Film Review: Seven Samurai (1954)

Also known as: Shichinin no Samurai (Japan), The Magnificent Seven (US premiere title)
Release Date: April 26th, 1954 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Music by: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Isao Kimura, Daisuke Katō, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Kokuten Kōdō, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Eijirō Tōno, Jun Tatara, Atsushi Watanabe, Yoshio Kosugi, Bokuzen Hidari, Yukiko Shimazaki

Toho Co. Ltd., 207 Minutes, 160 Minutes (international), 202 Minutes (2002 re-release), 150 Minutes (original cut), 190 Minutes (1991 re-release), 207 Minutes (restored), 202 Minutes (DVD)

Review:

“What do you think of farmers? You think they’re saints? Hah! They’re foxy beasts! They say, “We’ve got no rice, we’ve no wheat. We’ve got nothing!” But they have! They have everything! Dig under the floors! Or search the barns! You’ll find plenty! Beans, salt, rice, sake! Look in the valleys, they’ve got hidden warehouses! They pose as saints but are full of lies! If they smell a battle, they hunt the defeated! They’re nothing but stingy, greedy, blubbering, foxy, and mean! God damn it all!” – Kikuchiyo

Akira Kurosawa is absolutely one of the greatest film directors to ever live. Hell, he could be the best but there are other elite talents in that discussion and taste is subjective.

But for a man that is such a master of his craft, it is hard to imagine that there is one film that stands above all the others. This is that film.

Seven Samurai is at or near the top of most legit film critics all-time best lists. It is cinematic perfection, a film of the highest artistic caliber. I can’t call it my favorite of all-time but it is definitely the king of Asian cinema and boasts a story so rich and beloved that it has gone on to inspire countless other movies, television shows, novels, comics and stage plays.

I know that I am really talking the film up but what I’m saying is not an oversell. From top to bottom, everything about Seven Samurai is top notch. So good, in fact, that it is hard to break it all down and review it.

The direction is superb, the acting is captivating and convincing, the narrative and the plot’s pacing are intriguing and perfect, this boasts incredible cinematography, lighting, shot framing and employs an understanding of mise en scène that allows this film to exist on a level that most other filmmakers will never be able to achieve.

Seven Samurai is truly a perfect storm. It is one of those films that I assume that everyone claiming to be a “film aficionado” has seen.

Sure, it is very long, which is something I tend to be annoyed by with many films but there isn’t a dull moment and every scene has genuine purpose.

But I also get that a three and a half hour, subtitled, black and white movie about samurai and farmers in 1500s Japan won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s also not as action packed as action fans would hope for but the combat situations are still quite compelling.

This is a drama more than it is an action or adventure story, however. But that is also why this stands shoulders above other films in the jidaigeki genre. Seven Samurai is about life, perseverance and heroism. It is a tale that most people are familiar with and should love.

If you’ve made it this far in life and have never seen the film but fancy yourself a real film fan, you need to correct that injustice. You owe it to yourself.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: other films by Akira Kurosawa: The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Kagemusha, Throne of Blood, Ikiru, Rashomon, etc.

Film Review: M (1951)

Release Date: March, 1951
Directed by: Joseph Losey
Written by: Norman Reilly Raine, Leo Katcher, Waldo Salt (additional dialogue)
Music by: Michel Michelet
Cast: David Wayne, Howard Da Silva, Luther Adler, Raymond Burr, Jim Backus

Superior Pictures, Columbia Pictures, 88 Minutes

Review:

“Ordinarily you look for a dame or a bankbook, get a victim with known enemies, what do we got? Some missing shoes. What’re we looking for? A man with a twisted mind. Could be anybody.” – Inspector Carney

M is a film that never needed a remake. Fritz Lang’s 1931 original is a perfect film and even though it pre-dates film-noir by a decade, it is one of the absolute best films in that style. In fact, it’s a stylistic bridge between German Expressionism and the classic film-noir look of 1940s Hollywood.

However, the original M was a German film and its dialogue was in the German language. So with Hollywood being Hollywood, it was only a matter of time before there had to be an American adaptation.

This certainly pales in comparison to its German counterpart but it is still a very, very good classic film-noir.

One thing that gives this some real merit is in the cinematography and the shot framing. There are incredible shots in this film. The use of the City of Los Angeles, primarily the Bunker Hill neighborhood, is superb. Many of the shots have lots of depth and texture. The shot where the child killer and the little girl are running down the stairs is haunting and then there’s this other great shot of a guy sitting on a crooked bench on a hill with the city behind him, as the camera is positioned to shoot directly down the street in the background. Props to whoever scouted out some of these locations, as the city really is a character in this film. It’s also a real time capsule to a bygone era because Bunker Hill no longer exists and it was well represented in this picture.

Additionally, the shots within the Bradbury Building, which was used in a lot of movies, probably most famously Blade Runner, look fantastic. The Bradbury Building is almost always the star whenever it’s used and even though it is used sparingly in this film, man, does it really feel alive in this.

The acting is also great. The evil child killer in the film is played by David Wayne, who I mostly know as the Mad Hatter from the ’60s Batman TV show. Now his performance is nowhere near the level of Peter Lorre’s, who played the same role in the original German version, but he is convincing as hell and pretty damn stellar in this. His speech at the end is incredible and emotional. I also really enjoyed Howard Da Silva, Raymond Burr and Jim Backus.

To be frank, this is not a movie that probably needed to be made but it justifies its own existence and is still a superb motion picture. That being said, the original M is, in my opinion, impossible to top. But this finds a way to stand on its own two feet and it was well crafted and better than it deserved to be.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: the original, superior 1931 Fritz Lang version of M, The Prowler and Footsteps In the Night.

Film Review: The Maze (1953)

Release Date: June 24th, 1953 (Portland, Oregon premiere)
Directed by: William Cameron Menzies
Written by: Daniel Ullman
Based on: The Maze by Maurice Sandoz
Music by: Marlin Skiles
Cast: Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery

Allied Artists Pictures, 80 Minutes

Review:

“SHOCKING CHILLS..Bloodcurdling suspense! A thousand thrill-maddening horrors!” – tagline

I never knew of this film’s existence until I stumbled across it on YouTube. But I’m glad that I gave this a watch, as I was pleasantly surprised by it.

I was initially drawn to the film because the idea of a horror film that takes place in and around a maze intrigued me. Plus, it takes place in Scotland with a Scottish castle and promises of “The Deadliest Trap in the World!” This film actually had several good marketing taglines but there wasn’t a single trap at all, really.

Now even though I enjoyed this film, it is very slow. But it does build up suspense pretty well so that once you get to the big finale in the maze, you feel a legitimate sense of terror and tension.

The big reveal at the end was pretty damn surprising too. The first time you see the creature scurry across the ground in the shadows, it’s a really bizarre moment and it’s hard to make out what you’re looking at. However, the full reveal is pretty damn shocking even for the hokiness of the monster.

If you want to watch this movie, ignore this spoilery paragraph and skip to the next. The creature is a big frog but it’s really a dude in a suit with a pretty realistic frog head. What’s really bizarre, is that he crawls across the ground. He sort of does this hop thing but barely. And what’s even more bizarre is that the frog dude’s screams sound like an elephant. Still, this was a really cool creature and I was caught off guard by it and also amused by it.

While the slow walk through the dark maze, at the end, was really well done. The lighting needed to be better. To simulate candlelight, the crew used a spotlight to illuminate the two women. However, it just looked like they were walking towards a spotlight and it didn’t seem to work as faux candlelight. Even for 1953, there were better techniques for lighting a scene like this. The only real reason why I’m actually pointing it out though, is that it distracts the viewer during this sequence, which was near perfect other than this glaring flaw.

Regardless of that one lighting issue and the slow pace, this was still thoroughly enjoyable. The last ten or fifteen minutes were solid. But that great climax probably wouldn’t have had as much impact if not for the slow, suspenseful build up.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: The Night Walker, The Psychopath and X the Unknown.

Film Review: Woman On the Run (1950)

Release Date: October 12th, 1950 (Boston premiere)
Directed by: Norman Foster
Written by: Alan Campbell, Norman Foster, Ross Hunter (dialogue)
Based on: Man On the Run by Sylvia Tate
Music by: Arthur Lange, Emil Newman
Cast: Ann Sheridan, Dennis O’Keefe, Robert Keith

Fidelity Pictures Corporation, Universal Pictures, 77 Minutes

Review:

“Frank’s condition isn’t any worse than tons of men that strain their hearts running in track meets in the misguided belief that they were building up their bodies.” – Dr. Arthur Hohler

I didn’t know much about this movie until it was featured on TCM’s Noir Alley. But apparently the Film Noir Foundation restored it almost two decades ago and then about ten years ago, that print was lost in a fire. Then, more recently, a negative print of the film was found in London and it was restored for a second time.

It’s a pretty unique and energetic film-noir that really is carried by the charm of Ann Sheridan. But in addition to that, she’s paired up well with both Dennis O’Keefe and Robert Keith. She is usually playing off of one actor or the other from scene to scene but man, the dialogue exchanges between Sheridan and both of the top billed men is really entertaining stuff.

Plus, the writing is witty and clever and Sheridan’s charisma is only enhanced by the strong dialogue and unique situations she finds herself in.

Really, all parties involved are top notch in this movie and while I can’t quite call this a film-noir masterpiece, I think this is better than several of the films that are looked at in much higher regard than this nearly lost gem.

Originally, it was supposed to be filmed in New Orleans but due to the movie being produced by a new, upstart studio and the budgetary concerns that come with that, it was shot in San Francisco. But this actually benefits the film, as it really captures noir era San Francisco in a beautiful way. Although, with so many film-noirs being filmed in San Francisco, a New Orleans setting could have made this a bit more unique.

Additionally, this picture feels like a moving painting. Since it spends a good amount of time looking at art, within the film, it’s kind of neat to see the motion picture have the same sort of majestic allure as a beautiful painting. The lighting, cinematography and shot framing are incredible, especially in the big finale at the amusement park.

That being said, the amusement park stuff is stupendous. I love the sequence with Sheridan on the roller coaster even if it looks hokey and dated almost 70 years later.

In fact, as much as I like this film, it’s the big finale that really takes things to another level and cements this as a real worthwhile and enjoyable classic film-noir.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Too Late for Tears, Please Murder Me!, The Man Who Cheated HImself and Impact.

Film Review: The Space Children (1958)

Release Date: June, 1958
Directed by: Jack Arnold
Written by: Bernard C. Schoenfeld
Based on: The Egg by Tom Filer
Music by: Van Cleave
Cast: Michael Ray, Adam Williams, Peggy Webber, Johnny Washbrook, Jackie Coogan

William Alland Productions, Paramount Pictures, 69 Minutes

Review:

“Slowly…and with horror the parents realized THEIR CHILDREN WERE THE SLAVES OF ‘THE THING’ FROM OUTER SPACE!” – tagline

This film has an incredibly low rating on IMDb. I mean, I guess I get it, as it’s not a good movie or even well made. However, I think it’s a bit better than a 3.7 out of 10.

The film is fairly imaginative, I actually liked the story and for a movie with a bunch of kids in it, they aren’t too annoying. Plus, ’50s alien sci-fi schlock is just a cup of tea that I like to sip on the reg.

The Space Children was showcased in one of the later seasons of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and this certainly deserves that sort of treatment but it isn’t as bad as most of the ’50s sci-fi fare that they’ve riffed on the show.

The story is about this alien brain that comes to Earth and hides out in a cave on the beach. Nearby, the government has a nuclear weapons facility. Now the nuclear missile looks more like a space rocket but we’ll ignore that. Anyway, the alien brain takes over the minds of the children of the scientists working on the nuclear weapon. It uses the kids to sabotage the nuke and we later learn that other alien brains did the same thing to other kids in other countries so that no one had nuclear weapons. While it sounds over the top and cheesy, it’s still a fun plot that worked and this felt like a smarter movie than some run of the mill alien invasion picture.

It’s a really short film and there isn’t much to hate about it. Plus, it was directed by Jack Arnold, who did the first two Creature From the Black Lagoon movies, This Island Earth and other pictures in the sci-fi genre.

Rating: 4.5/10
Pairs well with: really, any low budget ’50s alien sci-fi flicks.

Film Review: Godzilla (1954)

Also known as: Gojira (original Japanes title), Godzilla: King of Monsters! (US version)
Release Date: November 3rd, 1954 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Shigeru Kayama, Takeo Murata, Ishirō Honda
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Kenji Sahara, Raymond Burr (US version)

Toho, 96 Minutes (original), 80 Minutes (US version)

Review:

“I can’t believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of its species… But if we continue conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again.” – Kyohei Yamane-hakase

There are two different versions of this film: the original Japanese version, which was released to theaters in 1954, as well as the English language American version from 1956 that featured new scenes starring Raymond Burr.

This is primarily a review of the original Japanese version of the film, as it is the superior version, in my opinion. Also, the American version loses some of the context and political themes within the picture.

Out of all the Godzilla movies ever made, there are now over thirty, this one is still the best of the lot. It’s just got such a dark and brooding nature that the tone is vastly different than the more kid friendly entries that would follow it. And I’m not saying that I don’t love kid friendly Godzilla, because that’s the Godzilla I fell in love with, but this is a film that had a deeper and more meaningful purpose than just counting kaiju sized piles of cash.

Godzilla makes a very bold statement, a statement that can still be felt today and it is still very relevant.

For those who might not know, Godzilla was created as a commentary on the horrors of nuclear bombs and their side effects. Coming out less than a decade after Japan was bombed by the United States to end World War II, the Japanese were certainly justified in making an artistic condemnation of nuclear technology. Plus, mass destruction was something that everyone in Japan had already lived through and it was still very fresh in their memories.

While the film gives us mass destruction in a different way, Godzilla, the monster, is unleashed on Japan due to the use of nuclear bombs and his rampage throughout the film is just as catastrophic. But at least with the monster in the movie, the Japanese people were able to find a way to defend themselves and bring the horror to an end on their own terms. That’s not to say that another Godzilla doesn’t show up later but within this movie, Japan perseveres, even if it comes at a great cost.

The special effects in this are dynamite, especially considering that this came out in 1954 and was made by a country that didn’t have the resources of a big budget American studio. Eiji Tsuburaya was the man behind the effects and his work here created a whole new genre, which would make his career, as he would go on to do many kaiju films for Toho, as well as creating his own studio, Tsuburaya Productions. Tsuburaya would later create the Ultraman franchise and other famous franchises beloved by the Japanese and fans of kaiju and tokusatsu films and television.

This was director Ishirō Honda’s big break and doing this film would pave the way for the rest of his career, as well. He ended up directing a ton of Godzilla movies, as well as other kaiju and tokusatsu pictures for Toho. In fact, he was pretty much the godfather of the two, overlapping genres.

Godzilla is a chilling film. The monster is truly a monster, which fans of the later films might be shocked by. It is this film that had the greatest impact on moviegoers upon its release, however, and it is why every single Godzilla reboot goes back to this well and presents the title character as a true harbinger of doom.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: other Shōwa era Godzilla movies.

Film Review: The Alligator People (1959)

Release Date: July 16th, 1959
Directed by: Roy Del Ruth
Written by: Orville H. Hampton, Charles O’Neal, Robert M. Fresco (uncredited)
Music by: Irving Getz
Cast: Beverly Garland, Bruce Bennett, Lon Chaney Jr.

Associated Producers, 20th Century Fox, 74 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll kill you Alligator Man! Just like I’d kill any four-legged gator!” – Manon

This was a film that I first discovered around six years-old, watching it on the floor in my grandmum’s living room. I loved the big finale and the design of the Alligator Man at the end. It inspired me to draw a picture book about the Alligator Man, which was really my first attempt at a comic book, before I really even got into the comic medium. Years later, I wrote a three-part script outline for a Skunk Ape movie trilogy featuring very similar Gator Men. Needless to say, this movie had a strong grip on my imagination at a very early age. But I actually hadn’t seen this picture in over a decade, so I wanted to revisit it.

I still love it. It’s certainly a film with a plethora of flaws and really bad science when it comes to swamp life but it’s entertaining nonetheless and it’s a real treat for fans of cheesy ’50s sci-fi about genetic science run amok.

Lon Chaney Jr. is in this as a total bastard but he was so good at those roles. Here, he’s a total bastard that yells at alligators because he’s pissed off that one ate his hand years earlier. At one point he tries to run an alligator over and at another point he’s drunk, shooting aimlessly at them but doesn’t even come close to actually hitting any.

What’s really surprising is that this film does use a lot of real alligators. Granted, most of them are pretty small and of a manageable size but I was surprised to see the lead actress, Beverly Garland, running through fake swamps with actual alligators and snakes around her. Maybe they were safely behind glass but the shots came off really well and it created legitimate tension. But at one point, Chaney actually runs out to save her and wrangles an actual snake. It looked to be a non-venomous indigo snake but it was effective and looked so much better than an actor wrangling a fake rubber snake.

The movie does drag in certain points but the story is well-crafted and you care about the good characters. You’ll want to see Chaney get his comeuppance though, especially after he attempts to rape Beverly Garland.

This is a solid movie for it’s genre. It seems to be somewhat forgotten, even in old school horror circles, but it’s definitely a worthwhile picture and much better than the standard for the time.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: Man-Made Monster, the Creature From the Black Lagoon trilogy and The She-Creature.