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by Michael Barrett

2 Jun 2015


Time has not only been kind to Staircase; it’s also been illuminating. Directed by Stanely Donen and scripted by Charles Dyer from his play, the entire drama consists of Richard Burton and Rex Harrison playing an old gay couple sniping at each other in elaborately bitchy dialogue—which pretty much describes the currently acclaimed Britcom Vicious with Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi.

In 1969, mainstream critics found the movie tasteless. In the post-Stonewall era, gay activists like Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet found it embarrassing because, in the context of just about zero depictions of homosexuality in cinema apart from cross-dressing psychos and suicidal sissies, the movie relies on the stereotype of the effeminate, limp-wristed, campy, mother-dominated queen instead of a politically preferred image of butch “mainstream” types. It was the era when one character in the supposedly progressive and groundbreaking The Boys in the Band asked “Why do we hate each other so much?” Films like Staircase and Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George were bleak instead of validating, and activists didn’t want that any more than they wanted movies about drag queens (even though there really were drag queens at Stonewall).

by Michael Barrett

2 Jun 2015


With arresting use of slow-motion and freeze-frames, the opening credits of Blind Woman’s Curse present a beautiful clash between one gang and a rival group whose tattoos form one dragon on their backs, and who are led by the daughter (cult icon Meiko Kaji) of the late boss. This gives us the impression that we’re seeing a samurai movie, but the scene turns out be the heroine’s dream (yet also a flashback) experienced while in a women’s prison. Contemporary audiences didn’t know it, but the beautiful and self-possessed Kaji would soon become famous in a series of films about Female Convict Scorpion, which now gives the scene an extra frisson.

by Michael Barrett

1 Jun 2015


The Scorpio Letters’ two-fisted hero is Joe Christopher (Alex Cord), an American ex-cop who freelances for a British spy division. He spends the movie smoking cigarettes, uttering weary remarks more petulant than witty, and glowering from under his eyebrows, as though constantly ducking his head to avoid further dialogue. Shirley Eaton, best known from Goldfinger, is the statuesque yet blasé female agent who’s around to provide sex appeal and finally require a timely rescue.

The plot involves a blackmail ring organized by someone called Scorpio. Neither his identity nor activities are interesting, but we’re distracted easily enough by various murders and attempted murders that pop up like expectable signposts along the winding way to the wrap-up. Almost as pleasing to the eye as Eaton are the attractive locations (and backlots), shot in pretty color by Ellsworth Fredericks. Dave Grusin’s romantic score lilts along constantly, occasionally bothered by a pesky flute.

by Michael Barrett

18 May 2015


42nd Street can still surprise first-time viewers who tend to think of musicals as feather-light contraptions interrupted by elaborate numbers. Most of them are, including the run of Warner Brothers ‘30s musicals that this one high-kicked off. But 42nd Street acts as a serious or least straight-faced drama for its first 75 minutes, albeit with saucy little pre-Code one-liners here and there with sexual implications. It’s put across with director Lloyd Bacon‘s workhorse combo of smoothness and punch, saving the eye-popping production numbers for the last reel.

There’s the slave-driving director (Warner Baxter) who wants to pull of the greatest show of his career before a possible heart attack; his method consists entirely of screaming at people. There’s the surprisingly human diva (Bebe Daniels) who stars in the show, thanks to the deep pockets of her besotted backer (Guy Kibbee), while she’s secretly in love with an old vaudeville partner (George Brent), who chafes at hiding and being a kept man. He says there’s a word for it, and it isn’t a nice word.

by Michael Barrett

13 May 2015


Massacre Gun is a widescreen, black and white, Japanese gangster movie from the era when Nikkatsu Studios was turning out dozens of such titles in the sleek “international” style they called “borderless action”.

The story is as formulaic as possible: Two brothers are members of a yakuza gang, while their youngest brother is an aspiring boxer sponsored by the boss. In the opening sequence, the oldest brother (the ubiquitous and distinctive Joe Shishido of the surgically-altered chipmunk cheeks) is ordered to kill his lover because she’s really the boss’ girlfriend. He does so, and this causes the youngest brother (Jirô Okazaki) to diss the boss (Takashi Kanda), who has the boy’s hands crushed. In other words, it’s an escalating series of vengeful ping-pong moves that can only end with lots of corpses. The “massacre gun” turns out to be a high-powered rifle used in the final shoot-out on a bridge under construction.

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'Staircase' Is Gay in a Melancholy Way

// Short Ends and Leader

"Unfairly cast aside as tasteless during its time for its depiction of homosexuality, Staircase is a serious film in need of a second critical appraisal.

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