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Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Dear Dead Delilah (1972)

Director: John Farris
Writer: John Farris
Stars: Agnes Moorehead, Will Geer, Michael Ansara, Dennis Patrick and Patricia Carmichael
It’s well known that Agnes Moorehead preferred to be recognised and remembered for roles other than Endora in Bewitched, a role she took reluctantly, expecting that the show would end after one season. Outside of primetime TV, film fans tend to associate her with the Mercury Players of Orson Welles, for good reason. They met on radio, where she was a notably versatile actress, and they were two founding members of the Mercury Theatre on the Air. After their infamous 1938 interpretation of The War of the Worlds, she and her colleagues moved into film, with a string of movies that still resonate today. Is there really a better place to start a film career than Citizen Kane? She followed it up with The Magnificent Ambersons, which earned her the first of four Oscar nominations, three of them in the forties. Unfortunately, she was so great a character actor that it took her until the other end of her career to be given a top-billed part, that of the title character, Delilah Charles, in Dear Dead Delilah, released in 1972.

It wasn’t quite her final appearance, as she would give voice to the Goose in Charlotte’s Web a year later and appear in a bunch of TV movies: Rolling Man and Night of Terror in 1972, Frankenstein: The True Story in 1973 and, finally, the ridiculously titled proposed pilot, Rex Harrison Presents Stories of Love in 1974, the year she died. However, Delilah was her last on screen feature film performance and she had a blast with it, which would be hardly surprising to anyone who’s followed her career. Delilah, you see, is an old, dotty and irascible matriarch in a wheelchair and a pearl necklace, who likes brandy, talking to her dead father and belittling her relatives. It doesn’t hurt that those relatives, old and dotty themselves, are played by other capable character actors like Michael Ansara, Anne Meacham and Dennis Patrick. Each did their time on soap operas, in Days of Our Lives, Another World and Dallas respectively, which is appropriate background for a Southern gothic like this. Patrick was the most qualified, because of a long run on Dark Shadows.
If you think that something like Dark Shadows, with all its vampires and werewolves, would be too outrageous for a movie starring Agnes Moorehead and Grandpa Walton himself, Will Geer, you’d be mistaken. In fact, it starts bloody and only gets bloodier on out, though this proto-slasher is set firmly in a Southern gothic framework rather than the soon to be traditional cabin in the woods. It can’t lay claim to inventing anything, as Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood predates it by a full year, but it was certainly ahead of its time; the opening scenes remind very much of Halloween, itself massively influential on the slasher genre but which wouldn’t be filmed for another six years. Those scenes are our prologue, in which a pregnant young lady talks to her dead and partially dismembered mother in her bloodspattered white dress, then, many years later, is released from Tennessee’s Correctional Rehabilitation Center for Women. She’s Luddy Dublin and she’s reminiscent of nobody less than Christopher Lloyd as Uncle Fester.

In the form of Patricia Carmichael, doubling her credits after playing a teenage girl in a single episode of Petticoat Junction in 1964, this clueless character is clearly set up to be our insane killer. That’s aided by a bizarre accident in which she gets knocked silly by American football players whom she’s attempting to sketch; well meaning bystanders can’t take her home because she has none, so two of them drive this grinning lunatic to Aunt Delilah’s mansion instead. The crazy driver is Richard and Delilah’s niece, Ellen, is his girlfriend, while the mansion is South Hall Plantation. How better to stir up an inward looking family than to introduce some crazy murderer into the mix? We’ve seen that movie before many times and can surely write the rest of the script ourselves. Well, not quite, because writer/director John Farris, even though he only had $200,000 to play with, sets a notably mad tone, starting as he introduces his cast of characters; not one of them has a full complement of marbles, whether they think they do or not.
Delilah is merely the most prominent. Richard describes her as ‘wasting away at the top of her voice’, which is a great description for someone with a fantastic line in bitter dialogue. However, while she’s the character most easily defined as nuts, given that she likes chatting with her father, who’s been dead for twenty years and remains only in the form of an oil painting, she’s also clearly the sharpest. Even though the plantation has dwindled in size over the years, from 5,000 acres down to a mere 24, the building is still worth a million bucks (even in 1972 money) and the trust is worth even more, so she brings the family together to announce both her imminent death (‘I have Papa’s word on it that I’ll soon be joining him’) and her new will, which leaves them only $5,000 each. The plantation itself will go to the state, along with a suitable sum to maintain it. This announcement, needless to say, is not well received by the family, and we can’t help but think their outraged reaction was most of Delilah’s point.

However, Delilah has more with which to stir them up; she’s found ‘Papa’s horse money’. Family legend suggests that, during the Depression, he burned his stable for the insurance money, but took care to swap out the valuable thoroughbreds beforehand for run of the mill horses. While worthless animals died, he sold the valuable ones south of the border and hid the proceeds, so there should be $600,000 in cash somewhere on the property. And so off they all wander to figure out where it might be. Had this film not begun in true slasher style, we might read this as an Agatha Christie sort of murder mystery, but the blood and the wildly off kilter tone of the entire picture suggest different. That approach screams slasher flick and we eagerly anticipate each succeeding death scene, while mildly attempting to figure out who’s behind it all. The suspect list includes everyone in the cast, including the black manservant, Marshall, for no better reason than he doesn’t seem crazy but must be for continuing to work at South Hall.
Luddy Dublin is the obvious candidate but she’s too obvious to take entirely seriously. Once in the house, she’s hired on by Ellen to be Delilah’s new maid and companion, even though she’s just owned up to murdering her mother and spending most of her life in an asylum. That should tell you plenty about Ellen’s mindset, but I’ll add her response for context: ‘Most of the people who lived in this house,’ she says, ‘either went to jail or to deserved to go.’ In addition to Ellen, the family is comprised of Delilah’s two brothers and one sister, with their lawyer cousin Ray Jurroe inexplicably representing all the above. There’s Dr. Alonzo Charles, who isn’t allowed to practice medicine any more, presumably because he’s a drug addict. There’s Grace Charles, who’s a horse-riding lush; what else she likes to ride I’ll let you discover. And there’s Morgan, an inconsequential opportunist with a wife he calls ‘baby duck’; her dresses epitomise everything that was wrong with the seventies. I’m cringing once more just remembering them.

It’s quickly obvious that none of these characters either likes or trusts anyone else, all the way to Richard and Ellen, who have the best reason to, given that they’re an item. It’s also quickly obvious that such a lack of trust is well and truly deserved. Dr. Alonzo’s addiction is presumably what leads him to constantly fluster about as if he’s about to transform into a werewolf, but I did wonder for a while if that was really going to happen. By comparison, Grace is an ice queen who looks daggers at everyone and receives them right back. Morgan dominates his wife, who is honestly called Buffy, but she steals most of his scenes because Ruth Baker is more than willing to overact with abandon. I don’t remember her from her previous film, Marat/Sade, but it was set in an asylum, so her casting is perhaps typecasting. Even Robert Gentry, playing Richard, often reminds of the conniving Christopher Reeve in Deathtrap. Not one of them is likeable but that just means we’re happy to see them gradually and bloodily decreased in number.
With the growing death count probably the best reason to watch this film, I won’t talk about the how and why, beyond suggesting that many people of my generation may find a surprising amount of satisfaction in seeing Grandpa Walton stumble out of Delilah’s stable to die, his severed right hand held in his left. It may not be a vision any of us expected to see and this may be the only place to see it (while he was more versatile than many might think, I believe this was his sole horror movie), but that merely adds spice to the vision. The effects are cheap but relatively effective, given that the budget was minuscule, and they’re of the sort that stick in people’s minds. Those who saw this at a young age on television as part of an Avco/Embassy package of Spanish horror movies (this was the only English language inclusion) have probably forgotten the picture and its title, but may get flashes of some of the death scenes every now and again and wish they could remember where they came from.

Beyond that, the two main reasons to watch this feature today are Agnes Moorehead and John Farris. The latter is a well known author today and wasn’t unknown even in 1972. He already had fifteen novels to his name, the first published only a year after he graduated from high school in 1955. Four years later, he had a million seller, Harrison High, which he continued in no less than five sequels. However, he’s known best today as a horror writer, not only for his best-selling 1976 novel, The Fury, which he adapted to film two years later for Brian De Palma, and its own three sequels, but for a whole string of further unrelated books dating from the eighties onward. This feels like an early hint at where he wanted to go with his career, in choice of material at least, if not as a medium of choice. Before this, only When Michael Calls really plays with horror but nowhere near as overtly as Dear Dead Delilah; it was coincidentally filmed in 1972, but Farris wasn’t involved with that one.
According to a fansite, Furies and Fiends, maintained by John David Scoleri and David J. Schow, Farris also spoke to the lack of real budget. ‘The actors mostly worked for nothing,’ he said, ‘including Moorehead, who would have destroyed me if she’d wanted to but instead was extremely supportive and helpful.’ Given how bitter and blistering she made Delilah, it’s easy to see her doing that but the worst anyone seems to have said about her was Bewitched co-star Dick Sargent calling her a ‘tough old bird’. What’s more, it wasn’t public knowledge at the time but she was already terminally ill with cancer, quite possibly from shooting The Conqueror just downwind from a nuclear test zone in Utah, and she probably thanked Farris for puting her in a wheelchair for most of the movie. He remembered that, ‘She gave me everything she had, and a short course in what film acting is all about.’ Going back through her career, she seemed to do that with every film. This is far from her best picture but she did stellar work within it nonetheless.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Curse of the Queerwolf (1988)

Director: Mark Pirro
Writer: Mark Pirro
Stars: Michael Palazzolo, Taylor Whitney and Kent Butler

By the time 2016 ends, I’ll have reviewed 35 pictures to remember important contributors to cinema on what would have been (or, in two instances, were) their centennials. Curse of the Queerwolf, released in 1988, is the most recent of them and by far the cheapest to make. Low budget pioneer Mark Pirro shot it on 8mm film for an estimated $10,000, which was four times what he spent on his debut feature, 1983’s A Polish Vampire in Burbank. That picture grossed over half a million dollars in home video and cable TV sales, allowing him to shoot Deathrow Gameshow on 35mm for $200,000 and see it distributed worldwide by Crown International. I own it on PAL VHS, a tape which contributed just a little to the million and a half dollars that it made. Perhaps because Pirro had to sue Crown for royalties due to him, he leapt back down the budgetary scale to shoot this, his third feature, which grew out of a small character role in A Polish Vampire in Burbank of a queerwolf in a hot tub.

Now, which ‘important contributor to cinema’ could be in a $10,000 feature called Curse of the Queerwolf, you might ask? Well, that would be Forrest J. Ackerman, the original fan, whose importance to fandom cannot be underestimated. He coined the term ‘sci-fi’ and invented cosplay. He wrote for the first fanzines and lent his name to a character in the first Superman story (published before the comic book). He co-founded LASFS, the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, the oldest continuously operating sci-fi club in the world; in addition to running LosCon, it also owns Westercon, a regional sci-fi convention which my better half is chairing in 2017. He published Famous Monsters of Filmland and represented some 200 authors as a literary agent, from luminaries like Ray Bradbury to outsiders like Ed Wood. He also collected everything he could and, over half a century, exhibited it to over 50,000 fellow fans at his house, known as the Ackermansion. The fact that he appeared in over 210 films is almost a footnote to his incredible career.
One of those is Curse of the Queerwolf, in which he plays an alcoholic named Mr. Richardson. Seeking treatment for his addiction at the Sweet Holy Mama Therapy Clinic, he’s hooked up to a machine that feeds him an ounce of booze every few seconds, while the therapist, Richard Cheese (he goes by Dick), waves his dirty socks under his nose. It’s aversion therapy and, hey, it might work, if only Mr. Cheese didn’t get distracted by his best friend, Larry Smallbut. Poor Mr. Richardson explodes and that’s the end of Uncle Forry’s part. He appeared in bigger films than this one and in more substantial roles too, but this felt right as a choice to celebrate his career because he was such a fan of Z-movies. Sure, he played the US President in Amazon Women on the Moon, Dracula in Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold (and Dr. Acula in many films) and a club patron in Vampirella, a movie based on a character which he named, but this is the underground cinema that he adored. He returned for Pirro’s later My Mom’s a Werewolf and Nudist Colony of the Dead.

I love Z-movies too, when they’re made with imagination and passion. It’s been so long since I’ve seen Deathrow Gameshow that I’m unable to remember much about it but I do remember that I laughed aloud a lot while watching it and I did the same with Curse of the Queerwolf. The story is the standard werewolf legend we know from The Wolf Man and Curse of the Werewolf, among many others. Pirro even nods overtly to the classics that came before by giving torches to the men who trail the queerwolf (or dickenthrope) at the outset (that’s torches with fire like villagers always carried to Frankenstein’s castle rather than torches like British flashlights). Sure, this is a contemporary story and one of these modern ‘villagers’ is wearing sunglasses, but they still have old school torches which they never extinguish, even while travelling by car. Either Pirro couldn’t afford pitchforks too or they were too dangerous to have sticking out of moving vehicles. It doesn’t matter. The torches rocked.
Their victim is a young lady named Paula McFarland, played in lingerie by a young lady named Cynthia Brownell, but the story has the character be a male transvestite, Paul McFarland by name, who had been bitten by a queerwolf and so turned into one himself. Another nod to The Wolfman is the tagline, repeated a couple of times during the picture: ‘Even a wrist that is strong and firm and holds up straight by day may become limp when the moon is full and the queerwolf comes your way!’ I should mention here, just in case you hadn’t noticed, that this is hardly politically correct. Sure, it’s almost three decades old but it was notably over the top in 1988 and it’s still there today. It isn’t just the fact that gays and transvestites are the same thing in this film, but other running jokes are willing to go to places that most filmmakers wouldn’t dream of visiting. One involves Larry accidentally killing at least three puppies, one by microwave. This isn’t Troma so we don’t see it happen but the sound effects are impressively gruesome.

I should add that Larry is a nice guy, but he’s easily led. He’s managed to land a lovely girlfriend, Lois, and things seem to be going really well for them. He loves her, he cares about her and he wants to settle down with her, but it’s a scary proposition, leaving his bachelor days behind, and his best friend, Richard Cheese, really doesn’t help him to move forward. Dick is a complete lech, who is convinced that he should keep Larry from falling into matrimony. So he takes him to strip clubs (‘We just got here four hours ago’) and bars to pick up girls. Larry does feel guilty doing this but he gets talked into it anyway; it’s how he finds himself necking with a young lady on Dick’s couch who turns out to be Paula McFarland. It’s only after she bites him on the ass that he realises that she’s a man pretending to be a woman. The four ‘villagers’ with their torches promptly invade the house and chase poor Paula out into the night so we can tie into that opening scene and start to move forward with Larry as the new queerwolf.
This is a wild comedy but the actors wisely play their parts completely straight (pun not intended). Pirro is known for re-using the same cast members over and over again, but many of the key ones here are new. Michael Palazzolo, who plays Larry, has no other credits on his filmography at all, but he’s well cast nonetheless. Cynthia Brownell, playing the transvestite dickenthrope who bites him, only has one and that was in a small part in Pirro’s previous feature, Deathrow Gameshow. Taylor Whitney, playing Lois, would go on to work for another director, but only once, acting alongside Erik Estrada and a cast of porn stars in a women in prison flick called Caged Fury. Only Kent Butler, the deliciously dry horndog of a best friend, made more than two movies, but almost all were for Pirro. He was the casting director for Deathrow Gameshow, in which he also played a stage manager; he was a still photographer on Nudist Colony of the Dead; and he appeared in Buford’s Beach Bunnies, which starred Tom Hanks’s younger brother Jim.

Not all the cast were this inexperienced, of course, and I’m not just talking about Forry Ackerman’s 210 bit parts. Another victim of Richard Cheese at the Sweet Holy Mama Therapy Clinic is Conrad Brooks, a legendary Z-movie actor, best known for playing a cop in Plan 9 from Outer Space. He made a bunch of pictures for Ed Wood and also worked for Coleman Francis on The Beast of Yucca Flats in 1961, before calling it quits on his screen career. It was Pirro who talked him back for his debut, A Polish Vampire in Burbank, and he’s appeared in many of Pirro’s films since. He’d also go on to work for other modern day B-movie legends, such as Fred Olen Ray, David DeCoteau and Donald G. Jackson, among many others, in a filmography that is packed full of movies with outrageous names that are either awesome or awful or both. Ackerman may not have seen Dr. Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots, The Saturn Avenger vs. The Terror Robot or Test Tube Teens from the Year 2000, but he would happily have done so and probably enjoyed the heck out of them.
My favourite character in Curse of the Queerwolf is the gypsy woman who Larry accidentally runs over with his car. She’s Madame Muddyooch and she’s played by Sharon Alsina, who went on to be an anime voice actor and appear in a serious film that I would love to see called Mr. P’s Dancing Sushi Bar. She’s far from serious here, of course, and the joke at which I laughed the loudest came after she sees the pansygram in Larry’s hand, marking him as a queerwolf, just as she saw one on Paul McFarland’s hand before him. With her suitably exotic gypsy accent, she tells him, ‘I see all!’ and he replies, utterly deadpan, ‘Did you see the car coming?’ No, this is hardly sophisticated comedy but it made me laugh long and loud and I always appreciate movies that do that. I also enjoy comedies that are able to laugh at themselves, which this does often. ‘Fourth night in a row we’ve had a full moon,’ Dick tells his current squeeze, Holly. ‘Poetic license,’ she replies.

My reviews often act as recommendations, somehow even when I’m writing what I think are negative ones, but this film is going to polarise people without any commentary on quality. Some people are going to read this, be horrified that such a picture exists and make sure never to watch it. Others are going to seek it out just because they now know that it was made; I’m certainly going to lend it to the gay couple in my family who didn’t just enjoy The Gays but laughed uproariously at it. I’m sure that some won’t be able to buy into the fact that a feature shot on 8mm for $10,000 could contain anything of quality, but I’d suggest that there’s quite a lot, even in places you wouldn’t expect. Every werewolf movie has to have a transformation scene, for instance, and this one has the one you might expect, with Larry watching in horror as his wrists go limp, but it also has a very believable shot of fingernails extending, complete with bright red nail polish. It’s not Rick Baker’s An American Werewolf in London but I was still impressed.
I loved this movie, far more than I expected to. Sure, it’s often inconsistent, usually stupid and sometimes not as funny as it wants to be. It also loses its focus, mostly mirroring the classic werewolf story but veering off on occasion just because. I don’t just mean the gloriously named Det. Morose from Homocide (geddit?) with a loose Sean Connery accent that comes out of nowhere, I mean the way that the parody veers off into other movies. There’s a scene that parodies Deliverance, set to the Beverly Hillbillies theme in lyrics reworked to better suit the occasion, but that diversion can be accepted as a nightmare. The eventual shift into The Exorcist isn’t as appropriate because, even though it’s written carefully enough to wrap up the story, it’s not the parody that we followed for most of the picture and diversions only work if we come back from them. However, my takeaway from this film was to watch Deathrow Gameshow again and track down everything else Mark Pirro made. Thank you, Forry, for everything, including this.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)

Director: Arthur Crabtree
Writer: Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel, from their original story
Stars: Michael Gough, June Cunningham, Graham Curnow and Shirley Anne Field

I was rather shocked to find that I hadn’t seen Horrors of the Black Museum before. I grew up on this period of British horror movies, watched on my sister’s TV late at night after I was supposed to be asleep, and I’ve seen most of them, including the other couple of pictures in what David Pirie called in his book, A Heritage of Horror, the ‘Sadian trilogy’ of horror thrillers from Anglo-Amalgamated: Peeping Tom and Circus of Horrors. That’s an interesting trio, very different in style and approach but with a common theme of cruel violence, and there’s plenty of that on offer here. Being British films from the tail end of the fifties, they’re polite and courteous in their aberrance and so they occupy a curious midpoint between the amoral excesses of the Grand Guignol and the twisted torture porn of today. In doing this, they were massively influential and it’s fair to say that, without them, we may not have had Vincent Price in eight Edgar Allan Poe adaptations from American International, who coughed up half the budget for this picture.

In fact, Herman Cohen, in his role as producer of the film rather than that of a co-writer of the script, wanted Price in the lead, or at least Orson Welles, but Anglo-Amalgamated successfully lobbied for a British actor, partly because of cost and partly because of the Eady Levy. This was a tax on the box office whose proceeds were divvied up between exhibitors and qualifying British movies; the aim was to support the British film industry by keeping money within it. To qualify for such funding, administered through the newly formed British Film Fund Agency, at least 85% of a picture had to be shot in the United Kingdom or its Commonwealth and there could only be three foreign salaries . Cohen took up one of those slots already, so hiring a British lead avoided an immediate second; Michael Gough was born in Malaysia, but it was British Malaya at the time. He’s a fantastic choice for the role of Edmond Bancroft, the arrogant and quite deranged journalist and author of books on true crime. He would have been one hundred today.
Gough had a long career, debuting on film in 1948 and television as far back as 1946. Originally, as British actors have a tendency to do, he made adaptations of classics. That first TV movie was George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion and that first feature was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, in support of Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson. However, most know him from fantastic film, probably for his repeated role as Alfred in no less than four Batman movies, two for Tim Burton and the following two that we pretend don’t exist. When I think of Michael Gough, I think of the villainous Celestial Toymaker in Doctor Who and the murderous Dr. Armstrong in The Avengers, two iconic characters in two iconic TV shows, as well as the mad scientist, Dr. Charles Decker, in Konga. Oddly, his first horror movie saw him play an entirely sane character, Arthur Holmwood in Hammer’s Dracula in 1958, third billed after Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, but filmmakers quickly realised that he was even more fun as the bad guy, the villain or the lunatic.

He’s particularly unhinged here as Bancroft, especially as the film runs on. His final scene is gloriously memorable but it’s only one of many because it’s a gift of a character to an actor with classical training who’s willing to ham it up in a horror movie. Bancroft is a writer, the author of many successful books on true crime (his latest is Terror After Dark) and a journalist who stops in regularly to cock a metaphorical snook at Scotland Yard. It seems that one-upping the peelers is something of a hobby of his and he revels in it. We watch both those aspects of his character often, signing books for fans one moment and politely tormenting Supt. Graham the next. As the film runs on, we also get to see his more twisted side. You see, there’s a killer in town with three victims in two weeks to his name, all women and ‘each murder more horrible than the last.’ Bancroft describes the most recent, conducted with a pair of binoculars with a concealed pair of needles to pierce through the eyes into the brain, as ‘fiendishly clever’.
More importantly, he suggests that the inspiration for such a gruesome device must have come from a similar pair that are stored in the Yard’s own Black Museum. As unlikely as it may seem for a location lauded in the title of a horror movie, this is a real place. Officially named simply the Crime Museum, it was founded in 1874 and contains a vast array of relics of real crimes, including the From Hell letter, supposedly written by Jack the Ripper, to the fake Millennium Star diamond placed into the Millennium Dome to outwit jewel thieves. It isn’t just famous stuff; it also includes other items of interest, such as shotguns disguised as umbrellas and, oh yes, a pair of binoculars with hidden spikes. These, according to Cohen, were sent by a young stable boy back in the thirties to his master’s daughter. He was in love with her but was fired for having sex with her in a stable and taken aback when she refused to have anything to do with him. When she focused the binoculars, the spikes emerged, skewered her eyes and pierced her brain.

What’s important to note is that the Black Museum, housed today in Room 101 at New Scotland Yard, is not open to the public and never has been since its founding. With the exception of a recent exhibition of selected items at the London Museum, you have to be a policeman, a lawyer or some other professional with a valid reason, to tour the exhibits. It’s funny to watch Supt. Graham and Insp. Lodge rebut Bancroft’s suggestion that a visitor to the museum might be responsible for these new murders and hilarious to watch the police fail to realise that the writer overtly taunting them might be the killer. Actually, he isn’t, not directly, but it can’t be considered a spoiler for me to bring that up. His doctor thinks that he should be hospitalised for ‘unnatural excitement’, a state which he reaches after each murder. ‘It’s my favourite subject,’ he tells Aggie, who runs an antique shop, as he buys a long dagger from her. And it’s only a quarter of an hour in when we visit his own Black Museum, full of weapons and torture devices.
It’s much more than that though. Any horror fan will recognise the characteristics that Gough so gloriously exhibits. He walks with the aid of a cane, leans forward to orate with passion and has hair greying on the sides. In another movie, he’d be distinguished; in this one, he’s clearly involved. It’s less than half an hour in when we see the real killer and immediately piece together most of the plot points we need to figure out everything. This isn’t a movie to surprise us, it’s a movie to shock us with what might honestly be described as the depths of depravity in a British film from 1959 or, to be fair, from anywhere, much nastier in tone than anything that Hammer had shown but keeping their glorious Technicolor. Especially in this sense, Horrors of the Black Museum predates such pictures as Jigoku in Japan, Black Sunday in Italy and Blood Feast in the United States. Today, of course, it seems tame, not to mention old fashioned, and, frankly, it would have felt that way in the mid-seventies, but Gough keeps an edge on it.

As fantastic as Gough is in this movie, he’s not the only reason to watch. The murders here are more clinically twisted than sexual, unlike Peeping Tom and Circus of Horrors, but there is a sexual element that invites us to be voyeuristic. Bancroft is keeping a young lady (and keeping her cooped up); her name is Joan Berkley and she’s played by a curvacious June Cunningham who knows how to use her curves and gets plenty of opportunity to do so. After a heated argument with Bancroft, in which she gets rather vicious in her verbal attacks, she swans off to the pub to dance in front of the locals but leave on her own. She’s such a tease! We’re set up to expect her death, but she’s safely escorted home by a couple of gentlemanly policemen. There she teases us by disrobing for bed and is murdered when she least expects it. I won’t detail how, because there are surprisingly few deaths in this film and I feel that I shouldn’t spoil them. It’s a pivotal moment for this film, though, half an hour in that sets the rest of the plot in motion.
If Gough steals the film and Cunningham gets the opportunity to steal a couple of scenes from him, the rest of the cast are, as was so often the case with British film, thoroughly able support. There are less recognisable faces than usual, though Supt. Graham is a capable Geoffrey Keen, well known as the Minister of Defence, Frederick Gray, in no less than six James Bond films, and to horror mavens as the lead in Hammer’s Taste the Blood of Dracula. His boss here, Commissioner Wayne, is Austin Trevor, who was the first actor to play Hercule Poirot on screen, in three films back in the early thirties. Also recognisable is Shirley Anne Field, a mainstay in the sixties, with key roles in The Entertainer, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Alfie; She was also in Peeping Tom. However, the most memorable is surely Howard Greene, because he’s the only one to overact. To be fair, he does so deliberately because he plays a madman who confesses to the murders, promising that he’ll use a death ray on the next one. He’s a hoot.

Technically, only the script is really problematic. Arthur Crabtree did everything he could with it as a director and did really well for the most part; he was known more for his comedies for Will Hay and Arthur Askey rather than genre movies, but this, his final film, came right after he directed Fiend without a Face, a sci-fi horror movie whichwas even more financially succesful than Horrors of the Black Museum; it made back thirteen times its budget rather than the mere seven that this film managed. Desmond Dickinson was responsible for shooting the film and he did a great job without ever attempting to be flash. His camera is content to sit back and watch, often panning or dollying through a room with subtle voyeuristic tendencies, not only in Cunningham’s scenes. There should be a shoutout for the production design crew, because I loved the sets. I want to buy Bancroft’s mansion and fill it with the stuff that Aggie has for sale in her antiques shop. I’d keep Bancroft’s dungeon and study, of course!
For all the great dialogue and outlandish murder, the script is poorly paced and too easily distracted from its sadistic goal; the film is only 78 minutes long and would have been much more memorable had there been an extra twelve of murderous death gadgets. Instead, Jim Nicholson added a gimmick, as was the current trend in genre film. William Castle, the maestro of such gimmicks, had begun a year earlier with Macabre, handing out a $1,000 life insurance policy with every ticket in case the customer died of fright, but got more and more elaborate. For House on Haunted Hill, he sent a skeleton over the audience on a wire; he attached vibrating motors to the underside of some seats for The Tingler; and, for Mr. Sardonicus, had the audience decide if the title character would live or die. Castle’s pictures weren’t the only ones with gimmicks; screenings of Crabtree’s previous film, Fiend without a Face, had a ‘living and breathing fiend’ in a display case front of house, twitching its spinal cord and menacing the public with sound effects.

For Horrors of the Black Museum, Nicholson invented Hypno-Vista, because every cinematic gimmick had to have a hokey name. This involved a twelve minute prologue presented by Emile Franchele, a registered psychologist and hypnotist, who later hosted a TV show in California called Adventures in Hypnotism and spoke as a hypnotherapist in a 1975 documentary, Death: The Ultimate Mystery. Franchele explains what hypnotism is, accompanied by basic special effects and the inevitable Archimedes spiral, then proceeds to hypnotise the audience. First, he has us hold their hands together so he can generate enough suggestion to part them against our will, but eventually uses sound and enforcement to persuade us that we’re in London, ready for the film to begin with red double decker buses and recognisable landmarks. Yes, we the audience become part of the movie, ready to be in the room when poor Gail Dunlap triggers the needles in the binoculars she’s been sent and falls lifeless on the carpet.
Well, that’s the idea anyway. Needless to say, it’s completely ludicrous but audiences apparently lapped it up back in 1959, when it was almost expected to have a hokey gimmick to spice up the movie. It’s certainly not the worst thing about this picture. Beyond a troubled script, there are some truly awful make-up effects that supposedly age the murderer but only serve to lessen the impact of what should have been a relatively cool Jekyll & Hyde type subplot; there’s plenty of convenience for the sake of art, such as the thoroughly useful vat of acid that suddenly shows up at the right moment, having never been set up in an early scene; I could also include the bra that Shirley Anne Field wears as Angela Banks, the illicit girlfriend of Bancroft’s assistant, Rick, because it’s notably distracting and could easily have put someone’s eye out. What’s more, for an apparently intelligent crime writer with delusions of grandeur, Bancroft is a complete moron when it comes to covering his tracks.

I won’t say that it’s easy to forgive those flaws, because I’d love to see a version of this without them, but they aren’t as important in a film like this as they would be in something of another genre. This begins with a thoroughly memorable murder, proceeds to enforce that it’s not a one off so setting us up to expect the intricacies of future crimes. In this, Horrors of the Black Museum sets the stage for Theater of Blood, the Dr. Phibes duology and, down the decades, even the Saw franchise. The flaw that matters most here is the one that takes us away from that, neglecting to set up another such murder every thirty, twenty or even ten minutes. It’s easy to just ditch the Emile Franchele intro sequence and leap straight into the feature, especially as it isn’t included on most versions available on home release, but it’s sadly impossible to replace it with the twelve minutes that should have been included to begin with. It’s an important, pioneering film and birthday boy Michael Gough is glorious, but it pales in comparison to Theater of Blood.

The Hypno-Vista intro with Emile Franchele can be watched for free on YouTube.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Johnny O'Clock (1947)

Director: Robert Rossen
Writer: Robert Rossen, from an original story by Milton Holmes
Stars: Dick Powell and Evelyn Keyes

It’s ironic that the title of this film is never fully explained. It’s a catchy one, especially when compared to the relentlessly generic titles that were usually given to films noir, and it sticks in the brain. It surely contributed to my choice of this picture, which I had not seen before, to remember the career of Evelyn Keyes, its leading lady, on what would have been her one hundredth birthday. Yet, beyond being the current name of its lead character (he has others, for reasons never explained but clearly dubious), it never finds a real purpose. Mostly it just serves to keep time in mind, as do the superb opening shot of a man checking his watch against the large clock above him and the importance of a pair of expensive watches within the story. The title is much catchier than the movie itself, a lot more memorable and, arguably, of a higher quality than the material it advertises. After all, it did a great job of suckering me in, as I’d heard it before often and so sought it out for this project.

I’m happy that I watched Johnny O’Clock though, because it’s an important and interesting film, even if the importance is mostly in the presence of Robert Rossen as writer and director; he wrote the script from an original story by Milton Holmes. He was already known as a writer, having penned a host of screenplays for Warner Brothers in the 1930s, including Marked Woman, Racket Busters and The Roaring Twenties; his greatest up to this point may have been A Walk in the Sun. However, this was his first time to sit in the director’s chair and, while he would never be prolific there, his ten films as a director include classics like All the King’s Men and The Hustler, both of which landed him Oscar nominations for Best Director; the former won three from its seven nods, including Best Picture, but Rossen lost to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives. I wonder how much of a learning experience this was for him, given that he was firing on all cylinders later in 1947 with Body and Soul, a film which he directed but did not write.
To my mind, Rossen is the weakest link here. While he (and perhaps Holmes) deserve great credit for the quintessential film noir dialogue which fills the script to bursting, this is methodical direction of a methodical script and there’s just no passion in it, even when the actors do their best to generate some. Methodical works well for Lee J. Cobb who, as the capable Inspector Koch, drives everything through his investigations of the various deaths that pepper the story. It doesn’t work well for Dick Powell as Johnny O’Clock or for the other key characters: his partner, his assistant and the three ladies with important parts to play in proceedings. Each of them, in different ways, feel like they’re bridling at the steady pace which Rossen forces onto them and aching to break out of it and into their own momentum. Two of the ladies want to speed things up while the third wants to slow it down. Johnny wants control just because, while his partner is alternately active and passive. None are happy with the pace as it is.

That’s not to say that the script isn’t cleverly written. The first nine minutes are spent at Johnny’s hotel in only two scenes: one in which Charlie, his personal assistant, wakes him up and another in which Harriet Hobson and Insp. Koch, separately but together, meet him downstairs. In other hands, this would be throwaway material but, in Rossen’s, everything has a purpose. They set the stage with a murder, establish the characters of five important people (one of whom we haven’t even met yet) and set in motion the events that will constitute our story, the latter from a number of different perspectives. It’s textbook stuff and the only issue is that it misleads us to believe that the core of the movie will contain a man named Chuck Blayden. Blayden is a dirty cop, one who has just shot a gambler as he supposedly resisted arrest. Johnny knows Blayden (and the gambler as well), Harriet loves him (and wears the bruises to prove it) and Koch wants him off the force (and Johnny to help make that happen).
Another clever aspect to the script is what meaning is brought by the three ladies of importance. Harriet is the first of them, a girl who checks hats and coats at the club which Johnny helps to run. She’s a lovely little thing, played to glorious effect by Nina Foch. She’s always reminded me of a more angelic, less Teutonic Marlene Dietrich but that works especially well in this film as Harriet is a simple girl, both in outlook and, perhaps, in mind too. ‘Old enough. Not smart enough,’ explains her sister. She’s a good girl, but she loves a bad man and can’t stop loving him. That leads to her suicide which, of course, isn’t any such thing. She can be seen as the present for Johnny O’Clock, clearly a man of dubious history who is nonetheless doing an honest job with a clean record. The film noir genre, perhaps more closely associated with black and white than any other, never saw things in anything but shades of grey. Most characters here are straightforward, but Johnny is fashioned from quintessentially deep film noir complexity.

If Harriet is his present, a moment in time where he’s a good man doing honest work, Nelle Marchettis is his past. She’s the trophy wife of Johnny’s partner, Guido (pronounced Geedo), a more traditionally slimy businessman who may or may not be operating in isolation from organised crime. Given that actor Thomas Gomez was 42 and weighed nearly three hundred pounds, but vivacious actress Ellen Drew was a decade younger and reminds of both Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth, it’s hardly surprising that Nelle has a thing for Johnny instead, who buys a fresh flower every morning for his buttonhole and is played by the dapper Dick Powell, who doesn’t look a year older than Gomez even if he was. I don’t believe that it’s ever said outright but it’s certainly firmly hinted that Nelle and Johnny had a relationship in the past and her attempts to restart that are so overt that it’s difficult to believe that her screen husband doesn’t realise it. That’s one reason why Guido acts like he’s Johnny’s boss but we never buy it.
Our birthday girl, Evelyn Keyes, arrives just shy of a third of the way into the film. She’s Nancy Hobson, Harriet’s elder sister, who flies into town after her death to take care of affairs. She meets Koch first, who’s ahead of everybody else throughout, but falls for Johnny. While the ‘club’ he runs with Guido looks much more like a casino, he tells her that he’s no gambler. ‘Gambler’s a guy who takes a chance,’ he says, though he soon takes a chance on her. Nancy’s first scenes hint at her being a femme fatale, but that role is much better played by Nelle Marchettis. Really, she’s the future in this triptych, the possibility of one for Johnny that’s entirely above board. They’re quick to fall into romance, perhaps much too quick, but we can buy into it happening and the various things happening around it that flavour it in film noir terms. Nancy isn’t the looker that Harriet was but she’s hardly bad on the eyes and she has the depth that was denied her screen sister. Keyes played a substantial character, if not a substantial part.

Keyes was a capable actress who successfully avoided typecasting but failed to escape her most famous role; it eventually found its way into the title of her autobiography, Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister: My Lively Life In and Out of Hollywood. The affairs documented within it include those with three of her fellow 2016 centenarians: Glenn Ford, Sterling Hayden and Kirk Douglas; though none of those featured amongst her four marriages, she did wed film directors Charles Vidor and John Huston. It’s debatable as to whether her life eclipsed her career, but the latter didn’t take off to the degree it deserved. Her favourite of her own films was Mrs. Mike in 1949; given that she plays the Bostonian wife of Dick Powell’s Mountie in the remote north of Canada, it’s not difficult for the more romantic among us to see that as an alternate future to Johnny O’Clock. Certainly, it would be tough to argue against the ending of this picture being weaker than the events which led up to it.
While many of her career highlights were in lead roles of B-movies, she did good work in some major films too. After playing that supporting role of Suellen O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, she landed a contract with Columbia, who had her play an ingenue in Here Comes Mr. Jordan and the female lead in The Jolson Story, amongst others. Personally, I’d call out The Face Behind the Mask, a dramatic crime story from 1941 with a tinge of horror, in which she gives great support to an even better Peter Lorre. Her versatility is ably highlighted by this film noir coming right after The Jolson Story and right before The Mating of Millie, a comedy in which she played the title character. She retired in 1956 after playing Tom Ewell’s absent wife in The Seven Year Itch, but she never really quit acting. Her final film role was as a witch in Wicked Stepmother, also a final film for Bette Davis, and she still had a third appearance to come on television’s Murder She Wrote, playing different characters each time out.

As a versatile actress of consistent quality, it’s perhaps appropriate that she’s consistently good in this film, even in support of an actor who has a little more trouble with his role. There are points where Dick Powell is nuanced and perfect, but others in which I wasn’t convinced he understood his character (or the script’s take on it). Perhaps he had trouble being the lead but not the driving force behind the film; that’s Insp. Koch all the way. Johnny is one of those hardboiled characters who sits back and lets things be as they must be, but usually those characters were pulling strings behind the scenes and he isn’t. For half the film, I imagined Johnny as being rather like Rick Blaine from Casablanca as played by William Powell; that’s not quite as palatable as it is intriguing and he’s not given the grounding. Powell is great while standing up to Koch and delivering fantastic film noir dialogue, whether talking to cops or ladies. He’s less believable during emotional scenes, where he’s too cold, or during the end, where he’s out of character.
That ending is a down point. As carefully as the plot is constructed, it’s not complex enough to mask whodunit and why. The finalé needed more than the solving of a crime but what’s provided doesn’t feel satisfactory. Mostly it’s the writing and I can understand if the acting errors came from that. There are a number of other details that don’t feel resolved either. Clearly Johnny wasn’t born an O’Clock but we’re never given his real surname or any reason why he chose this particular one, especially as it screams to have meaning. Perhaps it was just one of many elements to focus on a theme of the passage of time, which was promptly written away from without the due diligence done in clean up to avoid misleading us. That leads us back to Robert Rossen, an established writer of screenplays who debuted here as a director. I wonder if the best of this picture was due to his experience as the former but the worst was due to his lack of experience as the latter. Certainly it works best as a starting point to his career.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Dark Eyes of London (1939)

Director: Walter Summers
Writers: Patrick Kirwan, Walter Summers and J. F. Argyle, from the novel by Edgar Wallace, with additional dialogue by Jay Van Lusil
Stars: Bela Lugosi, Hugh Williams and Greta Gynt

Looking back just over three quarters of a century on, the big name here is that of Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian actor who emigrated to the United States via Germany and found his future in 1927, appearing as Count Dracula on the Broadway stage. Adapting that role to film for Tod Browning and Universal in 1931, he revitalised the Universal horror movie for a new decade and became the first true heir to the throne of Lon Chaney. The Dark Eyes of London, however, came eight years later, at a time when horror films were being reduced in number at the major studios, and so Lugosi was finding himself mired in B-movies of decreasing quality. Even though it would be released Stateside by Monogram, this British picture, made by Argyle Productions and shot at Welwyn Studios in Hertfordshire, must have felt like a break for him. Certainly he sailed out on the Queen Mary to star in it, a holiday on the way to work. Perhaps he’d also enjoyed making The Mystery of the Marie Celeste in the UK a few years earlier for Hammer.

As much as Argyle were keen to capitalise on Lugosi’s legendary performance as Dracula in their advertising for the film, he was not the biggest star associated with the project, that honour surely going to Edgar Wallace, who had written the novel upon which the film was based. Sure, the script was adapted by three screenwriters, one of whom was the film’s director, Walter Summers, in a much more gruesome style than the original novel, but it was an Edgar Wallace picture nonetheless and that’s hard to miss. The success of Wallace, whose name is hardly remembered today, cannot be understated. In 1928, it was joked, believably, that one in four books being read in the UK came from his pen and he churned out material at an amazing rate, even for the pulp era. By the time he was done, he had written over 170 novels, 18 stage plays and almost a thousand short stories, reaching 50 million sales in the process. Over 200 films have been based on his works, though he’s mostly remembered today for creating King Kong.
Having read some Edgar Wallace, this rings mostly true to his novels even though it’s much more horrific. Wallace helped to shift British detective stories away from private investigators like Sherlock Holmes and towards policemen; the string of river murders is investigated here by Det. Insp. Larry Holt of C.I.D., the Criminal Investigation Department of the British police force. There are many scenes that explore the routine of police work, including the projection of crime scene photographs and tests run on a body to ascertain stomach contents. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for Bela Lugosi, who plays a double role well enough that it doesn’t even seem like a double role for the longest time. Monogram released the film in the States as The Human Monster, and while that title surely includes a nod to the morality of Lugosi’s character, Dr. Feodor Orloff, it really shifts the focus of marketing to Jake, a supporting character played by Wilfred Walter, though a few years later it would surely have been given to Rondo Hatton.

I’m watching today, however, for Greta Gynt, a Norwegian actress who lived in the UK as a young child and moved back again as her acting career got under way. She was a regular face in British films of the forties, often playing the female lead; she retired in the early sixties on a high note, playing the lead in The Runaway. She would have been a hundred years old today and, to celebrate, I chose one of the two films she’s best known for. While she was certainly not typecast in genre film, she’s remembered mostly for Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror, with Tod Slaughter, and The Dark Eyes of London, often cited as the first film to be awarded the H for Horrific certificate by the British censor. That’s not strictly true but it ought to be, given what goes down at Dearborn’s Home for the Destitute Blind, an agreeable cover for the sordid goings on of Dr. Orloff. Most H for Horrific films are released as PG today, but this one still carries quite a punch because of that setting and what goes on there.
Gynt doesn’t appear for quite a while, as the story gets established through a number of plot strands. At Scotland Yard, the C.I.D. wonder if five missing persons showing up drowned in eight months is a coincidence. They’ve found no connections thus far but ‘the Home Office is kicking’. Three of those five were on Det. Insp. Holt’s watch, as the Commissioner is happy to point out, so he’s eager to break the case. Elsewhere in London, Dr. Orloff loans Henry Stuart $2,000 under the banner of the Greenwich Insurance Company. He trusts him, he says, because he can read it in his eyes. Meanwhile, on his way back from the States is a forger called Fred Grogan, being extradited and delivered into Holt’s custody. Bringing him is Lt. Patrick O’Reilly of the Chicago P.D., who will follow Holt around to study the methods of the British police. He’ll become the film’s comic relief, even if the Commissioner has a deliciously dry sense of humour. ‘I’ll attach him to you,’ he tells Holt, ‘so he won’t learn anything.’

So far, this feels very much like a detective story, the sort of thing that someone like, hey, Edgar Wallace might write, but there’s an edge that gradually grows as the picture runs on, one that’s quintessential early American horror. It reminds us that there are people out there in our world, not somewhere far away like Transylvania but right here in our town, that are not like us. They’re usually seen as sinister just for being different and the best movies that tread this territory use it as a means to examine what it is to be human. Lesser films merely conflate physical deformities with mental ones, suggesting that anyone different from us must be a monster, but the real classics like Freaks and Island of Lost Souls, highlight that the freaks can be more human than those we’re conditioned to see as their superiors, regular able-bodied folk who can be and often are the real bad guys. The Dark Eyes of London isn’t of the calibre of those two classics but it does try and it succeeds more often than not.
It helps that the ‘deformities’ are mostly ones that we don’t see in a horrific light any more. Orloff supports Dearborn’s Home for the Destitute Blind, where Rev. or Prof. Dearborn, depending on the source, blind himself, tries to rehabilitate the blind by giving them food, shelter and work. Having them shuffle around like zombies isn’t realistic but it certainly contributes to the freaky tone that’s being cultivated. Maybe they’re all newly blind and so haven’t yet found the sixth sense Dearborn suggests will develop. No, I don’t believe that in the slightest but maybe the scriptwriters did. Blindness isn’t the only lost sense here, as Orloff’s secretary is surely mute, as is Lou, the blind violinist who plays in the street outside Orloff’s office and delivers notes for him to Dearborn’s. At the home is Jake, who is not only blind but also looks like a cross between a werewolf and an acromegaly case. After the war, actor Wilfred Walter would have a leg amputated, highlighting in real life the difference between ‘physically different’ and ‘monster’.

The scam that’s going on behind all this isn’t hard to figure out and we follow the details of it through Henry Stuart, the imminent victim that will break the case for Det. Insp. Holt. His eventual death scene is fantastic, the abstraction required in 1939 adding to the effect. Jake looks rather like Leatherface as he lifts his apron, Stuart turns to run and Orloff closes the door on both him and us so that the scream echoes at us from the other side. The cinematography was by Bryan Langley, who had a decade behind him; he had co-shot Number Seventeen for Alfred Hitchcock in 1932. There are a number of highly effective and varied shots, including one shot through an archway and another through a doorway, both of which focus our attention magnificently. Some of the scenes at Dearborn’s are gorgeous too and they make the film often feel reminiscent of Bedlam, which wouldn’t be made for another seven years. Nicholas Musuraca’s camerawork there is legendary but I wonder if he saw this as an influence.
What breaks the case for Holt is the fact that Stuart has a daughter, Diana, something that Orloff hadn’t factored into his plans at all. Through the time honoured art of coincidence, she’s already on her way home from America and Holt actually treads on her foot when she alights from the train right before Fred Grogan; he’s immediately smitten and will have plenty of contact, starting at the morgue as she comes to identify her father’s body. Greta Gynt doesn’t get a huge amount of screen time but she does get to do quite a lot with it, because the role takes her through a variety of situations rather quickly. One minute she’s a potential love interest, the next she’s called on to deliver dramatic reactions, before being sent undercover in a police investigation. I enjoyed her performance but it’s not as consistent as it could be and would have benefitted from more screen time to allow Gynt to find her feet in each scene. When she gets that, she’s great and she’s a fun damsel in distress; without it, she’s not as good.

Lugosi makes the best of his double role, which is surely one of the best such performances of the era. As Orloff, he’s overdone in the traditional Lugosi style, hypnotising with his eyes and going all moody and dangerous when things don’t go to plan. However, his other role, which I won’t name to avoid spoiling the film for you, is thoroughly different and the costume is simple but neatly effective. To be fair, the biggest reason he gets away with it is that the voice of his alternate persona is dubbed by another actor, because Lugosi’s accent was not something he could switch off at a moment’s notice, but he lip synchs very well. Hugh Williams is the actor unenviably tasked with playing the routine, albeit talented, character in a film full of grotesques and so isn’t particularly memorable as Det. Insp. Holt, even though he does exactly what he needed to do. It’s always the case that the outrageous roles dominate in pictures like this and there are a whole slew of outrageous roles stealing those scenes.
Most obvious, of course, is Wilfred Walter as Jake, who would become the focus of the American marketing campaign. If Dr. Orloff is a human monster in a moral sense, Jake is certainly a human monster in the physical one. That’s his visage on the poster, under Bela Lugosi’s name; I wonder how many American filmgoers were confused when they saw The Human Monster in 1940 and found that Lugosi wasn’t playing Jake. While Walter is spot on as the lumbering assassin, I was impressed by Arthur E. Owen as Lou and Alexander Field as Grogan. The former initially seems like a throwaway character, but he keeps finding moments of importance, eventually writhing around on a hospital bed like he’s become Renfield. The latter nails the feel of polite disrepute that Leonard Rossiter epitomised much later on. He’s making the most of his fame, as dubious as it is, lording it over the cops who never fail to be in charge. He gets a memorable final scene too, which I also won’t spoil.

For a 75 minute B-movie that relishes its gruesome inventiveness, this is surprisingly effective and stands up well today, both as a detective yarn and a horror flick. Bela Lugosi had made some incredible movies in the thirties but he’d also made others that were horrific in ways that they never intended. I haven’t seen everything he made after this but I have seen the vast majority and it’s a rare one indeed that’s better than this. It could be argued that there are only two, The Wolf Man and The Body Snatcher, making this an important film in his career, the last of his good work of the thirties. I wonder if part of that was because this was a British film; while that meant that it didn’t have to cater to the American Production Code, the British censor was notoriously tough on horror and I’m honestly surprised this crept through their net. Destroying the hearing of a blind mute and then murdering him in front of our bound heroine is brutal and not what would be allowed at a time other than when the H certificate was brought back in.

Friday, 14 October 2016

The Tattered Dress (1957)

Director: Jack Arnold
Writer: George Zuckerman
Stars: Jeff Chandler, Jeanne Crain, Jack Carson and Gail Russell

I’ve been very busy this week getting everything shipshape and Bristol fashion for the first annual Apocalypse Later International Fantastic Film Festival, which is tomorrow night in Phoenix, but I have another deadline to pay attention to. On 14th October, Jack Arnold would have turned a hundred years old, so I have a movie to review to celebrate his life and career. He began that career as an actor, appearing on and off Broadway in the late thirties and early forties, but made the switch to direction during the Second World War, after working under Robert J. Flaherty of Nanook of the North fame. His theatrical feature debut was the obscure Girls in the Night in 1953, but he soon found his niche, making some of the very best of all the fifties sci-fi movies: It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature, Tarantula and, above all, The Incredible Shrinking Man. I initially planned to cover the glorious comedy, The Mouse That Roared, for his centennial, but ended up going with this one instead.

It’s a film noir from that golden year of 1957 and it’s a neatly cynical one to sit alongside other cynical films like A Face in the Crowd, Paths of Glory and Sweet Smell of Success. If 1939 was Hollywood’s greatest year, then 1957 was the equivalent for world cinema, with The Seventh Seal, Nights of Cabiria and Wild Strawberries merely the pinnacle and The Bridge on the River Kwai, Throne of Blood and Night of the Demon nipping at their heels. Calling out world cinema doesn’t exclude Hollywood though, as it produced 12 Angry Men, 3:10 to Yuma and Witness for the Prosecution, amongst many other classics. Jack Arnold contributed to that great tally in no uncertain fashion; he began 1957 with The Incredible Shrinking Man, Richard Matheson adapting his own novel to the screen, then continued on with three lesser known but fascinating titles starring Jeff Chandler: The Tattered Dress, Man in the Shadow and The Lady Takes a Flyer. That pictures as good as these appear way down most people’s lists just highlights how strong the competition was in 1957.
Chandler, an underrated actor at the worst of times, is in superb form here and he needed to be. The script by George Zuckerman, best known for Douglas Sirk dramas like Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels, gifts him with an incredibly deep character, a challenge and an opportunity for an actor; Chandler seizes the former and proves up to the latter. He’s James Gordon Blane, a very talented New York lawyer who has achieved great success at the cost of his conscience. He wins a lot of cases but that only means that he’s got a lot of guilty clients off and put a lot of innocent people behind bars. He’s become rich off that practice but he’s lost his marriage in the process. We meet him on a train taking him out west to Desert Valley, 150 miles from Las Vegas, and he’s soon getting off briefly to say hi to his estranged wife and kids at a stop on the way; only when he gets back on the train does he realise that he didn’t bring anything for them. Clearly his conscience is alive, but hardly healthy and apparently not being fed.

He’s been summoned to Desert Valley to represent another guilty man, this one called Michael Reston. We know he’s guilty for we watched him murder a man in cold blood during the opening scenes. He’s angry when his trophy wife arrives home in the tattered dress of the title, ripped during a wild dalliance with a local bartender, so he bundles her back into her car, drives her back whence she came and shoots his wife’s lover in the back as he tries to run. None of these folk are prizes. Reston isn’t merely a murderer, he is a rather arrogant one to boot: he isn’t worried about jail because he knows precisely how good a defence his money can buy. The victim obviously knew he was sleeping with a married woman and, of course, she’s an unrepentent adulteress. ‘Are you a faithful wife?’ Blane asks her. ‘In a fashion,’ she replies.’ When he asks whether she wanted him to assault her, she answers, ‘Let me think about that.’ She’s low enough to hit on her husband’s new lawyer, even though he’s defending him for killing her last illicit affair.
As well set up as all that is, it would only make for a relatively routine film noir. This one elevates itself by going much deeper. We have to look at Blane too, the attack dog of a lawyer who defends the worst of the worst, just so long as they can pay him the large fees he commands. In the early scenes, he’s given the opportunity to show a positive side but he can’t seem to manage that. He fails with his family; he fails with Charleen Reston; he even fails with the journalist who built a career off his because, just as he’s asked if he’d consider taking on the case of a wrongfully imprisoned man, he distracts himself over to a random brunette who walks into the dining car on the train. Blane is very sharp in court, as talented as his reputation and his fees suggest, but he’s hardly a hero. If we had to conjure up a hero from these early scenes, it would probably be the Desert Valley sheriff, Nick Hoak, in the neatly jovial form of Jack Carson. He’s just the sort of sheriff a small town might want. Or at least so he appears at this point.

It doesn’t last. Blane destroys Hoak on the witness stand and wins the acquittal of Michael Reston but, as Blane celebrates another victory, Hoak arrests him for bribing a juror. It’s all a set-up, of course, perpetrated for revenge on a number of fronts, but it’s the real beginning of the film because now we have to wonder a great deal about where our sympathies lie. Are they with Blane, who is a good lawyer but a bad man, getting his at last even if it’s for something he didn’t do? Or are they with Hoak, who doesn’t only feel wronged personally for his treatment in court but also on behalf of the murder victim, Larry Bell, who was a protege to him? We come to realise that we feel for the plight of each of these two men but not for them personally. Instead our sympathies are with Lady Justice, whose own dress is tattered here, and we keep watching so we can root for her, hoping that the script can find some way in which she can be fair to each of the characters who wove this tangled web and each of those caught up in it.
If the film belongs to Jeff Chandler, Jack Carson matches him step for step. They’re two thoroughly different characters, one sleazy and vicious but the other quiet and folksy, but they share much because they’ve both sold their souls and don’t struggle too much with the knowledge. The game they play moves in both directions, so each of these two men gain the upper hand and lose it again. Having effectively two leads alternating between being on top and on the ropes gives the story a vast amount of depth and both of the actors plenty of opportunity to delve into their own characters and shine. I’ve talked often at Apocalypse Later of my difficulty appreciating films, from Gone with the Wind on down, in which there is simply nobody to sympathise with. It’s tough to stay focused on the characters in that scenario, rather than shift my appreciation to the actors or another technical aspect, like costumes, score or cinematography. Here, I was absorbed, not because I wanted to see anyone win or lose but to see if justice could be won.

Those in support receive less opportunities but they do precisely what’s needed in their more restrictive roles. Most are relatively familiar faces: Jeanne Crain and Gail Russell, Edward Platt and George Tobias. Russell is surely the best known of these, though her career was shorter than we might expect and she would be dead in four years at only 37, of a heart attack surely brought on by an abiding alcoholism. Ironically, given that she drank to combat stage fright, it’s her fear that shines brightest here. She’s one of the characters caught up in the grand game between Blane and Hoak and she’s very believably frightened for much of it. Crain, on the other hand, is quietly composed even when times are toughest. She loves her husband, even with what he’s become, and she’s the rock on which he gets to stand. I was especially struck by her eyes, which are limpid pools to dive into, but she’s worth more than that. She’s sharp too and she gets better and better as the film runs on, as her part becomes more substantial.
Platt is the film’s conscience as journalist Ralph Adams, which means he’s the quietest character in the entire film. However moral he is, he’s still benefitted from the travesties of justice that litter Blane’s trail, to the tune of a Pulitzer Prize for his writing on him. We can’t help but wonder how insightful he must be if he hasn’t yet twigged to the true impact of this lawyer’s career thus far. He either wears blinkers, in which case he’s not a good journalist, or he sees what’s going on, in which case he’s not the moral centre we think he is. Tobias is the film’s comic relief, as a professional comedian in Las Vegas who owes Blane big time because he saved him from both conviction and death row for killing his wife a decade earlier. He’s never particularly funny, but he carries a lighter touch to the material than anyone else in the cast and that’s more than welcome. Even Phillip Reed is spot on as Reston, but he’s a minor character, even if most films would have focused on his story and made him the chief support.

My discovery here was Elaine Stewart, the lady who plays his wife, Charleen. She smoulders her way through this picture with a knowing sensuality. She’s the shallowest character in the film, the beauty of the femme fatale without any of the bite. She’s good looking enough to hook any man she wants, and she’s clearly been doing that for a long time, but she has nothing beyond that at all. I’ve seen her before without realising it, stealing moments in films as varied as Singin’ in the Rain and The Bad and the Beautiful, but I’ll have to find something in which she was given more substance to play with and see if she was able to live up to that. She’s obviously a scene-stealer but she had scenes stolen from her here, initially by a great little gimmick rather than another actor. It’s the scene where she swaggers home in her tattered dress to be confronted by her husband. What’s neat is that this happens on the other side of a sliding glass door, so that we’re kept in the dark as to what specific words are hurled but voyeuristically in on what they mean. She goes in sassy, backed by a stereotypical sexy score, and comes out cowed; it’s a superbly set up scene.
I could easily see some viewers believing that the film lessens as it goes on. The later scenes could certainly be seen as being more predictable, more stereotypical or more emotionally manipulative, but I’m fine with them all. I see this script as taking a lot of the traditional elements of the film noir, the legal thriller and the small town drama, then throwing them all into a mixer to churn up a fresh story that digs deep into what role justice plays in each. Films of the era that looked at justice each tended to focus on one aspect, whether that be the jury in 12 Angry Men, the lynch mob in The Ox-Bow Incident or courage in High Noon. This one looks at a whole slew of aspects and that’s what makes it special. Maybe Blane explicitly calling out the double meaning of the title in court was a bit too blatant but I can forgive that. This isn’t as deep or as wild as Touch of Evil, released a year later by the same producer, Albert Zugsmith, but it perhaps digs deeper than Anatomy of a Murder, released two years later with some notable similarities.

There were downsides for me, though I have to add a caveat to one. The cinematography felt very weak but, as this is still a rather obscure title never made available on home release, I had to make do with a VHS rip taped off the TV that was clearly re-formatted using pan and scan techniques that shatter the vision of the cinematographer, Carl E. Guthrie, who had learned on pictures as big as The Adventures of Robin Hood, working the first assistant camera, and became responsible for shooting others as gorgeous, if low budget, as House on Haunted Hill. Less explainable is the score, by Frank Skinner, which is much more stereotypical than the rest of the film. I won’t complain too much because it did a capable job, just a capably clichéd job. Perhaps that’s not Skinner’s fault or at least not entirely his fault, as the stock libraries were certainly plumbed to pad out the score and it may be that otherwise decent snippets by Henry Mancini are really the clichéd bits, spliced into Skinner’s score. I didn’t delve that far.
Like Guthrie, Jack Arnold moved on to wrap up his career mostly in television. He’d already dabbled in the medium, making four episodes of Science Fiction Theatre in 1955 and 1956, but it would become more frequent as the years went by. It somehow seems to be odd that a massively talented director who had elevated otherwise cheap material like Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula and High School Confidential! would become better known as the director of 26 episodes of Gilligan’s Island, 15 of The Brady Bunch and 8 more of The Love Boat. I don’t want to demean classic American television but to go from directing some of the best genre movies of the fifties to episodes of The Mod Squad or The Fall Guy, let alone shows I haven’t even heard of like Make Room for Granddaddy, The San Pedro Beach Bums or Holmes and Yo-Yo, feels like a really bad call on the part of American culture. Maybe he elevated those too, but I’m not particularly interested in finding out. I’ll keep tracking down his more obscure movies of the fifties instead.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

The Shiralee (1957)

Director: Leslie Norman
Writers: Neil Paterson and Leslie Norman, from the novel by D’Arcy Niland
Stars: Peter Finch, Elizabeth Sellars and Dana Wilson
I’m a sucker for Ealing films, so this was an easy pick for me to celebrate what would have been the hundredth birthday of Peter Finch. It was made halfway through his career, a long time after his early Australian films for director Ken G. Hall, such as Dad and Dave Come to Town or Mr. Chedworth Steps Out, but just as long before his Academy Award win for playing Howard Beale in Network. Until Heath Ledger won over thirty years later for The Dark Knight, Finch was the only posthumous Oscar-winner in a performing role. He was also the first Australian actor to win an Oscar, though that depends on how you look at nationality. Technically, Finch was British, born in London to an Australian father and a British mother. However, in his forties, he learned that his father wasn’t really his father; he was the result of his mother’s affair with an Indian Army officer who, with a name like Jock Campbell, surely hailed from Scotland. He grew up first with his grandmother in France and then his great-uncle in Sydney, Australia.

He arrived in Sydney in 1926, when he was ten years old; by the time he moved back to England in 1948, he had surely become an Australian in heart and mind. He toured the country as a stage actor and became a major name on radio, the first to portray Ruth Park’s Muddle-Headed Wombat. The Second World War interrupted his nascent film career, as he enlisted in the Australian Army, serving as an anti-aircraft gunner as well as an actor and director touring army bases and hospitals in 1945. He was also allowed to keep making films while serving in the army, many of them propaganda shorts, and he continued his screen career after the war, but he was sent to Britain by Laurence Olivier, who put him under contract; he built a name for himself in movies as varied as The Miniver Story (the sequel to Mrs. Miniver), Othello (opposite Orson Welles) and Father Brown (as the villain). His contract completed, he shot a number of films down under for Rank: parts of A Town Like Alice in 1956, then Robbery Under Arms and The Shiralee in 1957.
This is unmistakeably an Australian film, the vast spaces of that country depicted in beautiful black and white by cinematographer Paul Beeson, very early in his career and long before his Primetime Emmy nomination in 1974 for the mini-series QB VII. The local vernacular is put to good use, without ever seeming like someone from another country had simply borrowed words to make it all appear authentic, even if screenwriters Neil Paterson and Leslie Norman were Scottish and English respectively; the latter was the father of Barry Norman, the UK’s best-known film critic. They were adapting an Australian novel though, written by D’Arcy Niland from Glen Innes, New South Wales, and many of the cast were Aussies too, including the film’s only Aborigine, Gordon Glenwright, whose character is treated just like any other. Yes, people call each other ‘mate’ and ‘sport’ and the ‘real bonzer kid’ is ‘a bit crook’, but the line that spoke to me most was, ‘I wouldn’t touch them with a maggoty cat,’ an interesting phrase to google.

However, it’s really a British film which merely happened to be shot in Australia and that’s not difficult to see either. It feels like a British drama, even before we get to the well-enunciated Rosemary Harris, who was born in Suffolk and sounds like it. This is early for her too, only her second feature three decades before her most famous role as Aunt May in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man pictures. It plays consistently with the other Ealing dramas I’ve seen from this period, which comes close to the end of Michael Balcon’s era at the studio. Surely the most recognisable actor on screen is Sidney James, a British institution, the star of nineteen Carry On films and the top billed name in seventeen. Coincidentally, I introduced my better half to Carry On Dick, James’s last film, this week, as it had borrowed so freely from Doctor Syn, which I reviewed earlier this month for Margaret Lockwood’s centennial. I had no idea he would be in The Shiralee or that cinematographer Beeson also handled the camera for Disney’s version, Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow.
More than anything, it’s an eye-opening portal into another era and I don’t merely mean that of the swagman, an Aussie word that we know from the unofficial Australian national anthem, Waltzing Matilda. Swagmen like Jim Macauley, the character Finch plays, were gentlemen of the road, like hobos and tramps. The opening narration explains that, while some are bludgers or scroungers, others are honest working men who prefer the freedom of living under the ‘friendly sky’, as Mac later puts it. I get the impression that Aussies have more romantic respect for swagmen than Brits do for tramps and perhaps Americans do for hobos, as walkabout is a quintessentially Australian concept, but it’s hard to find sympathy for Mac when we realise that his marriage has broken down because he’s only spent six months with his wife and daughter in Sydney in the five years since the wedding. When he finds a man with his wife, he beats him up, bundles his daughter under his arm and walks out, not saying a single word, and we’re in motion.

Buster is the difference between Macauley and other swagmen, an eight year old girl slowing him down and getting in his way. It’s not difficult to see her as a penance for his dereliction of marital duty, his ‘special cross’, his ‘burden’, his ‘shiralee’. The title really refers to the swagman’s bundle or pack, which we also know from the song as his matilda, but something that weighs him down is apt as a metaphor, especially early on when Mac has to carry Buster often. She’s a scene-stealing young actress called Dana Wilson and she debuted here in a powerful way. She would only go on to two more pictures, 1958’s A Cry from the Streets and Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in 1959, before retiring at the ripe old age of ten. As great as Finch is in this picture, and the liner notes of my DVD suggest he later described it as his favourite role, I’m going to remember it as much for Dana Wilson as for him. She sells her part magnificently, bringing it to life through both little moments and the grand sweep of her performance.
Of course, the story is going to find a way for Buster to humanise her father at least to a degree, but I’m not going to spoil just how that happens. Let’s just say that it unfolds in a very believable fashion that avoids both Hollywood sentimentality and a Hollywood ending. Early on, we wonder why he even took her, given that he neither needs nor wants a child on the road. Certainly, he walks ahead of her as much as beside her and he isn’t exactly a beacon of conversation. ‘I like it when you talk to me,’ Buster says late on but that’s surely as much for the rarity of his speech as the content of it. These characterisations are deep, so there’s much debate possible about motivations but I presume that Mac took Buster as much out of spite as any of his wife’s notably spiteful and bitchy actions. Discussion about who creates this situation and who reacts to it, not to mention who has the right to act and react in such ways, renders The Shiralee perfect for anthropological studies as much as cinematic ones!

You see, Mac is very much a man’s man. He thinks of himself as a decent soul, someone who’s willing and able to work for a living; he often says that he ‘won’t scrounge off anybody’ and he lives up to his words. He’s no muscleman but he’ll stand up to anyone to further what’s right and scupper what’s wrong and, some pretty terrible choreography aside, can use his fists to good effect. He’s loyal and has a set of strong friendships that survive the infrequency of visits. Finch sells the physical side of this picture capably, believably a man who shrugs off the uncomfortable and walks on. He also sells how much Mac has excised the sentimental side of his character, to the degree that we wonder why he ever got married. Even things that could be read as sentimental really aren’t. When his daughter goes down with a fever and he spends an uncomfortable night breaking it, it’s because it’s a job that has to be done rather than because it’s his daughter. He doesn’t seem to know what love is, though the story shows how he learns.
A friend of mine talks about how America has changed over the last few decades because men nowadays aren’t brought up by men any more. He doesn’t say that to be macho or sexist; he’s just making an intellectual point that makes a lot of sense, especially with any political subtext removed. It used to be that boys were brought up outdoors, taught by their fathers how to do everything that we see boys doing in old movies: hunting, fishing and camping for a start but also, on a far deeper level, learning how to do things that aren’t safe. Buster is thrown right into this sort of upbringing and, with only a touch of sentimentality, enjoys the heck out of all the freedom that it involves. However, it’s glaringly obvious that this sort of thing would be difficult to put on the screen today. I’m not even talking about the naked butt of an eight year old girl in a shower scene or the lead rubbing eucalyptus oil on her chest when she’s feverish, things that would spark a debate nowadays because someone would interpret them sexually.

Talking about the film, my better half suggested that men would appreciate The Shiralee much more than women. I can see exactly what she means, because women watching today aren’t going to care about walkabout and swagmen and the romanticised road of freedom, they’re going to see Marge as a neglected woman and anything she can do to Mac as justified. However, the point of the story is to show this quintessential man’s man that there’s more to life than working and moving on, that emotions are important and that relationships aren’t just for buddies. Have we moved so far away in sixty years from this rough world of masculinity that the lessons Mac learns just aren’t enough any more? I haven’t seen the 1987 mini-series based on the same source novel, starring Bryan Brown as Mac, but it seems to reprise the same territory without any updates to cater to modern sensibilities and it was the most popular show of that year. Maybe in traditionally masculine Australia, this conversation is still active.
There are subplots to both keep things moving on and deepen the plot but I won’t spoil them. Suffice it to say that each character, each location and each scene has resonance that gradually and collectively builds into the force to change him just a little. It’s fair to say that, while Mac is the most masculine, stubborn and uncompromising male character, those properties are active in each of the others too. We’re really shown a scale of masculine behaviour and asked to figure out where the marker should be set. Mac is too masculine, apparently unable to truly love, so it should be shifted well away from him. However, it shouldn’t be moved as far as the opposite end of the spectrum, which is Donny, the successful coward who’s been having an affair with Marge while Mac is away. Should it be set to the helpful Jim Muldoon, the loyal Beauty Kelly or the charismatic Luke Sweeney? Perhaps it should be set to the honourable W. G. Parker, a successful working man who can lay down the law but also admit when he was wrong.

If we’re following that train of thought, we can ask the same question about the women. Marge may be a wronged wife but she’s a bitch with no apparent redeeming features beyond Scots actress Elizabeth Sellars looking rather pleasing to the eye. The opposite end to her may be Lily Parker, who is very much a woman though one who often acts like a man, making decisions and riding the range on horseback to herd sheep on her father’s ranch. There aren’t too many female characters in between, but one is certainly Bella Sweeney, who runs a bed and breakfast with her husband and rules the roost with her cheeky grin. As politically incorrect as their conversations often are, the Parkers are good people: loyal, caring and willing to speak their minds. ‘Two Ton’ Tessie O’Shea is a delight here as Bella and she was a discovery for me here, even if untold millions saw her as the other guest on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 that introduced America to the Beatles, the most watched show ever on American television at that point in time.
I really wonder how modern audiences would see this film because there are so many things that they’re not going to be used to seeing. The morality isn’t clear but not because the filmmakers wanted to go dark and moody but because it’s a slice of time and a starting point for discussion about topics like masculinity and femininity or freedom and responsibility. With our modern mindset, we often wonder who we should sympathise with, when the answer is everyone, just not all the time. Surely the most sympathetic character isn’t Mac, especially during the first half of the film; I’d suggest that it’s Buster, the title character, who is thrown into a tough situation at an extremely impressionable age but comes through it all with a smile. The biggest problem may be in just how free range she’s forced to be. Everyone watching today would rail at Mac’s choice to leave Buster fishing in a billabong with a poet while he goes looking for work in town. Things like this impact our ability to empathise, especially given what happens next.

Australia, of course, looks great here and the bush sounds just as enticing as it looks, even outside of any attraction of the simple if tough life that the swagman leads. I’ve long been a fan of the cinema of Australia and New Zealand, but little of what I’ve seen goes back to this era. I know the seventies and the eighties pretty well, especially in genre film, but should look further back, especially as Australia produced the first feature film ever made, The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906, and was a prominent player in the 1910s, before falling prey to cheap American imports in the 1920s, a cycle of over-production and under-production that continued for a long time. One of its most enduring problems is that whenever it generates new stars, they’re easily drawn away by Hollywood. It happened recently with Mel Gibson, Hugh Jackman and Geoffrey Rush, Cate Blanchette, Nicole Kidman and Toni Collette, but that isn’t a new thing. Go back through the decades and it happened with Errol Flynn, Rod Taylor and Peter Finch.