Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises, a David Cronenberg film about the Russian mob in London, manages to accomplish something nearly impossible: it starts with a completely implausible detail, then weaves its web so carefully that it traps the viewer inside and makes him forget that he didn't believe the premise to begin with.

A Russian prostitute, only fourteen years old and gravid with child, dies in a London hospital. She had been physically abused and was a heroin addict, but the medicos manage to save a healthy baby from her womb. The compassionate midwife, who lost a baby of her own, impulsively decided to steal the dead woman's diary and to find the family of the infant.

So far so good. Maybe it's a bit far-fetched that the girl was carrying around her diary, but sometimes a plot requires a little jump start, and we can imagine certain circumstances which might have provoked her to run away, diary in hand. What we cannot imagine is what happens next. Inside the girl's diary is a business card from a Russian restaurant. In her quest for the prostitute's family, the naive midwife takes the diary to the restaurant, and eventually agrees to let the kindly owner translate it for her.

Now, I'm no expert on the underworld, but I have heard a thing or two about forced prostitution, and I know that about the only place that business card could lead her is to the person or persons who kidnapped the girl and caused the injuries that killed her. If I were a simple London midwife from a middle class family, I would not want to have any dealings with those people, especially since the diary may provide some kind of evidence against desperate men who would do anything to destroy it and silence anyone who knew of its contents. The midwife not only allows the restaurant owner to read the diary, but also tells him her real name and blabs that her Russian-speaking uncle has read parts of it.


It seems to me that anyone in her position would be cautious enough (1) to get the diary translated by somebody who could not be connected to the many crimes implied by the prostitute's fate, like a respected professor of Russian at a local university; (2) not to reveal her own identity to anyone connected to the dead prostitute; (3) to inform Scotland Yard at some point, if not from the beginning, then certainly when she knew what was in the diary. If she employs no other caution, she should at least be smart enough not to let anyone at the restaurant know who she really is. The midwife's actions are just too naive and too reckless to be credible. I can't imagine anyone putting herself into the position that this woman assumes.

One more detail stretches our credulity to the breaking point. Why did the mobsters let the child prostitute carry her baby to full term? A pretty and shapely young girl has great economic value to them, but they can't get much value out of a mother-to-be in her eighth month. Furthermore, a baby is living DNA evidence. Since the mother is obviously underage, the baby's existence is absolute legal proof that somebody committed statutory rape, even if forced congress cannot be proved, and the baby's DNA is irrefutable evidence of just who that somebody is. One has to think that the mobsters would force the girl into an abortion, as they forced her into everything else.

The gentlemanly restaurateur, needless to say, actually turns out to be the ruthless local Don Corleonov, as is probably known to everyone in London except the midwife. I guess most people could figure it out from the name of the restaurant, The Mob's False Front, and the tattooed, heavy-set men who are always standing at the doorway with their arms crossed. If not, then I suppose they'd figure it out from the sign which offers a "25% mobster discount." The mob boss realizes even before reading the diary that it must include incriminating information about him and his family. He also realizes that he must eliminate the uncle who has read it.

At this point, the other two main characters enter the picture. The restaurateur has a hotheaded and violent son who is also weak and feckless, making him both Sonny and Fredo Corleone in one body. The son's lieutenant is hard-nosed, manipulative, diplomatic, soft-spoken and smart. Although tough as nails, he's even compassionate on occasion. It is obvious that he, not the mobster's biological son, is the Michael Corleone of the family. The son and the lieutenant get involved in the mobster's plan to eliminate the diary and the trail of evidence it creates.

The film succeeds in several ways.

First, the plot has enough surprises that the film could work on that basis alone. The audience is drawn in by wondering how the midwife and her family can survive, by curiosity about the mysterious lieutenant, and by the uncertain identity of the baby's father. Adding even more onions to the plot stew, director David Cronenberg adds a sub-plot about the battles between the Russian family and some rival Turks and Chechens. The sub-plot is not directly related to the plot about the baby, but is absolutely necessary to establish the relationships among the three main Russian mobsters, and includes some twists of its own.

Second, the film is rich in details of characterization and atmosphere. It provides a well-researched look inside the ritualized world of Russian mobsters, focusing especially on the importance of their tattoos. Within that context, it also paints its three main characters in great detail and with complexity. The hothead brother, played by Vincent Cassell, may be vicious and deplorable, but he also exhibits tenderness for a child and great love for his lieutenant. In fact, he loves his lieutenant a bit too much, if you catch my drift. There is a strong indication that his savagery and his brutal womanizing are overcompensation for a nature which is inherently not tough enough for the mob. It is the other two mobsters who lend the film its most sinister and scheming menace. Armin Mueller-Stahl, as the king, and Viggo Mortensen, as the man who would be king, are the types of men who keep their counsel, revealing no more of themselves than is absolutely required. Their games are cerebral, and their insidious threats are masked by ostensible civility. Unlike the Cassell character, they do not walk around with a metaphorical flashing sign which reads "I'm violent," and they are therefore more dangerous to deal with and more difficult to avoid.

Third, the film offers a taste of Cronenberg shock therapy. These men do not carry guns. They like their killing to be personal. They kill with linoleum knives and box cutters, the sorts of weapons that can cause agonizing fatal injuries but can also be justified to policemen. And they attack when a man is most vulnerable: in a barber chair, or naked in steam room. After an unexpected betrayal, Viggo Mortensen has one fight scene in which he is completely naked and unarmed, fighting against two fully-dressed, knife-wielding men. The scene is a masterful piece of cinema because it so powerfully conveys Viggo's vulnerability, gets the audience rooting for him as an impossible underdog, and demonstrates just what a tough cookie he is. Imagine Sonny Corleone walking away from the toll booth incident, and you'll know what I mean. Because the scene is so graphic and because Viggo is a naked superstar, people will be discussing the choreography of this fight for years to come, as we still talk today of the famous nude wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in Women in Love. In Viggo's struggle, as in the Reed/Bates battle, there is no homosexuality involved, and I am not one who enjoys navigating the uncertain currents of subtext, but one simply cannot ignore the subtext when a naked man is being penetrated with a curved knife, particularly when that naked man (Viggo) is obviously the real love interest of his closeted homosexual buddy (Cassell).

There are, in fact, so many interesting things going on in this film that the audience completely forgets the implausible gimmicks that led the midwife to the mobsters in the first place. We just have to accept that premise as we have to accept any fantasy premise like the Matrix. Once that premise is accepted, the script carries us along and makes us surrender our initial incredulity, so that we forget it started as a far-fetched fantasy concept and come to accept it as the grim everyday reality of the London underworld. That's the magic of good filmmaking.

I have never been a great fan of David Cronenberg. I think his films are OK, but I don't understand the passion of his most rabid fans. Having said that, and having duly considered the competitive field, I would support this film as a Best Picture nominee. (Well, unless there are five really great films waiting to surprise us in December.) It's a good story with vivid characters, original insight into an unexplored subculture, and a tremendous visceral punch. I would also support acting nominations for Armin Mueller-Stahl in his best role since Shine, and Viggo Mortensen, who really went the extra mile to create this character. In fact, Viggo did so much research on Russian tattoos that Cronenberg ended up re-writing the script to incorporate the tattoos as important elements of plot and atmosphere.

The film clip is in yesterday's page. Here are some collages of Elisa Lesowski. (Most of the nudity in the film comes from Viggo.)


* Yellow asterisk: funny (maybe).

* White asterisk: expanded format.

* Blue asterisk: not mine.

No asterisk: it probably sucks.


Catch the deluxe version of Other Crap in real time, with all the bells and whistles, here.








Tattooed Flower Vase


Tattooed Flower Vase (1976), or Kashin no irezumi: ureta tsubo is a Nikkatsu Roman Porno directed by Masaru Konuma. It is in Japanese with English subtitles, starring Naomi Tani as a widow who makes kabuki dolls, and Takako Kitagawa as her college age daughter.

When the mother's kabuki-star husband died, she shut off her libido and concentrated on raising her lovely daughter, with whom she has an unusual and vaguely sexual relationship. When one of her customers drugs her and has his way with her, it unleashes her passions. Then her daughter is hit and mildly injured by a car driven by a handsome young man who, it turns out, is the son of mother's former lover, who was also an actor in kabuki theater. The mother and her daughter compete for the young man's attention. Mother has the kabuki story "Dojoji" tattooed on her body because it seems to be the young man's favorite of his father's repertoire, and is also the source of one of her more popular dolls. That particular kabuki story, in which a woman turns into a snake and ends up devouring a man, also provides a symbolic parallel to this film's plot.

The film is far more sensual than erotic, and the story is more traditionally Japanese than the typical Roman Porno effort. It features traditional Japanese music and many aesthetic shots of lovely Naomi Tani caressing her kubuki dolls, as well as framing shots of the special Washi paper dolls which are used to mirror the plot symbolically. I enjoyed the film very much. It is highly visual; the stars are very attractive; the story is accessible; and the widescreen transfer is top-notch, which is especially welcome when films are photographed as well as this one. If you are looking to watch your first Roman Porno, this would be a good choice. 

Naomi Tani and Takako Kitagawa both show breasts and buns in this beautifully photographed film.


Naomi Tani


Takako Kitagawa









Howling II: ...Your Sister Is a Werewolf


Today the old Time Machine goes back for a film which is noteworthy only for the sequence where Sybil Danning rips off her top.

Marsha A. Hunt also bares her boobs.

Annie McEnroe has naked sex, but we don't see a thing. She also becomes a fully clothed "babe in bondage".







Notes and collages

The Ballad of Cable Hogue

Part 6 of ?

Stella Stevens








El Francotirador

Paul Naschy plays Lucas, a man who loses his daughter in a terrorist attack against a minister. He decides to take revenge against the government by trying to kill Francisco Franco. While he waits for the right time, he meets a young prostitute who tries to change his life.


Blanca Estrada






A high definition (1280x720 HDTV) clip of Elizabeth McGovern in Once Upon a Time in America


Before Bab 5, Mira Furlan showed her flesh in some films made in Yugoslavia and its successor states. Here is her career-best nudity in Kiklop


How many 1953 movies with nudity can you name? Monika may not be be Ingmar Bergman's best movie, but it is the one most seen by US audiences because a distributor snapped it up for the grindhouse circuit, where it continued to be seen for years and years and years. I don't remember much about the fifties, but it seemed like this movie was always playing in an art or exploitation theater somewhere in the early and mid sixties, or in an adult drive-in well into the sixties, maybe even in the early seventies. Although a sad and sensitive work possessing artistic aspirations, as you would expect from Bergman, it was shown side-by-side with Russ Meyer films and other exploitation flotsam because ... well ... you know. 

So it was that for many men my age, Harriet Andersson was one of the first naked women we ever saw on screen. She was certainly among my first ten.

  • Romy Schneider was the first, just before or just after my 14th birthday, in Boccaccio 70. Her segment of that film was directed by Visconti. Loved her, hated the segment, although I very much enjoyed two other segments in that same anthology film: a Sophia Loren story directed by de Sica, and a sexy Anita Ekberg segment directed by the great Fellini himself. Despite those impressive directors, there was no way my parents would have let me go. I had to sneak into that one with my friend The Duck. I was afraid we would not be allowed in, which would have left us stuck out in the cold until my mom picked us up two hours later at another theater around the corner, where we were supposed to be seeing some Disney crap. I suppose we would have actually watched the Disney film to get warm. As it happened, nobody even checked ID's. Neither we nor the theater owners were committing a crime at the time, so if we had the scratch, we were in.
  • Thelma Oliver was next, in The Pawnbroker, a 1964 film directed by Sydney Lumet. My dad took me to that one, even though it was condemned by the dreaded Legion of Decency.

Harriet was a couple of years later, and I'm not sure who may have come in between her and Thelma on my personal list. When I was a freshman in college in 1966, Monika was screened in our dorm's dining hall one night - with the full cooperation of the administration since it was from the great Bergman -  and just about every guy in the dorms sat politely through it (boring as can be) to see this brief scene.

Alice Henley's great sex scene in Rome
Caterina Murino in Nowhere
Kate Winslet in Hamlet, pre-Titanic. No real nudity, but close, and it's Kate, dammit.