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Wednesday, 31 October 2007

The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) Terence Fisher

While Ed Wood was massacring horror and science fiction movies in Hollywood, Hammer Films in England were reinventing them. The Curse of Frankenstein was their launching pad and for years it was the most profitable homegrown movie. Inevitably there would be a sequel and The Revenge of Frankenstein proved to be the second in a series of seven, made a single year after the original. Terence Fisher returned to direct, Peter Cushing reprised his role and Jimmy Sangster is the man with the pen putting the story together. There's no Christopher Lee this time out but that's hardly a bad combination even without him.

In 1860 the young, virile and bare chested Peter Cushing version of Baron Frankenstein was condemned to death by guillotine. As you can imagine this doesn't quite have the effect intended. When a couple of drunken graverobbers dig up the coffin to sell the body they find a priest without a head instead. The Baron is on the loose and working under a new identity. Now he's Dr Stein and he's busy stealing all the other doctors' patients in Carlsbruck.

Naturally he's also up to all his old tricks. He has a new 'monster', this time a more perfect looking one: huge and pristine. He also has a willing donor of a living brain to transplant into this new being: his helper Karl who brain is imprisoned within a damaged and malformed body. He even acquires a young assistant, Dr Hans Kleve, who recognises the Baron from his previous escapades under his real name some years earlier and wishes to study under him.

The story is just as you'd expect it, there isn't a lot of gore or cool effects (though there are a couple of brains being dropped into glass jars), there's little in the way of subplot and nobody really does much except Cushing. There's not even anything really in the way of revenge, other than a quick monologue by the Baron at one point. In other words it's a palatable Frankenstein tale but it's not much to write home about.

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) Edward D Wood Jr

You'd think that there wasn't anything left to be said about the legendary Plan 9 from Outer Space, but this was a new one on me in a few ways. I've seen the film before, of course, and quite a few times too, but always on the small screen and always in black and white. Through the Reels of Fury series of films hosted in Chandler, courtesy of Midnight Movie Mamacita (see http://www.midnitemoviemamacita.com/), I've now been privileged to see it on the big screen and in colour no less. In this form many things are highlighted.

For a start the reuse of footage and sets is even more obvious than on the small screen. It's impossible not to realise that Bela Lugosi walking towards the graveyard is the same footage every single time he does so, and it's impossible not to realise that there really is only one graveyard set that the cast flounce through over and over. The theatre screen also makes it even more obvious when scenes switch from day to night and back again seemingly at random.

The colouration process was impressive. I'm not usully a fan of colourised films but it was done very well indeed and it was good to see Bela this old in colour, and Vampira's fingernails suddenly look awesome. Tor Johnson doesn't have a lot of colour even when he's in colour but he does look bigger and more impressive on such a bigger screen. The story is as nonsensical as ever and Wood's direction and editing just as inept, but it also remains just as fun. What a joy to see in a theatre.

Other things that made this screening so special included the inclusion of some home footage of Ed Wood and an amazing selection of his TV commercials, all of which were generic and modular with the details of any appropriate local company who footed up the appropriate fee to be added at the end. I also got to meet David Hayes, author of 'Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D Wood Jr' and who kindly signed a copy for me. It proves to be fascinating reading.

The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935) William Dieterle

It's 1860 when we begin and we're in a doctor's office in Paris. Dr Francois is quickly shot dead by the husband of one of his patients who died on his table, quoting to the police Louis Pasteur's plea to doctors to scrub their hands and boil their instruments. Naturally the doctors are skeptical and see Pasteur as the cause of Dr Francois's death. Pasteur isn't even a doctor, merely a chemist, and he has no business treading on the toes of the real doctors, or so the powers that be believe. They even influence the Emperor himself to forbid Pasteur to continue with his work.

Ten years late, he's at it again. While the country suffers from a plague of anthrax, the region of Arbois seems miraculously and uniquely free of the disease, and investigation shows that it's entirely because of a vaccination Pasteur has come up with. Of course the government don't believe that, merely that the ground is lucky or blessed or something, so move everyone else's sheep there too, where they promptly die. They also come up with a highly publicised experiment to prove him wrong, which naturally proves him right instead.

Paul Muni was well known for his biopics, which won him international acclaim and Academy attention. Playing Louis Pasteur won him an Oscar and he was nominated the following year for playing Emile Zola. It wasn't just Frenchmen though, by 1939 he was playing people like Benito Juarez, coincidentally both for the same director, William Dieterle. He was a powerful and versatile actor who took on a wide variety of roles at speed that must have seemed like snail's pace to the audiences of the time. 22 films in 30 years is hardly prolific, but there are a lot of important films and performances in that short filmography and his influence is still felt today.

The only catch is that this was the thirties and so historical accuracy was hardly the order of the day. Reality has to be massaged and altered for the benefit of the story, and sensationalism is hardly avoided. The film begins with a murder and continues with some awesome coincidences. When the government visits Arbois, they coincidentally inspect the field next to Pasteur's house. When Pasteur finalises his vaccine for rabies a sick boy is coincidentally brought to him the very same time day.

This is all fine and makes for a dynamic story, but growing experience with these thirties Hollywood biopics suggests to me that I know as little about Pasteur after finishing than I did before I started. Reading up on his life confirms it. Apparently the logic applied here to his work on rabies was actually what he went through on anthrax, and the coincidences weren't his. While he was crucially important in developing microbiology and vaccination, he didn't come up with either and built his work on others, rendering the whole melodrama of the idiocy of the establishment subplot far less important. Here Pasteur admires Lister's work on antiseptics but in reality Lister's work was grounded on Pasteur's. The film is fun though.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Between Two Worlds (1944) Edward A Blatt

It's 1944 and we're in an English port where the British Great White Fleet Ltd is about to put a bunch of diverse people onto a ship. They're expecting to sail to America but a bomb hits them and they find themselves instead on a different ship, a huge cruise liner, with a very different destination in mind. They meet up there with a sensitive pianist and his wife who weren't going to be allowed on in the first place, but who then committed suicide by gas. All these people are dead and the ship is going to take them one way or another.

This is a fantasy film really, but there are so many scenes that play out in such a melodramatic way that it's difficult for it to be anything but a women's picture. It is fascinating though to see where everything goes. The screenplay is by Daniel Fuchs, based upon a play called 'Outward Bound' by Sutton Vane, and it's intelligent and varied. We have an ensemble cast with diverse characters, each with their story to tell and their own way of telling it.

There's hard boiled alcoholic newspaper reporter John Garfield, Faye Emerson as a world weary stage actress, Sara Allgood as an elderly Irish lady, sinister businessman George Coulouris, a upper class couple played by Gilbert Emery and Isobel Elsom, Dennis King as a priest and George Tobias as a merchant marine. I know most of these names well and they all deliver the goods, especially Garfield and Emerson who bounce off each other superbly. Add to that Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker as the pianist and his wife, the first two to realise what's happening. They're a sappy couple but an important one and they are as well defined as everyone else.

If those names weren't enough, add Edmund Gwenn as the steward and much later Sydney Greenstreet as the man who gets to make all the decisions. He's precisely what you'd expect and he's spot on as the arbiter of truth, all levels of often uncomfortable truth but thoughtfully just truth. It's really what the film has been building up to all along, and it's a joy to watch. I'd never heard of this film before but it's a real sleeper. The rating is high but not too high at IMDb but people seem to have a really fond place in their hearts for it. I can see why. It's a real heavy handed weepie at points but a powerful one and one that could certainly inspire.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Passport to Suez (1943) André De Toth

Through unfortunate ineptitude on my part, I managed to screw up recording the last couple of Lone Wolf movies on TCM, so I'm a little behind. Passport to Suez was Warren William's ninth and final outing as Michael Lanyard before he handed over the reins to Gerald Mohr. We're in Alexandria during the war and Lanyard is firmly on the side of the good guys, carrying on surreptitious yet official business while Jamison has premonitions of evil. Given that North Africa and the Suez Canal were key locations, the setting is spot on. As Valerie King points out, 'Whoever wins Africa wins the war'.

This is a Lone Wolf movie with Warren William and Eric Blore so it was always going to be fun, but beyond the fluff, is it actually any good? Well my initial thoughts on seeing Johnny Booth's bar were that Casablanca was originally intended as a B movie, but if that was a B movie this must rate a few letters further down the alphabet. Even at the hands of a director like André De Toth, and with actors in the cast like Lloyd Bridges and Ann Savage, this fails to spark. The script has hints of strength but it seems wasted. The lack of soundtrack for much of the film is a major failing.

The Casablanca comparisons continue throughout the film and as you'd expect this film loses out every single time. I ended up wondering about how to recast the film. Sheldon Leonard fits his role as the club owner Johnny Booth; Bogart would have been better, but that casting would have been obvious. Anyway, the rest needing refinement. Peter Lorre would have imbued further nuances into the role of Rembrandt. Jay Novello is good as Cezanne but Elisha Cook Jr would have been better still. Alternatively Lorre could have been Cezanne and Sidney Greenstreet could have played Rembrandt: the knife throwing scene would have been awesome given that combination. To avoid yet another Lorre/Greenstreet pairing, how about Orson Welles as Rembrandt instead of Big Sid?

I've enjoyed Ann Savage's roles in a few films, not least the powerful shot-for-nothing Detour but she doesn't really get her teeth into this one. She's a little too ice cold and a little too suspicious, and she gets precious little screen time too. I was picturing Ginger Rogers in the part, as I've always wanted to see her walk on the dangerous side, but she'd have to have a bigger and more subtle role. I could have seen Dwight Frye as Whistler, the third spy with a painter's name. At the end of the day, so much promise but so little delivery.

Berserk! (1967) Jim O'Connolly

All the great Hollywood leading ladies seemed to end up in grand guignol horror movies in the sixties and Joan Crawford had a number to her name. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was the first and probably best, but I saw Strait-Jacket recently, now I'm getting to see Berserk!, made in colour no less, and soon I'll work my way up to Trog, which is apparently truly awful.

Here she's the bitchy Monica Rivers, who co-owns a circus with Dorando, played by
Michael Gough. He wants her to buy him out but she can't afford it yet. However the crowds are about to cram in given that tightrope walker Gaspar the Great was hanged by his own wire in the opening minutes of the film. Luckily Ty Hardin is quickly on hand as Frank Hawkins, a replacement wire act and he soon works his way into Rivers's attentions.

Crawford looks old and scary here and it's truly bizarre to see Ty Hardin flirt with her, given that she was 62 (and looked like 70 plus) and he was 37, greying hair notwithstanding. Then again he was hardly the standard leading man, even though he looked a little like Lee Majors and apparently got to bare his chest in a lot more movies than just this one. This was 1967 and he spent the seventies as an evangelical preacher, tax protestor and leader of the Arizona Patriots, an anti-Semitic group who stockpiled weapons and harboured bomb plots.

Anyway, soon Gaspar isn't the only death on the circus ground, as Dorando gets a metal stake through the skull. As the troupe, led by Diana Dors and George Claydon the dwarf, bicker among themselves, a maniac sets about his or her task of increasing the death toll. A young Robert Hardy, long before his days as a prolific small screen Churchill, let alone the Harry Potter films, is a young and well dressed superintendent of police tasked with investigating the murders.

The chief plus point this film has is the fact that many of the cast are obviously real circus performers with real acts to display for us, courtesy of Billy Smart's Circus, whose initials appear on the head dress of the elephants, even though they're supposed to be performing for the Great Rivers Circus. Those are real lions being tamed, real poodles doing a charming routine and real acrobats doing real spins high up in the air. It's authentic and the film benefits from that authenticity.

Crawford was apparently an active diva on set. She supplied her own wardrobe, save the ringmaster's leotard; obviously provided a prominent Pepsi advert to boost her own company; changed some of her own dialogue to make it sound more American; and even turned up early every morning to cook breakfast for some of the cast. She's enthusiastic in the role but pretty wooden. She's completely believable in the bitchy and tough scenes and she's believable too in the scenes that call for more artistic depth, but she's mostly acting with her voice and her face. Unfortunately she looks very old and the static camera generally highlights her static acting.

Her material is pretty dismal too. The script isn't great and the direction isn't much better. The director was Jim O'Connolly, who I've never heard of, and he just about does enough to get by here. He only directed nine films, of which this was the fourth, pus a few episodes of The Saint. Without the circus scenes there really wouldn't be much to watch at all. And yes, there's that romance which the scariest thing about the film. Oh, and it's a remake too, of The Shadow, a 1937 film with Rita Hayworth and somewhere further down the cast list, Dwight Frye.

The Night Court (1927) Bryan Foy

Vitaphone short 2138 starts with silent location shots and then kicks in with some synchronised sound at the Paradise Night Club, which is being raided by the cops. The sound starts proper when the entire revue is held for trial and gets to perform in the courtroom. I don't know who the singer is but she does a pretty good job while the dancers dance in their seas in the front row. They get their turn in the spotlight too as does everyone else in the show and of course the judge is into every last moment of it.

The wisecracking lawyer for the defense is played by William Demarest, who at this time was also shooting The Jazz Singer on the next door soundstage. I'd always felt that The Jazz Singer was far more influential than it was great in and of itself, but given that these synchronised sound shorts were showing at the same time, I'm more and more surprised it was as influential as it was.

My Bag o' Trix (1929) Murray Roth

Trixie Friganza was a large lady, the sort you wouldn't expect to headline anything nowadays because she doesn't fit any sort of industry image. In fact she's about the same size and shape as the double bass she plays to accompany herself on one song in Vitaphone short 2791. They're not really songs, more like narrated stories to accompanied music, one of which is interesting because of its approach. The story is told mostly by spelling many of the words out aloud so a young kid in the room won't understand the more risque parts of the story.

Part of this film is presumed lost to nitrate deterioration, and it's probably isn't unfair to say that people could wish the rest of it had gone too. Once again, Trixie Friganza was obviously a very talented lady but the material she worked with in this short didn't do her justice.

Don't Get Nervous (1928) Murray Roth

As Vitaphone short 841 begins, Georgie Price hits the soundstage to talk with Bryan Foy. He wants to postpone the filming of his short but of course it's filming him talking about postponing it. He talks about the difference between being on stage in front of a real live audience and performing for the two guys manning the camera, and that's pretty interesting. However Price is a song and dance guy and after the sort of dancing that the Foys and Shaw & Lee got up to, Price isn't particularly noteworthy. The songs, such as 'Hello Sunshine, Hello', aren't noteworthy either and there's not a lot left except a huge pair of ears.

The Cowboy and the Girl (1928) ?

Vitaphone short 2339 features Ray Mayer and Edith Evans in The Cowboy and the Girl. Ray Mayer looks like a big screen silent cowboy though he doesn't appear too tough. I could imagine Harold Lloyd as a cowboy beating him up. Anyway, he plays piano while Edith Evans sings. She's made up to a scary degree, probably to outdo Mayer who has a couple of tubes of lipstick on too.

The songs are hardly serious, though one that Mayer suggests doesn't get sung: 'Men Get Pearls from Oysters but Women Get Diamonds from Nuts'. No wonder he's a cowboy, because that's the sort of thing I'd expect country music to come up with.

Shaw & Lee, the Beau Brummels (1928) ?

In Vitaphone short 2686, Al Shaw & Sam Lee sing straight faced nonsense songs and tell jokes. Their gimmick seems to be alternating jokes and then occasionally starting one at the same time, the catchphrase being 'Huh?' One of the songs was pretty cool, being a song about a song with no real words. The pairing of Shaw & Lee was obviously a very talented one, with both of them having impeccable timing. The little dance at the end of their show is exquisite and the straight faces are admirable.

However the material is painful and I wonder if that's entirely the point. I found myself laughing at points, not at the jokes but at how truly awful they were.

Chips of the Old Block (1928) Seth Holt

Many of the most successful of the earliest sound films were shorts recorded on the Vitaphone sound system and exhibited between 1926 and 1930. The soundtrack wasn't actually printed on the film itself, but onto 16 inch records that were played as the film progressed. The records weren't like those that could be bought back in the day: they were played at 33 1/3 rpm instead of 78 rpm and the needle went from the inside out rater than the other way around. Many of these featured old vaudeville acts who would soon disappear into a bygone era, replaced by the silver screen which ironically is the only way to experience them today.

The well known Foy Family, who would later be given the biopic treatment in The Seven Little Foys, feature in Vitaphone short #2580, Chips of the old Block. We only see six of them here though: two girls singing and swinging their hips, one backing them up on ukelele, another seemingly running the show and two more for apparent comic relief. The jokes are as old as the film but the comic dancing is impressive. It is hard to imagine an act like this being the headlining act for an evening's entertainment though.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

The Fire Within (1963) Louis Malle

Louis Malle never wanted to make the same film twice. This is my fifth and none of them are remotely anything like any of the others. So far I've seen a caper movie, a film about stardom, a film noir and a zany surreal comedy. Now I'm watching a stark drama about suicide. Now, not of all these films were successes in my mind: two were merely average and I may have stretched to get that high up the scale.

The lead is Maurice Ronet who had been so great in Elevator to the Gallows. He was a ladies man there, helping Jeanne Moreau's character cheat on her husband. Here though we first see him in bed with his mistress Lydia, in a touching scene where he completely fails to finish the job at hand. He's Alain Leroy, something of a legend in the right circles but obviously deeply unhappy. his mistress cares enough to give him money and still want to marry him, even though he lives in some sort of voluntary sanitarium for rest cures. He's apparently there to cure him of alcoholism and everyone except himself believes that he's cured.

However he's still suffering from depression, he cuts out morbid stories from the newspapers and meditates on suicide with a gun he keeps in his room. He's made his mind up on that front and even has the date written on his mirror, but he has the timetable defined to more detail than that. He has one last day to visit Paris, which he can't bear to do under normal circumstances, and visit people from his past to say goodbye. Their stories, depicting how they've changed, fill in our understanding of who Alain really is.

This is a highly melancholic film, as much a depiction of addiction as The Lost Weekend, but from a completely different angle. Alain has already lost his battle with drink, but just hasn't quite died yet and he knows precisely when he's going to make it happen. The soundtrack, solo piano gymnopedies by Erik Satie, is utterly perfect and enhances the mood amazingly. The acting is uniformly fine, especially from Ronet but it's the material that's the key here, not the performances. The performances just grant the material greater effect.

It's far from the usual drama we're used to from Hollywood, because it's all about moral ambiguity, something to shy away from in the States at this point in time. Alain is our hero, but he's a suicidal alcoholic, hardly someone to root for. We see Alain's fellow residents at the sanitarium, all presumably sick people, we see his former friends and acquaintances, all presumably perfectly well. The catch is that we can't tell the difference between them. Essentially they're all people and any artificial barriers we put up to differentiate them are just that: artificial. One to think about and to admire, but it's a depressing thing to watch.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Zazie in the Subway (1960) Louis Malle

Zazie is an androgynous and highly precocious twelve year old girl. She's come to Paris with her mother with one aim in sight: to experience the Metro, the world famous Paris subway system. Her mother has a new flame so she disappears off with him from moment one, leaving Zazie instead with her uncle Gabriel, who seems to live on a different plane of reality to everyone around him. Then again half the people around him are far from any standard of normality we might expect, leaving this film in the same quirky world as something like Amelie, which can hardly be a bad thing. I wonder how much Jean Pierre Jeunet was influenced by it.

The style of this film is joyous but far from conventional. I found myself bemused at the way Malle put certain scenes together but laughing aloud anyway. Scenes seem to try to outdo each other in surreality. Quite a lot of film is overcranked so that it can't help but remind of Benny Hill. So much happens in the background that we catch out of the corner of our eye that we often completely lose track of what we're actually supposed to be watching, only to find that we're falling prey to Malle's twisted intentions all along. Early on we experience the most awesome train of Chinese whispers I've seen on film, which gets hilariously reprised later, and nigh on halfway through we see the most amazingly surreal chase scene I've ever been privileged to witness.

Of course it makes us seriously wonder just what we're watching. Obviously this isn't reality, far more like a frenetic live action cartoon, especially with all the bomb throwing that goes on. It has to be entirely within young Zazie's imagination but we're never entirely told that and while it's comic genius it's presented as it if it was the most serious thing in the world. We see second hand children, men literally thrown from one scene into another, boots that talk, cops that forget their own names, a polar bear on top of the Eiffel tower. At one point a man mysteriously turns from white to black and back in a couple of frames. Zazie herself puts her shoes on by throwing them in the air, seemingly teleports and eats mussels but throws away the pearls. At points the soundtrack speeds up, slows down or switches into unknown languages. What is Black Forest Talk anyway?

And I give up taking notes for now. I've seen a few movies lately that require a second viewing to fill in gaps or to increase understanding. This is something to see about a dozen times before you can even make the remotest sense out of it. Right now I'll just say the first half of this is truly wondrous and the second half is completely zany and I'll be buying it very shortly indeed. I expect to watch this film often and maybe one day on viewing number fifty see everything it has to offer.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Elevator to the Gallows (1957) Louis Malle

Celebrated French filmmaker Louis Malle started out making documentaries and reached huge success with them, winning both the Palme d'Or at Cannes and an Academy Award for Best Documentary for his work on The Silent World, an undersea documentary made with Jacques Cousteau. This was his first non-documentary feature and it's a film noir, made in a year that may have been the biggest for cinema ever. The rest of the world was sending a challenge to Hollywood with films like The Seventh Seal, The Cranes are Flying, Paths of Glory and Wild Strawberries, and Hollywood was answering back with 12 Angry Men, Run of the Arrow and Witness for the Prosecution.

Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet are obviously very much in love, whispering sweet nothings into each other's ear across the phone lines. However they're also planning something and soon we find out what. Ronet's character, Julien Tavernier, kills his boss at the Consortium Carala and sets him up as a suicide in what appears to be a thoroughly well thought out operation. Moreau plays Florence, the boss's wife who he's running away with. Unfortunately he forgets one single detail and in going back to fix it ends up stuck in the lift and everything goes rapidly pear shaped from there.

In addition to directing, Louis Malle co-wrote the script and tells the story in a fascinating way. We find out more about Julien, for instance, from the young couple who steal his car than we do from him. It's also fascinating to see what seem like an awesomely thought out plan gradually unfurl not through the work of a cop or a detective but through cruel twists of fate and the unwitting actions of others. In fact if Julien and Florence are the bad guys, and the victim is a bad guy too, then the only good guy must be Destiny herself.

The acting is stunning. Jeanne Moreau especially wrings no end of emotion out of what would seem to a modern audience like nothing but wasted time. There are scenes of her merely walking along, lit only by shop windows and light from neon signs and backed by a jazz score by no less than Miles Davis, yet there's so much depth on her face and in her movement that it's a joy to see. It seems very strange for all the dialogue to go to the supporting characters, but that's how it works. There's seemingly no end to the mindless chatter of the two young thieves and a German couple they race in Tavernier's car, but Julien himself has a mostly silent role trying to escape from the lift and his lady love gets to wander around lost in contemplation.

This is the first of ten Louis Malle films being shown on TCM as a celebration of what would have been his 75th birthday. I haven't seen any of them but I've recorded them all. The two I have seen weren't that impressive, The French A Very Private Affair and the American Crackers were simply OK, but this one is a peach. Now I'm looking forward to the rest even more than before.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Taste of Fear (1961) Seth Holt

What must be the Alps look stunning as this Hammer film opens, but the young lady being fished out of the lake by German officials doesn't care. Switching to Nice, we meet the wheelchair-bound Penny Appleby, played by a young Susan Strasberg, two years after an excellent showing in Kapò. She's been away for ten years and so hasn't even met her stepmother yet. She's played by Ann Todd and her father is Fred Johnson, not that we see him for quite some time. When we first see him, he appears to be dead, even stuffed, but Penny runs, in as much as she can run in a wheelchair, and ends up falling into the swimming pool where she nearly drowns.

It becomes quickly apparent that someone is playing some elaborate game on Penny, but who could it be? Jane, her stepmother is very friendly and keeps calling her 'darling'; Robert, the chauffeur, is really supportive and believes something's going on but doesn't believe half of what she sees; her father is apparently away on business but could be back and involved in something strange; and there's even Christopher Lee as a local French doctor and omnipresent dinner guest. One of them could well be trying to drive her insane. Of course, given that the body we see at the beginning is her real mother, maybe she really is insane.

The way it works out is very nice indeed, certainly both completely believable and yet highly unexpected, and really makes me wonder about the dark creativity that was afoot as the fifties became the sixties. This sits well as a companion piece to two other comparable films. It could easily be seen as an English response to the American Psycho, which of course was a response to the French Les Diaboliques. I wonder how they'd flow as a three film evening.

Strasberg is excellent and carries the film, but Ann Todd is superb. It isn't just a women's film though, because Ronald Lewis is fine as the chauffeur and Christopher Lee is as solid as you'd expect with a surprising French accent. It's Hammer regular scriptwriter Jimmy Sangster's script that sparkles brightest though. It's a little slow early on but justifiably so and it gets better and better as time moves on. This is a very cool little gem for me: I'd waited a long time and built up a lot of anticipation for Les Diaboliques but I hadn't even heard of this one, making it a delicious surprise.

The Busher (1919) Jerome Stern

Back in 1919 Charles Ray was a huge star, generally playing likeable heroes that weren't particularly bright. However his star didn't continue to shine for too long and his huge career in the teens deteriorated throughout the twenties until he could only play uncredited supporting roles in the forties. In comparison his co-stars were very much on the rise and would soon become major names: Colleen Moore as the moonfaced leading lady and John Gilbert as his rival for her affections.

Ray plays Ben Harding, a bush league pitcher for the nowhere town of Brownville, who gets his chance to impress when the St Paul Pink Sox get stuck in the town because the train track is flooded. He doesn't have a clue who they are but plays them anyway and manager Steve Brady is highly impressed with his pitching. He soon gets picked up by the Pink Sox but getting signed doesn't equal automatic success.

For 1919 this is a hugely impressive film. The acting is decent, though a little overdone as you'd expect, and with the invitably obvious eyeliner on the male actors. The direction is excellent, with cinematography that doesn't approach the silent heyday of the mid to late twenties but which is a whole league above everything I've seen from the teens. The story is what shines most though. This is a real story, with grand themes and subtleties, and it doesn't disappoint. Maybe it's a little melodramatic but this is 1919 after all and it's still less so than half the early sound films I've seen. It wouldn't stand out anywhere near as much even a couple of years later but for 1919 it's outstanding.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

The Soul of a Monster (1944) Will Jason

Prominent and well regarded physician Dr George Winson is dying. Apparently he was a really good man, ready to help anyone and everyone who needed it, but he's rewarded cruelly by fate and other doctors are unable to help. His wife Ann prays to God for his salvation but when she feels that He doesn't answer she begins to pray to anyone else she can think of too. Given that the film is called The Soul of a Monster, you can imagine who answers.

Well, actually you can't, because it's a beautiful yet firm young lady called Lilyan Gregg, who answers the call, and she's the one who inexplicably saves him. Dr Winson recovers miraculously from the brink but his character changes in the process so that his kindness is replaced by callous viciousness. He stands watching thunderstorms, follows silent voices and kills anything that he touches, whether flower or animal. He can't even feel pain, even when stabbed with a pair of scissors.

George Macready is perfect for the part of Dr Winson, someone upstanding and decent who is somehow twisted into something completely different. His voice especially is exactly what's called for, which is precisely why he was cast in so many roles like this. The Soul of a Monster is early in his career, two years before Gilda and thirteen before Paths of Glory, but he's already exactly right.

Rose Hobart is precisely right too, haughty and confident but with a little fear too, and with a powerfully strong haircut. I've seen her in a few films and know her mostly from genre material: The Mad Ghoul, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Tower of London, for instance. She was excellent in each of them and is certainly better here than Jeanne Bates who plays Winson's wife, Ann, or Jim Bannon who as Dr Roger Vance is the remaining lead. He does have a knowing grin though that appeals, even when it's only a smirk.

The story is subtle, perhaps too subtle as it talks like a Val Lewton movie but without as much of the style. There are powerful scenes though, regardless of how little there really is in the way of graphic anything. That's the Lewton influence and the cast do transcend the material enough times for it to stand on its own. Its ending is a little surprising too which can't hurt.

Hearts and Diamonds (1914) George D Baker

It's been a while since I've seen a John Bunny movie, which is hardly surprising given that he died in 1915 and left very few surviving films for posterity. In fact I've only seen one previously, 1911's Her Crowning Glory. Here he's Tupper, a rotund widower intent on keeping the boys away from his eligible daughters, yet eager to land a new wife of his own. He discovers Miss Whipple, a rich lady played by his regular foil Flora Finch, and because she's a baseball fan he tries to impress her by starting his own team.

Needless to say nothing goes his way, not least because he gets to play an exhibition game against the Brooklyn Dodgers and it proves hard to win even when they're trying to throw it for him. He ends up winning the game by scoring a home ride, because the opposition have to carry him round in a wheelbarrow. That's the level of the humour here but the story is more consistent than I'd expect for 1914. It does veer off into subplots about escaped lunatic ballplayers but those scenes are actually the funniest bits.

Bunny was the first real American screen comedian and he's actually pretty good and surpasses his material. His films were known as Bunnyfinches because he starred so often opposite the same lady, and had he lived longer they could easily have become as memorable a screen pairing as, say, Laurel and Hardy. What a shame.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Happy Days (1926) Arvid Gillstrom

Happy Days features Winnie Winkle the Breadwinner and the Rinky Dinks from Martin Branner's famous comic strip. Needless to say it's so famous I've never heard of it but then I'm hardly an expert on 1920s comic strips. Apparently this one lasted for another seventy or so years but I'm no expert on 1990s comic stris either, these being the sort of strips that appear in newspapers.

Anyway Winnie, played by Ethelyn Gibson, is busy working while her little brother Perry Winkle and his Rinky Dinks play in the Mangy Baseball league. They all look like the kids in the Our Gang comedies and some of them may even be kids from the our Gang comedies. To show how delicate the comedy is, one of them is a young black actor with lips painted white as if to pretend that he's a white actor in blackface trying to be a black actor.

After half of the film on the baseball field, with a string of generic and not particularly funny jokes, we switch without much attempt at continuity to the dance hall where Perry and his unnamed black friend apparently have classes. The presence of a large frog that dances down the instructor's neck leads to one physical joke that pretty much wraps things up. Not very impressive but not spectacularly awful.

Monday, 15 October 2007

The Killers (1946) Robert Siodmak

I haven't yet found a Top 100 for films noir but I must have worked through most of whatever that list would be once someone gets round to compiling it. Certainly there aren't many at the top that I'm still missing but The Killers is one. The credentials are good: it's from 1946, the same year as things like The Stranger, Undercurrent and The Big Sleep, which really ought to be number one on that hypothetical list. It's based on a story by Ernest Hemingway, who also wrote To Have and Have Not, and it's directed by Robert Siodmak, who also made Criss Cross. It also features Edmond O'Brien from White Heat, DOA and The Hitch-Hiker.

It seems pretty definitive from the get go. We're in vividly defined light and shadow and people with very 1940s faces move effortlessly in and out of it with superb choreography on their way into a diner. Inside they wait for the Swede with loaded guns, but the Swede doesn't show. They find him soon enough though and shoot him dead, but what seems most surprising is that he seems to be a completely willing participant in the show. He did something wrong once, he tells the good guys who come to warn him, and refuses to leave. He just waits for the guns and dies when they arrive.

It's a very film noir gimmick to kill off the lead in the first ten minutes and then tell his story in retrospect through investigation, and it sounds like a really dumb one. It's like telling the punchline first and then filling in the joke, right? Well, when done right it works very well indeed. This punchline is a mystery, the inevitable end to a long string of events, and we get to peel the onion to find out what was at the other end of the string. Each layer gives us another character and another story, all of which build up to our big picture.

The dead man is Burt Lancaster, in an awesome pick for a debut film. Talk about starting out the right way. He became a big star right from the beginning of his career, though co-star Ava Gardner had taken a long while to make it. I've seen her in a few early films now, including Ghosts on the Loose with the East Side Kids and Bela Lugosi. This was her launch to stardom and it's amazing that it took her this long to be cast high up in a film noir. Edmond O'Brien was always a great supporting actor and he doesn't disappoint here in a role that probably has more screen time than either of the leads. Backing them up are old reliables like Albert Dekker, William Conrad and Jeff Corey.

It's the story that shines brightest though and I'm sure it'll get better with each repeat viewing. Hemingway himself thought it the best of all the adaptations of his work and that's the sort of recommendation you want. It's another film noir classic off my checklist and there aren't too many left to find. Then it'll be unknown territory: the hidden noirs that are starting to creep out onto DVD and the silver screen courtesy of TCM. It's going to be fun exploring all those films that I haven't heard of once I've finally worked through all the ones I have.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Homicidal (1961) William Castle

Miriam Webster breezes into a new town and makes herself noticed. Apart from being a striking blonde, she books a double room at a hotel while making it known she's single, flirts with the bellboy and asks him if he's married, then gets changed while he gets ice. She offers him a two thousand dollar tip for a bizarre plan. She wants him to pick her up at midnight on a specific date, so they can get married and then annul the ceremony. He plays ball, knowing that there's something strange in the request, never expecting that she'll murder the justice of the peace in cold blood the moment after he completes the ceremony.

We follow her home to a very cool house where we soon discover that she's not who we thought, given that the real Miriam Webster comes to visit. She's really Emily, the nurse of Helga Swenson, an old mute woman in a wheelchair who communicates by rapping on the wooden frame of her chair. She's obviously looney tunes but there's obviously some serious method to her madness. Our story is there to answer all these questions, and while it isn't too difficult to work it out ahead of the disclosures, it's done very nicely indeed and is deliciously twisted. Also even with the knowledge of what's going on, it's still notably tense as we try to guess how it's all going to play out.

The cast is varied. 'Jean Arless', better known as Joan Marshall, is superb and very beautiful in a difficult role. I haven't seen her before, but she seems fascinating. Beyond her quirky work here, she was apparently cast as Phoebe Munster, and appeared in the initial pilot that was shown only to network execs, before being replaced by Yvonne de Carlo as the renamed Lily Munster, given that Phoebe was apparently too close to Morticia Addams. She later married director Hal Ashby, who purportedly used her as the real life inspiration for his film Shampoo.

On the other hand, the nominal leads fall flat. Patricia Breslin isn't bad as Miriam Webster, but she's easily forgettable. Leading man Glenn Corbett is a striking cross between Chester Morris and Tony Curtis, but is far less charismatic than say Robby the Robot. He's just a cardboard cutout of an actor, so it's no wonder that he ended up as a regular on Dallas. Stage actress Eugenie Leontovich is great as the mute invalid Helga but she doesn't get a huge amount of screen time.

And of course it's a William Castle movie, so there's bound to be something odd going on, courtesy of the god of gimmicks. This time round there's a hokey on screen introduction from the man himself and a 45 second fright break shortly before the end that involves an actual on screen clock counting down while those audience members who couldn't take the strain could leave for a coward's corner somewhere in the auditorium where they couldn't see the screen.

The Scar of Shame (1927) Frank Perugini

Alvin Hillyard is a 'young man of refined tastes, a lover of music and the finer things in life', so he stays at Mrs Lucretia Green's select boarding house where he plays the piano and composes. However this select boarding house really isn't that select because it also caters to people like Eddie Blake, who's the stereotypical opportunist crook type. Eddie also knows Spike Howard, a local thug who has a beautiful daughter called Louise who he beats. Hillyard saves her in a neat little action sequence, brings her back to Mrs Green's and eventually marries her. After all, it's either that or rescue her every five minutes.

The story is a preachy one, as was so common back in the twenties and thirties, and race films (as they were called) were no different to standard Hollywood fare. The theme here is environment and how it shapes both character and life. There are two kinds of people in these films: those of high character, education, talent and overflowing wells of goodness; and those of low character who cheat at cards, beat up their families and can't resist a drink when it's offered to them. It's decency and talent versus evil and weakness.

Unfortunately that doesn't tend to leave a lot of depth to explore. Hillyard is so high class that when he introduces his new rescue to Mrs Green, he says, 'This is another instance of the injustices some of the women of our race are constantly subjected to, mainly through lack of knowledge of the higher aims in life.' At the other end of the polarised spectrum, Eddie Blake even has dice on his introductory title card. And that's how it would end in most of these films.

What makes this a notable exception is that there is another level to the story. While Alvin is happy to marry Louise to save her from the violence in her background, he can't bring himself to tell his mother about her. Some hamfisted imagery with a baby doll makes it very clear that he cares more about what his mother thinks of him than he does of the future he and his wife will share. Louise and Eddie can transcend their environments but they can't shed them. Alvin can be thrown out of his environment but can't really leave it.

The cast is surprisingly good given their collective lack of experience. Alvin Hillyard is Harry Henderson, who only made four films. Eddie Blake is Norman Johnstone, who only made two. Louise is Lucia Lynn Moses in her only screen appearance, as she was generally a chorus girl at the Cotton Club. Ann Kennedy and William E Pettus, who play Mrs Green and Spike Howard, also never appeared anywhere else. That's a shame, as even though this film has failings, it's not bad at all, especially when compared to others of its kind.

Strait-Jacket (1964) William Castle

'Love Slayer Insane!' read the headlines and they're talking about Joan Crawford, who plays Lucy Harbin. She's a wronged wife whose husband Frank (Lee Majors, of all people) cheats on her in their own house with an old girlfriend, and with their daughter in the next room. Frank assumes she's asleep, or just doesn't care. Similarly, when Lucy arrives home and catches them she doesn't pay any attention to her daughter when she takes an axe and gives them what could well have been forty whacks. I didn't count but it certainly wasn't one or two.

Anyway she's carried off screaming in the literal strait-jacket of the title to an asylum where she spends the next twenty years until some experimental treatment enables her to return to her family. Daughter Carol has been brought up by her aunt and uncle on the Cutler Ranch, giving plenty of opportunity for slaughter related conversation and situations. The non-literal strait-jacket is the one that's wrapped around the daughter, who can't get away from the fact that's she's related to a double axe murderer. She's really into her mother coming home but when her presence and her history starts to affect her own future, then her feelings about it change somewhat.

The film isn't subtle in the slightest. It's very much in the Grand Guignol style that had become de rigeur for aging Hollywood actresses in the sixties, post-Baby Jane, and screenwriter Robert Bloch has fun with it. Every opportunity to refer everything back to the murders is taken advantage of and Joan Crawford is certainly up to the level of psychotic required. She does a great job of appearing completely unstable, even though a drink or two gives her all the confidence in the world. The prominent Pepsi logo in the Cutlers' kitchen demonstrates that she had plenty of influence behind the scenes though.

Beyond the very apparent lack of subtlety, there's a lot of intelligent filmmaking here. Bloch's script and Castle's direction combine to give us some great scenes of massive discomfort, train wreck scenes that we can't tear our eyes away from, along with a lot of character depth that ought to be completely out of place but somehow isn't. This is one of those rare films that could be enjoyed as a thought provoking drama or a pure spectacle. In many ways it could be seen as a thematic sequel to or reinvention of Psycho. Certainly the connections go way beyond both having been written by Robert Bloch.

The Return of Dracula (1958) Paul Landres

The Vampire, directed by Paul Landres in 1957, really had nothing to do with vampires. I ended up describing it as Dr Jekyll & Mr Wolfman. A year later he decided to put an actual vampire in a vampire movie, which is at least one improvement, and sure enough we start with an attempted vampire slaying: the boys coming in like the gang in Reservoir Dogs, but with crosses and stakes instead of guns.

It was a promising start but unfortunately it soon became a game of counting the cliches. Even before Count Dracula, finds his way to the States, he gets hungry for a snack on the train and his victim screams just as the train whistle blows to enter a tunnel. He takes his victim's identity and so finds his way to Carleton, CA to stay with his victim's family, who conveniently live right next to an abandoned mine. Soon he gets to emerge from his coffin in slow motion, surrounded by fog even though he's in the depths of that mine.

Count Dracula is played by Francis Lederer who has a presence to him, though he looks amazingly like DR from Alan Moore's DR and Quinch. He also does his best with the lines he's given, making him by far the best thing about the film. Unfortunately the story is very much a rehash of any handful of vampire scripts you could pick at random. Fifty years on, Landres could probably have created this exact film without any actors at all, by doing it as a mashup of clips from other films, because everything you'll see here, you've already seen somewhere else first. The direction is lackluster too, meaning that this would work better as a radio broadcast, even though the soundtrack is terrible.

The only thing that seems new to me is the whole concept of Immigration taking a look at Dracula, though unfortunately that was only a ruse. It would be cool if a future film could have the Count's nefarious evildoings stopped by Immigration. It could even be turned into an intriguing political satire of modern day America, but then that wouldn't be interesting to cookie cutter Hollywood.

The Satan Bug (1965) John Sturges

John Sturges knew how to make action films, and had two recent classics under his belt by the time he made this film: The Magificent Seven in 1960 and his previous film, The Great Escape in 1963. It was based on a novel by thriller maestro Alistair Maclean, using the pseudonym of Ian Stuart it seems, even though I remember the paperback on my parents' bookshelves as being under his own name. Sturges would go on to film another Maclean novel a few years later with Ice Station Zebra. The adaptation was done by Edward Anhalt and James Clavell, who had co-written The Great Escape and of course would become famous for writing novels like Shogun.

We're in the middle of nowhere at Station 3, a chemical warfare research laboratory underneath the Californian desert, a lab where various technicians are researching things like the Satan bug of the title. This is so horrendously dangerous to human life that it could take out all of it, just from one broken flask. There are the usual massive security doors, complex alarm systems and cool lights, as well as the usual deadly chemicals, and the most dangerous of the lot gets stolen.

The man hired to track it down is Lee Barrett, a former intelligence officer from special ops, but with a growing aversion to the job and a talent for insubordination. He's a lawyer now, but he had a year behind him working at Station 3 and the powers that be need that experience and the knowledge that comes with it. He's played by George Maharis, well known at the time from the TV show Route 66, and he plays his part with such aplomb that it seems surprising that his film career floundered very quickly indeed. Maybe he's just a little too faceless a star to be a viable Hollywood leading man.

He has plenty of able backup here from people like Richard Basehart, Anne Francis and Dana Andrews, who was the president of the Screen Actors Guild at the time. Andrews was really busy on screen at this time, making no less than eight films in 1965. With his silver hair, he looks older than he did a couple of years later in the intriguing Hot Rods to Hell. He's still a powerful presence here. There's also Simon Oakland, who I'll always know best as Kolchak's boss but who I'm discovering was an inveterate scene stealer in a number of major films. He's quiet here but it's still difficult not to watch him, even when someone else is the main focus of the scene.

The plot itself is somewhat unique. There are a lot of plot holes and a lot of plot twists, but many of the plot twists cover up many of the plot holes. Every time I reacted to something that made no sense, some character or other twisted things round so that it was never a factor in the first place. The key question is that at the end of the day, how many plot holes were left? My problem is that this is a slow, talkative and intelligent film, and slow, talkative and intelligent films are not the best things to watch late at night. I finished it off in the morning but I'd need to watch afresh to know for sure. Certainly there's stupidity in the film, though at the hands of stupid people. How much is there left for supposedly intelligent people? Well, at least it had me asking questions and that's never a bad thing.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

The Ballplayer and the Bandit (1912) Francis Ford

It seems that every baseball film has to include the star winning the championship, even when they're made in 1912, they're only 10 minutes long and the single pitch of the championship we see is shot on a field. The star of the show is Harry Burns, played by the star of many a film at the time, Harold Lockwood, who I've only seen opposite Mary Pickford in Tess of the Storm Country. He's pretty rare to see because he died in the 1918 flu pandemic, and he does seem pretty natural on the screen as far back as this.

Anyway, Harry may be the star pitcher at college but Uncle Jim can't continue paying his tuition fees so he has to head west and become a paymaster. He soon gets into a fight, looking not unlike Brendan Fraser, all over a girl of course, who unfortunately goes uncredited. Being the paymaster, he gets to carry bags of cash across country which brings him to the attention of Red Dan, the bandit. Luckily he's just been sent the baseball that won him that championship game and of course he knows how to use it.

The other name of note here is Francis Ford, who directs and appears in one of the roles, though which one I have no clue. He's the brother of John Ford, widely acclaimed as one of the greatest directors in history, especially when shooting in the west, and it was Francis who got him into the industry. This is 1912 so there's not a lot of startling direction going on but his work is perfectly fine here. I just wish I knew who the girl was.

His Last Game (1909) ?

So obscure a movie that I can't even find it in IMDb, His Last Game is another silent baseball short, made in 1909, not that there's much baseball in it. It's more of a Native American short that is both solidly politically incorrect and a stunning example of frontier justice. Bill Going plays for the Choctaws and they're up against Jimtown in the championship game. Flamboyant local gamblers try everything that they can to corrupt him into throwing the game but he resists their charms and in fact ends up on the wrong side of the law by shooting one of them in self defence.

The production quality of this film is terrible, even for 1909. The baseball game looks like it's just shot on a vacant lot, with teams distinguishable only by labels slapped on the chests of the team members, and there's nothiing to suggests who's winning or losing until Going turns up and wins the day as a pitcher. The rest of the film takes place in two locations: an outdoor grave set which is literally just a hole in the ground, and the outside of the Jimtown bar which is just the front of a building with a tree standing by.

The story is painful. Bad guys threaten good guy, good guy shoots one of the bad guys, sheriff walks good guy to a hole in the ground, good guy gets leave to go play his championship game while the sheriff and the gravediggers wait for his return, he comes back, they shoot him dead into the grave and then everyone else arrives, from the messenger with an official reprieve to his team members who see him dead and wander off. The titles are few and far between and the end but you could write them yourself. 'So we killed an innocent man? Never mind, he was just a Choctaw. Who's buying?'

Headin' Home (1920) Lawrence C Windom

As our local Arizona Diamondbacks kick off the National League playoffs, everyone around pays attention and I wonder what all the fuss is about, TCM decide to show a trio of silent baseball shorts. This one is pretty notable because it stars Babe Ruth as Babe Ruth, in his film debut, and Babe Ruth was obviously somebody because even I've heard of him and I know next to nothing about baseball. I've even heard of the New York Yankees, for whom he was starting to play in 1920.

You'd expect this to be a sports story depicted entirely on the field but it's more of a light comedy biopic. This Babe is a likeable but bumbling young man growing up in a backwoods town called Haverlock. He spends his time carving baseball bats from trees, spending time with his mother and freeing his half-sister's dog from the evil dogcatcher. He's also completely lovestruck for the daughter of the corrupt local town leader. She's Mildred Tobin and she has eyes only for the new pitcher, a crook by the name of Harry Knight. Of course Knight has it in for Babe so he has to play for the opposition instead.

I'm no expert on baseball history or the lives of those who played the game, but apparently this all bears about as much relation to Babe Ruth's life story as it does to mine, making the biopic aspect of the film completely worthless. The comedy side of it isn't much better as it comes across as a tame example of what someone like Stan Laurel could pull off much better. Babe also may be the lead and the entire point of the film but he gets surprisingly little screen time, thus reducing the only thing left: celebrity appeal. He's perfectly fine for the time he's on screen but it could all have been so much more.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

The Vampire (1957) Paul Landres

After My Son, the Vampire aka Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, it just couldn't get any worse in the vampire genre (or so I'll think for probably many long months until I see something equally awful), so it bodes well for The Vampire aka Mark of the Vampire. No, it has nothing to do with the 1935 Mark of the Vampire, which was a decent if not stunning Bela Lugosi/Lionel Barrymore vampire movie, or even another film called The Vampire or El Vampiro, made the same year as this one in Mexico, which seems to be highly regarded. That's what happens when you pick such generic titles.

Some lab researcher called Dr Matt Campbell is dying but he has the secret to something. Unfortunately he can't tell Dr Paul Beecher before he dies, so all he has is a bottle of pills. Of course a quick mistake means that he takes some of the pills by accident instead of his migraine pills, and it becomes a case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Vampire, except without any of those hopping Chinese kind. Dr Paul Beecher is just a good old American 1950s vampire, respectable doctor by day and marauding prowler by night. Maybe I should have called it Dr Jekyll & Mr Wolfman: that fits the makeup better.

Needless to say, this has very little to do with vampires. The pills come from vampire bats but there are no capes, crosses, coffins or other vampire mythology beginning with C, or any other letter for that matter. You could call it a mad scientist yarn except there aren't really any mad scientists. The closest to that category would be the closest to the vampire category too, but he's just a victim. I really don't think the screenwriters had a clue what they were supposed to do and my impression is that they just tweaked a little detail in a pretty decent if basic story whenever someone on high gave them a clarification.

The Little Minister notwithstanding, I remember lead actor John Beal as a sort of junior version of Franchot Tone. He still looks a little like him here but half the time sounds much more like a slightly deeper Jimmy Stewart. Regardless of who he reminds of, he's always been a pretty solid actor and it's good to see someone of his calibre in a film like this. This is late in his career, when his output had seriously dropped. From 19 films in the thirties to 13 in the forties, by the fifties he was down to five, then one per decade from then on: 1960, 1973, 1983 and finally 1993 for The Firm. 41 movies is hardly prolific for a 60 year film career, and 4 in the last 33 is downright reluctant. I wonder why he didn't make more.

Then again, many of them may have been like this, which could explain it. It looks like Oscar winning material compared to Mother Riley Meets the Vampire but up against anything else, it's just there.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952) John Gilling

Oh my goodness, this one's a notable piece of nonsense! The version I'm watching is called My Son, the Vampire, which makes no sense whatsoever, the bizarre title song notwithstanding ('My son, the vampire, he will leave you pale. All he does is drink your blood cause he don't like ginger ale'). The original title is Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, which makes far more sense, given that this is a film in the Mother Riley series of musical comedies starring Arthur Lucan in drag as the old Mrs Riley, and he/she is up against Bela Lugosi, who made this to make enough money to get back to the States after a failed stage version of Dracula in London.

Lugosi plays some sort of mad scientist by the name of Van Housen, who apparently descends from a legendary vampire. Since his arrival in England, five young and beautiful girls have gone missing and the papers are full of vampire stories, though there's no immediate connection between them. He's just busy sleeping in his coffin and plotting to take over the world. He even has a robot on its way from his secret factory in Ireland, but through the inevitable mixup it gets delivered to Mrs Riley, who runs a small grocery store in London while the inheritance from her uncle Jeremiah goes to Van Housen.

Needless to say the production quality is hardly high. Light levels change noticeably from one shot to the next, some shots are of still photographs and the script is just plain nuts. The jokes are mostly tired, the songs are worse and the only saving grace is the fact that this is possibly the only time Lugosi plays a vampire and a mad scientist at the same time, with mummies and a super robot to boot. He was doing it strictly for the money but he does do his best regardless and he is the only watchable thing in the entire film.

This was the last of 17 Mother Riley movies, though apparently plans were afoot for Old Mother Riley's Trip to Mars before Lucan dropped dead before a stage performance. Given the quality, it's surprising it made it this long. Given that Lucan generally appeared alongside his wife Kitty, but relations between them had deteriorated to the point that they had to be filmed on different days for the previous film, Old Mother Riley's Jungle Treasure and she didn't appear in this one at all, it has to be wondered whether that would ever have come to pass anyway. It has also to be wondered why anyone would have cared.

Pride and Prejudice (1940) Robert Z Leonard

When your basing your film on a novel by Jane Austen and you have Aldous Huxley to write the screenplay, you shouldn't be surprised at success. Add to that a cast that includes such names as Laurence Olivier, Edna May Oliver and Maureen O'Sullivan and you can hardly fail. The only initial catch is the cast is so huge that it's hard to keep track of them for a while, especially as they all seem to have the same thoughts on their mind. Into the town come a couple of young gentleman to let Netherfield Park, and they immediately and unwittingly become the targets of every mother looking for husbands for their eligible young daughters. £5,000 a year and unmarried means that they're subject to every machination in the book, apparently.

The two young men are Charles Bingley, played by Bruce Lester, and the arrogant Mr Darcy, played by Laurence Olivier. Of the young women there's seemingly no end of them. The Bennets have five of them for a start, played by lead actress Greer Garson, Maureen O'Sullivan, Ann Rutherford, Heather Angel and Marsha Hunt. O'Sullivan is Jane Bennet and she quickly hits it off with Mr Bingley. Garson is her sister Elizabeth, who seems fated to end up with Mr Darcy from the moment she overhears him talk down his nose about her and then refuse his offer to dance. He's the pride and she's the prejudice of the title.

This is very much what would be called nowadays a women's picture, or from another perspective a chick flick. While there is plenty of clever dialogue and powerful acting, much of the story is a complete mystery to me, given that I'm neither chick nor woman. I remember well my mother's uncanny ability to know exactly what everyone in church was wearing, week in and week out, but I could never find a will to even remember who was there.

She would have no problem here working out which young lady is who and which young man they were interested in and which young lady each young man was interested in, but I had to work to keep up. She'd also have known that the costumes completely fail to reflect the time in which the story is set. I have to rely on IMDb to point out that we're in the Regency but populated by American Civil War costumes, reused from the previous year's Gone with the Wind and chosen by costume designer Adrian because they were so much more flamboyant, regardless of what era they represent.

Given my almost complete ignorance of the evolution of costume, I can see the historical inaccuracy but easily look past it without throwing my hands up in horror. I'll reserve that for the frequent misuse of technology in Hollywood. What I could see and enjoy was the interplay between Olivier and Garson and the battle of wits and veiled insults between Garson and Frieda Inescort as Mr Bingley's snob of a sister, while I waited for the inevitable joy of seeing Edna May Oliver take over entirely and dominate effortlessly over all the flutterings of various mothers, cousins and anyone else who happens to be unfortunate enough to find themselves in her vicinity.

This is a decent film, even from a viewer of the male sex, but it's far from perfect. From what I read, the definitive version may be the BBC mini series, which adheres far more closely to the source novel, while Greer Garson and especially Laurence Olivier remain favourites of many Jane Austen fans regardless.

The Lone Wolf Keeps a Date (1941) Sidney Salkow

This was Warren William's fourth outing as Michael Lanyard, the Lone Wolf, between the four that I've already seen. He's on form from the very beginning, in Havana to which he's flown to buy a stamp for his collection. This was 1941 so William was subject to the restrictions of the Production Code, but he could still say more with a smile or a leer than most actors of the time could say with words. When he looks at leading lady Frances Robinson and asks if she thinks she could trust him, he at once appears to be the most reliable and the most dangerous man in the world.

He gets caught up in the story here when he aids a young lady, who is trying to save her fiancee, an innocent man arrested for murder as part of a kidnapping. She's brought back $100,000 from Cuba that the kidnappers want but the the thieves end up with Lanyard's stamp collection instead, so he gets to play three games at once. He has to find the real kidnappers and save Scotty the fiancee, retrieve his stamp collection and outwit Inspector Crane who believes that he's probably behind the whole thing.

The story is fun but the whole inept cops thing is about as unsubtly depicted here as it had been since the days of the Keystone Kops. It's one thing to watch Warren William and Eric Blore run riot with the material, it's another to get completely embarrassed at the antics of Inspector Crane and Detective Dickens, let alone Captain Moon and his bunch of saluting morons. Oh my goodness, the film would have been better without all of these characters in it, and unfortunately that makes it the worst of 29 Warren Williams I've seen thus far.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Münchhausen (1943) Josef von Báky

A grand fantasy lavishly produced in colour and with expensively gorgeous sets and costumes, this was commissioned to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the UFA studios, it is strange mostly because of the circumstance of its creation: the time was 1943 Nazi Germany and the commissioner was Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels. The tide was turning in the war and the Germans had just lost at Stalingrad, but this film is remarkably free of actual propaganda, though there are inevitable mentions of taking Poland. It was more of a response to the fantasy films becoming so successful in other countries and it delights.

We're bookended by more modern scenes but we're soon back in a fantastic world of the past where miracles were believable and obtainable, by science or sorcery or whatever. Baron Hieronymus von Münchhausen and his valet, Christian Kuchenreutter travel around and enjoy life to the fullest, meeting famous or infamous names from Madame Pompadour to Count Cagliostro and discovering no end of marvels. Once we're back in the past, it doesn't take long for us to see cream that instigates immediate hair growth, a gun that shoots over huge distances, notes that get frozen inside a horn and wine that travels from decanter to glass without traversing the space in between.

Soon he finds his way to St Petersburg, where the Empress Katharina is holding an opulent dinner but which the Baron misses to keep a date with a beautiful young farmgirl, who of course turns out to be the empress herself. While the guests pick out pigeon sized gems for dessert, he gets to disappear back stage to the Czarina's bedroom for illicit liaisons. This is the level of believability we're working with but then that's entirely the point in a Münchhausen story.

He was always the greatest teller of tall tales and watching such a lavish rendition is joyous. Münchhausen also knew how to make a wish. Count Cagliostro, just before putting on his ring of invisibility to avoid arrest, grants him a wish and he chooses to stay as young as he was at that point until he himself chose to grow old. That's the wish I'd make if someone like Cagliostro owed me a favour!

I could go on about the little stories that make up the larger story but you ought to enjoy them for yourself. Suffice it to say that many of those I remembered from reading about Münchhausen back in junior school made it in. I could talk about the acting, from people like Hans Albers as the Baron and the delightful Brigitte Horney as Catherine the Great. Albers is certainly as memorable as John Neville in Terry Gilliam's 1988 version, if not more so.

What deserves mention more than anything is that the film looks awesome. Words like 'lavish', 'opulent' and 'extravagant' are entirely appropriate and while I hardly want to praise Nazi Germany, this benefits no end from not being a Hollywood film. There's plenty here that wouldn't have been allowed under the code, from the provocative belly dancer to the gorgeous semi-nude painting of Cagliostro's that comes to life, let alone the attitudes to race, religion and even alcohol. Then there's the harem, for which a Hollywood filmmaker would probably have been stoned: after all, how could a Sultan's harem possibly contain topless young ladies frolicking around in a pool? Shameless!

Mostly though it's the money. The sheer amounts of money spent on the film were outrageous and makes the piece reasonably unrepeatable. Certainly Gilliam tried but ran out of finance in the process. I don't think I've ever seen costumes that trump these and the sets are amazing. In particular, fantastic cities viewed from afar put Oz to shame. Even the animation and effects are top notch. The invisibility scenes are seamless and the cannonball flight is spot on. The whole thing is a feast for the eyes and the only down sides are a few slow scenes and a little lack of focus at points. Visually it's nigh on unsurpassed.

It's always interesting to wander around the credits at IMDb and discover connections. It seems that Ilse Werner, Princess Isabella here who the Baron rescues from a Turkish harem, was renowned as a whistler and it's her whistling that appears at the opening of Winds of Change, the Scorpions' theme for glasnost. I've never seen Leo Slezak before, an opera singer who plays the Sultan here, but I know his son well: Walter Slezak. In 1943 while his father was appearing in this film for Josef Goebbels, he was appearing in an anti-Nazi drama of note, Jean Renoir's wonderful This Land is Mine.

A number of the cast also appeared in one of the most notorious Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda films, Jud Süß, some, like lead actor Ferdinand Marian who plays Cagliostro here, apparently with the assistance of some outside incentives from the Nazi powers that be. As yet I've only seen Nazi propaganda of a more elegant and artful variety, such as the famed work of Leni Riefenstahl, but there are far more unsavoury pieces out there. In particular I'm looking forward to seeing Der Ewige Jude to see just how the Nazis managed to twist things so far as to take Peter Lorre's fictional depiction of the child killer in Fritz Lang's M into evidence of the subhumanity of the Jews. In the meantime it's refreshing to see that there are Nazi films like this that don't stoop to such levels and keep politics and philosophy out of it.

Into the Night (1985) John Landis

John Landis is a major, if often inconsistent, film director. As the seventies turned into the eighties, he could do no wrong: The Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon's Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London. Amazing stuff. However to my mind, Into the Night, made right after the longest rock video of the time, Michael Jackson's Thriller, is his most enjoyable and interesting movie, if not his best. It reminds me very much of Martin Scorsese's After Hours, not just in vague theme but in the way that I can come back to both of these films any time I like and can't keep my eyes off them. After Hours isn't Scorsese's best film either, but I find it so much more fascinating than all those New York Italian movies.

The lead character is Ed Okin, an aerospace engineer played by Jeff Goldblum who effectively sleepwalks through the entire film. He can't sleep, hasn't slept for a long, long time and everything is starting to fade into one for him. Sitting in bed, eyes wide open and unable to drop off, isn't far different from sitting in a technical meeting at work, spacing out to the degree that he finds himself two weeks behind where he thought he was. It's like he's disconnected from the entire world.

When he goes home and finds his wife cheating on him, he ends up taking his colleague's suggestion that he go to Vegas for the night. He drives on out to the airport and is just sitting there in the parking lot, when Michelle Pfeiffer gets chased onto the bonnet of his car. Suddenly he's part of something big, that escalates in all sorts of directions without him ever having control of any of it. It may just be the most understated lead performance in history. He's simply there and the entire film happens to him, like the lead character himself is the MacGuffin.

The cast is amazing and completely unique. Almost everyone in the cast it seems is integrally associated with the film industry but you wouldn't expect to see them in front of the camera. Landis himself is one of four hilarious middle eastern thugs who chase Michelle Pfeiffer throughout the film and shoot up everything. Beyond him though there are directors, producers and other well known names everywhere, in cameos of various sizes, starting with Ed's boss who is David Cronenberg.

Rick Baker, the makeup and creature designer that helped make An American Werewolf in London so memorable, is a drug dealer. Jonathan Lynn is a tailor, Carl Perkins is a bodyguard, Amy Heckerling is a waitress whose only line is 'Sorry'. Jim Henson is a man on a phone, Don Siegel is a rich man getting some in a bathroom, Jack Arnold is a man in a lift with a noisy dog. Jonathan Demme and Carl Gottlieb are federal agents and Lawrence Kasdan is a cop. Paul Mazursky has great fun as a TV director with a Golden Globe that the Savak break in half.

For some it's their only acting credit: Colin Higgins is a TV actor here, but he's really a writer, director and producer, who wrote Harold and Maude and directed Nine to Five and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Some are bad guys, such as Roger Vadim, in possibly his only English language speaking role. Best of all is one of his hired killers, David Bowie of all people, who is awesome in my very favourite role of his: 'You're very good! You're really very good!'

Now these are just names I know and faces I recognise. Clicking on random names in IMDb shows that there are many more. I had no clue who Richard Franklin was, but he's one of Ed's fellow aerospace techs here and it would seem that I've seen quite a few films that he's made. Robert Paynter is the security guard where Ed works and I've never heard of him either, but he's a cinematographer who shot a lot of films for Landis and others like Michael Winner. There are people in here who are merely actors, but there don't seem to be many of them.

And I'll shut up about the cast now. There's much more here than just a wildly different cast. There's also music by B B King, apparently because Landis hadn't used him in The Blues Brothers, and as a result we get to hear a lot more Lucille than we'd have heard in that film had he been there. There are awesome locations and choices of angle or what may even be lucky coincidences that elevate everything. I wonder if the plane being carried across the overpass was planned or just lucky.

The story is fascinating to me and works on so many different levels. There are so many little touches of genius that could so easily go almost unnoticed, but which resonate with me. Sometimes it's really well written lines or dialogues, sometimes quirky situations, often it's merely a reaction. Often it's something that didn't have to be there but Landis or screenwriter Ron Koslow or whoever felt the need and they work as a powerful enhancement. How many films can I honestly say that I'd want to rewind them and immediately watch afresh? Not many, but this is one of them.

The Tell-Tale Heart (1941) Jules Dassin

Jules Dassin directed a number of true classics, not least The Naked City and Rififi. He was twice nominated for Oscars, one for direction and one for screenwriting, but both for Never on Sunday. He may well have been nominated more often if he hadn't have fallen foul of the McCarthy witchhunts. His first film though was this twenty minute short for MGM based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story and his talent is already very much apparent.

The story is pretty well known: a young man has come to truly hate his master, an older man with a fake eye and a tyrannical nature, and one night he kills him. He carries on regardless, pretending that the old man has left but is eventually undone by his own conscience because the old man's heart continues to beat in his mind, driving him slowly insane until he confesses. It's a peach of a story, one I've read a number of times, and I've seen a few adaptations of it too, live action and animated both.

This one's a good one, certainly, and it's thoroughly enjoyable to watch, but it's missing something. The old man is Joseph Schildkraut, who had been in the business since 1915, with such important roles behind him as Judas Iscariot in The King of Kings, King Herod in Cleopatra and an Oscar winning turn as Alfred Dreyfus in The Life of Emile Zola. He's fine here but maybe not tyrannical enough. Most importantly though, there's not enough focus on the eye which was so memorable from the story.

The young man is Roman Bohnen, who I didn't know at all. I've seen him in a few films but without recognising him. He's powerful here and very believable as a man driven insane. In fact he carries this more than anyone, though Dassin's direction is powerful too. However the film is definitely too short and it does seem strange to see the story without some of the more famous lines from the story. Maybe I'm just used to versions that are narrated rather than purely acted, which does seem appropriate. It's an interesting little short though.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

The Great Train Robbery (1903) Edwin S Porter

Gangsters break into the stationmaster's office just before the train arrives, and they have guns drawn. Then they tie him up and hop onto the train. More bad guys turn up soon too, climbing onboard themselves when the train stops to take on water. Of course, as the title would imply they break into the car that contains the strongbox, blow it then hijack the train completely and run off with the loot. They're also brutal men, callously bludgeoning one of the drivers to death and throwing him off the moving train. They rob all the passengers at gunpoint and shoot anyone who tries to run away. Needless to say, the good guys win in the end.

Looking from the perspective of a filmgoer in 2007, there are a lot of problems with this film. The camera never moves, staying still and looking out at the action. The body thrown off the train is obviously a dummy. There are long scenes while we wait for something to happen that really do nothing other than take up screen time. The story is very linear, with most scenes uninterrupted takes, and the acting is not particularly exemplary. Not something of major note, you'd think.

On the other hand this film was made in 1903, which is amazingly more than a century ago. It is very possibly the most influential film in cinematic history because it introduced a whole new concept to film: the plot. Up unntil this point in time, movies were generally one of two things. Firstly, there were the 'realities', which depicted nothing more than a slice of time, such as a street corner for a few minutes. Secondly, there were the trick films, made famous by people like Georges Melies, which make for fascinating viewing but are really little more than an excuse for a bit of cinematic manipulation. You could even call them magic tricks that cheat because they need outside intervention to make them believable. Yet this is something else entirely. Here there's a plot, not a particularly deep one, but a plot nonetheless that has a definable storyline to it. We know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. We know what they're up to and while there isn't exactly anything like character development, the film is only twelve minutes long.

That static camera also takes us right into the action: mounted inside a train car, at the side of a path where horses ride past, even on top of a moving train. We get stunts: a man gets knocked out right next to a strongbox that gets blown open; another man gets knocked off the top of a moving train. It's shot on a grand scale with a huge and varied cast. More than anything else, we get an outlaw at the very end pointing his weapon at the camera and with eyes focused right on ours, empties his six gun right at us. To us, that's nothing; but in 1903 that was truly scary stuff.

Uncredited director Edwin S Porter has something of a unique filmography. He directed 168 films, something of a huge number, but his last was made in 1915 before most classic directors had even started. His early beginnings had to do with him being hired as a projectionist by Thomas Edison, who left the real development of cinema as a medium to his employees. Because of this quirk of circumstance, Porter can safely lay claim to being one of the most important men to step behind a camera and one of the most influential men in the business.

One quick side note: the little boy who discovers and frees the stationmaster, who can then alert the authorities, was eight year Donald Gallaher. He acted a little later on and I've seen him without knowing it in later films, and he even directed five early talkies. However the credit I know him from best is from one of my favourite terrible thirties movies: he wrote the source play for Sh! The Octopus!

Monday, 1 October 2007

Les Diaboliques (1955) Henri-Georges Clouzot

Oh my goodness, I've waited to see this one. It resonates down the years both through presence and influence. When it's the chief reason why someone like Alfred Hitchcock would switch from his 'technicolour baubles' like North by Northwest to make something like Psycho, it's an important film. When it's a French black and white film from the fifties and it appears not only on the IMDb Top 250 but a whole host of Top 100 lists compiled by different authorities, it would appear to be a pretty damn good one too.

We're at the Delassalle Boarding School, a dilapidated establishment run by Michel Delassalle who is a real piece of work. He isn't just a martinet, he's vicious and brutal and callous, and he's apparently running the place on his wife's money. She's Christina Delassalle and she works at the school, as does Michel's mistress, Nicole Horner, where he flaunts each at the other. What this all leads up to is the bizarre situation where wife and mistress combine forces to kill him off just as everyone leaves for the holidays. Everything works as expected, but then the body inexplicably disappears.

The characters aren't just well defined here, that definition is integral to the progression of the story. The scene where Christina's mind is finally made up is a masterpiece of cause and consequence. Every word, every movement, is just perfect. The timing of everything is exactly right and the same almost unbearable suspense that director Henri-Georges Clouzot injected into The Wages of Fear is here too, relentless and magnetic. It's a simply brilliant demonstration of instilling competing emotions: we don't want to watch but we can't take our eyes off the screen.

The cast are impeccable. Simone Signoret is tough and forceful as Delassalle's mistress and the mastermind behind his murder. When we first meet her, she's wearing glasses to hide a black eye that he gave her, but she's a powerhouse compared to Christina. Vera Clouzot, the director's wife in real life, is even better as the victim's wife in the film. She's a former nun who believes in Hell and sees divorce as a deadly sin, yet finds her way into murder. Clouzot is awesome at alternating between hesitation and internal decision making torment with decisive action while the adrenaline rush is high.

Paul Meurisse is despicable as Delassalle himself, though never unbelievably so. It would have been so easy for him to overdo it but he restrains himself admirably. Then halfway through the film, we meet Fichet, an elderly commissioner of police played by Charles Vanel, who investigates with a subtle intellect reminiscent of a Columbo. I kept waiting for 'Just one more thing, Mme Delassalle...' There are also a couple of truly unforgettable scenes that rank way up there on any list. What a great film and one well worth waiting to see!