Saturday, February 23, 2008

16th June 2007: "Crime Does Pay" double


USA 1945 b&w

Director Edgar G. Ulmer Writer Martin Goldsmith

Cast Tom Neal (Al Roberts), Ann Savage (Vera), Claudia Drake (Sue Harvey), Edmund MacDonald (Charles Haskell Jr)

Some films were destined to be the bottom of a double bill. They’re called B films, the companion feature to the A-film, usually clocking it at just over an hour so that it’s a pleasant time waster before the main attraction.

As fate would have it, some B-films take on a life of their own - somewhere amongst the threadbare budget and skidrow cast there lies an inadvertant masterpiece. It’s not always apparant at the time, and tends to get lost in the endless shuffle to get product onto screens. Even decades later, like Nazi gold they remain waiting to be discovered.

Detour is one such film. A taut, complex thriller made in 1945 by B specialist Edgar G. Ulmer, the film has rightly joined the ranks of other film noir classics. Tom Neal plays musician on the verge of a breakdown Al Roberts, the quintessential genre everyman who, after his girlfriend leaves him for a better gig on the West Coast, packs in his grief-hole and starts to hitch hike to California. He gets a lift from a guy named Haskell who, after telling him about a hitchhiking dame who left him with scratches across his body, dies of a heart attack. He buries Haskell and takes on his clothing and his car; Ann Savage plays Vera, the dame with the claws, who Al picks up and between them they hatch a plot using Al’s fake identity to make it rich. All of which is told in flashbacks - we never know if it’s a real memory or not, and therein lies the film’s power to crawl under the skin and lay the eggs of confusion, paranoia and despair.

Tom Neal and Ann Savage make one of the screen’s most reprehensible couples; with Al as the pitiful submissive loser and Vera the castrating succubus, their overwrought dialogue almost crawls off the screen in disgust. But it’s this very “how low can you go” quality that nails you to the screen. Detour may have taken Ulmer just six days to film, but it will take you a lot longer to get the sheer loathing and degradation from your memory. For a Poverty Row production, it’s astounding it’s so good. Like the old tagline from Miracle Pictures: “If it’s a good picture, it’s a Miracle.”

Tom Neal was a tragic figure in real life who after a series of public brawls and very public failed marriages, was charged in 1965 for emptying the contents of his gun into his sleeping wife. The charge was manslaughter and he served six years, but barely made it 2 years out of prison before passing away of a heart attack. He was clearly a man brimming with inner demons, and this conflict is so perfectly expressed in Neal’s on-screen disintegration.

“He went searching for love... but Fate forced a DETOUR to Revelry... Violence... Mystery!” It’s time to stop hitching, ‘cause your lift has arrived. It’s Tom Neal, Ann Savage and director Edgar G. Ulmer behind the steering wheel for the 1945 B noir masterpiece Detour.

The Godfather Squad

Hong Kong/Italy 1974 colour

aka Little Godfather, Little Godfather Of Hong Kong, Little Godfather From Hong Kong, Godfather Of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Godfather, Kung Fu Executioners

Director Ng See-Yuen

Cast “Bruce Liang”/Siu Lung (Wang Liu), Gordon Mitchell (Duke Carro), Shirley Corrigan (Lilly), Maria D’Incoronato (Ivy), “Yasuaki”/Shoji Kurata (Kurata), Consalvo Dell’Arti, Mung Hei, Mario Cutini, Fan Yue

One of many Hong Kong/European co-productions from the glorious two year period after Enter The Dragon and the untimely death of its star Bruce Lee made kung fu films the soup du jour. Ng See-Yuen, a former executive for Shaw Brothers, branched off as an independent producer and director, and helped propel the career of many an action star including Jackie Chan. His first protoge however was a Bruce Lee-alike called Bruce Liang or Bruce Leong, a competent performer and exceptional martial artist who would grace the screens in such Bruceploitation classics as The Clones Of Bruce Lee and The Dragon Lives Again.

One of Liang’s first starring roles was 1974’s The Godfather Squad aka Little Godfather From Hong Kong, a predictably opportunist move by Ng See-Yuen to capitalize on both the kung fu AND mafia craze following the success of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. And where else would you film a Godfather ripoff but in Rome? Liang plays a famous kung fu actor called Wang Lui (known for some reason as the “Little Godfather of Hong Kong” but referred to mostly as “Mr Wong”) who interrupts a hit on an Interpol agent. He becomes a world-wide media sensation, and before long is invited to Rome to star in a film called “The Death of Kung Fu”. But despite a gorgeous co-star Lilly (Shirley Corrigan) and cute blonde assistant Miss Ivy (Maria D’Incoronato), the film is just a pretext by Carro, a professional mob killer with three demented sons and the Interpol contract, to lure Liang to his demise. After his brother is hit by Carro, Liang drags along his annoying little brother Stone across Rome on a brutal and at times quite bloodthirsty revenge spree to dispatch the Family. Here’s a tip for would-be gansters: the Family that eats pasta kills a lot faster.

Technically The Godfather Squad is as rough and choppy as a thousand kung fu capers from the 70s, but worth the price of admission alone to see former muscleman and one-time Hercules Gordon Mitchell as Carro’s adopted son Duke, the son of an SS officer whose cruel face, wide eyes, ludicrous German accent and Gestapo hat tries to out-Kinski Klaus baby in the uber-psycho stakes. About Duke, Carro recalls fondly, “One day he killed two Negroes. He came home as if nothing had happened, and I knew he was the type of son I’d be proud of."

But it’s not bad as most B-Grade kung fu nonsense. The schizophrenic soundtrack’s an enjoyably mixed bag of crazed surf music, prog-rock, snatches of spaghetti western operas and even the opening strains of the Theme From Shaft! The 2000 year-old Ancient Rome backdrop adds to the film’s cosmopolitan feel, and even the Pope makes an appearance in front of a crowded St Peter’s Square while Carro’s youngest would-be assassin is brandishing a pistol - imagine getting away with a stunt like THAT today. And watch for the most outrageous continuity flaw in the film’s end fight scene: Liang and Carro’s other adopted son Kurata (Yasuaki Kurata) fight their way from the middle of Rome to a snowfield within 15 seconds. You can’t blame THAT on a secret tunnel under the Vatican. Or can you? They’ll probably take the secret to their graves. Oh, and another tip: stay away from the Panda. It’s deadly.

It’s more Crapola than Coppola, and certainly not a classic, but an interesting East-meets-West hybrid in the Bruceploitation canon nevertheless.

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