Sunday 31 May 2009

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Director: Nicolas Roeg
Stars: David Bowie, Candy Clark and Rip Torn

In 1976 Nicolas Roeg was already a major name in British film, though his prominence was recent. He was mostly self taught, having never been to film school, but his credits go as far back as assistant cameraman on Calling Bulldog Drummond in 1951. He really arrived in the public's attention in 1970 when he photographed and co-directed Performance, an intriguing film co-starring well known rock star Mick Jagger. Here, after two further highly regarded films (Walkabout and Don't Look Now), he cast another well known rock star in this adaptation of Walter Tevis's science fiction novel.

David Bowie is the title character, an alien who visits the Earth to obtain a water supply for his own dying planet, and as you can imagine, the Bowie of 1976 was a good choice for the part. He looks like a human being but one that remains somehow detached from the rest of humanity. It isn't just his orange hair and androgynous features, it's how believable he becomes uncomfortable when his car travels more than 30mph or how he collapses bleeding when he finds himself in a lift. To American audiences, I'm sure his English accent helped too, as this alien has a British passport in the name of Thomas Jerome Newton.

His intentions aren't immediately apparent but to achieve them he starts up a huge company, World Enterprises, with the help of a patent lawyer called Oliver Farnsworth, given that his assets begin with a set of basic patents that in themselves threaten a whole string of other huge companies. The initial aim is to acquire huge amounts of money ($300m, the initial estimate of what the patents could be worth, just isn't enough), but he gradually focuses his company on the specific tasks at hand. Meanwhile he acquires a couple of key people, though the reasons for why they're key are as mysterious as he is.

One is a girlfriend called Mary-Lou, who he literally acquires, at the appropriately named Hotel Artesia in New Mexico. He offers her next to no encouragement and even tells her that he's married, but she seems to effectively move in and become part of his life. He lets her but we can't help but wonder why; if this wasn't a movie with a mysterious purpose we'd think it was just co-dependency. She's played by Candy Clark, a major name after American Graffiti and after looking at her filmography, I'm rather surprised I've seen so many of her films.

The other is Rip Torn as a university professor called Nathan Bryce, who is frustrated in academia to the degree that he apparently spends more of his time bedding his students than he does on university work. Once hired by World Enterprises though, he finds direction and focus in his life, befriending Newton and eventually uncovering his secrets. Strangely we find most of this out long before we find out what he's actually doing; in fact we find much of it out before even he finds out what he's actually doing. Such is the mystery.

And this is probably one reason why this film feels like it ought to be more than it is. It feels like something important, something visionary, something to pay serious attention to. Some scenes are haunting and most of it is beautiful. Yet it's also disjointed, fragmentary and overly full of imagery that doesn't seem to fit. What's surprising to me is that I'm not talking about the dream sequences or visions or strange communicative channels, because they generally seem to work fine. It's the conglomeration of different cultures for apparently no purpose: especially Japanese culture, for some reason.

The other reason is the fact that the second half of the film is even more mysterious than the first, mostly because it can be read in a number of completely different ways. It could be that the American government becomes highly concerned with the release of so many different technologies onto the market in such a short term that they intervene in extreme ways to stop this from happening, thus also stopping Newton's quest in its tracks, though over considerable time he ceases to be a problem and literally discovers that his prison is unlocked. It could be that Newton is not really an alien after all, merely an English genius who goes insane, but this doesn't gel with the source material.

It could also be that Roeg, and/or Paul Mayersberg who wrote the screenplay from the novel by Walter Tevis, just got caught up in the excess of the 1970s and let the film run maybe an hour longer than it should have run. It is certainly a film of excess, exhibiting much more of all three of the lead characters (Bowie, Clark and Torn) than we may have wanted to see. Full frontal nudity was never a huge problem in art film of the '70s and Roeg/Mayersberg obviously had a strong will to introduce such sexuality into a story that was generally devoid of it. This second half really doesn't do much at all and to a large degree the film would benefit from its absence.

Incidentally, I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth long ago, perhaps far enough back that it was before I first read Watchmen, making it at least twenty years. Viewing now, after reading Watchmen every couple of years ever since, I can't help but see the influence. Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias has to have been fashioned on Thomas Jerome Newton, at least to a large degree. The omnipresent W of World Enterprises is a precursor to the omnipresent V of Veidt Enterprises, just as Newton is the precursor to Veidt: the starting from scratch, the superior intellect, the wall of TVs as sensory input, the building of a corporate empire to further a personal gain.

Saturday 30 May 2009

Punishment Park (1971)

Director: Peter Watkins

I didn't intend it this way but this faux documentary from 1971 turned out to be an interesting bookend to The Explosive Generation, made a decade earlier in 1961 and which I watched earlier in the week. The Explosive Generation spoke to how the United States was changing through a new generation of youth willing to unite in protest at what they saw as injustice. The black and white drama saw young students protesting the suspension of a teacher who dared to listen to their concerns and winning out through unity and civil disobedience. However they were up against a school principal and a local police officer. Punishment Park speaks to what happens when the opposition is the United States government.

It's truly stunning that this film was made the year I was born, because it is utterly timely, as appropriate today as it was nearly four decades ago. It isn't just that the concerns raised remain valid, it's that the entire film could have been released in 2008 or, to be honest, most years in between, regardless of the party in power or the issues of the day. The real question is whether it would be as believable tomorrow and I have no doubt that it would: it would take paradigm shifts to change that and there's no guarantee that even the country's first black president could or would initiate them.

Given that this is 1971, Nixon is president and the backdrop is the Vietnam War, something frequently referenced in dialogue and radio background. These two things are about the only things that date the material: switch the president's portrait to George W Bush and the name and location of the war and everything else would feel contemporary. We watch what the government sees as political prisoners tried in a highly restrictive environment obviously influenced by the McCarthy hearings and sentenced to long periods in a federal penitentiary. However they're each given an alternative: to be let loose into Punishment Park to take part in a bizarre one sided game of capture the flag.

These people are labelled criminals, but like those in say, Guantanamo Bay, they have not been tried in a court of law. As the narrator explains as the film opens, title 2 of the 1950 Internal Security Act grants the US president the power to identify an act of insurrection within his country, call it an internal security emergency and detain whoever he likes on the basis that they may commit future acts of sabotage, with no right of bail and no need for evidence. If the people running the 'court', who are naturally not judges, deem that these people are guilty, then they're guilty.

Inevitably what these hearings are used for is rather wide ranging and goes well beyond any original intentions. These detainees are draft dodgers, militants, pacifists, writers of seditious songs, hippies, philosophers, people who do not think as those in authority would like them to. Of course they see themselves in a different light: as oppressed citizens in a corrupt and authoritarian society being whitewashed outside the legal process; and they see the authorities as 'hired killers' and 'street cleaners of the public conscious'. Interestingly, we the viewers don't have a lot of sympathy for either side: the detainees are generally foul mouthed louts and their captors are generally self righteous thugs. There isn't much of a veneer over either, this film being brutally honest about everything it sees.

What we have is sympathy for the process and what we see is inhumane. My objections about how these people are treated would mirror precisely my objections against many things in the US today, most closely the process that put people into Guantanamo Bay and the decisions that sanctioned torture as a valid means of interrogation, but also less overt things that also involve the chipping away of human rights and rights of Americans guaranteed under the constitution and the bill of rights, both of which are inevitably quoted here. I'm not an American citizen and so didn't have these things drummed into me in school, but there's much that even I can see.

And this film has such an amazing breadth of vision that it speaks to other incidents and movements and philosophies, many of which hadn't even been conjured up at the time of filming. The behaviour of authorities in the park was presumably intended to reflect activity during student unrest in the late sixties, but rang true to me for the LA riots, Abu Ghraib and even assaults on cult compounds. The patriotic propaganda spouted by the tribunal chairman and others reminded very much of those elusive weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

I'm sure other viewers would have been reminded of different things. It isn't much of a stretch to picture the Dixie Chicks in place of the political songwriter that was on trial here, and Mrs Mary Jurgens, member of the tribunal, epitomised to me the whole moral majority concept brought to life in my era by Tipper Gore and the PMRC. I couldn't help projecting this a couple of decades further into the future and picturing the issues at hand being less to do with racial militarism or a refusal to obey the draft and more to do with the enforcement of intellectual property rights. These detainees could easily have been people like DVD Jon or Shawn Fanning or anyone who works to reverse engineer encryption, DRM or help ensure information stays free.

And to the Punishment Park of the title. This may have seemed the least valid concept of the film for many years but it fits today's apparent need to turn anything and everything into reality TV right down to a tee. To avoid their long sentences in federal penitentiaries these convicts can choose to spend a short time instead playing a 'game' in Punishment Park, tasked simply to reach an American flag and freedom, but the flag is 53 miles away across the Californian desert and they have three days and two nights to get there, on foot and without water in temperatures that range up to 110 degrees.

They're also being followed, having a mere two hour head start on the authorities, here consisting of a police riot squad, members of the National Guard and three federal marshals. And here's the real point: this isn't a game for the detainees to win, it's a training ground for the authorities in catching subversives, much like say, The Running Man or any number of low budget science fiction films of the 80s and 90s, all of which are a politicised version of the old hunting story told on film as far back as The Most Dangerous Game in 1933.

Like most of those films, this game is rigged even beyond the overwhelming odds that the participants have to deal with from moment one; and like most of those films, it's televised. In this instance it isn't live, but there are three camera crews capturing the dynamics of the trials, the authorities leading the chase and the prisoners playing the game. Ostensibly this is to demonstrate to the public at large why the hearings and Punishment Park are fair and just, so the crews are multinational (American, British and German) but of course it doesn't all play out quite that way. But what we see could easily pass for raw footage of a more gritty reality show, to be sanitised later for public consumption.

And this framework is utterly appropriate, as is the rest of this film, which while it's presented in a loose reality style, is very cleverly constructed indeed. Almost everything here speaks to polarisation: the them and us concept, not just the obvious two irreconcilable sides of the authorities and the prisoners, but the game concept mixing the frivolous with the serious and even the language. Half of this film is spoken in legalese, the detached language of the bureaucrat and the lawyer, almost as a justification for the actions taken; and the other half is abusive bad language, as the counterculture's response to that. The only thing not polarised is the blurring between fantasy and reality that comes with the faux documentary style.

The film invites analysis on many fronts, not least the political ones. It would be fascinating to hear a professor in film studies talk about how the film was made, as it obviously played with the expectations of the actors for real. There's much to be said about the propaganda involved and what precisely writer/director Peter Watkins was trying to comment on. One of the key discussions there would centre around the closing remarks as the credits run. Amazingly, in a bizarre coincidence, one of the defendants in the film was convicted of conspiracy to bomb and assaulting a police officer. This may or may not have been fictional but whichever way it merely asks more questions. This is amazing viewing and, like much of the work of Peter Watkins, too little seen.

Thursday 28 May 2009

The PianoTuner of EarthQuakes (2005)

Directors: The Brothers Quay
Stars: Amira Casar, Gottfried John, Assumpta Serna and César Sarachu

The Brothers Quay are apparently major names in short film and animation, but while I've heard their names before, I knew little about them: only a documentary they made on Jan Svankmajer. This film reeks of experience and a will to return to pure cinema from moment one. While there are words spoken, sung and placed on the screen for our benefit, they dart in and out like phantoms, leaving us with the suggestion that it's their sound or shape that matters not their actual content. And if it wasn't for the sound, this could almost be a silent movie, so much does it play with light and shadow, making textures out of everything. No wonder Terry Gilliam is an executive producer.

Amidst many bizarre visuals, many of which are not recognisable, we watch an opera singer, the soprano Malvina van Stille, be abducted from a live performance by a mysterious admirer. He's Dr Emmanuel Droz and to his memorable property is invited a piano tuner by the name of Don Felisberto Fernandez. This would appear strange, given that Droz has no pianos, but he does have seven automata, highly intricate musical devices with which he intends to give a special command performance. In preparation he needs Fernandez to ensure that they're in pristine condtion. Not coincidentally, Fernandez is also the double of Malvina's fiance, Adolfo Blin.

And within this environment, which is not unlike an dreamlike opera stage itself, our story unfolds mysteriously and against a sumptuous visual and auditory backdrop. It's a very European film, presumably deliberately so to milk the exotic confluence of accents. It's a French/German/English co-production, shot in Germany and with dialogue in English and Portuguese. The main cast and crew is similarly diverse: from the Quay Brothers themselves on down. This pair of American twins, who were brought up on European culture and who moved to London in the sixties, wrote and directed the film, which would appear to be distinctly theirs in many ways.

Malvina, the soprano, is Amira Casar, English by birth but the daughter of a Kurdish father and a Russian mother, an opera singer no less. She's also fluent in French and prefers playing in European films. The only one I've seen is Asia Argento's Transylvania. Dr Droz is the experienced German actor Gottfried John, who starred in the Brothers Quay's first feature, Institute Benjamenta, but is probably best known in the west for the Bond movie Goldeneye. The piano tuner of the title is played by César Sarachu, a Spanish actor who also appeared in Institute Benjamenta. Also Spanish is Assumpta Serna, the seductive housekeeper and assistant to Dr Droz.

I focus on this because it all seems to be far more important than the actual story, which is cryptic and confusing and very possibly immaterial in the grand scheme of things, which obviously speaks to the visuals and the sounds. This is obviously meant to be an experience, akin to an opera sung in a foreign tongue, where you don't necessarily catch all the nuances of the story because you're not fluent in the language but which you absorb through the sheer majesty of the performance. Of course, opera is very much an acquired taste and this film is no different. Is it gorgeous? Yes, undoubtedly. Can I pretend to understand it? Nope.

Brotherhood of Death (1976)

Director: Bill Berry
Stars: Roy Jefferson, Le Tari, Haskell Anderson and Mike Thomas

How could any exploitation film fan resist a blaxploitation film in which three black Vietnam vets take on the Ku Klux Klan? Well at the beginning of the film they're just regular citizens, but they seem pretty good at pissing off dumb prejudiced white dudes in their pimped up cars, dumb prejudiced white dudes that are unsurprisingly Klan connected. Now this doesn't seem to be a really good reason to sign up for the army: to trade a few good ol' boys in hoods back home for the entire Vietnamese army on their home turf. But make the decision they do, and all three of our black heroes sign up.

They learn plenty too, as Capt Quinn ensures that they know about all the guerilla tactics Charlie has to play with. And just like that, Vietnam is over and the heroic trio are back home in the south, where Leroy Winniford, the dumb prejudiced white dude from the beginning, has progressed from idle threats to raping black women out with their boyfriends. The sheriff is a decent sort of guy but the rest of the cops are Klansmen and Harold Turner, the county attorney, is the Grand Cyclops in his flagrantly gay pink sheet and hood.

So what can they do about it? Well, there's plenty of talk about enlisting the black majority of Kincaid County to register and vote to get the leadership they can trust, and sure enough our heroes and the local Baptist minister start busing them down to the registration office. But hey, what sort of exploitation film would this be if that sort of peacable shenanigans all worked? That would be more like a Hallmark movie of the week.

So sure enough the immediate response from the Klan is to burn down the Baptist church, then shoot a black kid in a half assed frame up of one of our heroes. This is a serious Klan: they even have their very own billboards with their very own bad spellings. They're against 'intergration' and even add an extra K to KKK just for emphasis. And with the county attorney in charge, they're happy to do whatever it takes to keep their white way of life, up to and including killing their own sheriff to stop him investigating them.

It takes a while to build up to the finale which is the focal point of the film and that isn't as graphic as we could have hoped for, but it's not too bad. From an exploitation standpoint it has plenty of notable racist moments and a decent blaxploitation theme tune but not too much else. The cast is small enough that the white guys are all evil racists (except the sheriff) and the black guys are all heroes, but hey, it's a black and white story, right?

Well, surprisingly it's the odd moments where the film has pretensions of grandeur that ring truest. I was expecting to enjoy most the Viet Cong traps our heroes set for the Klansmen at the end, but surprised myself by preferring some of the dialogue in times of crisis: the black vigilantes verbally destroying the communist propaganda the Klan was proliferating. No, this isn't a serious film to quote in ethics class but while it mostly fails on an exploitation level, it succeeds every now and again on a higher one. It's like they forgot they were making an exploitation film.

Rain or Shine (1930)

Director: Frank R Capra
Stars: Joe Cook, Louise Fazenda, Joan Peers, William Collier Jr and Tom Howard

Made the same year as Ladies of Leisure, this has a utterly different feel, mostly because of the speed of delivery of lines. Ladies of Leisure was, well, leisurely, with especially Ralph Graves slow and stagy in delivery. Rain or Shine never lets up, mostly due to the leading man Joe Cook, whose job is to run his mouth off at rapid speed and confuse everyone he talks to with tall tale after tall tale. He comes off as half early Humphrey Bogart making even more of an idiot out of himself than he did in Swing Your Lady and half Chevy Chase in character as Fletch playing someone else.

He's Smiley Johnson, the general manager of the greater John T Rainey shows (twice daily, rain or shine) and it's his job to keep the circus on the road. That's no small job given that John Rainey is dead and the whole show has been suffering financially since his daughter Mary took it over. So as they head into Shrewsbury, Smiley has to find a way to avoid paying any bills, feed the animals and attempt to win the girl, who's in love with someone else. All in a day's work in the circus.

Based on a musical play by actor James Gleason that was produced on Broadway (the songs are removed here), this comes off as an attempt at copying the riotous Marx Brothers formula, aided by one circus character who's a pretty close rip off of Harpo, merely with voice. Cook is by far the most obvious actor in the film, given that much of it is set up to aid his gag routine, which is often set up with a local chump called Amos K Shrewsberry as the victim. Even the name suggests a Marx Brothers character. In fact these two characters get so much screen time that there's not much left for anyone else or anything else, there being a number of subplots that are mostly passed over in favour of the Cook shtick and the overriding consequences of the circus having no money.

There's a romantic subplot between Mary Rainey and Bud Conway, a member of the circus troupe who doesn't seem to have an actual job, with Smiley Johnson as a jealous third wheel, but that doesn't go very far. Neither does the possibility of Bud's family, who are well to do and live in Shrewsbury, investing in the show, mostly because Smiley sabotages it without even realising what's been set up. There's a mutinous takeover plot by the ringmaster and the lion tamer that gets forgotten until it's too late. There's even Louise Fazenda as the 'oriental princess' of the show, but she's utterly wasted on a couple of gags. There are more loose ends here than can be comfortably counted.

And all of this suggests a poor end result of a film, but that's not the case. Cook takes over far more than he should but he's actually pretty funny, especially given how dated he really should be by now. Some of the more obviously vaudeville oriented gags are terrible and for some reason the worst are left for last, but like many a Mel Brooks movie, there's so much thrown into this one that some of it has to stick. Cook is versatile and talented too, with one part of the film being effectively Smiley as a one man circus, obviously doing some of the stunts and routines that you might expect to go to a double.

Many of the circus folks are also obviously real circus folks, thrown into the film for authenticity and aided by some impressive camera angles. The film is nicely shot, with some true cinematic artistry underpinning the vaudeville shtick. The two approaches aren't necessarily compatible but in Capra's able hands they tie seamlessly together. All in all, it's an interesting piece and a slice of life of the circus industry of the time, but if you concentrate on anything other than Joe Cook's routine, you're going to end up disappointed.

Wednesday 27 May 2009

Ladies of Leisure (1930)

Director: Frank R Capra
Stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Lowell Sherman, Ralph Graves and Marie Prevost

There's a rather rambunctious party going on in Jerry Strong's penthouse studio on 51st St in New York. Drunken young ladies are spraying the paintings, being painted themselves and even throwing bottles at the passers by in the street below. The only person who doesn't seem to be drunk and enthusiastic at this party is Jerry Strong himself, who ducks out to take a drive at four o'clock in the morning, only to get a flat tyre and discover Kay Arnold escaping from a yacht in a rowboat. He drives her back to New York and finds inspiration in the process.

Now Jerry may be the only son of the governor but he fully plans to be an artist and he hires Kay at two bucks an hour to model for a picture he plans to call Hope. She slept on his shoulder in the car, you see, and she let the real Kay come to the fore, someone he desperately wants to paint on his canvas. The catch is that she's far from what you'd expect in a picture called Hope. She describes herself as a party girl, which euphemism is never fully defined but is reinforced as the film goes on. And as the film goes on, Kay rapidly falls for Jerry while Jerry doesn't see anything except the picture he hasn't painted yet.

The film is rough and unpolished and falls very much between the cracks between two eras. It's technically a precode, being released in 1930 and certainly skirting common precode themes, but it doesn't feel like one at heart, leaving things carefully unspoken that would be made far more obvious in the true precode era or shying away from darker results. It was made simultaneously with sound and without, but it doesn't play like a silent at all, even when you factor in the fact that there isn't a soundtrack beyond the odd instance of a player piano churning out its music. Most of all though, the difference is most apparent in the choice of the two leads.

Jerry is played by Ralph Graves, who was a Frank Capra regular at this point, having made five features for him between 1928 and 1931. Luckily I've seen a couple of these, so realise that he could be a powerful leading man of action who fit well opposite Jack Holt in aviation films like Flight and Dirigible. I'm sure that Submarine, also with Holt for Capra, won't disappoint either. But here, he's out of place for most of the film, very much a relic in his stagy portrayal of a stagy character. He'd been in film since 1918 with over 70 titles to his credit in the intervening twelve years, but he'd fade as a leading man as sound took over.

On the other hand, Kay is played by a future name reasonably fresh to the business: Barbara Stanwyck. This was only her fourth film, her third with a credit and even Capra had dismissed using her in this one, being persuaded only by a screen test for a different picture that her husband at the time incited Capra to see. She's as rough and unpolished as anything else in this film but she has many scenes that show the beginnings of her future greatness. In particular the shady nature of her character, however redeemed she becomes, is a pointer to her real precodes, a long string of them which begin with her next film, 1931's Illicit and include a couple more Capras: The Miracle Woman and Forbidden.

There's able support from both sexes: Lowell Sherman as a drunken friend of Jerry's called Bill Standish; and the always reliable Marie Prevost as Dot Lamar, Kay's roommate and fellow golddigger. In fact these two provide the best line of the movie. Dot explains to Bill that they only have two books in their apartment, the phone book and Bradstreet; when Bill asks if she'd looked him up she replies, 'Sure, you're only in the phone book.'

Frank Capra, one of the most important American film directors of all time, found a very fulfilling niche but he hadn't found it in 1930 and his early films are usually interesting but anomalous. This one fits that description perfectly: it's fascinating viewing for the film fan and there's much here that lesser hands would have floundered with. Yet it doesn't have a real place in time: it's way too clumsy and realistic to be a silent but not daring enough to be a precode. It's a film from a lost period that just never got lost.

The Explosive Generation (1961)

Director: Buzz Kulik
Stars: William Shatner, Patty McCormack and Lee Kinsolving

I'm not going to even attempt to argue with modern culture's verdict on William Shatner's acting chops, but I'll stand up in public any time you like and defend his filmography as one of the most fascinating and daring of anyone in the book. I need to work through them all in order sometime and write a serious article about them: this is early in his career, over a decade before Star Trek and right after a couple of classical films you might be surprised to find the Shat in: Oedipus Rex and The Brothers Karamazov.

For those of you who only know him as Captain James T Kirk, take a quick look at his next five films: Judgment at Nuremberg, an IMDb Top 250 movie, no less; The Intruder, a Corman movie about racism shot guerilla style on the streets of the South; an American remake of Kurosawa's Rashomon called The Outrage; a horror movie called Incubus that may just be one of the most daring ever made given that it was shot in the artificial language of Esperanto; and a multiracial double role as the lead in White Comanche.

As you can imagine, none of these films are remotely like any of the others and this one follows that trend. You can imagine the style just from the title credits overlaying a high school basketball game: it's black and white with frozen screens and a bouncy jazz soundtrack, so it'll be hip, baby, hip. Sure enough, the Shat is the hippest teacher at school, Peter Gifford, who teaches social studies, or some sixties equivalent. But the film isn't the cheap teen drama it might appear: it's a serious attempt to talk through the changes that a new generation was bringing to America.

Now Mr Gifford is a sensitive soul who isn't too fond of the curriculum he's supposed to teach. He sees things like college entrance as only speaking to the future needs of his students, not their current ones. So he opens discussion with them about what issues they're dealing with as high school seniors, and sure enough, top of the list is sex, a contentious subject in school now but even more so in 1961. And there's something serious lying behind it all in the minds of the kids: four of the seniors in Mr Gifford's class had surreptitiously spent the night after the basketball game partying down at a beach house.

At this party things happened that aren't mentioned on screen but which are pretty clear to anyone except the most dense viewers. Yeah, those things. And through Mr Gifford's upcoming discussion, these things turn into a maelstrom. You see once sex is on the table, he has them write questions down, with complete anonymity, so that he can collate examples and use them for discussion the following week in class. But that single act starts toppling the dominoes until the surreptitious party becomes open, the kids' parents rant at the principal and Mr Gifford is suspended. However this isn't the end of the story, it's the beginning because the real story is about what these students do about it.

Beyond this film containing the worst example of the boom mike dropping into the screen I think I've ever seen, something that reoccurs from scene to scene, it's an eye opener. It sets up so many things that appear to be obvious, only to take a slightly different tack and keep our questions coming. It isn't a teen sex drama, it isn't even a sex education drama, it's about the birth of the protest age: how concepts like communication, solidarity, civil disobedience, silent protest and effective use of the media could be brought to bear to make a point and raise awareness of what they really want.

It's a surprising film, but one of the most surprising things is how little screen time the star gets. William Shatner is the catalyst for the film but he doesn't actually get to do a heck of a lot. Even Edward Platt seems to get more to do as the principal. Most obvious are the effective leaders of the student body: Janet and Dan, played by Patty McCormack and Lee Kinsolving respectively. McCormack was already well established through being the original evil movie child in The Bad Seed, but Kinsolving was both up and coming and at the end of his screen career. This was the third of his three films, as he moved instead to TV and quick retirement from the industry. He died at 36 in 1974.

The Explosive Generation certainly carries an impact but I think a second viewing would really be needed to judge it appropriately. Much of its success seems to come through the manipulation of our expectations, constantly surprising us as to where it's going. With foreknowledge of where it's going it may be much less successful. The second half is also much better than the first, as the communication and solidarity that's so in place at the end is utterly not there at the beginning. There's not a lot to take us believable from one extreme to the other, Dan's chauvinistic nature being quashed entirely and Janet's dad disappearing entirely from the story. Powerful and interesting, certainly, but perhaps not as great as it may seem when the end arrives.

Monday 25 May 2009

Bordertown (1935)

Director: Archie L Mayo
Stars: Paul Muni, Bette Davis and Margaret Lindsay

With this film under my belt, that leaves only six Paul Muni films to go and it's been an interesting ride. He played characters of what seems like every ethnic background in the book, and in an age where such activity produced some of the most embarrassing moments for established stars. Kate Hepburn was one of the greatest actors Hollywood ever saw but she should never have played Scotswomen or Chinese peasants. Muni may have been the only actor to really get away with it, though even he failed on occasion. His eastern European coal miner in Black Fury was painful to listen to and while he provided one of the better Caucasian attempts at an oriental character in The Good Earth, that still doesn't mean it should have happened.

Here he's a Mexican, as he would be again four years later in Juarez with the same co-star, Bette Davis. In that one he was the leader of Mexico, although he had to fight to get there, but here he's Johnny Ramirez, a 'tough guy from a tough neighbourhood' who pulls himself up by his bootstraps to graduate from the Pacific Night Law School. This is in the Mexican Quarter of Los Angeles, which is so Mexican that there are signs that point out that English is spoken there, the precise opposite of what I see today in West Phoenix where you can't get a customer facing job unless you speak Spanish.

Unfortunately for Johnny, his first real case turns out about as badly as it could. He tries to assert the truth in a case where a wild and drunk young social butterfly called Dale Elwell races her car out of control, ploughing into and destroying the truck and livelihood of an old Mexican man. However while he means well he hasn't prepared his case well in the slightest and he's utterly outclassed by the opposition, so much so that he ends up punching him out when he gets called a cheap shyster. Needless to say, this doesn't sit well with the judge, who chews him out for it, and sure enough he finds himself disbarred.

So in a quest for the money he thinks will even the stakes between him and all these other people who plague him, he heads south of the border and ends up at a gambling joint called the Silver Slipper. He begins as a bouncer, after knocking out the existing bouncer, then works his way up to the man who gets done whatever needs to be done and eventually to partner. The boss is Charlie Roark, played by Eugene Pallette who was 19 years older than Bette Davis who plays his screen wife Marie. This is only one reason why Marie falls for Johnny, and Johnny is only one reason why she takes advantage of her husband's drunken state one night to leave him in the garage with the car's motor running.

Now, up until this point Bette Davis doesn't have much to do but from here on out she gets the opportunity to strut her stuff, going gradually insane with guilt and frustration as Johnny still doesn't respond to her advances even in the absence of her husband. This was 1935 when she was just another contract player at Warner Brothers, trying everything she could to land roles with substance, something she'd finally managed a year earlier in Of Human Bondage and she does her share of shivering and shaking here too, along with a whole host of other mannerisms that add subtle and no subtle depth to her character.

Now Bette isn't the only woman in the film, though you may be forgiven for forgetting Dale Elwell way back at the beginning. She's played by the lovely Margaret Lindsay, who was always so good at being desirable on screen and is no less here. She spent her time in court drawing young green lawyer Johnny. The word she writes under the picture of his face is telling; it's 'savage' and she remembers that an indeterminate amount of time later when Johnny has a new casino built and her party turns up for the opening night. She's really back to be the love interest who shakes up Johnny as nobody else can.

Yes, this is melodrama and it bears no grudge against the genre. The story is merely a background to give the characters opportunity to emote and the scenes are constructed only to teach them lessons that apparently only melodramatic scenes can teach. This isn't good. While the story does keeps us interested, it fails to really draw us in and it cops out throughout the picture. Davis gets a few scenes of power setting up a scene, but then she's gone; and Lindsay likewise. It's as if the filmmakers wanted those few powerful lines but didn't really care about them once they'd been spoken.

The Production Code is very much apparent here too, and that must have driven the direction of the story to the final copout at the end. As a Mexican American, Johnny is a lead character from a minority and he spends the film being pursued by white American women, one of whom has the audacity to throw rather memorable insult at him: as he proposes marriage, fully expecting the reciprocation of his love, she retorts, 'You're from another tribe, savage.' And with both white women gone, Johnny suddenly finds direction in his life and goes back to his people. No, this isn't satisfying at all.

Saturday 23 May 2009

Big Stakes (1922)

Director: Clifford S Elfelt
Stars: J B Warner and Elinor Fair

The silent western would seem to be a pretty strange genre, for two reasons. Firstly it was a contemporary genre rather than the slice of history it soon became, so our cowboy hero is a cowboy in 1922 not a couple of generations before. It's simply a choice of lifestyle like perhaps biker is today. The other is that one of the most obvious facets of westerns is the sound: not just the drawl of the Duke but things like the hoofbeats of the horses that often dictate the pace of a sound western.

This one stars J B Warner, who apparently isn't the younger brother of more famous silent star H B Warner, contrary to many stories. He presumably ended up as J B instead of James B because of the benefits such similarities could bring, though he didn't last long enough to reap any rewards that may have come his way: he died at 29 of tuberculosis in 1924, two years after this film. He plays our hero, of course, Jim Gregory by name, who works as the tough but fair foreman of the Crazy Snake Rancho. He has the choice of not just one but two leading ladies, possibly because, as the title card describes him, he's a 'devil-may-care buckaroo'.

The first is a modern American girl called Mary Moore, a waitress at the White Star who's apparently the most popular girl in town, an epithet that means that she's merely desirable not a slut. She's a woman who works for a living and even drives a car; and while the boys all fight over here, she's plenty tough enough to tell the town bully to shut up. She's played by Wilamae Carson, better known as Willie Mae. She didn't have a long screen career even though she lived until 1976, but she certainly looked the part. She's very capable as a damsel in distress and also as the tough heroine, while remaining terminally cute throughout.

While there's an obvious attraction though, she's not the main focus of our cowboy hero's heart for most of the film. That would be lady number two, an aristocratic young Mexican from over the border called Senorita Mercedes Aloyez. She's played by Elinor Fair, who soon married her own cowboy in real life: William Boyd who was best known for a long string of westerns in which he played Hopalong Cassidy. Here she's promised to El Capitan Montoya, who she doesn't love at the beginning of the film but comes to loathe him even more as his jealousy runs rampant.

This love triangle provides our main story for much of the film: Jim woos the Senorita Mercedes while El Capitan pouts and plots with his Yaqui Indian slave and his deadly gila monster Diablo. But as this story comes to its end with a Mexican jumping bean contest, lady number one reenters the fray. She quietly loves our hero Jim, while the local pool hall owner, Bully Brand, has his eye very firmly on her. In fact, in the persona of the secret leader of the Night Riders, who look rather similar to the Klan, he has her kidnapped with the aim of forcible marriage.

Yes, this is very much a pulp story, but there's a heck of a lot going on in a mere 61 minutes of running time. It's also shot very nicely indeed, with all the thrills, spills and stunts of an action film and a few whole will she won't she plots of a romance. There's even enough space for character shaping subplots that bring characters to redemption and render clear the contents of their hearts. We even get awesome cowboy lines like one of his declarations of love to his Senorita: 'You little black-eyed lump of Paradise, you've got my heart roped, throwed, and double-half-hitched for keeps.' In fact Jim gets better lines than his sidekick, Skinny Fargo, who naturally isn't very skinny at all and who as you might expect is there purely as comic relief.

This is an interesting film. It plays far quicker and more packed with story than most silent movies of the era. It has decent performances from all concerned, though they're very much generic roles, and the camerawork is surprisingly able for the time. Perhaps this was a bigger budget and more high profile film than I'm thinking it was, but technically it's superb. The opening fight is an excellent montage of images that tell a clear story in snapshots and the second fight is a believable grapping brawl rather than the stereotypical clean punching battle we're used to seeing.

The racial interaction is interesting too, which is precisely why TCM just showed it in their series on Latino Images in Film. It's an anachronistic pulp fantasy type setup, mixing contemporary cowboys with new empowered American women and Spanish aristocracy. I've noticed that in these early films from Hollywood, nobody talks about Mexicans: anyone south of the border is Spanish. And while the ending is conspicuously clean and convenient from the point of view of race, our all American hero can happily woo a Spanish senorita over the Mexican/American border without any racial fanfare, the only issues tying to jealousy, which is a universal language.

The Parson's Widow (1920)

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Stars: Einar Röd, Greta Almroth and Hildur Carlberg

Over the mountain wander Sofren and Mari. Sofren is a student of theology come to apply for the vacant position of parson in this rural Norwegian village. Mari is his fiancee, but not yet his wife because her father won't allow it until he becomes a real parson. Luckily for him, his two competitors from Copenhagen aren't particularly up to the task. The first looks like a cross between John Lennon and Bill Gates and bores his audience to sleep, so much so that even the man tasked with keeping everyone awake drops off; and the other is a bloated fool who keeps them amused only because Sofren has stuck a feather to the back of his head.

So Sofren it is: the five bearded elders tasked with the decision don't have much of a task after all, given that he's young and dynamic and can think on his feet. However, there's a catch, for there must always be a catch. The local custom is that the parson's widow comes with the job. This wasn't for any religious reason, merely a practical one because someone has to take care of her, after all, but this particular parson's widow, Dame Margarete Pedersdotter, has outlasted the previous three parsons only to be handed over each time to their successors 'like a piece of furniture'.

And just as Sofren had no problem outsmarting his rivals, who run for the hills the moment they see Dame Margarete anyway, the parson's widow outsmarts Sofren. Eager to retain her position running the parson's house, she persuades him subtly to propose. There's mention that she may be a witch but she really accomplishes it with a herring and a bottle of schnapps. So Sofren becomes the parson and Dame Margarete becomes the parson's wife once more, mistress of her whole domain. And with this setup, with Mari introduced into the mix as Sofren's sister rather than his fiancee, naturally hilarity ensues.

Well hilarity is a strong term, given that this is a Swedish silent film from 1920 and a Carl Theodor Dreyer movie to boot, but it's a lot closer to hilarity than I'd have ever imagined for one of his films. I've seen a lot of them, having been utterly stunned by The Passion of Joan of Arc and fascinated into finding as much of the rest of his work that I could. This was the second film Dreyer directed, but the eighth of his fourteen feature length movies for me. It's the first to invoke laughter, which comes about mostly in a subtle way but with some stooping to pantomime, such as the scenes where Sofren prances around in an elaborate Satan suit after he becomes convinced that his wife is a witch.

It's constructed well, with strong performances and memorable characters, varied shots and varied expectations. It looks good, whether inside or out, and there's a lot of use of the common silent film masking technique that turns the screen into a small circle to highlight what we should be looking at. As would fit a story built around a folk custom, there's a great deal here that speaks to customs and folklore, from dances to rituals to beliefs. Quite which Scandinavian culture or cultures this applies to, I'm not sure, given that it's a Swedish film set in Norway but based on a Danish story, but they're fascinating.

And backing up Dreyer's direction, Dreyer being a man who controlled his films as surely as Dame Margarete controls her household, are a number of memorable performances. Einar Röd plays Sofren as something of an imp. We rarely see him in church, this being one of the least religious religious films I've ever seen. Instead we watch him try all sorts of hare brained schemes to try to see his Mari, always coming up short but learning something in the process, there very much being a lesson here in and amidst the comedy. Greta Almroth is a wholesome but frustrated Mari, reminding a little of Elsa Lanchester.

Best of all is Hildur Carlberg as Dame Margarete, dominant throughout but always human. Born as far back as 1843, she was 76 when she made this film, her third and last. With a memorable face with many lines showing her age and a memorable gait that would have made her a prime candidate for a major role in a zombie movie, it's sad that she wouldn't make any more. She died two months before this film was released. I wonder if they nailed a horseshoe above her door and sprinkled linseed oil on the ground to ensure she didn't come back to haunt her house.

The First Hundred Years (1938)

Director: Richard Thorpe
Stars: Robert Montgomery and Virginia Bruce

This 1938 comedy stars Robert Montgomery and Virginia Bruce, but I'm watching for the supporting cast, especially Warren William and Harry Davenport, who haven't let me down yet, even when the films they're in did. Davenport was always a supporting actor, one who had a knack of stealing scenes without trying, but William used to be a powerful lead in his own right and his loss of that status is really highlighted in this movie: what it is and what it isn't.

What it is is a story about marriage. Our leads play a happily married couple who run into trouble, not through the usual things but through duelling careers. The thing is that it's the woman of the house who has been running the show for quite some time. Lynn Conway is a professional woman who as the manager of a theatrical agency has been doing well enough to keep herself and her husband David both. Life is great but now David has found his feet and landed a lucrative career as a shipbuilder. The problem is that Lynn's career is in New York and David's is in somewhere called New Bedford, notable only because it isn't New York.

What it isn't is a precode. Five years earlier Warren William would have played David and he'd have been a blistering chauvinist who would have somehow kept our sympathy even while we raged in horror at him. He was always a master at playing both sides of that coin simultaneously, something that never seemed to make sense: how could we root for him while wanting to kill him? But this is 1938, so he's merely Harry Borden, owner of the agency Lynn works for and thus an interested party trying to help her out of her new found situation.

David is played by Robert Montgomery, who merely alternates between annoyingly chauvinistic and annoyingly sincere. I disliked him thoroughly but I didn't hate him and I couldn't root for him. I'd have done both for Warren William. Lynn, David's much better half, is played by Virginia Bruce, who is wholesome enough to keep our sympathies throughout, at least until the end of the film. That's where the whole movie cops out painfully but inevitably; the last twenty minutes could have been replaced by a single title card reading, 'This ain't 1933, folks. What do you think they're going to let us get away with in 1938?'

This really is perfect material for a precode. Beyond Warren William being perfect for a manipulative, chauvinistic and utterly beguiling version of David, the part of Lynn could easily have been jazzed up and dressed down in any combination of a hundred ways that weren't allowed after the code became enforced. Watching between the lines at a invisible precode version I saw cheating on both sides, hints at nudity, a fall into prostitution, abuse, tragic chains of circumstance and an unfair legal system, all wrapped up in a story that juggled social commentary, wild exploitation and comedic dialogue.

Yet what we get is an attempt at such a bowdlerised version that the fluff comes out serious and the seriousness comes out fluffy. There were plenty of films in the golden age of Hollywood that played utterly within the rules and became classics not because of their daring but because of their technique, their skilful writing and the iconic nature of stardom. They knew what not to try. Films like this always seem like wastes because it's obvious that the cast and crew knew from moment one that they couldn't even attempt to tell us what their stories were really about. Even trying is pointless: think of how a porn movie would end up if you weren't allowed to use any actual sex or nudity. This one, with almost no soundtrack whatsoever and only a few sets, comes across like a play that attempts to revisit the innocence of a past age while failing to realise that not only isn't the audience of the day interested in innocence but the past wasn't innocent anyway.

Monday 18 May 2009

The Ape (1940)

Director: William Nigh
Star: Boris Karloff

The circus is coming to the town of Red Creek but the local kids are far more interested in throwing rocks at the house of Dr Bernard Adrian. That's not a particularly nice thing for them to do, granted, but Dr Adrian is played by Boris Karloff so it's far from unlikely that he could be up to any kind of nonsense you could comfortably imagine and a bit more to boot. Certainly some of the local adults, led by ice cold, selfish and philandering bank manager Henry Mason, think he's up to no good too but he's really just driven and dedicated, to save young Frances Clifford from the ravages of polio.

She's the personification of the disease to him, a disease that had already claimed both his wife and daughter. Unable to save them, he's merely transferred his unfulfilled desire to save them onto her, with a little too much obsessive zeal, perhaps, but definitely with his heart in the right place. He's even made breakthroughs experimenting on animals, something that many of today's audience would see as far more sinister than those watching on initial release in 1940, people who may have been more queasy at the mention of things they didn't understand, like the extraction of spinal fluid, experimentation of any sort and the paradox that feeling pain is better than feeling nothing.

And into Dr Adrian's house breaks the ape of the title, a killer ape no less who had already killed one abusive circus hand and promptly does the same to his son under the same circumstances. It escaped during the struggle, which also burned down the circus. This circus hand doesn't die straight away though, being taken to Dr Adrian for medical treatment, and the ape hones in on the scent of his coat. Of course, the critter is of major use to the doc but I won't spoil quite how.

This ape is played by the other star of the film, a star known primarily for being stuck in such roles. He's Ray 'Crash' Corrigan, both a Mesquiteer and a Range Buster in two separate long running western series, but he was also probably the most prolific occupant of gorilla suits the business ever saw. In 1932 he played an ape in his first film role, in Tarzan the Ape Man and twenty years later he was the latter half of the title in 1952's Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. In between he played a couple of dozen apes of various descriptions, like here often the title character and yet still uncredited.

Unfortunately however good you are at moving around in a monkey suit, it's hardly a versatile choice of profession and so I'm never likely to recognise his work without the aid of IMDb, but I've seen him many times over the years in many different gorilla suits. He's hardly memorable here, but he doesn't have a lot of competition. Karloff steals the show of course, but the script doesn't really provide for anyone else. Maris Wrixon is a decent delectable young lady as Frances Clifford but she gets only a little more to do than her token boyfriend Danny, played by Gene O'Donnell. The most memorable characters have to be Dr Adrian's housekeeper Jane and Henry Mason, the evil bank manager; but the former never speaks and the latter gets killed off without letting his character develop.

The story is surprisingly sparse, given that it was written by no less a name than Curt Siodmak, but this is early in his American career, having worked his way over from Germany via England. He'd soon excel in the horror genre, with The Wolf Man coming a year later and further films to come including I Walked with a Zombie, The Beast with Five Fingers and Donovan's Brain, which was based on his own novel. However this time out he must have at least been partly limited by the source material, a play by Adam Hull Shirk, also titled The Ape. Who should shoulder most of the blame I don't know but it's disappointing to see a Karloff movie so mild. It isn't bad, it's just there and there's not much more to say about it.

Monday 11 May 2009

Dead Men Walk (1943)

Director: Sam Newfield
Stars: George Zucco and Mary Carlisle

Given that it's 11.30pm and a work night, I went looking for a short film. With nothing on the DVR that would work, I went looking through my box sets and found this little 64 minute filler from PRC in the Horror Classics 50 film box that I'm already three fifths of the way through. Not only is it a George Zucco film, with him playing a double role as the good Dr Lloyd Clayton and his evil twin Elwyn, but it's a Dwight Frye too and those are always to be treasured.

Given that this is 1943, any evil lead naturally needed a hunchbacked assistant with a pronounced accent and a name beginning with Z and Frye was always top of that casting list, much to his annoyance given that he was a prolific and successful comedian on Broadway. Here he's Zolarr and he throws his all into the role, as it seems he always did. Unfortunately this came late in his 15 year career: a mere four more films, three of them without a credit, and he'd be dead of a heart attack at 44, robbing us of so many potentially great roles.

A title like Dead Men Walk might suggest a zombie film, which frequently turned up on the bottom half of double bills from the mid thirties onwards, but a zombie film is about the only thing this isn't. It's hard to tell precisely what the focus is supposed to be because writer Fred Myton threw everything but the kitchen sink into the story, from the introduction on through the film. Single lines include half a dozen supernatural genres and they're stuck in the middle of other lines that do the same.

The closest I can work out is that Elwyn Clayton travels to India and comes back a Satan worshipper who collects works of horrible blasphemy and practices sorcery with Zolarr's assistance, only to be killed by his brother, a decent and God fearing man, in a clifftop struggle that we unfortunately don't get the privilege to see, the film beginning with Elwyn's funeral. But Zolarr hasn't given up on his master yet and through the power of Sheitan, Lord of the Abyss, he soon rises from the grave as a vampire to feed on the blood of the young ladies who live in his brother's house, including his niece Gayle.

Now Gayle isn't an easy victim for long, because a whole slew of characters want to keep her safe, however much they disagree on the right approach. Her fiance, a doctor respected by his future father-in-law, is utterly convinced that there's a rational explanation for the teethmarks in her throat and her sudden anaemia. A wild eyed local woman believes in every supernatural thing under the sun (or the moon) and gifts her with a cross to keep her safe. The former is played by Nedrick Young, who I've never heard of but who is as emphatic as Bogart here in his film debut; the latter by Fern Emmett who had 180 films behind her already but can't find the right feeling for the over the top lines.

In between the two of them is her father, Dr Clayton himself, who wants to disbelieve in the supernatural but gradually comes to the conclusion that it's the only explanation that fits. After all he's been seeing and talking with his dead brother, whose body has disappeared from the family crypt and who seems intent on explaining the whole thing to him in detail. Given that the effects are handled very nicely indeed for 1943 and the lines the cast are given are less like dialogue and more like overt tag lines for a narrator to throw out over a lurid trailer, he'd be a fool not to believe what he's being told.

And while Zucco and Frye are great to watch and Nedrick Young is emphatic enough not to be missed, it's these lines that make this such a gem. The whole script is peppered with outrageous examples, making this the most definitive over-the-top dialogue I think I've ever been privileged to hear. Every minute or two there's another humdinger, so many that I started rewinding so I could write them down. Only in a horror movie could lines like the following get thrown out there, and even most horror movies wouldn't dare!

'Vampires! Creatures of the devil who are neither alive nor dead. During the day they sleep in their graves in death-like sleep but at night they have the power to roam the earth.'

'Her life is threatened by some abnormal creature that has no right to exist!'

'He's either losing his mind or he's attempting to divert suspicion from himself with some fantastic story of supernatural vengeance from beyond the grave.'

'So this is where you lie hidden during the day, the colour in your face proving that you are a vampire, not one of the honest dead who rests in peace.'

'No, I told you before I feel that I must be the one to destroy him. We were brothers and there was a bond of hatred between us that lasted a lifetime. If I fail, then you must be the one to take up the fight, for Gayle's sake and the sake of mankind!'

And these are only examples from later on. I hadn't written any of the the early ones down. Now I wish I had and I may just have to go back and transcribe the script. As a B movie vampire yarn it's actually a pretty decent effort, as clichéd as any you could mention but surprisingly well done, especially given the company responsible, Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), well known as a cheap and cheerful Poverty Row studio who churned out films in a week. Considering that sort of budget and shooting schedule, this is a major triumph. And oh, that dialogue!

Sunday 10 May 2009

Island of Doomed Men (1940)

Director: Charles Barton
Stars: Peter Lorre, Rochelle Hudson and Robert Wilcox

Washington DC wouldn't seem to be an obvious place to begin a movie called Island of Doomed Men, but we're at the Department of Justice where Mark Sheldon is reporting for duty. He's played by Robert Wilcox, no stranger to the law himself given his rampant alcoholism and five year tempestuous marriage to John Barrymore's daughter Diana. This comes a decade earlier though when he he was apparently doing pretty well, right before an honourable stint in the army during World War II.

As Sheldon, he's in DC to dedicate his life to the good guys by forgetting his name and his past, to become a faceless man known only to the DOJ as number 64. They pair him with another operative, number 46, who's been deep into an undercover operation for quite some time as a man called Jackson. They don't even know who or what he's investigating because he hasn't filed his report yet, and he never will because the day number 64 meets him he's shot dead. Escaping a little too late from the scene of the crime, number 64 is caught, and under the obvious pseudonym of John Smith is convicted of murder.

He doesn't get much information before Jackson dies, but he is told that the man he's investigating is Stephen Danel, who runs a penal colony on the remote Dead Man's Island, which is aptly named. Apparently it's less of a penal colony and more of a slave colony, with Danel the ruthless leader who literally gets away with murder because he's far enough away from everyone else to escape their notice. And while it takes a surprisingly long time, Danel chooses to get Smith paroled into his custody, because he knew precisely who Jackson was and had been watching him from the office opposite. And if Jackson was a government agent, then surely Smith is too. And so the battle commences.

Yes, this is pretty much a loose framework for Peter Lorre to strut his sadistic and menacing stuff, but it does offer plenty of that. In addition to the battle pitting Danel against Smith, there are couple of other battles to watch too. One is what gives Lorre, unflappably cool throughout most of the film, the opportunity to lose that cool and rave like a lunatic. It's Danel versus a little monkey owned by the prisoner who works as Danel's cook Siggy, who is played by George E Stone, a prolific actor who I'm enjoying more than as just the Runt in the Boston Blackie movies. 'Keep that monkey away from me!' screams Danel the first time we see the monkey, and he gets progressively more emphatic as time runs on.

The last battle pits Danel against Mrs Danel. You see, in this stunningly inappropriate choice of movie for Mother's Day, Danel sees his wife as his personal property and treats her as much like a slave as the men under his control. She hates his guts and he knows it, and the two have awesome barbed conversations around that very subject, conversations that prove even more awesome because she's played by Rochelle Hudson, best known as the voice of Honey in the Bosko cartoons but in which you don't realise that she's about as tall as Lorre. It's so weird to see Lorre talking to someone the same height as himself; he looks too wide, as if Bert I Gordon had been hired to blow him up to a larger size.

Unfortunately the film only runs 68 minutes short and so only one of the battles really gets any real attention: Danel vs Smith. It's mostly tied up in action instead of an intellectual chess game, but it's decent enough in a B-movie sort of way, with escapes and captures and double crosses. Yet Rochelle Hudson gets precious little to do except protest that she hates her husband. Her whole background story remains mostly untold and the monkey subplot is ignored entirely. We never do get to find out why Danel is mortally afraid of monkeys, because it's all pathetically just an excuse for one moment late in the film. The whole promises a lot more than it delivers, but merely delivering Lorre for an hour and a bit still makes for happy times.

Saturday 9 May 2009

Ramona (1910)

Director: D W Griffith
Stars: Mary Pickford and Henry B Walthall

I'll take any chance I can get to see a silent movie, and this one's an interesting one for a number of reasons. Opening TCM's annual Race in Hollywood season, this time focusing on 'Latino Images in Film', it's a look at the oppressive nature of the white race, based on a popular novel of the late nineteenth century by Helen Hunt Jackson, published in 1884. The film's subtitle is telling: 'A story of the White Man's Injustice to the Indian'.

Jackson apparently based her work on a government report on the treatment given to Native Americans in southern California, called A Century of Dishonor which title aptly describes the contents. Seeing overt injustice but not much attention being given to the report, she wrote a novel called Ramona to highlight the subject and succeeded admirably, given that the book has run through 300 reprintings and has never been out of print. It seems to have been a major factor in defining the culture of southern California.

Probably because I grew up in England where we had our own ethical stories to deal with, I'd never even heard of Ramona, a sort of west coast attempt to tap into the impact that Uncle Tom's Cabin had on perception of slavery to raise perception of the historical treatment of Native Americans. This was the first film version, made in 1910 by the Biograph company, and something of a major production for the time. Running 17 minutes or two reels, it is nonetheless obviously an epic story cut down to the quick and it's easy to see audiences thrilling to what is really little more than a synopsis, then heading home to read the book to each other.

And of course the point of its inclusion in TCM's Race in Hollywood season is that it has Hispanic and Native American leads. Well, not quite. This is 1910, so 'racial masquerading' is in full force and they're both played by white actors. Incidentally, I hadn't heard that precise term before but it really sums up the concept very nicely indeed so I'm sure I'm going to carry on using it frequently. If I ever get round to writing my article on the most insane casting choices Hollywood has run through, it'll be mentioned often.

The leads are Mary Pickford and Henry Walthall. Walthall was a prolific actor who had entered film in 1908 for the Edison company in a film that still exists, Rescued from an Eagle's Nest, which also featured as an actor the man who directed this film, D W Griffith. Pickford has been described as 'the most popular star in film history', which is certainly a contentious claim but one with merit. Best known as America's sweetheart, this film came only a year into her screen career, though she'd effectively made a film a week in 1909! It's also a full decade before she married Douglas Fairbanks and in fact a year before she married her first husband, fellow silent screen idol Owen Moore.

Of course neither Pickford nor Walthall play within their race, both being 'whites', in the parlance of this film. Walthall is 'Alessandro, the Indian' and Pickford the title character, 'Ramona of the great Spanish household of Moreno.' Caucasians being 'whites' and Native Americans being 'Indians' is hardly surprising, but this is far enough back that Hispanics or Latinos are simply 'Spanish'. And just to confuse matters, Ramona isn't 'Spanish' at all, being half Scots and half Indian orphan. However she's been brought up to believe that she's Spanish by the Morenos, who had fostered her.

She's being pursued by Felipe, a full blooded son of the Morenos, but falls instead for Alessandro, one of the Temecula Indian sheep herders the Morenos bring in annually to help with the shearing. Alessandro is also the son of the chief. When Señora Moreno discovers what's going on, she goes ballistic and the whites promptly burn down the Temecula village. Ramona discovers that she's part Indian and elopes with Alessandro, bearing his child and moving out into the mountains. However wherever they go, they meet up with whites who wave guns at them and tell them to get off their land. In the end Alessandro is shot dead, just before Felipe can come to rescue them both.

And I had to work most of this out afterwards, because it isn't too obvious in the film. Viewing without foreknowledge, I assumed, as perhaps I was supposed to, that Ramona was a full blooded Hispanic being raised by a white family and Felipe was just a wealthy Hispanic in the neighbourhood, who was merely seen as a good match for Ramona beause of their shared race. The story is generic enough though that none of that matters and the real drive of the story that sits behind the melodrama speaks to how universally awful the whites are.

And here's the key. The Indians are all virtuous; the Spanish mostly so with some misguided action as well to make them human; but the whites are all terrible. All they do is steal land, threaten people and then shoot them. Putting together what the film shows us and what the book tells us, as far as I've just read, there isn't really a place for Americans in this picture of southern Californian culture. The Indians predate that concept and the Spanish all see themselves as Mexican anyway.

Films from the early teens are generally pretty dire. This was a time when filmmakers were starting to realise just what the medium could really do and it took a while to string everything together into the art form we know today. Ramona was made in 1910, four years before Charlie Chaplin; five before The Birth of a Nation. Lillian Gish hadn't even acted on screen yet, though she and her sister had both worked in the same stage company as Mary Pickford as child actors.

This is surprisingly good for the time though, even given obvious limitations. At one point what looks like the cameraman's elbow brushes over the corner of the screen. Many of the same locations are reused, even when there seems to be no apparent need: one particular tree in a clearing springs quickly to mind. However there's decent use of scenery: shots looking down the hill to the burning Indian village or up at the San Bernardino mountains. What appears to be the entire film is shot outdoors, apparently shot in Camulos, Ventura County, California, where the novel was set. Given the propensity of Hollywood PR to go well beyond exaggeration into outright fiction, it wouldn't be too surprising to find that it was actually Romania or Mozambique, but in this instance it's believable.

Pickford is good as Ramona and is a magnetic presence on screen, showing why she quickly came to be such a huge star. Walthall is decent but hardly seems a giant in his craft. In a film where some of the extras really seem to be people who walked onto the set and jumped into a costume, he doesn't seem to fit that description much less. More notable to me was Kate Bruce as Señora Moreno. She raves and shakes and gestures, even though she's laden down by wildly ornate costumes and what looks like heavy pancake makeup. In another story, she could have easily been a horror lead. I could see her raging at Karloff in the early sound era Universal horrors but I have no idea what her voice sounded like. She made nearly 300 films but only a couple look like sound films, even though she lived until 1946, so maybe her voice was an issue.

Friday 8 May 2009

Evilspeak (1981)

Director: Eric Weston
Stars: Clint Howard and Richard Moll

Heretical monk Lorenzo Esteban is banished from Spain by the Inquisition, who are surprisingly nice about it, not killing him and all. Nobody expected that! So off he sails with his followers to the New World where he cuts a pretty neat pentagram in the sand with his sword and celebrates black mass right there on the beach. Luckily for him, he has his followers with him and he has his requisite evil looking book intact, which is exactly the sort of thing that in horror movies gets refound centuries later by bullied kids so that they can use it to wreak revenge on their tormentors.

Sure enough that's what happens here in Evilspeak. We skip over the next few hundred years to find ourselves at the West Andover Military Academy where Clint Howard gets to play Stanley Coopersmith, the boy that everyone hates. It isn't just the kids either, like the ones on his football team who can actually play and hate the fact that he can't, it's the teachers too. The coach can't kick him off the team because school policy mandates that everyone gets to play sports, but he's happy to suggest to the biggest Coopersmith-haters right there in the locker room that hey, he couldn't play if something happened to him, hint, hint. Even Colonel Kincaid, who runs the place, is happy to indulge in a little corporal punishment on him while his cute secretary, Miss Friedemeyer, sits outside and listens.

Young Stanley's life changes on a punishment detail for the school's chaplain, Rev Jameson. Coopersmith gets to clean up the cellar, which is dark, suitably vast and generally populated only by the freaky caretaker called Sarge who has a penchant for the bottle. So when he finds a secret room full of secret books and secret lore, he's pretty clear to move in. Yes, West Andover was founded by Father Esteban and this is where he hid his stash of black paraphenalia, from gargoyle statues to pickled things in little jars. Even his coffin is here, cruciform in shape to boot, plus that cool looking book I mentioned too, all ready for our hero to read.

Clint Howard does an awesome job as Stanley Coopersmith, almost defining the nerdy but mostly sympathetic kid who would take over Hollywood in the eighties about as emphatically as Arnold Schwarzenegger, albeit in a very different way. He's less of an outsider than someone like the title character in Carrie, this being very much Carrie in a military academy, and much more believable than those who would follow in a seemingly endless churn of nerd comedies. He's far more sympathetic than the spoiled rich kids who torment him, who for some reason are called unlikely names like Bubba and Jo Jo, but he's still idiotic enough to underline passages in that awesomely cool and centuries old book of Esteban's.

He also knows how to use a computer, which is something of a requisite for a movie nerd, and he moves his original Apple into his new hideout in the cellar. It has a really powerful translation tool, you see, that turns the Latin text of Esteban's notebook, for that's what this book is, into usable English. It even answers questions. 'What are the keys to the kingdom of Satan's majesty?' Stanley types, and this possessed Apple comes back with the precise ingredients and rituals. No, there's no internet and no Google, because this is 1981. It just knows...

Now, I started using home computers in 1981, with a vengeance, and I don't remember anything this cool or powerful, but beyond the inevitable technological liberties taken, especially with the graphics, this actually feels less dated than most films from the period that used computers. I laughed a little here but I wasn't annoyed, and as an IT professional, this is something that tends to annoy the crap out of me. Perhaps that's because it didn't rely on state of the art (at the time) digital effects that became dated about six months later; it uses basic pixellated characters and switches to analogue for almost everything else.

You can write much of the rest of the plot yourself as it really doesn't carry any great surprises, but you'll find that it's still well worth the effort to stick with for a couple of reasons. One is the cast, who are all decent and recognisable from elsewhere. Jake the cook is Lenny Montana, the 6'6" former wrestler who as Luca Brasi got to sleep with the fishes in The Godfather. Father Esteban is Richard Moll, the 6'8" Bull on Night Court. Not everyone's massively tall and some are a little less recognisable because of time passed, such as Don Stark, the lead tormentor here, who would grow up and become the neighbour on That 70's Show, making him Mr Tanya Roberts, at least for a while on screen.

The other reason is that the pace of the film is superbly managed. The story progresses slowly but surely, with a few nasty or utterly gratuitous scenes thrown in for good measure, and it builds gradually to a real peach of a climax. Not everything makes entire sense, not everything works the way it was intended to and it does fall foul of some '80s horror movie clichés, but the payoff is simply joyous. I literally sat up in admiration as the massacre began and that admiration kept on building until the credits rolled.

Part of this success comes from how the film paves the way to the finale. The trailer is really cheesy and some of what was intended to be humorous in the film fits that adjective too, but that's misleading: what we really get is a slow and generally uncheesy build to a powerful payoff. Part of it comes from a soundtrack that hasn't dated like most early '80s films. Rather than go with trendy synth pop, composer Roger Kellaway, who had been Oscar nominated four years earlier for A Star is Born, put together a choral soundtrack with dabs of electronica.

And part of it was sheer luck. Scouting for locations in the Santa Barbara area, the filmmakers came upon a string of buildings about to be demolished to make way for a freeway and one of them was a church. So what we see at the climax is real, at least the bits that don't involve special effects gore sequences and Clint Howard flying across the aisle. The pigs are real, the fires are real and the destruction is real. And if pigs, fire and destruction don't give you enough incentive to watch this, let me point out that the special effects are very good indeed. Yes, there's better out there but I've seen movies from every year since that pale in comparison.

For 1981, I was very surprised at the quality, and that goes for the film and the effects both. This one's no great classic, but it's an underrated and neglected film that deserves a lot more attention that it's got. I was very happy to see it, albeit 28 years after its original release, and even happier to meet the director and co-writer, Eric Weston, who turned up for a Q&A. Not generally known for the horror genre (or any other single genre for that matter), he's recently returned to it for the imminent Hyenas, which he wrote and directed, and The Prometheus Project, which he is currently producing and which I recently got the happy opportunity to appear in. I'm only a featured extra in a cage fight sequence, so you'll probably be able to see me for a half second or so as the camera pans over the audience, but I wouldn't have minded a half second in Evilspeak either.