Sunday, 4 February 2018

The Bigamist (1953)

Director: Ida Lupino
Writer: Collier Young, from an original story by Larry Marcus and Lou Schor
Stars: Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, Edmund Gwenn and Edmond O’Brien

Index: 2018 Centennials.

To suggest that Ida Lupino was one of a kind is a spectacular understatement. She did a great deal at a time when the system didn’t think she should be able to do anything, except stand in front of the camera and look cute. To celebrate her career on what would have been her one hundredth birthday, I selected a feature on which she wore a number of hats. She was a co-star, alongside Joan Fontaine and Edmond O’Brien, which was odd for reasons I’ll get into later. She also directed. And she ran, with her husband, the independent production company, The Filmakers, which self-financed it. And she did all this in 1953, which sits at the heart of the era when women had two jobs to do, one in the kitchen and one in the bedroom. Then again, she had done what wasn’t expected from the beginning of her career, taking the role in 1932’s Her First Affaire that her mother wanted. The Bigamist is one of the issue films in which The Filmakers specialised and it has great resonance to her own life at the time.

As with many issue films, it’s not about the what but the why. For instance, we know who the bigamist of the title is, because he’s identified on the very second title card. It explains that the picture stars Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, Edmund Gwenn ‘and Edmond O’Brien as the Bigamist’. Given those names, it’s pretty clear which two women he’ll marry and, sure enough, we open the movie with him and Fontaine trying to adopt a child. He’s Harry Graham and she’s his wife Eve, who’s eager to adopt, because she has a medical issue, we presume, that prevents her from having a child naturally. They’re working with the thorough Mr. Jordan, who immediately flags up Harry’s reluctance to sign the form authorising him to check into ‘every detail’ of their private lives. Now, I wonder why that could be! Well, we watch Mr. Jordan, superbly played by Edmund Gwenn, follow the trail to Harrison Graham’s house in Los Angeles, where he lives with his other wife, Phyllis, in the lovely form of Ida Lupino, and their baby boy, Danny.

Monday, 29 January 2018

The Glass Web (1953)

Director: Jack Arnold
Writers: Robert Blees and Leonard Lee, from the novel, Spin the Glass Web, by Max Simon Ehrlich
Stars: Edward G. Robinson, John Forsythe, Kathleen Hughes and Marcia Henderson

Index: 2018 Centennials.

Kathleen Freeman was a busy girl in 1953. She began it with The Magnetic Monster, which was my last centennial review and, after seven other movies, ended it with The Glass Web, which is my new one. I’m not watching for her this time out though, because her centennial isn’t due until next year; I’m watching for John Forsythe. My American better half knows him well as Blake Carrington on Dynasty and as the disembodied voice of Charlie on Charlie’s Angels, but I know him from movies, from Destination Tokyo in 1943 to Scrooged in 1988, via such fundamentally different films as Kitten with a Whip, Marooned and The Trouble with Harry. It was as Blake Carrington that he’s best remembered, of course, largely for being the role that landed him six consecutive Golden Globe nods (he won two) and his three consecutive Primetime Emmy nominations (he didn’t win any). However, the latter were far from his first flirtation with the Emmys; he had been previously nominated three decades earlier in 1953, as Best Actor.

And it’s 1953 to which I’m going to turn back time, to a drama/thriller from the ever-reliable director, Jack Arnold, he of Creature of the Black Lagoon, High School Confidential! and The Mouse That Roared fame, to name but three of his admirably varied movies. This one’s based on a novel, Spin the Glass Web, by Max Simon Ehrlich, published the previous year. I know some of Ehrlich’s later books, but his best known novel was The Reincarnation of Peter Proud in 1973, also quickly filmed. Ehrlich is important here as he didn’t just write books; he wrote for newspapers, the stage, for radio and, most importantly, for television, scripting episodes of Suspense, The Defenders and Star Trek, among others. We discover why that’s pertinent one scene into the movie. A young lady is driven up to an open mineshaft in the desert. When she isn’t impressed, her companion shoots her dead, carries her over to the shaft and dumps her body unceremoniously in. And then we pan back to discover that they’re actors on the set of a television show.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Magnetic Monster (1953)

Director: Curt Siodmak
Writers: Curt Siodmak and Ivan Tors
Stars: Richard Carlson, King Donovan and Jean Byron

Index: 2018 Centennials.

Back in the fifties, the planet Earth was threatened by a new monster each time a new sci-fi B-movie hit the drive-ins. Some of the most iconic monsters we might conjure up today are sourced from that era, from Rodan to the Blob, from the Thing from Another World to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, from the Mole People to the Brain Eaters. Many of these were completely ridiculous, whether they be the gorilla in a diving helmet in Robot Monster, the giant flying turkey in The Giant Claw, or even the budget-saving creatures we couldn’t see in Invisible Invaders. Sometimes, however, they struck a nerve so well that they grew into the bedrock of pop culture: characters like Gort, the invulnerable robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet or Godzilla, who’s appearing in his thirtysomething feature this year. Of course, those last three challenge our idea of what a monster is and perhaps are all the more memorable for that. They can be good, bad or, in the case of Godzilla, maybe chaotic neutral.

All of these monsters, of course, were outward representations of the fear that was consuming the world in the wake of the use of atomic weapons to end World War II in 1945, the beginning of the Cold War in 1947 and the start of the nuclear arms race in 1949. We began estimating how close we were to mutually assured destruction in 1947, when the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board introduced the Doomsday Clock. According to them, the closest we’ve been is two minutes to midnight, which has been the case twice: in 2018, because of Trump and his bigger red button, and in 1953, after the US and the Soviet Union tested thermonuclear devices for the first time. That realisation is truly scary, because our collective reaction to this is wildly different. In 1953, we were building fallout shelters and practicing duck and cover routines. In 2018, we’re delegitimising science and trying to stop our teens from eating Tide Pods. I really don’t know which is worse.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The Lineup (1958)

Director: Don Siegel
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Stars: Eli Wallach, Robert Keith and Warner Anderson

Index: 2018 Centennials.

It would be difficult to make films without actors, but the people behind the screen are just as important. My centennial reviews in 2016 began with a director, Masaki Kobayashi, and the first notable centennial of 2018 is of a writer, Stirling Silliphant. It would be easy to pluck out famous titles from his career because it’s hardly lacking them. The most obvious would be 1968’s In the Heat of the Night, which won him an Oscar and the first of two back-to-back Golden Globes; the second was for Charly, his adaptation of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. He was often nominated for awards: The Slender Thread and The Towering Inferno also received Golden Globe nods, Telefon was nominated for an Edgar and Village of the Damned was up for a Hugo, not just once but twice. However, each of those worthy screenplays was an adaptation of someone else’s material: usually novels but, in the case of The Slender Thread, an article in Life magazine. His script for The Towering Inferno was based on two entirely unrelated novels, blurred together.

So Silliphant was very good at adapting existing works into new ones, but that wasn’t all that he did. Hilariously, given that he had a consistently strong career, full of quality films, I first wrote about him in my review of perhaps the worst feature ever made. No, he didn’t write Manos: The Hands of Fate, but he did directly prompt its creation by betting an El Paso fertiliser salesman, Harold P. Warren, that he couldn’t make and exhibit a feature film. Warren did and so Silliphant lost that bet, but the results were not good, to say the least. Even the execrable contributions to film of Robert Silliphant, Stirling’s brother, were better than that and he was the writer behind The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? Oh, and he wrote the story that became The Creeping Terror too. I wonder what it must have been like over at the Silliphants at Thanksgiving, with Stirling talking about his award nominations and Robert talking about what he’d just done for Ray Dennis Steckler.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly (1970)

Director: Freddie Francis
Writers: Brian Comport, based on the play, Happy Family, by Maisie Mosco
Stars: Michael Bryant, Ursula Howells, Pat Heywood, Howard Trevor and Vanessa Howard

Index: 2017 Centennials.

I’ve enjoyed Freddie Francis movies for almost as long as I can remember and I’d be rather surprised if you can’t honestly say the same thing. He won two Oscars for his cinematography, almost thirty years apart: the first for Sons and Lovers in 1961 and a second for Glory in 1990. He was also nominated for awards for shooting such notable pictures as The Elephant Man, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Straight Story, some of which he won; he also shot Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Innocents, The Executioner’s Song, Dune, Martin Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear and even Princess Caraboo. I don’t remember him primarily for any of those films, though, or indeed for his cinematography. I know him best for his films as a director, working mostly in the horror genre for the legendary British studios Hammer and Amicus. I used to watch those movies late at night on my sister’s tiny television, titles like The Evil of Frankenstein, The Skull and Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, and they helped to shape my life.

While it’s hardly unusual for a cinematographer or other prominent member of the crew to eventually progress up to director, a road that many editors seem to be taking nowadays, Francis continued both sides of his career mostly simultaneously, working as a DP from 1956 to 1999 and as a director from 1962 to 1989. That’s not to say that he didn’t progress. His career in film began as a stills photographer, working for Associated Talking Pictures, the studio that later became Ealing. He rose through the sort of jobs that film fans generally don’t recognise, like clapper boy, camera loader and focus puller. World War II inevitably interrupted that, but seven years doing anything that was needed to make training films for the Army Kinematograph Service gave him a fantastic education on how motion pictures were made. He became a camera operator, working for Powell & Pressburger, John Huston and others on films like The Tales of Hoffmann, Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick, and eventually a cinematographer and a director.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Santo vs. The Vampire Women (1962)

Director: Alfonso Corona Blake
Writer: Rafael García Travesi, based on a story by Antonio Orellana, Fernando Osés and Rafael García Travesi
Stars: Santo, Lorena Velázquez, Maria Duval, Jaime Fernandez, Augusto Benedico and Ofelia Montesco

Index: 2017 Centennials.

The great folk heroes of the ages are usually timeless. We don’t know when they were born and they generally don’t die; they just live on in our culture, forever young. However, we can put some dates on one of Mexico’s greatest folk heroes, El Santo, because it was the character of a man who lived and died and made a huge difference in between. His real name, not that it was well known during his career, was Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta and he would have been a hundred years old today. El Santo was a symbol of truth, justice and the Mexican way and he plied his trade as a luchador enmascarado or masked wrestler. He fought in the squared circle for almost half a century and, after a few decades, successfully took his character onto the big screen, starring in fifty feature films, fittingly taking on all comers, whether they be criminals, monsters or aliens. I re-watched two of these in celebration of his career and realised in the process how varied the quality of these films really was.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Santo movie, the last one being 1973’s Santo vs. Black Magic, which was screened at a local cinema in Spanish with live Mystery Science Theater 3000 style commentary from a local improv troupe, following a set of wrestling matches. So, trusting Wikipedia, I initially went for The Mummies of Guanajuato, a colour picture from 1972 in which Santo lends his luchador colleagues Blue Demon and Mil Máscaras a hand to save a town from reincarnated luchador mummies seeking revenge. After all, some nameless editor suggests that it was the ‘most financially successful’ Santo movie of them all and the one which fans call the ‘greatest luchador film ever made.’ Well, as much as it sounds like a blast, with not one but three legendary masked wrestlers and a script spun out of the real mummies of Guanajuato, a collection of corpses buried during a nineteenth century cholera outbreak but naturally preserved and now displayed in a museum, it sadly isn’t. This is why ‘citation required’ is so important, folks.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

Director: Luis Buñuel
Writers: Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carriere, inspired by the book, La femme et le pantin by Pierre Louÿs
Stars: Fernando Rey, Carole Bouquet, Angelia Molina, Julien Bertheau, Andre Weber and Milena Vukotic

Index: 2017 Centennials.

Fernando Rey was born in 1917, began his film career in 1935 and remained a busy man throughout it, but he wasn’t really noticed by the world until the sixties and didn’t find fame until the seventies. In the States, he’s probably best known for playing drug lord Alain Charnier in The French Connection and its sequel, though they were far from his English language debut. That came in 1963 in The Running Man, a British film shot in Spain, and was immediately followed by The Ceremony, an American movie shot in Morocco. By that point, he’d racked up a large filmography in Spanish and a number of films in French and when he started making English language movies, they were usually westerns shot in Spain, like Son of a Gunfighter or Guns of the Magnificent Seven, indistinguishable from spaghetti westerns, Italian but also shot in Spain and usually dubbed into English, films like Revenge of Trinity or A Town Called Hell. A rare exception was his role as Worcester in Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles’s epic take on Falstaff.

In Europe, however, he’s probably best known for his collaborations with fellow Spaniard, Luis Buñuel, the grand master of movie surrealism. Buñuel moved around too. His first film was made in Spain in 1929, becoming what Roger Ebert described as ‘the most famous short film ever made’; that was a collaboration with Salvador Dalí, Un Chien Andalou, complete with an infamous eye-slicing scene. After the follow up, L’Age d’Or, caused a major scandal, he escaped to the US to learn from MGM; when that didn’t work out, he returned to Europe, working in the dubbing departments of Paramount in Paris and Warner Brothers in Madrid. When he shot films in Spain, they were mostly anonymous and, after the Spanish Civil War placed the fascists in charge, he moved to the States, eventually editing documentaries at MoMA until resigning after Dalí’s autobiography outed him as a communist and an atheist. By 1949, he had become a naturalised Mexican and contributed some incredible films to the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Time Travelers (1964)

Director: Ib Melchior
Writer: Ib Melchior, from the story by Ib Melchior and David Hewitt
Stars: Preston Foster, Philip Carey, Merry Anders and John Hoyt

Index: 2017 Centennials.

There are things we have come to expect from science fiction movies of the sixties, not least that they’re sci-fi not science fiction. The terms are interchangeable today but, for a while, there was a real battle going on. Serious writers often felt a need to draw a line between their new works of imagination and what they saw as pulp schlock, so they stuck with ‘science fiction’ or ‘speculative fiction’, both often abbreviated to ‘sf’, but followers of the original fan, Forrest J. Ackerman, who just wanted to have fun, adopted ‘sci-fi’ as a riff on hi-fi. And so science fiction was deep and meaningful exploration of ideas while sci-fi was bug-eyed monsters and rayguns. I mention this because Ackerman, who coined the term ‘sci-fi’ in 1954, has a cameo role in this picture and because, while The Time Travelers looks like sci-fi, it’s surprisingly full of serious ideas, shifting it into science fiction territory. Or, in the cinematic equivalent battle, where movies are mindless entertainment and films are high art, it’s closer to film than movie.

Of course, such debates are pointless. Any creation has to stand on its own merits, whether it’s intelligent or not, and this one does surprisingly well. More than anyone, that’s surely due to a man named Ib Melchior, who would have celebrated his one hundredth birthday today, had he lasted only a few years longer than he did; he passed in 2015 at the age of 97. Melchior was a real character, born in Copenhagen to a Danish opera singer who was the most notable Wagnerian tenor of his day. The title of his autobiography highlights what he felt was his greatest contribution to society: Case by Case: A U. S. Army Counterintelligence Agent in World War II; this work included being part of the liberation of the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria, the capture of a Werwolf unit and the discovery of the Nazi hoard in the salt mine at Merkers-Kieselbach. It also led to him being honoured as Knight Commander of the Militant Order of Saint Bridget of Sweden, though this seems to be a self-styled order not officially recognised by any nation.

Monday, 11 September 2017

The Ringer (1952)

Director: Guy Hamilton
Writer: Val Valentine, from the play by Edgar Wallace, with additional dialogue by Lesley Storm
Stars: Herbert Lom, Donald Wolfit, Mai Zetterling, Greta Gynt, William Hartnell, Norman Wolland, Denholm Elliott, Charles Victor, Walter Fitzgerald, Dora Bryan and Campbell Singer

Index: 2017 Centennials.

Today, it would be surprising to discover a film fan who doesn’t immediately associate the name of Herbert Lom with that of Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus, so memorable was he in that role in a number of Pink Panther movies. However, he was a man of talents far beyond magnificent comedic timing and the rare ability to prevent Peter Sellers from stealing every scene he was in. Taking a look back through the phases of his career highlights those different talents well: Czech pictures in the thirties, villainous roles in British films of the forties, stage musicals in the fifties, a wide variety of roles in the sixties, European horror icon in the seventies and, of course, Dreyfus across the decades. He even found time to write two historical novels, one about Christopher Marlowe and the other about the French Revolution. I’ve enjoyed his work since I was a kid, so his versatility isn’t news to me, but I had no idea until now that he was the King of Siam in the original British stage run of The King and I, the role Yul Brynner played on Broadway.

While he was far more frequent a supporting actor than a lead, there are intriguing features almost leaping out of his filmography to be covered in a project like this. I’m a sucker for Ealing films but he wasn’t most prominent in The Ladykillers. I love the classics of horror, but he was disappointed with the Hammer version of The Phantom of the Opera, in which he played the lead. He appeared in other iconic roles too: Captain Nemo in Mysterious Island, Van Helsing in Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (supporting a dream pairing of Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski as Dracula and Renfield) and Napoleon Bonaparte in two films: The Young Mr. Pitt in the UK and War and Peace in the US. He even appeared in two different versions of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The movies that shouted the loudest, though, were his British film noirs of the forties and fifties, like Dual Alibi, in which he played twin acrobats, a Hammer noir called Whispering Smith Hits London and this Edgar Wallace thriller, The Ringer.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Pool of London (1951)

Director: Basil Dearden
Writers: Jack Whittingham and John Eldridge
Stars: Bonar Colleano, Susan Shaw, Renée Asherson, Earl Cameron and Moira Lister

Index: 2017 Centennials.

Last year, I celebrated the centennial of Willie Best with a review of The Ghost Breakers, in which I looked beyond the general lack of roles of substance for actors of colour in Hollywood to highlight how horrendous the roles given to coloured talents actually were. Best’s first six roles were credited to ‘Sleep ’n’ Eat’, a name to fit the image the studio was crafting for him of someone whose only needs were ‘three square meals a day and a warm place to sleep.’ Of course, institutional racism was hardly a problem restricted to the United States. I’m British and it’s not that long ago, historically speaking, that we exercised a habit of waltzing in to countries and taking them over because, well, clearly the savages couldn’t govern themselves. However, there were brighter moments that are worth highlighting and this film, a thriller from Ealing Studios in 1951 is a worthy example, as it features an actor of colour in a major role of substance, as a sailor of well defined character for whom a young white lady falls very hard indeed.

This actor is Earl Cameron and he’s celebrating his one hundredth birthday today. He was born Earlston Cameron in Bermuda and this could almost have been called typecasting for him. He had once been a merchant seaman, just like Johnny Lambert, whom he plays here, and he found himself stranded in London when he got involved with a girl and his ship sailed without him. Within the decade, he would marry a white British lady, Audrey Godowski, whom he met while touring with a play entitled Deep are the Roots; they were married from 1959 until her death in 1994. Theatre found him before film, letting him fill a vacated spot on the chorus line in a revival of Chu Chin Chow and he found that this life was surprisingly easy. ‘In theatre, there was no particular colour bar,’ he told The Guardian, perhaps partly because his graceful Caribbean accent allowed him to play believable Americans. It was here in 1951 that cinema tasked him and Susan Shaw to create the first mixed-race relationship on the UK’s big screen.