Wednesday 31 January 2007

Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood (1942) Michael Gordon

Boston Blackie, former safebreaker, and his companion and fellow ex-crook the Runt, are about to leave for Florida on a vacation, when they catch a burglar in their own apartment. Blackie calls in the police only to discover that it's Inspector Farraday trapped in a locked room and hiding up his chimney. Apparently a valuable diamond that figures in Blackie's past has been stolen in California and Farraday thought he'd check up just in case. Of course Blackie finds his way to California anyway, because old friend Arthur is in trouble and needs $60,000 in cash very quickly indeed.

The real story here is that Farraday believes that Blackie has stolen the money and so we're treated to a cat and mouse game of bluff and double bluff, disguise and subterfuge, all the way to LA. The plot is pretty flimsy this time round and is saved only by some great dialogue. We end up in complete farce with a gunfight chase that could have been a silent slapstick routine if only they'd sped it up a little. It's all perfectly decent entertainment, the Runt's transparent disguise notwithstanding, but there's nothing here that you couldn't find in any random episode of a pulp detective series, and that, after the initial couple of Boston Blackie movies, is highly disappointing.

Oh, and Hollywood doesn't have anything to do with anything. Maybe that the area of California that they they end up in, given that they flew into LA, but there's no movie connection here at all: no shooting on studio lots, no cameos from even minor celebrities, nothing to connect it to the movies at all. I found it far more interesting to see what air travel seemed to be like in 1942, with six hour flights from coast to coast and airport stalls that sell water pistols and ant farms. How would that work in today's culture of terrorism everywhere?

Tuesday 30 January 2007

Alias Boston Blackie (1942) Lew Landers

It's Christmas and Boston Blackie is taking the troupe from the Castle Theater to prison to put on a show for the boys inside. However he unwittingly provides the means for an escape: Roggi the clown goes in and Joe the innocent convict comes out. He's not trying to get away, merely aiming for revenge on the two guys who sent him up. Blackie has to help him out without helping him out, so as to get him back into prison without getting locked up himself.

I already know that Chester Morris is Boston Blackie all the way to film fourteen and George E Stone is the Runt for the rest of the series too, but now I realise that Lloyd Corrigan is a recurring character too. He's Arthur Manleder, a rich friend of Blackie's who spends lots of money and caused plenty of plot twists in the last movie by buying a fake statue. He's here too and a quick check shows me that he's in five of them, all told. He's only in this one briefly, but he gets about as much screen time as an uncredited Lloyd Bridges as a bus driver.

The script here isn't bad and the actors don't disappoint, but the film has none of the zip, humour or finesse of the previous entry in the series. Confessions of Boston Blackie rose above its station to be an excellent little pulp mystery, deserving of far more credit than most entries in detective series of the forties. This one is merely an OK story that can't help but be a pale shadow. The Boston Blackie films were promising: I hope they don't lapse into mediocrity.

The Odd Couple (1968) Gene Saks

My lass remembers this well as a television show, with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. First it was a play, by Neil Simon no less, with Art Carney and Walter Matthau, and in between the play and the show it was a film, with Matthau reprising his role and Jack Lemmon taking the Art Carney part because he was a bigger name in cinema. I vaguely remember possibly having seen the show but may well have a faulty memory. Any which way, this one's new on me.

Lemmon plays Felix Ungar, who starts the film committing suicide, or at least he would be if he could get the hotel window open. The other half of the couple, Matthau is Oscar Madison, and the two of them are as odd as you'd expect from the title. Felix is a neat freak, with a bad back and a broken marriage, and Oscar is a slob, living in an apartment where the fridge hasn't worked for two weeks. Inevitably Felix moves into Oscar's huge apartment for a day or two and ends up there permanently. Hilarity ensues.

To make a change, hilarity does actually ensue. I'm so used to using that phrase in complete sarcasm that it seems strange to really mean it. Jack Lemmon is hardly a small comedic talent but even when he has the better lines, I can't help but laugh at Walter Matthau who has such incredible timing it's unreal.

The two of them bounce off each other wonderfully, and there's a hilarious scene with them and a couple of randy English secretaries where the comedy is controlled with a magic touch by Neil Simon. One moment we're laughing aloud at the double entendres and the next Felix is showing them pictures of his wife and his former front room and everyone bursts into tears. It's true masterclass. It's hard to imagine that other actors who happened to be on screen at the same time aren't laughing for real.

Incidentally these two English girls ended up being a double act elsewhere too, and not just in four episodes of the Odd Couple series. They both worked on various animated Disney films, including stints on The AristoCats and major parts in Robin Hood, where Monica Evans was Maid Marian the fox and Carole Shelley was Lady Kluck the hen. How much more different could comedy material get?

Monday 29 January 2007

The Sunshine Boys (1975) Herbert Ross

George Burns won the Best Supporting Oscar for this film, he doesn't even appear for over half an hour and by that time the most stunning thing is that we'll notice that anyone else but Walter Matthau is even in the movie. Matthau plays an old vaudevillian, Willie Clark, and he's almost the definition of memorable. It's hard to tell how much of his act is senility and how much is sheer cantankerous bloodymindedness, but whatever Ben, his nephew and agent, and anyone else he ever meets do is wrong, even if it's right. He'll find a way to make it wrong somehow. Matthau was always a great grumpy old man but he's a peach here. When Burns turns up, as Matthau's partner Al Lewis (not Grandpa Munster), it's hard to see how he could even compete, but he does.

The two of them haven't talked in eleven years and apparently hate each other. They were two halves of the same act on stage for 47 years and for 11,000 performances, the Sunshine Boys of the title, Lewis and Clark, but there's serious bad blood between them that boils down to Lewis retiring on the Ed Sullivan Show before Clark was ready. Now through Ben's agency, the two of them are going to appear together on television once more, on an ABC special that will work through the history of comedy and use them to depict vaudeville.

It's this bad blood that makes the film, because everyone else, from Howard Hesseman to F Murray Abraham to buxom nurse Lee Meredith, really doesn't matter. Only Ben, played by Richard Benjamin, even gets significant screen time, and he doesn't really matter either. It's all the Sunshine Boys, Matthau and Burns, and how well they play off each other or whoever else happens to be there. They both have incredible dialogue, courtesy of playwright Neil Simon who adapted this from his own play, but they're the ones who deliver it. Walter Matthau was the young'un, at only 55 years of age, and it shows sometimes when he's trying to be old and failing a little. Burns was 80 and spry. No wonder he went on for another twenty years.

Never Weaken (1921) Fred Newmeyer

Harold Lloyd and Mildred Davis are in love, as they so often were in the silent shorts. Unfortunately The Girl, as nobody had names in films this far back, is about to lose her job at a chiropractor's office because there aren't any patients. The Boy, ever resourceful, helps out by concocting all sorts of scams to drum up patients: initially by the use of an acrobat to fake accidents and then by causing real ones.

He then comes to the erroneous belief that The Girl is going to marry someone else and so attempts various forms of suicide, not being able to live without her. Luckily for us, he's as unsuccessful at this as he is successful gaining chiropractic patients. Both halves of the film are packed full of gags, sometimes highly dangerous ones or at least what seem to be highly dangerous ones and with Harold Lloyd you never know. Just like Safety Last, the most dangerous ones are the most funny, because we gasp with shock at the danger of it just as we laugh at the humour in it.

Sunday 28 January 2007

Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941) Edward Dmytryk

Edward Dmytryk is an important name to attach to a pulp detective series like this, but then he was still reasonably new to the industry. This is his thirteenth film and the only one I recognise is the previous one. He came to this Boston Blackie movie from a Lone Wolf movie and four forward he'd be behind a Falcon movie. He certainly cut his teeth on these, because it was 1944 when he really arrived, helming the Philip Marlowe film, Murder, My Sweet.

We're in the Allison Galleries where Blackie is bidding on a statue. However there's a scam going on and the owner, a beautiful young lady called Diane Parrish, realises that the statue being auctioned isn't hers, prompting gunshots and Blackie's arrest for murder. As the formula seems to run, Inspector Farraday arrests Blackie for the crime, only for him to escape using both guts and brains and investigate the murder on his own.

Dmytryk and scriptwriters Jay Dratler and Paul Yawitz keep it buzzing along: even though it's nearly ten minutes longer than the first, it still feels way too short. Chester Morris is excellent and proves once more how much he excels in situations where he's in a tight spot with the law right there in the room and he has to bluff his way out of things. This sort of thing leads to a lot of the humour here, but there's also the dialogue which is great, and the digs at the cops by everyone in the film, including the headline writers and radio newscasters.

The addition here to make the regular cast complete is George E Stone, who I saw earlier today playing a stereotypical Japanese wartime leader in The Devil With Hitler. He takes over as Blackie's sidekick, the Runt, and stays for the rest of the series. He's certainly much better than the previous actor in the role, and I wonder if he took a lot of his ideas from Peter Lorre, with whom he worked in a Mr Moto movie a few years earlier. He has something of Lorre's looks and motions, enough to keep bringing the connection to mind, and while he has far less talent he still looks like an interesting actor to watch. I've seen him in a lot of movies without his really registering but I don't think that state of affairs will carry on for too much longer.

As for the film itself, I really enjoyed it. The Runt is better than in the first film and Matthews isn't as stereotypically dumb, the rest of the regulars are at least as good, the leading lady is fine, the mystery is a good one, the scrapes memorable, the setup solid and the comedy sparkling. It's definitely pulp entertainment but it's good pulp entertainment.

A Bullet for Joey (1955) Lewis Allen

We're in Montreal and a mountie has just noticed that an organ grinder has a camera concealed in his hurdy gurdy. It leads to his untimely demise thus bringing more attention to the case that the men behind the spy don't want, beginning with Inspector Raoul Leduc. Meanwhile in Portugal gangster Joe Victor is proving how old school he is by getting a shoeshine even though he has no money. He gets quickly hired to get shipped to Canada to make an expensive and important hit on an atomic scientist called Dr Carl Macklin and so reassembles his old gang from far and wide.

The old school gangster role can't have been hard for the actor involved, given that it's George Raft, old school gangster in many old school gangster movies. However the inspector is Edward G Robinson, playing very much against his own old school gangster type. It's well known that while Raft had strong connections to organised crime, Robinson was a quiet and peaceful art collector who was far more likely to cringe every time someone in one of his movies got shot than revel in it. It was his looks and dynamic screen magnetism that led him to play Little Caesar so well, and after that he had to fight typecasting all the way down the line. Here he's much more his real self, underplaying the quiet but persevering inspector admirably.

The other notable role is that of Joyce Geary, a hardboiled but reluctant femme fatale, who is brought in to seduce Macklin against her will and who ends up falling for him. She's played by Audrey Totter, whose plum roles dried up as film noir faded away in the fifties. I've seen her in a few movies and always been impressed, but she's strong and menacing here when she needs to be, yet also soft and feminine when it's called for.

The police work is strong here too and the story well thought out without any obvious cop outs. I've discovered a few early CSI prototypes lately, as early as From Headquarters in 1933, so this is hardly groundbreaking but it's done very well indeed from both sides: the gangster operation and the police procedural. Robinson and Raft are both solid, but the latter had mellowed a little, as also evident a couple of years later in Some Like It Hot, and both underplayed. Totter is the standout here, behind the story itself which is admirably intelligent. I can forgive the lack of bullet wounds for that.

We Do It Because- (1942) Basil Wrangell

This was educational to me today just as I'm sure it was in 1942, if it's accurate of course. It's a ten minute short with no dialogue, just narration laid over little skits. The education covers everything from shaking hands to kissing to launching ships. Apparently kissing originated with husbands checking up to see if their wives had been hitting the hard stuff during the day; shaking hands was a means of making sure that your enemy didn't pick up his weapon; and champagne bottles launch ships as a modern day equivalent of buying a drink for the god of luck.

It's mildly entertaining but the chief attraction today is the young lady playing the 'woman to left of wine taster' in the skit that explains why we touch glasses before drinking. She's an uncredited Ava Gardner very early in her career, overacting horribly when demonstrating how we ate chicken without cutlery or manners, thus needing the old and much larger version of today's finger bowls. And by the way, we clink glasses because in the days of yore, we poured some into the wine taster's glass for him to die on our behalf if our drink had been poisoned. I wonder what Ava Gardner thought of this role in later years.

The Devil With Hitler (1942) Gordon Douglas

Here's a bizarre little oddity. Presented by Hal Roach, noted comedy producer/director, this makes fun of the Nazi menace in a very strange way. Rather than being a serious attack through satire like The Great Dictator or a screwball comedy that focuses on other characters like To Be or Not to Be, this takes Hitler himself, and surely and deliberately makes him look like a complete idiot in as many ways as are humanly possible that avoid astute political comment in favour of slapstick. Just to be sure, it has a go at the Italians and Japanese in the process, in the characters of Mussolini and Sukiyaki, and, as we well know from Bugs Bunny cartoons, any racial epithet is acceptable as long as it's hurled during wartime.

The story, such as it is, has Hitler is being set up for the Devil's job, literally. It seems that Satan's board of directors, complete with really dumb horned hats, want to fire him and replace him with Hitler, because the real Satan has apparently been slipping a bit lately. So the Devil takes the job of Hitler's valet and sabotage everything possible. Hitler is played by comedian Bobby Watson, who is a decent lookalike, and the briefest glance at his resume shows that he played Hitler almost as much as Hitler did. Sukiyaki is played by George E Stone, who I'll shortly be seeing a lot of as the Runt in the Boston Blackie movies. Here he's nothing but a racial stereotype, with his bottle glasses and tourist camera, so it's hard to judge his talents.

Given that we're in racial stereotype territory, it's surprising to see the Americans added into the mix. The heroes, if there are any such things here, are Douglas Fowley and Marjorie Woodworth, who's something of a Ginger Rogers lookalike. The weird thing is that Fowley plays an American insurance salesman who manipulates his way onto a line of people being paraded in front of Hitler before being shot, so that he can sell life insurance plans to all three of the Axis leaders. He manages it too. And then at the end, after the most deliberate character assassination in movie history, the filmmakers include a standard blurb underneath the end credits, stating that 'The events and characters depicted in this photoplay are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.' Come on.

Umberto D (1952) Vittorio de Sica

Old people apparently don't bring much appeal to the moviegoing public because there are so few films out there with the elderly in leading roles. However this is yet another example of why there should be more of them. Carlo Battisti is far from the only elderly man in this film but he's the most prominent one, the Umberto D of the title, and he's a joy to watch. He's Umberto Domenico Ferrari, a retired civil servant and he does seem to be up against it. He's trying to live decently but he has a bad chest and a dog to look after, and the rent takes over half his money every month, even though he's living in an ant-infested building where the landlady rents out his room to prostitutes during the day. He considers various alternatives, from friends to begging to suicide, but his little dog Flike gives him the answer to each.

Umberto D is apparently the crown of the Italian neo-realistic movement, both as its artistic pinnacle and its effective ending. Italian neo-realism dealt with grim realities that faced Italians after the second world war, especially poverty, and often used non-professional actors in important parts, often major ones like the title role here. The seventy year old Battisti had never appeared in a film before and he never would again. Apparently he was really a Professor of Glottology at the University of Florence, but there's something in him that works awesomely well as Umberto D. There's a deep sadness that pervades the entire film but is personified in this one character: he's a good man and he's worked hard all his life for his country but now there is nothing and he can't quite understand that.

There are heartrending scenes of massive power in Umberto D and I honestly couldn't imagine them being any more powerful performed by a professional actor. In fact much of the last half hour is breathtaking and much of that is due to Battisti and his little dog Flike. Credit is due to director Vittorio de Sica, composer Alessandro Cicognini, cinematographer G R Aldo and others, but on the screen it's Battisti and Flike. For a decent amount of time they're all that exist and if that isn't enough of an incentive to watch a movie, I don't know what is. This is an undeniable masterpiece, now a Top 250 film, and it makes me want to see de Sica's other Top 250 movie all the more. It's hard to imagine The Bicycle Thief being better than this, but it seems to be regarded so.

Third Dimensional Murder (1941) George Sidney

There's something very right about getting up in the morning to watch a Pete Smith specialty shot in Metroscopix, even if I don't have 3D glasses to experience it properly. It's a riot in a haunted house, populated by seemingly no end of monsters throwing things right at us, from spears to boiling oil, to demonstrate the shocking power of the Metroscopix process. There's Frankenstein's monster a few times, and mad archers, mad savages, mad everything. Pete Smith is as annoying a narrator as he always was, but he does add to the campness of the whole thing. It plays to me like a theme park ride or a commercial for the process itself.

Saturday 27 January 2007

Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1965)

If you can't guess what's going to happen when a couple with a young blonde daughter start talking in thick European accents about a large plastic bat flitting around the sky, then this film might just surprise you. Otherwise it's pretty obvious what's going on. Count Dracula is back, apparently, and this time he's in the bug eyed form of John Carradine who may just have slummed it in more awful movies than Bela Lugosi. The scariest thing about him here is just how far he lets himself ham it up, while ignoring traditionally important things to the Count as sunlight. He's also taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque because he's ended up in Arizona, where he sets his sights on Betty Bentley, the young woman who runs the Double Bar B ranch.

Unfortunately for him Betty's fiance is William Bonnie, the notorious outlaw who has apparently decided to stop being bad and settle down. For some reason everyone knows he's Billy the Kid but doesn't seem to care. The sheriff doesn't arrest him and the idiot ranch hand beats him up. I don't get that bit at all, but then not a lot of this film even tries to make sense. In fact even the title, while a great exploitation title in itself, is completely inaccurate. Billy the Kid isn't really the nemesis here at all, especially as he hasn't even heard of vampires. It's the immigrant woman who provides the knowledge and the local uneducated doctor who knows exactly where to find things out who provides the means.

That doctor is played by Olive Carey, wife of Harry and mother of Harry Jr, who is also in the film as a wagonmaster. I blinked and missed him but Olive was decent and makes me wonder why she didn't act more. She only appeared in 52 movies, over a 55 year period, of which this was the last, but in comparison, her husband appeared in 260. The immigrant woman, Eva Oster, is played by Virginia Christine who I don't know in the slightest but apparently everyone in the States, my wife included, knows her well as Mrs Olson, the Folgers Coffee woman from the long running commercials.

They're decent, if nothing special, but a number of people here really ought to be rounded up and shot by Billy the Kid himself for what they did to the industry here: Carl Hittleman who wrote the film, John Carradine who overacted so stunningly and maybe even director William Beaudine who had proved long before this that he had talent but who still made films like this. For someone with the talent to make silent movies like Sparrows and Little Annie Rooney, only to degenerate to dreck like The Ape Man and this is really sad. He shot this back to back with Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter, which I've seen and surprisingly enjoyed. Even Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla had enough bizarreness to rate far higher than this.

Friday 26 January 2007

Ace in the Hole (1951) Billy Wilder

We're in Albuquerque, NM, and we haven't taken a wrong turn. Kirk Douglas has broken down on his way from New York to somewhere and the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin where he decides to sell himself to the publisher. He's Chuck Tatum, a big town reporter, but he's had a habit of getting himself fired from important papers, which explains how he ends up in Albuquerque. His only way out is to find a big story and get himself noticed again, a big bad one because bad news sells papers and good news is no news, but a year in he's prowling the office like a lion surrounded by gazelle. He finally gets his chance when sent out to cover a rattlesnake hunt and discovers instead a cave in at a mine. Leo Minosa has got himself trapped and so Tatum takes the opportunity to create himself a media circus and write about the curse of the mountain of the seven vultures.

He knows how to do it too, not to benefit Leo but himself and consequently a whole bunch of other people. Kirk Douglas plays Tatum cynical and hard boiled. Like Mrs Minosa says, she's seen a lot of hard boiled eggs in her time but he's twenty minutes. He talks on the radio about every second counting in the fight to rescue Leo, but he persuades the crews to drill in from the top of the mountain even though it'll take a week instead of a couple of days of shoring up the passages; he gets deputised by the corrupt local sheriff because he's sure for reelection; he even manages to persuade Leo's wife to stay because she'll coin it in from the tourists and the carnival and everything else that Tatum conjures up.

All of this shameless manipulation rings completely true even now and yet this film is so old that the carnival is run by the Great S&M Amusement Corp and nobody laughs. It's the film Billy Wilder made right after Sunset Boulevard and before he'd even got to Stalag 17, Sabrina and Some Like It Hot, yet it's far more relevant than any of those classics today. That makes scriptwriters Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels the real stars here, along with an uncredited Wilder who also produced and directed.

On the screen it's hard to tell who the heroes are: certainly not Chuck Tatum, who's as sleazy as they come. The sheriff is a crook, Leo's wife throws herself after Tatum all the time he's apparently trying to rescue her husband, and even Leo himself only becomes newsworthy because he was traipsing around too far into Indian burial grounds to rob them of their treasure. The only good people in the film, like Tatum's young photographer and the contractor doing the rescue work, still get caught up in everyone else's mess, either by getting carried away or because they don't have a choice. Only Tatum's boss at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin is an honest man and he has no control over anything. It's not a pretty story and maybe that's why it didn't sell at the time. It went under two titles: Ace in the Hole and then The Big Carnival but neither did the trick. Maybe people just weren't ready for it.

Thursday 25 January 2007

Clerks II (2006) Kevin Smith

I was really impressed by Clerks, the low budget black and white film by the then unknown independent filmmaker Kevin Smith. I really shouldn't have been, given that Smith's tastes really don't tend to match mine too often, but he won me over with that one. In fact if I were to create a list of everything that I don't find funny in modern American cinema, it would include huge swathes of the moronic behaviour that Smith tends to cover as a matter of course in all his movies: frequent drug use, casual sex, random streams of profanity and the bizarre concept of stupidity as a goal.

However I do understand that this moronic behaviour is precisely what most of America spends its youth doing and he does his job well enough to have plenty of affinity with plenty of people. The honesty shines through, as does Kevin Smith's talent for writing dialogue, even though his actors aren't usually up to the task of reciting it properly. I also appreciate his talent for analysing popular culture in unconventional ways.

Clerks was about a day in the life of two of these morons, Dante and Randal, who work in a convenience store called the Quick Stop. It was self financed and shot in black and white on a tiny budget that was outstripped by the cost of securing the soundtrack rights. That was apparently a first for the film industry and it's not the only dubious title the film owns: it's also apparently the most stolen videotape ever from rental stores.

Twelve years later, after many other successful and often insightful comedies like Dogma and Chasing Amy, Smith finally bowed to the pressure and made Clerks II, which opens with the Quick Stop burning to a crisp, thus forcing Dante and Randal to finally move on. However they only move on as far as Mooby's, a fast food restaurant where we get to see another day in their mostly pointless existences. Dante is about to leave for Florida to get married (to Smith's real life wife and former USA Today journalist Jennifer Schwalbach, who looks truly scary here), but that would split up the partnership of nothingness between him and Randal.

I'm sure that Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson appreciated the work as they've done very little except play Dante and Randal for the entire intervening time since the original film. I hope they find something else of substance to do because posterity can't look back too well on two people being famous merely for playing two people who don't do anything. They're far from the only constant here, but there's nothing here that isn't in the first film except colour. I get the impression that Kevin Smith could improvise dialogue like this for days at a time, and I'm not sure if that means he's really talented or none of it is really special. Is the price of a movie ticket worth it if Smith could make a film just as good every day for a year?

I really shouldn't like Clerks II, but somehow I do, just as I liked Clerks. Maybe it makes me feel superior because whatever I am, at least I'm not Dante or Randal or Jay or Silent Bob or any of the other morons in this film. Then again almost anyone could watch almost any comedy of the last ten years and feel superior to almost any character in them. At least I hope so. Maybe Smith is right and most people don't want to aim that high.

Wednesday 24 January 2007

Meet Boston Blackie (1941) Robert Florey

I've seen a lot of movies directed by Robert Florey lately, including The Face Behind the Mask and The Beast with Five Fingers, but I've not come across Boston Blackie until now. He's a sort of neutral type like the Saint who walks the line between legal and illegal, and those were rare but interesting characters. Blackie is part time detective and part time safecracker, and was created by author Jack Boyle. I'll have to locate some of the stories as given that they started in 1914 they may well be in the public domain by now. The character became a long running star on radio and in the movies, and this was the first of fourteen B-movies released in the forties starring Chester Morris in the lead. Luckily I have four on the DVR right now and there are bunch more coming in March on Turner Classic Movies, so I'll be well up on Boston Blackie before too long.

In this one he's returned to the States on an ocean liner and Inspector Farraday is about to arrest him. He gives his word as a gentleman to go along with him, but instead disappears because a body has turned up dead in his state room. He follows the trail to a nearby carnival, complete with all the attractions you might expect, only to run into more bodies and the people who make them that way. In the process he picks up Cecilia Bradley, played by the delightful Rochelle Hudson who by this time had already become renowned for her voice work as Honey on the Bosko cartoons, and they quickly discover that this is all international spy stuff. Blackie must find a way to extricate himself from the situation, given that he proud of having never committed a crime of violence, and the plucky Cecilia helps out.

The regulars here start with Chester Morris, who I've seen in a few early thirties films, as the title character. He was one of those square headed leading men who were fashionable in the early sound era, like Richard Dix, only more fun to watch. I've long admired him in The Bat Whispers and was especially impressed with him in The Gay Bride, where he played opposite Carole Lombard, but he was always promising and I'd long looked forward to these films. He's as solid in the role as I was hoping for: fast moving, fast talking and with plenty of odd tricks up his sleeve. Now I'm eager for more.

His assistant is the Runt, played here by Charles Wagenheim, who really doesn't do much more than turn up and fumble around a bit. Hopefully his character will improve in the next film when the real regular takes the part: George E Stone. Blackie's nemesis is Inspector Farraday, played by Richard Lane who would remain his nemesis throughout the series. It'll be interesting to see if he ever gets more of an upper hand on his man than he does here. Incidentally, hiding in the background in one carnival scene is Schlitze, one of the pinheads from Freaks but he didn't look happy. I hope he had a better run of it than some of the other cast members once they were beyond Tod Browning's care.

Crank (2006) Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor

Crank is a strange little film. At heart it's Speed without a bus, in reality it's an 87 minute game video of Grand Theft Auto, as filmed and edited by Guy Ritchie. The sheer breakneck pace of it, as required by the plot, means that directors Neveldine & Taylor, sans first names, threw in everything you can see in GQ magazine or Maxim or whatever other competitor for an entire year long run. There are fast cars, fights, topless girls, snappy dialogue, guns, drugs, bad language, hallucinations, everything. Even the split screens can't keep still. I can see Spike TV channel showing this non-stop for a week at a time.

The lead is Jason Statham, who is always worth watching. He's at once the most unlikely Hollywood action star and the ultimate believable guy to do unbelievable things. Here he plays Chev Chelios, a professional hitman who has been poisoned by a competitor. It's no usual poison though, some sort of Chinese cocktail that takes a while to kick in, something similar to what they gave Edmond O'Brien in DOA. This one takes less than a hour but Chelios has to keep his adrenaline pumping or his heart will just stop. This leads to some bizarre scenes, like Chelios headbanging in the back of a taxi to Achy Breaky Heart, standing in public in a hospital gown with a raging hardon or starting a fight in a black biker gang hangout. There's also the most outrageous and hilarious public sex scene I've seen on film.

The directors throw in every trick in the book, and humour's only one of them. I lost count of all the devices they stole from Guy Ritchie to speed up time, and there are flashback scenes reminiscent of those in Run Lola Run but I couldn't tell if these went forward in time as well. There are new ones too though, including a cool way of manoeuvering around the city via a Google Earth overlay, dictionary definitions being thrown on the screen and a very cool look at a subtitle from behind. Even the ending wasn't a copout and that must have been tempting. I loved some of the little touches and for a 2006 movie I'm happy to even see little touches. Definitely one I'll be watching again soon.

Miss Julie (1951) Alf Sjöberg

Winner of the grand prize at Cannes in 1951, I guess that means that there were other directors of note in Sweden other than Ingmar Bergman, at least after the end of the silent era and before the rise of the Dogme collective. As you'd expect from the title, the story is about Miss Julie, a forceful young aristocrat. She causes a bit of a stir at the beginning of the film by dancing with one of her servants at the Midsummer Night servants' Ball and then shows him up because he isn't putting enough of his soul into it. She doesn't stop there either and keeps alternately tormenting him and flirting with him for the rest of the film.

Perhaps she's a little crazy because she's only 25 years old, and she's been engaged to be married but apparently the engagement is now off. Maybe it's confusion because as the only child of an aristocratic family, she was brought up for manmy years as a boy. Maybe it's the whole class thing, as certainly she's a temperamental sort, acting like a spoiled child one minute and the high and mighty lady of the manor the next. She's important enough for her and her mother to have their own seats at church, way out on their own while everyone else has to sit in the pews. So she's drawn to the forbidden fruit of the footman yet repelled by slumming it with him.

Reading up on the story, it's apparently 1894 though this isn't made apparent in the film, and the source play by August Strindberg, often filmed and translated into operas, is designed to discuss the issues of class combined with love and lust. Apparently the focus of the film, which after all is almost entirely on Miss Julie and Jean the servant, has to do with a battle of power. Miss Julie has power of Jean because she's an aristocrat, but Jean has power over Miss Julie because he's a man. The Count, who only appears in flashbacks, has power over them both by being an aristocrat and a man. Even absent, his name is enough to make them think twice about anything.

I know none of these actors at all, beyond Max Von Sydow who seemingly must appear in every Swedish film there is. The leads, Anita Bjork and Ulf Palme, are excellent though and do a fine job of carrying the film on their own. The only time they really give up some of the spotlight is to share it with their younger selves when Inger Norberg and Jan Hagerman take over, and they're not bad at all. All of them make me wonder how many other names there are in Swedish cinema that I've never heard of.

Tuesday 23 January 2007

Mississippi Burning (1988) Alan Parker

Mississippi in 1964 is not a pleasant place if you're black, as evidenced by the very first shot of the film: separate white and coloured drinking fountains, and you can imagine which one is shiny and new and works properly. Anyway a few people, including what appear to be cops, decide to take it a little further and three young civil rights activists, two white and one black, are murdered. The FBI send in a couple of agents to investigate their apparent disappearance but they find much more than that.

The agents are an intriguing couple with very different approaches: Gene Hackman, who was a former small town Mississippi sheriff himself and thus knows how it works, and a young Willem Dafoe, who is well aware of the civil rights movement from personal experience. The strange thing is that it's Dafoe's character, Agent Alan Ward, who's in charge. Agent Rupert Anderson, Hackman's character, is there to throw in expertise, offbeat humour and plenty of alternative investigation. After their hotel room is shot at to let them know there's a burning cross outside, Ward calls in reinforcements and starts up a headquarters and plan of attack but Anderson wanders round the barber shop and the hair salon finding out what he can find out. He wants the same ends but he doesn't want a war, and of course that's what Ward's actions instigate.

Of course with the town populated by the people it is, you can imagine the sort of situation they're facing. The sheriff is the only one who doesn't immediately leap out at me: he's Gailard Sartain and I've seen him in films from Roadie to Fried Green Tomatoes to Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, but it's the rest who stand out before they even appear on screen. The mayor is W Lee Ermey, the gunnery sergeant in Full Metal Jacket; the deputy is Brad Dourif, possibly the most intense actor on screen over the last few decades, not least in films like Wise Blood, Chaindance and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; and his wife is Frances McDormand, who deservedly won an Oscar for Fargo. Add in Michael Rooker and you're looking at serious intensity.

The whole film is a serious accomplishment. That it sits in good company with In the Heat of the Night is a great compliment but not an unfair one. Gene Hackman is superb and many of the rest of the cast aren't that far behind. It's the message that stands out most though and that's one that's going to resonate. It's a fictionalised version of true events, but in reality nobody was brought to book for the murder of three real civil rights activists, J E Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, until 2005. The Klan grand wizard who authorised it, was also eventually convicted to life in 1998 but for another murder, and even then only on the fifth trial.

There's a lot here that demonstrates the emotional immaturity of the United States. These events are set in 1964 which is ancient history to many Americans but still not that long ago, and however much this story is fictionalised, there are equivalent stories in most towns and states across the south. Even now I saw a lot of similarity between Dafoe's escalation of this situation with the Bush administration's treatment of Iraq. They went in, didn't understand how things worked and tried to solve the problem with sheer force of numbers. Instead of solving the problem they made it worse and polarised a lot of local opinion against them, even from those who ought to be on their side.

Today We Live (1933) Howard Hawks

Hollywood always took liberties with source material but this one's a great example of just how things got messed around. The story comes from William Faulkner, who apparently wrote it as a story featuring three men in wartime, but the screenplay by Edith Fitzgerald and Dwight Taylor decides to add an entirely new female lead, so that Joan Crawford could have something to do. They didn't try to change the nationalities too, but Crawford, Franchot Tone and Robert Young are hardly English and their accents and attempts at clipped speech are really not good. I'm also no fashion junkie but there's no way these fit 1916 England, suggesting that Hollywood just didn't care to cast English actors and that highlighting Adrian's creations was more important than realism. And after all this is a war film. If you can't put realism in a war film what can you put it in?

The plot is a little ridiculous too, helped along by further unfortunate casting that, to be fair, wasn't the fault of the filmmakers. The romance follows Richard Bogard and Diana Boyce-Smith, known as Ann, who find and lose each other a few times through the war. Bogard, played by Gary Cooper, travels over to England halfway through World War I, apparently for no reason at all, and he rents a large Kent house from Ann, who can't afford to keep it up now that her family are all fighting abroad. Unfortunately news of her father's death arrives just after Bogard and so there's a huge amount of discomfort for a while.

That presumably doesn't last for long because next thing we know they're in love, without any apparent notice, even though she's going to get married to Robert Young who plays a childhood friend called Claude. The unfortunate casting is that the third man, the only one who she's not supposed to fall in love with, is played by Franchot Tone who she was really falling in love with at the time. That's pretty obvious too, given the way they look at each other, and it helps that Crawford, never the most glamorous star, looks pretty good here.

I was wondering how the tone of the film was going to run, given all those Hollywood names, and it seems to go fine for a while. Because England is at war in 1916 when Bogard arrives, he's asked a few questions by the military on the way into the country, and there are some half-friendly digs at the Americans, which I'm sure is highly realistic. Later as Bogard starts to understand something about the war, he volunteers, again something that a number of Americans did even before their government officially had anything to do with it. However it's later in 1916 when it becomes a little vague.

The Americans finally join in the fight for world freedom, only for Bogard to suddenly become a Captain and turn up at exactly the same place all three of the others are, because naturally everyone gets to choose where they fight during wartime and who they get to fight with. Anyway, Bogard finds the sheer audacity to berate Robert Young's character, a sailor, and take up him up in the air to show the English what war is all about. Young is depicted as halfway between a moron and a drunken idiot, but just as I start to wonder just how blatantly offensive this is going to get he suddenly becomes a hero and takes out a bunch of Germans on his first run as a forward gunner without ever being scared.

Then in return Ronnie and Claude invite Bogard onto one of their speedboats to head out through mines into an enemy harbour to fire off their torpedo at a German ship fighting back with everything they have. Claude shows his bravery once more, even though he comes back blind, and Bogard can't help but find some respect. Maybe this is all some sort of Hollywood apology for typical American arrogance, addressed by highlighting how we were really all on the same side doing what had to be done and arguing about who had most guts is pretty dumb. If so, it's a clumsy yet blatant way of showing it. Director Howard Hawks, along with Robert Rossen, listed as co-director, really ought to have known better, but maybe they were too busy showing some powerful battle scenes. That's something at least, but there isn't much else except Franchot Tone's excellent showing in only his second movie.

The Guilty Generation (1931) Rowland V Lee

Here's another 1931 play made into a film, this time one originally written by Jo Milward and J Kerby Hawkes, whoever they are, but really just a modern take on Romeo and Juliet. The leads are Leo Carrillo and Constance Cummings, but they really ought to count Robert Young and Boris Karloff who are just important to the story and whose careers went much further. Carrillo was distinguished outside the acting profession but ended up playing stereotypical Latino roles, especially Pancho in the long running TV series The Cisco Kid, and Cummings was better known as a stage actress whose films were mostly made in England.

Here Carrillo plays Mike Palmiero and Karloff plays Tony Ricca, both major gangsters who have decided to fight it out for the number one spot in a gang war. They're tough in traditional ways: Palmiero has to get everything he wants even he has to buy it, from people to newspapers and social standing, and Karloff is a little more forgiving with his son but just as tough. Carrillo starts off decent but wooden but gets progressively more scary as the film goes on; Karloff maybe tries a little hard but doesn't get a lot of screen time and carries his own menace, as you'd expect.

Their kids don't want anything to do with any of it, naturally, even though Palmiero is trying to turn his daughter into a socialite. Ricca's son has gone so far as to change his name to John Smith to get away from his heritage and become an respectable architect on his own merits. These are Constance Cummings and Robert Young and they're the Romeo and Juliet of the story. They meet, neither knowing who the other is, and naturally fall for each other, but you know how Romeo and Juliet ended up. This has a surprise ending but it's a real peach, one of the best I've seen from the early thirties.

I'm really starting to enjoy 1931, part of but still distinct from the precode era, and The Guilty Generation is old but not particularly creaky for its age. The performances are good, the story gripping, the direction solid and the tone dangerous, and I think it stands above some of the other gangster films of the year, the really notable ones that introduced people like James Cagney and Edward G Robinson. 1931 was the year of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, and certainly both of those future stars outdo Carrillo and Karloff, but for all their importance those films had a lot of flaws. I even prefer Cagney in The Doorway to Hell, a made a year earlier, where he plays second fiddle to Lew Ayres but steals the entire show from sixth on the credits, and I prefer this one too.

Monday 22 January 2007

Riders to the Stars (1954) Richard Carlson

There are a bunch of scientific advisors credited just after the cast, including a Space-Medicine Research expert and a location for acceleration research on human centrifuges. Could this really be a serious science fiction movie, while accompanied by such a sappy theme song sung by Kitty White, which for some bizarre reason redirects in Wikipedia to Helly Kitty dolls. Well, the introduction is a little generic and the editing sucks but it still has promise. The script is by Curt Siodmak who wrote dumb scifi as well as decent science fiction, though some of the actors don't seem to understand the lines they're being given to speak. The initial acting suggests that the presence of James Best in the cast may actually improve it.

Anyway the story starts out like House on Haunted Hill. A Man in Black or some such invites a dozen men to report to particular address in California but can't tell them why. They arrive on a bus together but aren't allowed to divulge their specialties. Most ominously they are asked to sign waivers because they're going to be subjected to tests, but again with no explanation. What it boils down to is that four of them are needed to fly a rocket up into space and capture a meteor in flight, so that the scientists can analyse its outer coating before it gets boiled away by entry into the atmosphere. James Best gets kicked off the project in no time, but a few others get picked and trained for the mission, including William Lundigan, Robert Karnes and the director of the film, Richard Carlson.

The whole point for all of this is based on a horrendous lack of understanding of materials science, but the tests and training exercises look admirably realistic and there's a lot of fascinating stock footage of early space experimentation. What else was refreshing here was the fact that of only two women in the film, a beautiful model and a space medicine nerd, the model is a superficial nothing and the nerd is an intelligent and sensitive soul. You don't see that too often nowadays, but I'm surprised to see it at all from 1954 and Martha Hyer ought to be proud of her early strike for geek feminism. To my mind that makes up for the often terrible editing, bad transition to stock footage and Hyer's highly overdone lipstick. However it certainly doesn't make up for the awful special effects though once the rockets head up into space: we see three really bad model rockets trying to catch really bad model meteors. The tiny ground control crew doesn't help.

All in all, allowing for the time, this one really isn't that bad. Metallurgically, romantically and from the standpoint of effects it sucks, but from the standpoint of space exploration from a 1954 perspective it's surprisingly solid.

Harpya (1979) Raoul Servais

I'd never even heard of Raoul Servais until his name popped up on the excellent blog Bibi's Box, but I followed the links and downloaded some short films and instantly became a fan. He's a Belgian animator who is far from prolific, with only 14 films to his name in 42 years, but I'm well aware that lack of output can often equate to higher overall quality. Harpya is only eight and a half minutes long but it won the Golden Palm for best short in 1979. I'm well aware that animation can often get very strange indeed but this definitely ranks up there.

An unnamed man dressed in Victorian garb saves a harpy from being throttled to death, and takes it home to safety. He seems the epitome of genorosity and understanding, caring for the strange bare breasted creature with wings for arms, but the harpy soon makes his life a misery by stealing all his food. Then again that's what harpies do, right? That's why the gods sent them to torture Phineas. When he tries to escape the harpy eats his legs.

If there's a message here it has to be something about being aware of who you help out, because your actions might just come back to bite you on the ass. That's hardly a standard cinematic message but I guess it has decent validity. It could be taken as advice simply not to mess around with harpies, but how many of those were flying around in 1970s Belgium I really don't know. Besides, I'd learned that much from classical studies class way back when. At the end of the day, though I'm sure I'm not the only one misunderstanding the point, as IMDb recommends that if I like this I should try Kindergarten Cop. Erm...

The animation is fascinating. While I've seen plenty of animated shorts, I don't know enough about the history of animation to know where these techniques fit into the timeframe of the medium but this one mixes live action with animation very well indeed. The hero looks pretty good wandering around on his hands because he no longer has legs, for instance. The harpy herself, played by Fran Waller Zeper, looks the part and wouldn't be out of place in a Tool video. I'll definitely be following up on this one with more of Raoul Servais's work.

When a Man Loves (1927) Alan Crosland

This one ought to be a pretty realistic love story, given that the two leads, John Barrymore and Dolores Costello were busy falling in love when making it. Their son, John Drew Barrymore, is the father of today's star Drew Barrymore, making this a major entry in her family history. It also reteams Barrymore with director Alan Crosland, a year after they made Don Juan together, the first film to synchronise sound with speech, and which was notable for the number of kisses in the movie and for Barrymore's outrageous trousers which left precisely nothing to the imagination.

We're in Amiens, a French town during the reign of Louis XV. Dolores Costello's character is really the lead, because she plays Manon Lescaut, whose name was given to the many ballets and operas based on the original source novel. Manon is a young lady who thinks she's about to go into a convent, but who is really being sold by her greedy brother to some lech from Paris who looks like a scary version of Robin Williams. Meanwhile, the Chevalier Fabien des Grieux, played by John Barrymore, is joining the priesthood. Regardless of their circumstances, the two see each other and obviously fall in love at first sight. As the Chevalier has overheard her brother's plans, he leaps up to her balcony to rescue her. The church is forgotten and they run off to Paris together.

The Chevalier is a little effete and Manon a little useless, as befits the fashions of the times, both the period in which the story was set and the time at which it was made, and needless to say they don't manage to stay together for long. Manon is manipulated away by her brother, played by a twisted Warner Oland, after Don Juan and Tell It to the Marines but before Old San Francisco, The Jazz Singer and lasting fame as Dr Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. They're almost reunited but not quite, and the Chevalier, left with only her kitten for company, must search on. Anyway, they find each other, lose each other, find each other... you can picture the rest.

The film is well done but its fundamental problem is that, a couple of scenes notwithstanding, it's hard to root for Fabien and Manon. It's not how they're played, rather who they are. They were sympathetic for the first twenty minutes but then I began to feel that they deserved all they got, all the way to the end. Sure, they're not despicable like the Comte de Morfontaine, but they ceased to be people I cared about. By the tail end of the movie I was far more interested in catching a glimpse of Myrna Loy as the prisoner behind Manon on her way to deportation. I wonder what Drew thought.

Incidentally the last fifteen or so minutes seems like an entirely different movie. We're on a prison boat bound for Louisiana and suddenly we're out of the period romance and into a pulp swashbuckler. Barrymore demonstrates that he's fully up to any challenge laid down by a Douglas Fairbanks Sr, clad in tattered clothing but leaping around inside cages gesticulating wildly, exhorting his fellows to break out and escaping to save his girl. If only the whole movie could have been a pulp swashbuckler!

The Wages of Fear (1953) Henri-Georges Clouzot

Life in the Venezuelan village of Las Piedras seems to be pretty quiet. The heat is excessive so while local kids dance in the streams of water, everyone else lounges in the sun, casually throwing stones at dogs, lusting after the local waitress or pouring water over themselves. In fact everything is casual: the local immigration clerk lounges around with no shoes on; the driver of the water truck seems to be asleep; people steal, love, do precisely nothing with the quiet air of the siesta. It's pretty obvious that those Europeans who have found their way here have done so through some dubious means, probably because they shouldn't be anywhere else. However they're stuck there because there's no work, thus no money and it's too expensive to get out. Only the oil company has money and they aren't hiring lowlife westerners.

Or at least they aren't hiring until a bad accident kills five people, and they need to transport a ton of nitroglycerin to derrick 16. Bill O'Brien, the man in charge, will pay good money to Europeans to do the job , in order to avoid paying off the families of local labourers who while exploited are still union workers. The big problem is that the nitro is volatile, the roads in terrible condition and the trucks not equipped with necessary safety equipment, so O'Brien sends four men in two trucks, both loaded with enough nitro to do the job just in case the other truck doesn't get through.

Director Henri-Georges Clouzot builds his story wonderfully, so the four are well defined characters before they ever set off, even though we aren't filled in on their reasons for being in Las Piedras. There's Mario, played by the singer/actor Yves Montand in his first major dramatic role; the dangerous yet cowardly Jo with a huge chin, played by Charles Venal, who had one of the longest careers of any actor: from 1910 to 1988, three more even than Lillian Gish and second only to German Curt Bois; Folco Lulli as the hard working Luigi, with perhaps only six months to live; and Peter van Eyck as a very capable Dutchman called Bimba.

The village reeks of authenticity even though it's really in southern France and was specifically constructed for this film. We can feel the mud and the sun and the lethargy, let alone the danger and the tension and the insane rivalry between the drivers of the two trucks. The ending is a good one, though I saw it coming, but all in all Henri-George Clouzot does a marvellous job, and I'm intrigued to see the later version of the same source novel, filmed as Sorcerer by William Friedkin in 1977. I'm also even more intrigued to see Les Diaboliques, Clouzot's other Top 250 film, made two years after this one, which shook up everything and led to the birth of Psycho.

Sunday 21 January 2007

Portrait of Jennie (1948) William Dieterle

Kicking off with a speech about the eternal questions and accompanied by a quotation from Euripedes and another from Keats, this really ought to be a deep and meaningful work of art. However while it's certainly full of substance, it's far more approachable than it would at first seem.

Joseph Cotten is his usual hardboiled self, but this time round he's a struggling New York painter called Eben Adams. He's not bad, it seems, but he can't sell much of his work. He does sell one to wonderfully crisp gallery owner Ethel Barrymore but she's more interested in him than his paintings. She sees something in him that he doesn't even see himself. One thing he sees that nobody else does is Jennie, a young schoolgirl played by Jennifer Jones who he meets in the park. She's also a ghost. As you'd expect from the title, he draws her portrait and it's the one piece of work that changes everything for him. After all what could be more timeless than the face of a ghost?

There's some glory here and not just in the main focus of the film. Maybe that's partly due to Joseph Cotten, who like William Holden, has a marvellous habit of seeping into his films like dye. Both of them are integral parts of all of their movies but they never seem to be the focus. They just provide the canvas for others to dance life onto. Here it's Jennifer Jones, who is a delight, so delightful it seems that producer David O Selznick fell in love with her. He married her a year after this film and they remained married until his death in 1965. She ages here notably but superbly, better than most such instances I've seen from this era, making the Oscar the film won for special effects justified.

It's not just her though. It's also Ethel Barrymore, one of the greatest stage actors to make her mark on the film industry too. She was such a great actor that very few others could ever hold a candle to her work, but she must have been on top form in Portrait of Jennie because she knew that one of those few was here too: Lillian Gish, who has stunned me more than any other actor, male or female, since I started exploring the history of cinema. Every time I've seen her I've been literally humbled by her talent and here was no exception: it's a small part and she seems to do so little yet I was immensely touched by it. I admired every movement Ethel Barrymore made but I was touched by every movement Lillian Gish didn't. Just looking at her eyes made me almost want to cry.

There are other odd merits, such as the great scene of blarney between two Irishmen, one finding a way to persuade the other into what he wants. It's magic writing and magic performing, that's for sure. Much of the rest of the script is a little talky and overly poetic but it fits the great sweep of things. It's a strange romance but then the strangest ones are usually the most intriguing.

Closely Watched Trains (1966) Jiří Menzel

The French New Wave, that shook up how film was used in the early sixties, was run by names I'd heard of even before I'd ever seen anything they made: François Truffaut, Jean Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol. After them came the Czech New Wave, which apparently was pretty influential on its own, but this time I'd only heard of one of them, Miloš Forman, and then only because of work he did after fleeing to the States after the Soviets ended the Prague Spring, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus. There are others and this is one of the major films from one of them, Jiří Menzel, major enough to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 1966.

We're in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II and we focus on Milos Herma, a young man who has followed in his father's footsteps by landing a prestigious job as a train dispatcher at the local station, Kostomlaty. It's important, as he tells us at the beginning of the film, because he won't have to do anything. It seems that avoiding hard work is the primary function of his family, including his father who is the envy of the locals because he retired early and will collect a pension for decades for doing precisely nothing at all.

Herma can enjoy standing on the platform saluting passing trains, changing the signals and doing not much else except learning about life from his puritanical boss, his lech of a supervisor and those characters who pass through his station: the local Countess, retreating soldiers, a train car load of nurses, SS officers and victims of partisan bullets. It's Milos's coming of age that is our real story.

The film is based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, which (and who) I haven't even heard of, let alone read, so I have no idea how faithful an adaptation it is. If it's faithful then I'm sure the author got into trouble with the Communists too, for all the insight into the mindset of the idle sex crazed youth who like the protagonists of other Czech New Wave movies care far more about their own immediate problems than any grand ideological crusade. Propaganda posters of taloned Soviet hands descending on Czech towns don't help either, of course. Even when something does happen for what might seem to outsider's eyes like a cause, it's really just a reassurance of masculinity and nothing ostensibly ideological at all.

Jiří Menzel has a poet's eye for composition but a filmmaker's eye for budget, and this is a real treatise on how to make things happen without spending huge amounts of money on them. There are scenes of blissful tenderness between lovers, deep sadness when things don't work out and wry humour like the scenes where the telegraphist's mother shows off her backside covered in railroad stamps to everyone she can find to complain to. There are beautiful images conjured out of steam and motion.

Most refreshing to my mind is the fact that all these are real and believable people. Just like in Forman's Loves of a Blonde, the characters are no great beauties in any traditional supermodel sense, but they carry a real beauty that transcends that sort of fakery. Jitka Bendová, unfortunate surname notwithstanding, and Jitka Zelenohorská, the young ladies who play Milos's girlfriend and the stamped telegraphist respectively, are far more sensual in my eyes than any random handful of Hollywood starlets.

Dirigible (1931) Frank R Capra

Made a year before Forbidden, here's another Frank Capra movie that doesn't seem like a Frank Capra movie. It's an adventure story, full of the old Jules Verne school of adventure: tackling what hasn't been done purely because it hasn't been done. It's dedicated the US Navy, which makes complete sense given the subject matter and the obvious help the filmmakers were given, but at the same time it's thankfully no cheesy piece of propaganda. Propaganda maybe, but without much of the usual cheese, which instead is reserved for the love triangle.

Commander Braden has been summoned to Washington DC to see Rear Admiral John Martin. A French explorer named Rondelle wants to fly to the South Pole and for some reason he's asking for US Navy assistance. Rather than sail down and then fly to the pole from Antarctica, Martin's idea is to use a dirigible, still well in fashion given that this is 1931 and the Hindenberg wouldn't explode until 1937 in Lakehurst, NJ, which just by coincidence seems to be where Martin sells his idea to Rondelle on Navy Day.

Braden, as portrayed by Jack Holt, is the reliable, serious yet still romantic officer who counterbalances Lt Frisky Pierce well. Pierce is a hotshot grandstander who has already won a huge amount of glory reaching no end of artificial milestones, like bringing a newspaper from the west coast to the east coast of the States in one day. He's played by Ralph Graves, who does his job very well indeed but who also looks for posterity like a cheap version of Pat O'Brien, who did this sort of thing perfectly. The thing is that O'Brien was busy arriving in 1931 in The Front Page, but Graves had been in movies since 1918 and had already made over seventy of them. The two are friends but have also both been rivals for Helen, Frisky's wife, played with no shortage of melodrama by Fay Wray, who knew aviation well through being married to John Monk Saunders, who wrote many of these sorts of films at this time, including Wings, which won the first Best Picture Oscar.

The love triangle is too melodramatic, but that's not Fay's fault, and there are apparently a bunch of technical mistakes, not errors as such but blatant changes in reality. Luckily I don't know enough about this sort of thing for it to make a difference for me. What this is really about is the adventure and the conquest of the air. It's fascinating to watch these huge dirigibles manoeuvre around the sky, and all the more powerful knowing that six years later in the same place, Lakehurst, NJ, they'd be effectively wiped out by one spectacular explosion that killed 36 people. The flying scenes are spectacular, especially those over Antarctic landscape, and they're all the more so for not being CGI. I'm a sucker for this sort of stuff and I really appreciate it when it's done well. These really early Capras have been real eyeopeners for me. They're solid films, especially so for the era, but they're also solidly not Capra-corn.

The Return of the Vampire (1944) Lew Landers

On the outskirts of London in 1918, Andreas the wolfman whose hair only goes as far south as his chin visits the vaults of the Priory Cemetery to awaken his master, the vampire Armand Tesla, thus leading to the first return of the title. Then we switch to his first victim, the young daughter of Dr Walter Saunders, who he bits but doesn't get the chance to kill. Saunders has been investigating a patient and has got stumped, so naturally assumes that it's the work of vampires and werewolves and the such and equally naturally reads up on the work of a Romanian writer two hundred years ago. Yes, you've guessed it: Armand Tesla. And he tracks him down that very night and hammers a stake into his heart. I lost count of the scary number of coincidences I came across here.

It's obvious that this is a cheap run of the mill production from the very beginning, but it rapidly degenerates into something truly awful. Gilbert Emery can take heart from the fact that his performance here is uncredited. As Dr Saunders, he has the most outrageous and cliched lines you can comfortably imagine and throws them out completely deadpan. Needless to say there's a second return, courtesy of the Germans who wreck the cemetery, and so Armand Tesla gets to have another go at Nikki Saunders, this time a little older. More coincidences, of course, but they continue. Tesla's coffin gets knocked up onto the surface and the top removed, so that the wardens pull it out. All this of course comes on the day before his coffin is going to be opened anyway by Scotland Yard.

Yep, this one's painful. It possibly wasn't quite as bad in 1944 as it is now, but that doesn't mean it wasn't really awful. Bela is Bela and Nina Foch, who plays Nikki, is cute. There isn't anything else here. Incidentally I recently saw Nina Foch no less than 61 years later, playing David McCallum's delightfully crazy mother in NCIS. Somehow she survived this early entry on her resume.

Saturday 20 January 2007

The Women (1939) George Cukor

The title card adds, 'As presented for 666 performances in its triumphant run at the Ethel Barrmore Theatre, New York', which would seem to be a superstitious number, but maybe that's only because I've just watched Night of the Demon. The play was by Clare Boothe, and adapted for the screen by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. Loos, of course, wrote the screenplays for a number of great films, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from her own novel.

This film stands unique on a number of fronts. For a start, the title is more apt than we'd usually expect: while there's a cast of what seems like hundreds (really only 130 or so), they're all women. That's not just the leading cast either, as even the kids are are girls and apparently all the many pets are female too. No wonder the director is George Cukor, famously described as 'the women's director'. I guess that works with a capital letter too. Apparently the only female MGM stars who didn't appear in this one were Greta Garbo and Myrna Loy. Also, I've never seen credits like these before. Warner Brothers movies in the thirties tended to have photos or video clips to accompany the actors' names, but here we see not just the actresses but also their characters through animals. Beyond the cats and tigers you'd expect in an all-woman cast, Joan Fontaine plays a sheep, apparently, and Marjorie Main a horse. I wonder what they felt about that.

The lead is played by an excellent Norma Shearer, in what is apparently the last great performance of her career. This is 1939, so it's late for her, with only three further films left to come. Her talent grew over time and eventually outstripped the well publicised fact that she was married to MGM Irving Thalberg, for whom the word 'wunderkind' seems to have been invented, and thus highly likely to get the great parts anyway, with due merit or not. She's Mary Haines, who believes that she's happily married to Stephen Haines, but has an eyeopening due. He's a huge McGuffin, because we never see him but the entire plot stems from the fact that on the sly he's seeing a girl who works behind the perfume counter at Black's on Fifth Avenue, and Mary finds out.

This perfume girl is Crystal Allen,a manipulative little scamp able to conjure up any lie necessary to get her way, as depicted with feeling by Joan Crawford. I'm a guy, and a straight one at that, so naturally I have no clue about any of this but I have a feeling that the film works as an opening into another world. Watching Crystal twisting her boyfriend Stephen round her little finger over the phone is like watching a living textbook, and from then on everything seems like documentary footage. Most telling are Mary's faces and tones of voice and the dangerous prodding and bitchy asides of friend Sylvia, courtesy of actress Rosalind Russell.

Russell is a riot, and she's far from the only notable character here. It often feels like if I blinked, I'd miss someone new. She may be the most obvious but there's also Lucile Watson as Mary's wise mother, Virginia Grey at the perfume counter, Ruth Hussey as Stephen's secretary, Muriel Hutchison as Mary's maid, Mary Boland as a much-married and much-divorced countess, Marjorie Main as a worldly Nevada cook, even thirteen year old Virginia Weidler as Mary and Stephen's daughter, among many others, and they all help to build the background to what appears to be the story that goes on behind all those other MGM films of the second half of the thirties, the ones where the men run the show and the women are just there as ornaments. Very eye-opening indeed!

Night of the Demon (1957) Jacques Tourneur

Back in the days before the eighties slasher boom, horror movies were based on work from the classics, not just the really obvious ones by Edgar Allan Poe but other great works seemingly known only to those connossieurs of the genre, like in this case, Casting the Runes by classic ghost story writer M R James. When not just based on great material but made by great filmmakers like Jacques Tourneur, who has a few classics on his resume: Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man, all for producer Val Lewton; The Comedy of Terrors for Roger Corman; and even non-genre greats like the film noir Out of the Past, which now has a firm spot on the Top 250.

Professor Harrington finds his way at a rapid pace to Lufford Hall to talk Dr Karswell out of doing something dangerous with the supernatural. Karswell doesn't oblige and Harrington heads home only to find himself confronted by a hideous demon and a quick death. Flying in from America to investigate all of this sort of thing is Dr John Holden, played with crusading skepticism by Dana Andrews. He finds himself battling Karswell, who has predicted his death on an exact date, the same prediction he had given to Harrington.

This film works on plenty of levels. It's an intelligent treatment of the source material made by a superb cast led by Andrews and Niall MacGinnis, as Karswell, but continuing all the way down to the supporting actors like Reginald Beckwith, Liam Redmond and Peter Elliott; a thrilling and tense journey into the supernatural, complete with a wicked and memorable demon; and battles between light and dark, skepticism and belief and two individual people. Films like this are rare, because genre filmmakers generally don't have the talent for art and composition, and especially the power of shadow, that Tourneur has, and they're either too afraid or too stupid to value the intelligence of their viewers by showing something of quality.

When writing my IMDb Project review for The Great Escape, I realised just how much has changed in the last few decades, by noticing how many cool things were just there on the screen. They didn't do anything dynamic, other than just be there where they ought to be, to look realistic and make the scene right. Nowadays everything on screen has to be a prop and props have to be used. It means that we can write many modern film scripts in our head a couple of minutes ahead of the real ones, while watching, and be spot on more often than not. This, thankfully, comes from the days where that wasn't the case.

Incidentally, I saw this film, usually titled Night of the Demon, under the American title of Curse of the Demon, which was originally cut by twelve minutes, presumably to dumb it down, but later restored to its full length. I'm thankful for that too, because like most people that modern filmmakers ignore, I'm not afraid to see films that contain talk and intelligence as well as action. This is all the more tense for its background and it's mastery at work.

The Bachelor Father (1931) Robert Z Leonard

C Aubrey Smith, that curmudgeonly paragon of Victorian English virtue is hardly a paragon here as Sir Basil Winterton, though he's just as curmudgeonly. He has a whole bunch of honours appearing as initials after his name, but he's also an elderly bachelor with only illegitimate offspring. Given that this is 1931, and thus firmly within the precode era, he's allowed to mention the fact and in fact they're the key focus of the plot! He decides that he wants all these diverse bastard kids summoned to his home, Rooksfold Manor in Surrey, to live with him. They're Toni, a lively American dancer, Maria, an emotional Italian singer, and Geoffrey, an English musician, played respectively by Marion Davies, Nina Quartero and a very young Ray Milland.

Milland and Quartero are not bad but it's hard to even notice them, because this is really all about the connection between Davies and Smith, two very different people and two very different characters who work through complete enmity to find some common ground. Toni doesn't just move in but takes over too, ordering him around for his own benefit and much to his annoyance, becoming in the process as much mother and wife as daughter. Smith came to the part from the stage, having originated it on Broadway three years earlier and Davies has always been great in anything that isn't entirely serious. She has fun here and that's contagious, and she stretches a few boundaries here that would never have been permitted after the code kicked in.

Beyond the two of them there are a couple more characters who are far more noticeable than the other kids. There's Halliwell Hobbes as Larkin, one of the butlers. He obviously paid a lot of attention to Marion Davies, because he obviously enjoys making a fool of himself as much as she does, leaping around to scare off a plane or trying to dynamically explain how Toni plays craps. Then there's the Irish woman who brought up Toni in New York, played with much gusto by Elizabeth Murray. Compared to either of these, Maria and Geoffrey fade into the background completely, and compared to Marion Davies they're more like props.

Watch this for Marion Davies's spontaneity and C Aubrey Smith's fits of apoplexy, and for the fact that 1931 was a year where filmmakers had started to get things right. After the silent era had reached its pinnacle in 1928, the studios had to scramble around learning how to work with sound and there's not a lot worth watching from 1929. Things improved during 1930 until 1931 became a new pinnacle, only for the styles to change completely by 1932. The distinguishable greats from 1931 are ones like this, successful translations of very watchable stage plays onto film, mostly without the benefit of soundtracks and with seriously good actors making themselves known.

Friday 19 January 2007

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964)

We're treated to an interesting opening. A scary gypsy woman wishes us a terrible evening and warns us not to watch the film, or at midnight she'll take our souls. What a way to start! This is a crackly old print of a 1964 Brazilian movie, and it's obvious early on that the acting is not of stellar quality, but the whole thing simply reeks of exotica. It's also highly refreshing because in all my years of watching horror movies I've never seen anything like this.

The film roughly equates to the lead character, because he dominates this film entirely. He is Zé do Caixão, known to Western audiences, or at least those who even know of his existence, as Coffin Joe, and this was the first of many films he made as both actor and director. Unlike any other horror lead I can think of from the sixties, he's not just no hero but he's a complete badass and it's impossible not to watch him. He's the local undertaker and he dominates everyone and everything around him. He swaggers, long before Shaft and the blaxploitation antiheroes, in his black top hat and cape, his ego swaggering alongside him. He seethes, with lust and sadistic desire, and he maims, rapes and kills without any regret or remorse. He also proudly and blatantly proclaims his secular beliefs by breaking religious edicts and superstitious proclamations and flaunting his defiance.

The only thing he seems to honour, except the lust for life, is the preservation of his bloodline. He kills his girlfriend or mistress, whatever she is, because she can't bear children, and he has a go at a father who treats his son badly. That's about the only positive attribute he seems to have, from a standard western moral standpoint, though there are certainly philosophies that include much of what he seems to stand for. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law?

José Mojica Marins obviously has a vision, and that doesn't just involve the intriguing use of negatives and overlaid graphics. For this to come out as it did in 1964 is astounding. I remember the controversy over films like Blood Feast in the States, where a tongue ripping was seen as graphic horror completely beyond the pale. This is only a year later, though without the garish technicolor, but it's just as graphic: corpses teeming with worms or with spiders roaming over them, fingers being cut off with a broken bottle, a whippings, a rape, a bludgenoning, a drowning, the works!

What takes it a step further than its American cousins is its blistering attack on the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil, which Marins lumps in with the ravings of the gypsy witch as superstitious nonsense. He really has a go: not just eating lamb on Holy Friday as an obvious sacrilegious reference to Agnus Dei but stooping so low as to stab a man in the face with a crown of thorns from a statue of Jesus.

The film is a riot, pure and simple, and a cinematic slap in the face that will take a while to really sink in. Now I'm seriously looking forward to the next couple of Coffin Joe movies to be shown on IFC Grindhouse: This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse and Awakening of the Beast. I knew about these from years of reading genre magazines, but I now see at IMDb that there are more than these, and that Marins is even making another Coffin Joe movie in 2007, at 78 years of age!

Thursday 18 January 2007

The Adventures of Kitty O'Day (1945)

The County Hotel seems like a pretty quiet place to be, with regulars coming there to be ensured of peaceful relaxation. I'm not sure how that could be, given that Kitty O'Day is working there as a receptionist. You can be sure that with Kitty O'Day on the premises, things won't stay quiet for long, and needless to say that five minutes in Mr Williams gets shot and she's on the call when it happens. Worse still, Mr Williams is the man who runs the County Hotel and of course Kitty is going to investigate.

There's nothing here that wasn't in the first Kitty O'Day movie, the previous year's Kitty O'Day, Detective. Jean Parker is still having a ball playing the title character and it's just as fun watching her interrupt everyone and finish everyone else's sentences. Peter Cookson is just as immobile as her boyfriend Johnny Jones and he's still better at being a Cary Grant waxwork than Cary Grant. He's not much of a sidekick in the slightest and his only real talent is to be easily ignored.

Tim O'Ryan was much better in the first film, as the continually flustered Inspector Clancy. He made a lot of movies, probably mostly with budgets like this one, so I'm sure he could do this sort of thing in his sleep, and here I think he does. He spends a good deal of time dealing with his idiot sidekick, who is nothing more than comic relief but at least is better than his equivalent in the first film. Most of the film works on about the same mental level but manages to get worse, degenerating into one of the most dumb chases I think I've ever seen on film. If anyone ever wonders why there were only two Kitty O'Day movies, just ask them to watch this one.

Suzy (1936)

Jean Harlow plays Suzy, in her last film but one of 1936, with only two more after that before her untimely death at the age of 26. By this time she had really worked out how to do what she did, and she casually admits early in this one that she can't sing or dance much but can be a little cute when she wants to be. That's understating it considerably, but any brief glimpse of a comparison between her early films and her late ones shows that she started out without much of a clue but turned into a very noticeable young lady who had a lot to offer. She brought a natural air to her performances that was like a breath of fresh air.

She starts off here in London at the final performance of Melodies of 1914, some sort of revue of scantily clad young ladies, giving her last wage to another chorus girl because she's a blonde and blondes always have money gravitating towards her. It takes a little longer than she expects but she meets and falls for regular film partner Franchot Tone. He appears to be some sort of rich lord because he nearly runs her over in a Rolls Royce twenty years older than it could possibly be, but he's really just some sort of inventor working on a stabiliser, and a bad Irish accent, in his spare time. Just as he manages to persuade her to marry him, they get caught up in some nefarious German plot involving his boss, Frau Schmidt, and he gets shot. Then again the timing is right, as the next day Franz Ferdinand gets shot too and World War I kicks off, leading to plenty of stock footage from another Jean Harlow movie, Hell's Angels.

The film can't really make up its mind whether it wants to be a wartime drama, a social commentary, a fluffy gold digger comedy or a bizarre love triangle, so it ends up being a good deal of all three. Harlow is a pleasure to watch and now I only have one more of her last fifteen films to find. Tone is solid but then he tended to be, even with such an atrocious accent that he keeps forgetting to put on. And then there's Cary Grant, who doesn't even turn up for over half an hour by which time we've forgotten that he was in the movie in the first place, let alone third on the credits list. To atone for that he does give us a thoroughly memorable entrance and suddenly it's a Cary Grant film, even though he isn't even trying to sound French as a character called Andre Charville. This is early for him, before even Topper, let alone Bringing Up Baby, Holiday and Only Angels Have Wings, so he's still trying to make a name for himself and doing a fine job of it too.

Hiding even further into the film and down the credits is Lewis Stone as Cary Grant's father. He's a curmudgeonly yet thoroughly decent old soul, but then he looked old by the time he reached fourteen, I think. There's Una O'Connor as one of Suzy's early landladies, and she's excellent in a far too brief part. Mostly though, there's Jean Harlow because this is definitely her film, however much Cary Grant tries to steal it.

Wednesday 17 January 2007

Forbidden (1932)

It's ten past ten and Lulu Smith is late for work, for the first time in eight years. She's a respectable small town librarian, but she's feeling the influence of springtime and decides to withdraw all her considerable savings to splurge it all on a romantic cruise to Havana where nobody knows her. She takes off her glasses and puts on an expensive dress and finds inebriated lawyer Bob Grover in her room because he'd mistaken 66 for 99. They hit it off like crazy and suddenly the trip is over and Lulu has mysteriously become a newspaper clippings librarian getting proposed to by a coworker. She just wants Bob, of course, but when she finds out that he's a married man who won't leave his wife and so drops him like a hot potato.

It becomes quickly obvious that this is a precode, but when we discover that Lulu is pregnant it's beyond any shadow of doubt. Yet it's directed by an unlikely candidate for such dangerous things: Frank Capra, so early that he still has an R in the middle of his name. Yes, this ardent proponent of American family values, who fashioned the dark alternate Bedford Falls in It's a Wonderful Life into a town that stoops so low as to have girls doing the jitterbug with paying clients, gives us, as both writer and director, a love story between an unmarried mother and a District Attorney who cheats on his crippled wife, fathers a daughter out of wedlock, only to get her back through a fake adoption with the real mother as a fake nanny. It's hardly something the moral majority would overlook and there's no way on earth it would even be considered after the code kicked in. I wonder if he just saw it as a challenge.

Lulu Smith is played by Barbara Stanwyck, and of course she's perfect for any sort of dubious moral situation. She was a strong woman who could get away with ordering any guy around, yet somehow remains believable as a submissive woman who just can't say no to her man. She's great here but that's not surprising in the slightest. The direction Capra takes means that she also gets to show off her talent of playing any age she felt like: she's a very young woman when the film starts but we watch her daughter grow up and get engaged so you can imagine how old she has to start looking. She does it all as well as you'd expect. Adolphe Menjou deliberately plays Bob Grover as a background character for much of the film and tones his talents down admirably so as not to compete with Stanwyck.

What isn't surprising is that Ralph Bellamy doesn't get the girl, because he probably never did in a long and distinguished career. This may be the most dynamic I've ever seen him though. He's the gung ho newspaperman who's had the hots for Lily for years, even though all of those many years seem to be 1932, but he's also fighting to bring down Grover, and he's a real gem. I just wish he had a larger part. The more I watch him the more I root for him and that's exactly why he's there. No wonder he kept getting decent billing in so many decent films.

And Capra? I still don't see how this fits in with the rest of his films, in the slightest, but it's not a bad one at all, melodramatic or not.

Monday 15 January 2007

The Black Sleep (1956)

At Newgate prison in 1872, Sir Joel Cadman visits his former student Dr Gordon Ramsey, who has been imprisoned for murder and will hang, even though he claims complete innocence. Cadman slips him some of the black sleep of the title, an Indian drug, which puts him into a trancelike state approximating death. Thus he escapes the hangman's noose by virtue of being proclaimed legally dead and proceeds on to assist Sir Joel in his experiments to further the science of brain surgery.

Sir Joel is played by Basil Rathbone, who looks as old here as he did a decade later in Queen of Blood, and he's far from the only classic horror star here. The initial list of credits reads like a who's who of dark cinema: Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, even Tor Johnson when we get to the second page. Tamiroff plays Odo the Gypsy, an artist of various talents, with an indecent amount of charm and he comes close to stealing whole portions of the film.

To demonstrate his rank in the great ladder of stardom, Lugosi is Rathbone's mute servant, and he looks even older than Rathbone. In fact this was the last real film he ever made, after Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster and before his posthumous appearance in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Chaney, credited only as Lon Chaney, plays a former doctor reduced to a monstrous shadow of his former self. Carradine is a wild eyed prisoner who only appears briefly but notably, raving about the saracens and the infidels, as he believes he's in the Holy Land in the year 1090. Tor Johnson is blind and of course ominous just in appearance.

Of course Sir Joel is a little less sane than we initially believe, and what he describes as somewhat unorthodox practices are the domain of the mad scientist, all to save his beloved wife who is suffering from a deep seated brain tumour. Ramsey only finds out when he and Cadman experiment on a subject he believes is dead, only to discover that it's that black sleep again and they're really carving into the brain of a live human being. Sir Joel is certainly mad but he's also aiming at a lofty and laudible goal. The intent is fine, it's the methods that transcend sanity.

There are other names here beyond the stellar cast. Exotica composer Les Baxter provides the music, which is suitably eerie, and the director is Reginald Le Borg, who surprisingly wasn't really a horror director, given his decent work here and in other films like The Mummy's Ghost and Diary of a Madman. His credits run the gamut of genres and based on his horror work, they ought to be decent at least. This one would have been routine if not for some superb performances to raise the quality.

Roberta (1935) William A Seiter

With certificate number 601, this is obviously a really early movie to be sanctioned by the Production Code. As I've become a huge fan of the freedom of the precodes, this is therefore a Bad Thing. Another bad thing is the fact that one of the three stars to appear above the title is Irene Dunne. I've tried to find her appeal but so far to no avail, even though I've seen such well regarded pictures as Show Boat, The Awful Truth and Cimarron, which even won the Best Picture Oscar in what must have been a really poor year. I haven't enjoyed a single one of her performances and don't understand why she was such a huge star. On the good side there's not just Fred Astaire but Ginger Rogers too and I've been enjoying both of them in musicals and non-musicals alike.

Fred turns up in Le Havre with his band, Huck Haines and His Indianians from Wabash, USA, but because they're not real Indians they don't get the gig they expect. So off they go to Paris, where Randolph Scott's aunt Helen Westley (the Roberta of the title) runs a famous costumery. Scott is the sort of character he seemed to play rather often, a large quarterback who says things like 'Gee, that's swell' a lot. No wonder he switched to westerns exclusively. He makes a big impression on Roberta's secretary, Irene Dunne, but an even larger one on the temperamental, seductive and fake Comtesse Scharwenka, played by Ginger Rogers. She's a nightclub singer who has invented her title to get her into the Cafe Russe, so she gets them a gig on the proviso that Huck doesn't give her away.

This is a pretty decent thirties musical, of the lesser sort that weren't choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Then again these dances are arranged by Fred Astaire, so they're always worth watching, both from a technical standpoint where we can be happily stunned by the talent of the man (and the lady doing everything he does, in heels and backwards) and from an aesthetic standpoint where we get to actually enjoy the dancing. Yeah, I don't tend to say that too often, but Fred and Ginger musicals are usually winners in my book. The music is by Jerome Kern so there's no problem there but Irene Dunne keeps singing.

I'd have much preferred it if she'd have kept her mouth shut, as usual. More and more she reminds me of Leslie Howard, in looks and voice and presence. Fortunately I haven't heard Howard try and sing yet and I hope I don't have to: somehow I know he's going to sound like Irene Dunne. What intrigues me is that it can't just be changing fashions that have left wishy washy people like Irene Dunne in a different age, because I'm enjoying so many others from the same era. Maybe one day I'll find a performance of hers I can enjoy, just as I finally found one of Leslie Howard's in The Scarlet Pimpernel. In the meantime I'll enjoy Fred and Ginger and thank the stars that Irene Dunne wasn't in the rest of their movies together.

Sunday 14 January 2007

Fists in the Pocket (1965)

I've watched a lot of Italian movies in my time, but how many of them didn't belong to an obvious genre I really don't know. Not many, that's for sure. I've seen spaghetti westerns, giallo horror movies, sword and sandal epics, but not a lot that could really be called international art. Then again I'm not sure what writer/director Marco Bellocchio intended this to be: a horror film, a psychological drama, a social commentary, a piece of symbolism... it's probably all the above.

It's a portrait of a family in many senses, but this is no regular family. Only Augusto seems remotely capable as a human being. Mama is blind, but the rest of the family have mental issues. Most obviously, young Alessandro is obsessed with death, including his own, and as my lass pointed out he looks like a cross between Doogie Howser and Quentin Tarantino. Those two should never have kids together! He also has the hots for Giulia, which might be understandable under other circumstances, as she looks like a cross between Rosanna Arquette and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Now those two should have kids anytime someone comes up with a means to make it possible! However she's also his sister, and she's hardly all there herself. She seems to be pretty obsessive and may well have the hots for Augusto. She certainly doesn't want him to be with anyone else, that's for sure. The last child, Leone, is a simple epileptic who hardly ever speaks.

What plot there is has to do with Alessandro trying to do his brother a favour and relieve him of the burdens that he so obviously has to bear. He fails to drive them all off a cliff but he's a persevering soul. He's played by Lou Castel (not Lou Costello), a Colombian born actor in his first leading role. It was his second film but he wasn't even credited in the first. He definitely made an impression here though because it set him on the road to a long career and he now has a hundred movies to his name, along with a bunch of television work. I've only seen a couple of them and never really noticed him before. Then again I don't think I noticed anyone else in Irma Vep except Maggie Cheung. She does tend to capture the eye in anything she does, but when she's in a latex catsuit it's hard to notice anything else. After this incredible performance though I'll certainly be watching out for Lou Castel in other films.

La Terre (1921)

Such an obscene percentage of silent movies are lost films and so it's always a joy when one that has been lost turns up found. La Terre has long been thought lost, but it was recently rediscovered in Russia and remastered by the Royal Belgian Film Archive and it has a good picture. It's a groundbreaking film started in 1919 but not released until 1921, by French director André Antoine. He came to the movies late in life from a similar yet vastly different world in the theatre. Perhaps this is why he helped to introduce a naturalistic style into film that wasn't particularly common in the silent era, along with his assistant directors who include Julien Duvivier, who went on to make the wonderful Pépé le Moko.

We're on the plain of Beauce, near Chartres in the Cloyes region of the French countryside where classic French writer Emile Zola had set his source novel. La Terre means the Earth and that's what these people work, long and hard, or at least those who work, that is. Our main character is Jean, who meets Françoise by rescuing her runaway cow. They're both on their way to La Borderie, the home of the Hourdequins: Jean is looking for work and Françoise is taking her cow to their bull. Both are successful and deal with La Cognette, who is really just the maid but who apparently effectively runs the entire show. Naturally both of the ladies fall for Jean, and while Jean responds to La Cognette he wants to marry Françoise, whose father has died and who is thus living with her sister Lise. At least that's what seems to be important at the beginning of the film.

And here are the biggest problems with La Terre in a nutshell. Because this is an Emile Zola novel, there's plenty going on and there are plenty of characters to make it all happen, so we really need to pay attention. A few times I got confused as to who was who, and I don't think that's necessarily the fault of director André Antoine. He just had a huge job on his hand translating what I'm sure is a long and complex novel into not much more than an hour and half of film. Also the focus seems to shift. Halfway through I began to wonder about Jean and Françoise and La Cognette, because everything suddenly seemed to revolve about Pere Fouan.

Fouan is really the catalyst for everything. He is feeling much too old to work his land, and so he splits it up between his three children: Buteau, Jésus-Christ and Fanny. He misses out his elder sister who is a little bitter about it and with good cause too, as we'll discover. She doesn't believe that these three kids will pay him the pension due and provide him with what has been agreed on, and of course she's right because they don't, with the occasional exception of Fanny's husband Delhomme. Jésus-Christ is a poacher and a drunk who looks as old as his dad, Buteau marries one sister for her money but chases the other and Fanny is a clean freak with no kindness in her soul.

This is not a particularly happy story, as Françoise is about the only really sympathetic character in the film, though even she finds some hatred in her heart. Jean isn't bad but seems to have a temper to him and Papa Fouan is kind but dangerously foolish, and the rest aren't worth much at all. There is a little humour in and amongst, but mostly this is a dark tale. Once I caught up with the real players of the piece I saw a lot of the underside of human nature, well depicted with the sort of depth that was starting to creep into the movies in the twenties but which was still far from commonplace.