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As many readers may know, Godzilla’s cinematic career is divided into specific periods, with only the first of which, the Showa era (15 films spanning 1954-75), I am particularly familiar. Back in November, after noticing that Starz Encore Action was showing a boatload of Toho’s kaiju eiga—including at least two non-series films—I discovered why: Janus Films and the Criterion Collection had just acquired the rights to much of their Showa-era catalog. Many of those widescreen prints were subtitled, and some previously unseen in North America, giving me an excuse to revisit films that I had mostly never viewed in their original forms; by chance, I also had access to two of those they omitted, with only King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972) eluding me…small loss though they were.

Now, you know I’m not gonna embark upon that kind of total immersion without documenting it for posterity somehow, yet with the travails of our recent relocation drastically reducing my writing time, I had to forego the traditional synopsis and/or review route. Instead, I welcomed an opportunity to spend some quality time on SuperMegaMonkey’s Godzilla Chronology Project (a kaiju counterpart to their invaluable Marvel Comics Chronology, so often cited on our Marvel University blog), which is where this material originally appeared in the comments sections, but as it grew and grew, it seemed a shame not to repurpose it in some slightly more enduring way. Thus, with minimal edits, rearranged into chronological order—which is not how I viewed them, as will be clear—and divided into what I hope are three readily digestible parts, here is the closest I may ever come to an overview of the Showa Godzilla, incomplete and scattershot as it is.

 

Godzilla (1954, aka Godzilla, King of the Monsters!)

Having missed the first recent Starz showing of Godzilla’s debut in its original Japanese version, which I saw only once years ago, I was looking forward to its Yuletide rebroadcast, yet when we finally relocated to our new home five days before Christmas, we got the disheartening (if not entirely unexpected) news that it was too arboreal for satellite service. Now sans TV, I knew I could still keep my hand in with the Raymond Burr-adulterated 1956 U.S. cut, since I own that in two formats, VHS and laserdisc. Normally, defaulting to the latter would be a no-brainer, but since the videotape was a hitherto-unopened relic from my erstwhile employer, the now-defunct GoodTimes Entertainment, I decided to show some retroactive team spirit; alas, it lacks the far superior jacket copy I later wrote myself for our DVD.

As a glass-half-full guy, I still find even this compromised version tremendously effective, and I don’t think it’s merely because the potency of the underlying material allows it to withstand the Stateside “improvements” that many of us would deem unnecessary. Giving credit where it’s due, I think “co-director” Terry O. Morse & Co. were really in there punching; sure, a trained eye can spot the filmed-from-behind doubles for Momoko Kōchi et alia that help give the Burr footage verisimilitude, but I’m impressed that they went to so much trouble to integrate it seamlessly, and his narration—which often has its own dramatic power, taking me viscerally back to my youth—obviates the need to cut or dub all of the Japanese dialogue. To me, their worst sin was voicing the great Takashi Shimura (who starred in Toho’s simultaneously produced [!] Kurosawa masterpiece, Seven Samurai) with somebody who can’t pronounce the word “phenomenon,” which he mangles at least three times, and perhaps not even consistently at that.

It may seem a stretch, but I would draw an analogy between this deadly serious monochrome classic’s relationship to its colorful, anything-goes sequels and that of the late George A. Romero’s immortal, ha ha, Night of the Living Dead. In each case, the follow-up films have their own undeniable merits, yet their styles are so drastically different as to leave the originals in a class by themselves, and although Maestro Akira Ifukube introduces many of the martial and/or monstrous themes that will become staples of the series, other cues epitomize an overall tone, in every sense of the word, that I can only call mournful. The scenes of devastated Tokyo still drive home the somewhat diminished anti-nuke message, while opening on them in medias res adds to the suspenseful build-up for Godzilla’s entrance (after 27 minutes in my version); the destruction so masterfully orchestrated by effects director Eiji Tsuburaya is somehow more personal here, emphasizing the human toll in a way that is usually sidestepped in later years, and the elaborate miniatures look a bit more like actual buildings.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt sorry for the denuded Godzilla at the end, when Shimura’s stricken face reminds us of Dr. Yamane’s idealistic assertion that he should have been studied rather than destroyed. Embodied by the suitably haunted-looking Akihiko Hirata, who reportedly switched roles with Akira Takarada at director Ishiro Honda’s behest, Dr. Serizawa is a truly tragic figure and, ironically, faces a Trumanesque decision (i.e., Should I employ this unprecedented destructive force in the service of a possibly greater good?), while his brief tussle with Ogata may be sparked as much by his unrequited love for Emiko as anything else. Underwater photography is always a plus for me, and his lonely suicide—presumably committed not solely to prevent his invention from falling into the wrong hands—adds to a final “victory” over Godzilla that seems anything but happy.

 

Godzilla Raids Again (1955, aka Gigantis, the Fire Monster; Godzilla’s Counterattack)

Actually, I would have re-watched this one anyway, since its rarity for so many years has left me less familiar with it than with so many others. Min (the equally entertaining partner of SuperMegaMonkey mainstay fnord12) tickled me with her observation that as he appears in this film, Godzilla “could benefit from a little orthodontic work,” since I said the same thing myself!

Mark Drummond, whose typically trenchant comments often grace the Marvel site, noted that, “According to Svengoolie’s recent showing of this film, the speeded-up monster fight was entirely an accident by the cameraman.” Just to expand on that, it seems the fight scenes were shot with multiple cameras, all of which were supposed to be set at the same speed, but some knucklehead overlooked the fact that one was set too slow, which of course sped up the action when played back. For whatever reason(s), they left it in, although I think it’s a definite debit.

The original plan for the U.S. release (outside of Japanese-language theaters that played the real thing) was to scrap everything but the monster footage and build a “new” movie around that, as Roger Corman did with several Soviet SF films. To that end, a new script entitled The Volcano Monsters was co-written by Ib (Reptilicus) Melchior, and Toho actually lent the Yanks some Godzilla and Anguirus suits to shoot new footage. But the company involved went under, and it was decided to go with a pretty drastic case of the more traditional dub-and-recut route, hence the notorious “banana oil” dialogue, oppressive narration, stock footage, and “clever” name change to Gigantis.

All of which I was mercifully spared while watching the subtitled original version…

 

Rodan (1956, aka Rodan, the Flying Monster)

Okay, these are not classics in the Citizen Kane sense, but by God, it’s heartening to see them treated with respect. Note to gaijin: we don’t need no stinkin’ stock footage! It’s especially interesting to revisit this early effort from the Honda/Tsuburaya/Ifukube “Dream Team” (I’m taking Tomoyuki Tanaka as a given since he produced all of Toho’s genre films). Although boasting a plethora of kaiju, it has not yet evolved, if that is the word, into the standard slugfest among them, and considerable suspense is generated in introducing them. It’s a full 17 minutes before the first Meganulon appears—said prehistoric insect popping up out of nowhere while the cast is still puzzling over how a human could have killed the victims in the mine—and another 20 before we get an even remotely recognizable shot of Rodan. I had a similar reaction when Shigeru identified it: “Yes, that’s definitely the giant monster I saw.”

Speaking of whom, I note that Kenji Sahara appeared in almost two dozen of these films, yet at least as seen here, his boyish face is far less indelibly etched in my memory than those of some of his colleagues. I’m going to try to use this total-immersion opportunity to get a better handle on some of them, since I’m ashamed to admit that they have hitherto somewhat blended together. Of course, Akihiko Hirata always looks naked without the eyepatch he sported as Dr. Serizawa in Godzilla. Unintentional hilarity: when Kashiwagi compares the photo recovered from the ill-fated groom’s camera with the Pteranodon image, it appears not only to confirm the species but also to match the exact shot.

 

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964, aka Godzilla vs. the Thing)

Reading up on this, I see that it’s widely, and in my opinion rightly, considered one of the best Godzilla films—or at least sequels—ever. But Ghid[o]rah is so cool that between them, the next two entries and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (my favorite) have more than once made me forget how great this picture is.

Often, when I watch one of these, my response is something along the lines of, “Well, that was fun…but [fill in the blank],” or “Hey, that was pretty good…for a kaiju eiga.” No qualifiers here. This is a damned good movie, period. Save for mild, allegedly comic relief like the egg-eating Jiro, Godzilla’s swan song as a straight-ahead villain is dead serious, and speaking of dead, I found the head shot with which Torahata kills Kumayama surprising for 1964. The evil businessmen, so ubiquitous in these films, pay with their lives, and the death of Mama Mothra, protectively placing her wing over her egg with her last breath, is poignant.

Overmatched though her daughter will be against Ghidrah in the next film, she’s a badass here, beating the crap out of Godzilla until he nails her with a lucky shot of his wildly flailing atomic breath. That battle is nothing short of spectacular, and the effects overall are excellent, e.g., the totally convincing shot of the Fairies in their little travel case, surrounded by full-sized humans. The storm footage at the beginning is equally impressive, as is Godzilla’s eruption from the ground, however the hell he got there.

Add to that the debonair good looks of Akira Takarada, perhaps my favorite Toho genre star; the slimy villainy of Kenji Sahara, poles apart from his good-guy role in Rodan; and one of Maestro Ifukube’s best scores, and you have a prize package that can’t be beat. Doubtless it didn’t hurt that it was left largely intact by U.S. distributor AIP.

 

Ghid[o]rah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)

Because we tend to default to the familiar, this will always be Ghidrah (i.e., sans “o”) to me. Speaking of which, since I have hitherto seen most of these films primarily or exclusively in dubbed versions, I never got familiar with the voices of the original casts, making it an unusual experience to recognize Akiko Wakabayashi’s from You Only Live Twice.

Apparently the U.S. version was subjected to a high degree of tampering, including the inexplicable change of Ghidrah’s home planet from Venus to Mars. The dialogue about one of the two larval Mothras having died in the interim was also altered to the effect that the adult Mothra died and the larva (singular) was still alive, raising for alert viewers the question of what happened to the other larva.

Vague in any version is the exact nature of the Princess/Prophetess transformation. A more or less straightforward “possession” by the Venusian intelligence seems to be the most obvious answer, although there’s also some suggestion that Venusian traits have been assimilated into humans over the centuries, rather like in Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit.

Interesting to see both Godzilla’s transformation from villain to hero, or at least anti-hero, and the concomitant “tag team” progression from Godzilla/Mothra in the prior film through this one’s Godzilla/Mothra/Rodan/Ghidrah to Monster Zero’s (again, as I know it) Godzilla/Rodan/Ghidrah.

In addition to Godzilla’s and Rodan’s juvenile amusement at the other’s discomfiture when sprayed with Mothra-silk, another indication of the series’ increasingly kid-friendly tone comes just before the “summit meeting” among the three monsters (with, mercifully, no trace in the Japanese version of the Fairy’s stern “Oh, Godzilla, what terrible language”). When Godzilla and Rodan volley a boulder between them, they are intercut with reaction shots of Mothra’s head repeatedly going back and forth, as though she were watching a tennis match in some bizarre kaiju eiga version of Strangers on a Train. When Godzilla decides to nip Ghidrah’s smackdown of Mothra in the bud, I got a sense less of shaming, as fnord inferred, than of, “Hey, Mothra’s a pest, but she’s our pest!”

Min (who occasionally delights me with what I take to be Pogo-isms such as “mebbe” and “prolly”) and fnord make excellent points about how ill-conceived the shock-treatment gizmo is, e.g., why does it go up to 3,000 volts when 500 is supposedly fatal? But as for how Malness & Co. knew how to use it, I took it that the assassins were simply eavesdropping while waiting outside, and thus heard Tsukamoto’s explanation.

 

Addendum:  Steve Ryfle, whose 1998 book Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G” (presumably so titled to avoid the wrath of the notoriously litigious Toho) was invaluable in my research, has now written Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, which he will discuss and autograph at New York’s Japan Society at 6:30 P.M. on Wednesday, February 21.  Since it is moderated by Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at the incomparable Film Forum, and the reception to follow will feature a display of rare Godzillabilia, the event is sure to be memorable.  The society is also showing the original Japanese version of Godzilla on Friday, February 2, at 7:00 P.M.; special thanks to Colon-san for alerting me to these events.

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On December 20, Madame BOF and I finally took formal residence at our new house in Newtown after 19 years in Bethel, a mere five days before we were compelled to host a dozen adult guests—plus one baby—for Christmas, and almost nine months since we’d closed on the place back in March. The refurbishment and the relocation of our possessions are far from over even now, while the Yuletide gathering was understandably not without its hiccups, but all things considered, it went pretty smoothly, with everyone appearing to have a good time, and with the holiday madness waning at last, we are actually starting to settle in and remember why we loved the house enough to buy it. My pride and joy is, naturlich, the finished basement boasting two walls with built-in shelves (holding DVDs, laserdiscs, videotapes, hardcovers, and trade paperbacks), two walls now lined with freestanding bookcases (holding mass-market paperbacks) and, in the midst of the latter, the lesser of our two widescreen TVs, strategically placed opposite my exercise bike so that, while riding, I am literally surrounded by books and movies.

How’s that for a nexus of film and literature!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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I Remember Llama

Okay, now Madame BOF can die happy.  On a recent Sunday, we celebrated her then-upcoming birthday—no numbers, please—by going on a llama hike organized by Rowanwood Farm of nearby Sandy Hook (yes, that one).  Until recently, and as still indicated on their site, they conducted the hikes at the now-defunct McLaughlin Vineyards, which my local sister-in-law, Alison, had actually visited in her oenophile capacity.  But they’ve recently found another venue, also in our one-of-these-days home town of Newtown, at the Sticks and Stones Farm, where I gather many bones are broken.  Womp womp.

The “hiking adventure” begins with a substantive and fascinating educational/instructional session, conducted by llama-mama A.J.—who transports them to the venue in a repurposed minivan dubbed the Llama Limo—while they graze in a grassy field.  Here’s a shot of the limo, complete with cut-out llama.

Here’s Hannah—uh, Reenie—and her sisters (L to R):  Denise, up from Maryland for the occasion, with Lark; Ali with Lady Hawk; my lovely bride with Maple (sweet!); and your humble correspondent with “Sir Rowan of Rowanwood.”

There’s apparently quite an art to pairing these miniature llamas with the hikers.  I was partnered with the only male in our group of seven, comprising us and a pleasant family of three; you can see Moon with the father (or at least part of the latter) to our left in the photo above.

But they really hit it out of the park with Maple…

…who was actually nuzzling Loreen’s neck, thus transporting the object of the exercise into an ecstasy I can only dream of inspiring.  Note Loreen’s Zoo Lights sweatshirt; we hope to attend this wonderful event at the National Zoo in D.C. again while visiting our daughter and son-in-law for Thanksgiving.

Here’s Ali with Lady Hawk…

…and again with me and Rowan in the background.

Sir Rowan always brings up the rear, which made him a perfect match for me, although in his case for a more admirable reason:  protecting the herd and watching out for stragglers.  It’s not obvious from this photo, but we’re—or at least he’s—standing protectively on a little ridge above the stream where all six females (the llamas, that is) are enjoying a cool drink.  I thought he’d go down and partake once the others were finished, but he nobly forewent his refreshment.  You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

“Happy trails to you…”

After the hike, the llamas chow down in this corral, allowing them to feed without constant supervision, since if left to their own devices they will apparently eat all sorts of poisonous plants—a heavy responsibility for the human hikers, who must maintain strict vigilance!

Special thanks to Denise and Alison for sharing their photos.

Talent Show

It is probably inevitable that Texas-born Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), who lived long in New York but spent her final years in Switzerland, will be best known for the first of her 22 novels, Strangers on a Train (1950).  Its innumerable official and unofficial adaptations will, equally inevitably, be overshadowed by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 version, which was co-written by BOF fave Raymond Chandler, and filmed partly at the railroad station in my former home of Danbury.  Yet five of those novels—the so-called “Ripliad,” comprising The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), Ripley Under Ground (1970), Ripley’s Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), and Ripley Under Water (1991)—feature her unique creation of con artist and murderer Tom Ripley.

As usual, I met Ripley onscreen, embodied by Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders’s The American Friend (1977), the first version of Ripley’s Game.  Both that and The Talented Mr. Ripley, filmed by René Clément with Alain Delon as Plein Soleil (Full Sun, aka Purple Noon) in 1960, were remade under their original titles by, respectively, Liliana Cavani with John Malkovich in 2002, and Anthony Minghella with Matt Damon in 1999.  The American Friend also incorporated plot elements from Ripley Under Ground, filmed by Roger Spottiswoode with Barry Pepper in 2005, although I am unfamiliar with that or his TV oeuvre, e.g., Franklin J. Schaffner’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” a 1956 Studio One episode adapted by Highsmith’s one-time fiancé, Marc Brandel.

Years ago, before reading a word of her work—and that still shockingly includes Strangers on a Train, perhaps a post for another day—I vowed that given the opportunity, I would engage in a page-to-screen comparison.  The American Friend (for which Madame BOF developed a belated appreciation once I had persistently persuaded her to give it another chance, after my disastrous introduction) is the only film from the cinematic Ripley canon that I own, as I do the Ripliad, but recent broadcasts of Purple Noon and The Talented Mr. Ripley have enabled me to begin.  The novel is part travelogue, enumerating the European haunts of its peripatetic protagonists, and part psychological study, written in the third person yet always deep inside Ripley’s fascinating mind.

It opens in New York, where Tom has been running a minor income-tax scam and is approached in a bar by Herbert Greenleaf with an unusual request.  The wealthy shipbuilder’s wife, Emily, is ill, and they want their son, Richard, to return home from Mongibello, the town south of Naples in which Dickie has used his own income to buy a house, spending his time sailing and painting.  Believing Ripley to be more than the casual acquaintance he is, Greenleaf (at first mistaken for a policeman about to arrest Tom) asks him to go to Italy—all expenses paid, of course—and use his “influence” on Dickie, an offer that Tom finds quite irresistible, especially since his financial, housing, legal, and personal circumstances all make it desirable that he get the hell out of Dodge.

A solitary crossing via the Cunard Line lets us get to know Tom better (orphaned by drowning, raised in Boston by his hated Aunt Dottie, running away unsuccessfully at 17 and then at 20 to “a series of haphazard jobs,” or none at all,  in New York).  His mission begins inauspiciously when Dickie barely remembers him, further complicated by the presence of fellow American Marjorie Sherwood, an aspiring author whose relationship with Dickie is ambiguous; Tom thinks that only Marge desires more than friendship between them.  In desperation, he comes clean about his true purpose to Dickie, who is amused and asks Tom to stay with him, but several faux pas strain the situation, and after more than a month, Greenleaf writes to say he considers the mission a failure.

From the start, Highsmith has established Tom’s envy of Dickie’s privileged life, their surface similarities—same age, same height—and Ripley’s talent for mimicry (“I can forge a signature, fly a helicopter, handle dice, impersonate practically anybody”).  Now, he hits on what is for him a perfectly logical solution:  kill Dickie during their trip to San Remo and take his place, signing his name on the monthly remittance checks.  Despite his hatred of water, he arranges for them to rent a small boat; in a nightmarish scene worthy of Hitchcock, Tom kills Dickie with an oar once they are out of sight of land and sinks his naked, weighted body, nearly drowning when he falls briefly overboard in the process, then scuttles the bloodstained boat just off of a deserted beach.

He is enjoying his borrowed life when another American, Freddie Miles, appears at “Dickie’s” apartment in Rome, having finally learned his elusive friend’s address, and is surprised to find Tom there instead.  His improvised explanations merely making Miles more suspicious, Ripley panics and kills him with an ashtray, sneaking the body out to Freddie’s car as though helping a drunken friend and hiding it behind a tomb on the Appian Way.  His web of lies begins to tighten with the sequential discoveries of Freddie’s body, the boat, the forgeries, and Dickie’s bags, which he had checked under an alias; meanwhile, he is forced to dodge and/or deceive the police, Marge, other friends of Dickie’s, Herbert Greenleaf, and a private eye he hires, Alvin McCarron.

Ironically, the police begin to suspect Dickie of killing not only Freddie but also Tom, so having relocated to Venice, he presents himself to the police as Ripley to prove he is still alive, and must regretfully abandon Dickie’s identity.  Among my bedrock personality traits is a discomfort with imposture (I practically break into a cold sweat when spies go undercover), so Ripley’s dizzying “Who am I now?” mindset was quite harrowing, also posing an unenviably internal conflict for a scenarist to portray.  As a precaution, he fakes a document “not to be opened for several months” in which Dickie bequeaths his money to Tom, and when Marge finds Dickie’s rings—narrowly avoiding ending up like Freddie—Ripley states that Dickie had wanted him to take care of them.

Tempting fate, Ripley writes to Greenleaf once the latter has returned to America, reporting the “discovery” of the will, which seems to confirm his and Marge’s suspicion that Dickie has either killed himself or changed his identity. Tom sails aboard the Hellenes on his long-awaited trip to Greece, wondering if he will be arrested at any moment, but because the fingerprints on the suitcases match those in “Dickie’s” apartment, he is assumed to have deposited them himself.  The book ends on a note that, while perhaps a tad anticlimactic for the reader, is one of qualified triumph for Ripley, who learns that the Greenleafs have decided to respect Dickie’s final wishes regarding the will, although Highsmith implies that he will always be looking over his shoulder…

Not overly familiar with Clément’s work, I know I caught up at some point with Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952), his heart-rending Oscar-winner about two children who cope with the horrors of World War II by creating a pet cemetery, and I’m sure I saw eons ago but have totally forgotten Le Passager de la Pluie (Rider on the Rain, 1969), a thriller with Charles Bronson and the all-too-inevitable Jill Ireland.  Apparently a pricey flop, Paris Brule-t-il? (Is Paris Burning?, 1966) is a Longest Day-style docudrama whose all-star cast embodies several historical figures.  Two Gil-faves, Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal, adapted the book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre about the liberation of Paris and Hitler’s failed plan to level it preemptively.

The effect of its ending is dramatic even by Maudlin Man standards, so those who wish to may indulge me, while the many Francophobes in my orbit skip ahead.  Believing Hitler insane and the war lost, military governor General Dietrich von Choltitz (Goldfinger himself, Longest Day vet Gert Fröbe) disobeys, surrendering to the Allies, and as they enter the city, its destruction forestalled, Notre Dame’s bells are slowly set into motion, announcing its liberation while the swastika falls, torn to pieces by a crowd that bursts into “La Marseillaise.”  All at once, Maurice Jarre’s deliriously joyful “Paris Waltz” accompanies the camera as it soars into the air with their jubilant spirits, the credits unspooling over aerial shots of Paris as black and white turns to color.

Okay, Ripley, right.  Paul Gégauff, a longtime collaborator of Claude Chabrol’s on both sides of the camera, and Clément won a 1962 Edgar Allan Poe Award for adapting Purple Noon, named Best Foreign Film.  They fast-forward 40-odd pages into the novel, joining Ripley and Philippe Greanleaf (Maurice Ronet) on their lark in Rome, where they encounter Miles, who in this case already knows, and clearly disdains, Tom.  Neither Alain Delon, in a star-making turn as Ripley (his several films with Clément include Is Paris Burning?), nor Ronet makes a very convincing American, but expat Yank Billy Kearns adds a morceau of verisimilitude as Freddy (sic); Romy Schneider, then Delon’s fiancée, has an uncredited cameo as one of Miles’s female companions.

The broad strokes of Highsmith’s plot remain, yet the erratic score by Nino “Rotta” of Godfather fame epitomizes the film’s tonal shifts.  The scenarists add a thematically interesting interlude in Rome as the two buy a white cane from a blind man (unbilled and unrecognizable Jesús Franco mainstay Paul Muller), then feign sightlessness themselves, segueing into an expansion of a brief bit in the novel where they bump into a young woman and share a cab with her.  Their frat-boy antics here seem disarmingly lighthearted, yet later, Philippe displays a real streak of cruelty, and admits to Marge Duval (Marie Laforêt, strongly resembling a Gallic Barbara Steele) that he is merely amusing himself with Ripley, who fabricates a nonexistent childhood friendship for them.

The cinematic Tom has been offered $5,000 to bring Philippe home, so when the latter reveals he has no intention of returning to San Francisco, he sets the wheels in motion for his own demise.  His relationship with Marge is overtly romantic—his sailboat is even named after her, rather than Highsmith’s Pipistrello (Italian for “bat”)—and in an effective change, the scenarists conflate the Pipi, which has very little relevance in the book, with the rented motorboat.  Much of the tension among the three main characters is played out in, and exacerbated by, the narrow confines of the Marge, creating a dynamic that, to this writer, anticipated Roman Polanski’s Oscar-nominated feature-film debut, Knife in the Water (1962), or that perennial BOF favorite, Dead Calm (1989).

Although his backstory is omitted, Ripley’s fear of water is established during a prank taken too far when, to punish him for a minor infraction, Philippe forces him to climb into the dinghy, only to have the tow-line snap, subjecting a shirtless Tom to the effect of the plein soleil for hours.  In retaliation, he slips an earring (palmed during the carriage ride in Rome) into Philippe’s pocket; in the ensuing argument with a jealous Marge, Philippe commits the inexcusable sin of throwing overboard the manuscript of the book she was writing on Renaissance painter Fra Angelico.  She then demands to be put ashore, setting the stage for the murder, and the scenarists cleverly turn exposition into dialogue by having Philippe discuss the plan with Ripley, thinking it to be a joke.

Philippe is killed abruptly, with a knife rather than an oar, yet the protracted sequence in which Ripley wraps the corpse in canvas and dumps it overboard while the boat pitches in a high sea is masterful, with only the rushing water and the wind whipping through the sails on the soundtrack as he is knocked from the deck, and must clamber back aboard before cutting the cord towing the body.  Highly compressed like much else from the novel, the cat-and-mouse game with Inspector Riccordi (Erno Crisa) focuses on Freddy’s murder, ironically with an apparent jade Buddha, but it is Philippe’s that sows the seeds of Tom’s downfall.  And although she praised Alain Delon’s casting, Highsmith was, not surprisingly, unhappy that he receives his comeuppance at the finale.

The cinematic Ripley withdraws most of Philippe’s money from the bank and appends a note to the stack of cash bequeathing it to Marge, whom he also makes the beneficiary of the faked will.  He returns to Mongibello, where the grieving Marge has become a recluse, and slowly wins her over with protestations of his own love, the authenticity of his affections being open to doubt as he relaxes and prepares to enjoy nothing but “the best.”  Yet as the Marge is being hauled ashore, preparatory to its sale, it drags behind it Philippe’s shrouded body—the cord having been fouled in the propeller—which belies his supposed suicide, triggers the watching Marge’s offscreen scream, and prompts Ripley’s summons from the beach as the persistent Riccordi waits for him…

Highsmith’s pseudonymous The Price of Salt (1952) was a landmark lesbian novel reissued as Carol, under which title it was filmed by Todd Haynes in 2015 with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.  “I don’t think Ripley is gay,” his creator insisted to Sight and Sound’s Gerald Peary.  “He appreciates good looks in other men, that’s true.  But he’s married in later books.  I’m not saying he’s very strong in the sex department.  But he makes it in bed with his wife.”  Tom is equally adamant about not being “queer” in The Talented Mr. Ripley, yet I think it would be difficult to deny assertions of a homoerotic subtext in the version written and directed by Minghella, who died of a hemorrhage after surgery at only 54, and is best known for The English Patient (1996).

Clément (who had a Hitchcockian cameo as a servant, although I wouldn’t recognize him) used Delon’s smoldering sexuality—down, Madame BOF!—to emphasize the charisma with which Ripley charms his marks.  Minghella, conversely, uses Damon’s Everyman appearance to stress the self-effacing quality that fosters his chameleonic m.o., slipping in numerous references to erasure and invisibility.  He preserves the 1950s setting and includes several characters largely or wholly absent from Purple Noon, including Alvin MacCarron (sic; Philip Baker Hall), “new Venetian friend” Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport), and Herbert (James Rebhorn), who mistakes stranger Tom for a classmate of Dickie (Jude Law), due to a borrowed Princeton jacket.

Minghella does make some interesting changes, e.g., Dickie’s passion is no longer painting but jazz—his boat is named Bird after Charlie Parker—which Tom bones up on before meeting him, using it to wangle the offer to move in.  The relationship with Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) is again romantic, if hardly monogamous; Tom observes his dalliance with Silvana (Stefania Rocca), and when the pregnant village girl drowns herself after Dickie rejects her plea for help, Tom offers to take the blame, claiming they are now “brothers.”  Blanchett, aptly, plays another new character, heiress Meredith Logue, to whom he impulsively introduces himself as Dickie while debarking from the Cunard liner, later manipulating her to give Marge “evidence” of her fiancé’s infidelity.

Arising out of an argument aboard the motorboat—rented at his suggestion here—Dickie’s death does not appear premeditated, and might be considered second- or third-degree murder, possibly making Tom more sympathetic.  I would like to be careful here, because I don’t pretend to know Minghella’s intentions, but Ripley comes across as a spurned lover in the unorthodox “triangle” with Marge, and his later laments to Peter (whose character is jumped up to an obvious romantic conquest) about being locked in the darkness by his lies could easily be code for a closeted gay man.  On the other hand, based on what we know of the character, Damon’s Mr. Ripley could be effectively pansexual, changing orientation as readily, and as self-servingly, as he does identities.

Again, the author’s denouement undergoes the biggest change, following a false ending close to hers in which—despite Marge asserting that she knows he killed Dickie—Ripley evades justice, assured by MacCarron that Herbert wishes to conceal his son’s hitherto unknown violent past, supporting the theory that he killed Freddie, and honor his “bequest.”  But en route to Athens with Peter, who knows him as Tom, he finds himself trapped aboard the very same vessel with Meredith, who along with her entourage knows him as Dickie.  Seeing no recourse, he sobbingly strangles (offscreen, albeit audibly) his inamorato, who would unwittingly expose him, with Minghella once again seeming to solicit our sympathy for Highsmith’s “utterly amoral” creation.

Perhaps tipping his hand, the title credit unreels the following before finally landing on Talented:  “mysterious, yearning, secretive, sad, lonely, troubled, confused, loving, musical, gifted, intelligent, beautiful, tender, sensitive, haunted, passionate.”  The film’s five Oscar nominations included Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Law, who gives Dickie much of the magnetism Delon brought to Ripley; Paltrow is equally adept at portraying the plight of the fragile Marge, who is ever mindful of his short attention span and wandering eye.  Philip Seymour Hoffman brought his gift for unflattering but fascinating characters to the expanded role of Freddie, a true ugly American killed this time with a bust of the Roman Emperor Hadrian.

I quite liked each version on its own merits, with their lush cinematography making excellent use of the extensive Italian locations, but since they respectively subverted Highsmith’s ending—she reportedly called Purple Noon’s “a terrible concession to so-called public morality that the criminal had to be caught”—and her protagonist’s personality, I don’t feel that either one did full justice, as it were, to her conception.  She is also said to have written, while beginning The Talented Mr. Ripley, that she was “showing the unequivocal triumph of evil over good, and rejoicing in it,” so one can only imagine what she might have made of Minghella’s mournful apologia had she lived to see it.  Meanwhile, if the stars align, I will write a follow-up someday…

Best-Case Scenario

Penguin Random House, my long-ago employers (then Penguin USA), have just published an elegant Penguin Classics volume, The Best of Richard Matheson, edited with an introduction by award-winning author Victor LaValle, touted as “one of horror fiction’s brightest talents.”  My old pal Greg Cox and his colleagues at Tor pretty much own Richard’s oeuvre in trade editions and, since the mid-1990s, have done a commendable job of keeping his stories in print, either accompanying his shorter novels or in their own collections.  So the last thing we needed is one whose contents represent the usual suspects…and this ain’t it, which does credit to LaValle, who deems this “The Best of Richard Matheson—at least according to me”; that’s just as it should be.

Despite starting with Richard’s 1950 professional debut, these 33 stories are otherwise presented in no discernible order.  Many are established classics, yet others were first published more than 50 years after “Born of Man and Woman” by Gauntlet Press, Tor’s counterpart when it comes to limited editions of his work, in Masques V (“Haircut”) and Matheson Uncollected: Volume One (“Counterfeit Bills,” “Man with a Club,” “The Prisoner”).  Of greatest interest, at least to me, is “Now Die in It,” which after appearing in the December 1958 issue of Mystery Tales was soon expanded into Richard’s twice-filmed 1959 novel Ride the Nightmare, and only finally saw book publication in its original incarnation in Gauntlet’s Matheson Uncollected: Volume Two in 2010.

LaValle’s well-written 12-page intro says surprisingly little about the actual tales, with more than half of it devoted to relating his own unnerving “Matheson moment,” when his teenaged self “stepped into a story he could’ve written.”  Yet letting the work speak for itself is no bad thing, and given Richard’s customary concision, those 407 pages encompass an impressive range, both chronologically and thematically.  The stories run the gamut from the horror (“Blood Son,” “Dress of White Silk”) and science fiction (“Witch War,” “The Last Day”) genres for which he is best known to crime fiction (“A Visit to Santa Claus”), Westerns (“The Conqueror”), and even a collaboration with author/scenarist son Richard Christian Matheson (“Where There’s a Will”).

Nowadays, the DIY shorts proliferating like mushrooms on YouTube—a trend that was still but nascent when I went to press with Richard Matheson on Screen—have blurred, perhaps forever, the lines demarcating what I would consider “real” movies.  Yet given the frequency with which his work was dramatized, it’s no surprise that almost half of these stories have been adapted in features (“Button, Button”), TV-movies (“Prey,” “Dying Room Only,” “Duel,” “No Such Thing as a Vampire”), or episodes of The Twilight Zone (“Death Ship,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Third from the Sun,” “Long Distance Call,” “Mute”), Night Gallery (“The Funeral,” “Big Surprise”), and other TV series (“Shipshape Home,” “Dance of the Dead,” “One for the Books”).

Back in May, Richard’s agent e-mailed some bibliographic questions from Penguin editor Sam Raim, and since Mrs. Bradley didn’t raise any stupid children, I looped in my Richard Matheson Companion co-editor Paul Stuve, who is to his published work what I am to his screen credits.  We were, alas, not able to correct the citation misidentifying 87th Precinct creator Ed McBain as “Bain” in the title of his eponymous Mystery Book, or minor errors regarding Richard’s Twilight Zone episodes (he scripted 14—“Third from the Sun” not among them—rather than 16, basing only half on his stories).  But for non-curmudgeonly lay readers, this handsome edition, of which Sam kindly sent me a copy, can serve as a wonderful introduction to Richard’s legendary talents.

“Avenge Me, Boys!”

With those basset-hound eyes, a face like worn shoe leather, and a voice that somehow sounded perennially muffled, Harry Dean Stanton was truly one of the screen’s great character actors; he had a filmography to die for, yet when I think of Harry, who went to his well-earned rest at 91 on September 15, I think first and foremost of two roles that bookended his work in the 1970s. Then billed simply as Dean Stanton, and already a 16-year screen veteran, he was Willard, a quintessential member of the platoon in Kelly’s Heroes (1970). And as Brett in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), his lonely death while probing the bowels of the Nostromo in search of errant cat Jonesy is, I submit, an indelible scene in a uniformly unforgettable film.

The list of names linked with Stanton’s is like a Who’s Who of BOF-centric cinema: Sam Peckinpah (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973), Raymond Chandler (Farewell, My Lovely, 1975), John Huston (Wise Blood, 1979), John Carpenter (Escape from New York, 1981; Christine, 1983), Sam Shepard (Fool for Love, 1985), John Frankenheimer (the frustratingly as-yet-unseen The Fourth War, 1990; Against the Wall, 1994), David Lynch (Wild at Heart, 1990, et alia), Elmore Leonard (The Big Bounce, 2004).

Perhaps inevitably, prominent billing usually eluded guys like Harry, yet when given the ball, he ran with it, e.g., as Emilio Estevez’s gruff mentor in Alex Cox’s Repo Man (“…ordinary f*ck*ng people. [Exquisitely timed beat.] I hate ’em.”), and most especially as the unlikely lead in Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (both 1984), which was already high on my list to revisit before his death. Suffice to say that even a film as lowly as Red Dawn (also 1984—a banner year!) was enhanced by his presence, braying the line that gave this post its title.

Harry, you were unique, and will be sorely missed. God bless.

Addendum: Two other recent nonagenarian passings make for a curious juxtaposition. I don’t like boxing, so I don’t like boxing movies, so I’m not a big fan of Raging Bull (1980), so I don’t care too much that Jake LaMotta died at 95 on September 19. But I do remember vividly that his ex-wife, Vikki, posed nude in Playboy (founded by Hugh Hefner, who died yesterday, also at 91) in November 1981 at 51, and blew away many of their models practically young enough to be her grandchildren. This being a family blog, you’ll have to take my word for it.