Short Horror Film Review: Spirits of the Dead — William Wilson (dir by Louis Malle)

Directed by Louis Malle, William Wilson is the second part of the 1968 anthology film, Spirits of the Dead.  All three of the stories were adapted from the work of Edgar Allan Poe.

William Wilson is one of Poe’s best known and most highly regarded stories.  It’s also one that has been adapted into several films, perhaps most famously as the silent German film Student of Prague.  So, how did Louis Malle do when it came time to direct his own version?

Malle’s William Wilson opens with the title character (played by Alain Delon) running through the cobblestone streets of a gray city.  As we shall soon learn, the time is the early 19th century.  William Wilson is an officer in the Austrian army, assigned to an occupied Italian village.  Wilson, with blood on his head, rushes into a church, ducks into a confessional, and tells the priest that he has just murdered someone.

Wilson goes on to tell the story of not just his life but also the life of his Doppelganger, who is also named William Wilson and who is just as virtuous as the first Wilson is corrupt.  All of his life, the first William Wilson has just wanted to be evil in peace and every time, the Doppelganger has shown up and ruined things.  The Doppelganger first showed up when Wilson was a young boy and he’s proceeded to always pop up wherever Wilson may happen to go.  When the first Wilson was enrolled in medical school and wanted to dissect a village girl, his Doppelganger had to show up and stop things.  When the first Wilson beat the famous courtesan, Giuseppina (Brigitte Bardot), at cards and won the right to whip her, the Doppelganger had to show up and let everyone know that Wilson had cheated.  Is the Doppelganger real or is he just a figment of Wilson’s imagination?  Is Wilson just evil or is he crazy as well?  Wilson isn’t sure but he does know that a well-placed dagger is one way to determine the truth…

Reportedly, Malle agreed to direct William Wilson because he was trying to raise the money to direct a far more personal film, Murmer of the Heart.  As such, Malle didn’t have a personal stake in William Wilson and made several compromises to keep the film’s producer happy.  As a result, William Wilson often doesn’t make much sense.  For instance, how does Wilson go from being merely decadent to suddenly trying to dissect a living human being?  Though the idea of Wilson cheating at cards is taken straight from Poe’s original story, Brigitte Bardot’s lengthy cameo still feels out of place.

That said, Malle was a good enough director that, even if he was detached from the end result, his segment of Spirits of the Dead is always watchable.  The film’s best moments are the ones that simply study Alain Delon’s fascinating face.  Delon feels miscast as the virtuous Doppelganger (who, let’s just be honest, is kind of a prig) but he is dangerously compelling at William Wilson.  The coldness of his eyes tells us everything that we need to know about who William Wilson is.

William Wilson is technically better than the 1st part of Spirits of the Dead, Roger Vadim’s Metzengerstein, but it’s never as much fun.

A Movie A Day #176: Honor Among Thieves (1968, directed by Jean Herman)

It’s Bronson and Delon, trapped in an airless vault!

While serving in the French Foreign Legion during the Algerian War, Dino Barran (Alain Delon) and Franz Propp (Charles Bronson) became unlikely friends.  Dino is a doctor while Franz is both a pimp and a mercenary.  When the war ends, both return to Paris.  Dino is ready to get on with his life but then he’s approached by Isabelle (Olga Georges-Picot), the lover of a man who Dino got killed in Algeria.  Isabelle has a job for Dino.  She has some files that she needs to return to a safe in an office building.  All Dino has to do is arrange a medical screening in the building and, when no one is looking, open the safe and drop off the documents.  Feeling guilty, Dino agrees.

The problem is that Franz has been following Dino and he has found out that Dino will be opening the safe.  While Dino just wants to put something in, Franz plans to take much more out.  After a fist fight, the two of them find themselves accidentally tapped inside the vault.  Working together, they have to both crack the safe and find a way out of the vault before they run out of the air.

Charles Bronson nearly did not make Honor Among Thieves.  Alain Delon wanted an American actor to co-star with him in the film and he specifically requested that Bronson be offered the part.  Up until this point, with the exception of a few B-movies like Machine Gun Kelly, Bronson had been a supporting player in Hollywood and had always resisted the temptation to follow the lead of Clint Eastwood and go to Europe in search of stardom.  When the film’s producer approached Bronson, he argued that only in Europe would an unconventional actor like Bronson be appreciated.  Though still skeptical, Bronson eventually accepted the offer.

It is a good thing that he did because Honor Among Thieves proved to be a huge hit and it made Bronson a star in Europe.  As a result of his tough and charismatic performance in Honor Among Thieves, Bronson went on star in films like Once Upon A Time In The West and other European hits.  It would be another 5 years before Death Wish made Bronson a star in America but, if not for Honor Among Thieves, Death Wish could very well have ended up starring Jack Lemmon (who was the choice of Death Wish‘s author, Brian Garfield).

As for Honor Among Thieves, it is an overlong and overly complicated heist film, the type that was very common in the 60s and which made a comeback with Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s 11.  Ultimately, Honor Among Thieves does not work because the plot has too much padding (the subplot about Franz’s career as a pimp goes nowhere) and unanswered questions (it’s never explained what’s in the documents that need to be returned to the safe) but it is easy to see why Bronson became a star.  Bronson was already in his fifties by the time he made his best-known American films so Honor Among Thieves is a chance to see a younger and more energetic Bronson.  For once, Bronson actually seems to be enjoying himself, even smiling a few times.  For those of us who best know Bronson as the grim-faced avenger who gunned down criminals in countless film for Cannon, it is interesting to see Bronson playing someone who is actually having fun.

Honor Among Thieves was finally given an American release in 1973, following the success of Death Wish.  The original French title was Adieu l’ami.


Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Scorpio (dir by Michael Winner)

(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  Having recorded over 150 movies since last January, she understands that this might be an impossible task but she’s going to try anyway!  She recorded the 1973 spy thriller, Scorpio, off of Retroplex way back on January 24th!)

On the surface, Jean Laurier (Alain Delon) would appear to be the perfect man.

He’s handsome.  He looks really good in a suit.  He’s wealthy.  He’s French.  And — get this — he loves cats!  He’s the type of guy who, when he discovers a stray cat in his hotel room, immediately starts to pet it and then gives it a saucer of warm milk.  He and his girlfriend (Gayle Hunnicutt) spend their spare time looking at cats and talking about how cute they are.  At one point, even though he’s just killed a man, Jean pauses when he sees a stray cat watching…

Oh, did I mention that Jean kills people for a living?  Well, he does but I’m sure they’re all bad guys.  Seriously, he’s just so charming (and he really, really loves cats) that you really can’t hold it against him that he’s an independent contract killer.  Add to that, his code name is Scorpio.

I have to admit that the film’s title — Scorpio — is the main reason that I chose to record this movie.  I’m a scorpio myself.  In fact, I’m such a scorpio that if I believed in astrology, I would point to my existence as proof that the stars actually do determine our fate.  Seriously, you don’t want to mess with us scorpios.  We’re scorpions.  We sting.

But anyway, back to the movie.

When Scorpio is busted on a trumped-up narcotics charge (or maybe it was a legitimate narcotics charge, it was kind of hard to keep track), the CIA gives him a choice.  He can either go to prison or he can do a job for them.  Apparently, the CIA believes that Scorpio’s friend and mentor, Cross (Burt Lancaster), is a double agent who has been selling information to the Russians.  They want Cross eliminated.

Scorpio takes the job but it’s not going to be easy.  Cross is a veteran spy.  He has connections all across the world and he’s a ruthless killer, the type who forces a man to swallow a cyanide pill and then says, “You’ve got 30 seconds to live.”  In fact, the only person that Cross seems to care about is his wife (Joanne Linville) but he still doesn’t hesitate to abandon her when he realizes that their house is being watched

Cross taught Scorpio everything that he knows but there’s one lesson that Scorpio is still learning and that is to trust no one.  Is Cross actually a spy or is he being set up?  And, if Cross is being set up, what’s to prevent the same thing from happening to Scorpio?

Scorpio is probably one of the most cynical films that I’ve ever seen.  If Scorpio was a political protest, it would be full of people carrying cardboard signs reading, “Nothing Matters” and “All Is Darkness.”  Remember that annoying as Hell scene in SPECTRE where James Bond got drunk and demanded to know who a rodent was working for?  Well, imagine the disillusionment of that scene stretched out for two hours.

Fortunately, no one in Scorpio is as whiny as Daniel Craig was in SPECTRE.  In many ways, Scorpio is a triumph of old-fashioned movie star charisma.  Burt Lancaster is perfectly cast as the world-weary Cross while Alain Delon makes for a compelling Scorpio.  Both of them are believable killers and the film becomes as much about the competition between Lancaster’s old school Hollywood style of acting and Delon’s more refined (and very French) style of cool as it is about the competition between Scorpio and Cross.

Scorpio‘s a good little spy thriller, more than worth keeping an eye out for.


Scenes I Love: The Killer

Over a year ago I picked one of my favorite Hong Kong films for the latest “Scenes I Love” entry and this time around I pick another one from the same director but from an earlier film. The previous pick was from John Woo’s Hard Boiled and this latest pick is from 1989’s classic The Killer also by John Woo.

This was the film that first introduced me to John Woo and Hong Kong crime thrillers of the late 80’s and early 90’s. It was the mid-90’s and not having seen any of Woo’s previous work I came into watch The Killer with no preconceptions whatsoever. What I saw blew me away. It wasn’t just the ballet-like choreography of this scene which opens up the film, but how the character played by Chow Yun Fat reminded me so much of Alain Delon’s character from Melville’s own Le Samourai. It would be later on when immersing myself in all things John Woo that I found out how much the Hong Kong filmmaker admired Melville and used the Delon’s character of Jeff Costello in Le Samourai as inspiration for Chow Yun Fat’s own character in The Killer (who in some subtitled prints was named Jeff).

While Woo has made better-looking films since The Killer I will always consider this scene my favorite of all the scenes he has ever put to film. It’s bullet ballet at it’s most pure.

6 Trailers That Will Change The Way The Trees Look At Midnight

It’s Saturday and that means its time for my favorite part of  the week — the latest edition of Lisa Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse and Exploitation Trailers!

1) The Losers (1970)

Not to be confused with the 2010 action film, this Losers has been described as the best “bikers-in-Viet-Nam film ever.”  It was directed by Jack Starrett and, like every other biker film from 1970, it stars William Smith.

2) The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968)

Continuing the theme of crazed bikers, this trailer is short but effective.  Especially when Alain Delon pulls down that zipper with his teeth….

3) Chatterbox (1977)

This is another short trailer, in fact, I think — at just 30 seconds — it might be the shortest trailer I’ve ever featured in this series.  Anyway, Chatterbox is a film about a woman whose vagina can talk and, apparently, sing.  I have never seen this film though I have seen a few isolated clips.  I hope if my vagina ever starts to speak, it 1) has a less annoying voice and 2) just displays a lot more wit and personality in general.  Anyway, the talking vagina is not featured in this trailer.  Anyway, you wouldn’t know any of that from watching the trailer, which I think is odd.  I mean, if you’re going to make a film about a talking vagina, shouldn’t the vagina be allowed to speak for itself?  Just saying…

4) Baba Yaga (1973)

Like all good things, this trailer comes to us from Italy.

5) Disco Fever (1978)

Wow!  Disco, a concorde, dirt bike racing, braless dancers, and a boring 40 year-old rock star with a cocaine-flecked beard.  Could this film be any more 70s?  “Disco Fever — Everything is perfect…until the music stops!”

6) American Fever (1978)

Okay, I’m either in a disco mood or else I’m running a fever because I just have to end things with a second disco film.  This is an Italian film.  Does anyone out there own the American Fever soundtrack? 


Film Reviews: The Airport Terminal Pack

 Sometimes, you have to be careful which films you choose to watch over the course of the day. 

Such as, last Friday night, I heard the news that Jill Clayburgh had died and I ended up watching An Unmarried Woman.  This, along with the fact that I also watched the Black Swan trailer, led to me dancing around the house in my underwear, en pointe in bare feet, and doing a half-assed pirouette in the living room.  And I felt pretty proud of myself until I woke up Saturday morning and my ankle (which I don’t think has ever properly healed from the day, seven years ago, that I fell down a flight of stairs and broke it in two places) literally felt like it was on fire.  That was my body’s way of saying, “You ain’t living in a movie, bitch.  Deal with it.”

So, come Sunday, I decided to play it safe by watching something that I was sure wouldn’t lead to any imitative behavior on my part.  Since I had previously reviewed Earthquake on this site, I decided that I would devote some time to the movies that started the entire 1970s disaster movie genre — Airport.  Watching Airport led to me watching Airport’s three sequels.

I was able to do this largely because I own the Airport Terminal Pack, a two-disk DVD collection that contains all four of the Airport films and nothing else.  There’s no special features or commentary tracks.  That’s probably a good thing because these films are so extremely mainstream that I doubt the commentary tracks would be all that interesting except to people who love “Me and Jennings Lang had the same lawyer…” style stories.

The movies are a mixed bag of ’70s sexism, mainstream greed, and casts that were described as being “all-star” despite the fact that they featured very few stars.  They’re all worth watching as time capsules of a past time.  Some of them are just more worthy than others.

Below are my thoughts on each individual film in the collection…

Airport (directed by George Seaton)

First released in 1970, Airport was nominated for 10 Academy Awards (including best picture), broke box office records, and started the whole 70s disaster movie trend.  It also has to be one of the most boring, borderline unwatchable movies ever made.  The fact that I managed to sit through the whole thing should be taken as proof that I’m either truly dedicated to watching movies or I’m just insane.  Take your pick.

Anyway, the film is painstakingly detailed account of the every day operations of an airport.  Yeah, sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it?  Burt Lancaster runs the airport.  His brother-in-law Dean Martin flies airplanes.  Both of them have mistresses but we’re told that’s okay because Lancaster’s wife expects him to talk to her and Martin’s wife is cool with him fucking around as long as he comes home at night.  I would be tempted to say that this is a result of the film having been made in 1969 and released in 1970 but actually, it’s just an introduction to the sexual politics of the typical disaster film.  Men save the day while women get in the way.  And if you think things have changed, I’d suggest you watch a little film calledf 2012

The only interesting thing about the film is that Lancaster’s mistress is played by Jean Seberg who, ten years earlier, had helped change film history by co-starring in Jean-Luc Godard’s classic film Breathless.  Nine years later, after years of being hounded by the American press and the FBI for her radical politics, Seberg committed suicide.

Airport 1975 (directed by Jack Smight)

As opposed to its predecessor, Airport 1975 is actually a lot of fun in its campy, silly way.  This is the one where a small private plane (flown by Dana Andrews, the star of the wonderful film noir Laura) collides with a commercial airliner.  The entire flight crew is taken out and head stewardess Karen Black has to pilot the plane despite the fact that she’s obviously cross-eyed.  Luckily, since Black is a stewardess, she has a pilot boyfriend who is played by Charlton Heston.  Heston talks her through the entire flight despite the fact that she was earlier seen trying to pressure him into not treating her like an idiot.  Anyway, Heston does his usual clench-jaw thing and if you need a drinking game to go with your bad movie, just take a shot every time Heston calls Black “honey.”  You’ll be drunk before the plane lands.

There’s some other stuff going on in this movie (for instance, Gloria Swanson appears as “herself” and doesn’t mention Sunset Boulevard or Joseph Kennedy once!) but really, all you need to know is that this is the film where Karen Black acts up a storm and random characters keep saying, “The stewardess is flying the plane!?”

Odd trivia fact: Airport 1975 was released in 1974.

Airport ’77 (directed by Jerry Jameson)

In Airport ’77, a group of art thieves attempt to hijack an airplane which, of course, leads to the airplane crashing into the ocean and somehow sinking down to the ocean’s floor without splitting apart.  The crash survivors have to try to figure out how to get to the surface of the water before they run out of oxygen. 

In this case, our resident sexist pilot is Jack Lemmon who has a really ugly mustache.  He wants to marry head stewardess Brenda Vaccarro.  Vaccarro doesn’t understand why they have to get married to which Lemmon responds, “Because I want a wife and kids!”  The film also gives us Lee Grant as a woman who is married to Christopher Lee but who is having an affair with another man.  She also drinks a lot and dares to get angry when she realizes that the airplane is underwater.  While this sort of behavior is acceptable from Dean Martin, Charlton Heston, and Jack Lemmon, the film punishes Lee Grant by drowning her in the final minutes.

Technically, Airport ’77 is probably the best of the Airport films.  The cast does a pretty good job with all the melodrama, the film doesn’t drag, and a few of the scenes manage to generate something resembling human emotion.  (For instance, when the blind piano player died, I had a tear in one of my freaky, mismatched eyes.)  Unfortunately, the movie’s almost too good.  It’s not a lot of fun.  Everyone plays their roles straight so the silly plot never quite descends into camp and the key to a good disaster film is always camp.  This film also has the largest body count of the series, with most of the cast dead by the end of the movie.  (And, incidentally, this film did nothing to help me with my fear of water…)

The Concorde: Airport ’79 (directed by David Lowell Rich)

The last Airport movie is also the strangest.  Some people have claimed that this film was meant to be a satire of the previous Airport films.  I can understand the argument because you look at film like Concorde and you say, “This must be a joke!”  However, the problem with this theory is that there are moments of obvious “intentional” humor in this film (i.e., J.J. from Good Times smokes weed in the plane’s bathroom, another passenger has to go to the bathroom whenever she gets nervous) and none of them show any evidence of the type of wit and outlook necessary to come up with anything this silly on purpose.  Add to that, the film’s story is credited to Jennings Lang, a studio executive.  Studio execs do not take chances.  (Plus, the actual script was written by Eric Roth, who went on to write the amazingly humorless The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

No, this film is meant to be taken seriously and oh my God, where do I start?

Our pilots are George Kennedy and Alain Delon.  The head stewardess (and naturally, Delon’s girlfiend) is played by Sylvia “Emanuelle” Kristel who, at one point, says, “You pilots are such men!”  “Hey, they don’t call it a cockpit for nothing, honey,” Kennedy replies. 

Meanwhile, Robert Wagner is trying to destroy the Concorde because one of the passengers is his girlfriend who has proof that Wagner has been selling weapons to America’s enemies.  So, he attempts to blow the plane up with a guided missile and when that fails, he sends a couple of fighter planes after them.  Kennedy responds by opening up the cockpit window — while breaking the sound barrier mind you — and firing a flare gun at their pursuers.  

After this, there’s stop over in Paris where Delon arranges for Kennedy to sleep with a prostitute who assures Kennedy that he made love “just like a happy fish.”

The next day, everyone returns to the exact same Concorde — despite the fact that just a day earlier they’d nearly been blown up by a squadron of fighter planes — and take off on the second leg of the flight.  Let me repeat that just to make sure that we all understand what this film is asking us to believe.  After nearly getting blown up by a mysterious squad of fighter planes, everybody shows up the next morning to get on the exact same plane.

Oh, and it never occurs to Wagner’s ex-girlfriend that Wagner might have something to do with all of this.

Now sad to say, Concorde is the one of those films that’s a lot more fun to talk about than to actually watch.  It should be a lot more fun in its badness than it actually is.  Still, the movie has just enough camp appeal to make it fun in a “what the fuck…” sorta way.

And that’s how the Airport series comes to an end.