Saturday, May 26, 2018

Hostiles (Le Grisbi Productions, Waypoint Entertainment, Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures, Bloom, Lionsgate, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a quite good movie I’d been curious about ever since I saw the TV ads last year heralding its release — upon which it sank almost immediately at the box office. The film was called Hostiles and it was a Western set in 1892 in which Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), about to be mustered out of the U.S. Army following a long career as an Indian fighter, is assigned to escort a terminally ill Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), who’s been incarcerated for seven years in an Army stockade for leading one of the Native American attempts to reconquer their ancestral lands. Now he’s been given what would now be called a compassionate release, and Blocker has been ordered to lead a commando team to take him north from New Mexico through Colorado to the Dakotas, where he is to be buried in the Valley of the Bears. Blocker is ill-suited to this assignment because he’s a racist who hates Indians with a passion — and we’re actually given the grounding for his hatred in an opening scene in which a band of Comanches raid a farm where the Quaid family — father Wesley (Scott Shepherd), mother Rosalee (Rosamond Pike) and their three kids, a baby and two daughters played by Ava and Sheila Cooper, real-life offspring of writer-director Scott Cooper — are holding forth. They slaughter Wesley and the kids and leave Rosalee with the Mother of All Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders: when the U.S. soldiers find her on the burned-out property she’s virtually catatonic, hanging on to her dead baby and insisting that she, not the soldiers in Blocker’s company, will dig the graves of her late family members. Hostiles is a slow-moving drama whose alternations of long, drawn-out scenes of human relationships and brief, sudden outbursts of violence reminded Charles and I of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate — as did the sheer beauty of the Western scenery against which the action takes place and Masanobu Takanynagi’s cinematography of it (though in the interiors Takanynagi falls back on modern-day past-is-brown clichés) — though it also seems like Cooper was evoking John Ford (the opening Indian attack on the peaceful settlers can’t help but remind one of The Searchers) and John Huston in the overall plot structure of a group of ill-assorted people on an obsessive quest.

Blocker is obliged to lead a group that’s been imposed upon him by the same authority that gave him a written order from President Benjamin Harrison to take Yellow Hawk to his ancestral homeland for burial — and threatened him with immediate court-martial, a dishonorable discharge and the loss of his Army pension if he refused. Along the way we lose the most interesting people in Blocker’s unit, African-American soldier Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors) — who turns in a quite effective solo performance of a religious song, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” — and the kid-too-young-to-die who naturally dies early, private Philippe DeJardin (Timothée Charlamet from the recent French Gay movie Call Me by Your Name) — but we get Peter Mullan as Lt. Col. Ross McGowan, whom Blocker is asked to transfer after he’s been arrested for massacring an entire Native American family. McGowan recalls serving under George Armstrong Custer and remembers fondly the days when U.S. soldiers could kill Indians with impunity — he gives off the rather sad air of a Stalinist bureaucrat facing a long sentence in the gulag because he didn’t realize the line had changed — and the journey of the ill-assorted groups of whites, Natives and whites growing more sympathetic to the Natives continues through Colorado until it actually gets to the Dakotas. Chief Yellow Hawk dies on the border of his tribe’s territory — I suspect the analogy in Cooper’s script to Moses dying on the border of the Promised Land was deliberate — and the party is confronted by a father and three sons, Cyrus (Scott Wilson), Silas (Brian Duffy), Ezekiel (Richard Bucher) and Virgil (Luce Raines) Lounde, who insist that the Bears country is their property. Acting like the modern-day Cliven Bundy and his psycho brood, insisting that even the President of the United States has no authority over them, they start a shoot-out in which just about everyone dies except Blocker and Rosalee Quaid, who had previously spent a night together on the road in a driving rainstorm but had not had sex.

The ending is a tearful Casablanca-ish leave-taking between the two at the railroad station in Butte, Montana where a train is supposed to take Rosalee out of the West to Chicago — only at the last minute, in an ending Cooper insisted on and Christian Bale fought against, he sneaks on the train and the hint is that he’ll join her and they’ll get together as a couple. Frankly, I think Bale was right: the parting he wanted would have been more moving, and more in keeping with the overall spirit of the film, than the reunion Cooper insisted on, but overall Hostiles is quite a movie, the sort of film they supposedly Don’t Make Anymore, an adult drama with genuine moral ambiguity — it’s neither the rah-rah settlers-good, Indians-bad Western John Ford would have made of this story nor the direct reversal (Indians-good, settlers-bad) of that set of clichés Kevin Costner made of Dances with Wolves — there are good Indians and bad Indians, just as there are good whites and bad whites, and the people in Hostiles act from mixed motives and seem less like the cardboard cut-outs of most Westerns and more like real people. Hostiles had an interesting genesis as a project: it was originally a script written by Donald E. Stewart, but after he failed to sell it he put it in storage in his garage and forgot about it. Then he died, and the script finally came to light again when his widow decided to move out of the house she’d lived in with him and came upon the script in their garage, decided to see if she could interest anyone in producing it, and got Scott Cooper on board — though the credits identify Cooper as both writer and director and merely state the film was based on “a manuscript” by Stewart. Whatever its genesis, Hostiles is a good enough movie I’d like to check out some of Cooper’s other films; it’s at once a moving reuse of some old Hollywood clichés and a fresh spin on them, and it certainly didn’t deserve its almost immediate failure at the box office!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Deadly Matrimony, a.k.a. Vows of Deceit (The Ninth House, Twin Frames Films, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Sunday night Lifetime ran an intriguing and surprisingly good “premiere” movie called Deadly Matrimony, though shot under a far more haunting working title, Vows of Deceit. Deadly Matrimony is about as much an auteur work as Lifetime ever gets; the auteur is Jake Helgren, who not only directed but co-wrote the script and was one of the plethora of “producers” that gets credited on today’s movies. Helgren even wrote the official synopsis on imdb.com: “When blushing bride Sara Ross (Katherine Bailess) ties the knot with her seemingly perfect, handsome newlywed husband Leo Friedman (Damon Davoub), she soon starts to suspect that not only is Leo a thief and a con man but also quite possibly a killer, and that she just might be the next bride up on his chopping block.” Sara Ross is an attorney who works in civil litigation, though she’s proud that even though she isn’t a prosecutor she can still use her legal skills to hold corrupt individuals and corporations to account. She was introduced to Leo by her girlfriend Parker Wyndham (Ali Cobrin) and married him quickly without doing the due diligence she’d expect to follow on one of her cases. Then she’s confronted by another woman who claims to be Leo’s wife — although she calls him something else — Melinda Wells (Tiffany Hines), who said she was married to Leo (or whoever) for three months, which was just long enough for him to hack into all her bank accounts and other assets and steal every dime she had.

Melinda manages to convince Sara that her husband — their husband — is a no-good rotter, and his frequent absences out of town give them plenty of opportunities to research his background and see if they can find some clue as to what he did with Melinda’s money. Meanwhile Sara is spending a lot of late nights with two male associates at her law firm, Kyle Gardner (Wil Traval) and Grayson (Nick Waters); Grayson isn’t interested in Sara (indeed, Helgren rather subtly hints that he’s Gay) but Kyle has long been in unrequited love with her. Sara and Melinda meet a third woman Leo has married (or at least proposed to) and swindled, international model Cindy Steele (Keeley Hazell), only just as she’s about to blow the whistle on him, he sneaks into the house she was renting him and then changed the locks and security system, and kills her. The cops suspect Sara of the murder, with jealousy as her motive, but meanwhile Sara traces Leo online and links him to a killing in Las Vegas of a newlywed who was shot in her wedding-night bed with the wedding dress still on her. While all this is going on Parker tells Sara she doesn’t have much time for her right now because she’s got a new boyfriend — only she later announces she’s broken up with him and it turns out, of course, that the “new boyfriend” is Sara’s putative husband Leo. (For much of the movie I had thought Helgren and his co-writer, Emily Nye, would have Parker turn out not only to be Leo’s lover but his co-conspirator, helping him entrap well-to-do women he could swindle and then dump, but they didn’t go there and it’s probably just as well.) Sara thinks she can get away from both Leo and the cops by going up to her deserted mountain cabin — why do Lifetime heroines always think they can hide out in deserted mountain cabins? Especially ones in areas with spotty or nonexistent cell-phone and wi-fi service? — only Leo traces her there and menaces her.

The final scene, though, takes place at the wedding of Leo and Parker — apparently he’s going to acquire a new wife without either divorcing or killing the old one first (which suggests that his marriage to Sara was never legal anyway because there’s no indication he and Melinda divorced first) — only Parker finally realizes Leo’s true nature when Sara points out that the fancy necklace Leo gave her was actually stolen from Cindy and thereby proved Leo murdered her — and Leo pushes Parker out of a third-floor window of the massive house where the wedding was supposed to take place. He also whips out a gun and wounds the minister that was supposed to perform the ceremony, and he and the two women have a fight he appears to be winning until the police finally arrive — courtesy of a 911 call placed by the minister, who seems to have been the only one there with the presence of mind to inform the authorities that the man he was about to perform a marriage ceremony for was a homicidal maniac. Leo gets a final Christine Conradt-ish speech at the end that’s supposed to explain what made him “run” — apparently his first victim was the woman in Las Vegas, whom he had an affair with when he took pity on her because she was dying of cancer, so out of guilt and a desire to make her last days as happy as possible he agreed to marry her. Then she went into remission and her life was spared, but he learned that she had a long history of sex with a lot of different men, and this revelation so appalled Leo he decided to marry her and kill her on the wedding night as a punishment for her immorality and her determination to trap him. (It sounds like Jake Helgren and Emily Nye had seen Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1944 Bluebeard, also about a serial killer who’s psychologically compelled to murder women because a woman he believed was a moral exemplar turned out to be a prostitute.)

Deadly Matrimony may not seem like much in synopsis, and certainly these plot tropes have been done a lot of times before (including Love From a Stranger, a remarkable 1937 British film based on a story by Agatha Christie called “Philomel Cottage,” with Basil Rathbone as the psycho who, like Leo here, targets women who’ve recently come into money and relieves them of it before killing them; it was a surprise because for once Christie wrote a psychological thriller and gave her characters some depth instead of just maneuvering stock figures through a whodunit), but this is well ahead of the Lifetime norm. The characters are believable and Helgren manages to keep Leo’s villainy within credible bounds instead of turning him from milquetoast in the early reels to Moriarty at the end. The performances are also solid — though Tiffany Hines stands out, largely because she’s playing the most interesting character — and for once in a Lifetime movies the actors playing the good guys are as nice-looking as the ones playing the bad guys: indeed, the soft-core porn scene between Katherine Bailess and Wil Traval in that mountain cabin as they finally consummate their relationship after circling around each other like dogs in heat is one of the most entertaining parts of the film!

Maria Callas: Paris Opera Gala, December 18, 1958 (French TV/Warner Classics, reissued 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the videotape a friend had lent me: the Maria Callas Gala at the Paris Opera, December 19, 1958: a pretty incredible performance, in which she does bits from Norma, Il Trovatore and The Barber of Seville in concert form, followed by a completely staged performance of Act II of Tosca with French tenor Albert Lance as Cavaradossi and Tito Gobbi (in splendid form vocally, though he wore a pretty obvious false nose that made him look almost like a cartoon character) as Scarpia. (Ironically, the only other extant film of her acting in an operatic context is another version of Act II of Tosca: the “screen test” Franco Zeffirelli shot in London six years later, also with Gobbi as Scarpia, as a warm-up for their studio film of Tosca that was, in the end, never made.) Aside from one scene in which Callas and Gobbi touch, Callas seems to have taken to heart the advice Sarah Bernhardt, who “created” the role of Tosca on the spoken stage, gave to the singers who played her in the opera: “Tosca’s hatred for the police-agent Scarpia … must be completely convincing; she must avoid even permitting the hem of her skirt from touching his body in the second act.” While it’s not known who directed the sequence in this broadcast (and my memories of the Zeffirelli/Callas film are of a much more creatively and intensely directed version than this one), it gives Callas a marvelous opportunity for pantomime after she’s murdered Scarpia (though she throws away the line, “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!,” much to my disappointment; she also doesn’t kick Scarpia after she’s killed him, which — despite the potential for major bodily harm to the baritone — the scene, especially given Callas’ vivid etching of her loathing for the man, one almost expects).

I remember an awful production of Tosca in San Francisco in which the original director/designer, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (whom my brother always used to call “Jean-Pierre Banalle”) gave the soprano singing Tosca no fewer than three doors she had to open and close to get offstage, thus denying her the chance to do much of anything during that long, beautiful musical postlude after the murder. (As Geraldine Farrar said of Bernhardt’s advice to her about this scene, “When we came to the death scene, Mme. Bernhardt imparted to me the extent of her stage business, and when I explained to her the number of musical bars allotted to me in the opera, she threw up her hands in dismay. ‘It is impossible,’ she said, ‘to do justice to the scene.’”) Zeffirelli gave Callas one door, and the anonymous designer of this production had her exit through the wings without having to bother with a door at all. Callas got to do all the action called for in the libretto, including placing the two candles on either side of Scarpia’s corpse and placing something on his chest (it’s supposed to be a crucifix, but in this mediocre 1958 television image it looked more like a corsage to me!). It’s also clear in this version that Callas means to murder Scarpia from the beginning of the scene — as he’s writing out the safe-conduct passes (one wonders if the authors of the original version of Casablanca borrowed the “letters of transit” device from Tosca) she fingers the letter opener, reaching behind her own body to the desk it’s on, then loses track of it and quickly scrambles to find it again — and when she stabs him she doesn’t do so over her shoulder and through his back (the way Grace Kelly killed her would-be murderer in Dial “M” for Murder), but straight through his chest where (as Bette Davis might have said if she’d ever played this role) his heart ought to have been.

As for the rest of the tape, Sebastian’s tempos are unyielding (Lance could probably have made more of the “Miserere” duet from Trovatore with a conductor like Serafin who would have slowed down and allowed him to bend and shape the phrases artistically instead of just belting them out), the choral work awful (especially in the “backing vocals” to “Casta diva”), the backing singers adequate (save for Gobbi and the Spoletta, Louis Rialland) and Callas uneven but mostly stunning, beginning “Casta diva” a little out of things but slipping fully into gear by the second chorus. (Incidentally, I remember an Opera Quarterly article in which Phyllis Curtin blamed Callas’ premature decline as a singer on her poor posture, which allegedly prevented her from breathing properly while singing; I’d probably have dismissed this as so much silliness if its author weren’t herself a singer, and watching this and the Hamburg recital Callas gave four years later, and noticing how hunched over she seems to be and how she seems to do most of her singing with her head bowed down, I’m inclined to think Curtin may have had a point.) — 2/14/95

•••••

Last night I was in an operatic mood with my video choices for Charles and I to watch; going through my back files I’d got out Cecelia Bartoli’s CD Maria, her tribute to the legendary 19th century soprano Maria Malibran (1808-1836). She was important as a singing actress — along with her contemporary, Giuditta Pasta, and the German soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, Malibran was one of the first singers who insisted on creating a strong, believable characterization in an operatic role rather than just using it as an excuse for vocal display. She became famous not only for her voice but for her skills as a composer, her famous relatives (her father, Manuel Garcia, and sister, Pauline Viardot-Garcia, were also opera stars) and her tragic death at age 28 from lingering injuries she sustained after she fell off her horse in Milan in July 1836 — though she continued to perform for three more months instead of seeking medical attention. As with the other singers of her time, we have no clear idea of what Malibran sounded like aside from the written reviews critics wrote about her performances and the range of music composed for her — including a fascinating piece by Mendelssohn called “Infelice!” which he wrote for Malibran, she performed twice and then the score was forgotten until Bartoli and her conductor, Maxim Vengerov, rediscovered it for this 2007 tribute album. I used this as a sort of curtain-raiser to one of the three video items included in the new Warner Classics boxed set of live performances by Maria Callas: the famous December 19, 1958 gala performance Callas gave at the Opéra in Paris — the first time she had ever performed live in France. It was the last recorded Callas performance from a year that had begun wretchedly for her with a fiasco in Rome in which she had been hired to sing the title role of Bellini’s Norma in a big gala including the President of Italy in the audience — only Callas fell ill just before the performance and withdrew following the first half of act one. The surviving tape of the broadcast features a long series of anxious announcements from the radio hosts speculating on whether Callas would return — which she didn’t, and since they had no understudy for her (though Anita Cerquetti would come in later and finish the rest of the scheduled run) the performance had to be cancelled. The Rome Opera sued Callas and there was a seven-year legal battle which Callas ultimately won. 

At the end of 1958 she came to Paris — a city she would fall in love with and live in during her retirement — for another gala, again with a national president in the audience as well as such luminaries of the time as Charlie Chaplin, Juliette Greco and Brigitte Bardot. This time Callas came in fine voice (one high note in “D’amor sull’ali rosée” from Il Trovatore goes a bit wild, but otherwise this performance is free from the aggravating wobbles that frequently afflicted her high register as she got older) for a wide-ranging program that featured a recital concert with excerpts from Bellini’s Norma, Verdi’s Il Trovatore and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in the first half and then, after the intermission, a fully staged performance of the second act of Puccini’s Tosca with Tito Gobbi as Scarpia and French tenor Albert Lance as Cavaradossi. Callas opens with the big first-act aria from Norma, “Casta diva,” beginning it with its introductory recitative, “Sediziose voci,” which Callas doesn’t quite tear into with the intensity of her surviving complete performances but it’s still nice to hear the scene in its full context, complete with a bass (Jacques Mars) and a chorus. Callas is absolutely stunning, not only vocally but physically; it’s well known that her 16-month diet program in 1953-54 was inspired by her seeing the movie Roman Holiday and deciding she wanted to look like its sylph-like star, Audrey Hepburn, and judging from her appearance here, she achieved it. She also sings with such total power and authority one forgets the sheer (and typically operatic) preposterousness of the situation: Norma is the High Priestess of the Druids in ancient Britain (not “Gaul” — ancient France — as the perhaps French-chauvinistic authors of the English subtitles maintain), and as such she is obliged to lead a public service in a glade one night every month at the height of the full moon to worship the Druids’ moon goddess (which is who the “casta diva” referenced in the aria is). She’s also supposed to maintain chastity, but she’s broken that vow with the general of the occupying Roman army, Pollione, and when the opera opens this affair has been going on for three years and she’s borne him two children — yet no one has noticed that she’s carried two pregnancies to term even during her regular public appearances every month. (I once joked this is why zaftig sopranos like Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé got cast as Norma: they were already large enough you could actually believe they could carry two pregnancies to term and no one would notice.) 

Following the Norma excerpt, which not only features the cavatina (the slow first half of a two-part aria) but the cabaletta (the fast second half), “Ah, bello, a me ritorna,” which even though she’s still standing in the middle of the glade and all the Druids can hear her, she laments her sense that her illicit lover Pollione is about to leave her for someone else (which he is: her assistant priestess, Adalgisa), which is all supposed to be an aside (communicated in the subtitles in this film by putting an open parenthesis mark at the start of the cabaletta) even though it’s being delivered in full view of the people from whom she’s trying to keep the affair secret. Then Callas and the Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus, under the baton of the underrated George Sebastian (a Hungarian-born conductor whose name seemed to change spelling whether he was working in his native country, France or the U.S., and a quite underrated musician who was a superb recorded accompanist for Callas and Kirsten Flagstad in their live concerts), do one of Verdi’s most audaciously imaginative scenes, the beginning of Act IV of Il Trovatore, consisting of heroine Leonora’s magical aria “D’amor sull’ali rosée,” in which she laments that her lover Manrico is in prison about to be executed; followed by the “Miserere” duet, in which a chorus is singing a Christian lament for the dead, Leonora is pleading with God to find some way to spare her lover’s life, and Manrico, hearing all this from his cell, sings that he awaits death and welcomes it but hopes Leonora does not forget him. One could have hoped for a more butch Manrico than French tenor Albert Lance (obviously they got him because he was part of the home team, and they’d probably blown their talent budget getting Callas and the great Italian baritone Tito Gobbi for the Tosca Act II at the concert’s end), but he’s lyrical and up to the demands of the music — and Callas is haunting. One can only wish that they had restored Leonora’s cabaletta after the “Miserere,” “Tu vedrai che amore in terra,” which for decades had been cut from the score but had been restored by Callas and conductor Herbert von Karajan for their studio “complete” of Trovatore in 1956, which would have made an already magical sequence even better (and would also have showcased Verdi’s formal daring in separating a cavatina from its cabaletta not by just a few lines of recitative, as was customary, but an entire big duet with chorus). 

The next selection is the big aria “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, a piece I have a weird history with because I first heard it on the soundtrack to the film Citizen Kane, where Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander Kane butchered it in private performance. (Comingore did her own singing for the film in the scenes in which she performs privately for Charles Foster Kane, but she had a voice double, Jean Forward, in the scenes in which she’s shown singing a staged opera — and though Forward was a fully professional singer, composer Bernard Herrmann threw her a curveball by writing the opera excerpts one key too high for any soprano to sing comfortably.) So it was a bit of a shock when I got a Lily Pons LP on Columbia and first heard it sung properly. “Una voce poco fa” was also interesting to hear in this context right after the Cecelia Bartoli featurette on Maria Malibran because it was one of the two pieces on this Callas concert that was in Malibran’s repertory — and it underscores the interesting argument Bartoli made in the film that Malibran was really not a soprano, but a mezzo-soprano with an upward extension. In the 19th century there was actually a lot more freedom in the opera world to adjust keys to fit singers than there is now, when taking an aria down a half-tone or a tone to accommodate a singer is considered cheating. Malibran’s sister, Pauline Viardot-Garcia, was generally considered a contralto (though her Wikipedia page lists her as a mezzo), and she freely transposed the music of operas like Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Verdi’s Macbeth down so she could sing it. (She also commissioned Hector Berlioz to make an arrangement of Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice for her; Berlioz fused Gluck’s versions — the Italian-language 1762 original in which Orfeo was a soprano castrato and the French rewrite in 1774 in which Orfeo was a tenor — and for some reason his rewrite, not either of Gluck’s originals, has become the standard text.)

In his book The Callas Legacy John Ardoin quotes a contemporary review of Giuditta Pasta by Marie-Henri Stendhal (a French writer best known for his novel of the French Revolution, The Red and the Black) and suggests it applied to Callas as well: “She possesses the rare ability to be able to sing contralto as easily as she can sing soprano. I would suggest … that the true designation of her voice is mezzo-soprano, and any composer who writes for her should use the mezzo-soprano range … while still exploiting, as it were incidentally and from time to time, notes which lie within the more peripheral areas of this remarkably rich voice.” We don’t have records of Pasta, of course, but ever since I read that and similar remarks from critic Henry Chorley, writing about Pasta the way critics 120 years later would write about Callas — praising her intense acting and dramatic skills, and criticizing her wobbly high notes ­— that Pasta’s voice probably sounded a lot like Callas’s, especially since three of Callas’s biggest successes were in operas originally written for Pasta: Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Norma. Getting back to The Barber of Seville, Rossini originally wrote the leading female role of Rosina for mezzo-soprano and later pitched it higher for light sopranos — Lily Pons and Kathleen Battle are examples of that type of Rosina — while Callas, nominally a soprano, sang the part in the original mezzo keys. One of the remarkable aspects of the surviving concert films of Callas is that she didn’t let the fact that she was just singing on a bare stage in normal clothes absolve her of the obligation to act. I remember seeing Birgit Nilsson in concert in San Francisco in 1979, and her voice was spectacular but she did absolutely nothing with her body: she just stood straight and hurled the music out at the audience without changing her posture or making any gestures. Not Callas; after playing the doleful heroine trapped in a forbidden relationship in the Norma and Trovatore excerpts, she is flirtatious and coquettish in the Rossini aria, as the text and the situation demand, and she’s fully in charge of the role. 

Then the concert film proceeds to the second half of the program, a fully staged performance of Act II of Puccini’s Tosca with Callas in the title role, Tito Gobbi as the villainous Baron Scarpia — a repressive police agent attempting to maintain order in Rome and suppress the rebellion being led by supporters of French emperor Napoleon (who’s a good guy in this, not surprisingly since the source play was by French writer Victorien Sardou) no matter how many men he has to kill, or how many women he has to rape, in order to do it; and Albert Lance as Tosca’s boyfriend, Mario Cavaradossi. Scarpia and his assistants Spoletta (Louis Rialland) and Sciarrone (Jean-Pierre Hurteau) have captured Cavaradossi and are torturing him — excuse me, using “enhanced interrogation techniques” — to get him to tell them where he’s hiding Angelotti, one of the leaders of the rebellion. Scarpia realizes Cavaradossi will probably never “break” — or at least he won’t break in time for Scarpia to arrest and kill Angelotti before his dinner (referencing a more recent tyrant, I joked, “His cheeseburger’s getting cold”) — but if he can apprehend Tosca (an opera singer who’s just wrapping up a special church benefit performance as the act begins) and make her hear the sounds of Cavaradossi being tortured, she’ll break down and give him Angelotti’s whereabouts in exchange for him letting up on her boyfriend. She indeed does that, and naturally Cavaradossi is pissed at her, though his mood brightens up when word reaches everybody that Marengo has just won the Battle of Marengo (“Vittoria! Vittoria!” Cavaradossi cries). Then he’s led back to his prison cell and Scarpia makes Tosca an offer: he’ll release Cavaradossi if she’ll have sex with him. Tosca, who in Sardou’s play was described as an orphan who was raised in a convent (like Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music) and is therefore very religious, sings her character’s best-known aria, “Vissi d’arte,” as a prayer to God asking why He has put her in this situation — let her boyfriend die or have sex with a man she can’t stand. (Indeed, when Geraldine Farrar was preparing Tosca she sought out an interview with Sarah Bernhardt, the legendary actress for whom Sardou had written the play, and Bernhardt told her that Tosca’s loathing for Scarpia should be so total she wouldn’t let so much as the hem of her dress touch him.) 

Tosca agrees with the utmost reluctance, but Scarpia says that he can’t just release Cavaradossi: he has to stage a fake execution — “like we did with Palmieri,” he tellingly stresses to Spoletta — and he’ll write two safe-conduct passes so Tosca can get herself and the supposedly dead Cavaradossi out of Rome. (I’ve often wondered whether Murray Burnett and Joan Allison, author of the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s that eventually became the movie Casablanca, got the gimmick of the “letters of transit” from Tosca.) Then Scarpia zooms in on Tosca, ready to claim his prize — and Tosca grabs a letter-opener from his desk and stabs him with it, killing him. Tosca has a long scene after Scarpia’s death, lighting candles and putting them on either side of his body while she says, “He’s dead! Now I forgive him!,” and giving him one more look of disgust, she says contemptuously, “And before that all Rome trembled.”[1] Callas oddly throws that line away in this performance — a minor disappointment in what is otherwise a brilliantly executed rendition of this score, so different from the bel canto arias of Rossini and Bellini and the extension of bel canto Verdi composed in TrovatoreTosca is an example of the operatic movement called verismo — which literally means “realism,” though the realism of verismo was mostly expressed in sordid plots about love and betrayal, and what separated the verismo works from previous operas about love and betrayal were that they were about ordinary people, not royals, nobles or figures from Greek or Norse mythology. We can hear the dramatic contrast between Puccini’s succinct, almost telegraphic style of writing and the elaborate forms of earlier Italian composers; in a way Puccini and his verismo contemporaries, Mascagni and Leoncavallo, anticipated film music in general and film noir in particular in the highly dramatic nature of their plots, their realistic depictions of crime and the motives behind it, and in the way they largely abandoned form-based arias in favor of a continuous dramatic declamation critics called parlando (literally, “speech-like”). 

When verismo composers stopped the action for an aria, it was to heighten the dramatic situation and convey the character’s inner thoughts and emotions, much the way Shakespeare had done with his soliloquies, not to give a star singer the chance to show off his or her voice. One of the things that made Maria Callas legendary was that she could do it all; she was equally adept in bel canto operas and verismo works, and she probably picked the program for this concert deliberately to highlight and demonstrate her versatility. It’s also interesting that though Callas and Gobbi had recorded Tosca together at La Scala in Milan in 1953, with Victor de Sabata conducting and Callas’s lifelong friend (and occasional lover) Giuseppe di Stefano as Cavaradossi — a record still hailed by critics as the benchmark for all Tosca recordings — they had never appeared together on stage in this music until this performance. In fact, only three films exist of Callas in an actual opera performance (as opposed to a recital concert), and all are of Act II of Tosca: a 1956 Ed Sullivan Show appearance with George London as Scarpia, this one and a 1964 rematch with Gobbi on a BBC program in London. With Rosa Ponselle we have the frustration of having only two complete opera recordings, both from the Met — La Traviata in 1935 and Carmen in 1936 and 1937 — and otherwise we have to imagine what her complete performances were like from studio recordings of snippets. With Callas we have an ample, if not absolutely complete, documentation of her repertoire on audio recordings but heartbreakingly little on video. With today’s singers we get plenty of videos, though many of them are hard to enjoy because of the creepy antics of the so-called Regietheater directors who arbitrarily impose their “concepts” on the operas and usually turn them into travesties of the original dramas. 

This 1958 Paris concert has been available in several different presentations and re-edits; this one was included in the 42-CD boxed set of Callas live recordings from Warner Classics (which acquired the classical catalog of EMI, Callas’s record company, when Universal Music bid for EMI’s pop catalog — including the Beatles — and European antitrust authorities decided that if Universal took over EMI’s classical records as well they’d have a virtual monopoly on classical music recordings, so they forced EMI’s owner to sell the classical branch somewhere else) and was originally produced in 1999 for French TV. It deleted the purely instrumental selections — it’s customary for a full-length concert of a singer with orchestra to include some instrumental numbers to give the singer a chance to rest his or her voice, and the original telecast included two of these, the overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (which opened the original concert) and the overture to The Barber of Seville (played, appropriately, just before Callas sang “Una voce poco fa”). The DVD edition also left out the opening footage showing the celebrities in the audience, and substituted modern-day footage of the Paris opera house with a narrator babbling on endlessly over what a great facility it was and is. I’d rather have had a document of what the original audience for this telecast saw — no less and no more — but at least the additions stayed out of the way of the music (which was not the case of the absolute hash PBS made of the incalculably historically important footage of the inaugural gala Frank Sinatra staged for President-elect John F. Kennedy on January 19, 1961!) and, out of the all too few films of Callas in action, this may be the very best. — 5/23/18



[1] — In Act III we learn that Scarpia double-crossed Tosca; Cavaradossi’s execution turns out to be real — the firing squad’s guns have actual bullets in them, not blanks — and Spoletta and his agents show up to arrest Tosca, only she escapes them by committing suicide via a spectacular jump off the roof of the castle where Cavaradossi’s execution took place.

A Date with the Falcon (RKO, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Callas gala I looked for a quick time-filler and found it in A Date with the Falcon, a silly but charming 1942 RKO “B” comedy-thriller (this was an era in which most thrillers were played at least partly for laughs) that was the second in a long-running series about Michael Arlen’s detective, Gaylord “Gay” Lawrence (George Sanders), a.k.a. “The Falcon.” RKO started producing these movies in 1941 after they lost the rights to a previous good-bad character, Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar a.k.a. “The Saint,” whom they’d been filming for three years, at first with Louis Hayward in The Saint in New York but thereafter, and far more effectively, with the urbane, sophisticated and oddly detached Sanders in the role. (As I’ve noted in these pages before, Sanders as Sherlock Holmes is one of the most potentially intriguing cinematic might-have-beens: too bad that during Sanders’ critical and commercial peak in the early 1940’s Basil Rathbone owned Holmes on screen!) When Charteris pulled the rights to the Saint, RKO just bought Michael Arlen’s novel The Gay Falcon and did little more than change the name “The Saint” to “The Falcon.” Both characters were former jewel thieves who kept having to re-convince the police that they had indeed gone straight, and both were heavy-duty womanizers who were trying to duck the women they were currently engaged to in order to keep their bachelor flings going. (This sounds like much more my sort of character than Charles’s!)

They cast Wendy Barrie as the “other woman” trying to break up Sanders and his fiancée in The Gay Falcon and then turned around and made her the fiancée in this film — she does the role charmingly but it gets to be a bit too much after a while and one wonders why she doesn’t break with him completely when he keeps standing her up and running after other women — and this time the “other woman” is jewel thief Rita Mara (Mona Maris, who had a truly weird career trajectory: she was active early enough to be in one of Humphrey Bogart’s first features, A Devil with Women at Fox in 1930, and she lasted long enough to return to her native Argentina and make her last film, Camila, there in 1984: it’s a film about political rebels who are executed at the end and Maris played the female lead’s grandmother). The plot, to the extent it matters, concerns a rather wimpy bald inventor, Waldo Sampson (Alec Craig, who proves they didn’t break the mold after they made Donald Meek), who’s come up with a process for making synthetic diamonds of gem quality and size. (Synthetic diamonds actually exist — and did when this film was made — but not of gem size; the difficulty of subjecting carbon to the millions of pounds per square inch to turn it into diamond means they can only make very small industrial diamonds for things like drill bits and turntable styli.) Sampson says he only wants the process used for legitimate industrial uses — he doesn’t want crooks to get hold of it and he also doesn’t want to collapse the market for gemstones — but of course a gang of crooks has other ideas: they kidnap Sampson to get him to reveal his formula, and inevitably Sampson gets murdered — at least that’s what we, the police and Gay Lawrence all think until he turns up alive at the end of the movie. “Don’t tell me that was your twin brother!” exclaims irascible police inspector Mike O’Hara (James Gleason at his acerbic best) — which it was; the murder victim was actually Sampson’s twin brother Herman, who’s never seen as a live person in the action. That line is a pretty good indication of the approach the writers, Frank Fenton and Lynn Root, took towards the Saint and Falcon scripts, at once exploiting the clichés of detective fiction and satirizing them.

Our copy of A Date with the Falcon came from the tail end of a VHS tape I had just transferred to DVD because it also contained the 1927 silent film It and the 1945 State Fair, and it got pretty glitchy at the end — a lot of tracking errors and a few blackouts — but it’s still a fun if rather superficial movie. For the third film in the Falcon series RKO went for more substantial story material, buying the rights to Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely and turning it into a Falcon vehicle, The Falcon Takes Over — “Some of Philip Marlowe’s integrity even seemed to rub off on the superficial Falcon,” William K. Everson wrote — before they remade it as the noir classic Murder, My Sweet in 1944 with Dick Powell absolutely superb as Philip Marlowe and screenwriter John Paxton actually improving on Chandler’s story construction while keeping the appeal of the original. Then RKO made a film called The Falcon’s Brother, which was constructed because George Sanders was getting tired of the role and wanted out, so they introduced the Falcon’s brother, Tom Lawrence, and had him played by George Sanders’ real-life brother, Tom Conway — and in that film Sanders is mortally wounded and dies in hospital, so Tom Conway as Tom Lawrence could take over the series with minimal other adjustments. A Date with the Falcon was made at a time when the comedy-mystery schtick was beginning to date badly — Alfred Hitchcock had just arrived in Hollywood and he and John Huston, who made a triumphant directorial debut in 1941 with the third version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, were showing that mystery films could be more powerful if they left out the comic relief and reproduced the edginess and cynicism of the “hard-boiled” style of detective fiction introduced by Black Mask magazine in the 1920’s. But it’s still a fun film even though the comedy elements (including Allen Jenkins at his most Allen Jenkinsish as the Falcon’s manservant, Jonathan “Goldy” Locke) are far more appealing than the rather dull and not particularly mysterious mystery.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Starcrash (Nat and Patrick Wachsberger Productions, 1978)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday afternoon there was a special screening at the Golden Hill site of the monthly Mars movie nights (http://marsmovieguide.com/) and the Vintage Sci-Fi screenings (http://sdvsf.org/) the third Friday and Saturday of each month, respectively: the proprietor decided to do a third one in a row and scheduled a matinee of two films proclaimed in advance as “Bad Movies.” They certainly lived up to that designation! The first was a 1978 Star Wars ripoff called … well, it’s uncertain whether the title is Star Crash (two words) or Starcrash (one word): Starcrash is what appears on the opening credits and how the film is listed on imdb.com, but the poster art says Star Crash and that’s how the proprietor of the Golden Hill screening promoted it. It’s another movie directed by Luigi Cozzi under the Anglo pseudonym “Lewis Coates,” and like Contamination, the 1980 “Coates” film shown last Friday, it’s a cheap ripoff of an American hit (Contamination was an obvious knock-off of Alien). Cozzi not only directed but also wrote the script with his co-producer, Nat Wachsberger (the other producer was Nat’s brother Patrick), whom I’d heard of only as the producer with whom Jerry Lewis famously butted heads on his 1982 production The Day the Clown Cried, whose plot premise — a famous clown incarcerated in Auschwitz during the Holocaust vainly tries to keep his fellow inmates amused until the Nazis knock them all off — anticipates the later hit Life Is Beautiful. 

The film features mostly a “C”-list cast of the era, including Marjoe Gortner (one of the odder celebrities thrown up by the 1970’s; his parents were traveling evangelists and they not only gave him an evangelical name — “Marjoe” is a mashup of “Mary” and “Joseph” — they trotted him out in front of revivals at age four and billed him as the world’s youngest evangelist, a career her pursued until the 1960’s, when he was sufficiently impressed by the youth culture in general and the hippies in particular that he shifted his message from fire-and-brimstone Christianity to peace-and-love Christianity, much to the disgust of his audiences — so he determined to do one last tour as a fire-and-brimstoner, have it filmed for a documentary, and then go for a secular career as an actor), Caroline Munro (though in the English dubbed version her voice was replaced by Candy Clark), David Hasselhoff and one genuinely important star, Christopher Plummer. The film opens in a spaceship being piloted by an android named Akton (Marjoe Gortner) and his human co-commander, Stella Star (Caroline Munro in some surprisingly skimpy outfits that show off her bod quite nicely), along with your usual tin-can robot whom I assumed was called “L” or “El” but is listed in the cast as “Elle” even though there’s nothing remotely feminine about him — neither in Judd Hamilton’s posture as he walks around in the black tin-can suit on screen or Hamilton Camp’s intonations as he supplies the voice on the soundtrack. 

The not-particularly-dynamic trio visit various planets and ultimately get embroiled in attempting to foil a plot by Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) — as with the movie’s title, there’s confusion as to whether his last name is one word or two (it’s “Zarth Arn” in the opening credits and “Zartharn” in the closing ones) — who’s made up to look like a cross between Princess Leia and Shakespeare and who seems to have modeled his acting style on Vincent Price at his campiest. Zarth Arn is attempting to depose and kill the rightful Emperor (Christopher Plummer — one wonders how, just 13 years after The Sound of Music, his fortunes had fallen so low he had to take a job like this!) and also get rid of the Emperor’s son Simon (David Hasselhoff, who goes through most of the movie looking like he wished that talking car would come along and rescue him from it). In the end Elle gets disintegrated but is able to pull his parts back together, Akton also gets killed but isn’t so lucky as to be able to reassemble himself, the Count’s dastardly plot is defeated and the Emperor is restored to his rightful throne, while his son Simon and Stella Star are paired off. One other major name was associated with this film, composer John Barry, whose most famous piece is the “James Bond Theme” that’s been used in virtually all the Bond movies, and who wrote complete scores for most of the early Bonds. According to an imdb.com “Trivia” poster, the filmmakers carefully kept Barry from being able to watch any of the movie, lest he decide he didn’t want to be associated with something that dreadful and walk out of the project. 

Starcrash is one of those movies that starts out looking like it’s going to be a derivative but at least entertaining riff on someone else’s major film, but as it progresses (like a disease) it just gets sillier and sillier, and I got into an argument with one of the other audience members as to whether the dialogue by Cozzi (“Coates”), Wachsberger and R. A. Dillon was really as bad as it sounds or whether what made the film really awful was the porn-star style delivery of it by Gortner, Clark and Hasselhoff. Another imdb.com “Trivia” poster claims that in the later stages of the film they put more clothes on Caroline Munro to preserve the film’s PG rating — though there’s one later shot of her in an outfit that’s just a series of leather bands wrapped strategically around her, a scene that no doubt delighted the teenage straight boys that are the core audience for science-fiction films then and now!

Galaxina (Marimark Productions, Crown International Pictures, 1980)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The second film on the program, Galaxina, was so wretched it made Starcrash look like a neglected masterpiece by comparison! This time the principal culprit was writer, producer and director William Sachs, who made this movie for something called Marimark Productions (were his parents named Mary and Mark, and did he conjure up this name as a mashup the way Harvey and Bob Weinstein named Miramax after their parents, Miriam and Max?) in association with Crown International Pictures — once again confirming my general theory of bad cinema that especially awful movies come from studios with the word “International” in their names. The main interest in Galaxina comes from the actress — if, to quote Dwight Macdonald about Haya Harareet in Ben-Hur, I may use the term for courtesy — who plays the title role, a blonde robot who’s part of the crew of the space police patrol ship Infinity (which itself looks like a discarded dog bone). Her name was Dorothy R. Stratten, and she is considerably more famous for her tragic end than for anything she accomplished in her too-brief career. Born on February 28, 1960 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Stratten blossomed as a beauty in her teens and attracted the attention of a promoter named Paul Snider, who determined to make her first a Playboy centerfold and then a movie star. He got her into Playboy, which named her Playmate of the Year for 1979, and got her some parts in films like Americathon (1979) — a sadly underrated farce about a telethon held to rescue the U.S. from being totally broke — and Skatetown, U.S.A. as well as an episode of the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Snider also married her but things didn’t go well between them: he came onto the set of Galaxina and harassed her.

Meanwhile, she had been cast by director Peter Bogdanovich in a semi-major film called They All Laughed, and she and Bogdanovich began an affair, which sent Snider into a jealous hissy-fit; he lured her to his apartment, tied her up, sexually assaulted her and killed her, then committed suicide. This tragedy became the subject of a quite good and tremendously underrated film by Bob Fosse, Star 80 (after the personalized license plate Snider had bought Stratten to predict she’d become a star in 1980, the year he actually killed her), and as with the few films made by Sharon Tate before she was butchered by Charles Manson’s “Family,” the macabre end of Stratten’s career has produced a cult around the few films she did live to make. The best thing that can be said for Galaxina was that Sachs deliberately intended it as a spoof of both Star Wars and Star Trek — though, to quote Dwight Macdonald again, this is one of those films that “in form and intent must be classified as comedies” even though, aside from a few modestly amusing lines here and there, the film contains nothing funny — at least nothing intentionally funny. From the moment we hear Avery Schreiber as starship commander Cornelius Butt (a name that in itself sums up William Sachs’s non-sense of humor!) intoning a “captain’s log” in the most sententious manner of William Shatner in the original Star Trek, we know what we’re in for: a film that’s way less funny than its creator clearly thought it was. The rest of the crew of the starship Infinity (in one of the film’s few genuine bits of wit, the crew members wear the infinity symbol as a patch on their uniforms) consists of Sergeant Thor (Stephen Macht, top-billed) and slacker Buzz (James David Hinton), and I must say these two guys did considerably more for me, uh, aesthetically than Marjoe Gortner and David Hasselhoff had in Starcrash. Two other crew members include Maurice (Lionel Mark Smith), who seems to have been designed as a cross between Mr. Spock and the Bat Boy from the Weekly World News; and Sam Wo (Tad Horino), who looks like Ho Chi Minh, constantly smokes what we presume to be an opium pipe, and delivers stupid-sounding aphorisms that just annoy the other people present.

As for Galaxina herself, she’s dressed in a white jumpsuit that does a good job of showing off the curves of Dorothy Stratten’s body and sits in a white swivel chair in which she revolves herself — that’s all she does for the first half of the film until she finally develops (or at least exhibits) the capacity to speak in mid-movie. Thereupon she and Sgt. Thor fall in love, if you can call it that — she throws herself at him but he’s disappointed because she doesn’t have a vagina (referred to with a lot of cutesy-poo euphemisms aimed at preserving the film’s PG rating and therefore its accessibility to the horny teenage straight guys who were obviously its target audience), though she explains that one can be added as an optional part for an extra fee, and when he bemoans that they can’t have kids she says, “Those are an option, too.” The big sequence is one in which our slacker heroes land on a planet that was originally an Australia-style exile for particularly obnoxious criminals — including the descendants of a motorcycle gang who congregate around the one bike they have left over and solemnly intone the praises of their god, “Harley David Son.” There’s also a gimmick in which the slacker heroes visit something billed as a “Human Restaurant” whose alien clientele is an obvious ripoff of the Cantina Bar scene in the original Star Wars — only they realize, almost too late, that humans aren’t the intended clientele but rather the bill of fare (a gag done far more subtly and frighteningly in the “To Serve Man” episode of the original Twilight Zone). Needless to say, since this is supposed to be at least in part a Star Wars spoof there has to be a Darth Vader analogue — he’s called “Ordric” and the only visible difference between him and the real deal is his costume is red instead of black (and like Darth Vader he’s played by two different people, Ronald Knight physically and Percy Rodrigues vocally).

The whole plot turns around the need of both the good and the bad guys to find the “Blue Star,” a stone of infinite power whose possession will make its owner the master of the universe (didn’t Wagner and Tolkien do that already with a ring?), which the good guys recover from the bad guys, only the rock-eating monster the Infinity crew had previously arrested and then released when they needed his help after the bad guys had imprisoned them takes the Blue Star and eats it. About the only good thing about Galaxina is that, bereft of enough money to commission an original score, Sachs decided to use pre-existing music, and for the first two-thirds one gets to hear some great classical music on the soundtrack. Some of it was familiar from previous (and far better!) science-fiction films, including Franz Liszt’s Les Prèludes (the principal theme from the third and last Universal Flash Gordon serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, though Sachs used a lot more of the piece than the makers of the Flash Gordon film did!) and the inevitable opening of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra (heard in a bizarre scene in which Commander Butt approaches the rest of his crew on a moving platform). The film also includes bits of Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, and two excerpts from Rossini’s last opera, William Tell: not only the concluding “Lone Ranger” theme from the opera’s overture but the aria “Selva opaca,” quite nicely sung on the soundtrack but mimed to on screen incongruously by a male puppet as part of an interstellar TV broadcast that also features clips from the 1962 film First Spaceship on Venus, another Crown International release (and it’s a tribute to the awfulness of Galaxina that compared to it, even First Spaceship on Venus looks like a masterpiece!). The best way to sum up Galaxina is to say I came to it with low expectations — and it disappointed even those!

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Contamination (Alex Cinematografica, Barthonia Film, Lisa-Film, 1980)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Over the past two nights I’ve been attending both the Mars movie nights (http://marsmovieguide.com/) and the Vintage Sci-Fi screenings (http://sdvsf.org/) in Golden Hill and, in addition to one pretty decent movie (Five Million Years to Earth) which I reviewed in a previous moviemagg blog post, I saw three of the God-awfullest films I’ve ever seen in my life — and the proprietor is promising two equally awful movies at a special screening this afternoon, Star Crash and Galaxina (which sounds like the Ford Motor Company decided to market a muscle car to women). The Friday night Mars movie screening included Five Million Years to Earth (a film I think is a bit overrated — at least until the final reel it’s Hammer Studios being unexpectedly Val Lewtonesque in keeping the menace off screen and suggesting its presence with sound effects and things like plates falling off shelves and walls shaking, but at the end they bring out a visible monster that looks like a piece of cotton candy floating in space — and it suffers from the self-imposed challenge for writer Nigel Kneale of making an interesting movie when virtually all of it takes place in confined spaces, either an office or a hole in the ground) and a 1980 Italian-German co-production called Contamination, whose producer, co-writer and director, billed as “Lewis Coates” but really Luigi Cozzi, frankly intended the movie to be seen as an unaIuthorized sequel to the 1979 film Alien and even originally called it Alien Arrives on Earth

This one begins in New York City, with the twin towers of the World Trade Center (you remember) vividly visible in the background, with the arrival of a derelict ship called the Caribbean Lady. The ship steams into New York harbor with no visible living crew members on board, and its only cargo is boxes of something called “Café UniverX” which is supposed to be coffee (the script makes a big deal about the “X” not only being capitalized but in a different font from the rest of the name). Only four guys in haz-mat suits (which at least meant the people who prepared the English-language edition could dub them easily without worrying about synchronizing lip movements, a task that eluded them when the film featured dialogue by people whose faces were visible) go into the ship’s hold and find its captain and three other crew members afflicted by a strange, hitherto unknown disease that literally blows up its victims’ organs from inside, Cozzi a.k.a. “Coates” having decided that if the famous scene in Alien in which the alien bursts out of the victim’s chest scared the living daylights out of millions of moviegoers around the world, he could go Ridley Scott one better and have a human’s entire guts blow up inside him and splatter blood and gore across the screen. Alas, even the first time this shot is too disgusting and gross to be genuinely scary, and it pales by repetition. 

The authorities eventually find out the reason this is happening is that those mysterious boxes contain, not coffee, but giant green pulsating things that look like enormous avocados (a comparison actually made in the dialogue) and, when they get warm, explode and release a silicon-based bacterium that causes humans to spill their guts — literally — and then croak. Three of the haz-mat guys die of the bacterium when one of the “eggs” (the term used for them through most of the movie even though one of the pickier scientist characters protests that it’s inaccurate) rolls under a radiator, which explodes it and starts the disease. The one who survives is a New York City police detective named Tony Aris (Marino Masé), and he teams up with the leader of the homeland security (or whatever they called it in 1980) team, Col. Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau, who actually turns in the film’s most interesting performance), to investigate the mysterious deaths and find out what’s up with that derelict ship and that oddball cargo. Col. Holmes ultimately traces it to a previous expedition in which two astronauts, Ian Hubbard (Ian McCulloch) and Hamilton (Siegfried Rauch), went to Mars — only Hubbard came back a drunken wreck and Hamilton disappeared and was presumed dead when his private plane crashed six months after he returned. Holmes and Aris find Hubbard and sober him up enough to accompany them on a trip to Colombia, where the “coffee” shipments originated, and they trace the UniverX plantation and find, predictably, it’s been turned into a giant operation to pack more eggs and send them out all over the world to annihilate the human population so the silicon-based beings who plotted all this out can take over Earth. 

What’s more, it turns out that Hamilton and his girlfriend and co-conspirator Perla de la Cruz (Gisela Hahn) are running the operation, and just when you begin to wonder why a human like Hamilton would be administering an operation that will render the human race extinct, his vocal register changes and it’s revealed he’s really one of the aliens who’s taken Hamilton’s form in order to lead the operation. Eventually the good guys are able to destroy the eggs either by freezing them or burning them up with a flame-thrower (a major plot hole; if the eggs are hatched by heating them, isn’t applying a flame thrower to them the last thing you’d want to do?), until at the very end it seems like earth is saved — until one of those horrible open-ended non-endings intervenes and we see, in sight of the World Trade Center, an egg on the streets of New York City exploding and spewing forth its bacteria. (This made me wonder why Luigi Cozzi didn’t return to this material after 9/11 and concoct a sequel in which the World Trade Center towers are brought down by alien bacteria and the aliens only fake it to look like a terror attack.) Contamination might have been a better movie if “Coates” and co-writer Erich Tomek hadn’t inserted all the gory scenes, if they hadn’t put in all the sexual (and sexist) by-play between Hubbard and Aris as to who would get to go to bed with Col. Holmes (neither, as it turned out — good for her! — though it was a bit disappointing to see Aris get eaten by one of the monsters in the closing scenes since I was hoping he would pair up with Holmes and Hubbard would fall back into his gutter), and if the whole thing hadn’t been beset by a typical bad-movie air of tackiness. It’s the sort of film that it’s hard to put your finger on just what went wrong, but nothing really goes right either.