Stuart Galbraith IV is the author of seven books, including the acclaimed joint biography of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, 'The Emperor and the Wolf'(2002), a book no less than Martin Scorsese described as 'a must read'. Since 2003, he has been based in Kyoto, Japan with his family, and is an expert on Japanese film, also writing such books as 'The Toho Story' (2007) and 'Japanese Cinema' (2009). Stuart has also worked on either the commentaries, booklets or features on various DVDs and Blu-rays, including SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), THE HUSTLER (1961), THE VERDICT (1982) and TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970). His reviews can be read at dvdtalk.com. I talked to Stuart about some of his favourite overlooked films.
ANVIL - THE STORY OF ANVIL (Sacha Gervasi, 2008)
It's basically THIS IS SPINAL TAP for real. Indeed, it's so much like SPINAL TAP it's a little scary; the drummer is even named Robb Reiner. (Rob Reiner directed and co-starred in SPINAL TAP.) But, more than that, ANVIL transcends SPINAL TAP in its unexpectedly moving and even profound story about determined lifelong friends who, like real friends everywhere, can't stand one another as much as they're bound at the hip like brothers. There's a great exchange that I think encapsulates the entire picture, where a frustrated Robb talks about jumping off a cliff and committing suicide, which his partner casually dismisses. "No, you wouldn't do that," he says. "Oh, yeah?" asks Robb, "What makes you so sure?" Lips replies, "Because I'll be there to stop you." Wow.
I think the heavy metal world setting is what turned off a lot of people. I'm not a fan, either, but was sent a DVD screener and, late one night, just spun it on the player for the heck of it -- and I've seen it at least five or six times since. Absolutely everyone I've recommended this to has fallen in love with this film.
AVANTI! (Billy Wilder, 1972)
The general consensus is that Billy Wilder's output declined after about 1961, and that by the '70s, certainly after THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970), he was pretty much washed up. But I adore AVANTI!, starring Jack Lemmon as a wealthy American executive trapped for several days in Italy while retrieving the body of his father (who died in an automobile accident with his mistress), to be far funnier, more sophisticated, and ultimately much more moving than some of Wilder's more famous films, namely THE APARTMENT (1960). It's grade-A prime Wilder (and I.A.L. Diamond) but, my guess is that it seemed unhip to the 'Easy Riders/Raging Bulls' generation of critics and audiences. And yet today it plays a lot more adult and polished than many early-'70s 'classics'.
CLOUDBURST (Francis Searle, 1951)
This is a real find, and it makes a great companion piece to Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM (1960), which like CLOUDBURST was written by Leo Marks. Marks adapted his own stage play for this Hammer release, which stars American Robert Preston. Both Preston and Marks had been intelligence officers during World War II, Preston with the U.S. 9th Air Force and Marks as a cryptographer for the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.). Their personal histories lend enormous credibility and verisimilitude to the film's setting and its dramatic complications. Marks sometimes wrote richly romantic code poems for the agents he sent behind enemy lines, the most famous of which, "The Life That I Have," was immortalized in the excellent British film about spy Violette Szabo, CARVE HER NAME WITH PRIDE (1958). His fascination with codes also plays a role in his script PEEPING TOM. CLOUDBURST incorporates all of these same elements, including its strange, beguiling romanticism.
EXTREME PRIVATE EROS: LOVE SONG 1974 (Kazuo Hara, 1974)
It sounds like the title of a Japanese roman porno movie, but in fact it's a unique documentary, an intimate study of a would-be Japanese feminist with delusions of worldly sophistication. Miyuki Takeda is the bitter estranged wife of Kazuo Hara, the film's director, who later made the excellent THE EMPEROR'S NAKED ARMY MARCHES ON (1987). When she suddenly moves to Japan's southernmost island of Okinawa, their toddler in tow, he, rather like filmmaker Ross McElwee in SHERMAN'S MARCH (1986), decides to make a documentary about her as a means of working through his own relationship issues. Miyuki comes off not so much as a feminist but an obsessed exhibitionist who masturbates for Hara's camera and later eagerly invites him to film her giving birth (without assistance, she boasts) in Hara's Tokyo apartment, and later she muscles in on the delivery of another mixed-race baby like her own, nearly pushing aside the busy midwife to get on-camera. She tries to position herself as some kind of anarchist fighting the system, yet after giving birth tells her new baby that Japan is the best place to live, apparently oblivious to the rude awakening awaiting her as the single-mother of a half-black child. A must-see.
GOLD (Peter Hunt, 1974)
Peter Hunt was one of the all-time great film editors, who through his work on the early James Bond movies all but invented the style of cutting action films still in use today. (He is sometimes credited as Peter R. Hunt so as not to be confused with the director of 1776 - Peter H. Hunt.) He also directed one of the best 007 movies, ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969), but his other films are virtually unknown. GOLD has a lot of Bond people behind it. Besides star Roger Moore, the editor and 2nd unit director was John Glen, the art director was Syd Cain, and Maurice Binder did the titles. It's a thriller set in the world of South African gold mines, and it's really top-notch, with a positively pounding Elmer Bernstein score, one of his best. It was barely released in America, and I'd barely heard of it myself until stumbling across a Region 2/PAL DVD that's 16:9 enhanced.
HEROES FOR SALE (William Wellman, 1933)
A real eye-opener. It's an at times gut-wrenching tale of multiple tragedies in the life of a self-sacrificing war veteran who becomes an almost Christ-like symbol of the Common Man. The great silent film star Richard Barthelmess is Tom Holmes, who's left for dead on the front lines while his friend makes it back with the German officer Holmes captured. Winston, the friend, is awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and promoted while Holmes spends the remainder of the war in a German P.O.W. camp in perpetual agony with shrapnel splinters embedded in his spine. Winston returns home a Big Hero, while Holmes becomes addicted to morphine sympathetic Germans prescribe to ease his agonizing pain. And that's just the beginning.
It's a really terrific movie that's all over the place. Early scenes are grim and realistic about the horrors of World War I - and the DVD transfer is so good one can really feel the texture of the cold and muddy trenches - and the almost worse treatment these hard-luck veterans receive upon their return by a society disinterested in healing their wounds. Later on, the film covers a lot of ground from the exploitation of the worker by greedy capitalists (played by Hollywood's two great specialists in such roles, Edward Arnold and Douglass Dumbrille) to, conversely, the hypocrisy of many American communists.
While the film fascinates as a document of its tumultuous era (there are billboards declaring "Jobless Men Keep Going...We Can't Take Care of the Our Own," the sort that really existed during the Great Depression, and which anticipate Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH, 1940), so much of it has come full circle and will strike a chord with modern viewers.
HOUSEKEEPING (Bill Forsyth, 1987)
Bill Forsyth is well-known for his quirky Scottish comedies, particularly GREGORY'S GIRL (1981) and the magnificent LOCAL HERO (1983). HOUSEKEEPING, filmed in British Columbia (though set in Idaho) and adapted from Marilynne Robinson's novel, was apparently not very successful in the commercial sense, and only recently was it made available on DVD, through Sony's MOD program. But it's a brilliant, indescribable film, genuinely poetic, about two sisters and their contrasting relationship with an eccentric aunt. It captures that unique rural environment better than probably any film I've ever seen, in several haunting, unforgettable sequences particularly, while its basic themes of nonconformity and societal/familial pressures are ultimately nonjudgmental but also offer no easy answers. This and THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) are my two favorite films of the 1980s.
ONE FROM THE HEART (Francis Ford Coppola, 1982)
This film had such a terrible reputation for so many years I confess to never seeing it until earlier this year, when it was released on Blu-ray here in Japan. It was Francis Coppola's infamous and wildly unsuccessful attempt to follow the extravagantly overbudget and troubled APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) with a 'small scale' little musical shot entirely on Hollywood soundstages. Of course he ended up spending many times his original budget but, in this case at least, his unbridled self-indulgences were worth it, and the money is all up there on the screen. On Blu-ray, this is one of the most visually dazzling films I've ever seen. It's very adult in ways few expensive movies these days are. It's extremely funny and features maybe Teri Garr's best-ever performance, and the songs by Tom Waits and Crystal Gale are exceptional. And those sets - my God!
PARK ROW (Samuel Fuller, 1952)
Despite a budget really too low for its ambitions, this is at once a romantic, exciting, and authentic portrait of the New York newspaper business circa 1886. It's Fuller's CITIZEN KANE (1941): the subject matter is similar and like Orson Welles's masterpiece Fuller crams every scene with innovation and terrific performances. His passion is infectious and it's genuinely exciting and at times even exhilarating. He overcomes most of his budgetary deficiencies through sheer chutzpah. For instance when thugs hired by a rival paper attack the hero's newsstands, Fuller audaciously opts for a frantic tracking shot covering the length of his massive Park Row set. I've never seen anything like it in a fifties film. This everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach doesn't always work but it's continually visually arresting in a manner similar to Laughton's likewise low budget THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955).
THE RAILWAY CHILDREN (Lionel Jeffries, 1970)
This children's film is revered in Britain but virtually unknown in the United States which is surprising. While singularly British in some respects its main themes are basically universal so I'm surprised that, like WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971), CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1968) and some other films from this era, it didn't find a cult audience via U.S. television airings. Grandpa Potts from CHITTY CHITTY, the great character actor Lionel Jeffries, directed RAILWAY CHILDREN with great taste and intelligence but also a lot of visual flair, and it's one a handful of really good children's films that unfold from a child's perspective rather than an adult's. There's a recent UK Blu-ray of the film, Region "B," that looks just marvelous.
THE RAPTURE (Michael Tolkin, 1991)
I've only seen this once, when it first came out in 1991. I was one of three critics writing for The Ann Arbor News in Michigan, and that year THE RAPTURE was very high on all our lists, along with things like Frederick Wiseman's NEAR DEATH and, I think No. 1 on my list, a touring show called 'Jan Svankmajer - Alchemist of the Surreal', prompting the publisher to complain, "Aw, can't you guys ever pick something good -- like PRETTY WOMAN?" Anyway, this Michael Tolkin film is one of the most admirably audacious I've ever seen, about a sex addict (Mimi Rogers) who converts to fanatical Christianity believing that, correctly as things turn out, that the Rapture is imminent. I really admire this film: it not only goes out on a limb, it does so blindfolded while doing pirouettes.
SALT IN THE WOUND (Tonino Ricci, 1969)
In Detroit we had a low-wattage UHF station, Channel 62. It was the first black-owned television station in the country, but it was so poor that all they could afford to broadcast was religious programming like the PTL CLUB during the day, and the most obscure (and cheapest) Eurotrash at night. However, perhaps deliberately in those pre-cable/pre-VCR days they'd run these middle-of-the-night movies uncut. This had to violate FCC rules but as a hot-blooded teenager I'd sometimes stay up half the night hoping these various giallo and nunsploitation-type movies would feature the occasional naked breast or two. One of the films Channel 62 showed that I actually really liked was SALT IN THE WOUND. When a label called Wild East released it to DVD, I snapped it up. Star Klaus Kinski was between his Edgar Wallace-krimi period and later collaborations with Herzog, and in this delivers an excellent performance as an American foot soldier named Brian Haskins. Can you imagine: Klaus Kinski as G.I. Joe? Say no more!
SKIN GAME (Paul Bogart/ Gordon Douglas, 1971)
In this dreary age of political correctness, how refreshing a movie like SKIN GAME is. I'm a lifelong James Garner fan, from THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) and THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY (1964) through his years on THE ROCKFORD FILES and beyond. SKIN GAME is a little like Garner's two comedy Westerns directed by Burt Kennedy, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (1969) and SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER (1971), only SKIN GAME has an edge. Co-written by Peter Stone (CHARADE, 1963; 1776, 1972), the film stars Garner as a con artist who goes from town-to-town selling and reselling his 'slave' (Louis Gossett, Jr.), actually a free man born in the north, and the two split the profits. Subtler and edgier than BLAZING SADDLES (1973), with which SKIN GAME would make a great double-bill.
THE UNKNOWN (Tod Browning, 1927)
Pretty much everyone is familiar with Lon Chaney Sr. movies like PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923), but THE UNKNOWN is far better than either of those. It's one wild ride of a movie, quite perverse and shocking even now, 85 years give or take after its release. It's a movie best experienced totally cold, knowing nothing about it going in, so I won't say much more about it except that Burt Lancaster used to say Chaney in this gave the finest performance he'd ever seen, and that in this modern age where few films are surprising, this one has at least two major plot twists as demented as they are genuinely shocking. Run! See it! Now!
THE WEAVERS: WASN'T THAT A TIME! (Jim Brown, 1982)
I was reminded of this film a few years ago when I saw the nearly equally fine film by the same director, Jim Brown, called PETE SEEGER: THE POWER OF SONG. THE WEAVERS (2007) documents Seeger's folk group with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman. It discusses their history and blacklisting and climaxes with a triumphant final reunion concert at Carnegie Hall, the kind of thing so joyous one sheds happy tears watching it. Unfortunately, the only way to see it on DVD (there's no Blu-ray version) is to donate a lot of dough to PBS; as of now they haven't made it available any other way. It's a truly great and wonderful film that deserves a wider audience, and I hope PBS will release it wide eventually.
Stuart was interviewed via email during August 2012. I would like to thank him for his time and interesting choices.
Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and other sites, and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased.