Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye Ann Savage, Renegade Girl (1946)

"And suddenly she turned to face me." It's hard to shake that indelible image of Ann Savage as Vera in Detour waking from sleep and turning her head toward the camera with a feral glare. That look begs me to run my hand through that greasy hair while she scratches out my eyes. Can't blame Tom Neal for acting like a pussy-whipped sucker around this cat. She's scary. This is one of the greatest B-movie performances ever. Ms. Savage died on Christmas day 2008 at the age of 87. I commend Guy Maddin for getting one last performance from her in My Winnipeg---I'd love to see this. Till then, I'm watching Screen Guild Productions' western Renegade Girl, released December 25th of 1946, a fine showcase for Ms. Savage.

Confederate Jean Shelby (Savage) is torn by a desire to kill her brother's murderer, Chief White Cloud, and to marry the man she loves, who happens to be a Union officer. Separated from her love, she becomes hellbent on vengeance, making a deal to marry the man in her group of bandits who kills White Cloud. While she has the horny raiders under her spell, she has made herself the Yankee's most wanted woman.

There's a kinkiness to this film, most pronounced in a scene where Jean is giving a pep talk to her marauders. As she pulls open her blouse to show them the knife scar White Cloud gave her, it cuts to a reverse shot of the grubby men edging in for a look. Jean is tougher than the men, wide-eyed psychotic on the trail of vengeance, but also a quivering mass of regret. "Everything I touch dies...dies," she repeats stumbling through the woods.

Her death, in the arms of her love, is heartbreaking. "I would have wrecked your life," she tells her man in a moment of clarity far removed from Detour's Vera. I almost feel like replying, "I wouldn't have it any other way."

Friday, December 26, 2008

Running Woman (1998)

Art restorationist Emily Russo (Theresa Russell) is framed for the murder of her young son, throwing her into a vast conspiracy involving the LAPD and a prominent philanthropist with a shady Government defense contract. Russo goes from being a grieving mother to a fugitive with a suitcase of disguises in no time flat. With the help of a secret brotherhood of Mexican priests, she can perhaps find peace and freedom.

A bit too polite, Running Woman is a chase thriller that should've been turned up a few notches. Theresa Russell's undercover investigation into the Latino gang banger scene never reaches the level of danger it deserves. Andrew Robinson as a LAPD detective is slimy and smarmy, but his über-fascist rants seem cut short. If you're going to spray the nerve gas Sarin into someone's face, please show the victim convulsing, foaming at the mouth, and turning green. In a film punctuated with boat chases, car chases, and helicopter explosions, restraint should be tossed out of the nearest window.

The reason to buy a ticket to this show is Theresa Russell, who is so cool that she can make the ridiculous character arc seem effortless. Her sly smile and naivety, particularly in her scene amongst the Latino low-rider enthusiasts, is adorably incongruous to the paranoid proceedings.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

L'Enfer sur la plage (1965)

Jose Bénazeraf's take on the espionage film may at first seem typical of the genre---a sun-baked setting, beautiful women, raucous action, and a Sylvie Vartan song over the opening credits. But the actors (all unknowns) and direction ranges from understated to detached. The story---as far as I can tell---concerns the head of a gunrunning ring hiding out in his yacht with his wife and younger partner. They are being targeted by the MI5 and a terrorist organization. This is all a contrivance for Bénazeraf's camera to study women's faces. The two female leads are diametrically opposed, one a coquettish blond pixie, the other a more serious woman with darker complexion and thin nose.

The supporting actresses further the film's cool aura.

There is only one brief flash of nudity in this film, but several scenes of slow-burn eroticism. It's not the best introduction to Bénazeraf, but this rarely-seen early work is pleasantly diverting.

Monday, December 8, 2008


More clips, photos, and a bio on Bénazeraf can be found here.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Jose Bénazeraf and La Nuit la plus longue (1964)

Known as "The Antonioni of Pigalle", Jose Bénazeraf had a very idiosyncratic approach to the fledgling genre of the softcore thriller. Toeing the line between the cool sophistication of contemporary art cinema (Godard probably being a bigger influence than Antonioni) and the tawdry skin flicks that were all the rage, Bénazeraf was the first, and only, hipster pornographer. His slow, deliberate camera movements, minimalist plots, and understated acting made his films a world apart from Russ Meyer, while his lingering views of nubile French chicks relegated his films to the smut market. There's no way around it, Bénazeraf is a tough sell. Seeing his films in the U.S. is not easy. Besides a couple titles in Something Weird Video's catalog, a few import tapes, and one in-print DVD (Night of Lust, a heavily re-edited version of Le concerto de la peur, best avoided), there hasn't been any Bénazeraf revival...until now. K Films in France have just released two box-sets consisting of 7 of the director's films plus a disc of "banned scenes". While the DVDs are NTSC and all-region, they do not contain English subtitles. Fuck subtitles. Crime, sex, existential despair---this is my mother tongue. I will be looking at all these films here.

A poetic realist film told in modernistic shorthand, La nuit la plus longue is one of the best known films from Bénazeraf due to Radley Metzger's Audubon Films releasing it, in slightly edited and embellished form, as Sexus. Driven by a spastic Chet Baker soundtrack, it’s about the kidnapping of a young rich girl who is taken to a remote country estate to wait for the 4 a.m. ransom payment deadline. Within this stagnant summer night the young captive, Virginia, is saved from being raped by the handsome, knife-wielding gang member Blackie. Fearing disloyalty to the gang, Frankie (played by frequent Jean Rollin collaborator Willy Braque) tries to steal Virginia away to the boss in the city, only to be gunned down by the lovelorn Blackie. With the plan in shambles and Blackie’s capture a certainty in the morning, the two lovers spend the night in each other’s arms.

The film's most striking set piece happens to be completely incidental to the plot. It's a well-choreographed lesbian striptease, where a butch woman stalks around a more voluptuous long-haired woman, cracking her with a cat-o-nine-tails. The typically French audience looks on with passing interest.

It's great to finally see this film without the Audubon prologue (where a narrator warns us that Sexus is "a film as unusual as its title") and in much better shape. A cursory comparison look at the VHS from First Run Features, did reveal an extra bit of footage of Virginia reading aloud about the Marquis de Sade that does not appear on the new DVD. The editing at this point (at about the one hour mark) in the French version gets a bit chaotic, with some strange overlay of music and sound effects. I chalk it up to Godardian experimentation.

So far, so good. I'm looking forward to exploring these sets further.