Saturday, 8 August 2015

No 27.FRITZ THE CAT (1972)


Released in 1972, this was the first X-rated cartoon movie in the USA and it’s a subversive wicked delight. Based on Robert Crumb’s psychedelic comic-strips (themselves the result of extended side-effects from an acid trip)  - and being the first feature work of Ralph Bakshi, later to animate LORD OF THE RINGS, it became the most successful animation film in history. Be warned - with its sharp adult dialogue and drug/sex depictions, TOP CAT this is not. However, if you’ve ever been curious as to what TC would look like as a sex-crazed dope fiend, stop by…

FRITZ THE CAT is set in New York and satirises both sides of the era’s hot social topics: the counter-culture poses as well as the state. The world here is populated almost completely by anthropomorphised animals, though you do get brief glimpses of humans – like in the opening where you see a few men strolling across the frame with Crumb’s idiosyncratic huge feet and peculiar backward-sloping ‘Keep on truckin’ walk. (Most recently, this assumed shared world idea would be used in Netflix’s BOJACK HORSEMAN).

The story is a loose episodic tale of the titular cat, a randy moggy who opportunistically picks up girls by faking an artistic soul, becomes radicalised as a protester and then has second thoughts.
Here is a city where attitudinal types are given representative animals that in some cases tie in with social perceptions. Fritz, as a cat, is supposedly cool though prone to sex addiction. We’re introduced to him as the female cats he pursues are shown to be just as self-serving as he is. They crowd around one of the blacks (shown here as crows – more on this later) attempting to impress him with their special understanding of black issues, a spot-on dig at how easy it is to patronise with phony ill-informed credentials. Their observations and questions are innocent and in hilariously bad taste: “Why does James Earl Jones only play black men?” one asks. Another female makes a face-palm remark about her Black Studies program teaching her “I had no idea you people were so civilised.”

The police are literal pigs, portrayed as dumb, violent and with heavy ‘Noo Yowark’ accents. Their dim-bulb crudeness is another of the quotable dialogue pleasures of the movie. Just before gate-crashing a synagogue, (full of identical orthodox ‘lions’?), one of them hears Hebrew being intoned inside and asks his partner: “Dat don’t sound like English. What are dey? Puerto Ricans?” The script also adds to the spoofery by making one of the officers a Jewish pig!

There are also Nazi Hell’s Angel bikers and even a horny aardvark who seduces one of Fritz’s groupies in a communal bath-tub by suggesting his prowess is notable because “We’re very rare”. The bath is where we see what a bad boy Fritz is, mouthing modish platitudes about seeking the truth while he gets the young ‘pussies’ to go full frontally nude and get it on. “Such an existential little body”, he salivates in approval.

Pretty soon the bathtub overflows in an over-crowded orgy. Alongside the generous use of pot smoking (via actual tobacco pipes), this kind of material is still quite surprising to see on screen now. Imagine how ground-breaking it was over forty years ago? It created its own problems after production s we will see.

 The most controversial non-human depiction must be the presence of those crows to symbolise the black characters, and they don’t escape degrading stereotypes either. We get drug-dealers, big laughing mommas, Harlem violence and even fun poked at sexual clichés (When Fritz gets dementedly high and feverishly undoes himself to do the business with the large lady drug dealer, she mocks his offering, cooing “Honey, you ain’t black enough”.  There is the neat application though of a parallel racial friction to black and white humans between cats and birds. Fritz tries his own gambit of appealing to the ‘black vote’ in Harlem by insisting sententiously “As a cat, I have a guilt complex. My kind has always brought suffering on your kind”.

Pretty soon, the free-wheeling Fritz has his consciousness raised more than his love-spanner. He’s tired of the ‘fuckin’ intellectuals’ around him and goes to San Francisco with an old flame Winston. There, he hooks up with a junkie rabbit biker Blue and his horse girlfriend Harriet and becomes embroiled in a plot to blow up the local power station. The consequences hit him but so does the explosion before he can avert it; yet every cloud has a priapic silver lining for our hero as he is surrounded by the female cat admirers again and he ends the film as he began, in orgiastic glee.
It wasn’t just the adult cartoon visuals that were experimental in FRITZ THE CAT. The voice-acting, led by the irrepressible rough-diamond sparkle of Skip Hinnant as Fritz, often sounds raw and improvised in its freshness, which in many cases it was. Bakshi recorded a lot of the dialogue on New York streets to capture an authentic flavour, which earned complaints by the sound engineers for its inferior audio quality to mix from. At first, when I heard the construction workers’ scene, it reminded me of the later CREATURE COMFORTS conceit of matching animation to real interview recordings. (This was a genuinely real conversation Bakshi paid two workers $50 each to tape)

FRITZ THE CAT is great fun - in its broad strokes of lampooning the times and the priceless little details. Listen out for the circus music that plays in the riot scene when the incompetent cop cars arrive and crash into each other. And why does the Grim Reaper have a Brummie accent?
The film had a difficult birth, due firstly to protracted negotiation with Crumb for the rights, a man known as being a shrewd ‘slick hustler’. The artist had nothing to do with the film version, and in Terry Zwigoff’s fascinating documentary CRUMB you can hear him dismissing the makers during a college lecture as “schlock-meisters”. Warner Brothers originally bankrolled the movie but when they insisted on cuts to the sexual material, Bakshi responded to their retraction of funding by going with Jerry Gross’s company, a more liberal better fit known for distributing exploitation cinema. In order to gain a release, FRITZ THE CAT’s ‘X’ rating in America hurt it somewhat at the box-office as that rating was normally reserved for porn films – but its aforementioned success ballooned to a staggering $90 million. 

There’s a profitable lesson in artistic integrity…

Friday, 7 August 2015



Yes indeed, no fan blog covering movies from the late 1960s would be complete without the teenager’s psychedelic wet dream BARBARELLA!

This French comic-strip adaptation co-produced with Italian Dino Di Laurentiis and directed by her then husband, the Svengali Roger Vadim, is a madcap sci-fi romp. The delicious opening credit striptease performed by the stunning Jane Fonda accompanied by the title song serenading her as ‘Barbarella psychedella’ lets you in on the joke from the start. It’s sheer technicolour candyfloss and great fun.

The plot, like it matters, revolves around the President of Earth sending our go-go booted heroine to the Tau Ceti region to retrieve a Positronic Ray developed by scientist Durand Durand whom the government fears will end up in dangerous hands. Her first task is to find the inventor, which shouldn’t be hard as even in the distant future they’ll be endlessly touring somewhere on a nostalgic kick. (That’s right – Simon Le Bon’s band took their name from this very movie).

Along the way, Barbarella encounters some of the most amusingly bizarre cliff-hanger death possibilities imaginable. You thought the old monochrome Flash Gordon being lowered into a pit of fire was special? Try an army of razor-toothed, head-snapping mechanical dolls – or nearly being pecked to extinction by a horde of budgerigars. “This is really much too poetic a way to die,” she muses.

To assist our lovely astro-navigatrix as she’s called, she is helped by the be-furred Mark Hand (Ugo Tognazzi), a ‘catchman’ of wandering children. He takes one look at her and decides it’s time for naughties. He shuns her offer of pills and futuristic reduction of sex to ‘psycho-cardiogram’ chemistry and instead we cut to the aftermath of a good seeing-to, where she blissfully hums to herself having had her doors of perception well and truly opened. 

As Barbarella’s ship tunnels deep into the earth on her quest, we can already spot that the writers Terry ‘EASY RIDER’ Southern and Vadim have already set their controls for the heart of Planet Smut. Her language translator wrist-device is called a Tongue-box, the vessel’s tunnelling merchanism is named the Terra-screw and we’ll soon be introduced to a man known as Dildano. Ten year-olds of the world unite. Before that dubious pleasure, Barbarella is introduced, in more than one sense, to the blond, tanned blind angel Pygar who cannot fly at present. That will be resolved. He takes her (after she ‘takes’ him) to Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau – speaking!) who offers to fix her damaged ship.

There are two splendid villains to choose from in BARBARELLA. Door Number One is the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards favourite Anita Pallenberg as the Great Tyrant, dubbed by the famously seductive huskiness of Fenella Fielding. Or if you want to just play with madness, how about the great character actor Milo O’Shea as Durand Durand? He not only reminds you that ‘In space, everyone can hear you’re Irish’, but seems to be channelling the demented spirit of Keith Moon’s ‘Uncle Ernie’. He tries to incorporate her into his Excessive Machine [ahem] organ, playing a keyboard that floods her body orgasmically, but her libido unwittingly wrecks it. Even when he resorts to the Ming-esque declaration “I will destroy you with my Positronic Ray!” she [ahem again] overcomes him as well.

O’Shea isn’t the only actor who simply has to embrace the wackiness. David Hemmings, not long after achieving fame in Antonioni’s seminal BLOW-UP, here arrives with enough curls and a ratty moustache to resemble a ‘70s Scouse footballer who’s wandered into a MENSA conference. He barks his lines tersely to at least provide some passing interest for himself.

As Barbarella, Jane Fonda gives the most winning performance. Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot turned down the role first, as did she to begin with, yet in all seriousness she somehow manages despite the nudity, silliness and awakened promiscuity of her character to convey intelligence and innocence amidst the exploitation. This is no mean feat in a film that blends the ripe colours of the Hammer Doctor Who films with the camp of the 1980 FLASH GORDON. Dino Di Laurentiis must have had this in mind as he produced both vibrantly coloured space operas. Jane’s father Henry Fonda was originally offered the role of the President of Earth. Posterity hasn’t recorded me his reply to hand.

The music is equally fun, being very much a ‘ba-ba-ba’ Bacharach-style cheery slew of pop numbers recorded by a group mysteriously called the Bob Crewe Generation, a name oddly suggestive of ON THE BUSES.

Although BARBARELLA was the second-highest grossing film in the UK in 1968, it was a failure particularly in North America. That didn’t stop Robert Evans at Paramount at least planning an unproduced sequel entitled BARBARELLA GOES DOWN. Hey, at least the tone would have been consistent.  The Di Laurentiis family even discussed a remake in 2008.
As it is, like DARK STAR and a number of other science fiction films of this blog’s era, it was a long time gaining cult status but is now an established period gem.

Settle back, check your brain at the door, and let the bubble-gum fantasy wash over you…

Thursday, 6 August 2015


John Carpenter earned his reputation as a feature film-maker with the off-beat sci-fi gem DARK STAR whilst studying at USC Film School. What I hadn’t known till watching the making-of documentary is that he’d already won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject with THE RESURRECTION OF BRONCHO BILLY (1970). Like his next film, as a student, Carpenter had to be not just director, but also editor, co-writer and score composer.
BRONCHO BILLY is a charming film about a young modern-day man (Johnny Crawford) who’s obsessed with westerns from the moment he gets up in the morning. He dresses in the cowboy-style and emulates his hero John Wayne in his mannerisms. 

The story is a day-in-the-life beginning as his landlady chides him for spending all his money at the movies instead of rent. He goes to sit with an elderly friend who was born at the end of the Wild West era and dresses like Buffalo Bill, regaling him with stories of the legendary figures. After a bartender spoils his saloon role-playing by asking for I.D. he is beaten up as a ‘faggot’ by two youths in the alleyway who take his antique fob watch the old man gave him. At a coffee stand, he tries to impress the pretty barista with the tale:
“I’ve just been in a helluva fight”.
“That’ll be twenty-six cents”.

While sitting in the park, his luck seems to change when a gorgeous young sketch artist asks to draw him in his regalia. He is at pains to convince her not all cowboys own a horse. When she solicits his approval of her work, his ‘expert’ knowledge of the period blows it for him. He drawls cowboy-style: “If it’s good enough fer you, it’s good enough fer me. But it could be a lot more authentic”.
The artist politely leaves him after the insult. Suddenly, the film changes from monochrome to colour as, Walter Mitty-like, he rides after her on horse-back, sweeps her up and they ride off like the end of a western mythically across the hills…

BRONCHO BILLY is a simple and beautifully-shot calling-card of the talents of Carpenter and his colleagues (including Nick Castle, John Longenecker and James Rokos – nicknamed the Super Crew). The cinematography by Castle makes great use of monochrome mood lighting and the ending looks exactly like an old western’s tones. Johnny Crawford as the young man is funny, genial and nicely captures the slightly-sideways walk and the ‘So long’ two fingers off the temple goodbye gesture familiar from the genre’s movies. This is not so surprising as he became well-known as a child actor from the TV series THE RIFLEMAN. The sound design is inventive as well, over-dubbing the modern-day street traffic with cattle-drive effects.

Carpenter’s life-long love of westerns is clear. He often said the style influenced every film he ever made.

Sadly, after the film won the coveted Oscar and made his name on campus too, it had a sour after-taste for Carpenter in that USC claimed ownership of the finished film - since it had been shot using USC equipment and post-production facilities. There was nothing Carpenter could do. Enraged at what he saw as unjust, he felt it ludicrous and drew a comparison with the idea of art schools claiming to own their great masters’ paintings.

DARK STAR (1974)

(73-minute Director’s Cut – Hyperdrive Bluray release)

Whilst still a USC student, John Carpenter then threw himself into an even more ambitious project, with the same crew and the addition of actor/writing partner/technical wizard Dan O’Bannon. The film was to be a longer piece than BRONCHO BILLY, a science fiction movie entitled DARK STAR. It would have its own share of trials but would ultimately be vindicated by posterity much later.

DARK STAR concerns a crew of four (technically five) astronauts in a spaceship armed with sentient ‘Thermostellar Triggering Devices’. Their job is to bomb unstable planets to assist in the safety of colonising others. The overall plot can be summed up as: they deal with a rogue troublesome Alien on board, then a bomb that verbally refuses to release itself and finally blows up the vessel leaving only three survivors. However, within this there is much to enjoy along the way…

Firstly, Dan O’Bannon conceived of the crew and the ship design as a ‘used future’. He was a huge fan of Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY but hated the spotless perfection of the ship and its interiors. He also wanted the crew to be essentially ‘truckers in space’ (this coupled with the Alien would later be recycled by him as the film ALIEN, though to me the men always resembled hippy Woodstock burn-outs. They are composed of Lt. Doolittle, the bearded almost afro’d dry helmsman, played by Brian Narelle; Cpl Boiler (navigator - Cal Kuniholm), Talby (target specialist, Dre Pahich – whose accent was so strong that Carpenter dubbed all his lines; the ship’s Commander Powell (Joe Saunders) kept in cryo-suspension for advice – and most notably O’ Bannon himself as Sgt Pinback.
O’ Bannon is a joy to watch. His intensity, grumpiness and eccentric black humour are marvellous, for example when he records video diary entries (eerily fore-shadowing TV’s BIG BROTHER) recalling schoolboy pranks on Doolittle and dead-panning “I am not Sgt Pinback. My name is Bill Frugge. Sgt Pinback’s clothes do not fit me”.  While Talby has opted to spend all his time alone in the dome on top of the vessel, the other three are confined within the ingenious tiny sets (built in any USC rooms the film-makers could find). They have had twenty years of monotony and clearly it is Pinback who gets on everyone’s nerves the most with his in-your-face energy and quirkiness. Their duties are utter tedium with only the occasional frenetic burst of surf-music boogying to enliven the boredom.

O’Bannon has two wonderful set-pieces involving dealing with their non-compliant mascot Alien, literally a beach-ball with hand-operated claws, which goes rogue and plagues him, and a superb sequence where he clings dicily to the underside of the elevator as it journeys up and down the huge shaft.

The other famous scene is where Narelle is forced to use phenomenology to reason verbally with one of the bombs when it develops an existential crisis and won’t exit the bomb-bay. Like the counter-culture look of the crew, this spoof of the navel-gazing ‘human potential workshop’ movement is very much a product of the period. Finally, the counselling of the bomb leads it to develop a God complex and delivering the beautifully understated “Let there be light” it detonates the ship. As Talby and Powell spin off into the blackness, Doolittle the mournful surfer spies a board of wreckage and surfs optimistically into evaporation in a wonderful upbeat ending.

The sweet simplicity of the ending is also sweetly augmented by the ditty ‘Benson, Arizona’. Most country and western songs leave me cold but this is a lovely tune of offbeat hope juxtaposed against Narelle’s final ‘trip’. It’s definitely one of my favourite film endings. Incidentally, the lyrics by Bill Taylor incidentally were a tribute to the named small town where he received generous car break-down help once on a Christmas Day.

It’s also been asserted that the end of the film borrows heavily from Ray Bradbury’s story ‘Kaleidoscope’ – but hey, if you’re going to ‘steal’, be inspired by the best…

The model effects/optical work done by O’Bannon and ship design by Ron Cobb is amazing for the micro-budget they initially had, being composed of ‘99c store’ items such as ice-cube trays. Let’s not forget this was enormously ambitious for a student project. DARK STAR took three years to make, being shot whenever the team had time.

The difficulties came really after the initial 16mm cut of the film was finished. Carpenter submitted it to producer Jack Harris who was appalled by the evident padding in the 68-minute version. The original opening was an interminably dull five-minute static shot in their sleeping quarters of the lazy crew unwilling to wake up; their lengthy snoring was explained by Carpenter as being left in to increase the necessary running time to hopefully feature length. Harris told him it was fifteen minutes too short as it was, and that at least thirty of the existing minutes was garbage. He gave Carpenter a whopping (to them) $60,000 to create extra scenes and blow up the negative to 35mm for theatrical release. This is how the terrific Alien and elevator scenes came to be in the movie as well as a less welcome sequence of Doolittle playing the Loom bottle-music instrument.

In the end there are two versions of DARK STAR: an 83-minute cinema release at the time and later the Carpenter-supervised 73-minute Director’s Cut where the Loom scene was dropped and some of the more primitive effects were enhanced. This is the one I chose to watch on the superb ‘Hyperdrive’ Bluray edition. The Movie Censorship website breaks this down into greater detail:

Sadly, Carpenter and O’ Bannon fell out subsequently over misunderstandings as to their future collaborations, hinted at on the terrific ‘Let There Be Light’ two-hour documentary on the Bluray. They both had strong directorial visions and would go on to helm their own projects. O’Bannon, as mentioned before, expanded his storyline into the claustrophobic and far more ‘used-future’ griminess of ALIEN. Carpenter went on to have a string of huge genre hits before returning to his low-budget roots with less success. They were never reunited right up to O’ Bannon’s tragic death recently due to Crone’s Disease, symptoms of which surfaced and were dismissed as hypochondria during filming. One thing they agreed on though was that by expanding DARK STAR, they turned one of the most impressive student films ever made into one of the most under-appreciated cinema releases. Although fans wildly appreciated its off-kilter humour and ideas at the time, it was many years before college audiences gave it the cult status it has deserved ever since…

Tuesday, 4 August 2015



Only something very special could have halted Bruce Lee in the middle of shooting his second directed film GAME OF DEATH. This was an offer by Warner Brothers to work with director Robert Clouse and producer Fred Weintraub on a lavish (by Hong Kong standards) Hollywood martial arts movie. With a budget of $850,000, this was an unmissable chance to partner with a major western studio to truly go global.

Though it was tricky to shoot using American and Chinese crews on location in Hong Kong, using multiple translators to cover Chinese dialects as much as languages, it was a smooth shoot with some interesting behind-the-scenes stories along the way.

The plot revolves around Lee (his character name here), a senior Shaolin temple martial arts/philosophy instructor who is recruited to infiltrate a secret tournament run by ex-student Mr Han (Shih Kien), whom the authorities know is turning western girls into trafficked junkie sex prisoners amongst other things on his island. Lee’s master reveals that Lee’s sister (played by Okinawa black belt Hapkido champion Angela Mao) was involved and committed suicide rather than face Han’s menacing bodyguard Bob Wall. Lee accepts, seeing an opportunity for personal revenge as well. He must also contact the hidden agent Mai Ling on Han’s staff.

We are then introduced to three of Lee’s tournament opponents by way of concise flashbacks as they sail to the island. Roper (John Saxon, soon to be a genre name himself) is a reckless inveterate gambler who lives beyond his means but can kick ass  - as he demonstrates when threatened over a bad debt on a golf course by some hoods. This also exposes some of the clunky dialogue the film suffers from intermittently: “It’s the dough Roper or we gotta break something”.

Williams is an ex Vietnam buddy of Roper and is hassled by racist cops. He is played by middleweight karate champion and future genre star Jim Jones, giving a new touch of Blaxploitation to the mix which he would later parlay into his own run of martial arts vehicles such as BLACK BELT JONES and BLACK SAMURAI. He’s also allowed to a smattering of social commentary by reflecting on the universal poverty shown by the junk families in the harbour: “They don’t live so big over there. Ghettoes are the same all over the world. They stink”.

Parsons, (Australian martial arts champion Peter Archer), is a bully-boy New Zealand competitor and soon falls foul of Lee by spoiling for a fight while they are still on the incoming boat. Lee coolly describes his technique as ‘fighting without fighting’ and playfully proves this by tricking Parsons into boarding a sinking lifeboat which is then pulled behind the ship for the rest of the trip.
Once on the island, the fighters are soon shown the ‘excellent sense of hospitality’ of Mr Han in a lavish banquet where our host makes a brief appearance. Kien makes an excellent James Bond-style villain with his supercilious elegance, white moggie and black leather gloves. These conceal a charming propensity for snap-on weapons, causing Williams to remark in their later fateful duel: “Man, you come right out of a comic book”.

The whole movie has the international gloss and form of a Bond film and benefits enjoyably from that influence. Interestingly, this in turn feeds back; just as LIVE AND LET DIE shrewdly cashed in on the Blaxploitation wave in the same year, the very next Bond film THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN would be inspired to catch the new kung-fu wave with its plot.

During the resulting tournament bouts, Parsons is soon dispatched as is Williams shortly after at the hands of the villain when he won’t play ball. (That’ll teach him for taking so many of the hookers offered as another part of Han’s hospitality). Roper is shown the bowels of Han’s lair where the true workings of the island’s opium factory are revealed. He claims to be on ‘board’ with the evil plan but this is only a tactic.

The momentum now picks up in the lead-in to the climax. In successive bouts Roper defeats the unusually large Asian henchman Bolo (Bolo Yeung), and then Bruce, who’s been somewhat maginalised whilst casing the joint at night, steps in to destroy Bob Wall. This fight is particularly gritty as Wall’s frustration comes over well (and much more effectively than his face-pulling in his locker-room fight with the Bruce stand-in during GAME OF DEATH). Thwarted by his opponent, Wall is so incensed that he shatters two wine bottles and illegally makes to kill Lee with the broken pieces. Bruce stamps him to death and famously portrays spiritual regret in a lingering slow-mo facial expression. Here, the taking of any human life is no cause for triumph no matter how deserving the vanquished may be. Trivia fans may like to know that during this sequence, due to a crew member’s preparation error, Bruce suffered a severe tendon cut between his thumb and forefinger that stopped him filming for several days. (Hong Kong effects technicians didn’t know about sugar glass back then).

All hell breaks loose and a total of 200 students and agents fight it out on the lawns. Amusingly, as Han orders his men by name to rush the heroes, he calls one of them ‘Won Lung’. (And I thought the brilliant ‘Fistful Of Yen’ in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE was the only parody).
Bruce goes underground to battle his way to the big man. Along the way, he makes use of a cobra which again caused a real accident on-set by biting Bruce. Fortunately, the snake had been de-venomed but it still managed a painful bite. Look closely during the henchmen fights and you’ll spot a fledgling appearance by superstar Jackie Chan – he’s the guard whose hair is grabbed and then his neck broken by Bruce near the prison cells.

Eventually, it all boils down to the celebrated mano-a-mano fight between Bruce and Kien in a hall of 8000 mirrors on set (no mean feat in filming due to the need to avoid camera reflections). The villain snaps on a bear claw and later a metallic one to injure Bruce. Our hero suffers from the disorientation caused by the mirrors, but then he hears the sage advice of his mentor from the beginning: “Destroy the image and you will break the enemy”.  Bruce shatters many of the reflective surfaces till he impales Han on his own spear against a revolving wall.
In a nice coda, back up top Bruce wearily exchanges a thumbs-up of acknowledgement with Saxon as the authorities arrive to deal with the battlefield of carnage.

One final story that emerged from the shooting and confirms Bruce’s status and respect involves the tournament scenes featuring the many extras (and is told by Linda Lee Caldwell on the Iconic Arts DVD interviews she did for ENTER THE DRAGON). A troublesome supporting artist continually taunted Bruce in front of the others, denigrating him as a soft movie-star rather than a genuinely awesome exponent of martial arts. Whereas Bruce’s development normally rose above the need to prove himself, he was concerned that unless this goading was addressed, he would lose the all-important compliance and respect of the extras needed during their scenes. He chose to bring down the man in front of everyone and within just thirty seconds playfully demonstrated his prowess without loss of face or any injury to either party. Enough said.

Tragically, Bruce Lee never saw the release of ENTER THE DRAGON, the greatest project of his life. He died a month before its release. Leaving aside the demeaning conspiracy theorist musings, his tragic sudden death was due to a cerebral edema triggered by a fatal allergic reaction to a prescribed pain-killer.

Although his earlier GAME OF DEATH fight scenes were released (in butchered form) five years after his death in the horrendously disrespectful cash-in, I preferred to discuss his films for my blog in the order in which he actually filmed his work. I feel this is a much fairer and more truthful tribute to him and allows my retrospective of his amazing contribution to action cinema and Chinese cultural recognition to end on a high note.
I’ll leave the last word to Bruce himself. When asked to compose his own epitaph, he wrote:




GAME OF DEATH (Fight scenes filmed in 1972)

In 1972 after WAY OF THE DRAGON Bruce filmed a series of astounding scenes in Hong Kong that would be the centrepiece for another film. In the middle of filming, he received an unmissable offer from Warner Brothers to make ENTER THE DRAGON for Hollywood and for a budget of $850,000, unheard of for this genre. The unfinished scenes were a linked series of fights that were never expanded into a finished film as he sadly died before returning. In the original story. Bruce was to be a retired martial arts champion forced by Korean gangs to undertake a challenge in which he must battle a different artist on the five levels of a pagoda, each opponent being an expert in a different fighting style. It was never explained by Bruce exactly what the goal was although there was mention of a priceless treasure…

Rather than let the fifteen minutes they could find languish in a vault, Raymond Chow asked Robert Clouse, the director of ENTER THE DRAGON to build a film around the surviving sequences and add new scenes shot with stand-ins and American actors. Essentially this would be two movies stitched together under the title of GAME OF DEATH and whose clumsy needlework is all too evident.

In this article, I’ll be discussing the welcome return of the more complete re-edited 40 minutes of Bruce Lee sequences unearthed years later (as they were meant to be seen according to Bruce’s notes) and also the travesty that is the terrible imposter GAME OF DEATH constructed around it.
This new plot has the Bruce replacement character ‘Billy Lo’ unsuccessfully threatened by an American underworld ring after he becomes a renowned martial artist. A contract is put out on him which fails; in an unintentionally awful foreshadowing of Bruce’s son Brandon’s death, it is a shooting on the set of his next film (albeit a horrific accident in Brandon’s case). Billy survives, needing plastic surgery, and uses the opportunity to revenge himself by taking out each of the mobster Dr Land’s henchmen sequentially, incorporating the found real Bruce footage, but within the levels of a restaurant rather than a pagoda.

On the small mercies side, John Barry’s theme tune is superb; a grand stirring Hollywood action movie instrumental coupled with cinematic opening titles reminiscent of a Bond film. It promises much – but almost immediately we are treated with sheer disrespect when the film starts. A cash-in montage from the famous Coliseum battle with Chuck Norris in WAY OF THE DRAGON is intercut with a crew supposedly shooting it. Worse still is that at one point the footage is speeded up, an optical trick which Bruce prided himself on never allowing or needing when he was alive. The insults to his memory then come thick and fast. A light falls on the set almost hurting a ‘replacement’ actor (called Billy here), with a dreadful use of an unmatched WAY close-up of Bruce clearly looking up into the sky at the Coliseum cut with the stand-in who is in a roofed studio.  This non-double who clearly doesn’t resemble Bruce is then blackmailed by Hugh O’Brian in his dressing room. To avoid the obvious physical deficit, his reactions are taken from Bruce’s impatient close-ups at the beginning of WAY, with an added line where the film-makers have superimposed a towel around another real Bruce close-up. If that isn’t bad enough, there’s even a mirror close-up with an unbelievably poor Bruce head image superimposed like a hasty post-it note over the actor’s face. “Ohh you shouldn’ta done that” grin O’Brian after Billy lamps him for his threats. You’re telling us. 

The film is full of horrendously bad paperings-over. Clouse tries to bolster his chances with quality western actors like Dean Jagger, Gig Young, the glamorous Colleen Camp and genre villain Mel Novak, links to Bruce’s movie past like martial arts star Bob Wall as Carl ‘Killer’ Miller, Dan Inosanto and adding a quick insert with a non-lookalike of Kareem Abdul Jabbar to lead into his celebrated fight with the real Bruce later on.

One of the doubles was future star Yuen Biao, the monotone dubbing by Chris Kent and yet whether in fight or dialogue scenes the difference between them and the real Mr Lee is excruciating, hence the cunning use of shades to obscure his face wherever possible.
It’s painful to see Gig Young drift through the movie as well. This was his last film role as alcoholism fatally ruined him and in his scenes he is on a woefully sad, drawled but genial auto-pilot – possibly the only way to endure the utter exploitation.

The gruesome raiding of Bruce’s past glories continues as the covert assassination attempt tries to piggy-back on the striking freeze-frame ending of FIST OF FURY. As Bruce jumps immortally toward the camera, the iconic image is ruined as Stick (Mel Novak) shoots him down onto an abysmally mortal mattress landing. Equally, the grave-robbing is almost literal as actual shots of Bruce’s funeral casket from his procession are used in the staged funeral to fool the mobsters.
There are sporadic improvements in fortune; a fight scene at Dr Land’s compound where the fight co-ordination of future Hong Kong martial arts star Sammo Hung is in evidence and the attack by the stand-in has some bite and vigour to it. (The portly but athletic Sammo also fights Bob Wall in a competitive bout scene just after). Billy then dispatches Wall in a locker room battle which despite some bravura moves is spoilt somewhat by Wall’s expressions of disbelief (understandable), the trainer who hilariously calls from outside “Hey, something’s wrong”, and the clumsy inserts of Bruce for attempted veracity. A warehouse fight versus motorcycle thugs allows a few slow-mo stunts and connects the stand-ins to the pagoda sequences by having Billy wear the famous yellow and black striped track-suit – later homaged most famously by Uma Thurman in KiILL BILL.
After a rain-sodden drubbing of villain Stick, Billy is then given the location of Red Pepper’s restaurant and this climax is where Clouse shoe-horns eleven minutes and seven seconds of Bruce’s real filmed scenes,

At this point, I’d rather switch to the more fulsome compilation which is as Bruce had intended the scenes to be shown from the twelve pages of notes found in the late 1990s. These are  to be found in the superb 40 minute ’GAME OF DEATH Re-visited’ featurette in Hong Kong Legends’ 1999 Platinum DVD Edition (and also discussed in the documentary BRUCE LEE: THE WARRIOR’S JOURNEY’).  Hong Kong Legends did a superb job of restoring the scenes, taking the time to add quality music scoring and diligent voice dubbing where Bruce’s dialogue in particular is given special care to match his extended vowel sounds.

The scenes were meant have philosophical meaning as well as action enjoyment. Bruce’s character Hai Tien was to ascend five levels of a Korean pagoda Palsang-jon  (the only intact wooden pagoda in South Korea) flanked by James Tien and Chieh Yuan (and others uncas) who were excised from Clouse’s cash-in. Each level is guarded by a fighter using a different style. As he achieves each victory, he is learning to adapt to other styles and remain fluid - as Bruce would exemplify in real life.

The bottom level was to guarded by Whong In Sik, a master of a kicking style who had worked with Bruce on WAY OF THE DRAGON (unfilmed)
The second level was to be protected by Taky Kimura, Bruce’s most senior student in real life. He would be protraying a practioner of Gong-fu and elements of Wing Chun, both utilising mainly hands with kicks limited to below waist-level.

Level three (also filmed) was the Filipino Eskrima style and Kenpo Karate technique of Bruce protégé Dan Inosanto.
The fourth level (filmed) was Korean Ji Han Jae, a grand master seventh degree black belt in Hapkido.
The highest level is the Temple of the Unknown, protected enticingly by a fighter of an unknown technique. This is the statuesque Kareem Abdul Jabbar who uses a free-flowing style echoing Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. This was the first sequence shot and in its improvisation is meant to symbolise the pinnacle of martial arts knowledge.

What sequences we have surviving begin with Level Three. It’s a battle with Inosanto in which Lee’s slightly comedic frends are side-lined.  Bruce begins by brandishing a bamboo stick to symbolise the flexibility of the truly enlightened warrior. The two fighters then have at each other in a whirlwind display of hyper-kinetic nunchaku skills much faster than Bruce’s previous uses of the instruments. He enjoys playful banter with his opponent before strangling Inosanto with a nunchaku chain.
Next up, Level Four is represented with Bruce still holding his yellow nunchaku set. Ji Han Jae urges them to drop their weapons as unnecessary here. Bruce discards his while both his buddies are easily beaten by Jae. He then steps in while one of his friends heads up unwisely alone and is promptly thrown down the stairs. The other, Thien, attacks Jae a second time but merely gives Bruce a minute’s rest. Once he is dispatched, he leaves Bruce to finish with Jae whilst he goes upstairs and is easily drubbed by the daunting seven foot two Jabbar at Level Four.

Bruce breaks Jae’s back over his knee and ascends to meet Jabbar himself. It’s a superb conflict of physical opposites and the combat has fun with their absurd contrasts in height and reach in liberal use of wide shots and an extensive running time to match the elongated limbs . Kareem’s passivity behind shades initially gives nothing away yet one of the huge differences between this complete footage and its former use is that here Kareem speaks a little (albeit dubbed), which is startling to hear if you’ve not seen this before. As Bruce breaks a window for air, we suddenly see his opponent’s Achilles heel: an over-sensitivity to light and bizarre supernatural cat’s eyes. The rest of the fight is then more evenly-balanced. Our hero’s sympathy appeals to Kareem to let him pass but when this meets prideful rejection, he is forced to strangle the giant and wearily descend in search of his friends…

It’s unfortunate that in the 1970s feature-length documentary releases in the cinema were not common, otherwise these scenes could have been respectfully mounted in a handsome tribute film rather than the tawdry cheapjack movie offering of GAME OF DEATH. However, at least we have some of Bruce’s tantalising work from his unfinished project to view on its own merits…

Monday, 3 August 2015



(Cantonese audio – 30th Anniversary Hong Kong Legends DVD set)

During the filming of FIST OF FURY Bruce Lee was feeling greater confidence in his bargaining power and frustration with the lack of influence over his films’ direction - so he re-negotiated his contract with producer Raymond Chow to make them equal partners in ‘Concord Productions’. This enabled him to star in, write and produce his next film. He considered working again with Lo Wei who directed his previous two projects, even to the point of posing for promo photos for YELLOW-FACED TIGER, but crucially he opted to produce his own film. Chow did not want Bruce’s new-found independence to lead him away from his studio’s prized asset so he gave the project his full support.

Bruce spent over a million Hong Kong dollars in 1972 on a Kowloon property which became his base for immersing himself in the craft of becoming a real film-maker. At the time he said in the press: “This is the first time I have directed a film and on the whole I must say I am satisfied with the result”. He wanted no directorial touches that drew attention to themselves as a ‘style’, similar one could say to his stated intention for his ever-developing fighting technique.

The new movie WAY OF THE DRAGON was originally titled ENTER THE DRAGON but Bruce let Warner Brothers have this and he called it WAY OF THE DRAGON (Confusingly RETURN OF THE DRAGON in the USA). Chow supplied him with contact support in Rome and filming there was greatly facilitated.

Bruce described the film as “A really simple story of a country boy going to a place where he cannot speak the language, but he comes out on top because he honestly and sincerely expresses himself by beating hell out of everybody who gets in his way”.
He plays Tang Lung, a Chinese guy who comes to Rome to help his uncle run the family restaurant and finds himself embroiled in a war with gangsters who want to take it over - with combative consequences.

His style as a director is simple and emphasises comedy especially in the early scenes. The opening is admittedly a little heavy-handed where he waits at the airport for his cousin (regular love interest Nora Miao) and is scrutinised very closely by a genteel Caucasian lady. She stands unnaturally close to stare brazenly at him. He then has fun at his expense by showing Tang asking a restaurant waitress for ‘eggs’ and somehow ends up with six varieties of Campbell’s soup on a tray.

The fight scenes of course are what make Bruce Lee’s films, and WAY stands out with more of them than before and with varied weapons and locations. In a back-street battle behind his uncle’s business, Tang unleashes a double set of nunchakus, building on the single-set used so memorably in FIST OF FURY. He throws darts with deadly accuracy and demonstrates beautiful fluidity in his preparatory moves (the slow-mo image trail of his hands fanning elaborately during his brawl with Bob Wall is a stand-out).

These fights have undeniable cultural significance as well. Not only is Tang defending his family’s territory as Asians in western territory, but in battling 1970 World Karate Champion Bob Wall and then six times champion Chuck Norris Bruce the actor is pitting himself against the best of the west. He dispatches Wall fairly easily but it is the climactic face-off with Norris in the Coliseum that justly made WAY OF THE DRAGON famous.

Bruce’s first choice as an opponent was Joe Lewis but after some disagreement (with no grudge borne) he instead chose Norris and increased the American’s profile for a long career on screen. Chuck’s red hair, coating his chest as well and thicker-limbed physique make a great contrast to Bruce’s smooth wiry smaller frame and cat-like poise. Bruce exhaustively planned the fight scene with twenty pages of meticulous storyboarded angles and the resulting fight is exciting, longer than most and even allows the danger element of enabling Norris to get the best of him early on before Tang ends him with a guillotine choke. For light relief there are cutaways to a bemused kitten looking on at these human foibles. He also permits the westerner the respect of a soulful pause after killing him and a ceremonial shrouding of Norris’s body with his belt placed on top. There only remains the business of taking out the top boss and his weaselly effeminate consigliere (Paul Wei, familiar from FIST OF FURY).

Despite some gauche choices in the film, Bruce achieved a number of firsts. WAY OF THE DRAGON was the first Chinese film shot on western soil although it is a peculiar depiction of Rome in that it seems bereft of any Italians; whilst it has great travelogue shots, it seems only populated with Chinese or very American-looking characters.  Bruce was also the only Hong Kong director at that point to see colour ‘rushes’ (rough assemblies of a day’s printed takes) from shooting and moreover the first Hong Kong director to successfully produce a film by Asians to become a cross-over western box office hit. This would prove his vital career bridge to the U.S. audience with Warner Brothers’ ENTER THE DRAGON the following year…

Sunday, 2 August 2015



(Cantonese audio – 30th Anniversary ‘Hong Kong Legends’ DVD set)

While THE BIG BOSS was being released, Bruce and Golden Harvest were already in pre-production on their next collaboration. FIST OF FURY was called THE CHINESE CONNECTION in the USA until 2005 to tap immaterially into the popularity of THE FRENCH CONNECTION but also because the U.S. distributor also originally called THE BIG BOSS by the name of FIST OF FURY. The confusion was rectifed in 2005.

They kept the same writer/director Lo Wei and once more built the film as a showcase for Bruce’s talent although he felt increasingly hemmed in by the director’s condescension and stifling manner. This would soon change. FIST OF FURY is an improvement though in a number of ways on its cruder predecessor.

Firstly, the plot is a little more sophisticated and highly politically-charged. It’s set in the early 20th Century Shanghai oppressed by Japanese rulers, and this dominance is played out in the struggle between a Chinese martial arts school, Jingwu, and its merciless Japanese rival in Hongkou. Bruce (as Chen Zhen) returns home to the funeral of his beloved master, apparently the victim of illness. The school is then taunted by a delegation from the Japanese grandmaster Suzuki who insults the Chinese by presenting them with an engraving of the ‘Sick Man of Asia’ to ridicule them. 
To uphold the Chinese honour Chen visits the Japanese school and defeats all-comers including their instructor.

When Chen is refused entry to a park signposted as ’No Dogs or Chinese allowed’ and is degraded by a Japanese man, he beats up the man and then must flee to safety.
It emerges that the Chinese school’s cook and caretaker had conspired to murder their master. Chen kills then in retaliation and there follows a tit-for-tat series of violent brawls between the schools, intercut with a love story developed between Chen and his fiancée Yuan (Nora Miao) till our hero goes to the Suzuki dojo and kills all the occupants including the master and his imported Russian strong-man associate Petrov (Robert Baker). Similarly to THE BIG BOSS, Chen must face the music after the slaughter - but rather than go quietly he runs toward the armed police and a freeze-frame with gunshots indicates his fate.

The political issues are highlighted in the differing audio versions of the film. In the dubbed English version (which I always avoid in Asian cinema due to bad voice acting) Mr Wu, the Japanese translator insults the Chinese as “A race of weaklings. No competition to us Japanese”. The same sequence in the original Cantonese has him asked “Are you Chinese?” to which he traitorously boasts “Yes, but I’m different to you”, choosing to side with Japanese overlords. These are totally different interpretations of race identity according to which audience you are at the time.
On the subject of dubbing, trivia fans might also like to know it’s actually Bruce’s voice we hear briefly as Petrov. (Live sync sound was rarely used in Hong Kong then so all voices were post-dubbed)

FIST OF FURY is the first time western audiences were introduced to the nunchaku chain-sticks in two fight-scenes. Till recent times, these scenes always had the instruments edited out of fights by British censors due to the dangers of copy-cat (often self-inflicted) injuries. Even today, the nunchakus seem to be outlawed in California. Bruce himself was introduce to nunchakus by pupil Dan Inosanto in 1964. He called them a ‘worthless piece of junk’ but within three months was a great exponent.

Inter-school racial conflicts were an issue Bruce was very familiar with in his real-life challenges. Growing up in Hong Kong, there were battles he fought between his Wing Chun centre and the rival Choy Li Fut group. He also encountered hostility in being taught personally due to his part-Caucasian blood (he was one quarter German). His greatest off-screen fight though was the famous challenge thrown by Chinese schools when he was teaching in America. They did not approve of him instructing Westerners in their arts and a Chinese artist Wong Jack Man was sent over to officially duel with him. If he lost, he would agree to no longer teach Caucasians. Bruce had Man surrendering after just three minutes of fighting.

The most important aspect of FIST OF FURY for me is the stronger performance by Bruce. He is allowed time for quieter reflective moments on honour and tenderness with his fiancée rather than the former film’s surface expressions pulled. Moreover, in his approach and execution of fight scenes there is even greater ferocity and speed. The violent temper Bruce admitted to in real life comes over in his of course actor-disciplined unleashing of vengeance on the Japanese, his anger revealed in repeated bursts of punches, (a single death-blow in one case), colossal verve and attack. The title FIST OF FURY, though a touch trashy, is apt. That classic final image of his sacrificial leap toward the authorities to die in a hail of bullets entirely fits his character’s full-throttle passionate engagement. Its echo of the ‘downbeat’ ending of BUTCH CASSIDY feels very much of the period and can be read as a ‘Never say die’ heroic stance or the more fatalistic rule that even justified violence has lawful consequences. I prefer to think of the immortal appeal of the former…