Saturday, November 12, 2011

Smith and Jones Run Amok

Cinq Gars Pour Singapour, France, directed by Bernard Toublanc-Michel (1967)

This piece was commissioned for the National Museum of Singapore's Film Quarterly, a new publication that will complement the programming of the Cinematheque. Cinq gars, sadly is not showing at the Museum any time soon, but you can view a watchable dub of it on YouTube, see above.

Once upon a time, if you were making a film and wanted to conjure up Singapore, you only needed the residents of your local Chinatown, a job-lot of wooden planks, bits and pieces from the fancy-dress shop and a parrot. But post-war, or specifically post-Independence Singapore, was a different entity. It demanded to be visited rather than imagined; it had textures and atmospheres that no studio carpenter could recreate. With affordable air tickets film-makers could be tourists, breaking into far-flung tropical countries with suitcases full of cash, phone numbers of fixers, lightweight cameras and the gift of the gab. No wonder so many foreign-made films from the 1960s shot in Singapore concern espionage and secret missions. Travelling light but with an agenda was glamorous – they felt like spies, they were spies, capturing images like secrets. Cinq gars pour Singapour (neatly translated, with rhyme intact, to Five Ashore In Singapore) is already a double-agent, a French film pretending to be American. The motley crew of actors belong to various and mixed nationalities, and I haven’t even mentioned the Swedish-French blonde bombshell and the Italian heavy who plays a Chinese bad guy. Somehow the hybridity of these sorts of bizarre Euro co-productions filters all the way through the credits.

Filmed (I assume) in 1966 and directed by Bernard Toublanc-Michel, previously assistant to nouvelle vague luminaries Jean-Luc Godard and Agnes Varda, the film’s story is adapted from a Jean Bruce paperback published in 1959. Bruce was the creator of the ‘French James Bond’, OSS 117, to whom there’s a none-too-subtle nod during the opening credits, when the film’s protagonist, the blandly titled and performed Art Smith (played by Sean Flynn, more later) is picked up at Payar Lebar Airport by a car parked in lot number 117.

Cinq gars enjoys the spectacle of arriving in Singapore so much that Art Smith enters twice. Once by plane, complete with bureaucratic close-ups of entry visas, when he’s told by a knowing local girl that “we have Smiths and Browns arriving everyday”, and later by boat after a rendezvous with the other four titular Marines, dropping anchor at Collyer Quay. This latter sequence, in terms of its historical documentation of Singapore, is the film’s highlight. The now-demolished Quay itself teems with people, and our five guys strut their stuff through the beautiful entrance hall while the film’s title song promises “Somewhere in Singapore… we’ll find pretty girls.” The camerawork is loose, handheld and buzzed on the energy of a new place and experience. They hit the street, jostled by trishaw hustlers, and jaywalk over to the General Post Office (now The Fullerton Hotel, a few feet from where Saint Jack told the CIA to “fuck it” a decade later), diving into a labyrinth of street stalls, shops, heat and food. The cameraman captures all this lurking behind pillars, shooting across roads, leaning out of the windows of higher buildings. It’s guerrilla and gorilla film-making, as the actors-playing-Marines leer at local girls, marvel dumbly at tat in the shops and gape incredulously at a noodle-consuming pedestrian.

The film was shot entirely on location, and there’s a tension between the roving eye of Jean Charvein, the cinematographer, regarding Singapore as a landscape to be absorbed and recorded in all its myriad wonders, and the two-fisted narrative, which casts various sites around the island as an arbitrary series of obstacles and props to be smashed over and destroyed.

The plot is simple and goofy. Seventeen Marines on shore leave in Singapore have gone missing in a month. Art Smith’s sent to solve the mystery, with four tough guy Marines led by Kevin (Marc Michel slumming it after being Jacques Demy’s leading man and the enigmatic prisoner in Jacques Becker’s Le Trou), who tells Smith that the missing men “dissolve in the midst of revelry” after getting drunk and meeting a girl “or something that approximately resembles one”. Singapore, a zone of escape and erotic possibility, has become a new, covert battlefield.

So, our five heroes, including English boxer Terry Downes (with incomprehensible cockney drawl) and Denis Berry, the French-born son of blacklisted American director John Berry, hit town, pretending to be regular Marines. They’re as charmless and wooden as porn actors. Dialogue is painfully stilted and highly functional (lots of numbers, orders and repetition). In the lead, Sean Flynn, seems coolly disinterested in being charismatic, acting to cash in on his father’s name (his first lead role was as Son of Captain Blood). Cinq gars was his last film and it’s as if he quit before the shoot started. Just four years later he would disappear completely, into the badlands of Cambodia as a photo-journalist, never to be seen again.

Before long the lads are creating havoc around Chinatown. They start a trishaw race, drunkenly goading the poor drivers. During this raucous ‘comedy’ there’s a blinking cutaway to a handle-bar, and for a split-second we see a metal-framed family photograph belonging to a driver. A sliver of documented humanity caught on the fly. They hide from police in a cinema that has a ‘Majulah Singapura’ banner hanging above the box office, a reminder of the country’s freshly independent status (that and the predominance of Malay spoken by both police and villains). On screen there’s a newsreel about the Vietnam war; Toublan-Michel’s attempt, albeit briefly, to problematise the military fun and games. Indeed, the next section of the film, where the Marines hit a sleazy dive (‘The Paradise Limited’) and bully a luckless mama-san, rejecting the “ready for Boogie street” hostesses as too ugly, and start a demented fight with the girls (fists versus stilettos), carries an authentic whiff of the nihilism, racism, violence and misogyny of an American soldier letting off steam in Asia. As Monika, the film’s archetypal Caucasian woman in a cheongsam, comments in a show-stopping monologue, these men aren’t interested in the beauty of women, only “the smell of death”.

The team are desperately trying to get kidnapped, and finally they get their wish, intoxicated by loudly bubbling champagne and “pretty girls” (one of whom, we’re told, had danced with William Holden) in a ‘Private Club’ (a hotel restaurant) belonging to a fez-wearing smoothie improbably named Ten-Sin (all the ‘Chinese’ characters have these kinds of names). Events escalate and gradually, through a series of interminable fist fights, gun fights, explosions, torture sequences and chases, we travel vicariously around Singapore in ’66, wishing we were in the company of less brutal, more appreciative tourists.

They fight on a beach on the East Coast at dawn; clean up in a suite at the now-demolished Cathay Hotel (where the windows are cleaned by Samsui women), track down information at Pulau Brani, the kampong on water, which features some stunning footage before a house is blown up; they gatecrash the mama-san’s funeral in Chinatown, harassing an elderly Chinese woman who actually gets some lines; they run around the lushly green and jungly Keppel Golf Course, and finally get to a vast mansion in Telok Blangah, the villain’s lair.

Ta-Chouen (played by Italian b-movie veteran, Andrea Aurelia) is a tubby Fu-Manchu first seen draped on a circular bed, smoking opium and surrounded by half-naked girls, leading our amoral heroes to declare him “a gentleman of good taste”. One of the harem is the aforementioned Monika (the extraordinarily intense Marika Green, from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket and aunt of Eva Green), who shows up teasingly throughout the film. When Art Smith confronts her on the bed, silently angry at her sexual betrayal (sleeping with the enemy and a Chinese), it’s the film’s only dramatic moment, cutting back and forth between their impassive, beautiful faces. The soldiers torture Ta-Chouen in his own chamber (with electrodes to his head and punches to the face), until they find out about a new rendezvous on the beach (rustic Sentosa this time). In a pleasantly realistic detail, Ta-Chouen smuggles comatose Marines out of Singapore in the back of a ‘Cold Storage’ truck belonging to Kun & Company (2 Kuching Road, Singapore 4). Finally Art Smith and a buddy discover the missing Marines’ fate, to be kept on a tanker out to sea in the ship’s deep freezer. The soldiers are literally kept on ice, part of some diabolical experiment of Ta-Chouen’s. After all the action and forward momentum of the film, it’s appropriate that the heroes should spend the last ten minutes stuck in a dark room slowly freezing to death. The meat-headed become meat. Or they would have done if they weren’t rescued. By the preposterous closing, Art Smith and Monika are in loving embrace and all the soldiers are apparently defrosted.

The problem with Cinq gars is not it’s inherently colonial view of Singapore as an exotic playground for male adventure, which could so easily have been simulated in a studio backlot, but rather that at times the Singapore in the film is proved to be so tantalisingly real. It breathes, and the camera is present to capture the moments, the details and the expressions, but then we return to these dead-faced young men and their search for more dead-faced young men. We are shown but kept distant from the life of the city in 1966, a vanished place and a people we want to properly encounter, not just the Smiths and Jones who still arrive every day.

Many thanks to Vinita Ramani for getting me to write this.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Good Man In Singapore

World For Ransom, US, directed by Robert Aldrich (1954)

Dan Duryea. If you love film noir, this is a name to cherish. A lithe, sneering presence in some great films of the ‘40s and ‘50s, skin pasty from too many studio interiors, large jaw clenched tight as if swallowing back pain or pride, and his voice, a perpetually nasal, lazy whine. He could be a wise-cracking smartass or a sinister tormentor, both sometimes. Memorably he hounded Edward G Robinson in a diptych of Fritz Langs, Woman In The Window and Scarlet Street, playing the dubious lover/controller of femme fatale Joan Bennett. He could also turn on the charm, most memorably as the dreamily psychotic villain Waco, in Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73.

Duryea was rarely leading man material in film, but he had a lesser known career on super-cheapo TV. And that’s what brought him to ‘Singapore’ if you will. For several years in the mid-to-early ‘50s, he was China Smith, a cynical adventurer, for some reason tossed ashore in Singapore, solving mysteries and outwitting villains in this exotic locale. The film we’re looking at, World For Ransom, is alleged to have been shot off the back of the second series (The New Adventures of China Smith, made in California), recycling sets and cast to a create some bottom-of-the-bill fodder. Aside from the setting, a post-war, heavily militarised Singapore/Malaya, what makes World For Ransom of particular interest is that the director is Robert Aldrich. This was the great macho-man’s last stop before heading towards far more exciting territories, Westerns with A-list star Burt Lancaster (Apache, Vera Cruz), and arguably the last great film noir (the one that imploded the genre), Kiss Me Deadly. Ransom, a quasi-noir-slash-adventure, with its hugely compromised ‘hero’, and the Cold War-era H-bomb MacGuffin is, at a stretch, a rough dress rehearsal.

It opens with one of those ersatz ‘Oriental’ streets cluttered with coolies (later referred to as Foo Chow Road “near the docks”). We meet Duryea’s character, deep in the sprawl, profusely sweating (all the men are drenched in the film, as if the entire overdressed male population of Singapore is steeped in nervous tension), a Yank in a suit, tie and hat, who stumbles along, while a naval foghorn sounds in the distance. Duryea is Mike Callahan, a distant Irish-American relative of ‘China Smith’ we suppose, who quickly finds himself in a hellishly expressionistic stairwell, caught between two sinister Chinese hoods. This is the first of the film’s many stylistic flourishes, and although clearly working with hackneyed, uninspired and excessively talky material, Aldrich is determined (when he can) to make the film a visual feast for those attracted to bizarre angles, smoothly purposeful camera moves, and most of all, looming objects in the foreground. With a promise of “free transportation” Mike agrees to go see Johnny Chan, “the biggest racketeer in Singapore”, who grills him about Julian March, a friend of Mike’s who’s wrapped up in some dodgy business, to which Mike pleads ignorance. “You could be on the level. Half of Singapore thinks you are,” consoles Chan, after slapping his face.

The writers of this highly plotty plot were clearly inspired by (or ripping off) The Third Man. Julian replaces the amoral Harry Lime figure and Marion Carr plays his wife, Frenessy (odd name), who Mike’s foolishly in love with, much as Holly Martins adored Alida Valli in Carol Reed’s masterpiece. There’s also an initially antagonistic military man, Major Bone, who becomes Mike’s buddy, and Mike gets to dive into some sewers (in Singapore, in the 50s?!). Mike’s known Julian since pre-war Shanghai, when they competed for the love of Frenessy. He was called for duty, and so Julian got the girl. Now they’re all washed up in Singapore which has become for each of them, a private hell, Mike gambles and drinks, Frenessy performs an tame male-drag act at a club called The Golden Poppy, while Julian’s busy exploring Singapore as a zone of erotic possibilities. When we first meet him he’s off to “meet a charming young lady called Willow Blossom, or… a young lady not so charming but I hear considerably more talented.”

This cad’s played by the smooth (but sweaty) Patric Knowles, a Yorkshire lad who ran to Hollywood and became a low-rent Errol Flynn (once Will Scarlett to Flynn’s Robin Hood—his biggest gig). Everyone’s worried about Julian, including Frenessy, who tasked Mike with following him, and although he keeps protesting he’s a “big boy”, Julian’s indeed fallen in with a ludicrous bunch of panto villains (like something out of the Batman TV series) led by Gene Lockhart as a chess-playing mastermind Pederas, and amateur heavyweight boxer (and very amateurish actor) Lou Nova as his heavy, Guzik. They conspire to kidnap top Nuclear bomb-maker, Professor O’Connor (Arthur Shields, an Irish John Ford regular) who’s coming through Singapore on his way to Australia (nothing changes!). After an efficiently staged set-piece along ‘Airport Road’, where Julian and gang intercept the car sent for O’Connor, Julian pretends to be a Brit officer at ‘Singapore Airport’ and scoops up the Prof. And he would have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for pesky photographer Wong (a very intense Keye Luke, Charlie Chan’s Number One Son) who snaps Julian in mid-operation. The Governor of Singapore (professional blusterer Nigel Bruce, long serving Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Holmes) declares it a “National Emergency”, and orders a blockade of the “causeway to the mainland”, not the only time in the film that Singapore is described as a mere adjunct to Malaya.

Meanwhile, Dan Duryea has got drunk, beaten up, fallen asleep, and is dragging himself around Singapore in a state of semi-conscious, intense self-loathing. Aldrich makes Mike’s powerful negativity the guiding principle of all Duryea's scenes—spaces are dark, obscure, stuffed with forbidding obstacles. The composition screams “Sucker!” when Frenessy galvanises him into action by promising him he “has a chance” with her. Not only is Mike clearly being set-up by Frenessy, but also by the Brits, who shake him down (“You’ve had a good run in Singapore but you’re coming to the end of your rope.”) so that he’ll escape and lead them to Julian. During the back alley chase sequence, Aldrich has Duryea run through a kaleidoscope of stark frames-within-frames, until he impersonates a topless rickshaw puller, a disguise that makes him literally invisible to the British military. This leads to a cute homo-erotic visit to gangster Chan’s bedroom (“What do want?”, “Most of all, a shirt.”).

The Brits regroup with the Governor and pile on a ton of exposition about Mike, who “gave a good account of himself” in the war, is a “beach comber and soldier of fortune… he knows the China Coast like the back of his hand, he’s wanted everywhere.” They’ve lost him, and “there’s not a sign of him, between here and Penang.” Unctuous Pederas turns up, offering to sell O’Connor to the Brits, explaining that he’s doing the deal in Malaya so he can also offer this “new kind of horror” to the nameless, obviously Commie “enemy”. Mike busts out of Singapore by sewer and jalopy, followed by the avuncular Major Bone, and they head up to Ipoh in record time. Mike knows where Julian, the heavies and the scientist are holed up, ‘The Village of Death’, a deserted kampong, which lives up to its nickname. Aldrich delivers a serious action set-piece as Mike and Bone take on the might of several machine-gun weilding, grim-faced Chinese-American extras. Bone’s shot, and Mike grabs some grenades and turns himself into a walking bomb (see first image), the closest we ever get to a ‘World for Ransom’. After this stand-off, Mike rescues the Prof, but has to kill Julian, who’s more cowardly and corrupt than even Mike suspected.

Back in Singapore, Mike delivers the double-bad news to Frenessy that Julian’s dead and he's the dude what did it. She matches it by telling Mike a/ she doesn’t love him, and b/ she’s a very bad girl indeed, not the saint that Mike imagines —“How do you think I could be so friendly to someone close to the Governor?” Actress Marion Carr emotes her heart out here, successfully auditioning for her role in Kiss Me Deadly.

So, sad old Dan Duryea’s killed his best friend, been betrayed and slapped around by the woman he loves and pretty much everyone else in town. He does what any good man would do in Singapore, takes his hangdog mug back to the bustling throng of Foo Chow Road, and towards the always welcoming neon of The Golden Poppy, much as Jack Flowers will disappear into Clarke Quay a couple of decades later. Tigers all round?