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Also announcing the 2nd annual Apocalypse Later International Fantastic Film Festival!
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Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Incredible Mr Limpet (1964)

Director: Arthur Lubin
Star: Don Knotts
A personal favourite of my wife, who insisted I record it, this one features Don Knotts, who I'm fast discovering was one of the great American comedians. There are many household names in America whose reputations didn't travel beyond the country's borders, just as there are many names I grew up watching in England who Americans have never heard of. I think the first time I saw him was in his famous role of Barney Fife while travelling the States in 1999. I hadn't seen it before because we didn't get The Andy Griffith Show in England and his other long running show, Three's Company, was an American version of one of ours anyway, Man About the House.

He made 25 feature films, three of them (along with much of this movie) as a voice actor. I'd already seen him in Cannonball Run II but he was hardly the biggest name in that film, but eventually I saw Pleasantville and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Apple Dumpling Gang and with each one, I'm intrigued to discover more of these American favourites. They don't resonate with me like they do to Americans because I didn't grow up with them, but they have a charm to them that comes from a different age and is more than a little welcome. I'm beginning to get a little fascinated with these American family classics, because they hold a real glimpse into that different age and what America was at the time.

Mr Limpet is pretty incredible, in fact he's so incredible that the Navy has a file on him that they locked in 1945 with the aim of never opening it again, but now they need to recall him to active service. Apparently scientists are discovering that porpoises are becoming pretty intelligent and they wonder if he has anything to do with it. Maybe they can be useful to the Americans because Superman isn't enough, or something. Now anyone who's seen Don Knotts must be wondering what he's done to become so incredible. The answer is that in a startling turn of cinematic fantasy, he's turned into a fish.

We leap back to September 1941 to discover his story. Henry Limpet is an average sort of guy, married and living in Flatbush, working as a bookkeeper in Brooklyn for the Atlantic & Gulf Line, blind as a bat without his glasses. And he likes fish, as his colleagues find out when they discover Monty the goldfish in their water cooler. When he's around fish he drifts off into his own little world, which hardly endears him to his wife Bessie, who henpecks her husband and hangs instead on every word that issues from the mouth of George Stickel, who has enlisted and comes up with more and more outrageous stories of his contributions to the war effort every day, even though he's only a mechanic's mate, second class.

'I wish I were a fish because fish have a better life than people,' says Limpet, but his wife makes him take them back to the pet store and go to Coney Island instead. And there, while reading up on the theory of reverse evolution and wishing hard, he tumbles off the pier into the ocean. He can't swim so is quickly presumed drowned, but of course he just turns into a fish instead, one who can swim just fine, though that's far from the only bizarre convenience that we're slammed with. Obviously the filmmakers felt that given that we're talking about a man turning into a fish for precisely no reason whatsoever except he wanted to, why don't they just go hog wild and make him talk and keep his glasses and have a powerful belch that scares away barracuda. And they have a point.

A kid would watch this and see a movie about a man doing his duty, even if he's become a fish. The obvious moral lesson is that we should all do what we can, and if we're classified 4F as unfit for combat that's OK, because we can just turn into a fish and become the US Navy's secret weapon. We only have to want to, which is a pretty solid thing for a kid to learn. To an adult though, and I'm coming to this film at the ripe old age of 38, there are a whole slew of questions, beyond the fact that Limpet's wife has obviously been cheating on her husband with George Stickel from moment one.

Limpet wants to be a fish to get away from all the troubles of the human world, but when he actually becomes a fish he promptly brings all those troubles along with him. He's about to head off to the spawning ground with the first ladyfish that comes along, but backs out at the last minute because he has a wife. It doesn't matter that Bessie Limpet thinks he's dead and they're now of different utterly incompatible species because he has to impose a very human concept on the free world of the fish. Next thing you know he'll bringing guilt to the underwater kingdom and we didn't even know he was Catholic. The key question today would be the one Bessie Limpet asks at the end: 'Am I the widow of a human being or the wife of a fish?' In 1964 that's just a cool line to close a movie with, 45 years later it would be a whole season of Oprah.

Of course Limpet decides to get involved in the war effort, working closely with an American destroyer to target the Nazi U-Boats that are taking over the Atlantic Ocean. I seriously doubt anyone reading this is going to be upset about that choice, the sides in the Second World War being as close to good and evil as any conflict in recent memory, but why do the fish care? Americans didn't join the war until 1941 because they didn't see what was going on in Europe as any of their business. How much further down that road could the fish be? What do they care about Uncle Sam and Pearl Harbor and the war effort, let alone Poland and concentration camps and the Jewish menace? Until Limpet turns up in their midst, they didn't even realise shipwrecks weren't really huge dead creatures.

We can probably safely ignore such deep moral questions aside, most of which can't ever have been intentionally raised, though hey, how obvious was that affair? We can sit back and enjoy the mix of live action and animation, which is decently done. We can thrill to the adventures of Mr Limpet and his sidekick, a hermit crab called Crusty (Limpet is so politically correct that if he met a Siamese fighting fish he'd call it Chop Suey). We can enjoy the animated fish porn as Ladyfish writhes around the married Limpet with sensuous abandon because hey, he saved her from a nasty fisherman.

Best of all, we can laugh at the children's movie logic that has him whipping all over the Atlantic like it's the size of one of the ten thousand lakes of Minnesota. It even has songs with lyrics like 'Henry Limpet, your name will live forever...' even though he's really classified top secret and so nobody knows his name outside his US Navy liaison officers. That case has been closed since 1945, remember? Then again, the crew of the destroyer paint pictures of him all over their boat so 'top secret' may mean something completely different in children's movie logic. Perhaps that's the key reason that films like this are great fun but not undying classics to me: just because I didn't experience them with a child's logic first. Maybe I have to wait for my second childhood for that.

Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936)

Director: H Bruce Humberstone
Stars: Warner Oland and Boris Karloff
In honour of the Boris Karloff blogathon which will celebrate across the blogosphere what would have been Karloff the Uncanny's 122nd birthday.
Though this was Warner Oland's thirteenth outing as Charlie Chan, it was the only time he shared above the title billing, but hey, this is Karloff the Uncanny we're talking about. Therefore the title screen of Charlie Chan at the Opera reads 'Warner Oland vs Boris Karloff', fittingly phrased given that we begin at the Rockland State Sanitorium on a dark and stormy night, utterly appropriate for a Karloff movie. He's a singing inmate without a memory or a name, but the night's paper brings both back to him because he sees the face of Lilli Rochelle, who has been brought back to Los Angeles after seven years away by the San Marco Opera Company. She's going to star in Carnival at the Civic Opera House, which means that he promptly escapes and finds his way there.

The police mount a manhunt but get nowhere, even with Irish cop Sgt Kelly on the case, played by perennial dimwit cop William Demarest. Fortunately Charlie Chan is in town to assist, along with number one son Lee, played by Keye Luke, and a slew of others, including Benson Fong, who is only an opera extra here but would later become Charlie Chan's number three son. They're all sent to the Opera House after leading lady Madame Lilli receives a death threat with a bouquet of flowers. Given that she's thoroughly annoying when we first meet her at the police station, we can hardly be surprised or even upset at the concept but we soon discover that there are two crimes that need solving here not just one, and those two escalate.

On top of the death threats, and all the shenanigans going on between Lilli and her baritone Enrico Borelli, both of whom are married to other people, we discover a much older crime. Karloff has remembered that he's really Gravelle, a great baritone himself, whose finest performance was uncoincidentally in Carnival, as Mephisto. He's presumed long dead by all and sundry after a performance many years earlier left a theatre in flames and him deliberately locked in a burning room. Now he's back to take Enrico Borelli's place on stage and sing Mephisto once more, which doesn't surprise us after Arnold the stage manager says that 'this opera is going on tonight even if Frankenstein walks in!'

Karloff is excellent here, though his lip movements fail pretty dismally at matching the singing voice of Tudor Williams, especially early on. Whose fault that is I can't say but it's there nonetheless. Margaret Irving doesn't do much better as Lilli Rochelle, her voice being provided by Zari Elmassian. The costume Karloff is given is magnificent, making him a Mephisto of the old school, someone you'd expect to see in an old silent movie like Häxan with a black skullcap, a white ruff collar and a feather between the eyes. While we know he's not singing, he's dominant on stage but backstage or when eavesdropping on proceedings he becomes more of an object of pity than of horror, something that's highly apt given the setting. The original Phantom of the Opera, Lon Chaney, always worked both those angles in his characters, so that we identified with the monsters he played.
Warner Oland (who coincidentally once played a character called Dr Boris Karlov) wasn't the first actor to play Charlie Chan, as there were three Chans over three films in the silent era, but he was the first to really take charge of the character, beginning a long run with The Black Camel in 1931, which featured Bela Lugosi as the guest name. This was his thirteenth Chan of sixteen, that run ending with 1937's Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo, by which point his alcoholism had turned into dementia and he began complaining that the studio he worked at was rife with voodoo. He died in 1938. The Swedish Oland was about as Chinese as I am but he did make the character his own. Sidney Toler, who took over the role and played it for no less than 22 entries in this long running series, was adequate but notably inferior, even though to be fair he was saddled with lower budgets and occasionally truly idiotic scripts to work with.

In the Oland era, the Chan films were hugely successful, which meant that the budgets were decent and the production values high. For Charlie Chan at the Opera, they could afford a name like Karloff, at the height of his career, and the sets are far from cardboard too. This is regarded as one of the high points of the series, which it may well be, because while it's far from a classic, it's notably solid throughout. While it's impossible to miss the villain in the Toler Chans from moment one, some of the Olands are well crafted mysteries where we find out the killer at the same time that the rest of the characters do, only when they're unveiled by Chan at the finale. I was only down to two suspects at the end here and I picked the wrong one. That would never happen in the Toler era.

One other thing that Chan films have going for them is his use of technology, which is scientific and accurate. Having seen so much scientific gibberish and mumbo jumbo in classic Hollywood films it's always surprising to see things done right this far back. The Kennel Murder Case, for instance, one of the Philo Vance series of detective films, played out like an episode of CSI, but one made in 1933. Here Chan uses basic chemistry to uncover a fingerprint and we're even treated to what can only be described as a 1930s fax machine, transmitting a photo from Chicago to Los Angeles through use of light and a photographic negative.

Boris Karloff got to play a Chinese detective himself soon after this film, a character called Mr Wong, in three films over two years: Mr Wong, Detective, The Mystery of Mr Wong and Mr Wong in Chinatown. The character is not related to the Mr Wong that Bela Lugosi played in The Mysterious Mr Wong in 1934. Sometimes it seems that every Caucasian actor in Hollywood at the time got to put on yellowface and pretend to be Japanese or Chinese. Best of them all has to be Peter Lorre, who played Mr Moto eight times in the late thirties, but many were really bad. I'm a fan of Lugosi for instance, but whoever decided to cast him as a Chinese character must have been insane.

While Oland was so much fun as Charlie Chan, he's terrible at being Chinese and it's a shame that none of the many highly qualified actors who played Chan sons over the years got a chance at the role themselves. Keye Luke got the closest, voicing the character in a cartoon TV series called The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. If you'd thought times had changed by then, given that it was 1972, think again. 1972 was also the year of Kung Fu, which extended the yellowface concept into a whole new generation, with David Carradine playing Kwai Chang Caine. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)

Director: Lew Landers
Stars: Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre
In honour of the Boris Karloff blogathon which will celebrate across the blogosphere what would have been Karloff the Uncanny's 122nd birthday.
The historic colonial edifice called Billings Tavern in Jenksville, built in 1764, is for sale and going very cheap indeed. It's home to Prof Nathaniel Billings, a biochemist who works out of the basement, along with his devoted servants Amelia and Ebenezer, and they'll all be able to stay there when they sell it because the buyer, young divorcee Winnie Layden, is delighted with the whole thing, right down to the wormeaten steps and warped floors. She's even willing to overlook Amelia sleepwalking as a chicken. It's a charming setup, given that we're watching a blissfully matter of fact white haired Boris Karloff selling out to the delightful Miss Jeff Donnell so he can pay off Peter Lorre.

If there's anything better than a Boris Karloff movie, it's a Boris Karloff movie with Peter Lorre in it, especially one where he dresses almost entirely in black and keeps a kitten in his pocket. Here he's Dr Arthur Lorentz, who lives next door and runs almost everything there is in Jenksville, from banking to doctoring via performing marriages and even selling bogus hair tonic. He's also the mayor and the county sheriff, the coroner and the notary public, suggesting that Jenksville is a pretty small place with a population of four people, along with the ghost of Uncas from The Last of the Mohicans and a growing collection of corpses, door to door salesmen who became victims of the professor's experiments to turn them into super-supermen.

As a spoof of a couple of entire genres that's a mere 66 minutes long, it naturally doesn't take long for us to get down to business. Prof Billings does his experimenting down in the basement and sure enough, it's full of huge pieces of electrical equipment that flash and buzz and look impressive when switched on. He's almost there with his experiments but keeps making those odd fatal mistakes, like forgetting to check pockets for stray monkey wrenches. He stores his corpses in a secret room behind a secret door, and you can be sure that that's not the only secret built into the fabric of the Billings Tavern, this being full of all the cliches of the genre, from creaking doors to sliding pictures and, of course, secret passages.

The writers really had a field day with the material, which is as joyous as it is improbable. They threw in everything but the kitchen sink. Karloff and Lorre are hilarious here, playing off each other like a time honoured comedy double act. If they weren't so talented at other things they could have made a career of playing roles like this like a more sophisticated Abbott & Costello. They're aided by Maude Eberne and George McKay as the elderly servants, right out of Arsenic and Old Lace, Don Beddoe as a choreographer who so obviously isn't, Frank Mitchell as Jo-Jo the Human Bomb... did I mention they threw everything in here that they could think of?


Best of all though is the dialogue, which is as well delivered as it is well written and utterly outrageous. Peter Lorre is simply gleeful when he sees Bill Layden, Winnie's ex-husband, hanging from the chandelier, saying 'I hope he breaks a leg. I'll set it knock-kneed!' Karloff is a bundle of mild manners as Prof Billings, so much so that he can come out with lines like 'You almost ruined my electric helmet!' and not appear petulant. 'Pros and cons of survival after death are so confusing I prefer not to think about them,' he says as if he's reading the back of a cereal packet.

Even the guests get in on the action. 'No, this is the first time! I never murdered them before!' cries Maxie, the powder puff salesman, played by 'Slapsie Maxie' Rosenbloom, playing a role that Nat Pendleton would have fit perfectly. 'Will it fix my brains so's I can do 'rithmetic like the kids do?' he asks when volunteered for a turn in the professor's superman cabinet. There are films that you enjoy, there are films are that joys to behold and there are films that you want to transcribe the script and publish on the net for the benefit of all and sundry. This is one of the latter.

I only wish I had a copy of 1967's The Comedy of Terrors to follow up with, which didn't just reunite Lorre and Karloff, but added Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone to boot and was a real gem, written by Richard Matheson and directed by Jacques Tourneur. Lorre and Karloff surprisingly only made comedies when they teamed up, another notable one being 1940's You'll Find Out, which also featured Bela Lugosi, but that's not up to this level. Alternatively this would run well as a double bill with Sh! The Octopus!, made five years earlier, which may only have run as far up the star list as Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins but which, like this, is a peach of a guilty pleasure.

Psychomania (1973)

Director: Don Sharp
Stars: George Sanders, Beryl Reed and Nicky Henson
Last films are always interesting things, especially when they're the last films of long established and well loved stars. Ghost Story and The Whales of August reach out at me for that precise reason and I'm sure they're going to be fascinating. This one has a unique place in the realm of the last film though, as not only is it the last film of an established star it's the last film of an established star who promptly committed suicide afterwards with a note that began, 'Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.' What's more it's a film centred around the attempts to come back from the dead. No, I'm not suggesting anything in the slightest but such a suggestion wouldn't be out of place as the script for a film that he could have starred in. He's George Sanders, known to many film fans as the driest, slyest, most deliciously villainous actor the cinema has ever seen. As of this film we'd sadly see him no more.

Psychomania, a title which has precisely nothing to do with the film in the slightest, begins as it means to go on: at a fog enshrouded stone circle called the Seven Witches, where a gang of bikers called The Living Dead weave in slow motion in and out of the stones which legend has it are actually petrified witches. There's psychedelic guitar music on the soundtrack to accompany them while they run through their formation steps and bike jumps and head off to do whatever it is that delinquent bikers do, these scary folks called Chopped Meat, Hatchet and Gash.

At least that's what we expect. These are hardly the usual Hell's Angels though, none of them look remotely like Danny Trejo and there's no raping and pillaging going on at all. This bunch wear matching face masks and have their nicknames painted on their leather jackets in fancy colours, not just the ones I mentioned but others like Bertram, Hinky and Jane. How scary can you be when you're called Hinky? Anyway when these juvenile monsters aren't helping their mothers with their shopping, they're knocking it out of other people's hands by riding really close to them in pedestrian shopping areas. Those wacky kids!

They're led by Tom Latham and his girlfriend Abby, who apparently hasn't even graduated to leather yet, instead wearing a fake denim jacket with her name painted on it in bright yellow letters, for all the world like she's a fourteen year old girl. Latham, played by Nicky Henson who was married to Una Stubbs at the time, has a Jim Morrison thing going on, talking about death all the time like it's a poetic journey and he's more than a little obsessed with committing suicide and coming back from the other side. 'Everybody dies, but some come back, don't they?' he asks wistfully while he gives up necking with his girlfriend to play with a toad.

He's in the right family at least, because his father apparently tried it and failed, and his mother, in the able form of Beryl Reid, is involved in some way with magic and the supernatural. The end credits call her a spiritualist but that doesn't seem to ring too true. It's not important in the grand scheme of things whether she's a Satanist or a pagan or merely someone who has made a deal with the devil, as what's important is that she knows things. George Sanders knows things too, as her butler called Shadwell who may just be something else too given how much we see done by a man with a ring with a toad on it, just like his. Tom knows that they know, so refuses to behave until his mother gives him the secret, the key to the locked room, a room that could destroy him.

What he finds in it is the will to go through with what he's been talking about all along: to die by his own hand and then come back, after conveniently waiting long enough for his gang to bury him in his leathers and on his bike, at the Seven Witches. They even thread little rings of flowers to throw into his grave because they're tough and manly, and Shadwell drops in a toad amulet. Sure enough he soon rides right out of his grave because they even left his bike with enough petrol to get him by in the afterlife, and persuades them all to join him by leaping out of tower block windows, off motorway bridges, out of aeroplanes without working parachutes, even leaping into rivers while weighed down with heavy chains but no clothes except a pair of swimming trunks. Thus they can bring new meaning to the name of their gang and carry on their important work bringing down the establishment by riding through supermarkets.

I'm not sure what this film was trying to tell us. You can come back from beyond the grave simply by killing yourself and at the moment of death wanting to return. You'll be immortal, impervious to pain and damage and able to do whatever you like. However this is bad, obviously, unlike making deals with the devil which is apparently perfectly fine and above board. Bikers are bad too but supermarkets are good, however easy they are to wreck. Supermarkets are our friends. Never mind all those murders, those delinquents ought to be strung up for what they do to our supermarkets! Yes, this all sounds inane but you watch it and tell me what it's about. Are writers Julian Zimet and Arnaud d'Usseau reading this? Let me know, folks...

However much this is really nonsense it's actually quite a fun and quirky piece of nonsense. Technically it's far better than I expected from a presumably low budget 1973 English horror movie. The stuntwork is excellent, especially on the road where the chases and other biking shenigans are done at obviously high speed and with notable suspense. The actors play pretty good corpses too and there's lots of attention paid to things that most films ignore, like how many bullets there are in a gun and that bikes need to be fuelled up and payphones need coins, whether the people using them are dead or not. The acting is precisely what you'd expect: capable, well spoken and solid, without anyone really standing out for extra attention, not even Robert Hardy as the chief inspector. Many of the minor characters are recognisable faces from English television.

I wonder what George Sanders thought of it. He finished the film but committed suicide long before it was released. He'd had a good run, the other end of his career being as far back as 1934 when he had an uncredited role in a Gracie Fields movie called Love, Life and Laughter. He soon established himself, becoming a rascal of a villain in a whole slew of movies throughout the thirties and eventually a rascal of a hero in many detective films, not just as Simon Templar, the Saint, but also as Gay Lawrence, the Falcon, before handing over to his real life brother, Tom Conway.

Wartime meant more villainous roles as sinister Germans, but there were some really good parts waiting in the wings for a patient man, not least personal favourites like Hangover Square and The Picture of Dorian Gray, both in 1945 and Village of the Damned in 1960. In between came many films including one that brought him his Academy Award: All About Eve, which I really need to get round to. Eventually his career would bring him to one of the most definitive sinister roles ever filmed, that of Shere Khan in Disney's The Jungle Book. Every word that came out of that animated tiger's mouth dripped with the dry villainy of George Sanders and that casting choice surely must have been one of the key reasons for the film's success. It was his last great role before his death, this was merely his last role.

The Gay Divorcee (1935)

Director: Mark Sandrich
Stars: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Alice Brady and Edward Everett Horton
After the success of Flying Down to Rio, the first film to pair Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (and yes, it was that way round, for the only time in their careers), it was inevitable that they'd be paired again in the future, even though after a long professional partnership with his sister Adele Astaire really didn't want to get into another one. 'I've just managed to live down one partnership and I don't want to be bothered with any more,' he's reported to have written to his agent. Sure enough, eight of his nine next films were with Rogers, though she made many more without him in between, always being far more prolific.

Beyond Astaire and Rogers and an actual plot, this one also has a number of added benefits, not least the presence of a surreal song and dance number between Betty Grable, one of the most popular pin up girls of the era, and the greatest ditherer of the thirties, Edward Everett Horton. That's something I never thought I'd ever see and I'm still a little in shock at seeing it this time. 'I was just dancing,' says Horton. 'Is that what it was?' replies Astaire. There's also the genial Eric Blore, the outrageous Erik Rhodes and a bizarre opening number where the singers are a bevy of lovely ladies but the dancers are finger puppet dolls that they send through their manoeuvres in front of black cloth.

Astaire is Guy Holden, a famous American entertainer on holiday in France and England, and he knew the role well having played it on Broadway under its original title of Gay Divorce. In fact the earliest known extant footage of Astaire is him dancing in Gay Divorce with Dorothy Stone in New York in 1933. Apparently the American censors required the name change to the film but the British censors didn't, preferring to keep the original title intact on screen, which probably causes a lot of confusion when it's shown on TV nowadays. We get to see nothing of Holden's actual career, except an impromptu dance in a Paris restaurant to prove who he is, given that he's forgotten his wallet. He spends most of the film pining for a young lady he met at English customs and managed to embarrass in the process, ripping her dress in an effort to help her out of a predicament.

She's Ginger Rogers, of course, playing Mimi Glossop. Actually she's Mrs Mimi Glossop, as she's the gay divorcee of the title, or at least is planning to be. Her husband is a geologist, who she hasn't seen in years and so wants to divorce. Her aunt Hortense, played to incorrigible abandon by Alice Brady, knows a lawyer, Egbert 'Pinky' Fitzgerald, someone who managed to escape her matrimonial clutches some years before. As she says to her niece, 'I wonder why he preferred to hunt elephants instead of marrying me.' He's played by Edward Everett Horton and he's who Guy Holden had been to Paris with and who he's staying in London with. Chance is the fool's name for fate, indeed.

Fitzgerald is perhaps unwisely left in charge of the firm by his father while he's on holiday himself to Scotland, though he is given the instruction to do precisely nothing. He ignores that, of course, because no Edward Everett Horton character in the history of the movies ever had good judgement, and so in one stroke sets up a co-respondent for Mrs Glossop at the Hotel Bella Vista and we viewers up with a situation comedy. The way it unfolds is hardly surprising but it's pretty well constructed as a story, certainly with a lot more effort than went into a few subsequent Astaire and Rogers movies. Check out Follow the Fleet for example.

This apparently doesn't bear a lot of resemblance to the original Broadway production. Only a couple of the actors reprise their roles from the stage, the other being Erik Rhodes who is outrageously definitive as Rodolfo Tonetti, an Italian tenor and professional co-respondent that Fitzgerald hires to be discovered with Mrs Glossop. Only one of the songs here was sourced from the stage production, Cole Porter's Night and Day. Everything else, from the big production number, The Continental, to that Grable/Horton routine, Let's K-nock K-neez, were new in this film, though Grable's jumpsuit wasn't. It's the one that Dolores del Rio wore a year earlier in Flying Down to Rio, the first of the ten Astaire/Rogers pairings.

Incidentally The Continental became the first winner of an Academy Award for Best Original Song, possibly the Oscar with the least actual substance of them all, given that it descended into a question of which soporific song from a Disney cartoon was most cringe inducing in any particular year. This one's pretty good, certainly compared to its successors down the years, and it accompanies a record breaking 17 minute plus production number that isn't bad at all. It isn't up to Busby Berkeley standards and Lillian Miles appears out of nowhere to murder a verse of it, but I'd still rather watch this than Gene Kelly's ballet at the end of An American in Paris that ran over 18 minutes thus breaking the record set here.

Sometimes records aren't enough to make a film. An American in Paris won six Oscars including one for Best Picture, but I found it boring and overblown, not even worthy of mention in the same breath as another Gene Kelly movie from a year later, Singin' in the Rain. This one only won for The Continental, but I'd still watch it over An American in Paris any day, even though it doesn't have Leslie Caron and Nina Foch, it isn't in colour and it isn't even the best of the films that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together. I've now seen nine of the ten, with only The Barkleys of Broadway currently eluding me, and I'd put at least Top Hat, Swing Time and Carefree over this one, with a couple of others close. There's just something about that chemistry that makes fluff like this so enjoyable, even to someone like me who really doesn't care for all that singing and dancing. That says something, right?

Friday, 27 November 2009

To Catch a Thief (1955)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Cary Grant and Grace Kelly
TCM's star of the month for November 2009 is Grace Kelly, in celebration of what would have been her 80th birthday on 12th November.
If you're going to make a Technicolor bauble, a description Alfred Hitchcock used to describe at least one of his own films, it can hardly hurt to set it somewhere like Cannes. The French Riviera, or more accurately its large collection of rich ladies with expensive jewellery, is being assailed by a cat burglar. The modus operandi used is entirely recognisable, because it's that of a renowned local thief, John Robie, more commonly known simply as the Cat. He's played delightfully by Cary Grant, with a very light touch indeed, an approach that we're let in on early with one of the best of Hitchcock's many cameos. Grant been persuaded out of retirement to take the part, which proved one of the most successful of his career and so thankfully ensured much more of it.

Robie is still in the area but he's long retired, having given up his life as a professional thief during the war. He and his colleagues had been locked up but inadvertently freed by German bombs, at which point they promptly signed up in the Resistance and became heroes. Six years of effort got them proper paroles and they're all living clean under a permanent eye of suspicion, which suspicion prompts much of our story. As the most successful and distinctive cat burglar in the business as well as a prominent local character, Robie is suspect one on a list of one and so as the title suggests, the only way he can prove his innocence is to catch the new Cat himself. Strangely the London insurance agency that is losing plenty of payout money through these thefts has precisely the same idea.

I remember not being as impressed with To Catch a Thief as I'd expected, the first time I saw it, not because it's a bad film but because it's surrounded in Hitchcock's filmography by some of the greatest movies of his career, which this isn't. The decade from 1951-1960 includes some of the greatest thrillers of all time, from Strangers on a Train to Psycho via Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and Vertigo, all made by Hitch. In anyone else's career this would be a good film, but in this company it's a letdown. Watching again after five years I did find it a little better than I remembered but not by much. The film is hindered by the same inconsistent rear projection shots that plague most classic Hitchcock movies, switching from real shots of the leads on location to studio work backed by rear projection shots of the very same places, but the story drags a little in places which is certainly uncharacteristic of Hitch. It's still more believable than North By Northwest though.
Most apparent to me this time round is just how good Grace Kelly is as Frances Stevens, the daughter of a wealthy woman who sets herself up as a target by refusing to keep her highly valuable jewellery in the hotel safe. In 2004 I'd seen a couple of her films but now I've seen all but one, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, which is sitting on my DVR ready to go. She had a versatile career wrapped up in a mere eleven films, more than a quarter of that number taken up by a triptych of Hitchcock movies. This is the least of the three but it's blessed by a gem of a performance from Kelly, pun very much intended. She's utterly alive here, especially when full of herself at working out that Conrad Burns, Oregon lumber tycoon, is really John Robie, undercover jewel thief.

She's as right for her role as Grant was for his, even though there was a serious difference in their ages: had Grant been only a single year older he would have been double her age. He was 51 but playing 35. She was a mere 26. What makes the sparkling romance scenes between them work so well is that she always carried herself perfectly, having the innocence of 26 but the presence of 40. There's no hint of the subtle creepiness that so often pervaded classic romance films where the male lead was wildly older than his screen love interest. Kelly's poise also prompted her to be cast in roles that shower her films with inadvertent ironies, given who she'd soon become: Princess Grace of Monaco. When Frannie and John visit a villa for rent she points out that it's something for royalty not common people like herself. She even gets an irony in for Cary Grant: when she rumbles his identity, she explains that he's just not American enough to carry it off.

The leads are ably supported here, most obviously by Jessie Royce Landis as Jessie Stevens, Frannie's mother. Landis was a perennial scene stealer who obviously hit it off with the stars of this film. A year later she'd follow up with a second role as Grace Kelly's mother, this time in The Swan. Three years after that she'd play Cary Grant's mother in Hitchcock's North By Northwest. As Jessie Stevens she's precisely the sort of no-nonsense wealthy woman who shuns convention that is such a joy to watch on screen and would be such a glorious person to know in real life. John Williams is enjoyable as the very English insurance agent, H H Hughson, but he was far better the year earlier arresting Kelly in Dial M for Murder. French actress Brigitte Auber is superb as the daughter of one of the Cat's old accomplices, but Charles Vanel is less successful as her boss, the restauranteur Bertani, already in his fifth decade as an actor with three more still to come.

Really what shines here is the tone. It's a lighter and much more playful piece than many of Hitch's films of the era, a period when he played around with such approaches. He got intricate and involved with his thrillers but lightened up here and let loose entirely for The Trouble With Harry. He got as personal as he ever got with Vertigo. He switched back to black and white for The Wrong Man and Psycho but revelled in colour for Vertigo and North By Northwest. He was almost stagebound for Dial M for Murder and famously restricted his set for Rear Window, but bathed this film in the countryside of the French Riviera and found his way back to iconic landmarks in North By Northwest. What's so amazing about Hitch is that even with all these differences, these films all shine very brightly indeed. What must it have been like to be a moviegoer in the fifties watching these as they came out? The anticipation must have been palpable after every film, because if he's just pulled off yet another classic, what's he's going to do next? Without IMDb the magazines must have sold plenty.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (1933)

Director: Lewis Milestone
Star: Al Jolson
Jovial Frank Morgan often got to play figures of authority, as any glimpse into his thirties career attests: not just wizards (and there's a 'no place like home, no place like home' line here to presage that role he wouldn't play for another six years yet), but kings, colonels, lords, professors, majors and governors. Here he began that trend with a slot as the Mayor of New York City, though we find him first in Florida hamming it up for the camera by shooting a migrating goose and wearing an Indian headdress. The goose lands at the feet of a different mayor though, one he knows well. He's the unofficial Mayor of Central Park, a bum called Bumper, who's also on vacation with his friend Acorn. Bumper is a jolly sort, as you might expect given that he's played by Al Jolson, who doesn't wear blackface here for a change, settling instead for a real black actor, Edgar Connor, to play his sidekick.

You'd expect an Al Jolson movie to be a musical and it is, sort of. There are a couple of actual songs but most of the story is told in something that's less of a song and more of a chanted poem, with words and lines bouncing around between many voices, speaking, shouting, rapping, and on odd occasions even actually singing. It's an interesting experiment but on a single viewing I'm not sure if it actually works or not, even though it's written by people as talented as Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, who both have cameos in the film too. However much I'm happy to hear songs sung in a style other than classic musical, these often come off as a bizarre and very carefully paced precursor to rap, far more interesting than actually enjoyable. It's a little annoying to begin with but becomes routine as the film goes on, that annoyance happily being lost.

The writing is variable but often clever and happily a little risque. When Bumper gets back to Central Park and his fellow bums ask what he's been up to, he suggests that it's just the usual stuff: 'panhandling, manhandling, inebriation... and repopulation', in chant of course. This crowd are a cosmopolitan bunch, not remotely like the bums we see today, given that they're reasonably clean, sober and well behaved. They seem able to flit in and out of society as they see fit, which they merely don't too often. They're more like those who live up to what are more usually just euphemisms: gentlemen of the road or gentlemen of leisure. Given that the film was set during the Great Depression, I'm sure the real homeless folks of Central Park weren't quite so enthusiastically happy with their lot as their highly romanticised equivalents here.

Jolson is infectious as Bumper even though he wears a perpetual grin that makes him look more than a little simple. In other circumstances it would seem a little more sinister, but worth putting up with just to see him out of blackface. It's merely a shame he didn't do so more often, not because of any political take on what the concept meant (his work did much to help black music and musicians, for a start) but because of the change in style that came with it. Jolson was a huge name at this time, the highest paid entertainer of the decade, though he's mostly remembered today for those five famous words, 'You ain't heard nothing yet!' at the very end of The Jazz Singer. As this performance proves, he was more than able to act without a mask of black paint.

He gets two stories to play with here, the obvious one tying to a young lady named June Marcher. She's the mayor's girl but he's foolish enough not to trust her and so inevitably loses her. In particular, he doesn't believe her when she loses her purse, which contains a thousand dollar bill he'd just given her, so she heads off into the park to jump off the bridge into the river. Naturally it's Bumper who saves her from this suicide attempt and he falls in love with her too, a love that she happily returns given that she's suffering from amnesia. Of course you know that that's not going to last forever as she's hardly going to remain his lovely Angel for long, but it's played out well for all that the idea is almost entirely transparent.

The other is the one that has real value, though it's easily debatable as to what that value is. Ben Hecht, the first winner of a writing Oscar for 1927's Underworld, conjured up a politically charged story that is as pervasive as it is vague. The whole thing compares the happy go lucky lifestyle of the poor bums in Central Park with the troubles of the rich. The Mayor of New York, John Hastings, is the epitome of wealth and power, giving away a thousand bill note not once but twice, as if money means nothing. Yet he's an unhappy man, bored with all the official functions he has to work and unable to trust the one woman he loves. On the other hand, the Mayor of Central Park, and his cohorts thrive on the freedom brought through having no money. After Bumper gets a job to support his Angel, they even stage a kangaroo court as if getting employment is a crime against humanity.

There's only one bum who works, Egghead by name, though he does so on a voluntary basis cleaning up litter from the park. He's played by Harry Langdon, looking every inch of the silent era comedian he was, unlike Chester Conklin whose heyday may have been in the Keystone Kops but he looks entirely with the times as one of the Central Park horse drawn taxi drivers. Egghead is seen as the exception to the rule, the closest thing the bums have to a pariah in their midst. He wants to work so he's treated as if he's insane, the very verdict the kangaroo court finds Bumper guilty of. And sure enough the only time Bumper finds a reason to venture back into the real world, he comes back depressed and damaged. It's nothing he did, it's merely inevitability that he tried to battle.

I can't imagine what life in the Great Depression must have been like, as people leapt out of buildings rather than face poverty, turned into the wild boys of the road to relieve their families of the expense of their presence or spent every waking moment in lines waiting for handouts or the mere possibility of work. It wasn't a happy time for anyone, but the tone here is utterly different, very much one of freedom and opportunity. In Hallelujah, I'm a Bum, the Great Depression was a wake up call to the people of the US that money isn't worth anything compared to the sky and the birds. Nowadays it's an interesting take on things but in 1933 it could easily have been rather offensive.

Violent Saturday (1955)

Director: Richard Fleischer
Stars: Victor Mature, Richard Egan and Stephen McNally
The Bank of Bradenville is right in the middle of town so we get plenty of opportunity to see it as three would be thieves turn up and start casing the joint. They're important folks too, like J Carrol Naish and Lee Marvin, and they're led by Stephen McNally playing a character called Harper. They do their homework carefully and well, studying not just the bank itself, its employees, its safe and its routine, but also the local geography, finding a potential safe haven at an Amish farm run by Ernest Borgnine, the year he won his Oscar for Marty. Yes, the film's worth watching just for that, along with the revelation that Amish farmers in blindfolds look like ninjas. The crooks watch the townsfolk too, with open eyes and ears, which is how we get to know their stories and discover that they're a pretty unhappy lot across the board.

Boyd Fairchild, the owner of the Fairchild copper mine, is rich and powerful but he gets continually led on a merry chase by his unfaithful wife, so he finds solace in drink, very believably so. Town librarian Elsie Braden is short of money and succumbs to petty theft to avoid having her wages garnished. Nervous bank manager Harry Reeves can't stop watching a shapely nurse called Linda Sherman, even though he's married, and he goes as far as becoming a peeping tom. Mine superintendent Shelley Martin is the happiest of the bunch because he has only lost his kid's hero worship, after little Bobby realises he only got a certificate of merit for working the mine during the war while his best friend's dad got a medal at Iwo Jima.

So we watch their lives play out and intertwine and unfold in a sort of soap opera style, slowly and surely but with plenty of emotional pull, too much of a deluge to be simple drama. It's like each of them has their own hour and a half film that got cut down to the basics and turned into a subplot to the real story here, which is the bank job of course. Fortunately the people playing these parts are strong enough to keep us at least vaguely interested in their lives while we wait for the action that such a blatant title suggests is imminent. After all, how important can all this detail be in the grand scheme of things? I comment so often about how films could be enhanced by a little more attention to detail, a little more effort to provide believable backgrounds. Here it's taken perhaps a step too far.
For all the detailed background we get on the people of Bradenfield, we find out next to nothing about the bank robbers. That leaves us watching the actors more than the characters because there's not much character there. J Carrol Naish is the mean one, hardly surprising given his solid background in genre flicks, especially during the forties. Stephen McNally is the planner, fading a little into the background, especially when he's around Lee Marvin, who as he tended to do, never stops moving. From the moment he arrives on the train, full of allergies and fidgets, he's in motion and even though he's a little more subdued here than I'm used to seeing him, that doesn't mean he's even remotely still. I don't think I've ever seen anyone move quite as much as Marvin. He's like the precise opposite of Myrna Loy in every possible way you can imagine.

We watch the actors playing the Bradenville townspeople too rather than their characters because we don't believe that all that inside knowledge we're let in on is going to matter, though we're mostly wrong on that front. Fairchild is Richard Egan, who also made another Arizona heist movie, 1971's The Day of the Wolves. Braden is the joyously acerbic Sylvia Sidney, well after her heyday in thirties films like Fury, Sabotage and Dead End, but long before I first saw her in Tim Burton films like Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks! Top billed is Victor Mature as Shelley Martin, looking as ever just like a walking, talking action figure. He lives up to that description too given that he climbs down ladders with his hands tied and crawls under burning cars to get a decent shot at the bad guys, but I was more engrossed watching our peeping tom of a bank manager peep at the lovely Miss Sherman. He's played by Tommy Noonan, riding high after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and A Star is Born and he's a peach of an obsessive character, utterly lost to his sickness.

What's most surprising here is how little violence we get on this particular violent Saturday. That's not to say there isn't action and there's a good deal of suspense, but this is no action movie for all that Victor Mature could have followed this up with a 1956 version of True Lies. It's a character driven drama, set around a bank heist that takes everything we discover about these people and shakes it all up, even down to the Amish folks. By this time we know the characters well enough to know what would happen if there were a next episode to this soap opera. It's all written with as much care and attention as went into the heist we watch and it came off a little better in the end, aided by dependable performances and some appropriate use of the 2.55:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio to show us depth to the scenes, whether they be a crowd of kids surrounding a fight, perspective shots of the Fairchild copper mine or a train hurtling towards us under the smoke trailing out from a factory chimney. If only there had been a little more violence.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The Black Room (1935)

Director: R William Neill
Stars: Boris Karloff, Marian Marsh and Robert Allen
In honour of the Boris Karloff blogathon which will celebrate across the blogosphere what would have been Karloff the Uncanny's 122nd birthday.
What better way to start a set of movies for the Boris Karloff Blogathon than with one that stars both Boris Karloff and Boris Karloff? That's right, he's playing twins and as you might expect one is good and the other is evil. The elder is the evil one, who grows up to become the wild, despotic and fearful Baron Gregor de Berghman, who is far from loved by his people. His younger sibling, born only a single minute later, is Anton, and he's saddled with a paralysed right arm. Their father, the elder Baron, is far from happy that he has twin boys because of an old prophecy: the family motto is 'I end as I began' and it began with murder, a younger brother murdering his older twin in the Black Room.

We leap through the years until Anton returns to the family castle after ten years away in Budapest. He had left because he was beginning to believe the prophecy through sheer familiarity with it, beginning to see the fear in his brother's face. Now he's back and he finds that not much has changed on that front but plenty has changed on another. The peasants are in turmoil, not just because of the Baron's heavy thumb but because the young ladies of the countryside have been mysteriously disappearing for some time. Guess which room, which has been bricked up since the twins were born, has a secret entrance that only the Baron knows about? Well, at least until a local gypsy woman sees him carrying in bodies, of course...

Karloff is excellent here, highlighting admirably the differences in the two brothers. As Gregor he has tousled hair and wild features, leering but calculating, and he sprawls joyously in his solid wooden chair with the utmost contempt for everyone and everything. As Anton, he's something of a dandy, who watches Thea Hassel play the harp from across the room through an eyeglass. He's charming, decent and impeccably behaved but he's also handy with a sword, even with a paralysed right arm to put him at an instant disadvantage. Even the voices are subtly different in tone and depth. It's great work from the great man at the peak of his game, conjuring attention with the unfolding of a fist or a subtle movement of the eyes.

Karloff would have dominated this cast had he only had one role but with two it's hard to even notice anyone else. Marian Marsh is decent as Thea Hassel, the delightful daughter of a local colonel, but in a 70 minute movie you won't be too surprised to find she doesn't get too much to do. She certainly deserved more as any glimpse at her work in the precode era would testify, from Svengali and The Mad Genius to Five Star Final and Beauty and the Boss. Robert Allen, who plays Thea's real love interest here, was best known as a cowboy actor so as you can imagine he's a little out of place here but he's not bad. The massively experienced Thurston Hall is fine as Col Hassel, Thea's father.

This is a wonderful film in most ways, certainly an underrated gem from the golden age of Hollywood horror, though it was made for Columbia Pictures not the expected Universal. Like so many horror films of this era, the story is set in historic eastern Europe, thus prompting plenty of stone and wood and age. I've seen some of these sets before, like the inn with its sign of the black cat, but they're always worth seeing again because they're iconic. The camerawork is excellent, not least because of the clever way in which Karloff gets to interact with himself, and the costumes and music are solid too. Of course we get odd little macabre touches here and there of ravens and graveyards and pits of horror. You know the routine.

The only real downside is that the story, while it unfolds precisely as it should, is hardly difficult to see through. We know what the villain's plans are even before they're telegraphed. We can see where they're going to be dashed before that happens. We can work out his downfall before it arrives. We can even see how his fate is going to unfold and what the instruments of it will be. None of it is remotely surprising and I don't believe that's just because I've watched so many classic horror films from this era. It was written for the screen by Henry Myers and Arthur Strawn, from Strawn's story, two versatile writers who delivered screenplays for whatever genre was needed at the time. Perhaps a more focused writer could have tightened it up and obscured some of the more obvious progressions of plot, but I'm not sure that with this story that would have been possible.

Even with the obvious story removing most hope for suspense, director Roy William Neill does everything he can to provide us with a great movie and he succeeds for the most part. He had been making movies since 1917 and would end his career in the forties as the man behind many of the Rathbone era Sherlock Holmes films. Within this genre he had made the capable voodoo yarn Black Moon a year earlier with Fay Wray and Jack Holt, and would later provide his contribution to the classic Universal canon with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, pitting Bela Lugosi against Lon Chaney Jr. He's no genius director but he was competent, consistent and reliable and you're not going to regret finding one of his films. This would be far from a bad start, even without Karloff, but the double presence of the master makes it something of a gem.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Mummy's Boys (1936)

Director: Fred Guiol
Stars: Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey
Those in the know seem to regard Mummy's Boys as one of the worst Wheeler and Woolsey comedies. Some, like Edward Watz, who wrote a book on this pioneering double act called Wheeler & Woolsey: The Vaudeville Comic Duo and Their Films 1929-1937, called it the very worst of them all, describing it as 'an embarrassment from shaky start to forced finish.' I'm only about a third of the way through their 23 films together but this is certainly the least of them thus far, even though their films were notoriously inconsistent and usually full of as many bad jokes as good ones. I wouldn't recommend Cracked Nuts or Kentucky Kernels either but they're certainly better than this.

It's an Egyptian curse movie as we soon find out when Egyptologist Col Robert Stilwell dies and the papers proudly proclaim that the curse of King Pharatime's tomb has claimed its ninth victim. The tenth dies while expounding on how preposterous the whole idea of a curse is and that leaves three, because the men who explored this tomb laughed so much at superstition that there were thirteen of them. The three remaining are Moroni Olsen as Dr Edward Sterling; Phillip Browning, played by Frank M Thomas, who comes off as a lesser version of Jack Holt; and his lovely daughter Mary, played by Barbara Pepper because Dorothy Lee's last film with Wheeler & Woolsey was Silly Billies earlier the same year.

In the face of such numbers, Browning decides to return all the treasures he took from King Pharatime's tomb and puts an ad in the paper to hire scientific excavators to work with him to do so. Enter our intrepid heroes, this time called Aloysius C Whittaker and Stanley Wright, and they're ditch diggers so naturally answer the ad, wearing tablecloths on their head to pretend they're Egyptian. Needless to say they're comedic idiots but we get the added treat that Wright has a terrible memory. Well, that's not much of a treat, because it's merely an excuse for him to need help to remember what he forgot to remember. That those lines are the best in the film, right up there with five minutes of people managing not to say 'as the crow flies', is really not much of a compliment.

Much of this one would have been bad as a children's school play, which it often seems to be. There's not a single risque Wheeler and Woolsey gem to be found, the script descending to the depths of throwing pots at people and shouting 'come out, come out, wherever you are'. The chase scenes are straight out of Scooby Doo with the villain of the piece unable to catch the heroes in an enclosed room because hey, there are pots to run around and butts to paddle. In case you thought it couldn't get any lower, there's even Sleep 'n Eat himself, Willie Best, to make jokes about. Of course nobody would see him in the dark! Yep, that's the level we're working at here.

The script is the worst thing by far, though it has competition in the sets and the jokes. Amazingly there are no less than four people with their names out there as writers: Jack Townley and Lew Lipton wrote the story, which was turned into a screenplay by Townley, Philip Epstein and Charles Roberts. There isn't enough material here to warrant one name let alone four, especially as they're names with pedigrees going as far back as the silent era and with many more credits to come. Surely they could have turned out something better than this, especially as one of them, Philip Epstein, went on to some serious quality material, turning out screenplays for minor little movies like The Strawberry Blonde, Casablanca and Arsenic and Old Lace. I bet he tried to pretend this one didn't exist.

It's directed by Fred Guiol who had also made The Rainmakers and Silly Billies with Wheeler and Woolsey in 1936, apparently a pretty poor time in their careers, perhaps unable to find good material that they could get past the production code. The direction is poor but not awful, the script outdoing it by far, but it's hard to come up with compliments here. You can tell a film is bad when even Willie Best spends most of it hovering around doing nothing and not even being funny in the process. I'm still not convinced that man ever got a worthy part to play in his entire career but he could be funny sitting down and funny standing up and funny doing anything in between. Here he's given precisely nothing to do except make a few facial expressions, shriek a couple of times and show us his spindly legs. It's a shame that he didn't get more in any of his movies but this is worse than usual even for him.

The Great O'Malley (1937)

Director: William Dieterle
Stars: Pat O'Brien, Sybil Jason, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan and Frieda Inescort
Back in the days when Humphrey Bogart was the perennial supporting actor at Warner Brothers he got into trouble at the hands of every leading man at the studio. Here he's up against Pat O'Brien, a beat cop called James Aloysius O'Malley who's better known to the eager press as 'the blue eyed terror of the 7th precinct'. The press love him because he's the epitome of the overzealous cop, literally reading the book of city ordnances and happily discovering new ones he hadn't seen before. His fellow cops, as well as his superior officer, Capt Cromwell, don't love him quite so much because he's giving the force a bad name, dishing out to the folks in his community tickets for everything under the sun. He even gets upset with his mother for throwing crumbs out to the sparrows because it violates some ordnance about debris in the street.

Bogie is John Phillips, a man down on his luck. He's been out of work for a long while and he has a wife and crippled daughter to take care of, a daughter who only has a badly healed broken leg that he just can't afford to have reset, but he's finally landed a job after a long dry stretch. He's on the way to it when O'Malley stops him for a noisy muffler and makes him a couple of minutes late, late enough to cost him the job. Unable to admit this to his family and unwilling to claim relief as charity, he tries to pawn his war medals and gun. When he's only offered a fraction of what he needs and insulted to boot, he sees red, knocks the owner of the pawnshop silly, empties the cash register and runs, only to get stopped yet again by Officer O'Malley for that muffler.

He goes to jail, of course, to serve two to ten years in the state pen, but the papers play up the angle that officers like O'Malley are driving law abiding citizens to crime. In reaction to that, Capt Cromwell needs him somewhere else and unable to fire him because of his technically pristine record, he downgrades him instead to public school crossing guard, to do the bidding of Judy Nolan, one of the teachers. The aim is that it'll either make him or break him and it won't be too difficult for you to work out which comes to pass. I'm sure it won't be too much of a stretch either to guess that he's sent to the very school that little Babs Phillips attends, and sure enough we get some fireworks when mama finds out, even though he's just saved her daughter's life and after finding the house empty when he gets her home, coughs up some cash to order groceries for the family.

The Great O'Malley really epitomises the sort of programmers that Warner Brothers churned out in the thirties in vast numbers. It has never a dull or wasted moment but it does nothing particularly spectacular. It has a solid message, though one that's hammered home with a startling lack of subtlety. O'Malley is a blatant example to us, going from one extreme to the other, starting off as little more than a machine without a shred of humanity. As Nolan tells him, 'You're right. You're always right. That's what's wrong with you.' Of course he ends up as a hero nonetheless, as the title of the film suggested from moment one, by being dragged through the life lesson of the Phillips family. It tugs shamelessly at our heartstrings, because Sybil Jason is spot on in the cute and bubbly little crippled kid role. And of course its well acted, odd kids who only just manage to get out their lines aside.

Pat O'Brien was such a good actor that a role like this that is painted in precisely two colours, black and white, still comes off as meaning something. Nowadays such a role would be played by someone like Ben Stiller and it would become a cartoon. Even if you don't watch old movies you know what Bogart could do and he's fine here, with really the only acting job in the film. The best scenes by far are the ones with Bogie fresh out of jail and trying to avoid O'Malley, sweating every moment of it and overplaying more than a little to highlight that hey, it's possible to actually act in a film this obvious. Ann Sheridan and Frieda Inescort share the top billing but they're wasted as Judy Nolan and Mrs Phillips respectively. Warner Brothers had so many quality supporting actors that they could just pad the cast list with them, Donald Crisp turning in a fine turn as Capt Cromwell even though he could do such a thing in his sleep.

And that's both the positive and the negative side of films like The Great O'Malley. Warners were so solid at this point in time that they could churn out films as consistent as this in their sleep but so often it feels like that's precisely what they did.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Minus Man (1999)

Director: Hampton Fancher
Stars: Owen Wilson, Janeane Garofalo, Brian Cox, Mercedes Ruehl, Dwight Yoakam, Dennis Haysbert, Eric Mabius and Sheryl Crow
The Minus Man starts pretty quietly for a story about a cold blooded serial killer, taken from the novel by Lew McCreary. Instead of pounding nu metal we get some low key strumming and instead of some masked maniac we get some guy leisurely washing his pickup truck and when we see his unmistakable broken nose we can tell that it's Owen Wilson, hardly someone who leaps to mind when thinking about cold blooded serial killers. It's really interesting to watch him act because I don't think I've ever seen him do that before. Every other Owen Wilson movie I've seen, from Shanghai Noon to Zoolander to Night at the Museum has had him be either a caricature or an effect so I don't think I've ever seen him do anything still or quiet or pensive before.

We see a lot of that here, as the film stays quiet throughout. Wilson's character, Vann Siegert, drives around, watches, listens, thinks and becomes part of other people's stories, which is hardly difficult for him given Wilson's innate charm. What distinguishes him is that he also puts some of them out of their misery, but even the killing here is done quietly and subtly. Vann doesn't wield an axe or a machete or a chainsaw, his murder weapon is a sip of poisoned amaretto, the liqueur laced with some sort of poisonous forest spore. He doesn't even administer the lethal dose, merely makes it available to the victim who comes to him like a moth to a flame, or so he says.

The first is Sheryl Crow, playing a young lady called Laurie Bloom though she goes by Casper. He meets her in a bar where she's plastered without any ability to pay for it, she has asthma but she smokes and she even shoots up in his truck. A sip of amaretto and she doesn't have to deal with any of it any more. The second is a lot more surprising though. He's Gene Panich, a high school football player who seems to be ridden a little hard by his father and coach but really doesn't stand out in the slightest. There's no obvious reason for Vann to kill him, but he does so and he breaks a couple of his rules in the process: not to kill someone he knows and not to kill someone that lives in the same town.

It's this attempt to understand his reasoning that makes Vann Siegert such a fascinating character. In more conventional serial killer fims, the next victims are generally obvious: they fit a pattern that we're made privy to before even the cops chasing them. Here there is no discernible pattern and there are no cops on his trail, unless you count the two federal agents he dreams about. At one point the one played by Dwight Yoakam asks him why he chooses one particular victim and we still get more questions than answers. They're fascinating questions because Vann is a believable killer but he doesn't fit into any of the convenient categories we learn about on TV shows like CSI and Criminal Minds.

Owen Wilson is good here and he gives an excellent underplayed narration, but he's far from the best thing about the film, given that the couple he takes a room with are played by Mercedes Ruehl and Brian Cox. They're the Durwins and they're a happy couple, but one with issues to deal with: Vann takes the room previously occupied by their daughter who they initially say has left for college but has really left for parts unknown. They don't even know if she's alive. And yet, with each revelation about what the Durwins have to deal with and how they may not be dealing with it quite as well as it might appear, Vann doesn't add them to his list. Trying to work out why he doesn't is as fascinating as trying to work out why he does add others.

Brian Cox is magnificent, playing a complex character who builds throughout the film. I've known that he was an amazing actor for years, not least because of his awesome performance as Hannibal Lecktor in Manhunter. What I haven't noticed before but which leapt out at me here is what he does with his mouth. His amoral slack jaw in Manhunter still resonates at me but I realise here that this is a routine part of his repertoire and it isn't just how he smiles, it's also in how he holds his mouth open. It feels strange raising such things but even a non-actor like myself can't help but watch him in admiration and marvel at his technique. In comparison Wilson seems mostly stuck with the same toothy grin throughout the film. Wilson's character comes out more in his voice than his features, Cox's comes out in both.

Ruehl is good, as is Meg Foster in a very brief role that only serves to provide another example of someone Vann decides not to kill, making her a strange choice indeed to play the part. Janeane Garofalo has rightly been given much praise for her role as a far from conventional love interest for Vann. She is utterly believable as a small town girl who is drawn to our killer for other reasons that the one he tends to expect. He only seems to understand people when they're moths drawn to his flame because he shines, but she just likes him and so he has absolutely no idea what to do with her. There's a connection between the two but it veers between comfortable human interaction and strange dialogue that feels like two separate conversations mashed together.

The Minus Man's chief claim to fame apparently ties to its promotional material which highlights how the film should spark discussion and prompt conversation rather than show us what happens. One trailer sees a couple on a date leaving the film and talking all night about it, only for one, who is a lifeguard, to realise the time and rush off to work, finding a couple of bodies dead in a pool. 'Don't see it alone, unless you like talking to yourself,' runs the tagline. It is a very thoughtful movie but never in any heavy philosophical way. Really the slow pace, hypnotic soundtrack and strenuous lack of action washes over you like a soothing lullaby, which may well have been the intent. Any real discussion would have to come afterwards.

I have no idea how faithful the adaptation is but it was done by Hampton Fancher who also directed the film, so there's certainly a vision there of some sort. Yet my biggest question is in asking what he was trying to get us to ask? The question as to why Vann picks his victims really ends when the film ends because we're never given a hint to the answer and we gradually come to the realisation that one may not even exist. Obscurity is fine, but obscurity for obscurity's sake goes nowhere. It's likely that he wants to ask about the morality involved but without reasoning we can't discuss the moral motivations. In the end it merely plays like an enjoyable quirky story as engaging as its lead actor but which tries to be too clever for its own good. Fancher also co-wrote Blade Runner, which warrants all the discussion this one wanted to.

The Changeling (1980)

Director: Peter Medak
Stars: George C Scott and Trish Van Devere
Recently Martin Scorsese created for The Daily Beast a list of what he deemed the scariest eleven horror films of all time. I've seen eight of them and can't find fault with a single inclusion. This is one of the three I haven't seen and it's probably the most obscure title on the entire list. It's a Canadian ghost story set mostly in Seattle and made in 1980 by Peter Medak, a Hungarian ex-pat who works mostly in the UK. It's a powerful story, that builds slowly but surely and doesn't just concern itself with a ghost story but a political scandal to boot. It's cleverly written, sourced from a real case in Denver by Russell Hunter and adapted to the screen by William Gray and Diana Maddox. It also stars a real life married couple, George C Scott and Trish Van Devere.

Scott is a concert pianist and distinguished composer called John Russell, but more importantly he's a grieving husband and father: the opening scenes in upstate New York see his wife Joanna and daughter Kathy killed before his eyes in a tragic accident. He packs up and moves to Seattle, to teach at his old university, and he rents a vast old place called the Chessman House from the local historical preservation society. It's far too big for one man, though I'd buy it for a dollar any day, but there are presumably forces at work that chose him for the place. It seems to be the fresh start he needs: a spacious place to relax and compose and come to terms with his loss, as well as a series of lectures that are massively attended because of his presence.

But then this is a ghost story, so you can imagine what comes next. Piano keys depress when he leaves the room. There's half a minute of rhythmic pounding at precisely six o'clock every morning. Doors open on their own, just like our kitchen door used to do back in England. We used to blame Fred, our imaginary ghost, but Russell has to contend with the real thing. One day as he leaves the house, a window breaks out at him from high up in a garret, which leads him to a room that's been boarded up and blocked off from the rest of the house, something that all these phenomena seem to be pointing him towards. There he finds a music box whose tune matches precisely the piece he began composing the day he arrived. The notebook on the desk is dated 1909, written in a child's hand and there's a very small wheelchair there too.

Russell and Claire Norman, the historical society agent, investigate and quickly find that Cora Barnard, the seven year old daughter of Dr Barnard, who lived in the Chessman House at that time, was killed by a passing coal cart in 1909. The connections to Russell are obvious, though we are never told precisely how old Kathy Russell was, but they're also misleading. The real story is darker and more mysterious and we have 107 taut minutes for it to unfold and explain just why someone is trying to reach out from beyond the grave, what their purpose is and how far that purpose will stretch. Fortunately for us, it's a well written and well shot film, with many memorable moments, some of which are iconic and definitive.

Russell has kept little of his family's stuff, perhaps in an attempt at closure, but he's kept his daughter's ball as a keepsake. While it's safely locked in a desk it nonetheless comes bouncing down the stairs past his doorway for him to see. After he throws it into the river and returns home to find it bouncing down the stairs again towards him, still wet from the water, he calls in a medium called Leah Harmon. The ensuing seance, with Helen Burns as the medium, is one of the most gripping and believable such scenes I've ever seen, free of all the usual gimmickry you might expect. Another subtly powerful scene is when Russell outlines the strange phenomena he's been experiencing to Claire Norman at the historical society and one of her more experienced colleagues, Minnie Huxley walks out to explain that there's been a mistake, that the house should never have been rented, that nobody should live there, that nobody has been able to live there. Almost definitively, she says, 'The house doesn't want people.'

The cast is solid but low key. George C Scott looks a little battered and a little dishevelled, as indeed he probably should given that he's mourning the loss of his wife and child. He gives a strong performance, as does his wife Trish Van Devere as the historical society agent Claire Norman, though she's obviously not the acting talent her husband is. She only made thirteen movies, but five were with her husband. Helen Burns stands out among the supporting cast for her performance as Leah Harmon, the medium, stunning for its sheer matter-of-factness. John Colicos and Barry Morse have solid but very brief appearances, but the real supporting name to mention is Melvyn Douglas as Joseph Carmichael, a 36 year senator whose family owned the Chessman House and who are inextricably entwined in its story.

Douglas was unrecognisable to me as Carmichael. Admittedly I last saw him in 1932's The Old Dark House, almost a half century adrift from this one, but I've seen plenty of his other films too so have more than got used to his face. Perhaps it's because the most recent film I've seen him in prior to this one was 1948's Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, still over three decades before The Changeling. Strangely while I know him best from his heyday in the thirties and forties, his awards came later in his career, including two Oscars as a Best Supporting Actor and one nomination as Best Actor, the last of these being as late as Being There in 1979. He was never even nominated back in the golden age of Hollywood when he filled parts as memorable as the one in Ninotchka where he got to be the actor that made Greta Garbo laugh.

The Changeling connects to his real life in two ways worth commenting on: the character he plays and the subject matter used. Douglas never retired from the screen, continuing to make movies throughout his life, but he was greylisted during the anti-Communist hysteria of the fifties. In 1950 his wife, who had already been elected to Congress, ran for the Senate as a Democrat, but lost to Republican Richard Nixon who lived up to his Tricky Dick nickname by cleverly wielding the pinko card. Her husband, who had been politically active on the anti-Communist left for a couple of decades, was tarred by the same brush and so didn't act again for another eleven years until 1962's Billy Budd. The Changeling came during the three year stretch before his death in 1981, in which he made two films a year and his last film was another ghost story, one called simply Ghost Story from Peter Straub's novel, which was also the last film of Fred Astaire and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. I really need to find that one but I doubt it'll be as good as this.

Turistas (2006)

Director: John Stockwell
Stars: Josh Duhamel, Melissa George, Olivia Wilde, Desmond Askew, Beau Garrett, Max Brown, Agles Steib and Miguel Lunardi
A bunch of hot looking tourists are riding a Rapidao bus through gorgeous Brazilian countryside: a cosmopolitan bunch of Americans, Brits and Australians. Most of them are loving the experience that the apparently insane local driver is giving them, weaving round the country roads a little too quickly for comfort, especially when the local bikini clad girls reach up for luggage right in front of them. The only one who seems to be upset about it is Alex, an American guy who didn't even want to be there in the first place. He's sure that they're headed for destruction and so they are, the bus tumbling off a cliff with just enough time for the passengers to leap clear.

Fortunately Pru, an Australian girl travelling alone, speaks Portuguese so they find out a little of what's going on. They're faced with a ten hour wait for a replacement bus with fellow travellers who they've already upset by taking pictures of their kids. Apparently this is viewed with suspicion here because of the frequency of foreigners travelling to Brazil to acquire organs from such children for transplant back home. So they decide instead to head down to the beach where there's a bar. This is so close to their personal visions of paradise that they don't want to leave. They swim and frolic, drink and dance, meet up with a couple of Swedes who are just as gorgeous as they are. Life is not just good, it's become a tourist's dream, and the bus accident is soon forgotten.

They get so caught up in the excitement and we get so caught up in their excitement that we almost forget that we're watching a horror movie. It's all done well, but it's just a bunch of gorgeous kids having the time of their lives and we can't help but wonder why it's padded out so long. Well, we soon discover the reason for that: contrast. They're not just imbibing copious amounts of drinks, they're also imbibing copious amounts of whatever knockout drugs the bartender has slipped into those drinks. She seemed ever so friendly, but like the other ever so friendly local girl whose sexual favours turned out to require payment, she has her own ulterior motives.

By the time morning arrives, the tourists find themselves robbed of everything except the clothes on their backs. Even the rings on their fingers are gone, let alone their money and their passports. The Swedes have been carried away already, bound and hung from poles, only to escape and meet quick deaths. The rest traipse into town, which turns out to be a picture of poverty, the other notable contrast to the paradise of the night before. There they see some of their possessions, bikes outside houses, hats on children's heads, and they find Kiko too, a local who partied with them the night before and who is studying English. He's both their doom and their salvation though we have to wait quite some time to work out which.

There's very little opportunity to build character here, with Zamora, the master villain of the piece, really the only one given much depth. He has motivation and will and opportunity and he's someone who could easily be discussed and debated at length. Nobody else really gets much of a chance to show who they are, though Desmond Askew and Melissa George impress. They're merely Amy and Bea, a couple of American friends; Alex, Bea's brother who's only there to protect her; Finn and Liam, a couple of Brits who like girls, beaches and drinking; and Pru, an experienced traveller from down under. Even Kiko gets more opportunity than these to play with his motivations and actually progress as a character.

So much of this film becomes a wait, admittedly a tense one but a wait nonetheless to see where writer Michael Ross is taking these trusting tourists and us with them. There is a deep moral question at the heart of this film, wrapped up in the character of Zamora, who's played with chilling matter-of-factness by Brazilian actor Miguel Lunardi in his only English language film. Yet even this doesn't get much opportunity to flourish, so we're left pretty much entirely with the ride. Fortunately as rides go this has much to recommend it. It certainly doesn't feel like any American horror film I've ever seen and the only comparison I could come up with was with the French/Romanian film Them.

Both films feel authentic because they were filmed entirely on location in foreign countries, this time Brazil, and both show us gorgeous countryside and the results of extreme poverty. Both films are notably tense, Them coming out on top generally but Turistas benefitting from some wonderfully claustrophobic scenes, shot underwater in the caves at Chapada Diamantina in the Bahia province. Both films have simple yet believable storylines along with excellent and enticing cinematography, thus bizarrely turning their settings somewhere we both want to visit right now and yet don't ever want to go anywhere near. However neither film has much actual substance for us to want to revisit them, unless it's for their feel and tone. At least Them had a kicker of an ending.