Saturday, 1 May 2021

The Wicker Man (1973)

Director: Robin Hardy
Writer: Anthony Shaffer, loosely adapted from the novel Ritual by David Pinner
Stars: Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt and Christopher Lee

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

It’s a testament to the power of The Wicker Man that, however many horror movies you watch, it consistently stands alone. Frankly, that holds true even if you start dabbling in the vein that’s become known as British folk horror, epitomised by Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw and this picture, because the other two films there are period pieces, while this was contemporary to 1973. It’s remembered very well, with its two primary stars praising it highly. Christopher Lee, whose long and distinguished career was a busy one for almost seventy years, remembered it as his very best picture, above anything he did in Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or James Bond. Edward Woodward, best known as TV’s Equalizer, described his lead role here as the best he ever played and called out the film’s ending as the best in film history. While received well at the time, it didn’t succeed wildly at the box office and had fallen into obscurity by the time Cinefantastique devoted an entire issue to the film in 1977, calling it “the Citizen Kane of horror movies”.

I had to choose it for this project because it’s inextricably entangled in pagan folklore and it ends on May Day, which long before its adoption in 1889 as International Workers’ Day, which would eventually lead to the iconic demonstrations of Soviet military might we saw during the Cold War, was a traditional spring holiday across most of Europe, dating back to Roman times and the festival of Flora. There are rituals in this picture that evoke Gaelic celebrations of Beltane, such as naked young women jumping over a sacred flame as part of their “divinity lessons”; they’re trying to get pregnant through parthenogenesis rather than sexual relations. Also here is a scene focused around a maypole but, unlike the family friendly version still celebrated in towns across England, this one is a phallic symbol, which Miss Rose teaches the girls of Summerisle is “venerated in religions such as ours.” In fact, there’s so much here that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone’s written a book about folklore to explain everything going on in The Wicker Man.

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Father Brown (1954)

Director: Robert Hamer
Writers: Thelma Schnee and Robert Hamer, from the Father Brown stories by G. K. Chesterton
Stars: Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Peter Finch and Cecil Parker

Index: 2021 Centennials.

It’s been Joan Greenwood week here at Apocalypse Later headquarters, because, hey, why not? Sure, I was trying to find an obscure but interesting picture from her career that I hadn’t seen but which would serve well as review material. I’d have watched the 1947 indie film called The White Unicorn, aka Bad Sister, given that it placed one of the most elegant British actresses ever to grace the screen in a home for delinquent girls, but I can’t find a copy anywhere. So I watched a bunch of others. After all, I’ve never heard a voice that does what her voice does to me. I could watch Joan Greenwood movies until the sun sets and until it rises again. Unfortunately, the excellent films I ran through didn’t feature her in a large enough role to warrant me covering them for her centennial. At least, I’m telling myself that and not that I merely don’t want to stop listening to that voice. It had a Scottish lilt in Whisky Galore! but was held back a little in The October Man. It’s just right, I feel, in Father Brown, a 1954 picture released in the U.S. as The Detective.

It reunited her with two major names: Robert Hamer, who had directed her in one of the blackest, sharpest features ever made, an Ealing comedy called Kind Hearts and Coronets; and its star, Alec Guinness, who played eight characters that time out but only one in this film, the titular priest, G. K. Chesterton’s timeless detective, Father Ignatius Brown. In between that picture in 1949 and this in 1954, she also played opposite Guinness in The Man in the White Suit, yet another classic Ealing comedy in a long line of them at that point, all of them absolute gems. She clearly got on well with Guinness and, while she’s not in Father Brown anywhere near as much as he is, their scenes together work very nicely indeed and her Lady Warren is the epitome of the elegant and unflappable but open and pixielike British lady that she played so often. It’s hardly surprising that she was able to hold her own in the 1952 adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest, even with Edith Evans and Margaret Rutherford to contend with.

Friday, 26 February 2021

Incendiary Blonde (1945)

Director: George Marshall
Writers: Claude Binyon and Frank Butler
Stars: Betty Hutton and Arturo de Cordova

Index: 2021 Centennials.

After Klondike Kate turned out to be such a wildly inaccurate biopic that it was a precious detail indeed that came close to the truth, I probably ought to have sworn off Hollywood biopics for quite a while. But here I am with another one, after only a week, because 26th February would have been the one hundredth birthday of Betty Hutton and I couldn’t track down the film I wanted to explore anywhere. That was Cross My Heart, a comedy musical remake of the Carole Lombard movie, True Confession, in which she confesses to a murder that she didn’t commit so that her lawyer husband can secure her acquittal in court and so build a stellar reputation. It kinda sorta worked with Lombard because I could believe her as a sympathetic pathological liar, but Hutton? I was eager to find out if she would be able to carry it, but it’s a Paramount film from 1946 that was sold to Universal in a job lot of 700 for TV distribution and legal issues prevented it from being shown with the others. It seems like those issues may finally be solved, so fingers crossed.

But it’s Betty Hutton’s centennial today and so I plumped for Incendiary Blonde, as it’s another musical comedy in which she has the lead, playing a fictionalised version of Texas Guinan, a fascinating character from the early decades of the previous century. What’s important to note here is that we’re often not entirely sure what’s true and what isn’t from her life, because she made so much of it up out of thin air, so this Hollywood biopic could do the same and we might not be able to tell the difference. Yes, a lot of things got changed, but it’s not particularly important in the grand scheme of things and much of the sweep of the story resembles the truth. At least they got her name right! She really was known as Texas Guinan, for much of her time in the spotlight, and she did claim for years that it was her real name, though she was born Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan instead, in 1884 in Waco, Texas. When she died in 1933, she was known as “the queen of the nightclubs”. There were 7,500 people at her funeral and a biopic was inevitable.

Monday, 22 February 2021

The Feather Fairy (1985)

Director: Juraj Jakubisko
Writers: Ľubímor Feldek and Juraj Jakubisko
Stars: Giulietta Masina, Petra Vancíková, Tobias Hoesl, Sona Valentová, Pavol Mikulik, Milada Ondrasíková, Valérie Kaplanová and Eva Horká

Index: 2021 Centennials.

One of the unwritten rules of cinema is that, if you want to see a fairy tale on film done properly, you go to Europe, travel east and keep on going. There are many good countries where you could stop to see good fairy tales, but most of them are on the other side of where the Iron Curtain used to be. This one is a multinational production that’s nominally Czechoslovakian and primarily in the Slovak language. I’m guessing that my grey market copy was taped from an Italian TV channel, because the few sections in Italiano are not subtitled but all the Slovak is. It doesn’t matter that much, because it’s clear what’s going on, except that I find myself a bit in the dark about the circus troupe that’s our focus as the film begins and which returns to the story later. It’s easy to see why they would be watching it in Italy, though, because the one cast member I recognise is the one I’m watching for. That’s Giulietta Masina, the magical clown of European cinema, who would have been a hundred years old today.

This is a late film for her, but she’s just as much fun to watch here in 1985 as she was in La Strada and Nights of Cabiria in the fifties or Juliet of the Spirits in the sixties. Apparently she was talked into doing this by her husband, the director Federico Fellini, who was a friend of this film’s director, Juraj Jakubisko. I’m very happy that she agreed to do it, because she remains a bundle of energy at 64 years young and her quirky charm is utterly perfect for a fairy tale. However, I also enjoyed the eastern actors, none of whom I had seen before. Most of them are women, because that’s just how this story rolls, with only one male character of real substance. That is another worthy aspect of eastern fairy tales, where female characters can be anything, rather than merely the two opposites the Disney adaptations polarise: the beautiful young peasant girl or princess and the ugly and evil stepmother or crone. Those clichés are here too, though with some serious caveats, and they’re not all there are to be found either because there’s also Perinbaba.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Klondike Kate (1943)

Director: William Castle
Writers: M. Coates Webster, based on a story by Houston Branch and M. Coates Webster, suggested by the life of Kate Rockwell Matson, the original “Klondike Kate”
Stars: Ann Savage, Tom Neal, Glenda Farrell, Constance Worth, Sheldon Leonard, Lester Allen and George Cleveland

Index: 2021 Centennials.

The obvious film to review to celebrate what would have been Ann Savage’s one hundredth birthday is Detour, the highly regarded low budget film noir from Edgar G. Ulmer and PRC, released in 1945, in which she blackmails Tom Neal. However, as that’s the film that everyone else will be mentioning, I’m going to go back two further years to take a look at Savage’s first leading role, which also tasks her with acting opposite Tom Neal, under the direction of the great William Castle. It’s a biopic, of sorts, merely “suggested by the life of Kate Rockwell Matson”, the real lady behind the titular nickname, which means that it’s about as historically accurate as Klondyke Kate, the song by Suzi Quatro. What’s odd is that, unlike most heavily fictionalised Hollywood biopics, this one was written during the life of its subject, who lived until 1957, and it was apparently Kate herself who personally chose Ann Savage, then an up and coming actor at Columbia, to portray her in this picture.

We can tell how accurate it’s going to be as a biopic from the fact that they correctly name its subject in the opening credits but not in the film itself. The lady who would become known as Klondike Kate was born Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell, later adding a succession of surnames from three marriages. She was born in Junction City, Kansas in 1876, to parents who divorced when she was five, and she spent much of her youth travelling with her mother to places as farflung as Valparaiso, Chile. She became a chorus girl in New York City but soon followed a theatre troupe to Spokane, Washington, in which she’d previously lived, and it was while there that she heard rumours about the Gold Rush in the Klondike. She may or may not have got past the Mounties disguised as a boy, but she arrived in Alaska in 1899 and proved a big success in Dawson City, dancing her Flame Dance at the Palace Grande Theatre. This saw her trail two hundred feet of chiffon that she twisted into the illusion of fire. She made a fortune, sometimes over $750 per night.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Happy Go Lovely (1951)

Director: Bruce Humberstone
Writer: Val Guest, based on a film story by F. Dammann and Dr. H. Rosenfeld
Stars: David Niven, Vera-Ellen and Cesar Romero

Index: 2021 Centennials.

While this is precisely the sort of film that rarely appeals to me, I had an absolute blast with it, and I’m trying to figure out why. It’s a musical but, like 42nd Street or Singin’ in the Rain, the song and dance routines all make sense within the wider plot. It’s a romance, but a touching one that happens by accident while neither half is looking, even though that accident is the core of the entire script. In fact, it’s a romcom, but one that benefits from a lively set of performances, including by our centenarian, the dancer Vera-Ellen, who is the female lead here rather than a prominent supporting actress. It’s set in Edinburgh, the cultural and geographic elements used sparingly but capably, even if some of the stock footage is obvious. And it’s a fantastic opportunity for me to see a few faces at a much earlier point in their careers than I’m used to. So I guess it’s the template for the sort of musical romcom that I’m likely to enjoy. Now, how do I plug that into Google to get realistic results?

I think it also helps that it’s a comedy of errors but not a love triangle, written by a talented, genre-hopping writer who had already become a talented genre-hopping director. He’s Val Guest—the Val is for Valmond—and, while I know him primarily for his work in the horror and science fiction genres, often for Hammer, films like The Abominable Snowman, The Day the Earth Caught Fire and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, his filmography is as full of comedies, war movies and musicals. His handling of comedy here is surprising light but with a firm attention to detail, which only gets better as the picture runs on. For a start, everything is layered so that these situations build, as they ought to do in comedies of errors, but there’s a fantastic little detail that surrounds it all that’s the icing on the cake. Not only does one minor assumption on the part of a chorus girl kickstart the whole thing into motion, but all that motion is utterly unnecessary, as we learn at the end that that very chorus girl had the solution being sought all along. That’s glorious.

Monday, 1 February 2021

Clash by Night (1963)

Director: Montgomery Tully
Writers: Maurice J. Wilson and Montgomery Tully, based on the novel Clash by Night by Rupert Croft-Cooke
Stars: Terence Logsdon, Jennifer Jayne, Harry Fowler, Alan Wheatley and Peter Sallis

Index: 2021 Centennials.

Before you ask, this particular Clash by Night is entirely unrelated to the RKO film noir of the same name from 1952, with Barbara Stanwyck in the lead, and the 1941 Clifford Odets play on which that was based. This Clash by Night is British, made by Eternal Films at MGM’s studios in Borehamwood, on the outskirts of London, and distributed in the UK in 1963 by Grand National Pictures. When Allied Artists brought it to the States a year later, it was wisely renamed to Escape by Night to help avoid confusion. Its original title comes from its source novel, by Rupert Croft-Cooke, published only a year earlier, and the author’s background does a lot to shape our understanding of the script. I’ll come back to explain why later but, for now, I’ll just point out that I’m watching for Peter Sallis, who would have been a hundred years old today. I know him for The Last of the Summer Wine, but you may know him far better for voicing a claymation curmudgeon called Wallace, he with a canine companion named Gromit.

Sallis doesn’t have a large part in Clash by Night, but it’s a quirky and memorable one, as the wildcard in a bevy of unusual jailbirds thrown together into an equally unusual situation. There are half a dozen of them, handcuffed in pairs on a bus that’s about to take them all to prison. Terence Longdon has the the leading role of Martin Lord, sentenced to five years for killing a man, even if he did so in his own house while defending his own wife from sexual assault; she let a stranger in to use the telephone. He’s handcuffed to Doug Roberts, a talkative thief played by Harry Fowler, who’s been handed 21 more months; he’s been through this routine before. Sallis is seated right behind them as we learn all this, but he’s the last to be introduced, because Mawsley, the experienced guard on this bus, builds up to him as he passes key notes on to his assistant, Danny Watts, before they set off. This is Danny’s first transport duty and that makes it easy for Mawsley to let us in on who everyone is and how everything works too.

Sunday, 31 January 2021

The Mole People (1956)

Director: Virgil Vogel
Writers: Laszlo Gorog
Stars: John Agar, Cynthia Patrick and Hugh Beaumont

Index: 2021 Centennials.

I have to admit that The Mole People surprised me. Sure, some of that was because I had memories of watching this colour Universal monster movie, memories which turned out to be of something else entirely that I can’t figure out, as this is emphatically black and white. A large part is because of how it unfolds, because, while it’s often the poorly researched B-movie nonsense I expected, with a heck of a lot of ancient Egyptian iconography populating a supposedly Sumerian story, but there’s actually a lot of thought given to science in something I’d classify more as fantasy than science fiction. Most of all, though, it was the introduction that surprised me, because I’m used to the “scientists” gushing forth in them about whatever subject is to come having even fewer credentials for that role than the actors playing the parts they were paid to interpret. Maybe I’ve seen too many pseudo-educational flicks by showmen like Dwain Esper and Kroger Babb and far too much Criswell. But this introduction is by someone who’s really a big deal.

His name is Frank C. Baxter and he’s introduced as the Professor of English at the University of Southern California that he actually was. His spiel is pure Forteana, explaining to us that we know so much about the surface of our world and that we’ve reached out to the stars but we know very little about what might be hiding beneath our feet. “What’s inside this globe?” he asks us, launching into swift explanations of Victorian Hollow Earth theories by people like Cyrus Teed and John Cleves Symmes, Jr. The former suggested that we don’t live on the surface of our planet at all but inside it, with the heavens a giant sphere, the sun a gigantic battery and the stars mere refractions of its light. The latter believed that there are five concentric spheres inside our planet, each habitable and lit by the one above, with light getting in through giant holes at each of the poles, surely entranceways for us to visit our subterranean brethren within our Hollow Earth. These theories are pseudoscientific nonsense, of course, but Baxter is no pseudoscientist.

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Scandal Sheet (1952)

Director: Phil Karlson
Writers: Ted Sherdeman, Eugene Ling & James Poe, from the novel The Dark Page by Samuel Fuller
Stars: Broderick Crawford, Donna Reed and John Derek

Index: 2021 Centennials.

Any opportunity to review a Sam Fuller picture, I will happily take without hesitation, and, while Scandal Sheet isn’t either directed or written by Fuller, it is based on his novel, The Dark Page, published in 1944. It’s also a story about newspapers, something that he knew very well, having been part of the news industry since the age of twelve. He became a crime reporter at the New York Evening Graphic at seventeen and his film set in that world, Park Row, is possibly my favourite of all his movies; it was certainly his. Oddly, it was also released in 1952, though that was coincidental; he’d sold the rights to The Dark Page to Howard Hawks during the war and had even written a treatment of it as it wound its way slowly towards the screen. A young John Derek on the ascendant played the lead initially aimed at John Payne, playing a reporter who’s very sharp but not very principled, mostly due to his being mentored by his editor, in the form not of Orson Welles, as planned, but Broderick Crawford, Derek’s screen father in All the King’s Men.

The relationship arc between these two is one good reason to watch this movie, as it’s the only one that allows me to look past such an observant character as Steve McCleary, ace newshound for the New York Express, having a notable blindspot when it comes to his mentor, Mark Chapman. However, I’m watching in January 2021 not for Derek or Crawford but for Donna Reed, the other star who got prominent billing on the poster, because the 27th would have been her one hundredth birthday. This isn’t her best role or her best known, let alone her best regarded, but it is an appropriate one, given that Julie Allison is both McCleary’s love interest and his (and our) moral compass through this film, as well as an accomplished journalist in her own right. That sort of combo worked well for the future Golden Globe-winning star of The Donna Reed Show, which, only six years on, would become the first family-oriented sitcom to revolve around a capable woman instead of a capable man.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Gang War (1958)

Director: Gene Fowler, Jr.
Writer: Louis Vittes, from the novel The Hoods Take Over by Ovid Demaris
Stars: Charles Bronson, Kent Taylor, Jennifer Holden and John Doucette

Index: 2021 Centennials.

21st January marks the centennial of character actor John Doucette and it took me a long while to figure out what I could review in his memory. The problem is that he was such an effective character actor, stealing moments and scenes out from under the leads, often as a tough guy, whether sheriff or villain, that he was rarely given a lead of his own, even with credits in a hundred and forty films and even more TV shows. Eventually, I tracked down this picture, a relatively straightforward gangster flick released by 20th Century Fox in 1958. He’s not the lead here, either, that honour going to a young Charles Bronson, who was newly ascended to top billing himself. Doucette is fourth billed, after Kent Taylor and Jennifer Holden, but he dominates the entire film, because he’s the gangster that it’s all about, Maxie Meadows. This is his story just as much as it’s Bronson’s, even if his character has less depth and substance, and it’s easier for him to make his presence known in emphatic fashion.

We’re in Los Angeles and, to highlight what the City of Angels was like at this point, we’re treated to a montage of mayhem right at the start. Machine guns unloading their rounds directly at the audience! Cars screaming round corners at high speed! Barber shops exploding in the night! Even the title explodes onto the screen at us in military capitals: “GANG WAR”. And when our story begins, Louis Vittes’s script, adapted from Ovid Demaris’s novel, The Hoods Take Over, gets right down to business. Slick Connors slaps down his girl, Marsha, because she doesn’t like him becoming a stool pigeon. He’s turning state’s evidence against Joe Reno so that, when the syndicate moves in, he’ll become Mr. Big. “Glad to know you while you’re still alive,” she tells him, with prescience, because he leaves her apartment to find Joe and Bernard “The Axe” Duncan outside, waiting to murder him in cold blood. Which they do. Slick betrays himself to be a coward, but Joe isn’t. He takes care of business and that’s Leonard P. Geer’s uncredited performance over.