In honor of Women's History Month, here's a list of films you may not even know about as they feature morally ambiguous, powerful women, which means maybe they are a threat to patriarchy; I can't fathom why else the below films aren't easily available on disc or (legit) streaming sites or Blu-ray. It's a crime against classic genre cinema that most of them haven't been put out on Blu-ray, or DVD, or--for some--even VHS. Probably because patriarchy is scared. They'd rather rerelease some super generic thriller no one cares about, so long as it's a man who's in charge.
Maybe that's why, up here in my crib--even though we have Prime, HBOMax, Hulu, Disney, Arrow, Criterion, and Kino-Cult and Tubi at our fingertips here in my house (it pays to live with a media critic) not to mention all the DVDs/Blu-rays I have laying around (they, Kino-Cult and Arrow and Criterion are mine of course)--I spend the most time watching YouTube. These 10 films (well 9 and a 70s science fiction show from British/West German television) can all be found on my curated YouTube list (see below) Badass Ladies Too Dangerously Cool for DVD.
Oh YouTube, how I love thee! Let me count the ways: 1) You carry tons of otherwise unavailable or indecipherable international films, often subtitled into English for the first time by committed fans. 2) Your screen/browser gives me the ability to scroll and search around while watching things - so I can check something out while looking for something else; 3) We can make numerous playlists like on Spotify. 4) I can fall asleep watching one movie and wake up and my list is still playing. That means I know how llong I was out based on where I am on the list. (Which I do every night, on my Old Dark/Sci-Fi Tranquilizer: Movies to Fall Asleep to. mix). 6) The weird shit just keeps coming --every day something new. And in the age when so much new stuff is being released that one can't possibly keep up, disappearing into the pre-CGI past is the safest way to travel, patriarchy be damned. And damned it certainly is.
When the average person thinks of Shaw Brothers cnon, they usually think of shirtless bald guys smacking the shit out of each other in big indoor/outdoor restaurants, Buddhist monasteries, and palace foyers; but there was so much more to them than that, like atmospheric wuxia, the kinky horror, swooning romance, war movies and spy films as well.! Especially now that most of them seem to have been remasered on beautiful HD, to dismiss them as those baldheaded slap downs to miss out on a wealth of wonder. In addition to their flowing misty soundstage cherry blossom orchards and vast secret lair sets (see my praise here), they score well on the Bechdel, with plenty of female fighters, sorceresses and--as in Temptress of a Thousand Faces--master criminals with armed armies of adoring underlings. A mysterious master criminal with a huge mask collection that lets her impersonate just about anyone to pull of high-end jewel heists, Temptress operates out of a vast, trap-filled, very cool underground cavern lair that would give Dr. No, Fu Manchu, Diabolik, or Fantomas a run for their money. The only one who has a prayer of catching her is Chi Ying (Tina Chin-Fei), female detective several levels smarter then the men around her--police chief included,. The whole film becomes, essentially, their duel of wits, fighting over--amongst other things--Chi Ying's man, who--once the Temptress wears Chi Ying's face, has only their kiss and sexual performance to tell them apart
Man, I'm seeing a trend as, like the last two films on this list, this one is from the late, late-60s, as time when women's lib was on everyone's mind, and people were taking chances that maybe are still ahead of their time. Is that why this big budgeted lesbian junky spy WW1 Zhivago-esque pulp epic from the Dino Di Laurentiis international juggernaut production company still hasn't received an HD or digital release of any kind? With a thunderous Ennio Morricone score and a bona fide reckless awesome Suzy Kendall performance as the lead---supposedly real life 'other Mata Hari' WWI sex spy (, i.e. the same character played by Marlene Dietrich in Dishonored and Myrna Loy in Stamboul Quest nearly 40 years earlier. This is way more adult than those though, with lesbian seduction, drug abuse, unspeakable chemical warfare, and dangerous seductions right and left, all marketed to associate with Dr. Zhivago, as an epic of historical sweep, with Kendall subliminally evoking Julie Christie, and the big trench warfare climax evoking all the Russian revolution and WW1 footage of Lean's masterpiece.
|gettin' high after a job well done|
However, this ain't your mom's subliminal Zhivago, unless your mom is a lesbian junky super spy working for WW1 Germany (i.e. the bad guys). Epic ambitions or not, this is from Di Laurentiis, the epic-scoped European Roger Corman, who gave us Conan, Dune, King Kong, Orca, The White Buffalo, and so many other essentials. That means thrills and lurid entertainment takes center stage with the sweep as a backdrop (as opposed to the reverse in Lean). Fraulein's Ennio Morricone score delivers an irresistible concoction of avant-garde frisson and emotional sweep, trumping (in my opinion) Maurice Jarre's endlessly repeated peasant carnival Zhivago waltz theme, especially when he pulls out his swooning big guns for the Capucine/Kendall hook-up.
Dipping its toes in a druggy kind of debauched super genius amorality that, personally, I adore, our Fraulein prides herself on her chameleonic efficacy and seductive ease with role playing, moving from London trollop to imperious master spy striding past the crew of her assigned U-boat, giving orders while looking through the periscope, to super demure, shy French maid, shyly acquiescing to the lesbian vibes of her French poison chemist employer (a seduction so central to the film it makes it on the original movie poster which may have a hand in it being so unavailable/unreleased on DVD - a little ahead of its time)., The only time we sense we're seeing the real her is when her eyes dilate at the sight of morphine being given to a wounded soldier, or in the back of the sub, shooting up in celebration of wiping out her target ship. With the London counterintelligence spy master (Nigel Greene) and his turned German spy / Doktor's occasional lover asset in hot pursuit she deftly stays one jump ahead all the way. Based on supposedly real events, this Poison Ivy-style woman Capucine plays is allegedly based on a real person, supposedly (a kind of variation can be found in the 2017 Wonder Woman). Which is just so weird it's got to be true.
Still, if this is a historical romance, more than with Booth or Capucine, it's a romance between the Doktor and morphine-when she stares lustily at the soldiers in her Red Cross train (she's disguised a nurse) you know it's because they're being given morphine and she can see the vials, not because she's horny (though you may have to be an addict of one stripe or another to pick up on that - it's not spelled out). Alas, the filmmakers miss a good ending by having her not shoot up in the back seat of her limo to celebrate, maybe with a big box of stolen from the French hospital train she helped set up while disguised as an altruistic Italian noblewoman,, crosscut with the nurses back on the train, overwhelmed by the influx of soldiers dying from the gas attack she helped into being, realizing the box holding their morphine ampules is missing so the boys are just going to have to bear the pain.
Still, I forgive them. It's so rare in a movie like this you would feel that junky longing, have drugs and lesbianism be part of our antiheroine's story, but not the focus, neither one defining her chameleonic character, that they can be forgiven almost any oversight.
And with Dino's other production it may be packed with extras, vistas and sweep, but it also zips along, high on the joy of forward momentum. Only the end, a muddy sea of extras in gas masks with helmets too similar to tell if they're German or French, all climbing over each other trying to escape or capture various trenches and roads, does it get a little Lean-ish--i.e. got to get your money's worth with those thousands of dying and gooey French soldiers-- but by then we're at the climax, so a little sweep isn't going to kill you.
Oh Capucine, a chemist like you should have known: never trust a junky. (full review here)
Executing a deft outflanking maneuver around all the liberal guilt-tripping, corny sentiment, and labored symbolism that usually dampens the mood in any 50-60s 'revisionist' western, director Roger Corman keeps the tale lean, sexy and over fast, i.e. his specialty. Easily the best of AIP / Allied Artists' handful of westerns, this gender-reversed, mud-soaked saga of two strong women facing off to the death over the right to keep bars open past three AM (!), is criminally unavailable on DVD, or Blu-ray. Why? Is it because there are two deadly strong women locked in violent struggle and the patriarchy is basically portrayed as either cowardly, craven or conflicted? Beverly Garland stars as Rose, the wife of a murdered sheriff of Oracle, TX, who pins on his badge since the men in town are too cowardly, especially the lily-livered mayor. Alison Hayes is Erica, the saloon owner/madame behind the killing, out to corner the real estate market by buying land then sending her smitten runt bartender (Jonathan Haze) to steal back the money. In addition to making her close at 3 AM, Rose also orders her three prostitutes out of town by the end of the week, and that's just going too damned far. Erica brings in the titular gunslinger Cane (John Ireland) to take Rose out at the end of the week; but he ends up falling for her! Considering Erica and he used to have a thing back in the day, that doesn't go over so well.
It may sound pretty trite yet in Corman's hands, and courtesy Charles B. Griffith's and Mark Hana's typically tight script, this romantic triangle is actually pretty perceptive and even mature. Rose and Cane fall for each other but are both professionals who won't bend from their duties, making it doomed from the start. The countdown clock as the week ticks down to zero hour is ingenious (Erica is waiting for the telegram that will announce if the railroad is coming through, and will make her a wealthy woman, or if she's just going to start blastin'). Can you guess what the telegram is gonna say!
Here's an Italian epic of swirling pre-Raphaelite beauty full of line-crossed lovers and knightly battlin', a kind Eschenbach Parsifal version of the Crusades. Edited down to a feature length from an Italian TV mini-series (like YOR, yo!) and seen in America--if at all--mainly idling on the shelves of early mom and pop video stores (in one of those early oversize cases). Never released on DVD or Blu-ray (yet) it's a movie that might be too romantic for the Conan crowd (unless your favorite part is the trysting with Valeria)--and too overwrought for the Excalibur crowd (unless your favorite part is handsome Lancelot getting it on with Arthur's wife in the misty glen) yet too action-driven and semi-sleazy for the Harlequin romance crowd. The plot finds a small cadre of noble Muslim knights ride around scrapping with the a similar number of Christians, occasionally rescuing fair maidens or getting cats out of trees and having a nice bloody time of it, until they fall in love with a maiden from the other side. Naked trysts in the lush and misty bower make it hard to go back to the usual Jetts/Sharks falderal. But back they must go! Tanya Roberts--the fairest Moorish princess of all--bowers it up with a tow-headed Christian knight who rescues her from a mid-creek ravaging. Lovely Barbara De Rossi is a Christian maiden rescued from a (different) mid-creek ravaging by an invincible suit of armor which she then wears until the bower and a handsome Moorish knight doth beckon. Meanwhile a Muslim warrior women who actually looks remotely Muslin is shunted to the side. Uncool! But with De Rossi in that armor and all, what choice do you have, eh, blondie? There's also a stone that turns you invisible if you put it in your mouth. A sleazy monk uses it to start a temple-side ravaging but this time Tanya rescues herself (you don't need to see them for your knee to find a perp's balls - always remember that, girls) - and grabs that precious ring, I mean magic stone.
A loose unofficial hipster downtown NYC b&w remake of Dracula's Daughter (1936), with Elina Löwensohn in the Gloria Holden role? Am I in heaven? Our antiheroine is in town to steal her father's (Dracula's) body from the morgue and burn it (so he can't come back) after Van Helsing (Peter Fonda!) stakes him shortly before the film begins. The zonked 'love child of Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy' Galaxy Craze plays Lucy, the drifting wife of Van Helsing's nephew (Martin Donovan in an early role as perhaps the most unconvincing boxer ever), here doubling for Jonathan Harker once Lucy falls under Nadja's spell. Could it be that-- as in Bell, Book & Candle and Bringing up Baby--there's some kind of archetypal feminine magic at play in their chance meeting?
"No," Nadja eyes her coldly, as if the answer is far more remote, "Brooklyn."
Plying her strange, ugly/sexy seductive 'charm' with all the subtlety of a punch in the face, Tashman proves one thing ably: shy, backwards, and horny men will always let themselves be manipulated by sexually forward women no matter how unpleasant said women may be. It can be oh so tough for shy guys to resist an assertive girl, even (or maybe especially) if--like Tashman-- she's only slightly attractive. It's sex as a coarse but palpable fact; you can practically smell it. First, she manipulates her husband into killing Julia; then manipulates her sculptor lover into killing her husband; then, after Pichel is jailed on suspicion for his mom's murder, she lets him all but molest her through the bars while convincing him to break out and kill either the husband or her sculptor lover, whichever is still alive by then! So she's got every man killing every other man to be with her. Whoever survives is who she'll turn on, claiming all sorts of coercion to ensure they get the hot seat, especially with her damning testimony (probably while shooting hungry looks at the male jurors) and now that she's basically inherited her way into being the wealthiest widow in town, the chief of police isn't about to accuse her of anything.
Fulvia is the most eager to have her man back after he escapes to Earth, a little 'too' eager. But she's awesome when she protects the frightened prime minister as if he's a five year-old. Octavia is less interested in her man and more in the big picture: She doesn't want earth's barbaric patriarchal social structure infecting the purity of their own planet. Together they're a bit like a female version of Spock and Kirk, though by the second half of the season Fulvia (the Kirk) is on Earth dealing with the runaway men and Octavia is on Medusa dealing with typical sci-fi hazards like a berserk cold storage computer, an alleged assassination, and crazy meteors. Both planets get their share of humorous moments but nothing really tops the scenes of the escaped men running around with their puffy shirts open, shouting "I'm frightened!" Or when Fulvia soothes a rattled male politician like a fireman talking a kitten down from a tree.
But all in all, what a strange, crazy, highly advanced show this was. Now that I'm watching it again, I find that, in light of its subversive gender power switch, its unavailability is most suspect. On a post-feminist level its absence is downright conspicuous. It still stands alone in daring to imagine women not just in positions of authority usually (at the time) reserved for men, but as masters of a society that's evolved far past what we usually imagine. By switching the usual gender bias, suddenly the whole usually invisible patriarchal blueprint is suddenly illuminated. Damn, isn't that what all art is supposed to do, dearie?