Thursday 2 May 2024

I Bury the Living (1958)

Director: Albert Band
Writer: Louis Garfinkle
Stars: Richard Boone, Theodore Bikel and Peggy Maurer

Index: 2024 Centennials.

Robert Kraft is the new chairman of the Management Committee of the Immortal Hills cemetery in Milford so Andy McKee, who’s been its caretaker for as long as anyone can remember, shows him around. Bob Kraft is Richard Boone, well known on TV in 1958 for his role in Medic, which landed him a 1955 Emmy nomination, but was becoming a bigger star through roles in westerns like The Tall T, Ten Wanted Men and Man without a Star, along with a new TV show for 1957 called Have Gun – Will Travel, in which he played a gentleman wandering the West as a gun for hire to help people in need. McKee, an old Scot with a thick accent whose retirement is one of Kraft’s first priorities, is Theodore Bikel, then a thirty-four year old Austrian Jew. He was born in Vienna but moved to what was then Mandatory Palestine (now Israel), learning acting there and later in London, to which he moved at twenty-one to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He racked up many European nationalities in movies. A Scot was just one more.

The easiest way to see I Bury the Living is as an unassociated feature length episode of The Twilight Zone, so it doesn’t hurt that Boone bore a resemblance to Rod Serling. He had similar rugged good looks, a similarly serious attitude and, of course, a similar suit given that Bob is also the president of the Kraft department store. The Kraft family run the town of Milford and Bob’s Uncle George, who was chairman two years prior, explains to him how they maintain their level of prestige. Every man in the family “served on every community project, board and committee that was ever created. They served for free but they did it for business.” So, even though Bob is busy with the store, he’s now going to have to dedicate a few hours a week to the cemetery. Given that most of the feature is set at Immortal Hills and we never see the store, you can imagine how well that doesn’t go for him. There’s a reason for that and it is inherently tied to the big board on the far wall of the cemetery’s office that McKee talks him through on that first fateful visit.

Saturday 13 April 2024

Two for the Road (1967)

Director: Stanley Donen
Writer: Frederic Raphael
Stars: Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney

I had never heard of Two for the Road before plucking it out of Stanley Donen’s filmography for this project, but I’m very happy that I did. It’s technically a British film, but the funding came from a Hollywood studio—20th Century Fox—and it was primarily shot in France, so it’s an international picture and that’s highly appropriate because it feels like an international film, a romantic comedy obviously influenced by the French New Wave. It was shot in 1966 and, while it certainly looks like it was shot in 1966, it also feels like it could have been made yesterday because it’s that timeless; and let’s be honest, how many films shot in 1966 can you say that about? It wasn’t much of a commercial success, making back $12m on a $5m budget, but it was highly regarded by the critics. More than one has described it as Donen’s best movie, even though he also directed Singin’ in the Rain; it’s often been described as having Audrey Hepburn’s greatest performance; and Henry Mancini has claimed that his theme is his personal favourite from his work.

Clearly I should take a look at it to remember Donen and his career, on what would have been his centennial; he came pretty close to celebrating it too, passing in 2019 at the age of 94. The lead actors are Hepburn and Albert Finney, the latter of which was fresh from the success of Tom Jones and the former very close to her initial retirement, with only Wait Until Dark following it until a much anticipated return a decade later in 1976’s Robin and Marian. The most important name, though, at least to this particular picture, is that of Frederic Raphael, who wrote the original screenplay. It’s not exactly autobiographical, but it was sparked by a road trip that he and his wife took through France, some of the script taken from things that they did but much of it taken from things that they didn’t do but could well have done in a parallel universe. He received an Oscar nomination for his work, the film’s only nomination as Hepburn was nominated for Wait Until Dark instead, but he lost to William Rose for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Monday 19 February 2024

The Killers (1964)

Director: Donald Siegel
Writer: Gene L. Coon, based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway
Stars: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Clu Gulager, Claude Akins, Norman Fell and Ronald Reagan

Index: 2024 Centennials.

I was surprised to find that I hadn’t seen The Killers, at least in this incarnation, the 1964 feature by Donald Siegel, not yet to shrink that into Don. It started out as a short story by Ernest Hemingway, originally published in 1927, which was set in Chicago during a peak era for organised crime: prohibition. It’s about a couple of hitmen, Max and Al, who arrive at Henry’s Lunch-Room to murder a Swedish boxer called Ole Anderson, only to find that he isn’t there. It’s an interesting story, because Anderson doesn’t die within it; instead Hemingway focuses on the responses of the various characters to the knowledge that he’s about to. It’s been adapted to screen many times, most notably by Anthony Veiller in 1946 in a version that I have seen and rate very highly indeed as one of the best films noir Hollywood ever made. That version is far more cinematic than the painful wait of the story, with the hit happening first and the story behind it unfolding in flashback, giving a debuting Burt Lancaster plenty of screen time as Anderson.

This later version updates that one, keeping the hit at the start and the story behind it in flashback, but with the two hitmen as the reasons why the story is told. In 1946, that was done by Edmund O’Brien as an insurance investigator called Jim Reardon; here, it’s the killers who mount an investigation because one of them is puzzled by why his victim was completely resigned to his imminent demise. As the names have all been changed and the timeframe was updated to the sixties, the killers are now Charlie and Lee and the victim is Jerry Nichols. Charlie recognises him as Johnny North, a former race car champion who supposedly pulled off a heist of a mail truck that netted him a million bucks, so he starts to wonder about why they were paid well above the typical rate for the hit and where that money went, given that whoever hired them didn’t care. Thus the investigation, which unfolds chronologically within the contemporary scenes, while the back story fleshes out through the memories of the characters that they interview.

Sunday 18 February 2024

Dragonwyck (1946)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on the novel by Anya Seton
Stars: Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Vincent Price and Glenn Langan

Index: The First Thirty.

My mother had lots of Anya Seton novels on her bookshelves and I inappropriately thought of them alongside the gothics of the centuries before, because of their shared period settings. This, for instance, is set in early 19th century New England, and speaks to historical themes like the patroon system and Anti-Rent Wars, both of which made it into the movie, and the Astor Place Riots and steamboat racing on the Hudson, neither of which did.

However, when 20th Century Fox adapted this novel, it was so recent that it was still in stores, having been published only two years earlier. While this picture sits well alongside an earlier Vincent Price, The House of the Seven Gables, the authors of their respective source novels were born a century apart, Nathaniel Hawthorne before the Victorian era, in 1804, but Seton after it, in 1904.

In both, Price’s character is a member of an old family who lives in the sprawling mansion of the title. However, in this one, he’s wealthy and influential, friend and neighbor to Martin van Buren, the previous U.S. president, and his estate Dragonwyck is thriving, not least due to him being a patroon, meaning that he owns a significant amount of land that tenant farmers work for him, paying him substantially in rent and tribute at the annual kermesse.

Thursday 15 February 2024

Shock (1946)

Director: Alfred L. Werker
Writer: Eugene Ling, based on a story by Albert DeMond, with additional dialogue by Martin Berkeley
Stars: Vincent Price, Lynn Bari and Frank Latimore

Index: The First Thirty.

Shock is one of the easier movies to see from Vincent Price’s First Thirty, because it’s in the public domain, but it’s one that I haven’t seen before and am very happy to see for the first time now, because it’s Price’s first top billing.

He was the leading man his first film out in Service de Luxe, but it was a Constance Bennett movie and he played her love interest rather than the other way around. He played the title character in The Invisible Man Returns, but that had Sir Cedric Hardwicke top billed. Price saw his name on the poster for his earliest fifteen films, but this sixteenth marks the first time it was either listed first or indeed above the title.

It’s a B-movie film noir, merely 70 minutes long, but it’s a telling picture that starts Price out on the road to the roles we generally know him from, far more so than the more overtly horror-based The Invisible Man Returns. That’s because he plays another mad doctor, as he would so often later, from The Fly, The Tingler and The Bat to the Dr. Phibes duology, via, of course, the wacky Dr. Goldfoot pictures.

This sure looks like a horror movie from the outset and it sounds like one as well, with dark ominous music behind the opening credits. It also features a nightmare sequence early on, after Janet Stewart checks into a San Francisco hotel to meet her husband, who’s been at war for a few years and presumed dead for two, but he doesn’t show. She imagines him outside but he can’t get in and she can’t find the door; even when she does, the handle is too big; and, when she finally makes it through, he’s gone again. These visuals are primitive but effective and they set a mood for the picture as a whole.

Monday 12 February 2024

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Director: John M. Stahl
Writer: Jo Swerling, based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams
Stars: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde and Jeanne Crain

Index: The First Thirty.

I had no idea what this film was before this project cued it up for me, but then I’m unsure now, having seen it. It’s often been described as the first colour film noir, which does make sense to a degree, but it’s truly a psychological thriller, one that would have a very different poster if it was remade today. And it may well be, as it’s apparently one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite movies. The man has taste.

Like Laura, Vincent Price’s first film noir, it’s told in flashback after an introductory scene. This one has a sombre Cornel Wilde returning to Deer Lake after a couple of years in prison. Off he goes over the lake in a rowboat as we’re told the background behind that, which begins with him meeting Gene Tierney by chance on a train journey.

He’s Richard Harland, a bestselling novelist. She’s Ellen Berent, who’s partway through one of his books but doesn’t realise who he is until they’re introduced on the platform after they disembark. They’re aiming to stay at the same New Mexico lodge, he with friends and she to scatter her father’s ashes.

Friday 9 February 2024

A Royal Scandal (1945)

Director: Otto Preminger
Writer: Edwin Justus Mayer, adapted by Bruno Frank from the play Die Zarin by Lajos BirĂ³ and Melchior Lengyel
Stars: Tallulah Bankhead, Charles Coburn, Anne Baxter and William Eythe

Index: The First Thirty.

There are a few things to say about A Royal Scandal before I start. It’s a comedy more than it’s a historical drama, emphatically so. As in The Keys of the Kingdom, Vincent Price doesn’t have a large role but he’s welcome. It’s utterly and unashamedly ridiculous. It’s also a whole heck of a lot of fun. And all these things are obvious quickly.

It’s set in Russia during the 18th century, in a palace of Catherine the Great. In fact, for all that some details of national or international importance are mentioned, we never set foot outside that palace, whichever one we happen to be in. Historical detail is not important here in the slightest. It’s just stage dressing.

There’s also no attempt by anyone to sound remotely authentic. Not only do none of these British and American actors sound Russian but neither do the actual Russian-born actors, like Vladimir Sokoloff, Michael Visaroff and, most recognisably, Mischa Auer, who’s very happy manning the east gate. Nobody even tries and there’s a general’s nephew with such an out of place accent that I started to wonder if this was really a parody.

What saves it early and often is the writing, especially the dialogue, which is stellar. For a little while, it feels like it’s all given to Charles Coburn, who’s the man effectively in charge of Russia, Chancellor Nicolai Ilyitch. When Price arrives, as the only actor willing to attempt a foreign accent, even if it’s a stereotypical one, he gets great lines too. Fifteen minutes in, as we finally meet Catherine the Great, Empress of All Russia, and we realise she has plenty of great dialogue too, we accept that it’s going to be consistent and it is, throughout the film.

Tuesday 6 February 2024

The Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

Director: John M. Stahl
Writers: Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel by A. J. Cronin
Stars: Gregory Peck, Thomas Mitchell and Vincent Price

Index: The First Thirty.

This is very much a film of its time, made at a point in history when moviegoing audiences were happy to pay money to see a story about a Roman Catholic priest without wondering as it begins why he’s spending so much time at a fishing hole with a young boy.

Fr. Francis Chisholm is the sort of good man who does good things for long enough that he leaves the world a better place for his being a part of it. We struggle to believe in this sort of good man today, but Gregory Peck, one of the quintessential good men of the movie screen, does make our job a little easier in this film.

As such hagiographies tend to do, we begin towards the end of his life, back in the Scottish village in which he was born, Tweedside. Now he’s a priest, but his teachings are raising the sort of concern with the church that they have sent a monsignor to suggest that he retire. But he goes to bed and finds Fr. Francis’s journals, so settles down to read and we learn his story in a set of long flashbacks.

Sunday 4 February 2024

Laura (1944)

Director: Otto Preminger
Writer: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt, based on the novel by Vera Caspery
Stars: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price and Judith Anderson

Index: The First Thirty.

While we all likely remember Vincent Price from a variety of movies much later in his film career, this is the big one from his First Thirty. It wasn’t his personal favourite and it wasn’t the one that gave him the happiest memories, but it’s the best of them, The Song of Bernadette notwithstanding, and it’s one of the great and most impactful films noir of the forties.

It’s a story of obsession, a trait shared by an admirably varied set of characters, not just the inevitable gritty detective, Mark McPherson of the NYPD, who’s investigating the murder of a young advertising executive. Laura Hunt was answering the door to her apartment when a shotgun blasted her in the face and it’s his job to catch her killer.

First and most important of the obsessed is Waldo Lydecker, a newspaper columnist who believes he was the only one who really knew her. Clifton Webb is impeccable in his first role in a feature film since 1925 and he’s given an impressive amount of the best lines. He was given a deserved Oscar nod as Best Supporting Actor but lost to Barry Fitzgerald for Going My Way. That’s a tough choice right there!

Saturday 3 February 2024

The Marriage Circle (1924)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writer: Paul Bern, based on the play Only a Dream by Lothar Schmidt
Stars: Monte Blue, Florence Vidor, Creighton Hale, Adolphe Menjou, Marie Prevost, harry Myers and Dale Fuller

There must have been something in the air in early 1924, because two out of the first four films have been outright comedies that verge on the screwball. Finances of the Grand Duke was directed by an unlikely German, F. W. Murnau, but The Marriage Circle by a far more likely one, Ernst Lubitsch, though this was a Hollywood feature, his second after 1923’s Rosita.

He made that while under contract to Mary Pickford but, while the film was a success with both the critics and the public, they clashed in production enough that he was able to sign to a Warner Brothers contract instead, one that unusually allowed him complete creative and casting control.

Whatever reasons Jack Warner had for that, it worked, because this is a treat of a comedy. Yes, we ache to slap some sense into Dr. Franz Braun for most of the running time, but that’s fine. If he had the requisite amount of sense to begin with, this would be a five minute short.

We’re in Vienna, which an introductory title confidently tells us is “the city of laughter and light romance”. There’s laughter and romance in this film, but not so much as we might think for a comedy about relationships. We’re doing all the laughing while the characters get into more and more outrageous misconceptions.