Classic ‘Rashomon’ kicks off Kurosawa tribute at the Crest

By Mike Wilmington

Akira Kurosawa of Japan is the “sensei” (or master): a genius of filmmaking and the father of the modern action-adventure movie.

Rashomon poster largeHe was one of the three giants of the Japanese Cinema’s Golden Age (with Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi). He was also a devotee of American action cinema, of film noir and of American Westerns, especially the films of his friend and mentor John Ford.

Kurosawa pioneered an explosive, ingenious cinematic style of multiple camera use and rapid-fire editing that went beyond Ford and revolutionized action moviemaking, enormously influencing Sam Peckinpah (“The Wild Bunch”), Arthur Penn (“Bonnie and Clyde”), Sergio Leone (“A Fistful of Dollars,” a remake of “Yojimbo”), John Sturges (“The Magnificent Seven,” a remake of “Seven Samurai”), Don Siegel (“Dirty Harry”), Clint Eastwood (“The Outlaw Josey Wales”) and many others.

High and Low posterBut Kurosawa’s incandescent scenes of violence do not exist in a moral void. Instead, the sensei’s films are infused with a truly adult and humane perspective on life, a mature observation of character and humanity, and a deep sense of the tragedy that faces us all.

Kurosawa has his cinematic peers: Bergman, Fellini, Renoir, Hitchcock, Welles. But he has no superiors, not even his idol John Ford. His films are, like Kurosawa himself, matchless.

You can see five of them on the big screen at the Crest Theater in Westwood during a monthlong tribute to Akira Kurosawa as a part of their salute to foreign filmmakers. The theater will screen one of Kurosawa’s samurai classics every Sunday at 5 p.m. The schedule is as follows:

Sunday, March 1: “Rashomon” – 1950 (1 hr. 28m) The legendary classic about four contradictory views of a murder: the film masterpiece that put Kurosawa, and Japanese cinema, on the international map.

Seven Samurai poster

Seven Samurai poster

Sunday, March 8: “The Hidden Fortress” – 1958 (2 hr. 6m) The most comical of Kurosawa’s samurai adventure epics, about a warrior who helps rescue a princess. One of the films that most inspired  “Star Wars.”

Sunday, March 15: “High and Low” – 1963 (2 hr. 23m) Inspired by an American crime novel by Ed McBain, this great film noir is about a kidnapping and a businessman who will lose everything if he pays the ransom.

Sunday, March 22: “Yojimbo” – 1961 (1 hr. 50m) The great samurai film, revolving around a cynical warrior who plays both sides in a town feud against each other.

Sunday, March 29: “Seven Samurai” – 1954 (3 hr. 27m) Seven gutsy independent samurai, led by an idealistic veteran warrior, defend a village against vicious marauding bandits. One of the greatest and most exciting films ever made.

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Happy New Year, everyone!

Hope you had a decadent time bidding farewell to 2014 and that 2015 will be darkly delightful.

We took a little time off over the holidays to unplug and reconnect with family and friends. Now we’re back and looking forward to a new slate of noir news and events.

First up:  Wednesday, Jan. 7, is Fyodor Dostoyevsky night on TCM, featuring film versions of four dark Russian classics and the talents of film noir stalwart Robert Siodmak among many others.

Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner star in 1949’s “The Great Sinner,” directed by Robert Siodmak.

Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner star in 1949’s “The Great Sinner,” directed by Robert Siodmak.

(8 p.m. EST and 5 p.m. PST): “The Brothers Karamazov” (1958, Richard Brooks). An ultimate dysfunctional family – as portrayed by evil dad Lee J. Cobb and warring brothers Yul Brynner, Richard Basehart, William Shatner and Albert Salmi – clash in Brooks’ adaptation of what may be Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece. The beautiful Grushenka, the part that Marilyn Monroe (a big reader) called her dream role, is played here by Maria Schell.

10:45 p.m. (7:45 p.m.): “Crime and Punishment” (1935, Josef von Sternberg). With Peter Lorre, Edward Arnold and Marian Marsh. Reviewed in FNB on April 9, 2013.

12:30 a.m. (9:30 p.m.): “The Great Sinner” (1949, Robert Siodmak). In real life, Dostoyevsky was a compulsive gambler and this version of his tense short novel “The Gambler,” scripted by novelist Christopher Isherwood, stars Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Melvyn Douglas, Ethel Barrymore and Walter Huston. Reviewed in FNB on Sept. 11, 2014.

2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “The Idiot”/ “Hakuchi” (1951, Akira Kurosawa). Kurosawa lovingly adapts his favorite writer’s famed novel, with a brilliant Japanese cast that includes Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori (as Prince Myshkin, the “idiot”), Setsuko Hara and Takashi Shimura. (In Japanese, with subtitles.)

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Director William Friedkin reveals the father of film noir

Mystery writer Georges Simenon “probably invented film noir,” said Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin on Thursday at a tribute to the famed Belgian author. The panel discussion and cocktail party at the W Hotel in Hollywood was hosted by Georges Simenon Ltd. and the Ile de France Film Commission.

An image from the Simenon tribute invitation

One of the best-selling writers of the 20th century, Simenon (1903-89) was uncommonly prolific – he produced 191 novels and 160 short stories, in addition to other writing.

His spare, minimalist crime stories (particularly his tales of the pipe-smoking café-frequenting Inspector Jules Maigret) clicked with millions of readers and the likes of William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jean Renoir, Claude Chabrol and Akira Kurosawa.

Simenon’s work inspired 70 feature films and 500 hours of TV worldwide.

“I started reading Simenon around the time I made ‘The French Connection,’ ” said Friedkin. “I certainly was influenced by his writing. He’s thought of as a thriller writer but he defies genre. The ‘romans durs’ [tough novels] were the ones that most resonated with me. They’re so simple and yet complex in their portrayal of character.”

Friedkin pointed to “The Man on the Eiffel Tower” (1949, Burgess Meredith) as one of the most exciting Simenon adaptations. Based on the novel “A Battle of Nerves” and starring Charles Laughton as Maigret, Friedkin said the scene in a crowded restaurant as the murderer and detective get into a heated talk amid ever-louder violins is “absolutely magnificent and may be my favorite scene in the movies.”

(More of Friedkin’s cinematic influences and inspirations likely will be revealed in his forthcoming book, “The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir,” which he confirmed at the party is scheduled for publication in March 2013.)

Joining Friedkin on the panel were John Simenon (one of the author’s sons), scriptwriter John Brian King and Olivier-René Veillon of the Ile de France Film Commission.

John Simenon confirmed that his father’s friendships with cops, criminals and doctors (he also read medical journals regularly) lent his work a gritty authenticity. Furthering the inventor-of-film-noir description, Veillon explained that the city of Paris, which was radically rebuilt and modernized in the 1860s according to Baron Haussmann’s vision, served as a gift to artists, especially Simenon.

“All the characters are defined by their location and their relationship with the city,” Veillon said. Just as the reconceived Paris and its denizens provided rich fodder for Simenon’s imagination, his fiction is ripe for new adaptations on screen.

Friedkin also asked John Simenon to recount his relationship with his father. “He was demanding in terms of how to conduct yourself and how to be a man. But he was there and he was very present, much more present than many fathers are today and more present than I can be for my son.”

Georges Simenon, 1963, by Erling Mandelmann.

One of the first questions from the audience came from a sly Brit, who wanted to know the secrets to Simenon’s sex life, referencing the notion that Simenon was one of the great Casanovas of his time and claimed to have slept with 10,000 women.

First noting that he had not inherited this trait, John Simenon said this comment was “totally overblown” and “more of a joke” stemming from a reported conversation with director Federico Fellini. Between his work, his children and his love for food and cooking, that much bed-hopping would have been a mighty scheduling challenge.

His personal life aside, one of the most important women Georges Simenon knew was the French novelist Colette (1873-1954), whom he met early in his career and who advised him to eschew the literary, to cut his stories to the bone.

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Kubrick creates his defining template with ‘The Killing’

The Killing/1956/United Artists/85 min.

A DVD copy of “The Killing” from Criterion is this month’s Film Noir Blonde reader giveaway. Newly digitally restored, the two-disc set contains many extras, including Kubrick’s 1955 noir, “Killer’s Kiss,” also reviewed below.

By Michael Wilmington

It takes guts and brains to pull the perfect heist. Or to shoot the perfect heist movie.

In 1956, at the age of 28, Stanley Kubrick, a New Yorker who grew up in the Bronx, traveled to Hollywood and San Francisco to direct the movie that would not only make his reputation but would provide the template – the clockwork nightmare with humans caught in the machinery – that defines most of the films he made from then on.

A Kubrick self-portrait, 1950

Those later films include acknowledged masterpieces: “Paths of Glory” (1957), “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964), “2001: a Space Odyssey” (1968), “A Clockwork Orange” (1971). But none of them is more brilliantly designed or more perfectly executed than that inexpensive film, “The Killing.”

Kubrick and nonpareil pulp novelist Jim Thompson (“The Killer Inside Me”) wrote the script, based on Lionel White’s neatly plotted crime novel “Clean Break.” The great cinematographer Lucien Ballard (“The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond”) photographed the film.

That cast – a Who’s Who of noir types – includes Sterling Hayden (“The Asphalt Jungle”), Coleen Gray (“Kiss of Death”), Elisha Cook, Jr. (“The Maltese Falcon”), Marie Windsor (“The Narrow Margin”), Ted De Corsia (“The Naked City”), Timothy Carey (“Crime Wave”), James Edwards (“The Phenix City Story”), Joe Sawyer (“Deadline at Dawn”), Vince Edwards (“Murder by Contract”), Jay Adler (“Sweet Smell of Success”) and Jay C. Flippen (“They Live By Night”).

Perhaps inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 art-house classic “Rashomon,” Kubrick’s movie repeatedly circles back to the fictional Lansdowne race track (actually the Bay Meadows in San Francisco) during a fictional race. It’s a “jumbled jigsaw puzzle,” as one character calls it, that will supposedly end with a $2 million score of Lansdowne’s Saturday gambling receipts.

Immaculately orchestrated by a brusque criminal mastermind named Johnny Clay (Hayden), the heist kicks off when crack rifleman Nikki Arcane (Carey), shoots the favorite, Red Lightning, from a parking lot outside the track, at one of the turns. Thanks to Johnny, the robbery has been cleverly designed and planned to the last detail with each of the participants keenly aware of his part, executing it with precision and together getting away with the cash.

But like almost all great movie heists, like the robberies in “Rififi” and “The Asphalt Jungle” and “Le Cercle Rouge,” the one in “The Killing” has to unravel. And it does. The flaw in this system is the dysfunctional marriage between mousy cashier George (Cook, Jr., in his archetypal role) and George’s lazily sexy, unfaithful wife Sherry (Windsor, in hers).

Vince Edwards and Marie Windsor as the lovers.

George, desperate to keep his wayward wife interested, hints at an upcoming windfall. Sherry shares the leak with loverboy Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) – that has to be one of the great adulterous boyfriend movie names – and we can feel doom coming up fast on the outside.

The show clicked. It conquered audiences, especially critics. “The Killing” was immediately hailed by many as a classic of its kind, the very model of a high-style, low-budget thriller. “Kubrick is a giant,” said Orson Welles and it was the young Welles, of “Citizen Kane,” to whom the young Kubrick was most often compared.

If anything, his third feature’s reputation has grown over the years, as has the stature of the type of movie it embodies: the lean, swift, shadowy, cynical, hard-boiled crime genre we call film noir.

Also includes: “Killer’s Kiss”/1955/United Artists/67 min. This was Kubrick’s second feature and his first collaboration with producer James Harris. One of the most gorgeous-looking B movies ever, Kubrick shot in a style that effortlessly mixes the street-scene poetic realism of movies like “Little Fugitive” and “On the Waterfront” with film noir expressionism.

Jamie Smith plays a boxer in "Killer's Kiss."

But Kubrick’s script is subpar, mostly in the dialogue. It creaks, while his cinematography soars. A nearly washed-up boxer (Jamie Smith) falls in love with the woman across the courtyard (Irene Kane, aka Chris Chase), a dance hall girl who’s tyrannized by her obsessively smitten gangster boss (Frank Silvera).

The story sounds trite and that’s how it plays. But Silvera is good and the classy visuals give “Killer’s Kiss” a power that holds you. All Kubrick needed was a writer and a cast, and in “The Killing,” he got them.

Stanley Kubrick photo from Vanity Fair, courtesy of the Look Magazine Photograph Collection/The Library of Congress.

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