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Quentin Tarantino’s Favorite Director: William Witney

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

Action director William Witney: “Witney is ahead of them all” – Quentin Tarantino

As R. Emmet Sweeney writes of director William Witney on The Museum of The Moving Image website, Witney changed the way movie punches were thrown. It has become a cliché to say that fight scenes are like dances, but for Witney this was just common sense. He saw Busby Berkeley working on a stage spectacle, and adapted that regimented method to action sequences, essentially inventing the job of stunt choreographer.

A lifetime of movie production had left him rather unknown, except to some cult genre obsessives, one of whom happened to be Quentin Tarantino. He has been promoting Witney’s work for years by screening his personal 16mm and 35mm prints at film festivals and mentioning his name whenever interviewers ask for influences.

After Tarantino finished shooting Django Unchained, he shipped its prop dentist wagon to the Lone Pine Film History Museum in California. Witney spent the majority of his career in the hills outside Lone Pine, shooting Westerns in a week or two with Roy Rogers, creating a cohesive body of work out of bodies tumbling to the ground.

William Witney was born in Lawton, Oklahoma in 1915. His father died when he was four years old, and he was raised by his mother Grace and two older sisters. William’s son Jay Dee Witney told me that William was ‘kind of heavy as a boy,’ so his mother shipped him to live with his Uncle Lou, who was an Army captain at Fort Sam Houston.

Witney was ready to follow his Uncle into the Armed Forces after high school, and started cramming for the entrance exam to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. The exam was administered in Los Angeles, so Witney moved in briefly with his sister Frances and her husband Colbert Clark.

A director for the Poverty Row studio Mascot, Clark asked Witney if he wanted to ‘work for a couple of days making chase scenes with the cowboys.’ Witney agreed, and gradually moved up the ranks, from office boy to gofer to editor, where he worked alongside future B-auteur Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy).

In 1935 Hubert Yates consolidated six Poverty Row studios, including Mascot, into Republic Pictures. Witney would make nearly 80 features and serials for Republic over the next 23 years. After some personnel shakeups the nineteen-year-old Witney was moved from the editing suite to the set as a script clerk. It was B. Reeves Eason (known as ‘Breezy’) that got him thinking about action film aesthetics.

Eason was a flamboyant dresser, always in white silk shirts and pants, with a daredevil streak. In his autobiography Witney recalls a story in which Breezy performed a dangerous horse fall to convince a skittish stuntman of its safety, and ended up breaking an arm. Witney admired his bravado and fearlessness, writing that ‘I found myself using the same techniques that he had to make an action sequence come to reality.’” Witney is, in short, a master filmmaker.

See the video by clicking on the image above, and read the entire article here.

Radha Vatsal in The Atlantic – Forgotten Female Action Stars

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

Serial star Ruth Roland in an advertisement for Hands Up! (1918)

Writing in The Atlantic, Radha Vatsal has a fascinating piece on early women heroines. As Vatsal notes, “in the current movie landscape, female action heroes tend to be so few and far between that their mere existence seems like an accomplishment (think: Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Rey in Star Wars, or the four stars of the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot).

But more than a century ago, before women had even won the right to vote in many countries, actresses headed up some of the U.S’s most popular and successful action movies—even if they performed stunts in skirts that ended only a few inches above their ankles.

During the early years of cinema in the 1900s and 1910s, men starred in action films such as westerns, but women dominated the so-called ’serial’ or ‘chapter’ film genre. These were movies in which the same character appeared over several installments released on a regular basis, with plots that were either ongoing or episodic.

The story lines typically featured female leads getting into danger, getting out of danger, brandishing guns, giving chase in cars, and battling villains. The film scholar Ben Singer estimates that between 1912 and 1920, about 60 action serials with female protagonists were released, totaling around 800 episodes.

What’s most striking about the category, Singer says, is its ‘extraordinary emphasis on female heroism.’ Protagonists exhibited traditionally ‘masculine’ qualities like ‘physical strength and endurance, self-reliance, courage, social authority, and the freedom to explore novel experiences outside the domestic sphere.’ Then, by the early 1920s, those films and their stars, the so-called ’serial queens,’ disappeared.

What happened? The answer may have to do with the early film industry’s short-lived tolerance of greater female involvement at all levels of the filmmaking process—a phenomenon that helps explain why today, even after women have shattered so many cultural barriers, action movies still continue to be dominated by male stars.

To understand what happened in the 1910s, it’s necessary to put the emergence of the serial film into context. During this period, two film formats jostled for dominance: what we’d now call ’shorts’ and ‘features.’ But short films weren’t labeled as ’short’ at the time—they were simply the industry standard, and were usually described by their length (in number of reels).

Features, meanwhile, were the newcomers, with higher production values, more ambitious plots, and greater production costs. Serials were something of a bridge between the two formats. Each episode in a serial was the length of a 15- or 20-minute short film, but over several weeks, a serial could tell a more complicated story.

Serials focused on women action heroes from the start, possibly thanks to the format’s tie-ins with magazines and newspapers, which aimed to draw female readers because they were attractive to advertisers. In 1912, Thomas Edison’s film company teamed up with Ladies’ World magazine to put one of the earliest instances of a serial film, What Happened to Mary, into print.

This example of cross-promotion would continue as other ‘chapter films’ were serialized in newspapers. The Chicago Tribune printed the story of The Adventures of Kathleen (1913) while the film episodes played in theaters. (Incidentally, Kathlyn was the first film serial to have a narrative thread that continued from week to week instead of relying on the same leading character to provide cohesiveness.)

Why do the 2010s lag behind the 1910s in terms of a robust body of films with female action leads? The focus on heroines seems also to correlate with the film industry’s fascination with the ‘New Woman.’ ‘She wore less restrictive clothes,’ the film curator Eileen Bowser notes, ’she was active, she went everywhere she wanted, and she was capable of resolving mysteries.’

The proliferation of women in all areas of the film industry during the 1910s—not just as actors, but as screenwriters, theater managers, gossip columnists, film producers, and directors—reflected the increasing number of women in the American workplace, and also the efforts of the vocal and energetic women’s suffrage movement.”

Fascinating stuff – and not well enough known – read the entire article here.

The Spectre of James Bond

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

Spectre is the latest and least in the long-running James Bond series.

Call it exhaustion, call it the end of Empire, call it playing to diminishing returns, put it down to indifference and fatigue – call it whatever you wish. Spectre, the latest of the James Bond films, which has opened to solid but not spectacular grosses, is 2 1/2 hours of almost unrelieved boredom, all dressed up in production values that put the film into the $200 to $300 million production range. It’s a spectacle, all right, but one that is so jam packed with promotional tie-ins and self-referential nods to the series’ past that it ultimately has no identity of its own.

Daniel Craig, who has famously suggested that he is tired of the entire franchise, walks through the film as if he has absolutely no interest in the proceedings, and only Ralph Fiennes as the new “M” – replacing the departed Dame Judy Dench – offers any sense of gravitas at all. Christoph Walz similarly drifts through his role as the latest incarnation of Ernst Blofeld as if the part were an obligation, rather than an opportunity – but then, given the tediousness of the dialogue, there really isn’t much he can do with the role.

All the set pieces are here – Bond once again designated as a “rogue agent” and left in the field to fend for himself; Léa Seydoux as the latest in a long procession of “Bond girls” – and shouldn’t that be retired?; “Q” played by Ben Whishaw as a techno nerd with the usual plethora of gimmicks up his sleeve; the requisite scene in which Bond is tortured by Blofeld but miraculously escapes in the nick of time; Monica Bellucci in for about three minutes as another love interest, soon abandoned by the narrative; Bond’s ubiquitous Aston Martin; and, of course, the opening crane / tracking shot in Mexico City, a spectacular piece of camerawork ending in an enormous explosion, which is technically impressive, but really has no need to be there.

Most of all, though, there is the film’s crushing length – about forty minutes too long at least – and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s dark, brooding cinematography, which masks Walz’s Blofeld in deep shadows until the last third of the film, making him almost a peripheral character, while giving the entire film an unmistakably fatalist air of a franchise which has run out of gas.

Daniel Craig, here credited as a co-producer of the film, still has one film to go on his contract, and despite his protestations that he doesn’t want to continue in the role, he no doubt will. Apparently, the producers wanted him to film the next Bond entry back-to-back with this one, and Craig refused, but maybe he should have gotten it over with; the Bond role is a career straitjacket that none of the series’ leading men have ever really escaped.

Missing here is any sense of urgency or imagination – the script and story, devised by no less than seven screenwriters, hits all the bases with a tired sense of duty – but the speed, energy and verve of series entries such as Dr. No, Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and other top notch Bond films is entirely missing here. Sam Mendes’ slack direction is partly to blame, but the whole film is overstuffed, lacking in focus, more interested in scenery than scenes, and watching it quickly becomes a chore rather than a pleasure.

At the screening I attended on a Sunday morning, the theater was populated by only a few patrons, all of whom made frequent trips to the lobby to replenish their giant tubs of popcorn, when they weren’t otherwise occupied texting mini-reviews on their cellphones in the darkness. No one seemed very interested in what was happening on the screen, and when the film was over, we all filed out without comment. It’s sad – casting someone like Archie Punjabi or Idris Elba as Bond would be a really smart move at this point, and give the series new energy – but it’s doubtful that anything like that will happen.

But the Bond films – a lucrative enterprise for all concerned – need a reboot if they are to continue.

Why Aren’t More Women Directing Action Films?

Friday, October 30th, 2015

Lexi Alexander knows why women aren’t getting the opportunities they should in Hollywood.

As ReBecca Theodore wrote in Vulture on October 28, 2015, “Lexi Alexander doesn’t suffer fools lightly. The Oscar-nominated director, and outspoken advocate for women filmmakers, made waves in Hollywood last year when she wrote an essay on the deeply ingrained bias women directors face in the industry. Since then, Alexander has kept the pressure on studios to allow more opportunities for female directors.

Born to a German mother and Palestinian father, Alexander is a former World Kickboxing Champion who got her start in the business as a stuntwoman, and soon segued into directing. Her 2002 short Johnny Flynton landed an Academy Award–nomination, and her 2005 feature Green Street Hooligans won the SXSW Jury and Audience Awards. That led to a gig directing Punisher: War Zone, making her the first woman to direct a comic-book feature. Most recently, Alexander directed tonight’s episode of Arrow, which had previously brought on two women directors (Wendey Stanzler and Bethany Rooney). We spoke to Alexander about working on the CW’s comic-book series, embracing her biracial identity, and why more women aren’t directing multimillion-dollar superhero franchises.

How did you land this project?  How much did you know about the show going in?
I was contacted by the showrunners, specifically Andrew Kreisberg, who was a fan of Punisher: War Zone. I knew about the show and had watched the pilot when it came out. When I got the call for the meeting, I binged on three seasons of Arrow over an entire weekend.

Can you share some details about the shoot — how long it took to prepare, to find shooting locales?
All in all, I was there for three and a half weeks. Location scouting is a lot of fun, especially in a town where ten shows are being shot at the same time, because you’re constantly running into other crews scouting the same places. Then we all give each other side eye, because nobody wants to use a location that another show is using as well. It’s quite amusing, really.

Did you have a specific look or feel you wanted for this episode?
It was very clear to me that TV is a writers’ medium and that a show in its fourth season comes with an established look and style. The first meeting I had with Kreisberg and [executive producer] Marc Guggenheim, they were very clear they were interested in me as a director because they believed I could bring something different and new to the show. So my directions were basically ’same but different.’ Now this might sound like I’m being sarcastic, but I’m not. I completely understood what they wanted. There’s definitely a way, even within an existing style and tone, to add something new or unique without making it look like it’s from a completely different show. I’m not sure if I completely achieved that, but I’m pretty sure the audience will see my fingerprint here and there.

You were the only woman director to helm a comic-book feature with Punisher: War Zone in 2008. Not much has changed since then. What do you think accounts for this?
The only reason I was offered Punisher was because I had made an indie film that was rated R for violence and was filled with fight scenes. I think in industries riddled with bias, you tend to hire women only if their previous work is very masculine, which is hilarious given that this is not how male directors are chosen. I am pretty sure when Kenneth Branagh came up for Thor, nobody at Marvel thought: ‘Yes, that Kenneth Branagh is masculine enough to do action, just look at Henry V and The Magic Flute.’ Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge Branagh fan, I’m just trying to demonstrate how ridiculous it is that women have to be ‘one of the boys’ to get in on the superhero business, whereas male directors don’t have to have any proof on their résumé that they can deliver hardcore action.”

It’s all too true – read the entire interview by clicking here.

Spencer Gordon Bennet

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Spencer Gordon Bennet was one of the masters of the American action film.

As film historian Hans J. Wollstein notes, “born on January 5, 1893 in Brooklyn, NY, according to legend, veteran action director Spencer Gordon Bennet entered films by answering an ad for a stuntman to perform a daring jump from the New Jersey Palisades into the Hudson River. The year was 1912 and the employer, the legendary Edison Film Mfg. Company. Bennet was hooked on filmmaking from that moment on and went on to become one of the three or four most important names in the field of motion picture action serials.

Of Anglo-French descent, Spencer Gordon Bennet had sold programs and played bit roles in a Brooklyn theater before earning $62.50 for that fateful jump into the Hudson. He remained with Edison for a while, performing stunts and playing bit parts, before switching to Pathé, where he served as assistant to legendary serial directors Bertram Millhauser and George B. Seitz, actually replacing Seitz as the company’s leading cliffhanger director in the late ’20s when he helmed all the influential Allene Ray and Walter Miller chapterplays.

Concentrating on B-Westerns and feature action films in the early years of sound, Bennet returned to the serial field in 1932 when picked by RKO to direct that studio’s 12-chapter The Last Frontier. It was a homecoming or sorts and he remained in the field until helming the final American action serial, Blazing the Overland Trail, in 1956. Best remembered today, perhaps, for his work for cheapskate producer Sam Katzman, including the 1948 Superman and its 1950 sequel, Atom Man vs. Superman, Bennet also did yeoman work for industry leader Republic, where he co-directed some of the most beloved serials of all time, including The Masked Marvel (1943), The Tiger Woman (1944), Zorro Rides Again (1945), and The Purple Monster Strikes (1945).

Signing an exclusive contract with Katzman in 1947, Bennet went on to direct, or co-direct, all of Columbia Pictures later serials, save one, including Batman and Robin (1949) and Captain Video (1951). His ability to work fast and furiously, a prerequisite for steady employment in the B-Western and serial fields, never alienated him from cast and crew, however. ‘He was probably my favorite director of all and was one terrific man,’ said veteran B-Western and serial villain Pierce Lyden. Bennet, who directed his final feature film in 1965, the nicely old-fashioned The Bounty Killer, was the uncle of legendary special-effects wizard Linwood Dunn. He died on October 8, 1987, at the age of 94.”

Spencer Gordon Bennet; another director whose films need to be on DVD.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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