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Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Dark Horse (1932)

Director: Alfred E Green
Writer: Meville Crossman
Stars: Warren William, Bette Davis and Guy Kibbee
This review is part of the Hot & Bothered: The Films of 1932 blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen and CineMaven's Essays from the Couch.

Posts for 9th July can be found at this page at Once Upon a Screen and posts for 10th July are at this page at Essays from the Couch.
I’ve taken part in blogathons before, but it’s been a while. The idea is simple: someone sets a theme, a bevy of bloggers pick a title that fits and each writes a new review to be posted, all in a flurry on the same day. I simply couldn’t resist Hot & Bothered: The Films of 1932, though, when I saw it mentioned in CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch, because it’s about my favourite year in American film. I’m not saying that there aren’t better years (hello, 1939, you ‘golden year of Hollywood’, you), but 1932 was surely the most honest. It marks the point where the studios had firmly figured out how to use sound, which had come in back in the twenties but not killed the silent movie until Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights wrapped up that era only a year earlier. It also marks the point where a whole new era really kicked into gear: the pre-code. I’ve talked about this a lot at Apocalypse Later but, for new eyes, it’s a brief point in time between the silent era and the imposition of the Production Code in 1934 which stopped all the fun on screen.

I love pre-codes because their stories feel so alive and so edgy for black and white film that my brain often rebels and believes I’m in a parallel universe where Americans actually acknowledge sex as well as violence. To over-generalise, pre-code heroes were all gangsters and pre-code heroines were all prostitutes; women had power, the races mixed and criminals tended to get away with things (or, at least, the tacked on Hollywood endings were so absurdly tacked on that you could often blink and miss them). It was the time of unjustly forgotten stars like Richard Barthelmess, Joan Blondell and Lee Tracy. It marked the arrivals on screen of stars we know such as Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable and Bette Davis. And it was the playground of my favourite actor, the unparalleled Warren William, little remembered today but the quintessential pre-code actor. He made two films in the twenties and two more in 1931, then took over in 1932 with no less than eight, including gems like The Mouthpiece, Skyscraper Souls and The Match King.
I chose The Dark Horse from these eight because I haven’t seen it in a decade, it’s a Warren William picture that I haven’t reviewed at Apocalypse Later before and it plays into the current political climate perfectly. We find ourselves in an unnamed state in a US where the Conservatives battle the Progressives and a governor’s seat is up for grabs. The Progressive Convention is deadlocked for a fourth day because White and Wilson are tied and neither can seem to get an edge. So, the Wilson camp tries the well oiled political move of shenanigans, nominating the dark horse of the title to split the opposition’s vote. How about Zachary Hicks? That seems like a great political name! Nobody’s heard of him, but he’ll do! The catch is that the White camp backs the play just to avoid Wilson getting in, so Hicks wins the primary and both sides try to figure out who he is. Well, he’s Guy Kibbee and he’s asleep in the audience, having taken up his neighbour’s sarcastic advice to cut off his own shoes to let his aching feet breathe.

Kibbee was born to play this role, of a jolly fool who has slid through the halls of power without really understanding them. Hicks was a county coroner, but he resigned because he didn’t like his rest being constantly interrupted. Kibbee specialised in this sort of part, inept but good natured support for the leads, and Hollywood was happy to put him to work; never mind William’s eight, Guy Kibbee made eighteen pictures in 1932 alone, though he was rarely the lead himself. When he was, in films like 1934’s Merry Wives of Reno, the results were hilarious; RKO eventually gave him his own series and he made six Scattergood Baines movies in the early forties. Most people remember him from big pictures like Mr Smith Goes to Washington, in which he also played a governor, but for me it’s a whole slew of pre-codes: musicals like 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade and other films as varied as Two Seconds, Crooner and Lady for a Day. And, of course, this one, in which he plays the title character if not the lead role.
The lead is Warren William, playing Hal S Blake (‘the S is for Samson’), because when the Progressive backroom boys realise what a mess they’ve created for themselves, their secretary, Kay Russell, tells them that they need to hire him to get them out of it. She’s a very young Bette Davis, who, like William and Kibbee (excluding the odd silent supporting role in both instances), had kicked off her career in 1931 and stepped into high gear in 1932: she made four in the former and nine in the latter, including Hell’s House, So Big! and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, not to mention Three on a Match, with its dream cast for a pre-code that included William, Blondell and Humphrey Bogart, among others. She’s still learning her trade here, not apparently as comfortable as her co-stars (she hated her early output for Warner Brothers) but still with an obvious promise that, of course, she more than delivered on. She manages to steal some scenes too and it wasn’t easy to steal scenes from Warren William in a pre-code!

She plays Blake up sensationally as the ‘greatest campaign manager in the world’, ‘the greatest manipulator of public opinion this country has ever produced’ and ‘the fastest worker in the world’. The latter is quickly apparent because when the committee get to his jail cell (as he’s been locked up for non-payment of alimony), he already has the whole block eating out of his hand and even singing a campaign song for Zachary Hicks that he’s written on the fly! Of course, he doesn’t know who Hicks is either so, after he arrives at Progressive headquarters and inadvertently puts the candidate to work putting up his own campaign sign, he’s in for a shock. But, hey, this is Warren William. His assistant, Joe, played by Warners regular Frank McHugh, describes Hicks to his face as the ‘champion seacow of this planet’ and is promptly lost for words when he discovers who he really is; Blake, on the other hand, doesn’t miss a beat after a similar mistake, charms Hicks in a moment and has him volunteer to go right back and fix that sign.
What William did better than anyone else in the pre-code era and, frankly, in the entirety of American film, is to keep our support even when he’s the bad guy. And he played real bad guys, not just what we might call anti-heroes today. He specialised in ruthless businessmen, who don’t get more ruthless than he does in The Match King; cunning lawyers, even before he brought Perry Mason to life on the big screen for four movies in the mid-thirties; and outright conmen, such as the outrageous fake psychic he plays in The Mind Reader. In my review of that picture, I wrote that imposing the Production Code on William was ‘like declawing a wildcat’ and I stand by that. His career went on, but it wasn’t the same and couldn’t have been: most of the tools in his toolbox had become illegal and the parts he played best were no longer written. The pre-codes were made during the height of the depression and he played the roles ‘you love to hate’. However, he had such charisma and fearless optimism that they’re roles ‘you hate to love’ too.

A quintessential William moment here arrives during the first public debate between Zachary Hicks and his competitor, the Hon William A Underwood. Because Hicks has as much political savvy as the shoes he cut up, Blake has him memorise one of Lincoln’s speeches that paints him as a man of the people, dumb but honest, in keeping with his campaign slogan of ‘Hicks from the Sticks’. Unfortunately, Underwood beats him to the punch by launching into precisely the same speech, so Blake, as sharp as ever, takes the stage to expose Underwood as an unashamed plaguarist, accusing him of ‘the vilest of crimes, filching thoughts from a dead man’s grave’. We ought to be horrified, watching a campaign manager destroy the opposing candidate for doing exactly what he had trained his own candidate to do, but we’re with him all the way. Of course, this is merely the 1930s version of the attack ad, a polite creature indeed to what we see during prominent American election campaigns today.
So much of this feels familiar as we move steadily towards the political conventions that will soon provide America with the best opportunity to vote ‘none of the above’ that history has perhaps ever seen. The script was written by Courtney Terrett and Darryl F Zanuck, the future head of Twentieth Century Fox, under the pseudonym of Melville Crossman, and, for all the trappings of the 1930s, it feels remarkably timeless. If they had a time machine to hand, they could have based Hal S Blake on Corey Lewandowski, who ran Donald Trump’s presidential campaign until last month. Early in his career, he worked for Congressman Bob Ney, known today for a thirty month sentence he received for corruption. Lewandowski was arrested too, for apparently smuggling a gun and ammo inside a laundry bag into a Congress office building. He ran a senate reelection campaign that smeared the opposition as a terrorist. He was a controversial lobbyist for years and used violence to handle press and protestors when working for Trump.

All of these things would be believable actions for Hal S Blake, who goes to incredible lengths towards the end of the film to block his candidate from being arrested in the final days of the campaign in a sting set up by the floundering Underwood camp. Even in more personal actions outside the campaign itself, he stoops to some serious depths. Maybelle is his ex-wife, the one who had him locked up at the beginning of the film for non-payment of alimony. He’s been slipping on that again, so she shows up at campaign headquarters to collect and he actually goes to his girlfriend to get the cash, ostensibly for ‘a little bill I overlooked’. As you might expect for a character played by Bette Davis, she’s sharp and sees through much of what he does, to the degree that she continues to rebuff his proposals of marriage because she knows that he’s all about the chase rather than the catch; she’s more than happy to be chased but not willing to be caught in matrimony, as Blake would move on once she was conquered, as if she were a mountain.
Maybelle is played by Vivienne Osborne, yet another star to shine with the advent of sound. She’d made a number of silent films in the early twenties, but had effectively retired as of 1922 until she returned in 1931; almost half of her filmography was made in the pre-code era, including such textbook pre-codes as Husband’s Holiday, Two Seconds or Week-End Marriage, stories that revolve around infidelity, the death penalty and working women (no, not that kind, for a change). What’s notable here is that Maybelle is no more ruthless than her ex-husband but she comes off emphatically as the villain of the piece while he spins his way into the hero’s role. If you examine the story, they’re really no different. Blake does what he does to get Hicks elected, however unethical those actions might be; Maybelle does what she does for no better reason, just the old one of money. Our judgements are based on performance alone: William was best as the used car salesman who charms our socks off, but Osborne as the scheming ‘other woman’.

William dominated every pre-code he was in but in very different ways to contemporaries like Cagney, Bogart or Robinson. Take a look at an early post-code, The Case of the Lucky Legs, the third of his Perry Mason movies, to see the perfect example of that. He’s a whirlwind of energy and it’s often difficult to acknowledge that anyone else is even in the film. He’s somewhat restrained here, by his standards at least, and he leads a strong cast indeed. Bette Davis, second billed, could have been given a much more substantial role, given that Kay Russell is clearly a very capable young lady, but she does what she can with it before it falls into mush. It’s not fair to dismiss all her roles before, say, Of Human Bondage in 1934, but they certainly tended towards less substance. Guy Kibbee was perfect as Zachary Hicks and it’s surprising how well he enforces his presence here, given that he’s inherently playing a character easy to overlook. Frank McHugh is the capable support he always was; I often watch early Warners just for him and Allen Jenkins.
Pre-codes are a rabbit hole. They’re entirely unknown to most of the film-going public and even firm fans of classic Hollywood are much more likely to watch pictures from the later thirties or forties. However, once discovered, they have a tendency to suck us in because they’re a door to a different world, one that entices all the more because it doesn’t feel like it fits. Hollywood’s golden age did a great job of hiding reality, spinning stories that took us away from the everyday. Pre-codes show us that reality, often wildly. I frequently say that pre-codes contain things that we don’t expect to see in black and white and that applies to more than just the outrageous titles like Freaks, Kongo and Island of Lost Souls or Baby Face, Female and Red-Headed Woman. It also applies to social stories like Wild Boys of the Road, Gabriel Over the White House and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang; comedies like Duck Soup, I’m No Angel and Peach-O-Reno; and musicals like 42nd Street, Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933. Add to that list anything with Warren William.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Lady in a Cage (1964)

Director: Walter Grauman
Writer: Luther Davis
Stars: Olivia de Havilland, James Caan, Jennifer Billingsley, Rafael Campos, William Swan, Jeff Corey and Ann Sothern
I’ve been working my centennial project for half a year now and it’s been fascinating to pluck interesting films from the careers of important cinematic names to celebrate what would have been their hundredth birthdays. Today, for the first time, I get to pluck an interesting film from the career of an important cinematic name to celebrate what actually is her hundredth birthday. Olivia de Havilland turns one hundred today and the world of film has wished her all the very best. Born in Japan of British parents, she was a major name in the thirties, not only for Errol Flynn movies like Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Adventures of Robin Hood, but of the quintessential Hollywood blockbuster of the era, Gone with the Wind. In the forties, the blockbusters gave way to more focused dramas, like To Each Their Own, The Snake Pit and The Heiress; she received an Academy Award nomination for each of those three and won for two of them, losing the middle one to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda.

It’s easy to argue that the longer her career ran, the more interesting her film choices became. Never mind all those sweet young things she played in her early films, there are so many fascinating roles later on that I had to debate myself over which of a bunch of them I should select to review. I dismissed Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte as too well known, but could easily have picked That Lady, in which she wears an eyepatch; the Oscar-nominated Not as a Stranger; or especially The Dark Mirror, a crime thriller in which she plays twins. In the end I plumped for Lady in a Cage, a surprisingly forward looking thriller from 1964 that feels like a commentary on the present and future state of Hollywood. It’s very much a product of its time but its approach to story often feels like it could reach cinemas this year, even as it’s set in a location that seems like a throwback to the old days. Put together, that makes for a schizophrenic tone that fascinates me and makes me want to read more into it than perhaps is actually there.
As it begins, there’s no mistaking the movie for anything but the product of sixties Hollywood. The opening credits sequence shifts between Saul Bass style animation and striking black and white photography, accompanied by a staccato jazz score. The imagery is deliberately dark. A couple make out in a car to the radio accompaniment of an overblown evangelical preacher lady, eager to tap into the cold war fear of the nation. ‘Have we an anti-Satan missile?’ she screeches. A young coloured girl drags her rollerskate up and down the leg of a passed out bum. A keg is thrown off the roof of a building celebrating the 4th of July. Most notably, there’s a dead dog in the street with what seems like everyone in the world driving past bumper to bumper but not a one of them stopping. Everything screams heat and disinterest. We’re very clearly shown an amoral modern world before we pop up a driveway into the old fashioned house of Mrs Cornelia Hilyard, a house that could have been in a Hollywood movie of three decades earlier.

Cornelia is a fascinating character from the outset, played by de Havilland, of course. She’s set up superbly by scriptwriter Luther Davis in textbook style. We’re introduced to her through the apparent suicide note of her grown up son, prompting us to expect a domineering tyrant rather than the sweet old lady who wouldn’t say boo to a goose that we then meet. She walks with the aid of a cane, because she broke her hip the previous year; she gets up and down stairs through the use of a personal elevator, which also highlights her financial well-being. She seems to be an incessantly cheerful sort, even while pondering on the morality of buying into armament stocks because of all the war talk on the news. So she’s a character of rare substance: tough but frail, someone used to power who has been relegated to the ranks of the powerless. That’s only emphasised when her son leaves for the weekend and accidentally bumps a ladder into an electric cable and sparks (pun not intended) a power outage to her house alone.
The title has two meanings. The first is literal, as Cornelia finds herself stranded inside her lift cage, stuck between floors with her son gone for the weekend and only a book, a portable radio and a vase of flowers for company. The second is metaphorical, as her attempts to communicate with the outside world by ringing an alarm only attracts unwelcome attention, suggesting that her nice house is as much of a cage as her elevator, the world outside not the helpful one she imagines but a dangerous one that only wants to rage. Initially, the alarm she triggers, which rings outside above a sign reading, ‘Elevator emergency: please notify police,’ finds only an alcoholic thief with mental health issues to break in and see what he can find. He’s George L Brady Jr, better known to one and all as ‘Repent’. After one run to sell Cornelia’s toaster to the local junkyard, he comes back for more with Sade, a faded whore he owed money to. They’re played by Jeff Corey and Ann Sothern, character actors to de Havilland’s old Hollywood star.

If the film at this point was highlighting how method actors such as Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift were playing lead roles in the sixties like they were character parts instead, we’re about to meet the future in the form of a trio of thugs led by James Caan in his first credited role (he had made a brief appearance as a soldier in Irma la Douce the previous year). While Repent and Sade are morally repellent, their actions do make sense. He’s an alcoholic who has clearly suffered for his addiction and she’s a prostitute in a cheap apartment. Both of them have dug their own holes but see a way to climb out of them in the stuff that’s all over Cornelia’s house free for the taking given that she’s stuck in a cage and can’t do anything to stop them. When Randall, Essie and Elaine arrive, having followed Repent from the junkyard, they have no such explainable logic to guide their actions. They’re the epitome of the famous dialogue from The Wild One: ‘What are you rebelling against,’ someone asks Brando. ‘Whaddya got?’ he replies.
In fact, that would actually be more depth than this violent trio get. Given how carefully all three major characters thus far have been introduced, Luther Davis clearly crafted these young thugs without any background at all. We don’t know where they come from and we don’t know what drives them, though, frankly, neither do they. They don’t feel like they belong in the picture we’re watching, more like characters who travelled back in time from the exploitation cinema of the seventies or even from something as recent as The Purge. Their connection to 1964 is only through their style: Caan is clearly trying to be Brando with all the fibre of his being and Jennifer Billingsley, who plays Elaine, tapped into the same wildness as Ann-Margret did the same year in Kitten with a Whip. Oddly, it’s the much younger looking Rafael Campos, playing Essie, who was most experienced at the time: Billingsley was brand new and Caan was earning credit one but Campos had been acting in film and on television since 1955’s Blackboard Jungle.

You can write the rest of the script if you have a background in three distinct eras of Hollywood film: the golden age of the thirties, epitomised by the polite de Havilland and her elegant time capsule of a house; the character-based drama of the fifties and sixties, highlighted by Corey, Sothern and their grounded characters from the bad side of the tracks; and the darker but emphatically less substantial future hinted at by Caan and his thugs. Their future is echoed most strongly in the amoral exploitation flicks of the seventies, from A Clockwork Orange to The Hills Have Eyes, but there are pointers as far away as the dystopian sci-fi and torture porn of today, let alone more nuanced thrillers like The Strangers. It’s hard not to see the Manson family murders of 1969 in this picture, made five years earlier, as if Luther Davis was foretelling the future. Perhaps he was looking at the present too, phrasing his world through the eyes of Kitty Genovese, who famously died three months before this film was released.
There are points where this is underlined in bold ink. Randall eventually engages in dialogue with Cornelia, after she hurls polite abuse at him. ‘What sort of creatures are you?’ she asks, because she cannot understand their motivation. He burps at her and the radio cries, ‘Here, before us, stands the man of tomorrow!’ Talk about a pessimistic social commentary! When Cornelia describes herself as ‘a human being! I’m a thinking, feeling machine!’ it merely prompts Randall to refer to her throughout as ‘the human being’, usage that suggests that he doesn’t see himself as one. He’s an animal, instead, he thinks, a thought backed up by their lack of background, substance or thought. They’re not the iconic juvenile delinquents that Brando or Dean played, they’re just thugs, inept and inane. Yet, time and again, they’re seen as the future. When Cornelia tries to stab Randall with makeshift knives, they bend and he looks at her as if stunned at her lack of acknowledgement that he’s the future and it’s impossible for her to stop him.

The ending is brutal, but again looking both backwards and forwards at once. I don’t want to spoil it so will attempt to be notably vague here, but there’s explicit violence that feels out of place in black and white and there’s a nod as far back as the star-making performance of Lon Chaney in The Miracle Man, made when Olivia de Havilland, one of the last links we still have to that era, was three years old. I’ve met Chaney’s great-grandson, who didn’t know him but runs a company dedicated to his and his son’s work. Yet Olivia de Havilland, alive and vibrant today and celebrating her centennial by talking with People magazine about her career, was alive way back in 1919 when Chaney changed the face of American film. She’s not the only famous star to reach a centennial this year, as Kirk Douglas is set to join her in December, but, while his career ran for longer, it didn’t begin until almost a decade later. I’m happy that we still have both of them but I’m happier still that they had such interesting careers.
Many are also happy that de Havilland took a stand, way back in 1943, against the Hollywood studio system, that resonates today. Having been Oscar nominated as Best Actress for Hold Back the Dawn in 1941, two years after a Best Supporting Actress nod for Gone with the Wind, she asked her employer, Warner Bros, to give her more substantial roles. Their response was to suspend her for six months and, once her contract was up, they suggested that she still owed them six months, as the suspension didn’t count. At this point, industry lawyers stopped the clock whenever an actor wasn’t working, thereby extending seven year contracts into much longer periods of time. De Havilland sued Warner Bros and, in 1944, she won, not merely escaping her own contract, signed back in 1936, but defining California Labor Code Section 2855 to mean seven calendar years. Well into the 21st century, Jared Leto of Thirty Seconds of Mars visited de Havilland in Paris to thank her for the De Havilland Law, as important a legacy as her films.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Deathtrap (1982)

Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Jay Presson Allen, from the play by Ira Levin
Stars: Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve and Dyan Cannon
Somehow I hadn’t seen Deathtrap before, even though it was a successful movie in 1982, both critically and commercially, though a host of critics noted similarities to Sleuth, which the lead actor, Michael Caine, had made a decade earlier. Before it was a movie, it was a play, written by Ira Levin and produced on Broadway, where it was nominated for a Tony award and racked up a record run, its 1,793 performances the longest for a comedy thriller. Marian Seldes, who plays the female lead, Myra Bruhl, appeared in every one of those performances, earning herself an appearance in the Guinness Book of World Records as ‘most durable actress’. She wasn’t cast in the film, however, her part going instead to Dyan Cannon, perhaps not a good choice given that she was Razzie-nominated for her trouble, but at least that speaks to the prominence of the film, given that the Golden Raspberries don’t tend to notice small picture. Mad magazine even parodied the movie as Deathcrap, which is a mark of success in its own way.

It’s an intricate piece, which can’t lose its origins on the stage. Almost the entire movie takes place at Sidney Bruhl’s home on Long Island, which is a delightfully open plan affair inside a converted windmill. Such a memorable location, right down to the intricate mechanisms in the roof above the bedroom, is perhaps the most important component that the film can provide but the play can’t. However, it’s a stretch to imagine anyone watching the movie not envisaging the action unfolding on a stage, especially given that Andrzej Bartkowiak shoots much of it from a distance, as if rendering us a theatre audience. It’s ridiculously simple to give spoilers when reviewing this, so I’ll be careful and merely highlight that it’s about both a playwright and a play, also called Deathtrap, while referencing previous plays from the pen of Bruhl, both through dialogue and through use of props from their productions, which adorn the walls of Bruhl’s gorgeous study. The script feeds upon itself vociferously to make all those twists possible.
We even start on Broadway, where Bruhl’s latest play, Murder Most Fair, is failing horribly on its opening night. ‘The worst play I’ve ever seen,’ whispers an audience member, too far away from the back of the theatre for Bruhl to hear. He realises that it’s flopped, metaphorically hearing the critics sharpening their hatchets. ‘So much for truth in advertising,’ comments one. Whodunit? Sidney Bruhl dunit. And in public too. And so he heads home by train, pissed as a newt, to shout at his drama queen wife in a performance that feels like it could be on stage too. He’s had four bums, he says, all of which stink. He’s written out. He’s descended far from the glory days of The Murder Game, the longest running thriller on Broadway. And what’s worst of all is that he has a copy of a stunning play in his hands; it just isn’t his. It was sent to him by a student, Clifford Anderson, who attended a seminar he gave a year earlier. It’s so great that, ‘Even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it,’ he suggests in one of many wonderful lines dotted throughout the script.

Those of you with twisted minds will already be imagining where the plot will take us next and, sure enough, Bruhl runs through a host of options. He promptly fantasises about killing Anderson with the mace which was used in Rigorous Child or attempting to get the play produced under his own name. It’s flippant at first, of course, but then he starts to seriously think about the ramifications. Would he literally kill for another hit play? If we weren’t thinking that already, his wife Myra asks it of him aloud. And yes, he just might! After all, this appears to be the only copy in existence, Anderson having sent his ‘first born child’ to its ‘spiritual father’. He has no family and he’s currently house-sitting for folk travelling abroad. Who would miss him? Who would connect him to Bruhl? This is a dream scene, because it’s literally the job of a mystery writer to figure out how to kill people without anyone finding out. In fact, they do it more often than actual killers, because they never have to worry about being caught. Well, until now.
Sidney Bruhl was played by Shakespearean actor John Wood in the original play, eventually handing the part on to actors as varied as Stacy Keach and Farley Granger. The film role, however, went to Michael Caine, perhaps as an opportunity to progress from the supporting role he played in Sleuth to the lead, as indeed he did in the remake of that film in 2007. He’s well cast, easily able to shift between shouty scenes and calm ones at the drop of a hat, and he sells the multiple levels of the script well. His co-star was a major name in 1982, having been launched to fame as the title character in Superman, a role which he’d reprised in his previous film. Yes, Christopher Reeve plays Clifford Anderson and he’s decent too, if a little more stagy than Caine, underplaying deliberately: young, enthusiastic and very naïve. With Somewhere in Time, Deathtrap and Monsignor, the other three movies that he made in and amongst the first three Superman pictures, Reeve was clearly aiming to diversify his roles and avoid being typecast as a superhero.

I’m far less sold on the performance of Dyan Cannon though, but a debate raged in my head throughout the picture about whether that was a fair judgement or not. Sure, Myra is a histrionic drama queen of a wife who screams like a ditzy blonde waste of space, but then she is, right? Sidney often talks to her like she’s a child, with patience and small words because she’s clearly not on the same intellectual level and she’s her own worst enemy, as highlighted by the pills, cigarettes and lack of any defining purpose. Yes, she’s frickin’ annoying but she’s supposed to be, right? Was she nominated for a Razzie because she was so annoying as Myra or because Myra was so annoying and she played the part precisely right? I couldn’t choose which side I’d take in that debate but ended up noting that the fact that I was debating during the film instead of being caught up in the story’s flow, which might well be an answer all in itself. Of course, is that bad acting from Cannon or bad writing from Levin or screenwriter Jay Presson Allen?
Now, how far can I go without providing spoilers? I should certainly point out that Bruhl invites Anderson to stay with them, with the view of revising his play into something that can be produced. He’s hardly going to own up that it’s perfect already! I ought to highlight the cleverly written scene in which Myra tries to talk her husband out of murdering their guest, while he’s in the room, without letting him in on the fact that it’s even being considered as an idea. That leads to a gloriously tense follow-up where Bruhl traps Anderson in a pair of Houdini’s handcuffs, then proceeds to joke about killing him with his mace. Perhaps I can get away with pointing out that he strangles him to death with a chain instead, given that it happens only a third of the way into the movie, or in stage talk, at the end of the second scene of act one. Reeve was credited above Cannon and had only just showed up, so clearly the script has more for him to do than simply appear and die. That would be overdoing the billing even for Superman!

But I can’t really go any further, except to introduce the fourth major character, Helga ten Dorp, especially given that she’s played by Irene Worth, the reason why I’m watching this movie as she would have been a hundred years old today, 23rd June. Helga is an awesome opportunity for an actress, given that she’s foreign, characterful and the personification of the unexpected. If the film is about Sidney Bruhl and his cleverly constructed murder plan, then Helga ten Dorp is the wild card that he simply couldn’t predict. We’re first introduced to her through conversation between Sidney and Myra; she’s some sort of psychic who assists the police in solving murders in her native Holland and she’s taken a local cottage for six months, which in this sparsely populated part of Long Island means that she’s their temporary neighbour. However, she shows up in person, right after the murder, walking right in and traipsing around feeling pain in the air. She dominates immediately, acting circles around Cannon and Caine lets her run with it.
Worth is remembered far more for her stage work than anything that she did on film, but that’s only a mark of how important she was off screen. She won three Tony awards over the span of a quarter of a century: winning Best Actress for Tiny Alice in 1965 and Sweet Bird of Youth in 1976, then adding Best Featured Actress in 1991 for Lost in Yonkers, a role she reprised two years later when it was adapted to the big screen. Working in a world where critics are notorious for cruelty, Walter Kerr wrote in the New York Times after seeing her play Hedda Gabler that, ‘Miss Worth is just possibly the best actress in the world.’ She made few films, only sixteen over half a century, but they included many notable roles as foreigners, including a seamstress in the French Resistance in Orders to Kill, which which won her a BAFTA. She also played French opposite Alec Guinness in The Scapegoat, but British in Seven Seas to Calais (playing Queen Elizabeth I, no less), German in Forbidden and Russian in both Nicholas and Alexandra and Onegin.

Here, she’s Dutch and she comes very close to stealing the show, even though she doesn’t really have a vast percentage of screen time. Part of it is certainly that Helga is a gift of a part to any talented actress, but the greater part is that she’s the talented actress who brings her to life. As the script unfolds and the paradigm shifting twists proliferate, we never forget that Helga isn’t far away and could easily show up at any moment to throw a psychic spanner into the works. Surely I wasn’t the only one watching not just to grin at the intricate genius of Sidney Bruhl’s plans but to find the one thread that would unravel the whole thing? That old line from Robert Burns floated invisible in the air around him, that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. And there was never any doubt in my mind that it would be Helga who found that one thread and yanked it out from under him, all the more for her continued conspicuous absence through much of the film.
I’m happy to have finally caught up with Deathtrap, especially having watched Sleuth so recently. I grew up in the eighties and I’m well aware that nostalgia currently sees them as the most embarrassing decade culture ever birthed, just as the sixties were when I was a kid and the seventies were to my younger friends. However, every decade is embarrassing when you choose to see nothing else and this is a great and timely reminder that the eighties produced much of substance, even if most of it is currently obscured by the fashionably awful. It’s always fascinating to watch Michael Caine, who has reinvented himself decade on decade. It was fun to watch a young Christopher Reeve, if not much fun to watch a histrionic Dyan Cannon. It was fascinating to find a masterpiece of writing twists upon twists written while M Night Shyamalan was still in short pants, especially one that’s literate and self-effacing. And it was great to discover another great performance from Irene Worth on what would have been her hundredth birthday!

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

Director: Robert Siodmak
Writers: Mel Dinelli, from the novel, Some Must Watch, by Ethel Lina White
Stars: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent and Ethel Barrymore
Ethel Lina White isn’t a name that resonates today, even for aficionados of the crime fiction which she wrote, let alone fans of film who experienced her work only through adaptation to the big screen. However, she was a Welsh novelist who was very successful in her day back in the thirties. She wrote seventeen novels, most of which fell into the crime genre; three of them were adapted into major motion pictures, though all were retitled for the screen. We may well be excused for not recognising novels like 1933’s Some Must Watch, 1936’s The Wheel Spins and 1942’s Midnight House, also released in the US as Her Heart in Her Throat. However, film fans ought to recognise what they became: The Spiral Staircase, filmed a number of times but first by Robert Siodmak in 1945; The Lady Vanishes, whose many adaptations include an oustanding one by Alfred Hitchcock in 1938; and 1945’s The Unseen, a thematic sequel to Paramount’s hit of the previous year, The Uninvited. All are well worth seeing.

I’m reviewing that original version of The Spiral Staircase, the most recent of those three films but the earliest of the source novels, as Dorothy McGuire would have been a hundred today, 14th June. She had a highly successful career, nominated for an Academy Award for Gentleman’s Agreement and worthy in films as varied as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Old Yeller and Three Coins in the Fountain. She even played the Virgin Mary in The Greatest Story Ever Told, but I chose this personal favourite to celebrate her career because she gets to lead a fantastic cast, above Elsa Lanchester and an Oscar-nominated Ethel Barrymore, all while portraying a character stricken mute because of childhood trauma. It’s a fantastic opportunity and she gives a strong performance without the benefit of dialogue that reaches superb on occasion and never fails to depict her as a delightful young lady, an appropriate target for a killer who has it in for girls with disabilities or afflictions. Because she has no voice, he literally sees her with no mouth.
And yes, we see him, early and periodically throughout, though we don’t see who he is until the grand reveal towards the end. We just see small parts of him, mostly his eye, and the camera plays up his voyeurism beginning with his murder of a young lady with apparent issues walking. It floats around in her hotel room as she opens her closet to collect her nightgown, but as she walks away, it zooms into that closet to locate the killer hiding behind her clothes, zooming all the way into his voyeuristic eye. She’s his third victim, after a girl with a scar on her face and another who was simple. It’s no stretch to imagine young Helen as his next target, as everyone apparently does, because of her psychological inability to speak. By coincidence, she’s downstairs from the murder as it happens, watching the 1914 version of The Kiss in an auditorium. It’s worth mentioning that she’s comfortable with the characters in this silent film because they can’t talk either but, the moment it ends, her terror back in the real world begins.

Most of the film unfolds at the Warren mansion, where Helen works as a companion to the bedridden Mrs Warren, the matriarch of the family who has moments of lucidity but others of apparent confusion. Ethel Barrymore is stunning in the role, another one with inherent limits as she can’t get out of bed. She steals her first scene merely by opening her eyes and she repeats that feat at a later point in the film too. It’s no wonder that she was nominated for another Academy Award (she had won two years earlier for None But the Lonely Heart), but she lost to Anne Baxter in The Razor’s Edge. She came much later than her brothers to a screen career but she was nominated four times in six years. She’s only the most prominent of an astounding female cast that also includes Elsa Lanchester as Emma Oates, her housekeeper, who’s too fond of the brandy; Sara Allgood as Nurse Barker, whom she loathes; and a young Rhonda Fleming as Blanche, her stepson’s secretary, building on her showing in Hitchcock’s Spellbound earlier in the year.
With ladies of this calibre in the cast, it’s an uphill struggle for their gentlemen colleagues to enforce their own presence. George Brent is most prominent as Prof Albert Warren, that stepson, but he’s soft spoken and in the shadow of his screen brother, Steven, played by Gordon Oliver, the one major cast member I didn’t recognise from elsewhere. He plays a really good sleazeball, trying it on with Blanche with misogynistic glee, womanising with a knowing smirk and becoming in the process the overt first choice for our serial killer; it’s notable how Albert looks over at Steven every time anyone talks about leaving. He had a smaller role in Jezebel, which co-starred Brent, and others in pictures like San Quentin and the first Blondie movie, but he never really found stardom and this arrived close to the end of his career. There’s also Kent Smith, trawling the ground in between Glenn Ford and James Garner as Dr Parry, who wants to help Helen recover her voice, and Rhys Williams as Lanchester’s husband, the everyman of the house.

While some get better opportunities than others, and the women generally many more than the men, this is a glorious textbook entry on how to build atmosphere. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was surely blessed with fantastic set decoration and his work is enhanced by a great score by Roy Webb that’s almost symbiotic, but he makes it look easy. His name is unjustly neglected, given that he was arguably responsible for shaping the aesthetic of film noir by bringing German expressionist techniques to his work on Stranger on the Third Floor in 1940, a year after he worked with Karl Freund on Golden Boy. We remember Val Lewton well today for the subtle horror movies he produced in the forties, and we remember his directors, but we should also remember the contributions Musuraca made to many of them, including Cat People, The Seventh Victim and Bedlam. His film noir resume includes an enviable collection of classics like Out of the Past, Clash by Night and The Hitch-Hiker.
Each of these component parts helps The Spiral Staircase towards being not just a good picture but a great one, but the script had to be up to scratch too. Mel Dinelli may have been the least qualified member of the crew, given that he hadn’t previously written a movie of any description and, in fact, wouldn’t write another for four more years, but he enhances the claustrophobia apparent in the Warren mansion through Musuraca’s camera by pitting each of the characters against each other tighter and tighter, just like the spiral hinted at in the title. He notably uses a whole slew of emotions to do this, not just fear but also love, hate, lust and envy. As a result, we feel sure that Helen is going to be the next victim too, even as we realise that the absence of extra characters hints that the killer is surely already within the household in which she works. Never mind the windows that open mysteriously to the consternation of Mrs Oates, the killer’s already inside and he’s someone to whom we’ve already been introduced.

The final piece of the puzzle is director Robert Siodmak, one of those German auteurs who fled the Nazis during the Second World War and found a career in Hollywood. Already important for his debut film, People on Sunday, made with others who would become key names in the film noir era, like Edgar G Ulmer, Billy Wilder and his own brother, Curt Siodmak, he moved on to direct cult hits like Cobra Woman and Son of Dracula before moving into film noir and helping to enforce how good the Germans were at it because they’d invented many of its techniques back in the silent era. This mash up of mystery, horror and film noir wasn’t even his first, but it built on The Suspect, starring Elsa Lanchester’s husband, Charles Laughton, and paved the way for Criss Cross and the picture that landed him an Oscar nomination, The Killers with Burt Lancaster. Put all of these names together and it would be hard not for The Spiral Staircase to be good, but it’s truly great and it plays better each time I see it.
It’s not the deepest mystery in the world, because there’s a really short list of suspects for us to evaluate; it really comes down to whether we expect the killer to be the obvious candidate or not. However, we can’t fail to be drawn into Helen’s growing despair, not by the mystery but by the Warren mansion itself, which almost usurps McGuire’s role as the lead character because of Darrell Silvera’s set decoration and Musuraca’s eye for memorably dark visuals. As focused as we are on the lovely Helen, there are shots where she’s just a set decoration herself, like one where she walks past the iron railings outside the house or another where she’s framed in a huge mirror that, through reflection and deep focus, provides fantastic views of the inside of the mansion. We’re not reliant here on old dark house trappings; there are no secret passageways or paintings with their eyes cut out. Instead, the place merely looks creepy and gets creepier as the film runs on because of what happens within it and how it’s all shot.

With so much to enjoy, it’s admirable that Dorothy McGuire, credited first above Brent and Barrymore, manages to remain a focal point throughout. She’s actually threatened a lot less than we think she is, but she’s the prospective victim throughout, stuck in a set of Kafkaesque scenarios. How can she call the authorities when she can’t speak to them? There’s a great scene where she tries exactly that and her face gradually reflects her realisation that her own trauma may become her downfall. Another has a fantasy wedding sequence she imagines as her ticket to happiness turn into nightmare when she finds herself unable to say, ‘I do.’ All of this turns everything back on her: while an insane killer is stalking her, it’s her own inability to overcome a childhood trauma that traps her and the challenge to cast off her own chains defines her. Speaking again would be a life changer but now a life saver too. Dorothy McGuire’s centennial is only one reason to watch The Spiral Staircase but, frankly, every reason is a good one.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Lost World (1960)

Director: Irwin Allen
Writers: Charles Bennett and Irwin Allen, from the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Stars: Michael Rennie, Jill St John, David Hedison, Claude Rains and Fernando Lamas
Irwin Allen, who would have been a hundred years old today, is a rare example of someone who is still remembered by two utterly different audiences. Anyone who grew up watching movies in the seventies knows him as the ‘Master of Disaster’, the man behind the biggest of the disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, not to mention lesser films with less catchy titles that followed in their wake, like Flood!, Cave-In! and The Night the Bridge Fell Down. However, audiences a decade older are more likely to remember him for sci-fi shows he produced for television like Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants, many of which I saw on British TV in later re-runs. The source of both of these aspects of his career, though, is really Victorian adventure fiction, as highlighted by the trio of films he directed between 1960 and 1962, his first serious efforts in the director’s chair after a few movies he created mostly out of stock footage with a few new scenes shot with major stars late in their careers.

I’ll mention these films in reverse order. Last up, in 1962, was Five Weeks in a Balloon, which was based on the novel by Jules Verne, a cornerstone of Victorian adventure. Before that, in 1961, was Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, an original story but one which could easily be mistaken for a Verne adaptation, given what it does and where it goes. It’s notable that the Seaview, a nuclear submarine at the heart of the story, was based on the real USS Nautilus, in turn named for the fictional Nautilus of Jules Verne. Kicking off the thematic trio was this picture, The Lost World, adapted in 1960 from a novel by another pivotal author in the Victorian adventure genre, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. I should emphasise that not all connections are valid. The real bottom of the sea is the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, named for HMS Challenger, the survey ship that recorded its depth, but it was no nod to Doyle’s legendary explorer, Professor Challenger, introduced in The Lost World, as the ship came forty years earlier.
What is obvious from this trio of films is that Irwin Allen was clearly a big fan of Victorian adventure fiction and he felt an urge to adapt it to the big screen. He wrote each script in collaboration with Charles Bennett, who is best known today for his early work with Alfred Hitchcock on films like The 39 Steps, Sabotage and Blackmail, the latter of which was based on his own play. Incidentally, Bennett’s final picture took him back to Victorian adventure with City Under the Sea, loosely adapted from a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. What’s also obvious is that this material fed both the sci-fi shows Allen made for television and his disaster movies. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was successfully adapted to TV and Allen pitched The Lost World for similar treatment but it wasn’t picked up, even though this film is as episodic in nature as any season of any of his shows. The final scenes of the source novel, with a live pterodactyl escaping into the skies of London presage the entire disaster movie genre, but Allen didn’t have the budget to do it.

What he did have was some star power, though I have to question some of his casting choices. Claude Rains was an accomplished actor with a range that lent him success in films as diverse as The Invisible Man, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca. I’m not buying him with ginger hair and beard as Professor Challenger though. He has the irascibility down pat and his banter with fellow scientist, Professor Summerlee, ranks as the most faithful this film gets to the original material. However, the original Challenger was an imposing physical specimen, with broad shoulders, a barrel chest and head and hands of remarkable size; Rains, at 5’ 6½’’, really doesn’t fit that bill in the slightest. It unfortunately defuses his angrier scenes and shifts them far too far towards comedy. I took a while to buy into Michael Rennie as the big game hunter, Lord John Roxton, too, but because of his soft spoken voice rather than his size. He has the composure, surety and height to be the leader of this party, but he’s a different sort of authoritative.
The best scenes are actually the early ones, as the script adheres closest to Doyle’s novel. We meet reporter Ed Malone as he tries to interview Prof Challenger on his return to London Airport from the ‘headwaters of the Amazon’. He’s belted over the head with an umbrella for his troubles and left in a large puddle. David Hedison, four years away from his most famous role as Captain Lee B Crane in Allen’s TV show, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, is clearly a better actor than Jill St John, who rescues him and whisks him over to Challenger’s presentation at the Zoological Institute that night. She’s Jennifer Holmes, who serves as the glue between the characters. When Challenger is laughed at for proclaiming that he’s seen living dinosaurs in South America, the expedition to find out for sure is financed by her father and includes Malone, whom she rescued, and Roxton, whom she aims to marry. It’s no shock to find that her own adventurous soul joins the party too, complete with younger brother, pink wardrobe and little poodle.

At least St John is easy on the eyes, because she isn’t tasked with doing much except being inappropriately independent for a girl early on and then conventionally useless once actually thrown into adventure. While her lines are too carefully delivered, she’s a surprisingly good tomboy and her sass is believable. Unfortunately, all her early promise is wasted by a script that sees her as half eye candy and half damsel in distress. To be fair, nobody is written well here, surprisingly given Bennett’s history in scriptwriting. Each and every character is a cartoon take on Doyle’s originals, not even interested in struggling to escape their one dimension. It falls to debate only to decide which is worse. Perhaps its the girly girl with her poodle but perhaps its the skeptical scientist, brash reporter or greedy coward. Maybe it’s the smouldering helicopter pilot, silent native girl or quietly tough hunter. Not one of them fails to escape their respective stereotypes and it’s fair to say that some of the actors are better than others at hiding it.
Once the company arrives on top of Challenger’s mysterious plateau by helicopter, thus marking a firm departure from the novel, the film begins to be notable for other unfortunate reasons too. I like the matte paintings a lot but they look like matte paintings. The waterfalls look amazing but they’re major landmarks and not all from this neighbourhood. The extra characters taken to the plateau clearly have no viable purpose to be there and the new romance angle is a weak one indeed. And, worst of all, but perhaps most spectacularly of all, there are the dinosaurs. Willis O’Brien, the pioneer of animating dinosaurs with stop motion techniques, had created amazing footage for the silent 1925 version of The Lost World and Allen brought him back for this version. O’Brien shot nine minutes of animated dinosaur footage with his most notable successor, Ray Harryhausen, but for Allen’s 1956 documentary, The Animal World, not this film. His talents were reduced here to sketching concept art and his animation skills were sorely missed.

At the end of the day, while Doyle’s The Lost World contains both thrilling adventure and social commentary, any film adaptation of the novel is going to be accepted or laughed at on the strength of how believable its dinosaurs are. These dinosaurs are clearly not believable by anyone over the age of four, because they’re not stop motion animations, they’re real animals in disguise. We aren’t shown a dinosaur until the 34 minute mark, around a third of the way into the film. Prof Challenger may identify a brontosaurus rubbing up against the miniature greenery, but it’s clearly a monitor lizard with stegosaurus scales on its back. Like most kids, I’d fallen in love with dinosaurs young and I wouldn’t have bought this as a brontosaurus at the age of five. A gigantic iguana wearing a pair of fake horns in a standoff with Frosty the poodle is no more ludicrous. Neither is the neon green superimposed giant spider that Malone shoots while he’s chasing a scantily clad but somewhat entirely decent young native woman.
It’s the battle of the behemoths that leaves the worst taste in the mouth though. In the red corner is the returning monitor lizard, flicking its tongue like there’s no tomorrow and roaring like a beast on heat. With Malone and Holmes evading its attentions, it has to face off against a caiman with horns and spikes added everywhere that wouldn’t fall off. As you can imagine, this disqualifies the film from the familiar disclaimer we see on any movie nowadays that features even one living creature: ‘no animals were harmed in the making of this film.’ The American Humane Association has monitored filming of Hollywood movies since 1940, including a couple of thousand productions a year, but that’s only about 70% of animal action and this film was clearly part of the exception. I can’t help but describe the monitor lizard vs caiman battle as a cockfight in lizard form, similar to the real life battles captured on African safaris by tourists with cameras, only staged here for entertainment. I doubt either animal survived their tumble off a cliff.

There really aren’t a lot of dinosaurs in this film, if we count these real life reptiles as dinosaurs. There’s no T Rex to be found, no pterodactyls, none of what readers of the novel might expect. That’s sad but explainable given that Cleopatra was already bleeding 20th Century Fox’s coffers dry three years from eventual release. What’s saddest of all is that there isn’t anything else of value to replace them. We’re given cardboard characters whose clichéd attributes are mirrored by the clichéd situations into which they’re placed. The natives are purest exotica, little more than an unwelcoming collection of facepaint, tiki statues and tribal drums. Doyle kept his adventure as scientifically sound as he could; Allen and Bennett don’t seem to know what science is. They don’t even let anyone get dirty in the jungle, even when running for their lives in white suits from giant frickin’ lizards. Almost everything was shot indoors on sets at Fox with as much dry ice as was needed to hide how fabricated everything was. It’s embarrassing.
A five year old might get a kick out of the cliffhanging nature of the piece: here a roaring dinosaur, there a carnivorous plant; here a vicious betrayal, there an honourable self sacrifice; here certain death and there a magnificent way out. Older audiences will find all of these a stretch, especially as the story had been adapted before and relatively well by Harry Hoyt in 1925 with the believable casting of Wallace Beery and Lewis Stone as Prof Challenger and Lord Roxton, as well as the glorious stop motion animation of the master, Willis O’Brien. In fact, older audiences are far more likely to thrill at the frequent sight of Jill St John’s camel toe than any of what they’re supposed to be watching. The cast is strong, Richard Haydn and Fernando Lamas both acquitting themselves well in support of Rains and Rennie; David Hedison clearly didn’t want to be in the movie but stuck it out anyway. Only Irwin Allen got any momentum out of this and that was a career in episodic shlock, forged from The Lost World and presented on ABC.

Friday, 27 May 2016

The Ghost Breakers (1940)

Director: George Marshall
Writer: Walter DeLeon, based on the play The Ghost Breaker by Paul Dickey and Charles W Goddard
Stars: Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard
This well regarded horror comedy from Paramount has a stunning cast, but most of them weren’t quite so well known at the time. It’s arguable that the leading lady was better known in 1940 than her leading man, though there’s no question that he eclipsed her soon enough. She’s Paulette Goddard, a former Ziegfeld girl who became famous in 1936 when Charlie Chaplin cast her in Modern Times. He married her the same year and they were still married, albeit separated, when she shot this film. Her leading man is Bob Hope, the winner of a prize a quarter of a century earlier for impersonating Chaplin, when Goddard was only five years old; then again, Hope was only twelve. They starred together in The Cat and the Canary in 1939 and followed up the double act here, but were about to be more famous apart: Goddard with The Great Dictator and So Proudly We Hail!, landing her an Oscar nomination, and Hope with the Road movies with Bing Crosby. He hadn’t even hosted the Academy Awards at this point, his first stint imminent in 1941.

In support are names as prominent as Paul Lukas and Anthony Quinn, two actors at opposite ends of their careers. Lukas was most of the way through his, having started out in the teens, though his biggest films were still to come: an Oscar-winning performance in Watch on the Rhine in 1943 and a memorable role as Prof Arronax in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954. Quinn was only five years into his and wouldn’t find his way into a really good lead until Viva Zapata! in 1952. He does get two roles here, but neither is much of an opportunity. And then there’s Willie Best, who would have been a hundred years old today. I don’t know if Hope really called him one of the finest talents he ever worked with, but he was certainly an accomplished performer stuck in an era when coloured actors were rarely given anything of substance to do. Best’s first six credits called him Sleep ‘n’ Eat, mirroring the screen image his studio built for him of an actor who only wanted ‘three square meals a day and a warm place to sleep.’
I chose this film to celebrate his career because it highlights his talents much better than most of the roles he was given, as well as showcasing the inherent racism of the time. Nobody thought it was inappropriate in 1940 for Bob Hope to tell him, ‘You look like a blackout in a blackout.’ Nobody felt bad in 1940 when he describes him with, ‘He always sees the darker side of everything; he was born during an eclipse.’ Nobody had second thoughts about giving him a whole conversation about spooks. Yes, both meanings of the word. Today, each of these instances is cringeworthy, but it’s notable that Best, while he’s still playing a subservient role, gets a part of substance here and at points even dominates scenes, with Hope relegated to being his straight man rather than the other way around. Sure, he’s yet another character with big eyes, sleepy voice and malformed vocabulary, not to mention the inevitable streak of cowardice, but he gets to figure things out that Hope’s heroic lead can’t because at least he’s not stupid.

He’s Alex and he works for Larry Lawrence, a radio personality who’s a sort of gossip columnist for organised crime: ‘the man who knows all the rackets and all the racketeers.’ That’s Hope, of course, and it’s one of his reports that gets him summoned to Frenchy Duval’s hotel room. When he believes he shoots a man dead in the hallway, he finds his way into the room of Mary Carter and the other half of the story. She’s inherited Castillo Maldito, a castle off the coast of Cuba, and she’s just signed the paperwork before a cruise to Havana to take it on. However, there’s a lot of pressure on her to not do so, much of which trawls old dark house clichés: the film begins with a terrific storm, during which she’s warned that no human being has survived a night in the castle, due to the ghosts who want vengeance for the treatment they got from her great-great-grandfather, a notorious slave trader. Parada brings her an anonymous offer of $50,000 for the castle. A stranger promptly rings her to suggest she say no. Strange things are afoot!
I remembered The Ghost Breakers positively, but rewatching highlights how creaky it is. The acting is decent, which isn’t surprising given the cast, and the cinematography is strong, emulating the Universal horror classics from the preceding decade. There’s one scene late in the movie where a zombie stalks Mary within Castillo Maldito and it’s wonderfully handled. Another character trying to climb out of a glass coffin is another spooky highlight. This is no horror movie though, it’s firmly a comedy first and an old dark house mystery second. The horror aspects, done in what would soon become known as the Val Lewton style, are a notable bonus! We’re here half to figure out why someone doesn’t want Mary to take ownership of her inheritance and half to laugh at the light banter of Hope, whether in partnership with Goddard, Best or anyone else. After he broadcasts his latest show, his secretary tells him, ‘You were wonderful, if you’re any judge.’ There are many clever lines of dialogue here and most aren’t racist at all.

The script was written by Walter DeLeon, adapted from the 1909 play, The Ghost Breaker by Paul Dickey and Charles W Goddard. It had been filmed twice before, firstly by Cecil B DeMille in 1914 with H B Warner and Rita Stanwood, and then in 1922 by Alfred E Green with Wallace Reid and Lila Lee. Both films, named for the play (so singular rather than plural), are lost today, leaving this version as the earliest extant. It was oddly remade as a musical in 1953 by this film’s director, George Marshall, as a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis vehicle called Scared Stiff. That’s best known today as Carmen Miranda’s final film, regarded as inferior to this in every other regard. It’s hard to see why Paramount felt it appropriate to remake it in the fifties as the haunted house setting was already passé and only the mix of horror and comedy, especially coming hot on the heels of The Cat and the Canary, gave it a fresh edge. By the fifties, the formula was firmly in the hands of Abbott and Costello, who had already done it to death, as it were.
Mostly it’s content to run along at a decent pace, with snappy lines arriving fast enough to keep us laughing and spooky scenes to keep us on our toes. Bosley Crowther, writing in The New York Times, praised its ability to make ‘an audience shriek with laughter and fright’ simultaneously. A great example of this shows up almost immediately. The power is out at Mary Carter’s hotel, caused by the storm raging outside. ‘Nice night for a murder,’ she tells a neighbour, as he lights a cigarette on candles brought up for her. He’s taken sharply aback as he’s with the mob. ‘How do you know?’ he replies. Especially so early in the film, this delivers a laugh and a thrill all at once. The same goes for the various reactions to the storm itself. Mary revels in it, throwing her window open to the elements and crying, ‘Exciting, isn’t it?’ Larry, somewhere else in town, merely quips, ‘Basil Rathbone must be giving a party!’ He’s the comedian here, throwing out 1940 pop culture references with abandon, except when he forgets and Alex takes over.

Whenever The Ghost Breakers has legs, it’s worth seeing. Sure, some of the laughs have dated as much as the racism, but it’s funny enough throughout and it often reaches laugh out loud stature. There are down points though, where the script seems distracted from its proclaimed intentions and we wonder what we’re actually watching. These slower scenes, such as many of those on the cruise to Cuba, could easily have been cut and probably should have been; this would have made a much better 75 minute movie than it is an 85 minute one. Then again, we wonder if some scenes were already cut. I wondered why Lloyd Corrigan was even in the movie; he shows up on three distinct occasions, bumping into Mary and clearly setting up some sort of angle that never gets addressed. Was he really just there to distract Anthony Quinn’s second character away? That seems like a real stretch. I expected much more at the Castillo Maldito too, but we take too long to get there and don’t spend enough time there once we do.
Somewhat surprisingly, given that this is a throwback to another time at just over three quarters of a century old, I wondered at how forward looking it actually was. How many horror comedies do we see nowadays, with plots that combine laughs and scares over a grounding of special effects that are rarely as capable as they want to be and some gratuitous exposure of female flesh? We get all that here. The effects vary considerably, from the highly effective local zombie to the poor double exposure of a ghost who climbs out of a chest and walks around, only for us to ponder as to why the chest is transparent rather than the ghost. As to female flesh, Mary realises that Larry and Alex have rowed over to her island, so she swims over to join them. While she does cover up an enticing bathing suit with a robe, it’s promptly ripped half open by a stubborn banister as she tries to escape the pursuing zombie. It’s easy to see what drew Chaplin to her: Paulette Goddard had a very nice pair of legs indeed!

And so to posterity. At the time this was a Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard picture, in many ways an otherwise unrelated sequel to the previous year’s The Cat and the Canary. Today, it’s not hard to see that they don’t get the strongest characters in the story. Larry Lawrence (‘My middle name is Lawrence too; my parents had no imagination.’) starts well but fades away once we get to Cuba. The generation of today, who didn’t grow up watching Bob Hope host the Academy Awards ceremony (19 times, just in case you didn’t keep count) or have a clue what a USO tour is, may not realise that he’s even the lead. Some might see him as the romantic interest for Paulette Goddard. Others might consider that he’s the other half of a double act with Willie Best. Many, especially once we land on Mary’s island, will find this so reminiscent of a live action Scooby Doo cartoon that they’ll translate the characters into the ones they know and love; I wonder how many will see Hope as Fred and how many Shaggy or Scooby as Best is as often each of them.
And that’s much of why I chose The Ghost Breakers to celebrate Best’s career on what would have been his hundredth birthday. The thirties and forties, not to mention the following string of decades too, were really not good for actors of colour. There were many of them and their talents were often substantial. Nobody is going to talk down Paul Robeson or Hattie McDaniel, but even given as many wide-eyed maids that the latter found herself stuck playing, she was regarded better than Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland and Willie Best, to name just a trio of talented actors given consistently stereotypical roles that became more and more culturally embarrassing as years passed. Eventually, they were decried by the civil rights movement for enforcing stereotypes, even though opportunities were nonexistent. In 1934, while Best was shooting The Nitwits, he told an interviewer, ‘What’s an actor going to do? Either you do it or get out.’ He did it, making 119 movies in just over two decades. This may well be his finest role.

Friday, 13 May 2016

A Dead Calling (2006)

Director: Michael Feifer
Writer: Michael Feifer
Stars: Alexandra Holden, Sid Haig, Bill Moseley and Leslie Easterbrook
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
With Little Big Top in Sid Haig’s mind as a rare chance for him to play a lead role that had nothing to do with wackiness or thuggery, it’s hardly surprising that A Dead Calling followed soon afterwards. It was also made in 2006 and he got to avoid stereotyping once again, albeit in a supporting role in a horror movie. The casting choice was presumably due to Michael Feifer, a prolific producer who was starting to get into the writing and directing business at the time; this was his first feature as a writer and his third as a director. He went on to carve out a couple of niches for himself, odd ones when you put them next to each other: straight to video dramatisations of real serial killers with awkward titles, such as Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield, Bundy: An American Icon and Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck, and made for TV Christmas films starring dogs, like The Dog Who Saved Christmas, My Dog’s Christmas Miracle or A Christmas Wedding Tail. This is fortunately neither, which makes it a little more interesting, but it’s still notably flawed.

Our lead is Rachel Beckwith, a television journalist in New York City who reports with flair. ‘They want drama,’ she tells her guy in the news van. ‘They want a good story.’ Unfortunately she promptly becomes one of those good stories: later that night, a strange man breaks into her house and murders her fiancé, Brian. Why this happens, we’re never told, but it clearly isn’t burglary because he knows her and has followed her on television. This mysterious subplot is promptly forgotten, though we can join some dots and eventually figure out who the intruder was. What’s important for now is that she takes time off to go back to the sleepy small town of Fillmore to stay with mum and dad and recharge her batteries. Here’s where horror fans start paying attention because mum is Leslie Easterbrook and dad is Sid Haig. Only a year earlier, they had been a couple in The Devil’s Rejects, serial killer parents of Sheri Moon’s psychotic murderess, but here they’re just Marge and George, loving parents of a victim. Talk about anti-stereotyping!
Oddly, Alexandra Holden does much better with the material she’s given than either Easterbrook or Haig, though that’s probably mostly because she’s given better material. She’s the one character with real substance here and we puzzle through the first half of the movie as to whether her visions are real, making this a ghost story, or just the product of post-traumatic stress, making it a drama. Of course, the film itself is a horror movie because what she sees is another murder, this time a deliberate and bloody one, but for most of the running time, she’s the only character who’s really in a horror movie. Haig and Easterbrook are in a drama, as they’re insulated from the visions until the end and they’re only in the film to provide loving support as Rachel goes back to work for the local TV station. Both get good scenes but both still struggle because they’re not just playing roles, they’re playing parents who are playing roles, stuck in a tough situation that they’re unprepared for. They walk on eggshells for most of the film.

Stephen Javitz, her new boss, is in a drama too, because he’s caring support as well, albeit with a mildly creepy vibe because he has followed her career since she’s left town. He’s prematurely grey and comes off rather like a low budget Richard Gere playing a low budget Anderson Cooper. Actor John Burke is a regular cast member for Michael Feifer, and he’s as typecast as Sid Haig used to be, just in different jobs. Of his twenty films, at least eight have him playing newscasters, reporters or anchormen. Add in the law, at the police station or in the courtroom, and we’re already over half, before we even try to translate the remaining names into their occupations. He’s fine enough in this role, but I wonder why he plays it like he does. He seems to be aiming for too good to be true, as if he wants us to suspect that he’s more than he says he is. Perhaps the goal was to keep us guessing until the reveals begin, but I was never really sold on his performance because he seemed more interested in being a red herring than a character.
Javitz wants Rachel to start out small, with a series on local architecture, so she checks out the Sullivan House. She’s hardly on her game here because she doesn’t even turn over the clipping she found in the station’s morgue to catch the warning in the headline: the house was abandoned because Dr Frank Sullivan massacred his family there a quarter of a century earlier. She sees the murder happen, but she’s the only one there at the time and she only half believes herself. When she goes back, she chats with a journalist from the Fillmore Union-Tribune who’s investigating Sullivan, but after the doctor snaps his neck and throws him into the basement, she calls the cops to find that the Union-Tribune hasn’t existed for years and Arnie Howard is just another ghost. Fans watching for Haig and Easterbrook will also note here that Chief Murken, a refreshingly capable, decent and unstereotypical small town cop, is played by Bill Moseley, another member of The Devil’s Rejects family playing against type, almost unrecognisably in this instance.

With Haig, Moseley and Easterbrook on board, we ought to have some seriously good acting at least but it doesn’t feel that strong. Moseley is as good as ever, as a cop so on the ball that he almost becomes invisible. Haig doesn’t find his footing for a while, maybe struggling with the concept of smiling on film: he grins more in his first scene here than he does in the entirety of Little Big Top, in which he rarely left the screen. He gets a great scene late on, when George decides to get ready for action, but it takes him a while to get there. Easterbrook takes a while to find her stride too, her best moment coming late in the film with a monologue delivered to her screen daughter at a particularly crucial time. To be fair, both suffer from consistently awkward dialogue, but they’re also professionals who give it the old college try. Fortunately, Holden is decent as Rachel because the further down the cast list we go, the less able the actors become. There’s some embarrassing acting late in the picture when it’s most offputting.
I was with the story for half the film. The setup in New York is good and the follow up in Fillmore isn’t bad, even if it’s a little over-convenient; did the Sullivan House have to be the very first place she goes on day one in her new job? I liked Javitz’s potential, the angles used to shoot the creepy old building (which I’d love to own) and the way the cops were portrayed unstereotypically; Chief Murken sends Rachel straight home after the Arnie Howard incident and has his son, Deputy Dave, follow to ensure she gets there. I liked the ghost story that builds and the possibility that it could be explained psychologically too. Even when the script starts to derail into horror movie cliché, there are still some neatly freaky scenes like Arnie’s death and Sullivan’s hidden dissecting room. At this point, Feifer is still paying attention enough to explain why Chief Murken shows up at the Sullivan House without warning, so there’s effort here. It’s really a starting out film, to set up Feifer’s career as a filmmaker, rather than a later accomplished one.

And that means that there’s a lot of bad here too, especially as we explore the second half. All that neat ambiguity is thrown out of the window when the potential of the supernatural and psychological fades into the banal. The first of a couple of twists is about as unsurprising as it comes and it’s addressed clumsily to boot; the second is weak enough and arrives late enough for us to not really care. By this point, characters are either dead or unsympathetic. The best performances during the highly clichéd last act are from children playing ghosts and, while I salute them for their effort, it only highlights how weak the major actors had become (or how weak the dialogue and plot progression given to them had become; it would be difficult indeed to do some of this material justice). There are even odd bleeps littered around the soundtrack at this point that feel like interference on the sound equipment that the crew didn’t catch at the time; I paused my DVD a couple of times to see if it was outside but no, it was in the movie.
So, I get why Sid Haig picked this. From his perspective, it’s a companion piece to Little Big Top, because it’s the beginning of a new era. You could roughly break his career down into the early years in exploitation, the stereotype years playing heavies, the years away when he trained as a hypnotherapist, the triumphant return years when Tarantino and Zombie reestablished his film career and the current years that see him well regarded as a talented character actor. 2006 was the point in between those last two eras, as he was finally able to play parts that were unusual for him: an alcoholic clown and a doting father, the former a substantial lead role to boot. To the rest of us, it’s clear that Little Big Top is by far the superior of the two films. This one is half of a good movie but half of a bad one too, so it’s far less essential, its biggest claim to fame the fact that Michael Feifer, for some reason, chose to cast a trio of actors from The Devil’s Rejects firmly against type. In the long term, that’s the biggest reason to watch this.