Category Archives: cinema

A little-known 1944 Warner Brothers look at Nazi occupation of France

I had no expectations going into watching the 1944 “Uncertain Glory,” directed by Raoul Walsh, starring Errol Flynn and Paul Lukas. I am a Paul Lukas fan, have mixed reactions to Errol Flynn on screen, and to Raoul Walsh films. IMO “White Heat” (1949) guaranteed immortality for Walsh; The Douglas Fairbanks Sr. “Thief of Baghdad,” “They Drive by Night,” “Strawberry Blonde,”High Sierra,” and “Capt. Horatio Hornblower R.N.” solidify the position, though there are many lesser accomplishments.


Flynn wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, and “Uncertain Glory” provided a rare role of complexity, not neglecting his charm and womanizing, but also showing a sometimes coward. The viewer does not learn of the crimes that led Jean Picard to the guillotine at the start, where after having his collar cut away, a British bomber aiming at the next-door Renault factory allows an escape. Given the character of his long-time pursuer, Inspector Marcel Bonet (Lukas, initially seeming to have the monomania of Javert relentless pursuing Jean Valjiean in Les Miserables) it seems impossible to believe that Jean was not guilty of the crimes that led to guillotine.

Bonet rather quickly captures him again in the south (Lyon). Saboteurs have just blown up a bridge that a Nazi troop train was costing, and the Nazis have announced that they will slay a hundred locals if the saboteur is not caught. Among the ironies is that he is caught, but rescue by Bonet’s credentials. Jean convinces Bonet to let him be shot by the Nazis instead of being guillotined, saving the hundred innocent hostages. Though Bonet accepts the offer, he is very unsure that Jean will go through it after enjoying three days of freedom, which include a romance with a local girl (dancer Jean Sullivan) who looked like Jennifer Jones of that era to me. There are other complications, most notably the villagers wanting to pin the sabotage on the stranger (Jean), though the stern local priest (Dennis Hoey) forbids this de factp murder by French people of the stranger.


As in probably all Hollywood movies about Nazi occupation, the sneering Nazis are a step behind the French police, who are a step behind Bonet.

Sid Hickox was DP, and the film has a very Warner Brothers look (not quite noir). There is not much action, but the relationship enacted by Flynn and Lukas is interesting, and the propaganda is muted examination of troubled consciences. Except, perhaps, for the premise shared with the 1944 Bogart vehicle “Passage to Marseilles” (and to some degree also of the 1942 “Casablanca”)of criminals sacrificing themselves for la patrie.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray



Thwarted Europeans in two films directed by Luchino Visconti and one by Sidney Lumet

With its melodrama amped up by the use of Bruckner’s very heavy Seventh Symphony, Luchino Visconti’s “Senso” (1954) is quite slow, running more than two hours. Alida Valli played a countess who is easily ensnared by a handsome but caddis Austrian lieutenant, Franz Mahler (Farley Granger). She is slow to realize that he is using her (to get money) while she throws away everything for her Great Love. When finally he decisively humiliates her, she uses her position. She does not seem to care what will happen to her after she has avenged herself (and the movie ends).

Granger and Valli spoke to each other in English during shooting. They were dubbed into Italian, as was standard practice for Italian movie-making. Criterion found a version in English (and German), that was shortened by half an hour. Granger’s performance is more compelling in his own English. Valli had made movies in English (most notably “The Third Man”) and was also more affecting in English, though watching “The Wanton Countess” showed me that she does not speak very much. Also, she sounds like Ingrid Bergman, to whom the part had been offered (when she was being monopolized by Roberto Rossellini; the first choice for her lover was Marlon Brando; the Italian producers thought that Granger was going to be a bigger star than Brando…).

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The Criterion edition includes a making-of feature that does not even mention the dialogue credited to Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles. It does get into the outrage of the Italian government about the portrayal of the “Italian army” before there was an Italy, and what a martinet Visconti was on-set. The opening scene in La Fenice was supposed to feature Maria Callas in an excerpt (obviously a different one) from “Il Trovatore,” but she was in America when it was shot and it was Pasolini rather than Visconti who made a film starring her (Medea). Having just watched the Visconti documentary on the “Ludwig” disc, I didn’t watch the British one (“Man of Three Worlds,” which I think I’ve seen before) on the “Senso” one, nor find out what Peter Cowie (whom I find insufferable) had to say about “Senso” and Visconti.


I also watched again the ponderous (238-minute) 1973 “Ludwig” in which most scenes run on too long. Helmust Berger plays the Bavarian king who is an enigma to himself (why his subjects like him is another mystery; he cared not at all about them). Though he eventually marries (Sophie), his loves are Richard Wagner (played by Trevor Howard), and “Sisi” (the Empress Elisabeth), the wife of the Hapsburg emperor. Romy Schneider could be imperious, but was compassionate for her cousin Ludwig.


The post-dubbing bothered me in “Ludwig,” too. I can understand an Italian release dubbed in Italian, but I think a version in German should have been the international version. Berger and Schneider, as well as supporting players Gert Fröbe, Heinz Moog, and Helmut Griem) were native speakers of German. (BTW, Visconti wanted Laurence Olivier to play Wagner, though I don’t think he would have done better; Richard Burton, maybe, though I have not seen his Wagner (a ten-part, 300-minute miniseries).)

Bavarian reactionaries protested the revelation of homoerotic inclinations of Ludwig, and an hour of the film was cut (then another hour). I doubt that either made the cuts in scene length I think should have been made.


I went on to watch an also slow-moving lethal romance, “The Appointment” (1969), set mostly in Rome. It looks and feels European and stars Omar Shrif (Egyptian) and Anouk Aimée (born in Paris). It was written by James Salter and directed by Sidney Lumet, both Americans and not generally interested in romances. In general, Sharif was likeable and bland, Aimée sphinxlike (elusive). Here Sharif, tormented by jealousy and possessiveness, is not likeable, if not a villain, Aimée inarticulate but relatively sympathetic. Even Lotte Lenya as an antique dealer who is also a supplier of high-end prostitutes, is sympathetic (not like the Stasi agent Lenya played in “From Russian with Love”).


Aimée’s character was a model for a fashion house. The haute couture shows that the fashion disaster that was the 1970s began earlier! I did not like Aimée’s reddish hair or Sharif’s severely cropped mustache either. He did, however, look totally groomed and tailored.

“The Appointment” was Salter’s first screenplay, followed by “Downhill Racer” (also released in 1969, from the novel by Oakley Hall).

©2018, Stephen O. Murray



“It is a shameful thing to win a war”

In one of the bonus features on the Cohen DVD of “La Pelle” (The Skin, 1981), writer-director Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter) contends that Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957, né Kurt Erich Suckert) was a reporter — indeed, a great reporter — rather than a novelist (though Kaput (1944) is somewhat fictionalized). She noted that even the most grotesque events in The Skin were accounts of things that occurred, indeed, recurred in Naples after the Nazis left and the Americans took over. In (1983) essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe” novelist Milan Kundera, focused on Kaputt, wrote: “It is strange, yes, but understandable: for this reportage is something other than reportage; it is a literary work whose aesthetic intention is so strong, so apparent, that the sensitive reader automatically excludes it from the context of accounts brought to bear by historians, journalists, political analysts, memoirists.”


(Malparte in internal exile on Lipari, 1936)

The Skin (first published in 1949, quickly added to the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum) has lots and lots of dialogue in French. The scenes go on and on and on and do not seem to cohere into even a baggy novel. The dialogue between liaison officer Malaparte and the naïve colonel, Jack Hanmilton, who is eager to be a good guy, include many lectures about human nature in general and that of a starving conquered people in particular. The welcome of “liberators” was short-lived, and without selling their flesh and that of their children (Cavani only shows boys being pawed over by Moroccan soldiers; Malaparte wrote about very young girls as well as boys being sold for food or a few liras.) I don’t think the boyish colonel from Cleveland ever grasps that the Neapolitans regard him and the soldiers expecting cheap thrills regard their new rulers as not very different than the Nazis who ruled Naples before the Americans arrived or the fascists who ruled before that. Each successive regime required resourcefulness from those wanting to survive—and acquiescence to the prostitution or rape of women and children. Lecturing the Johnnies-come-lately, Malaparte said “You’ve no idea what a man will do, what deeds of heroism and infamy he can accomplish, to save his skin . . . They think they are fighting and suffering to save their souls, but in reality they are fighting and suffering to save their skins, and their skins alone.”


The movie replaces the colonel with 3-star general Mark Cork (a slight variant on Mark Clark), a publicity-eager commander of the 5th US Army annoyed by the arrival of the wife of a Massachusetts senator. Deborah Wyatt (Romanian-born Alexandra King in the only role in IMDB) is a pilot who flies her own plane in from Sicily. Malaparte plays Vergil to her Dante (though Malaparte is the one who writes about the post-apocalyptic reality).

Malaparte is urbane past the line of cynicism, but with compassion for the Americans as well as for the Neapolitans. Wyatt is another American unwilling to recognize the reality of either the locals’ desperation or the rapaciousness of the GIs. After she boards a truck filled with GIs and is manhandled she has had enough of occupation reality and goes home, much to the relief of Gen. Cork.

Malaparte shrugs in the Mastroianni manner. He has his villa on the coast of Capri and noble friends including the Principessa Consuelo Caracciolo, a mostly wasted Claudia Cardinale. (In none of the bonus features does Cavani comment on Cardinale’s reduced part. She enthuses about the graciousness and helpfulness of Mastroianni and Lancaster, however.)

Villa Malaparte

(Villa Malaparte, Capri)

Captain Jimmy Wren (Ken Marshall [Krull]) falls in love with the professional virgin (who displays her intact hymen to lines of soldiers for a price collected by her father) and retains some of his good cheer and eagerness to help Maria Concetta (Liliana Tari) and her light-fingered younger brother.

Malaparte does not call out hypocrisy, even while showing the deleterious effects of American naiveté mixed with self-righteousness: “No one on this earth save the Americans can move about with such easy, smiling grace among people who are filthy, starved and unhappy. It is not a sign of insensibility: it is a sign of optimism and at the same time of innocence,” he explains. “The Americans are not cynics, they are optimistic and optimism is itself a sign of innocence. He who is blameless in thought and deed is led not to deny that evil exists, but to refuse to admit that evil is inevitable and incurable. The Americans believe that misery, hunger, pain and everything else can be combatted, that men can recover from misery, hunger, and pain, that there is a remedy for all evil. They do not know that evil is incurable.”

Both book and movie show the American soldiers going all out to aid Neaoplitans after Mount Vesuvius erupts and a cloud of ashes fall on Naples. There is a great bit in the book in which American planes attack a could of molten particles before it can blow over the city. There is something crazy about machine-gunning a cloud so that it will drop what it is carrying, but the real folie de grandeur is plane that approaches too close, is sucked in, and explodes. The explosion results in the fall of the molten material over the sea. Before the advent of CGI, I assume that the scene was too expensive to try to film.

Concerned that American audiences would not accept a portrayal of “the greatest generation” as anything less than noble (well after “Catch-22” and “M*A*S*H”) led Warner Brothers to back out the contract to release “The Skin,” which never had a US theatrical release (though eventually receiving a splendid 2014 DVD with a commentary track and various bonus feature interviews of Cavani and set designer Dante Ferretti).

Not least for scaling back the portrayals of African American sex fiends and libertine homosexual communists (admittedly a switch from blaming fascism on homosexuals), but also in bringing out narrative lines, I think the movie is better than the book. I still think the greatest portrait of desperation in “liberated” Naples is the section of Roberto Rosselini’s “Paisa” in which an African American’s shoes are stolen and he follows the young thief to the cavern where hundreds of Neapolitans are living. Malaparte also reported the hunting of horny African Americans to rob, and with a greater taste for Grand Guignol, what Malaparte wrote fit with Norman Lewis’s more detached (and less probing) Naples 44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy (1978) and John Horne Burns’s more sentimental 1947 American best-seller The Gallery. (It seems to me that Malaparte was less harsh about the Americans than Burns, btw.)

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Aside from the universal practice of post-dubbing dialogue rather than shooting with sound (so that even the Italians’ lines are out of synch with lip movement; Mastroianni allegedly spoke English in scenes with Lancaster and Marshall), there is the oddity of lines in Italian being translated (by Malaparte) into Italian. I don’t see why an international release could not have had the Americans speak English and the Italians speak Italians (it’s not like “The Leopard” in which Lancaster was playing a Sicilian character…).

Malaparte, who had marched on Rome with Mussolini in 1922 and had official backing from various periodicals, was ejected from the Fascist Party in 1933, and jailed and/or sent into internal exile multiple times before landing a position as Italian Liberation Corps Liaison Officer to the American High Command in Italy from November 1943 to March 1946. Consistently sympathizing with authoritarians, he flirted with the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian Communist Party (though continuing to look askance at homosexual communists) and at the time of his death was enthusiastic about Mao, who was engaged in the famine-productng disaster of “the Great Leap Forward.” Malaparte’s will left his villa on Capri to the PRC, though his family succeeded in contesting the will.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

“The book was better than the movie”? Often, but not always.

Back to back as it were, I read Cursio Malaparte’s The Skin (La Pelle) and saw the movie adaptation made by Liliana Cavani (best known for directing “Night Porter”). I much preferred the movie, which mutes the racism, the seemingly endless dialogue in French, and the attitudinizing while showing the most grotesque scenes of the book. (The Neapolitans do not look starving, which is what drove them to sell their bodies and those of their children in reality and in what Malaparte wrote, however).


Cavani also directed the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripleys Game, which I prefer to the book. I also prefer Alfred Hitchcock’s version of her Strangers on a Train, and Anthony Minghella’s of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Wim Wenders’s of Ripley’s Game (as “The American Friend” with Bruno Gang and Dennis Hopper).

André Aciman did not quite say that the movie adaptation of his novel Call Me By Your Name was better than his book, but he did say that someone who was going to see the movie and read the book should see the movie first, and reported that the image of the house in the movie has driven out whatever he was thinking about when writing about it and that he now sees and hears the actors (Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer) when reading his dialogue. I suspect that this will be true for me when I get around to seeing the movie.


Both movie adaptations of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy strike me as better than the book. The young Elizabeth Taylor is a goddess with whom the shrewish (but then-attractive) Shelly Winters has no chance of competing with for the favor of Montgomery Clift. (I have not read Sister Carrie, but am pretty sure I’d prefer the movie “Carrie” with Jennifer Jones and Laurence Olivier to Dreiser’s novel. I have also not read Franz Werfel’s novel on which Jones’s Oscar-winning performance in “The Song of Bernadette” is based, but would surely see Jones if I ever tried to read it.)

Fred Zinnemann’s multiple award-winning “From Here to Eternity,” despite the censorship that turned Donna Reed’s character form being a prostitute into being a taxi-hall dancer (and also interfered with Deborah Kerr’s character) is definitely better than the book. I’m pretty sure the movie “Some Came Running” is also better than Jones’s book, though I have not read it.

Zinnemann also directed “Member of the Wedding,” the movie version of which is superior to Carson McCullers’s novel. Julie Harris is astounding in it, not least for playing a prepubescent girl when she was 27. Harris was in John Huston’s movie of McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, though what makes the movie stand out are the performances of Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando.

Huston made some bad movies based on esteemed books (Roots of Heaven, for instance). His final movie, based on James Joyce’s “The Dead” seems at least as good as the novella to me. And earlier movies that surpass their source material include The Maltese Falcon (novel by Dashiell Hammett) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (novel by B. Traven). (I haven’t read Prizzis Honor, but enjoy the movie Huston directed of it.) Also chalk up Huston’s movies of Arthur Miller’s The Misfits and C.S. Forester’s The African Queen as superior to their original source material.

Plus Billy Wilder’s version of Raymond Chandler’s Double Indemnity, as well as Luchino Visconti’s 1943 (Ossessione) version, the Lana Turner/John Garfield version of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and both the Joan Crawford vehicle and the more recent miniseries of Cain’s Mildred Pierce.

I liked William Wyler’s pas-de-deux of John Fowles’s The Collector and Jessamyne West’s Friendly Persuasion. Whether his multiple Oscar-winning “Ben Hur” is worse than Lew Wallace’s novel is hard to decide (not least because I read it decades ago during my childhood). Wyler’s “Carrie” I have already mentioned.

It’s been too long since I read Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth to be sure, but I suspect Wyler’s movie is better. Richard Brooks’s film of Lewis’s Elmer Gantry definitely is (with powerhouse performances by Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, and Shirley Jones).

Bette Davis was indelible in Wyler’s film based on Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter,” and I also prefer the 2000 Philip Haas film based on Maugham’s Up at the Villa. Probably also the Tyrone Power/Clifton Webb/ Anne Baxter version of The Razors Edge, a book I didn’t much like when I read it long ago. I did like Of Human Bondage, but think I prefer the book to any of the three screen versions I’ve seen.

I definitely prefer the 1939 David O. Selznick “Gone with the Wind” to Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (which I actually read once upon a time). Also John Ford’s film of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I also think both film version o Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men are outstanding.

Howard Hawks claimed that he could make a good movie from Ernest Hemingway’s worst novel. Hemingway proffered To Have and Have Not and with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Ball Hawks delivered. For that matter the later (1950) adaptation with John Garfield and Patricia Neal, “The Breaking Point,” is also superior to the book. I’d add Franklin Shaffner’s “Islands in the Stream” (1977) from the first of posthumous novels bylined “Ernest Hemingway” that he did not finish.

William Faulkner was a credited screenwriter for “To Have and to Have Not” and for “The Big Sleep,” which Hawks also directed, based on a confused novel by Raymond Chandler (also with Bogart and Bacall). Faulkner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning last novel, The Reivers, with a rakish Steve McQueen, was also an improvement over the entertaining book. And Martin Ritt’s 1958 “The Long Hot Summer” distilled from Books 3 of The Hamlet (1940) with a great cast headed by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Speaking of Angela Lansbury, John Frankenheimer’s film based on Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate belongs on my list.

I count as an admirer of the novels of Jane Austen, but not as a true “Janeite.” I’ll take Ang Lee’s 1995 “Sense and Sensibility”, Patricia Rozema’s “Mansfield Park,” and the 1940 MGM “Pride and Prejudice” (adapted by Aldous Huxley with Edna May Oliver, Greer Garson, and Laurence Olivier) over the original novels.

It’s been a long time since I read Kazantzakis’s Zorba, the Greek, but am pretty sure the movie with Anthony Quinn in the title role is at least as good.

I prefer the movies Teshigahara Hiroshi directed to the Abe Kôbô novels in all three collaborations (Pitfall, Woman in the Dune, The Face of Another). I have not read the novels on which many of my favorite Japanese movies were based, though I have written here about some great Japanese movies based on major Japanese novels.

To conclude, as much as I like the novels of E.M. Forster, I like the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala “A Room with a View” (1985), and 1987 “Maurice” at least as much as the Forster novels, and the screen adaptations by Jhabvala of her Booker Prize-winning Heat and Dust and Kaylie Jones’s memoir A Soldiers Daughter Never Cries more than the books. And there are other Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala contenders (but not David Lean’s version of the greatest E. M. Forster novel, A Passage to India).

Conclusion: I don’t think there are any surefire methods to make great movies, novel adaptations or others. A great cast and a striking look help but every actor and actress I’ve mentioned has been in bad movies, and gorgeous visuals are not enough, either. My rather free association list includes great books and mediocre ones.

John Ford — who won back-to-back Oscars for directing adaptation of big books (The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley) — said it was better to expand on a good short story than to try to prune a good novel. Others have advocated adapting bad novels, but there are successful exceptions to such admonitions, as well as many, many failures (critical and commercial).


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Two hard-to-believe 2015 films

The Argentine “El secreto de sus ojos” (co-written and directed by Juan José Campanella) won the best foreign-language film Oscar for 2009. It was updated and relocated to LA for a 2015 American version, with the title translated (without the definite article of the Spanish title) as “Secret in Their Eyes,” co-written and directed by Billy Ray (Breach, Shattered Glass). I did not think that Chewetel Ejiofor’s character, Ray Kasten, was credible (I blame the writers more than the actor). There were other even greater challenges to suspending disbelief, such as finding someone in a full Dodger Stadium, and the meeting of the suspect, the two who roughed him so that he had to be released, and the grieving mother of a daughter slain a dozen years earlier in an elevator (well on the ground floor with the mother set to go up in the elevator that has carried the other three down).


There is also an unexplained image of a cop played by Michael Kelly pouring something (I think bleach) into a burning car, and what happened to the killer.

Julia Roberts is completely deglamorized as the grieving mother (a policewoman called to the scene with Ray). I think switching the roles of Roberts and Nicole Kidman (a prosecutor for whom Ray carries a torch, even a dozen years after moving to NYC) might have helped, but IMHO there was no reason to make an American version. (The Argentine one already stretched my ability to suspend disbelief).

I did, however, like the aerial nocturnal shots of LA and, in general, the dark cinematography of Roberts’s husband (and father by her of three children), Daniel Moder. And supporting performances by Dean Morris, Joe Cole, and Alfred Molina.


It ran 111 minutes. Running even longer, the similarly opaquely titled 2015 Jia Zhanke film “Mountains May Depart” (Shan he gu ren) runs even longer (126 minutes). Alienation as well as ecstasy (at least joy) seem tied to westernization in Jia’s vision, which begins and ends with the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of the Village People’s ”Go West.” I have no doubt that the original VP song exhorted going west within North America, derived from Horace Greeley’s admonition “Go west, young man.” With an opening derived from the Soviet national anthem and the images of the Pet Shop Boys’ music video of Lenin, Red Army soldiers, etc. has a different connotation. Those dancing in rural China (Fenyang, Shanxi) probably don’t understand the lyrics, however.

Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao, is the sole dancer at the end (set in 2025), and the focus of those discoing ca. 1999 at the start. The first part of the movie is a triangle with her (her character’s name is Tao Shen) at the apex, choosing the aggressive entrepreneuer Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) over the mineworker (in the helmet department) Liangzi (Liang Jing Dong).

Fired by Zhang because he refuses to stop seeing Tao, Liangzi leaves the area and becomes a coal miner. By 2015, the second section, he has lung cancer and insufficient funds for treatment. Tao is divorced and has lost custody of her son, whom her husband named “Dollar.” Dollar, who is about nine years old, visits for the funeral of his mother’s father, then is going to move from Shanghai to Melbourne. For me, the middle section is the best part of the film.

The final part is set mostly in Melbourne. Dollar has forgotten how to speak Chinese and does not seem to be doing very well in a Beiinghua class that consists mostly of other young Chinese who have lost (or never had) command of their mother tongue. He seduces his teacher (this stretches credulity to the breaking point). After having her translate in a confrontation with his father (whose second wife is apparently gone, certainly is not present even in allusions or Skype calls), Mia (Sylvia Chang, who is Taiwanese) is going along with Dollar to visit his birth mother (Tao), though the film does not get that far and ends with her alone in a field dancing to “Go West” (playing in her head).


There is nothing futuristic about the 2025 segment (in, remember, a film released in 2015). The width of the image has swelled from segment to segment. Has the vision of anyone in the movie similarly expanded? The setting has changed, and for Dollar the language. Liangzi does not appear (nor is he alluded to) in the final part. That is awkward. The placement in 2025 just seems arbitrary to me.

˙2018, Stephen O. Murray


Ang Lee’s expansion of Eileen Chang’s “Lust, Caution”

I really don’t know what Ang Lee (Lee Ang in Asian word order) meant when he wrote that “no other writer has used the Chinese language as cruelly” as Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing in pinyin, 1920-1995) did. The controversial film he made of Chang’s story “Se, jie” that has been translated into English as “Lust, Caution” portrays some rather graphic and pretty rough sex between the 45-year-old Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), the head of the intelligence service of the Shanghai Japanese puppet government of Wang Jingwei, and Wong Chiachih (Wei Tang in a sensational screen debut), a college-student actress whose role is to lure him into a trap so that he can be eliminated by Chinese nationalist patriots.


He is using her as a concubine — though Chiachih is the guest or Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen), an inveterate mahjong player — and concubines are entitled to flashy rings (and other jewelry). She aims to inflame his lust so that he can be killed, though she lacks strong political or patriotic convictions. She also has no experience of sexual love or passion-management.

Because her role is that of a married woman (the wife of a Hong Kong businessman, a category very plausibly apolitical) she is deflowered in a totally unromantic and instrumental way (by a fellow actor turned patriot or terrorist, a distinction depending on the side). Mr. Yee wants her, and she has strong feelings, oscillating between love and hate, for him. He uses her very roughly, awakening strong masochism in her.

The film adds an unrequited and mutual love between Chiachih and Kuan Yumin (pop star Lee-Hom Wang), who was her director in a patriotic melodrama before the Japanese conquered Hong Kong and is also the director of the amateur assassins.

In Chang’s story, the group is reassembled at the behest of Mr. Wu (Tou Chunghua, who starred in Hou Hsiaohsien “The Boys from Fengkuei”), a Kuomintang (Nationalist Chinese) agent in Shanghai who learns that Chiachih has befriended Mrs. Yee and might be able to get the very cautious Mr. Yee into a place where he can be killed. In the film adaptation, the group kills a “running dog” of the Japanese (very, very ineptly and therefore gruesomely) and are bailed out of (in 1938, not yet conquered by the Japanese) Hong Kong.

The film adds a scene of Mr. Wu, Kuan Yumin, and Chiachih telling both of them details of what she is doing and feeling with Mr. Wu that neither of the patriotic men wants to hear. For me, this scene is the hinge of the film and makes the reversal(s) ahead more comprehensible than it is in Chang’s very terse story.

I was asked if the graphic sex was necessary. Given that the first word of the title is “lust,” I think so, though what Chiachih says to those who have sent her on her mission of seduction is likely to make viewers as uncomfortable as it does her interlocutors within the scene. And Chang (who worked on the story for nearly three decades) did not specify that the sexual connection was (or verged on being) sadomasochistic.

I think that To and Wang are extremely good, as is Ko Yue-Lin as Liang Junsheng, the member of the group with some sexual experience who must deflower Chiachih for the sake of China (diffidently and passionlessly—condoned by Kuan Yumin, despite his feelings for her). Both the “romantic leads” seem affectless to me. Their sexual congress involves some contorted positions, but their faces remain blank in and out of bed. The movie (not just the sex) is utterly joyless.

Joan Chen does not have much to do, but does that well. Tony Leung (Leung Chui-Wai) has played many heavily conflicted lovers (for Wong Karwai and others). Playing a selfish villain goes against his iconic image. He is able to bring some of his trademark melancholic self-loathing, and some diffidence — at least in scenes with his wife and her circle of mahjong addicts. Mr. Yee knows (by 1942) that the Japanese are going to lose and will be unable to protect him in the long run. He does not know the extent to which his affair with Chiachih is risking his life (and career), but he is intrigued at stimulating strong feelings — even if it expressed hate rather than love.

Leung does not go over to the dark side to the extent that Henry Fonda, for instance, did in “Once Upon a Time in America.” Mr. Yee signs death warrants and shows not the slightest remorse for anything, but at least for me, he never completely breaks out of the web of sympathy accumulated in a quarter of a century of film roles. I mean, he is despicable and has the grace to despise himself to some degree, but he is also the victim and being used. (In terms of Kantian ethics, her use of him is more instrumental than his use of her is.)

I guess that Mr. Yee cannot be a complete monster for the plot to work, so maybe the ethical grayness of assassinating an executioner is exactly what Leung needed to do. There is even one point at which he is moved (by Chiachih’s sining/acting in a geisha house). I don’t understand why he tortured himself to lose weight to look emaciated, since there is no basis for that in Chang’s story. (I don’t know if starving himself was his idea or Lee’s)


I’m not convinced the film deserved a NC-17 rating. The sex is what makes sense of what happens, that is, the story and there is no full-frontal nudity, male or female.

Lee generally takes his (and viewers’!) time. The first half hour in particular drags. Perhaps the pace was intended to illustrate the “caution” in the title?

BTW, there is one sequence in which Yee is in a geisha house in the Japanese quarter to which he has summoned Chiachih that has a Japanese hostess and some very drunk Japanese army officers, one of whom paws Chiachih. Mr. Yee’s office is in a complex under the KMT flag, though the leader of his would-be assassins, Mr. Wu, is also a KMT (Jiang Kai-Shek rather than Wang Jingwei) operative.

The neo-Romantic (sometimes neo-Wagnerian) music by Alexandre Desplat (The Queen, Girl with a Pearl Earring) has made the soundtrack album a big seller. The art direction by Joel Chong and others is outstanding, and done full justice by Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who shot “Brokeback Mountain” for Lee (also Amores Perros, Frida, 21 Grams, Babel, and Alexander).

Lee’s team is very international. I already knew that Tony Leung speaks flawless English and expected that Ko Yue-Lin Wang Leehom did (Ko graduated from Williams, Wang is American-born). In the “making of” featurette, Wei Tang (born in Zhejiang) acquits herself well, if less confidently in English. I’d have liked to hear more from Ang Lee and James Schamus — as in their commentary track for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” What the cast members, Schamus and Prieto say, and what is shown of shooting the film are interesting but relentlessly positive about everyone else (what I call a “We all loved each other SO much” making-of featurette).


©2008, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

The Gorilla Bathes at Noon

“The gorilla bathes at noon” (Gorila se kupa u podne,1993) is not set in Africa. It has a stubborn non-conformist whose verities have banished at its center. A Soviet major, Victor Borisovich, who had been hospitalized (like the devoutly communist mother in “Goodbye, Lenin”) finds that his army has deserted him in Berlin. He remains in dress uniform and he remains loyal to Lenin, not only cleaning a gigantic statue of Lenin, but dreaming of his sort-of-girlfriend in Lenin drag. (There is footage of a Lenin statue being decapitated and the head trucked away. There is also footage of Stalin visiting Berlin recently conquered by the Red Army and other footage from the 1949 Soviet propaganda film/documentary “The Fall of Berlin.”


The major has access to the Berlin Zoo, steals food intended for the animals, and considers (dreams?) of feeding himself to his compatriots, the zoo’s Siberian tigers, except that neither tiger had ever been in Siberia: one was born in Stüttgart, the other in Budapest.

The sex and the music are muted in contrast to Makavejev’s Yugoslavian films (back when he was allowed to make them). There’s still plenty of comedy of the absurd in “Gorilla.”


In the other communist founding father veneration film (Tito and Me), I don’t know if the family is Serbian or Croatian. I suspect that instead of speaking Russian, the actors in “Gorilla” are speaking Serbo-Croatian. The abandoned  major is played by “Yugoslav stage actor Svetozar Cvetkovic”) and the film is directed by Dusan Makavejev (director of “WR: Mysteries of the Organism” and “Montenegro”), who may now be German, but was Yugoslav before that was a code word for Serbian. (He was born in Belgrade in 1932.)

©2011, Stephen O. Murray