, PILLOW TALK (1959) and LOVER COME BACK (1962) and her one musical drama with Frank Sinatra, YOUNG AT HEART (1954).

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Asians in TV Westerns: “The Virginian: Hour of the Tiger”

17 Dec

I recently stumbled across an episode about Chinese laborers in “The Virginian,” a long-running NBC western series that ran in a 90-minute time slot from 1962 to 1971 and is now running every weekday evening on the Starz Encore Western Channel. This particular episode was called “The Hour of the Tiger” (Season 3 / #16, airdate  December 30, 1964) and it turned out to be a suitable entry for my ongoing series on “Asians in TV Westerns.” Its chaste relationship between the title hero and a cultured Asian woman echoes those in other westerns I’ve written about here, including Laramie: “Dragon at the Door,” and two with Lisa Lu: Cheyenne: “A Pocketful of Stars” and Bonanza: “Day of the Dragon.” In all of these, the hero and the Asian character (Japanese in “Laramie” and Chinese in “Cheyenne and “Bonanza”) discuss their cultural differences at length, with the American suggesting that she doesn’t have to follow tradition, but can follow her heart and take advantage of the freedom possible in America. The Virginian episode shares a plot element with two of the others, in that the woman is promised to another man. In each case, respect is shown by the hero toward the other culture. He’s never condescending or critical, but simply offers the option of another way. (These episodes were made at a time when cold war tensions prompted frequent expressions of American values in popular culture to contrast the lack of basic rights in the Soviet Union and Communist China. Conversely, these episodes can also be seen as a way of inserting messages into network entertainment about racial prejudice and the civil rights battles of the time when TV executives were still timid about treating the topic directly. )

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Marie Windsor Centennial: Femme Fatale Extraordinaire

11 Dec

Marie Windsor would have turned 100 today, December 11, 2019. She was an unforgettable character actress who had a 50-year career in movies and television (1941-1991) and died in 2000 at the age of 80. She’s best known for playing femmes fatale in crime movies and film noir and outlaw women in westerns throughout the 1940s and ’50s. Her most memorable roles for me were in THE NARROW MARGIN (1952) and THE KILLING (1956) and the westerns, HELLFIRE and DAKOTA LIL. She also guest-starred in numerous TV shows, including four episodes of “Perry Mason.”

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