By Jeff Stafford
THE TIGER OF ESCHNAPUR & THE INDIAN TOMB
Previously released in the United States in 1959 in a severely edited form entitled Journey to the Lost City, Fritz Lang's Indian epic is now available in its entirety thanks to the dedicated efforts of the film purists at Fantoma. Originally, Lang intended his epic to be seen in two parts - The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb - and that's the way it was distributed in Germany where it was a huge boxoffice success. This ambitious production marked the first time Lang had made a film in his native country since a two-decade exile in America but European critics were rather harsh in their assessment of the film. They saw it as a waste of Lang's talent and wrote it off as kitsch. The American distributors likewise saw it as a colorful but routine adventure which was ideal for undiscriminating juvenile audiences. So, they reduced its original running time from 201 minutes to 90 minutes, dubbed it into English, and made Debra Paget, the only American actor in the cast, the focus of their ad campaign. Not surprisingly, it was poorly received in its butchered form by most critics of any influence but Debra Paget's exotic dancing certainly made an impression on a lot of eleven-year-old boys - one of whom was probably Steven Spielberg whose later Indiana Jones series was obviously influenced by the sets and the exotic atmosphere of Lang's epic.
Seen today The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb are revelations and it's hard to believe that the German critics didn't see the importance of these films on their original release. Tom Gunning, who teaches film at the University of Chicago, wrote the liner notes for both DVDs and his comments are particularly insightful. He writes that in order to appreciate both films, "you must let yourself be absorbed into an unreal world realized by a master of cinematic style. But if the film is mythic, it is not childish. Lang creates a double world in which shining surfaces cloak a sinister core. Initially the gleaming white palace courtyards and expensive apartments appear gorgeous and colorful, with Lang's architectural vision reveling in sets whose rich patterns often overwhelm the characters. But, increasingly, the typical Lang paranoia sets in. The bright apartments become prison cages and the gleaming palaces rest over a decadent maze of caves, underground lakes and tunnels, a realm of death guarded by corpses and inhabited by the living dead."
One person who certainly saw the dark side of Lang's epic was lead actress Debra Paget. In an interview with Tom Weaver for his book, Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks (McFarland Press), she discussed the difficulties of filming on location in India (there were HUGE rats everywhere - her bedroom for instance) and her provocative costume in the dance scene with the cobra god. Regarding the latter she said, "..if Fritz had his way, it would have been less. Actually, one costume was just glued on. It was like a bikini, but there were no straps - they glued it on with a marvelous glue called Uhu. In fact, we used to call it "the Uhu movie" because earrings were glued on, everything was glued on, they'd just bring out the Uhu! The costume was actually glued on me and I danced in it. Any little move and we just had to cut and grab and re-glue me. And the only thing which would take that glue off was benzene, which is gasoline. By the third day, I was just like raw hamburger, everywhere. It was a mess." On-screen, however, Paget's beauty is flawless and her dance scenes are a mesmerizing combination of eroticism and high camp.
Fantoma's transfers of The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb are works of art (the DVDs were digitally mastered at American Zoetrope DVD lab). The clarity of every single frame of each film is amazingly clear and sharp. It's hard to imagine that either film ever looked this look even during its theatrical run. As for the special features, you can have a choice of English language versions or German dialogue with English subtitles. There are also some intriguing photo galleries with rare stills, posters, and behind the scenes photographs. Both discs are highly recommended. For more information about The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, visit Fantoma and Image Entertainment, Inc..
By Jeff Stafford
THE GREAT SILENCE - A LANDMARK SPAGHETTI WESTERN OF THE SIXTIES
Most American moviegoers are familiar with the Clint Eastwood "Dollars" trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), but outside of those Sergio Leone films, there is very little awareness in this country (with the exception of hard core movie buffs) of other key titles and directors in this unique phenomenon known as the 'Spaghetti Western.' One particularly gifted director, often ignored in discussions of these films, is Sergio Corbucci who helmed the enormously popular Django (1966) starring Franco Nero as the mysterious gunslinger of the title. Though Corbucci would go on to direct other entertaining 'Spaghetti Westerns' like Ringo and His Golden Pistol (1966) and Najavo Joe (1966) starring Burt Reynolds, The Great Silence (1968) might be his masterpiece. Now available on DVD in a letterboxed, English-dubbed version, The Great Silence, presented by Fantoma and distributed exclusively by Image Entertainment, tells the story of a mute outlaw called Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who guns down any bounty hunters who cross his path. Loco (Klaus Kinski), one of several hired killers on his trail, becomes obsessed with putting an end to Silence and plots his demise, eliminating anyone who interferes with his plan.
Set in an isolated, snow covered village in the Utah mountains during winter, The Great Silence is unique not only for its setting (most "Spaghetti Westerns' take place in sun-baked deserts or dusty frontier towns) but for its political subtext and its grim climax in which evil triumphs. The film is also significant for its atypical casting; French actor Trintignant, who is best known for his art-house hits A Man and a Woman (1966) and The Conformist (1970), was a last-minute replacement for Franco Nero in the lead and Vonetta McGee makes her motion picture debut in this film and went on to become a familiar face in the 'blaxploitation' films of the seventies (Blacula, Brothers).
Fantoma's DVD release of The Great Silence includes the original theatrical trailer, extensive liner notes, an appreciation of the film by director Alex Cox (Repo Man, 1984), and the alternate 'Happy Ending' which was added to prints of the film for distribution in North African and other limited markets. The latter, though silent (the original audio was unfortunately lost), is particularly fascinating and includes one surprising shot of Silence's metal-clad hand, a kinky character detail that never emerges in the final version of the film. Any self-respecting fan of the 'Spaghetti Western' will want to own this offbeat gem which (except for a Japanese laserdisc version) has long been unavailable in any version, much less one that looks as good as this. For more information about The Great Silence, visit Fantoma and Image Entertainment, Inc..
By Jeff Stafford
ARBUCKLE & KEATON: THE ORIGINAL COMIQUE/PARAMOUNT SHORTS
Anyone interested in the history of silent film and the comedies of the pre-sound era will be happy to know that Kino has recently released a two set DVD collection entitled Arbuckle & Keaton: The Original Comique/Paramount Shorts. In these ten delightful comedy shorts, made between 1917 and 1920 at Paramount under the Comique label, you can see a very young Buster Keaton (he was only 21 years old when he started working with Roscoe Arbuckle) beginning to experiment with gags and comedy routines which he would later perfect in his own films. But more importantly, you'll see why Roscoe Arbuckle, known to his fans as "Fatty" (a name he hated), was considered second only to Charlie Chaplin in terms of popularity between the years of 1916 and 1921. Not only did he possess an astonishing physical grace which was in direct contrast to his oversized body but he was also a genius at concocting wild comedy routines with outlandish sight gags and acrobatics. If nothing else, the Comique two-reelers gives true movie fans a chance to reassess this long-neglected comedian whose reputation, unfortunately, has long been tarnished by the scandal that ruined his career in 1921.
Among the goodies in Volume One are: The Butcher Boy (1917) which contains Arbuckle's famous "Knife Juggling" bit, Keaton's first film appearance in his classic "Can of Molasses" routine, and the 265 pound Arbuckle romping around in drag - with "Mary Pickford" curls no less - at an all girl private school.
Moonshine (1918) - a parody of Arbuckle's own freewheeling comedy style, filled with inside jokes, and Arbuckle breaking character to explain plot flaws! After easily defeating the hillbilly mountaineers, Arbuckle and Keaton conclude the film with a stinging parody of rival Charlie Chaplin's "losing the girl' pathos-type endings.
Volume Two contains these rarities which haven't been available for years:
Back Stage (1919) - This was a present from Arbuckle to Keaton after Buster's year-long stint in World War I. Much in the same style as Buster's later The Playhouse (1921), this film contains many of the routines Buster had used in the "Three Keatons' stage act, and can rightly be called the first Keaton directed film.
Coney Island (1918) - This was a high point for Roscoe's nephew, Al St. John. Traditionally playing the mock villain, against Arbuckle's mock heroes, in Coney Island Al St. John - later famous as "Fuzzy' St. John, in numerous Republic Westerns - does a series of "tit-for-tats" with Arbuckle to win a girl, only to have her end up with Buster Keaton!
For more information on the titles carried by Kino, visit their web site at Kino International.
EUROTRASH OR CULT TREASURE?
Often dismissed by director Mario Bava as one of his least favorite films, FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON (1970), now available on DVD from Image, proves without a doubt that one man's trash is another man's treasure. Obviously taking its inspiration (uncredited) from Agatha Christie's mystery thriller, Ten Little Indians, Bava's film is about a group of decadent jet-setters on holiday on an virtually deserted Mediterranean island. Soon they will be picked off, one by one, by a mysterious killer. Since this is Mario Bava behind the wheel, you'd expect this film to deliver some distinctive shocks in the style of his later effort, Twitch of the Death Nerve, but FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON is less a violent thriller than a black comedy. Some may even consider it an abstract exercise, closer in form to a jazzy improvisation. Not only do most of the murders occur off-camera but standard suspense techniques are abandoned while Bava goes in for the odd detail - a character hiding a feather boa in a rock, a plastic wrapped corpse in a deep freeze, a dish of marbles spilling onto a floor. All of this nonsense is set to a hypnotic, percolating score by Piero Umiliani which will make you deliriously happy, even as the corpses are piling up on the screen. Why Bava hated his film is hard to fathom but it's easy to see why fans of his gorier thrillers were disappointed. However, as an exercise in cinematic style, FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON is hard to beat and there is nothing else quite like it, something that is obvious from the first five minutes of the film where Eurotrash sexpot Edwige Fenech is undulating on a living room table while her companions look on with a mixture of boredom and bemusement. The references to Fellini's La Dolce Vita are apt but this is guilt-free decadence and FUN is the operative word here. The DVD comes with dual language options (we vote for the original Italian with English subtitles), a rarely seen extended end credit sequence, a collection of Bava trailers, filmographies, and additional audio options for connoisseurs of Italian movie soundtracks. For more information on FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON, visit the distributor's web site at Image Entertainment, Inc..
By Jeff Stafford