Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Chandu the Magician [dirs. William Menzies - Marcel Varnel]

As fans of vintage radio would very well know, Chandu the Magician (CtM) originated as a radio drama series in 1931. In reference to the show's popularity - apparently at one point almost 60% of households in America tuned in - Walter Winchell cheekily revealed that 'chandu' is Indian slang for opium. Chandu was almost certainly the inspiration for Lee Falk's Mandrake the Magician. The film of Chandu was an attempt by 20th Century Fox to cash in on the show's popularity and compete with Universal's lucrative horror/adventure properties. I have not heard the 30's radio program but thanks to Archive.org I did some time ago enjoy a late 40's radio revival of the character with Tom Collins as Frank Chandler aka Chandu and Luis Van Rooten as his nemesis Roxor.

In the film Chandler / Chandu, who has just completed his training in the various arts of magic with the yogis in India, is given the mission of fighting evil on earth. The fight begins at home with the disappearance of his scientist brother-in-law Robert Regent, captured by the megalomaniac Roxor to commission a death ray machine. Chandler must use his powers to engage with Roxor and protect his loved ones including sister Dorothy Regent and her wide-eyed kids Bob and Betty, and his lady love the Egyptian princess Nadji. Much hocus-pocus and hokum ensue.

CtM was co-directed by William Cameron Menzies and Marcel Varnel. Menzies' contribution is far more notable here. He was a highly respected art director (most famous for his work on Gone with the Wind, he also directed the film of HG Wells' Things to Come) and he does a smashing job of bringing alive the world of the story. Wonderfully detailed miniature work, optical FX and what-have-you help to depict the Indian temple setting where Chandu completes his training, a fabulous (if also rather impractical so far as entrances go) lair for evil Roxor, the sandstorm-hit residence of the Regents, the visualization of Roxor's dream of world domination by the use of the death ray etc Chandu's powers are also well-served by the tricks of the camera, including his ability to astrally project himself and have a doppelganger (or conjure a mini-me for his orderly to chastise his alcoholic tendencies). The camera is helmed by James Wong Howe (Seconds, Sweet Smell of Success), and in combination with the production design serves up several audacious shots that sell the illusion of the setting.

Bela Lugosi as Roxor is a thing to behold. The film calls for no-holds-barred stylized acting and Bela, fresh from his Dracula turn, plays to the gallery with aplomb (IMO Rooten's portrayal of the character in the revived radio series owes a debt to Lugosi), giving his all to a performance that pretty much washes out everybody else in the film. Which brings us to the film's single biggest disappointment - Edmund Lowe as Chandu the Magician. Lowe may be a character actor (he does a fairly decent job with the different disguises that Chandu dons), but he has all the charisma of over-boiled mutton. The battle between Roxor and Chandu should be one of fiercely matched equals, but against Lugosi's striking visage and commanding delivery, Lowe just does not measure up. Even the romance between Chandu and Nadji is cloyingly prim and bland. Little wonder then that the film did not do well enough to inspire any 'real' sequels (there was a serial called The Return of Chandu which interestingly enough, had Bela Lugosi as Chandu).

Kino Lorber's presentation of the on their film is adequate though not stellar. There is a fair deal of damage and contrast can vary sometimes. But for a film of this vintage, which is unlikely to have a big audience, I suppose it would be impractical to expect more. Extras include a 15-min featurette on the legacy of CtM, with famous horror/fantasy historians talking about the radio series and the films, and a nice commentary track by Bela Lugosi biographer Gregory Mank. There are also trailers for other Lugosi films.

If they had only used a more charismatic actor than Lowe in the title role, this could have been an excellent film and the start of a good series, but CtM is still worth a watch for its striking visual qualities and for the magnificent Lugosi performance.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Lone Wolf and Cub

At different intervals in the past couple of weeks I made my way through the Lone Wolf and Cub Japanese film series (released on blu-ray/DVD by the Criterion label). Collating the impressions of the individual films I had posted on other forums, I give you a compiled review of the series as a whole.

Films 1&2: Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx

The series is based on a manga (that's Japanese comic-book, for those unaware). The protagonist Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is an archetype ronin, who previously served as an executioner for the Shogunate. The warrior was betrayed by his masters the Yagyu clan for which he has sworn vengeance, and is currently an assassin-for-hire carting around his little son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) in a rather James Bond-ian weaponized cart. In the first two films (bot directed by Kenji Misumi, as was the third) I saw the plot has 2 main branches 1) Ogami accepting an assignment to kill someone for a fixed fee of 500 ryo 2) someone from the Yagyu clan attempting to kill him. TomisaburĂ´ Wakayama in the lead role is mainly required to look gruff and chop up enemies with his famed sword, which despite a double-chin he manages fairly well. There is a good amount of cartoony gore (mainly blood-sprays) and a bit of female nudity. The action choreography is uneven. Sometimes there are nice long takes where Wakayama pulls off multiple moves, and sometimes there are a bunch of hurriedly put together 'cuts'. While not great cinema, these films were very serviceable entertainment fodder and I look forward to further episodes in the series.

Films 3&4:  Baby Cart to Hades and Baby Cart in Peril

These are a continuation of the adventures of the swordmaster Ogami Itto and his little son Daigoro, following a similar formula as previous films, with Ogami taking on assassination missions and in turn being attacked by other killers.

BCtH has some nasty rape / attempted rape sequences. Very early in the film two women are brutally raped and killed by mercenaries before they meet their fate by Ogami's sword. A little later a young girl barely escapes rape by her pimp before she kills him and seeks protection from Ogami. The lady of the brothel she was sold to respectfully asks Ogami to release her property, but he offers instead to take her punishment by torture. In the curious logic of manga stories, the brothel madam turns out to be the daughter of a nobleman who wants Ogami to kill a corrupt governor. Some interesting plot convolutions later, we reach the climax where Ogami takes on a veritable army of soldiers with his sword and weaponized baby cart (including a firing range worth of hidden guns). Some of the plot elements in the film (mainly in the form of an skilled and honorable opponent for Ogami that he becomes forced to fight in the end) reminded me heavily of Akira Kurosawa's action romp Sanjuro.

BCiP begins with little Daigoro wandering off and getting lost. In the course of trying to find his way back to his father, Daigoro encounters a lone warrior, who is surprised at his calmness when faced with a sword. Later on, the warrior allows Daigoro to be engulfed by fire in a field, just to observe his fortitude. I was beginning to wonder how he would have justified his own inaction had the boy died in the fire, when he goes one step further by trying to kill Daigoro, again only to assess his acceptance of death (talk about not knowing what to do with your time). Of course at the crucial moment, Daddy Ogami turns up to stop his boy from being turned into sashimi.There is another sub-plot about Ogami taking on a contract to kill a female assassin Yuki, who is identified by colorful tattoos across her back and breasts, which she flashes to distract her opponents before slicing through them. After the massacre of the previous film, the production may have felt obliged to climax with another Ogami vs an army scenario. This time a batallion of Yagyu warriors led by their leader track him down to a quarry type location and for a huge scrap. Good fun. The crew for BCiP is different from the previous films with Kazuo (Rashomon, Ugetsu) Miyagawa taking over cinematography (though you won't be as impressed here as with those films) and a new director Buichi Saito. 

Films 5&6: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons and White Heaven in Hell

BCitLoD sees the return of director  Misumi who had made the first 3 films. This one at least initially has a very videogame-y sensibility with Lone Wolf Ogami Itto coming across a series of opponents who want to entrust him with a mission, but will dole out information only in their dying breaths after challenging him to a fight. Little Daigoro gets his own spotlight when he stands up to punishment to keep a secret he has promised to. The climax again underlines Ogami's ruthless dedication to keeping the order, ready to murder even children if he has to.

WHiH is the last film, and under Yoshioki Kuroda's direction has a sense of visual scale to match. I personally felt this was one of the best looking entries in the series. My favorite scene was when Ogami cuts through a squad of enemies in and around a lake-front house - the scene features an amazing long take where lead actor Wakayama shines with his swordplay moves. There is a horror element in the form of the quasi-undead warriors who come after Ogami and his son. The climax is another mass slaughter, this time set in snowscapes where the baby cart becomes a sled that can race across the white slopes. You'd think that by now the enemy would know better than to send swordsmen rushing in a straight line towards Ogami's gun-stacked wagon, but perhaps it's against their honor code to shield against gunfire. The film does not in itself conclude the LW&C story but there were no further instalments made (apparently, Wakayama refused to participate further after news of a TV series surfaced).

If you watch all the films in a go, there is likely to be some sense of sameness, especially in the last 4, where all the climaxes are Ogami vs Huge Army with a similar blend of swordplay and gunfire tactics. The fifth film's contrived mission setup was also distracting in its game-like structure. But on the whole this was a good watch and I will return to at least some of these episodes in the future.

The extras disc in Criterion's release includes Shogun Assassin, a re-purposed (read, badly mangled) edit of the first two films that was dubbed into English for US theatrical release in 1980. It also features interviews with the comic book writer Kazuo Koike (in which he talks about how actor Wakayama, whose bulky frame didn't match the lean muscular silhouette of the manga's anti-hero, turned up at his place to perform somersaults and swordplay moves to get his blessing to play the lead), and the biographer of director Kenji Misumi (who talks about his relationship with brothers Katsu and Wakayama, and his contributions to Zatoichi and LW&C), a nice 2005 documentary on the film series, an interesting featurette with a sensei of the Suio-Ryu swordsmanship that is Ogami Itto's style and an old silent docu on the making of Samurai swords (that was a little less interesting than I'd hoped). The booklet features an essay on the film series as well as synopses of all the films. It would have been nice to have a little more about the actor that played the child Daigoro, about the effect that the role and accompanying media fame had on his life, what he went on to do later and how he ended up getting caught while transporting a gun from Thailand into Japan (assuming that story is true). On the whole, an excellent package, more than worth the 40$ I shelled out.