Sunday, 13 January 2019

House of Bamboo (1955)

Director: Samuel Fuller
Writer: Harry Kleiner with additional dialogue by Samuel Fuller
Stars: Robert Ryan, Robert Stack, Shirley Yamaguchi and Cameron Mitchell

Index: 2019 Centennials.

I’ve reviewed House of Bamboo before, but that was a decade ago and I felt that Robert Stack’s centennial was a good opportunity for me to revisit because I wasn’t as impressed with either his performance or the film as a whole as I expected to be. I enjoyed it much more second time through and I found additional appreciation by following up with the film that inspired it, 1948’s The Street with No Name. That was an old school film noir, shot in 4:3 and in black and white, with an overt message: that the FBI are damn good at what they do and they’re not happy about the return of organised gangsterism. I didn’t even know that “gangsterism” was a word, but, when it’s brought to life by a young Richard Widmark, it’s clearly something to be taken seriously! Two members of that film’s crew revisited it seven years later to reinterpret their work in rather different ways. That’s writer Harry Kleiner, who adapted his basic story to post-war Japan, and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, who expanded his vision into colour and widescreen.

Watching the two movies in succession is a real eye-opener. Kleiner didn’t merely change the names and locations in his story so it would praise the Japanese equivalent of the FBI instead; he reworked it completely to fit a new time and place and restructured the aspects that didn’t gel; the part played here by Shirley Yamaguchi, for instance, couldn’t be more different to the equivalent played by Barbara Lawrence in The Street with No Name. That it’s a better part is beside the point; what’s important is that it’s a much more appropriate part given the other changes made. MacDonald’s work benefits from technical differences. I’d call out his composition of frame and use of light and shadow in the earlier film, but this is something else entirely. House of Bamboo was shot in colour and in CinemaScope, which meant that MacDonald had fully twice as much screen to fill. He did so magnificently, with what critic Keith Uhlich correctly described in Slant as “some of the most stunning examples of widescreen photography in the history of cinema.”

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Noose (1948)

Director: Edmond T. Gréville
Writer: Richard Llewellyn, based on his play of the same name
Stars: Carole Landis, Derek Farr and Joseph Calleia

Index: 2019 Centennials.

Frances Lillian Mary Ridste, better known as Carole Landis, would have been one hundred years old today but, unlike a surprisingly high percentage of those I’ve been covering for my centennial reviews, she didn’t even come close: she committed suicide in 1948, shortly after completing her two final films in the UK. This was the first, released in September, a couple of months after her death in July; the other was The Brass Monkey, which came out in December. She crammed a great deal into her short life, though, starting out her show business career as a hula dancer in a San Francisco nightclub at the age of fifteen, hired only becuse the manager felt sorry for her. After all, she was the youngest of five children, whose father left after her birth, and her mother worked menial jobs to make ends meet. So, after she’d saved a hundred bucks doing her hula dance at the Royal Hawaiian or singing with a dance band, she changed her name to Carole Landis and moved to Hollywood. Carole was an homage to her favourite actress, Carole Lombard.

By the time she made her screen debut, in Gold Diggers of 1937 at the age of only seventeen, she’d already been married twice, to the same gentleman, Irving Wheeler, who had still already become history. The first wedding was in January 1934, when she was only fifteen and Wheeler nineteen, but her mother had it annulled a month later. After gaining permission from her absent father, who lived nearby, they were re-married in August, only for Carole to promptly walk out after three weeks. By the time she began a film career, that whole relationship was over, though neither filed for divorce and Wheeler re-emerged four years later with a $250,000 lawsuit against Busby Berkeley for alienation of affection. His wife had moved up in the world pretty quickly. Relationships weren’t a strong point though. Berkeley did propose but they never married. She did marry Willis Hunt, Jr., a yacht broker, in 1940 but left after two months. Her fourth and fifth marriages, to Capt. Thomas Wallace and W. Horace Schmidlapp, lasted under two years.

Monday, 24 December 2018

P2 (2007)

Director: Franck Khalfoun
Writers: Alexandra Aja, Grégory Levasseur and Franck Khalfoun
Stars: Wes Bentley and Rachel Nichols

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Sometimes the simplest stories are the best and P2 really doesn't have much more plot than an elevator pitch. IMDb suggests that, "A businesswoman is pursued by a psychopath after being locked in a parking garage on Christmas Eve" and, really, that's about it, but it kept me paying attention for an hour and a half and, crucially, it didn't piss me off. It had plenty of opportunity for stupidity and cliché, but it successfully avoided the former and mostly avoided the latter. It didn't go with the obvious cheap ending, partly because it had no interest in setting up P3 for a 2008 release. It set up its story, it told it with some style, it wrapped it all up and it went on home to spend Christmas with family, just like our businesswoman wants to do from moment one. Even though it spends almost its entire running time in a parking garage (hence P2 and why there wasn't a P1), it has as much claim, if not more, than Die Hard to be a Christmas movie. How's that for a controversial statement to start this review? Friendships have been lost over less!

The businesswoman in that description is Angela Bridges, who works in downtown Manhattan, where she finds herself stuck in the office late into Christmas Eve, and the season is completely obvious. The first thing we hear is Santa Baby played over the PA system down in the parking levels. Upstairs, Carl the security guard tells Angela that the building will be closed for the next three days; we hear subdued carols floating around the big Christmas tree in the empty lobby; and Angela has a bunch of presents with her to give to her sister's kids. If a future version cuts the scene later on when she explains to police on the phone that she's being held captive in the Arcadia Building on Park Avenue, we might believe that she works at the Nakatomi Tower where it will be Christmas forever. By the way, that isn't a spoiler. While Santa Baby plays over the opening credits, we follow a roaming camera through that almost empty parking level to a BMW just in time for a distraught young lady to burst out of its boot. Oh, we know where we're going!

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Bates Motel (1987)

Bates Motel (1987)
Director: Richard Rothstein
Writer: Richard Rothstein
Stars: Bud Cort, Lori Petty, Moses Gunn, Gregg Henry, Khrystyne Haje, Jason Bateman and Kerrie Keane

Social media has been abuzz (well, a little bit) with the fact that interim Phoenix mayor Thelda Williams has issued a proclamation that 11th December, 2018 will be known as 'Psycho' Day. It's an odd thing, of course, for a public official to celebrate psychos in any form, but this is a little different from what many might expect. While most of Alfred Hitchcock's classic, Psycho, was shot at Revue Studios in Universal City, CA, including all the scenes at the 'Psycho House', which is located on the Universal backlot even though Psycho was a Paramount picture, it famously opens with a long shot of the downtown Phoenix skyline. For a full thirty seconds, the camera pans across my city until it zooms in through a hotel window to show Sam Loomis and Marion Crane getting dressed. Hitch sets the scene with text: "Phoenix, Arizona" on "Friday, December the Eleventh" at "Two Forty-Three P.M." The mayor wants us to "remember and celebrate the inclusion of our city's skyline in this culturally significant film," which seems appropriate enough.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

The Limejuice Mystery (1930)

Director: Jack Harrison

Here's a real curiosity for fans of Sherlockiana: a nine minute British Holmes spoof told entirely through the use of marionettes. It must be absolutely unique, right? Well, I'd have to add that there actually appear to be two separate but almost identical films from the same year of 1930 that were even made by the same company, Associated Sound Film Industries. There's this film, The Limejuice Mystery, starring Herlock Sholmes—a spoonerism, of course, for Sherlock Holmes—and Anna Went Wrong—a parody of the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong. Then there's Herlock Sholmes in Be-a-Live Crook, starring the title character, of course, and, well, Anna Went Wrong too! What are the odds? I'd suggest that they aren't good and these two films are surely one and the same, even if they happen to have different IMDb pages which list different two directors who went on to two different careers. The more I dig into the records, the more the two seem to become one, part of a set of short novelties featuring the Gorno Italian Marionettes.

But let's delve into that history later; let's delve into some other history first, because context is particularly important here; there are user reviews at IMDb that ably demonstrate that a lack of that context renders this film incomprehensibly strange. For a start, don't expect to find any lime juice anywhere; that's a reference to Limehouse, a district of London that's particularly known for its Chinese population and, a hundred years ago, was seen as a particularly dangerous place to go. This film unfolds, for instance, in an opium den, complete with drugged marionettes reclining in bays from which their opium smoke drifts. It's populated, of course, by orientals wearing the queue hairstyle which you'll probably recognise from period martial arts movies; the hair on top of the head is grown long and usually braided, while the front part of the head is shaved. Historically, it was imposed upon the Han population of China by the Qing dynasty as cultural imperialism, also allowing them to easily tell at a glance who was resisting their rule.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Home Sweet Home (1981)

Director: Nettie Peña
Writer: Thomas Bush
Stars: Jake Steinfeld and Vinessa Shaw

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Ah, Thanksgiving, that bizarre American holiday in which people are so thankful for everything they have that they feel the need to murder people the very next day just to get more of it. I've never quite understood Thanksgiving, but then I'm not American. I didn't grow up learning all the little rituals: not just eating turkey but watching Snoopy in the Macy's Day Parade on the television and listening to all eighteen and a half minutes of Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant on the radio. Being English, I always found it odd that the descendants of immigrants would take a day to thank the Native Americans for saving the lives of their ancestors without apologising for everything that followed, especially when it remembers a specific event that nobody can actually place in history. I was surprised to discover that it didn't even have a firm date until the early 19th century, varying from state to state until settling on the final Thursday in November to replace a prior holiday, Evacuation Day, which remembered finally leaving the country.

Nowadays, I live in Arizona and I celebrate Thanksgiving with my American family on the fourth Thursday in November, to which Congress moved it as late as 1941. We stuff ourselves with food, misbehave with the grandkids and come home early because some family members work retail so have to go to work to prepare for the onslaught of Black Friday, the year's busiest shopping day. As a holiday that didn't even exist on a national level until Abraham Lincoln decreed it in 1863, it imposed itself quickly on the calendar and almost the entire country celebrates, regardless of colour, creed or religion. Given such blanket adherence, I'm rather shocked that more horror movies, or more movies of any genre, come to think of it, haven't been set on Thanksgiving. There isn't even an unofficial Thanksgiving movie, in the way that Die Hard has become an unofficial Christmas movie. If it isn't Christmas until Hans Gruber falls off the Nakatomi Plaza, then what has to happen on screen for it to be truly Thanksgiving? I have no idea.

Friday, 20 April 2018

4/20 Massacre (2018)

Director: Dylan Reynolds
Writer: Dylan Reynolds
Stars: Stars: Jamie Bernadette, Vanessa Reynolds, Stacey Danger, Justine Wachsberger, Marissa Pistone and James Storm

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Holidays come in all shapes and sizes and, as marijuana takes over from nicotine as the go to drug for Americans, 4/20 is becoming an important one. With stoners a traditional element of slasher movies, I’m rather surprised that nobody’s shot a horror flick set on this date before. I’m happy that the first turns out to be Dylan Reynolds, director of Nipples & Palm Trees, as he’s not the usual candidate for this sort of picture and he brings something a little different to the table. In many ways, this isn’t a horror film at all, even if it does feature such a quintessential slasher story as a bunch of young adults going camping in the woods, where they’re picked off one by one by a silent maniac who’s credited as the Shape, in a nod to John Carpenter’s Halloween. At heart, it’s more of a character-driven drama that merely happens to have a gruesome death scene every quarter of an hour. Only as the count of living people in the woods drops to three (c’mon, you were expecting everyone to live?) does it really become a traditional horror movie.

Reynolds, who wrote and directed, clearly understands the conventions of slasher movies and is happy, at points, to cater to time-honoured traditions. Mostly, however, he’s happy to avoid them. For instance, the folk whom he has traipse up four miles of trails to get to their remote campsite are odd in number, meaning that not everyone is going to pair up for the inevitable fooling around. I hope I don’t put potential viewers off by saying that he gives us precisely zero scenes of people having sex in tents. We don’t even see any boobs, even though all five of these campers are female, thus avoiding a few more clichés. They’re here to celebrate Jess’s birthday, which is on 4/20 (or, for my fellow Brits, 20/4, which just doesn’t sound as catchy), but Jess isn’t particularly fond of the weed; she tells her friends that it makes her paranoid. It’s Donna that’s the traditional stoner and she’s more than happy when the plot almost literally runs into them on the way up the hill to the campsite.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Golden Boy (1939)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Writers: Lewis Meltzer, Daniel Taradash, Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, from the play by Clifford Odets
Stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, William Holden, Lee J Cobb, Joseph Calleia and Sam Levene

Index: 2018 Centennials.

I’ve long felt that William Holden is unjustly overlooked by the general public. It’s not that he’s forgotten; any classic film fan can reel off their five favourite Holden performances and probably add a few more to boot. It’s not that he didn’t make great movies; he arguably made a lot more of those than many of the golden age actors who are still household names today, like Clark Gable or Joan Crawford. It’s not that he didn’t have a lot of talent; he won an Oscar for Stalag 17 and was nominated on two other occasions. I think his biggest problem is that he’s not what people remember from those films. Those other two nominations were for Sunset Boulevard and Network, which are now playing in your head without him in attendance. It wasn’t Holden’s character who said, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.” Neither was it he who said, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” He was good enough in each of those films to be Oscar-nominated but we remember Gloria Swanson and Peter Finch.

To a lesser degree, the same goes for much of the rest of his career, which was a stellar one in which he invariably picked the right movies and did a great job in them, but he’s not who we remember. When I think of The Country Girl, it’s Grace Kelly who comes to mind. When I think of The Bridge on the River Kwai, it’s Sir Alec Guinness or perhaps Sessue Hayakawa. When I think of Sabrina, it’s Audrey Hepburn. And that’s just a start. The Horse Soldiers? John Wayne. Born Yesterday? Judy Holliday. The Towering Inferno or The Wild Bunch? Take your pick from those incredible ensemble casts. Now, I am missing out a number of other movies where Holden is emphatically the actor we remember most, but who in the general public has seen The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Picnic or even Stalag 17 nowadays? I know folk who teach visual effects in college and they have trouble finding students who have even seen the original Star Wars. I wrote a book because a college film class couldn’t identify Charlie Chaplin. What chance has William Holden got?

Friday, 6 April 2018

All Through the Night (1942)

Director: Vincent Sherman
Writers: Leonard Spigelgass and Edwin Gilbert, from a story by Leonard Q. Ross and Leonard Spigelgass
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Conrad Veidt, Kaaren Verne, Jane Darwell, Frank McHugh, Peter Lorre, Judith Anderson, William Demarest, Jackie C. Gleason, Phil Silvers, Wally Ford, Barton MacLane and Edward Brophy

Index: 2018 Centennials.

The studio system was an evil creature in many ways but it did allow the studios to cultivate talent and put together casts like this film can boast. It’s a Warner Bros. picture, starring Humphrey Bogart at a key point in his career. It was in a Warner Bros. picture, The Petrified Forest, that he found his first success, but they weren’t sure how to capitalise on that so put him in some truly bizarre movies. For instance, when you think Humphrey Bogart, do you immediately conjure up ideas of hillbilly wrestling comedies and mad doctor horror movies? Well, just check out Swing Your Lady and The Return of Doctor X to see how badly he did in them. Of course, they figured it out eventually or you’d be asking me who he was right now. High Sierra made him a leading man, The Maltese Falcon made him a star and Casablanca made him a legend. That’s two films from 1941 and one from 1943; All Through the Night came right in the middle of those in 1942 and it’s a fascinating piece of work. It’s not as good as I remember it but it’s still a bundle of fun.

And just look at the names backing him up! His nemesis is played by Conrad Veidt, who had been a star in Germany, in important silent films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Man Who Laughs; he escaped the Nazis and become a star in the English language too, most notably opposite Bogart again in Casablanca. One of Veidt’s key men here is played by another escapee from the rise of the Nazis, Peter Lorre, an Austro-Hungarian who had started out in one of the greatest films ever made, Fritz Lang’s M, and made his way to Hollywood via England, where he starred in The Man Who Knew Too Much for Alfred Hitchcock, even though he couldn’t speak English; he learned his lines phonetically. By this point, he was a star in the States too, not only from eight Mr. Moto movies but also for Mad Love and The Maltese Falcon. Of course, he would be back for Casablanca as well, which makes this start to sound like a dry run, especially given that the subject matter revolves around regular folks and their interactions with the Nazis.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

The Baby (1973)

Director: Ted Post
Writer: Abe Polsky
Stars: Anjanette Comer, Ruth Roman, Marianna Hill, Suzanne Zenor and David Manzy

Index: 2018 Centennials.

Ted Post, who would have been a hundred years old today, had a stellar career, gradually moving from the stage to television and eventually to film, where his fourteen features as director constitute a highly varied set of underrated gems. Choosing just one to remember him by is a difficult task indeed, as almost all of them would be perfect for this project, except perhaps the two in which he directed Clint Eastwood, Hang ’em High and Magnum Force, which are notably well known. The latter wasn’t his only sequel, as he also made Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but the rest are all standalones, often emphatically so. There’s The Legend of Tom Dooley, the old folk music standard turned into a film; The Harrad Experiment, a controversial comedy about sex in college; and Nightkill, a dark crime picture shot here in Phoenix. There’s Whiffs, a comedy about chemical warfare techniques being used to rob banks; 4 Faces, a compilation of four stories starring the same actor; and especially Go Tell the Spartans, a highly underrated Vietnam War picture.

I simply couldn’t resist The Baby though, which is as unlikely a feature as could be imagined for a director best known for hundreds of episodes of television westerns. Post was almost destined to find a career in the industry, having begun as an usher at the Pitkin Theater in Brooklyn, so caught up in what was on screen that some reports suggest that he would often forget to actually seat any of his customers. He tried acting, but it didn’t work out, so he shifted into directing plays, including a 1948 production of Dracula in Connecticut that starred Bela Lugosi. He kept this up during wartime, staging shows for the troops, but, by the fifties, he had found his way both into teaching, at the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, and television, where the bulk of his credits are to be found. He was nominated for a Primetime Emmy in 1955 for one episode of Waterfront, a crime show set in the LA harbour, and a DGA Award in the same year for a different episode of the same show. A year later, he’d get another nod for an episode of Medic.