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Charles Bronson Centennial

3 Nov

He was an iconic action star who was one of The Magnificent Seven, one of The Dirty Dozen and one of three who made good The Great Escape. He was Charles Bronson and November 3, 2021 marks his centennial. (He died in 2003 at the age of 81 after a 48-year acting career.)

I first saw Bronson on the big screen in John Sturges’ THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), where he was among the 76 POWs in a German prison camp during World War II who made a dramatic prison break in 1943. He played Danny, the “tunnel king,” whose background in coal mining propelled him to take a major role in digging the escape tunnels. Bronson himself had worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania before military service in WWII. In the movie his character was one of the three who successfully reaches neutral territory without being recaptured. The other two were played by James Coburn and John Leyton.

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50 Years in Times Square: Kurosawa and his Western Remakes

8 Apr

On April 8, 1971, 50 years ago today, I made my first trip to see a Japanese movie on the big screen. It was Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) and it may have been the first time the full three-and-a-half-hour cut of the film was shown on the big screen in New York. It was also the first fully foreign-language film with English subtitles that I would see in a theater. The theater was the tiny Bijou Cinema on West 45th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue in Times Square in Manhattan.  Interestingly, just over two months earlier, on January 28, 1971, I’d seen John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), a western remake of SEVEN SAMURAI, for the first time at a theater around the corner from the Bijou, the Victoria on Broadway and 46th Street. On May 20 of that year, I would see Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), the first in the Italian director’s “Man with No Name” western trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, at the Astor Theater, adjacent to the Victoria on Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets. A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS was an Italian western remake of Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (1961), which I would then see on July 17, 1971, at the Bijou Cinema around the corner. So I saw Kurosawa’s two greatest samurai films and their western remakes in a six-month time period on one strip of real estate in Times Square, all while I was still in high school. Where else and at what time period could that have happened? I was so lucky to be coming of age as a film buff at just that time.31337908446_1655225bc8 Continue reading

Gamera, Hercules, Ninjas and Giant Robots: American International Television, 1964-1970

12 Mar

Screenshot_2021-02-26 Watch Voyage Into Space Prime Video(19)

I recently watched VOYAGE INTO SPACE (1970) on Amazon Prime, a feature compilation of episodes of “Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot,” an English-dubbed live-action Japanese series that aired in syndication on American TV beginning in 1969. This compilation was never released to theaters but was sold to TV stations as a movie by American International Television, the TV distribution arm of American International Pictures (AIP), which ruled the drive-ins and grindhouses of the 1960s with all manner of low-budget genre and exploitation films.

I had seen VOYAGE INTO SPACE on television around 40 years ago and seeing the AI-TV logo again triggered a memory of quite a few other Japanese films I’d seen from that era that bypassed theaters completely and went straight to TV. Foremost among these were five Japanese movies featuring Gamera, the giant turtle, that had been retitled for American television, all of which I’d seen on TV back then, usually on Channel 7’s 4:30 Movie (WABC), with four of them completely omitting “Gamera” from the titles: WAR OF THE MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. BARUGON, 1966), RETURN OF THE GIANT MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. GYAOS, 1967), DESTROY ALL PLANETS (GAMERA VS. VIRAS, 1968), ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. GUIRON, 1969), GAMERA VS. MONSTER X (GAMERA VS. JIGER, 1970).

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Gamera, Frankenstein, Sabata and Zatoichi: The Genre Films of 1970

30 Dec

50 years ago, in 1970, neighborhood theaters offered quite a varied landscape of cinematic fare, although it took me some time to find it all. I managed to see lots of 1970 releases in theaters in the years 1970-72. (Films sometimes took months or years to reach my local theaters.) Most of these were Hollywood films of varied genres or American independents. I would see everything from PATTON to M*A*S*H, KELLY’S HEROES to ZABRISKIE POINT, FIVE EASY PIECES to LOVE STORY and RIO LOBO to WATERMELON MAN, sometimes on double features! It would take years of TV watching, visits to revival theaters and, much later, cable TV and home video, before I caught up with all the great foreign genre films released in 1970, including England’s Hammer horror, Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. martial arts adventures, French crime thrillers, Japanese samurai, Japanese kaiju, and Italian westerns. One of my favorites from the year is one I first saw in 2018. So there are always new ones to be discovered or rediscovered after decades.

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD and the Art of Recreating an Era

29 Jul

Quentin Tarantino’s newest film offers a love-letter to the pop culture of the 1960s—films, television, music, celebrities, parties, etc. He takes the careers of three distinct individuals, two fictional, one real, employed in the film and TV industry in 1969 and uses incidents in their lives, including numerous flashbacks spanning the 1960s, to depict what it was like to live and work in the industry town of Los Angeles at the time. The key figure is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a onetime star of a TV western now reduced to guest shots as “villain of the week” in assorted network TV dramas and faced with the dilemma of how to resuscitate his stardom or just settle for life as a working actor. The second figure is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s stuntman, who, when not doubling Dalton in a film or TV role, is acting as Dalton’s chauffeur, handyman and paid companion. (Dalton lives in a sprawling ranch house on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills, while Booth lives miles away in a trailer parked near an oil rig behind a drive-in theater in Van Nuys.)

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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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Jack Palance Centennial

18 Feb

Today, February 18, 2019, would have been Jack Palance’s 100th birthday. He died in 2006 at the age of 87. He acted in films for the entire second half of the 20th century and his TV roles continued into the 21st century. The son of a Ukrainian coal miner, he had unusually taut facial features, a result of reconstructive surgery after his face was burned in a plane crash during a test flight in WWII, giving his face a dramatic look that made him a natural for villain roles, most notably the gunslinger Jack Wilson in SHANE, or various historical ethnic roles such as Attila the Hun (SIGN OF THE PAGAN), the Mongol chieftain Ogatai, son of Genghis Khan (THE MONGOLS), the Apache rebel Toriano (ARROWHEAD), Mexican revolutionary Raza (THE PROFESSIONALS), the biblical character Simon the Magician (THE SILVER CHALICE) and even Fidel Castro (CHE!).

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Godzilla, Zatoichi and the Monkey King: The Best Foreign Genre Films of 1968

30 Dec

I’ve already written about my Hollywood favorites from 1968 in an earlier piece, so I wanted to focus on my favorite foreign genre films from 1968 before the 50th anniversary year was over, a group that has, in my opinion, held up much better critically over the years than their Hollywood counterparts. A lot was happening on the genre front back then, especially in Japan, Hong Kong, Italy and England. In Japan, there were numerous samurai, yakuza, giant monster and blind swordsman movies. Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. studio gave us a host of swordplay mini-epics, several starring that swordswoman extraordinaire, Cheng Pei-Pei, as well as musicals, crime films and melodramas. Italy was turning out western after western, with all three major Sergios–Leone, Sollima and Corbucci–shining that year. England’s Hammer studio gave us exemplary horror films and France gave us BARBARELLA and THE BRIDE WORE BLACK.

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THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY: 50 Years Later

29 Dec

Today, December 29th, 2017, is the 50th anniversary of the New York City premiere of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, the third film in Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy of Italian westerns starring Clint Eastwood (whose character actually has names in the first two films but is only called “Blondie” in the third). In honor of the occasion, I pulled out my old 1998 MGM DVD edition, mercifully unrestored and just like it was when it played in New York theaters back then, and watched it. (I paid several visits to see it on the big screen in 1969-72 and again, years later, when it played the Film Forum.) I even recently found the original Elgin Theater schedule that announced the triple bill of this film with two films by Sam Peckinpah, THE WILD BUNCH and THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE, a seven-and-a-half-hour program which I attended on Saturday, January 29, 1972 with two friends from the Bronx. Continue reading

Aliens, Gunslingers, Samurai and One-Armed Swordsmen: The Genre Films of 1967

15 Nov

The 50th anniversaries of various landmark films from 1967 have been celebrated widely, including in a couple of previous entries here, but this time I want to look back at the unprecedented variety of genre films that came out that year, particularly from other countries, all part of the global cinematic landscape that only gradually came into view to a budding film buff in his formative years and still expanding the more I discover.

I’ve seen more films from 1967 than from any other individual year, 162 at last count, with 71 from the U.S. and 91 from other countries, chiefly Japan, Hong Kong, England and Italy, but also from France, Germany, Mexico and the Soviet Union. My 14th birthday was in 1967 and I saw a total of twenty 1967 releases in theaters in 1967 and early 1968 when lots of 1967 releases finally turned up in the Bronx, nearly all of them Hollywood releases. I saw others in theaters in the following years, including some of my favorites of 1967–EL DORADO, THE DIRTY DOZEN, and Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy–and then quite a few more on TV broadcasts and in revival theaters in the 1970s. I would add more favorites from that year in the home video era as I discovered previously unseen titles on video and DVD, particularly from Japan and Hong Kong. For instance, it wasn’t until 1997 that I finally saw the Jimmy Wang Yu Shaw Bros. classic, ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN.

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