Saturday 31 October 2009

The Centerfold Girls (1974)

Director: John Peyser
Stars: Andrew Prine, Jaime Lyn Bauer, Jennifer Ashley and Tiffany Bolling
Here's an interesting little number, courtesy of the wonderful Midnite Movie Mamacita, though it's more interesting because of how it's set up than for anything else. It plays out almost like an exploitation anthology, as while each third of the film is part of a single coherent story, each is done in a completely different style. The first third is an exploitation flick, the second a slasher movie and the third a suspense film, with none of them sitting easily with each other. The only connections are the killer and the fact that everyone seems to be happy getting topless at every possible opportunity. Then again they are all playing centrefold girls, who had posed for the Bachelor magazine calendar, which is what has upset our serial killer no end.

He's Clement Dunne and he's played by Andrew Prine, a serious actor known for his work in many different genres, but who became a centrefold himself for Viva magazine around the time of this film, donating the money to Save the Children. How's that for advertising? He was 38 years old when he made this film but he doesn't look it, instead appearing to be the sort of actor who tends to get cast as a college student even though he's way too old to do it believably, then when it stretches credulity too much switch to roles as CIA agents, a little sleazy and somewhat detached from the world, but nonetheless capable. Here, with his black suit and tie, white shirt and white shoes, he could be a Mormon missionary come straight from bowling, one with a Peter Fonda thing going.

We begin the film with him dumping Miss January, who's already bloody and dead, and of course mostly naked so that when he opens his car door she slumps out to show us her impressive breasts. This was 1974 by the way, so these are real breasts, not a single implant in sight, and they belong to people who were obviously hired because of them and not for much else, certainly not for acting talent. They're here because they're willing to get out of bed and immediately stretch to emphasise those breasts to the camera. That's what upsets Dunne, who rings them up at work to point out that they're sinful and shameful. 'You dirty the minds of others,' he tells them, but, 'I want to help you.' Yes, you can imagine what form that help comes in, except he takes their shoes too.

Miss March is a nurse called Jackie who we watch having one of the worst days I've ever seen anyone have. On her way up to the mountains where she's looking for a job at Camp Wanachee which is only a mile from her aunt's place, she picks up a girl called Linda Williams at a gas station. She seems really nice and she's apparently stuck waiting for her boyfriend who's three hours late already, but it's all just a front. After Jackie goes to bed, Linda lets in her boyfriend and a couple of freaky chicks, who were hiding back at the gas station and hoping that friendly looking Linda would find them some place to invade. Yes, this is where Jackie gets taken over by the Manson Family, especially as the sole guy has a beard and a robe that he apparently wears nothing under. Initially they're just noisy but that's just an excuse for her to keep stripping off to get back in bed and then get back up again.

The real fun starts when she wakes up to one of the girls tweaking her nipples. This bunch of hoodlums get her drunk, paint her face and try to rape her and they didn't even know she's a centrefold. Apparently such things just happen to such people. She still has some wits about her though so she manages to escape and make it to the camp, where the owners call the cops and put her up for the night in the cabin right next to our centrefold murderer. Even the camp owner wants in on the action, taking her back to her trashed place and attempting to rape her too, but he gives up because she has no fight left in her and if it's that easy it's not worth it. Finally as she's lying there on the floor utterly spent, in comes the killer with his protestations that he just wants to help her. By the time Dunne slits her throat that may be just what he does, giving her what must have seemed like a blessed release, providing a slightly dubious moral tone to the film.

And so to Miss May, who takes a whole five seconds before getting topless. If you've noticed the gaps, by the way, I should explain that Dunne skips a month each time because after a successful kill he cuts the face of the victim out of his calendar. Because the pictures are back to back he effectively takes out the even months automatically, so if you're planning on posing nude for some magazine pick February to festoon. Charly is Miss May so she's doomed, even before she heads off to an quiet and secluded island for a photoshoot.

We get a little character development here, like Perry who has no reason to be there except he's the one who makes things happen so naturally gets lots of action, and Melissa who is running the shoot and won't interrupt it even when Sandi falls off the cliff to her death. Really though it's about the murders, but they get overshadowed by the hysterics. These girls may not know how to act, but they're great at screaming and sheer hysterical behaviour. They're some of the best victims I've seen on film, and of course we get to see plenty of them, this being a sexy photoshoot after all. It makes me wonder about Dunne too. He apparently hates the fact that these women keep showing their bodies, but he doesn't exactly cover them up when he kills them. These corpses tend to be left in very exposed conditions.

The only actress I've heard of plays Miss July, who's a stewardess called Vera Porter. Charly was Jennifer Ashley, who made a few movies, and Jackie was Jaime Lyn Bauer, who worked mostly on TV, ending up in Days of Our Lives. Miss January was Charlie, the single name denoting not that she's a classic French actress but that this was the only thing she ever did on film. Miss July, however, is Tiffany Bolling, certainly the most talented of the bunch, who I last saw in Wicked, Wicked and who I'll see again shortly in Kingdom of the Spiders. She's also the first girl who might just have a chance at outwitting our killer, not least by bringing in the cops though they bizarrely do precisely nothing. No phone taps, no stakeouts, no anything really. And while they're not doing anything, Vera doesn't just have to deal with our serial killer but a couple of sailors willing to feed her date rape drugs so they can get it on.

There's much that's strange here beyond cops who don't bother. On the good side there's quite a bit of early social engineering, which is how Dunne discovers that Vera has gone to the Surfer Inn in Naples, for instance. It's these examples of stupidity that ring truest to us because so many of us would have done the same thing in the same circumstances, as stupid as it may be. There's the fact that some of the girls look great in clothes but not as great without them, even though they were hired for their willingness to show their breasts. Charly is one, Jaime Lyn Bauer looking awesome in her Spanish getup and her huge floppy hat, but not so much when she strips off. Vera's the exception here again, as initially she looks better the more she takes off, though much of this is because she started out with some stunningly bad outfits.

Most strange of all, and this goes beyond strange to truly stunning, is that none of these women seem capable of learning. They're depicted as decent everyday women, even though they choose to pose for a topless calendar, and they have their trust betrayed in the worst possible ways: rape, attempted rape, sexual and physical abuse, home invasion, forced ingestion of alcohol and date rape drugs, you name it. Yet they all immediately trust the next guy that comes along implicitly. These women don't need to be taken to task for being centrefolds, they need to be taken to task for being trusting to the point of insanity. Somehow this comes across as being the point of the film. I wonder if it was really intended to be.

Behind the Mask (1932)

Director: John Francis Dillon
Star: Jack Holt, Constance Cummings and Boris Karloff
Find Arnold and tell him I sent you, says Jim Henderson to Quinn in the prison yard at Sing Sing. Henderson is a convict, played with the expected sort of menace given that the actor is Boris Karloff, right at the peak of his initial impact in Hollywood. This was a year after Frankenstein and Five Star Final, the same year as The Old Dark House, The Mummy and Scarface: The Shame of a Nation. While Karloff was enjoying massive attention from the public, Henderson is dreaming of it. He's waiting for the day when the man he works for springs him, though he doesn't even know who that is. There's a mystery here, for sure, one that ends up with a Mr X.

Quinn is good old square jawed Jack Holt, who promptly escapes that evening, and finds his way to Arnold. He sets up an impressive meeting too, being chased there in the rain by a cop who is shooting at him, though the bullet in his arm is one he deliberately puts there himself for effect because he's secretly Jack Hart, secret agent. And he makes an effect, not just on Arnold but on his lovely daughter Julie, played by Constance Cummings. She knew her co-stars well, having worked with both of them before. Her debut on screen was in a Karloff movie called The Criminal Code and she preceding this one with another, The Guilty Generation. In between were three others, including The Last Parade with Holt.

Arnold turns out to be a nervous man, harried by phone calls from the Secret Service and spied on by his housekeeper Edwards, who speaks in a sinister monotone like a bad serial villain. Like Henderson, Arnold works for Mr X but has no idea who he is, even though the only other member of the gang seems to be a real character of a physician called Dr August Steiner. He has heavy glasses and plenty of facial hair, so much so that the mere glimpse of him suggests that he's wearing a disguise. We can't even work out his accent, it being a bizarre mix of Yiddish, Scots and Outright Villainous. Even a six year old kid would know that Dr Steiner was also Mr X, but there is a little mystery in figuring out who else Mr X is and how he knows what he knows, because he knows plenty.

In fact while this is a pleasant enough way to spend just over an hour, there's hardly any substance at all. The characters are all cardboard cutouts, with only Karloff being really given any real chance to strut his stuff. He's certainly the best thing about the film and he leaves it too early. Jack Holt was always great at playing the sturdy hero, so this was no stretch for him, so much so that at points he seems like he's getting bored with it. Edward van Sloan is outrageously villainous as Dr Steiner, chewing up every bit of scenery he can find, especially in his final scene in the operating room. He's utterly different in his other role. Constance Cummings is fine as Julie Arnold, but there's precisely nothing for her to do. She deserved better roles which she never really got, though she did appear in some interesting films over the next couple of years, including Attorney for the Defense, Washington Merry-Go-Round and The Mind Reader.

Unfortunately the acting is the up side. In comparison, the story is almost entirely transparent, the dialogue is cliched throughout and the cheap budget is readily apparent. I've never seen a hospital so bare and desolate. I've never seen a mere physician with the evil doctor's lab that Dr Steiner has and I wonder which horror movie they borrowed it from. I've certainly never seen a seaplane that contains enough material to construct a dummy and hook it up to a parachute in no time flat, from the cockpit while in flight. Sometimes they didn't even try to make it make sense. Worst of all, it really doesn't know whether it wants to be about mystery, suspense or horror. Is this a secret agent movie or is it a horror movie? Who knows? More importantly who cares?

Madame de... (1953)

Director: Max Ophüls
Stars: Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio de Sica
Released in the US as The Earrings of Madame de..., to emphasise the fact that it's the earrings that are the important thing, that isn't strictly true. Madame de... or Comtesse Louise de..., her full name withheld in the style of 19th century European literature, is what's important and the earrings are simply the MacGuffin that drives her story forward. As the introduction tells us, 'probably nothing would have happened had it not been for those jewels.' These earrings have little diamond hearts and were given to Madame de... as a wedding present from her husband, Général André de..., so they have sentimental value as well as financial value.

The long opening shot with many complex camera movements, as is typical for filmmaker Max Ophüls, begins with these earrings and then wanders around the entire room as Madame de..., in the lovely form of French actress Danielle Darrieux, searches for something she can sell to raise 20,000 francs, and eventually comes right back to them. She doesn't want to get rid of anything, you see, not her hats or her jewels and certainly not her furs. She doesn't want to get rid of these earrings either, but they're the things that she likes least. So off she goes to sell them, to Monsieur Rémy, the man who sold them to her husband to give to her to begin with. 'What will she tell her husband?' he asks her. 'She'll think of something,' she says.

She comes up with a pretty poor idea as ideas go, pretending that she's lost them at the opera, even though nobody really believes she was wearing them to begin with. Her husband, Général André de..., searches high and low for them, only giving up the search when Monsieur Rémy, reading the story of their suspected theft at the opera on the front page of the newspaper, brings them back to him. The général, who we quickly learn has an talent for diplomacy, closes the affair with panache, giving them to the lovely Lola as a souvenir as she heads off to Constantinople, never to see him again.

I've seen Danielle Darrieux precisely once, in another film by Max Ophüls, La ronde, in which she shone brightest of all the many stars that danced its dance. She's superb here too, elegant, distinguished and sophisticated, in what I've read is her best role of the many she's played. She's going strong today in a screen career that has spanned almost eighty years, a remarkable run from Le bal, in which she played a supporting role at the age of 14, to a recently announced Estonian film called Veel üks croissant, scheduled for a 2010 release. She also starred in an Anatole Litvak film called Mayerling in 1936, which saw her play opposite Charles Boyer, her screen husband here.
Darrieux hadn't changed much from La ronde to Madame de... but then there was only a three year gap between them, one that included another Max Ophüls film, Le plaisir. Boyer, on the other hand, looks notably different from anything else I've seen him. I probably first saw him in later films, like Casino Royale, but that was a long time ago and I didn't know who he was at the time. I got to know him through earlier films, from 1932's Red-Headed Woman to 1945's Confidential Agent, where he always hid his notably receding hairline with a toupee. He generally wore it in his films so as to appear more suitable as the romantic lead but never wore it in public. He's excellent here though without that toupee he's more reminiscent of Herbert Lom than Charles Boyer. Of course his voice is unmistakable.

There's a third player in this film, an Italian diplomat called Baron Fabrizio Donati, who falls in love with Madame de... after seeing her at a customs post in Basel and later meeting her in Paris. He's been to Constantinople, you see, where he bought a lovely pair of earrings, which he eventually gives to the Comtesse, from which point they drive the second half of the story even more obviously than they drove the first half. Donati is played by Italian director Vittorio di Sica, riding high as a director after The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D. I've also seen one of the films he directed in 1953, when he acted in this one, but only in the mangled American version called Indiscretion of an American Wife. I've seen him before as an actor, in It Started in Naples, but he's better here, very believable as a man besotted with a woman who is not his own. It won't end well.

When watching La ronde, I was impressed by many of the stars of the film but stunned by the work of Max Ophüls, a director whose name crops up often when reading up on foreign films. He was German born but has three distict careers: in German film, American film and French film. It's the French films, like this that seem to resonate longest and strongest. Madame de... is less overt a piece of cinematic art than La ronde and more of a distinct story, but there are obvious literary and cinematic devices here and there, great shots throughout and always that roving camera. In an Ophüls film, the camera rarely stops moving and when it does you should pay attention because there's a reason for it, like an emotional scene between the Comtesse and the Baron as she discusses a painting of the battle of Waterloo and he merely looks at her.

The opening shot of La ronde was a stunning five minute shot, so I was interested to see what he'd do to open this one. It's not as long or as powerful but it's still an amazing shot that wanders everywhere through the Comtesse's room only to end where it began, with the earrings. We get one shot through her room and another to take her through the house to breakfast. This makes precisely two of his films for me but already it's patently obvious that anyone wanting to learn what to do with a camera should watch Ophüls. The best scenes are the ones in the middle of the film as Darrieux and De Sica dance. These are many scenes, at many different balls in many different locations, but they all segue blissfully into one as they dance through time, their relationship deepening and transforming as they go. I have a feeling that my journey through the work of Max Ophüls is going to be remarkably similar.

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Director: Nick Grinde
Star: Boris Karloff
This little gem from Columbia was amazingly ahead of its time. Blonde haired Boris Karloff is a scientist yet again, a very calm one called Dr Henryk Savaard, who has a strong vision of the future. 'How frail a thing to solve the riddle of death,' he says, looking at his artificial heart and wonders why nobody has come up with such a thing before. After all the heart is nothing but a pump and the veins are nothing but tubes. So he's built an artificial heart, a huge contraption, that he plans to hook up to a student volunteer called Bob Roberts. Roberts believes in his work so much that he's willing to die for his beliefs, in a controlled manner by Dr Savaard so that the experiment can be recorded scientifically. We can't help but believe him when he says that he'll be back to go on his honeymoon with Savaard's nurse, Betty Crawford.

While Savaard is obviously a highly intelligent and visionary man, he is also incredibly dumb. He knows that after gassing Roberts to death, he and his assistant have to bring him back from the dead or it'll be their deaths too, because the authorities would call it murder. He doesn't document the boy's volunteering and he trusts his nurse, obviously an emotional sort even without the personal interest she has in Roberts, not to tell anyone. Of course the first thing she actually does is to go straight to the police to report that Savaard is about to murder her fiance, thus removing every possibility of bringing him back and destining him instead to the police autopsy table.

Savaard is arrested and tried, of course, for first degree murder, something he's hardly likely to get out of given that he freely admits that he killed the boy. He does give it a try though, talking from the witness box about many concepts that have come to pass already in succeeding years. He suggests that it should be possible to keep people alive with artificial organs or with real ones transplanted from the recently deceased. He even gives the jury a great analogy: that while it's possible to fix a running motor, it's a lot easier to shut it down, take it apart and examine it, before fixing the problem, putting it back together and then switching it back on. He wants to do precisely the same thing with human beings, believing that it would make surgery far more effective.

The accuracy is amazing, even the South African name of Karloff's character being surprisingly prophetic, given that the man who ended up performing the first heart transplant, 28 years after this film was released, was a South African with a similar name, Dr Christiaan Barnard. He didn't make the same mistakes that Savaard made, picking a 54 year old man suffering from diabetes and incurable heart disease to lie on his operating table, and not killing him first. The film was written by Karl Brown, from a story by George Wallace Sayre and Leslie T White, all of them experienced writers but ones who worked firmly at the B movie level. They deserve a huge amount of credit here.
This 64 minute film is unmistakeably a B movie too, betraying itself as such in its single name star and its few sets; in some powerfully pulp dialogue and in plot contrivances necessary for the story to fully unfold in such a short running time; and in the stunning lack of equipment that such an important scientist has in his lab. Yet it's become even more relevant to us as the years have dragged on. In 1939 it probably felt like yet another take on the old Frankenstein yarn, but there's a lot more in there than just reanimating the dead. It talks about concepts and procedures that have now saved many lives and prolonged even more and it even touches on the potential for multinational pharmaceutical corporations to hold mankind in slavery for commercial gain. Sound familiar?

What's even more amazing is that the writers didn't just see forward scientifically, they saw forward cinematically too, this film acting as something of a cinematic missing link. Of course, the jury finds Savaard guilty and he's hanged by the neck until dead, but Savaard's assistant Lang takes ownership of the body and brings him back. C'mon, what did you think the title was going to mean? Well, at least he doesn't scream 'It's alive!', as I expected him to. Now Savaard, literally dead to the world, is free to wreak his vengeance on the men and women who tried him and sentenced him to death, and we can watch our story turn into a William Castle movie, four years before Castle would make his first. In 1937 Castle was an actor, landing a few uncredited roles before progressing up in turn to be a dialogue director (at Columbia no less), a writer, a director and a producer.

While rooted in the clever locked room mysteries of the late silent era and early thirties, not to mention the pulp cliffhangers, the second half of this film that contains Savaard's vengeance, is quintessential Castle. After killing off half the jury, who apparently died through suicide by hanging, he fakes invitations to the rest to bring them all to his house. He seals the house with boiler plate, disappears behind the scenes and talks to them through a loudspeaker system. By this point he's already provided them with placecards at the dinner table, clever ones that contain the order in which everyone will die this night and even the time at which it'll happen, one every fifteen minutes. No this isn't a Vincent Price movie, it's still Boris Karloff.

The methods of death are all ingenious and cleverly happen despite Savaard's warnings not to do things. Therefore he doesn't really kill them, they kill themselves, after yet again unheeding his words, just as they did during the trial. Killing people in ever ingenious ways is something of a tradition in horror movies, presumably finding its influence in the old whodunits but turning one murder into a whole set of them. One death here, where a man is killed by a poisoned needle concealed inside a telephone receiver, rings bells for me. I remember it, or at least something unmistakeably similar, from Dr Phibes Rises Again, made no less than 33 years after this film. The concept lives on today in the Saw series, which outdoes even the Phibes movies for sheer convoluted intricacies. This is a solid early entry in this genre, it's biggest flaws being that it should have received better treatment, with a higher budget and a longer running time.

Friday 30 October 2009

All This, and Heaven Too (1940)

Director: Anatole Litvak
Stars: Bette Davis and Charles Boyer
Bette Davis is the new French teacher at Miss Haines School for Young Ladies, hardly surprising given that she's playing a character called Henriette Deluzy-Desportes and there's a little hint of accent in her voice. The young ladies she'll be teaching carry names that are as close to American nobility as any, names like Van Buren, Van Horn, Vanderbilt, lots of Vans. It's Emily Schuyler who causes her trouble though, dredging up an old scandal during her very first lesson. Apparently Miss Deluzy has a history, one involving a French prison called Conciergerie and a man called de Praslin.

And so we head back in time to 1846 and across the Atlantic to Paris, in which she soon arrives by boat from Southampton where she's been a governess for five years. She's hoping to become a governess in Paris too, to the children of the Duc and Duchesse de Praslin: three girls, from eight to thirteen, and a younger boy who is obviously the root of many arguments between his parents. There seem to be many arguments between Teo and Frances, the Duc and Duchesse, mostly the angry and impulsive Duchesse, a twitchy drama queen in the form of Barbara O'Neil. The Duc, on the other hand, is the charming and composed Charles Boyer, who of course has by far the best French accent in the film, given that unlike everyone else, he was actually French.

This pair are arguing the moment Miss Deluzy arrives and we're given plenty of hints that the Duc can hardly bear to even touch his wife nowadays. Reynald is the product of his parents' conciliation, making him torn in the affections of his father: he loves his son and heir but resents the 'mistake' that led to his birth. Reynald is Richard Nichols, who is the sort of child who women find utterly adorable and men find a painful overdose of cuteness. He soon becomes the focus of the story, as he gets the sniffles just in time for the Duchesse to overrule her governess and take him out for a ride. Sure enough, the next we see he's dying of diphtheria, with Henriette given the Duc's full trust and authority and the Duchess relegated to her bedroom. He does get well but you can bet those bridges aren't going to get rebuilt overnight. We see very little of him from then on, but he still gets too much chance to demonstrate his broad and conspicuously non-French accent.

Reynald's sisters are an intriguing set of child actresses. Isabelle, the eldest, is June Lockhart, a quarter of a century before she'd become the mother in Lost in Space. She looks amazingly plain as a kid so obviously grew into her face over time. Louise is Virginia Weidler, the same year she stole scenes from Cary Grant, Kate Hepburn and James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story, which was the peak of her career. At thirteen years of age, she was already nearing the end of it, with 32 films behind her and only 11 to go. She'd retire at sixteen in 1943. Berthe, the youngest, is nine year old Ann E Todd, not to be confused with the English actress Ann Todd, because of whom she adopted the middle initial. All are capable here without ever having to steal scenes by being children. That's a compliment in my book.

While the stars of the film are Bette Davis and Charles Boyer, it was surprisingly Barbara O'Neil who was Oscar nominated. Davis is certainly the good girl for a change, which gives her less opportunity to shine than usual. There's still opportunity there, given that she's the servant and victim of circumstance throughout, but it's far less obvious opportunity than O'Neil gets as the temperamental and conniving bitch of the piece. Yet, as good as she is, we're often watching Barbara O'Neil act rather than the character she plays. Perhaps she was practicing what her screen daughter did a year earlier: she was Scarlett O'Hara's mother in Gone with the Wind. Davis, for all that she's so much quieter as a character, is at least a character and not a performance. She stays that way throughout the turmoil.

Boyer is fine but there's nothing here that he hasn't done before or since and in parts that had more depth than this one. He was so good at the romantic pursuer that he became the chief inspiration for the stereotype, Pepe le Pew, yet he was just as good at seething and quietly threatening and stalking the room in suppressed rage and he thankfully gets a few darker scenes like that here. The only problem is that they aren't long enough. The film would have been better for more Boyer and more for him to do. In fact he doesn't even get to do the usual romancing, or at least not to the usual degree.

Being a golden era Warner Brothers picture, and an expensive one given that it contained a record 67 sets to be built by studio the and 37 costumes for Miss Davis that cost $1,000 each, which value is utterly not visible on screen, there are a number of regular names here, some of whom I'm always glad to see. Their names reoccur so often that they become even more frequent screen friends than the leads, however brief their parts usually are. There's Montagu Love as the Duchesse's father, the Marechal Sebastiani, and there's George Coulouris as a valet who is thrust upon the Duc by his father-in-law. Fritz Leiber, so often a priest, is the Abbe Gallard, the Duchesse's father confessor. Henry Daniell is a French policeman. Best of all, there's Harry Davenport as the knowing and characterful Pierre, one of the de Praslin's servants, who sees what goes on behind the windows of the house.

While the story here is well told, it's a melodramatic thing that doesn't hold many, if any, surprises to the viewer. The ending is as thoroughly expected as it's gloriously emotional and overblown. I could hear the primarily female audience at the time sobbing through it, almost seventy years in the past. The only thing in the film that was unexpected to me came in the name of the man who reports certain later events in the newspaper, something that has absolutely no bearing on anything else. Then again the simplicity and inevitability of the story is probably due to the fact that it's based on a novel by Rachel Field, who died two years later and was best known as a children's writer. While this was one of her adult novels, it unfolds with the emotions of a child and certain darker things are worthy of much more depth and far less deliberate oversight.

Make no mistake, it's a gem for those of an overly sentimental bent and I can fully see why many people would find this becoming a personal favourite. For my part, I became more fascinated by the penmanship used by a number of characters, hardly something most people would care about. Maybe it's the typographer in me or maybe it's the fact that I write all my work on a laptop keyboard while back in the 1840s people wrote with quills dipped in ink. Perhaps it's the fact that even if I do write with a pen, my handwriting sucks royally, while a number of characters here write very capably and very beautifully with a quill. I don't know if it was the actors themselves, like Barbara O'Neil, or handwriting stunt doubles but whoever it was deserves much credit, more than the writers of the story.

There's something else of interest here too, something behind the scenes. I wonder how the two leads felt about the characters they played. Bette Davis plays a woman who falls in love with a man who falls in love with her, though precisely nothing happens that is untoward. Yet, she had been having an affair with the film's director, Anatole Litvak, while he was still married to Miriam Hopkins. They divorced a few months before shooting started on this picture. Hopkins played opposite Davis twice during this period and the chemistry is unmistakeable, at least in The Old Maid, where there are scenes of pure hate between them. I hadn't realised at the time that they may have had real life depth behind them.

Charles Boyer was married only once, apparently very happily indeed, something that is rather surprising for classic Hollywood and somehow even more surprising for such a great romantic lead of the screen. Fans of his screen image must have imagined him following in Valentino's footsteps, or at least Pepe le Pew's, and seducing a new woman every night. However his happy marriage lasted 44 years until the death of his wife, actress Pat Paterson. He followed her two days later with an overdose of barbiturates. His character here commits suicide by self poisoning also, albeit for different reasons. Art often imitates life, but sometimes life imitates art in return.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Buck and the Preacher (1972)

Director: Sidney Poitier
Stars: Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte
A western would seem to be a strange thing to become Sidney Poitier's directorial debut, westerns not generally being great opportunities for persons of colour, but then that was probably the point. Anyway, he never intended to be a director. Harry Belafonte, a major name in music but not in film, found the story and talked Poitier into using his substantial clout to get it made. They co-starred and co-produced but found that the original director wasn't meeting their requirements so Poitier took over. Their aim was very much to tell a story of relevance to black America, set in the years after the Civil War when the slaves had been freed but the promise of land and freedom hadn't quite materialised. There were a lot of stories that haven't been told, as suggested by the dedication of the film: 'to those men, women and children who lie in graves as unmarked as their place in history.'

We find out pretty quickly what we're looking at. A black wagonmaster named Buck transports a host of former black cottonpickers west from Louisiana, people who are looking for a new place where they can live their own lives as their own people. Of course it isn't quite that simple. Just passing a law doesn't make people believe in it, and just leaving one place doesn't mean that other people don't want to bring you back. Sure enough, a confederate soldier called Deshay and his nightriders burn their encampment down, murder a number of them in cold blood, even slice open their bags of grain and shoot their pigs and chickens. It's all to get them to turn around and go back to Deepsmith County where they came from, to work the fields for white folks once again.

And what's more, they're after Buck and they want him really bad, $500 dead or alive sort of bad. They know his name and his face and they lay a trap for him, but of course he escapes. When he's played by Sidney Poitier and his character's name is in the title of the movie then he isn't going to fall for the first trap that's set for him, that's for sure. He escapes, on horseback at high speed, and runs into the other half of the title: Harry Belafonte as the Preacher, the Revd Willis Oakes Rutherford of the High and Low Order of the Holiness Persuasion Church. Got to love those denominations. Rutherford is as silver tongued as you might expect and he has bizarrely capped teeth to help the effect. When we first see him he's as naked as a jaybird washing in a creek and Buck steals his horse, given that it's rested and he has to ride fast.

Poitier plays Buck stern and stoic. We don't get to see much emotion on his face though we know what he must be feeling. He's a driven man. By comparison Harry Belafonte is a lot more obvious as the Preacher. He's what Buck calls an easeman, someone who's there to fleece any congregation blind he can find and move on to another, aided to no small degree by the gift of the gab. He tracks Buck down, running into Deshay and his men first. We wonder if $500 is enough to tempt him to turn in one of his own, but after he sees the corpses of the children that the nightriders leave behind them, his jaw is set and his bright twinkling eyes uncharacteristically solemn. There's nothing like a set of massacred children to polarise the sides.

And polarised they are. We don't meet a white man in this film that isn't anything less than a villain until fully halfway through the 102 minute running time, when we meet the sheriff of Copper Spring which Deshay and his men are using as their base. This isn't Louisiana, he says, and that's a pretty deep statement. The sheriff is a gruff man but an honest one and he has no gripe against folk of any particular colour. After Buck and the Preacher rob the Copper Spring bank to restore funds stolen by Deshay, the sheriff chases after them for the sake of justice, but he still has no grief with the wagon trains. Unfortunately he's it for the movie. He's all the white race has to offer.

The Indians are treated pretty well, though we don't see too much of them until the end. They only appear in one scene before that, but a strong one where Buck, accompanied by a wide eyed Preacher, bargains for safe passage for his people with Sinsie, the woman of the chief. This scene and a similar later one work superbly, with fascinating bargains, important politics and some of the real depth of the plot. The plight of the two races is overtly compared but there's also a strong highlight of their differences. The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. Intriguingly Sinsie is played by Julie Robinson, who has been married to Harry Belafonte since 1957, so no wonder he's wide eyed. She does an excellent job.

As a primarily black film, of course the black population in it is shown in a favourable light, but it's a little too one sided for my liking. There are no black villains here at all and very few with weaknesses, they're merely downtrodden folks trying to find a new life for themselves given that the one they've been promised hasn't showed up. There's rarely more to them than that. The leads are at least shown to have a dark side (no pun intended), but while they do bad things they do them for good reasons, without us really being set up to judge them. While the Preacher is a conman, we're obviously intended to see this pair as having a higher calling or a destiny that's been laid out for them, perhaps by Cudjo's bones.

At least I think that's Cudjo who rolls the bones, because it's the only character old enough to be Clarence Muse, an important black actor from at least a generation before Sidney Poitier. Born in 1889, he was well into his eighties here, so old that I couldn't recognise him. He'd still have four films and seven more years to go before he bowed out with The Black Stallion, 68 full years after his first appearance in 1921's The Custard Nine. The earliest I've seen him was in Frank Capra's Dirigible in 1931 but I know him well from precode horrors and mysteries like White Zombie, The Death Kiss and The Mind Reader. He was a versatile talent, as the last film I saw him in testifies: another early horror movie, Black Moon saw him sing, something he was more than capable than doing for a living. He also appeared in films like Show Boat and Porgy and Bess. He wrote too, but primarily he served as something of a template for Poitier: never quite as successful but nonetheless very important indeed. It was people like him who set the stage for people like Poitier and films like this.

As lead actor, co-producer and director of the film, Poitier obviously had a huge impact on it and it's a good one. His direction is more than capable and he's gone onto direct other films, though he's never broken through as a director the way he did as an actor. His work behind the camera here serves to give the picture an identity and a meaning. This isn't a black western like say, The Terror of Tiny Town was a midget western, it's merely a western, and while it wanders into cliche territory on occasion it's generally told very well. For all its focus on black migrants after the Civil War, it works better as a western than many so called classics that I've seen. It stands up very well today, merely a little too black and white, pun very much intended that time.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Peach-O-Reno (1931)

Director: William A Seiter
Stars: Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey and Dorothy Lee
Mr & Mrs Joseph Bruno are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, but this is a story about Reno, the biggest little city in the world, so you know that can't last. It takes about five minutes for the dinner to turn vicious and violent and prompt them both to race to Reno to get a divorce each. The law was allowing quickie divorces there in 1931 and it was was allowing gambling too, so Wheeler and Woolsey were quick on the mark to combine these two concepts into a comedy feature. It turns out to be one of their best, with some very sharp and risque gags and only a few misses. It only begins with the ethos of 'Marry in haste, divorce in Reno.'

This is unmistakeably a precode, joyously and blissfully so. Wattles & Swift are the most popular divorce lawyers in town, who advertise on the train platform and have a bus waiting to transport them directly to their offices. However, it's only a law office during the day as it turns into a casino at night, every piece of furniture transforming into something else, up to and including the big set of bookshelves that revolve around to become the orchestra pit, containing the Wattles & Swift 10 Alimony Jumpers. Of course the clientele are precisely the same and so are the employees, who strip off their clothes on cue to serve drinks.

The Brunos comprise the basic framework of the story, not that it matters. They both end up at Wattles & Swift, though separately, so Joe hires Wattles and Aggie hires Swift. To provide grounds for the divorce they even arrange to have them seen in public with members of the opposite sex, so Swift takes Aggie to the casino while Joe goes with Wattles, who dresses up in drag without Joe's knowledge. After all, he has to hide anyway, as Ace Crosby, a hard drinking, fast shooting, gambling man from Arizona, is in town to shoot dead the man who gave his wife a divorce: Wattles, of course. To complicate the divorce still further, the two young Bruno daughters turn up too in an attempt to talk their parents out of such a drastic step.

Nobody who's seen a Wheeler & Woolsey movie before will be surprised to find that one of them is played by Dorothy Lee and sure enough, she's Prudence Bruno. Her sister Pansy is played by Zelma O'Neal, who gets a fun scene on the floor with Robert Woolsey but little else. Lee usually got much more of a part than this but she hardly gets anything to do until a song with Wheeler two thirds of the way through the film. What makes this one so special are the risque gags, always the best thing about Wheeler & Woolsey comedies but even better and even more risque than usual and I spent half the time laughing and the other half wondering how they got away with it. They got away with it because it's a precode, of course.

Most are inevitably about marriage. 'Are you married?' Swift asks Prudence, who replies 'No, I'm just worn out on account of the trip.' I recognise some, including the old gag I know from when Winston Churchill used a version on Mary Astor. 'If I had to live with your father again I'd give him poison,' says Aggie to her daughter. Her husband replies, 'If I had to live together with you again I'd take it.' Best of the lot has to be when Mrs Doubleday-Doubleday (that's four days, the week's almost over) shows Julius Swift her legs. 'Were you looking at these?' she asks, only for him to reply, 'I beg your pardon, madam, I'm above that.' Most outrageous is one gag that doesn't even need a punchline. When Wattles dresses up in drag so Joe Bruno can be seen with a woman in the casino, he's wearing his college football pin. Joe asks him how he can wear it, given that you only get one when you make the team. Wattles merely looks coy and laughs.

They go on and on and I wish this snip of a 63 minute movie would do the same. It's my sixth Wheeler & Woolsey comedy and it's the certainly the best of the bunch so far. While some of their films attempt to build a storyline but do it so flimsily that it falls apart if you even look at it, this one doesn't even make an attempt. We get a setup, we get a set, we get some actors and then in come the gags and that's all that matters. Peach-O-Reno is definitely the peach of their collective filmography thus far for me. I'd happily watch it again next week.

Monday 26 October 2009

Chandler (1971)

Director: Paul Magwood
Stars: Warren Oates and Leslie Caron
This is a hard boiled detective yarn, but it's led to a whole slew of horror stories. You know it isn't going well when the producer and director of the film take out an advert in the Hollywood Reporter to publicly apologise for their own picture. In an article in Time magazine they alleged that James T Aubrey, who ran MGM at the time, recut their film. He switched scenes around, restored deleted scenes and updated the score to have a more contemporary and less film noir feel. He even barred Paul Magwood, the director, from the editing room while he did it. There were lawsuits and court cases but what's left for posterity is the movie itself, and that isn't much at all in this instance.

Chandler ('as in Raymond', he says) is the hard boiled detective, of course, the name being a tribute to the creator of Philip Marlowe. He's played by Warren Oates, which means that the film is going to be worth watching for at least him. Oates was perfect for hard boiled detective roles as he had one of the most lived in faces of any actor and, as Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia testifies, he could look more like shit warmed up than anyone else in the business when the part called for it. He's in that category when the film starts, obviously about as happy to be in the company of his fellow security guards as he would be in a concentration camp. By the time the credits finish rolling he's quit.

Then an old friend called Bernie Oakman comes to hire him for a job. A French girl is flying in, some sort of government witness who 'they' want to keep an eye on. As it's obviously something better to do than drown himself in a bottle back home, Chandler takes the case. Unfortunately he's being set up as the patsy in some kind of shenanigans, though it takes us forever to find out what. All we know is that old men with deep voices and too many pounds stuffed into their business suits have some sort of plan that has to do with Ron Melchior, the man that Katherine Creighton, our French girl, knows intimately.

They're quintessential American TV movie tough guy businessmen of the era who want to be mobsters, ordering dastardly deeds but never getting their hands wet. They have leather chairs that they can swivel in a sinister manner towards the camera. They have dartboards on the wall with faces on them. They're supposed to exude power but they have cables dangling down their walls like they don't actually spend more than five minutes a month in their command centres. The thinner ones probably ended up on Grecian 2000 commercials, the others probably didn't last long enough. They're all painful to watch, especially when they sit on couches in their offices to plot their plots and scheme their schemes. The one who ends up as the father on Dharma and Greg doesn't look right without grey hair.
Anyway Chandler follows Creighton to a funeral parlour where she picks up a fake identity. He finds out she has a train ticket to Monterey so he follows her there, even talking to her on the train. In Monterey, she's forced into a cab and Chandler gives chase, saving her though she doesn't want to know in the slightest. He describes himself as a 'relic' but he becomes something more like a stalker, following her wherever she goes, making no attempt to hide himself and well, you've seen hard boiled detective stories before so you know how certain plot threads are going to end up without me spoiling them. The bits that make sense here are obvious, the bits that don't (which is most of them) don't do anything. By the time Chandler works it out we really don't care any more.

We're left to watch Warren Oates, who as great as he is still struggles with some of the inane dialogue he's given here. There's only so much he can do with things like 'Remember me?' and 'I don't know' and 'Yep' and You'll do.' Leslie Caron is terribly miscast, even though the filmmakers really should have known her strengths and weaknesses as she was married to the producer of the film at the time and later married its director. Then again she divorced both of them so perhaps they never learned. She's an emotionless leading lady and there's no chemistry between Caron and Oates at all, who plays better off Walter Burke as a funeral director and Scatman Crothers as a piano player called Smoke.

Given the reaction of the filmmakers to the released version of their picture, we have to wonder about what this could have ended up as. There's no doubt that it could have been better but I'm not convinced it could even have been good under the best of circumstances. The story does make sense, it just isn't very good and I don't think it would have been much better for some obscuring. The editing may not be masterwork stuff but it isn't inept, it's just as generic and unmemorable as the score, which isn't particularly out of place but merely does nothing. Some of the acting is terrible but it wouldn't have been any better rearranged into a different order. There are some good shots here and there but mostly the cinematography is average at best.

In fact the best thing about the entire picture in my humble opinion is also the worst thing, and I'd probably have thought the same had James T Aubrey not ever stuck his nose into the picture. We're treated to some truly astoundingly, awesomely, painfully bad seventies wallpaper, which honestly steals the show with its sheer assault on the eyes at some points, especially late on at a hotel. It forces its presence on us claustrophobically until we want to escape. It's the most obvious character in the film and the one that invokes most reaction from us. That doesn't say much for the picture as a whole or any of its component parts.

Sunday 25 October 2009

One Point O (2004)

Director: Jeff Renfroe & Marteinn Thorsson
Stars: Jeremy Sisto, Deborah Unger, Bruce Payne, Eugene Byrd, Ana Maria Popa, Lance Henriksen and Udo Kier
Released on DVD as Paranoia:1.0, that title fits this material pretty well, as a young programmer called Simon J spends this film trying to work out what's being done to him. He keeps receiving neatly wrapped but apparently empty packages at his apartment which is enough to make anyone wonder. He has other worries on his mind too, as he's overdue on his projects at work and he's getting eviction notices, but now he wonders if someone's following him. Certainly every time he comes back home, there's another empty box waiting for him inside his apartment. What's worse, there are cameras everywhere and not one of them picks anything up that he can use to identify who's doing this to him, whatever this is.

Everything around him is strange, including the people. His landlord's fridge contains nothing but meat. His neighbour Derrick has a robotic head and a self cleaning couch in his apartment. Trish is a nurse but hangs out at some sort of underground bar, literally underground in what look like cleaned out sewer tunnels. Another neighbour runs bizarre virtual reality bondage games on the net. The local supermarket is always empty except for en elusive follower but the cashier is surreal. We're not sure who or what Howard is, but he's some sort of handyman who does Al Jolson impressions. Simon hears people talking from within the garbage chute. Even his own computer has taken to spitting out messages like 'Do you want to know what it is to be afraid?'

It can't help that he lives in an environment that is big and empty, old and European, desolate and decaying. It's shot in wonderfully saturated colours that exude textures like ancient oak, burnished brass or antique leather, even when actually depicting rot and decay. We're not told when or where this film is set, obviously by deliberate choice of the filmmakers, but it fits that it was shot in Romania, a country with a rich heritage that was nigh on destroyed a couple of decades ago by Nicolae Ceauşescu. Kafka-esque is the word of the day, especially as Simon J just has to be a take on Josef K, but there's a huge amount of Philip K Dick in here too, because Simon's paranoia seems to be well founded and as we get sucked into this story we can only wonder how big the conspiracy is and who is involved.

The root of it all is in nanotechnology, with corporate nanites released into the wild to act as advertising signals directly to the brain and turn people into human billboards. This is why everyone in the story seems to be focused on one product alone to the exclusion of all others, whether that be juice, meat or cola. In Simon's case it's Nature Fresh Milk, to which he's apparently allergic. Even with that knowledge though, we can't be sure who's doing this, who's on his side and who isn't, and I'm sure it'll take a few viewings to fully work all that out. It's a highly intelligent plot that revels in not being simplistic. As Howard explains at one point to Simon, 'There are good people and bad people. The bad people can save you but they won't. The good people want to save you but they can't.' We have no idea who fits into each category as almost anyone in this film could easily fit into either. That's the point.

This is a real triumph, an intelligent science fiction story that deliberately removes itself from time and place yet remains utterly timely. Jeff Renfroe and Marteinn Thorsson wrote and directed and both look to have interesting filmographies to work through. This picture marked the first credits for each of them as both writer and director. Thorsson has done neither of those things since though has worked on a number of films in different roles. Renfroe has made a few more pictures, mostly TV movies made for Syfy (hate that name), but will write and direct the forthcoming futuristic ice age movie The Colony, which is in pre-production. They're both obviously names to watch.

Somehow, and I'd love to know how, they landed a peach of a cast for their first feature. Simon J is a very believable Jeremy Sisto, best known nowadays for TV series Six Feet Under and Law & Order but who is also a prolific film actor with four other movies to his name in 2004 alone. He also co-produced this film. Derrick is Udo Kier, a very well known genre name who has credits going back to 1966 and who has worked for pretty much every great name in modern European cinema. A very busy man, Kier has racked up almost fifty titles in this decade alone and he's always interesting to watch. Trish is Deborah Kara Unger, credited here without the Kara, and she's tended to find quirky roles ever since she was so memorable in Cronenberg's Crash in 1996.

The lesser names don't disappoint either, most especially Eugene Byrd, who I know mostly from TV's Bones, as a characterful courier, able to provide anything to anyone. Best of all though is Lance Henriksen, definitely showing his age but his talent too, as Howard. The various projects he's working on at present push him to a full hundred titles in his filmography and I bet every single one of them will be fascinating for what he does, if not for any other reason. You could easily call this a genre dream cast and that's only going to help this little gem to find a cult audience.

The Bride Wore Black (1968)

Director: François Truffaut
Star: Jeanne Moreau
I can't think of too many better ways to start a film than with a printing machine churning out picture after picture of a topless Jeanne Moreau, which is what François Truffaut gives us here, in his most obvious Alfred Hitchcock homage with its sweeping voyeuristic camera, its story from a novel by William Irish (a pseudonym of Cornell Woolrich, who wrote Rear Window), and its score by Bernard Herrmann who had so memorably scored seven of Hitch's films, including those memorable shrieking strings in Psycho.

Moreau is the bride of the title, Julie Kohler by name, though we know nothing about her husband David. She's a mysterious bird from moment one, being rescued from suicide by her mother as she tries to leap out of her window. Saved from death, she leaves town, or at least she pretends to, as she gets off the train again before it leaves the station. She has a purpose that she follows singlemindedly: she promptly tracks down five men, one by one, to kill them, beginning with Mr Bliss. After setting herself up as a mysterious admirer, she turns up at his wedding reception, entices him out on the balcony and pushes him over the edge to his death. The only explanation she gives before he dies is simply, 'I am Julie Kohler.' There's not even a following, 'you killed my father, prepare to die!'

Just as Hitchcock played around with the concept of the perfect crime in many of his films, not least Strangers on a Train, Truffaut does the same here. These five men are connected but not in any way that can be easily ascertained because by necessity, they've hidden their own connections. She doesn't take anything to connect her back to them. She doesn't care about being seen though she does make a perfunctory attempt to hide her trail. She knows precisely who she's looking for but she only knows their names, not their faces, so she has to set up ways to be introduced to them.

To meet her second target, Robert Coral, she sets him up with a ticket to a private box at a concert, then turns up late to meet him. Once introduced, she obtains an invitation back to his place where she poisons him with a bottle of liquor that she's brought with her. For the third, Clement Morane, she follows his son home from school, then has his wife summoned out of town and turns up at the door pretending to be his son's teacher. She kills him by locking him in a cupboard under the stairs, that she seals with duct tape, thus proving the maxim that 'if it moves, WD40; if it doesn't move, duct tape'.
Truffaut wasn't happy with how this film turned out but it works very well to my mind. While there's an underlying theme that all these men are womanisers, that really has nothing to do with the price of fish in Denmark, the story unfolds cleverly though inevitably. After all, to these men, this woman comes out of the blue without any apparent motive to do anything and they have no reason to suspect her, so they let her into their lives, trusting her far more than they soon find out that they should. Coral calls her 'his impossible dream', but he's thanking God for the impossible rather than questioning it.

Beyond the story, which unfolds to its natural conclusion without having to pander to a Hollywood ending, there's one scene of cinematic brilliance. Obviously fascinated to discover what's driving Julie Kohler to hunt down these men, we're finally let in on the necessary background in a scene told entirely with visuals and Bernard Herrmann's score. There's no dialogue to help us, but we don't need it. It's as clear as if it were in mime, wonderfully told with perfect accompaniment. It's easy to forget the contributions of a composer, though we immediately notice the absence of a score in those early thirties films like Dracula that had no music at all. Yet Bernard Herrmann's work always stands out, and to both aptly underpin the action and yet still stand out is a powerful achievement.

Jeanne Moreau is excellent as Julie Kohler, so down to earth that she doesn't even appear to be even acting. Being a French film, all the men she kills are played by actors well established in French cinema but without being name stars like Moreau. Most widely known is the bilingual Michel Lonsdale who has played in a number of important films, both in French and English, up to and including Hugo Drax in Moonraker. Charles Denner would follow this up with a role in Costa-Gavras's highly renowned political drama Z. Jean-Claude Brialy, who plays Corey, the most important character in the film who isn't on Kohler's hitlist, has appeared in a lot of French films that I've seen. Sometimes it's films like this with casts like this that highlight just how much I've only scratched the surface of French cinema.

Twilight of Honor (1963)

Director: Boris Sagal
Stars: Richard Chamberlain, Nick Adams, Claude Rains, Joan Blackman, James Gregory and Joey Heatherton
While Twilight of Honor contains one of the last performances of veteran actor Claude Rains, a powerful and scenestealing one too, it's more important here as the introduction of a number of names to the big screen. Most obviously it's the first time Richard Chamberlain, as Dr Kildare the biggest TV heartthrob of the era, starred in a movie. He had appeared in two films before this, The Secret of the Purple Reef and A Thunder of Drums, but only in supporting roles and neither seem to have been particularly memorable. It's the debut appearance of Joey Heatherton, one of the quintessentially sixties blonde bombshells. A long way further down the credits and with just one line of dialogue is Linda Evans, also debuting on film with only a few episodes of TV series behind her.

Twilight of Honor is a courtroom drama. Ben Brown is on trial for the murder of Cole Clinton, though apparently it's a pretty open and shut affair: after all, his wife turned him in and he promptly confessed. The locals have already made up their minds about such an important local case, even heading out to the airport to see the man they are already convinced did the deed arrive in chains. They're thronging outside the Durango County courtroom too, meaning that David Mitchell has to fight through them to get in to be assigned by Judge Tucker as the defense attorney.

In such a case as this, where the murder victim was a much beloved local man, known by everyone, that would hardly be an easy task for an experienced lawyer. However Mitchell hasn't worked a case in three years and even then it was as a prosecuting attorney. He has no more than two days to prepare, which is far from sufficient. He's even up against a special prosecutor, Norris Bixby, appointed in the stead of the district attorney. He has very little on his side, even if we can believe that Brown didn't do it, which isn't even suggested. One is that Richard Chamberlain is far from hard on the eyes, with a grin that reminds of people like Dennis Quaid or Jan-Michael Vincent. Of course he had that grin first, by a long shot. The other is that he has a mentor to turn to for help.

Of course, this mentor is Claude Rains as Art Harper, a massively experienced and respected lawyer but one who has become too old and infirm to handle the case himself. It's only with Harper's help that Mitchell even believes he can make an attempt at Ben Brown's defence, and we're more than happy to see that help. Harper walks with a cane, his breathing is audible and he drinks vicariously, by watching other people do it and then sleeping it off himself. He also has a habit of undue excitement, which his doctors and his daughter Susan try their best to dissuade him from. He doesn't join Mitchell in court, at least until the last day, but they work through what happened there every night.

There are two very different takes on the story, though both begin and end the same way. Apparently Cole Clinton picked up Brown and his wife on the road, stopped at a bar for drinks and then put them up in a motel, even staying there himself as an old man tired after two long days on the road. And here's where the two versions differ. As Laura Mae Brown has it, her abusive husband Ben murdered Clinton in cold blood for his bankroll, bludgeoning him to death with a gun he took from Clinton's car. This is backed up by Brown's confessions, which the special prosecutor had reprinted on the front page of the local newspaper, and in his wife's testimony. Outside his confessions, which he says were cut before he signed them, Ben Brown says that he killed Clinton in self defence. He woke up and found his wife in bed with another man, who when he pulled her out, threatened him with a gun he'd already seen him use.
The biggest problem this film has is that it's set up to fail because the ending is almost guaranteed to be a disappointment. To avoid that would require a miracle on the level of the one Mitchell has to conjure up in persuading the jury, which is made up of the murdered man's friends and colleagues, that Ben Brown is innocent. After all, regardless of the intricacies of the story, which to be fair are superbly unfolded, we're watching from a completely different perspective from the characters in the film. They're asking whether Ben Brown is guilty or not. We're asking whether he's going to be found guilty or not. There's a big difference.

The townsfolk in the story begin with a guilty verdict because hey, everyone says so, including the papers, and so merely have to decide over the course of the testimony and courtroom theatrics whether there's anything there to make them change their mind. From our point of view, on the other side of the fourth wall, we begin with a not guilty verdict because Dr Kildare is the hero defense attorney and he's fighting for truth, justice and principle, so we merely wonder about whether Mitchell can work that miracle. If he succeeds then we need to be given a believable reason why, a reason that would be very hard indeed to deliver; if he fails then we're watching To Kill a Mockingbird and it would be a most ambitious film to try to outdo that on its own turf.

So, inevitably Twilight of Honor fails, but it has a joyous run until it does. While stars today flit back and forth between TV and film, that was hardly the standard back in 1963. Richard Chamberlain was trying to break that barrier and he gave it a good shot without huge success. He didn't appear on the big screen again for another two years and wouldn't really arrive as a film star until the 1970s. In the meantime he carried on as Dr Kildare, which series ran until 1966. Nick Adams, who is excellent as Ben Brown, was best known for TV too, having played Johnny Yuma for three years in The Rebel, but he had started out on film and had a number of supporting credits in notable movies behind him, including Mister Roberts, Rebel without a Cause and Picnic. He was Oscar nominated here, the only actor who was, but still two years later he'd be relegated to low budget genre movies like Mission Mars or Die, Monster, Die!, and kaiju flicks like Frankenstein Conquers the World and Godzilla vs Monster Zero.

Perhaps it's the presence in the cast of Claude Rains, who is as superb as he always was and he always picked up a cast, but the acting is solid throughout. Joey Heatherton is perfect for her part, and picked up a Golden Globe award as the Most Promising Female Newcomer for her work, though it doesn't seem to be much of a stretch for her. Joan Blackman channels some young Eileen Brennan to play Art Harper's daughter and of course David Mitchell's love interest. James Gregory is excellent here as special prosecutor Norris Bixby, though his work here isn't a patch on what he did a year earlier in The Manchurian Candidate. Of them all, I think I enjoyed Edgar Stehli as Judge Tucker most, because it was impossible to work out if he was the impartial judge he should be or whether he had an agenda, and if he had an agenda then whose side he might be on.

It's a shame these actors didn't have a story to work with that could have succeeded, because except for that inherent flaw it unfolds very nicely indeed. Director Boris Sagal, the father of Katey, was best known as a director of TV shows and presumably knew Chamberlain well having directed a number of episodes of Dr Kildare. While he was massively experienced in 1963, this was only his third film, after The Crimebusters and Dime with a Halo, hardly movies that had made a large impact. Similarly writer Henry Denker, who adapted the novel by Al Dewlen, mostly worked on TV, again with a number of credits to his name. This may well be the best feature film for both of them.

Young Bess (1953)

Director: George Sidney
Stars: Jean Simmons, Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr and Charles Laughton
A couple of decades before They Only Kill Their Masters, MGM were the biggest studio in the world, famous for their lavish costume dramas. By 1953 costume dramas were on the wane but this would seem to have been the perfect film for the year, given that it's about the life of Elizabeth I before reaching the throne of England, made in the year that her namesake Elizabeth II was crowned. They had some time to make the film, given that the current queen acceded to the throne on the death of her father on 6th February 1952 but wasn't crowned until 2nd June 1953, three days after the release of this film. Like that was remotely coincidental...

We begin in 1558 at Hatfield House where the 25 year old Elizabeth's servants are celebrating the news that her half sister Bloody Mary is dying and isn't expected to last the night. That means that the era of Mary I is over and the era of Elizabeth I is about to begin. Young Bess is about to become the Queen of all England. We flashback to her in the cradle, only to be effectively exiled to Hatfield House as an illegitimate child after her mother's beheading. We then quickly progress through the years as she's trotted back out to London to meet each of her successive stepmothers, eventually becoming legitimate again and moved back to court during the era of the last of them, Catherine Parr.

The cast is impeccable, led by Charles Laughton as the king, returning to a role that he had made his own two full decades earlier in The Private Life of Henry VIII. He doesn't get that much of a part though, given that he soon gives way to his heir and successor, his son Edward VI. He gets a good death scene, at least, struggling against the one force of nature greater than himself and praising the stubbornness of his daughter. He sees in her not only her mother, Anne Boleyn, but plenty of himself too. Given the fact that she was his true successor in spirit, even though three monarchs (including Lady Jane Grey who only reigned for nine days) separated them on the throne, this is highly appropriate however the history actually played out. There's no 'Monks! Monks! Monks!' outburst here to hasten his death.

That daughter is played by Jean Simmons, already a star after her work in Guys and Dolls and already married to her co-star Stewart Granger, who plays Sir Thomas Seymour, brother to the king's third wife and husband to his sixth, the one he left a widow. It seems strange to watch an actress fall in love with her husband on screen, only for him to love and marry someone else, but then that comes with the territory. It's happened before and it'll happen again. The connections don't end there though. Apparently Granger proposed to Simmons after seeing her in Black Narcissus, a Deborah Kerr film, and apparently also had an extramarital affair with her. Needless to say, Kerr plays his wife in this film. Oh, what a tangled web we weave.
Simmons is an apt choice for the part, which in this story is a headstrong, stubborn and clever woman who managed to influence some of the decisions of her brother. She's very believable in portraying the young Elizabeth growing from a girl to a woman in only a few years, with all the difference in poise, judgement and temper that the transition suggests. Granger is decent but I couldn't help seeing Bruce Campbell in the part from the first time Seymour appears on screen. Seymour here is something of a pulp hero, dashing and romantic, but also a very able admiral who wins battles for the crown on the high seas. While this is certainly an A list picture, Seymour is a B list character and Campbell would have brought it even more to life on those grounds than Granger can, even though Granger had been typecast in such heroic roles for years.

Deborah Kerr is the fourth name at the top of the credits, and she's a decent Catherine Parr, but hers is not an extroverted part and so she's easily outshone by both Simmons and Granger, though not through any fault of her own. There are a couple of points where she gets more of a chance in the spotlight and she makes the most of it but the part simply doesn't warrant much more. In fact, Rex Thompson gets far more opportunity than she does, as the young Edward VI, who died at the tender age of fifteen in 1553. At least he had the chance to give his name to the school I attended before moving north: King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford. Its motto, 'Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might' is something I try to live by and it fits how Elizabeth I lived too, very well indeed. Thompson plays a suitably sassy child king, and just as King Edward died at fifteen, so did Thompson leave the screen at fifteen. There are connections here too: while he only made five films, the other one I've seen saw him play Deborah Kerr's son in The King and I.

And of course I tried not to talk about history here, because this is Hollywood. Surprisingly though there's at least some adherence to reality. Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne at the age of 25, just as is suggested here, and Jean Simmons was a pretty close 24. Thomas Seymour did marry Catherine Parr, and Granger is the right age to play him, but the romantic connection between him and Elizabeth is utterly backward. In real life it was he who pursued her, rather than the other way around, beginning when she was 14. The history books suggest that her lifelong avoidance of marriage might have more to do with being traumatised by Seymour than holding him above all others in her heart.

The ending of the film is a departure from history too, as we're set up to believe that Elizabeth, about to be pronounced Queen of England, would immediately take her revenge on Edward Seymour, who as Lord Protector over King Edward VI had caused his brothers execution. In reality he was executed before Edward died. Hollywood never did stick too much to history, but I was surprised to see some accuracies here. Hollywood was interested in spectacle, and there's much of that to enjoy in this film. It's worth the two hours just to see Laughton and Simmons bicker.

Saturday 24 October 2009

They Only Kill Their Masters (1972)

Director: James Goldstone
Stars: James Garner and Katharine Ross
The timeframe of this movie is obvious from moment one, from the flute music playing over the short opening credits to the font used to show us the names involved: James Garner, Katharine Ross and Hal Holbrook. The whole opening beach scene screams early seventies too with Jenny Campbell's corpse being dragged to shore by her dog, a Doberman Pinscher (sorry, they only call them dobermans now, apparently, says veterinary nurse Kate Bingham). The dog is Murphy, he's very well trained, and he's not just the chief suspect in the murder, he's the only suspect. At least that's until chief of police Abel Marsh in this sleepy coastal town of Eden Landing turns up with a court order to have put him put to sleep.

Marsh doesn't even like dogs but in passing the time of day with the vets he finds that the whole thing doesn't add up. Mrs Bingham knew of another doberman who had killed its master, but that one went down in an understandable way: the dog had been beaten for years and when it finally turned it went for the throat. Marsh wonders why such a well behaved, thoroughly trained animal would kill her and if it did why wouldn't it go for her throat? So he gets the lab to do some tests and sure enough, Murphy is cleared. Jenny didn't bleed to death; she was drowned. Someone killed her in freshwater, attempted to diguise the act by pouring in salt and then dumped her in the ocean. The lab also finds out that she was three months pregnant.

So Marsh gets to investigate, in his lazy small town sort of way and as much he can given how underfunded his police department is. The small town setting means that he knows pretty much everyone and the underfunding doesn't mean that he isn't capable, as he proves by breaking up a bar fight with a couple of bikers. This impresses his date, because you know he just had to try it on with Mrs Bingham, once he finds out she's divorced. She is played by Katharine Ross, after all. He's a little less willing to take on Murphy too, but he's saved him from being put down and nobody else wants a dog that the papers have labelled a killer.

The mystery is well written here, by Lane Slate, but is hardly a detail oriented thing with clues coming out of the woodwork every ten seconds. There's no attempt to work an Agatha Christie type yarn with a set of suspects and a set of motives. There are merely a few hints dropped here and there and a cop dogged enough (sorry) to work it all through, in the process discovering that his sleepy little town has a dark side. Jenny seems to have been a popular girl and not just with the sort of people you'd expect. There's an undercurrent of homosexuality here, not just Jenny being bisexual but in the use of dialogue. I was surprised to hear James Garner use the word 'faggot', just as I was surprised to hear Katharine Ross use 'dyke'. Somehow such words seem out of place in a story that exposes a sleazy undercurrent to the town but otherwise tells its story in a safe TV movie sort of way.

Garner was great in this sort of laid back role, which fit him to a tee, and he'd soon be even more laid back as Jim Rockford in six seasons of The Rockford Files, which began two years after this film. The tone of the film and Garner's portrayal of the chief of police reminds me of Tom Selleck's work as Jesse Stone in that series of TV movies. I was amused to find that the only time Garner was nominated for an Academy Award was for a film called Murphy's Romance. No, it wasn't a sequel to this film in which Jenny's doberman finds a girlfriend. Ross is a lovely leading lady, who gets quite a bit of screen time and who seems to walk around naked under her coat because it's longer than her miniskirts.

Both the leads may be fine, as is Hal Holbrook as the town vet, but it's the name cast of supporting actors who really colour this film. This was the last film shot on MGM's #2 lot in Hollywood after a few decades of being one of the most important places in filmdom, and it proved to be a golden opportunity for a number of golden age actors who knew the location well to make a movie there for the very last time. They get mixed treatment, though it's good to see them all, some of whom hadn't been on screen in a long time.

Worst treated has to be June Allyson, who has only a small but crucial role as the vet's wife and who deserved to be a much bigger part of the story, especially as she hadn't appeared in a film since 1959 and only had two more performances left. In worst condition is Tom Ewell as one of Marsh's cops. He looks scarily out of shape, nothing like the young man who fantasised about Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, and it isn't surprising to find that he was close to the end of his career, only two more films left for him too.

Rat Packer Peter Lawford plays the victim's husband, who she apparently left for another woman. He looks older than I'm used to seeing him but the nineteen year old girl on his arm fits just fine. Arthur O'Connell and Edmond O'Brien are both excellent in their small parts as owners of Eden Landing businesses, full of character and stealing their scenes ruthlessly but apparently effortlessly. Best of all is Ann Rutherford, best known for being Andy Hardy's girlfriend Polly in a couple of films a year as the thirties became the forties. She even snuck in a performance as Scarlett O'Hara's sister in Gone with the Wind. Here she's married to Tom Ewell and works with him as the police department's secretary. She gets more time on screen than any of the other old timers and she does quite a lot with it.

Murphy is unfortunately uncredited, but he's the star of the show, and he's the reason I'm watching. This makes precisely one of the classic doberman pictures that my wife has been waiting to see again for years. Now I just need to find The Doberman Gang, made the same year as this film, and its sequels, all made by Byron Chudnow. There were three sequels, the second of which features quite a few interesting names. How can you go wrong with a movie about a former conman controlling his five dobermans by remote control and taking down a criminal gang, especially when the ex-con is Fred Astaire? Well that film is The Amazing Dobermans, made in 1976, with James Franciscus, Barbara Eden and even Billy Barty. For now I'm happy to have finally found this one.

Smooth Operator (2009)

Director: Alyn Darnay
Stars: Cynthia Enriquez and Bruce Linser
Infuriatingly cheerful music accompanies shopping kids and a woman really enjoying her shower. She has little fluffy dogs. She's Kelly and her husband Drew is blissfully asleep. Then we find out what this short film is all about. Drew isn't quite as infuriatingly cheerful as everyone else because Kelly has removed his appendix and we're about to be treated to some of the best deadpan suggestive lines in movie history. Whatever director Alyn Darnay and actors Cynthia Enriquez and Bruce Linser brought to this film, and all three of them do a fine job, it's writer Larry Gotterer who should walk away proudest here because this dialogue is wonderful.

When Drew discovers that his wife has removed his appendix, he 'thought she was over that', but no, it's gone the way of his spleen, kidney and liver. 'What a busy week,' she says. Even though this is a short film even for a short film, we still have the reasons to come. Personally I think he deserves it because he chooses to live in Trenton, NJ and he has a Boondock Saints poster on his wall. God, I hate that movie. I prefer this one much more, having a real story, great dialogue and not a single shot in slow motion. In a year where every other short film seems to have zombies in it, this is refreshingly different. There are just as many stories that can be woven out of the cliche 'Hell hath no fury' than out of the living dead, after all, and they don't need as much make up.

Aaaaagh! A Monster! (2009)

Director: Gabriel Renfro
Stars: Joel Sappington

Steve is being chased from moment one but he does make it home, at least someone's home, because it isn't his. 'There's a monster coming after me and it's going to kill us all,' he tells the throng assembled in front of the TV and naturally they ignore him, even after he locks himself in their bathroom. And here we discover that he isn't kidding. As the monster arrives and begins to massacre everyone in the house except him, he sneaks a peek around the bathroom door with its map of the human digestion system on the back. Sure enough, it isn't safe even here.

Writer/director Gabriel Renfro, a film student at the University of Southern California, only has six minutes to make this film work and he proves to be an imaginative man, giving us nice little hints at what's going on without actually showing us, hints that involve lots of blood and guts, this being a horror short in case you hadn't worked that out from the review thus far. Almost the entire film is spent inside one bathroom watching one man try to escape, which is hardly an easy feat given that all the cool stuff is happening on the other side of the door. He does leave it eventually, so the effects guys get their chance to strut their stuff, but only to set up the finale. I won't spoil this ending, which is a peach, but it seems to have been written about my idiot stepson number one. I wonder how I didn't hear about it until now.

As a film student, obviously Renfro hasn't much of a body of work behind him, but he's starting off on the right foot. His other credit as a filmmaker is Nora Breaks Free, which he wrote and directed in 2006. This looks intriguing, given that it's 27 minutes long and has a much bigger cast that includes Doug Jones, a superb actor who seems to rarely appears outside of seriously inventive makeup so we wouldn't recognise him if he walked up and said hi. Think Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies, the faun in Pan's Labyrinth and the title character in 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Maybe he's more recognisable as himself in Renfro's short.

Cabin Fever (2002)

Director: Eli Roth
Stars: Rider Strong, Jordan Ladd, James DeBello, Cerina Vincent, Joey Kern and Arie Verveen
Even though I'm a huge fan of horror movies, for some reason I've managed to entirely avoid the career of Eli Roth. That wasn't any deliberate decision, it's just the way it turned out, as I'm really interested in seeing what he can do and this seems like a good place to start: Cabin Fever was his debut feature as a writer/producer/director/actor/you name it, made on a low $1.5m budget. While he's lumped in with other modern filmmakers as one of the Splat Pack, focusing on gore and scenes of outrageous torture, I've always seen his name in something of a different light.

Of all the modern directors, he seems to be the most recent example of the the classic model of the fan made good. Seeing Alien at age eight turned him into a filmmaker, churning out film after film on Super 8 before growing old enough to sign up for film school at New York University. He gives the impression that while he's obviously successful at what he does, it doesn't really matter. He's there because he makes movies, it's simply who he is, and if nobody in the world wanted to see another horror movie ever again, he'd carry on making them just so he could see them. No wonder Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino are fans of his. They're kindred spirits.

Cabin Fever starts like many a horror film, with a set of college kids heading up to a remote cabin in the woods for a vacation. There are five of them and they're the usual sort, though we surprisingly get less gratuitous sex and nudity than we might expect and more character development as they react to the enemy they face together in the woods. They find themselves attacked by the least attackable enemy of them all, a contagious flesh eating virus, inspired by Roth's own experiences of the debilitating skin condition called psoriasis which I know well. At least my skin never came off in strips when shaving but that gave Roth a highly memorable bath scene here out of his experience.

There's talent here, that's obvious. Roth seems to delight in playing with our expectations, especially early on but throughout the film too. We get good transitions between scenes and artistic contrasts in colour and sound. We even get a great scene that demonstrates just how far out of their own world these kids are going. The owner of the store they stop at on the way to their cabin is Old Man Cadwell, a stereotypically nice old man with a long white beard who wouldn't say boo to a goose. And then, in the same happy tone he uses all along to pass the time of day, he explains that the bottle of fox urine is for foxes and the rifle is for niggers.

The kids make it to the cabin and get a day of fun before Henry the hermit comes out of the woods with his flesh eating disease. Henry has already run into Bert, who shot him with a rifle because he somehow mistook him for a woodchuck, but now he's up against all five of them, who naturally don't want anything to do with some crazy dude outside their cabin with his face falling off. When they don't let him in, he tries to steal their truck, vomits blood all over it and ends up dying when they accidentally set him on fire and leave him to rush off ablaze into nowhere. The irony is that while they successfully keep him out of their cabin, he ends up in their water supply instead, dead and rotting into the reservoir. Soon the virus is alive and well in the cabin, working its way through our college students, though in a wonderful example of clever scriptwriting it becomes a MacGuffin.

The kids do a good job here, believable and distinguishable from moment one. We're given nothing of their background, except they all went to some college and Paul may or may not have spent his childhood at a bowling alley where all the employees got massacred. This whole flashback, told as a campfire story, could easily be a windup and an excuse for Eli Roth to get bloody on us again. So they have to forge their characters through reactions to circumstances that show their true colours, and while we inevitably get some genre cliches they're mostly left behind in favour of realistic responses. They're far less disposable than most disposable horror movie victims.

Hired at low rates because of the lack of budget, the cast and crew made out well in the end, because Cabin Fever was a massive success, the highest grossing horror film of the year, and Eli Roth shared the profits with them. I wonder how differently this would have turned out had the budget been huge. Who would have been cast? Would they have played their parts differently with a bulkier wage packet in their pockets? Because it was low budget, Roth ended up with an intriguing set of names who have probably done very well out of this film indeed.

The five college kids are Rider Strong, Jordan Ladd, James DeBello, Cerina Vincent and Joey Kern, of which list I'd heard of precisely one: Jordan Ladd. The daughter of Cheryl and granddaughter of Alan, she has become something of a horror genre regular, going on to films like Club Dread, Hostel: Part II and, most recently, the excellent Grace. Strong is best known as one of the stars of the TV show Boy Meets World and Vincent was Maya the Yellow Power Ranger. Both are fine here, but the characters of Bert and Jeff give their co-stars more opportunities to be highlighted.

DeBello plays Bert a little like John Belushi might play him. After buying tons of stuff at the store, he steals a Snickers bar, presumably just because he can. It takes no time whatsoever before he pees in the woods. He takes a rifle to shoot squirrels, 'because they're gay', then clarifies that he'd shoot them anyway whether they were gay or straight. He sets a fire circle in the woods and leaves. He's an idiot, the funniest guy in the world to some friends and a complete pain in the ass to everyone else. In contrast, Kern channels some River Phoenix to play Jeff, the least able of the bunch to stick together and deal with the problem at hand. Sure enough, when he heads out on his own, he takes a case of Arrogant Bastard beer with him.

Eli Roth himself turns up in the form of Grim, a skater from Berkeley with a dog called Dr Mambo, and he's one of a few characters who really don't contribute much to the film but nonetheless stand out as memorable. One of the others is deputy sheriff Winston Olsen. In the hands of Giuseppe Andrews, Olsen (so named because genre nut Roth is bizarrely a huge fan of Mary Kate and Ashley) reminds of nobody less than Corey Feldman. If you can imagine the Feldmeister playing a cop, you've either seen this film or you're seriously twisted in the head. Maybe both.

Most obviously there's teenage ballet dancer and martial arts exponent Matthew Helms as Dennis, a true gift of a part to anyone, whether they're an actor or not. Dennis sits on the bench outside the store at the beginning of the film and bites Paul. After all, 'nobody sits next to Dennis' explains his dad. Roth pays attention to the little details in his script and sure enough, after a quick liability discussion, posts a sign saying 'Do not sit next to Dennis'. The pancakes scene, late in the film, is hilarious and surreal and whatever the talented Helms does with the rest of his life, this will always be a great talking point.

Of course it's impossible to talk about Eli Roth without mentioning the gore and his effects work is excellent, without ever becoming the most important thing in the film. That surprised me. The one exception is the scene where Paul runs into an obviously stuffed deer at one point that could surely have been edited into something a lot less painful. There's blood everywhere, like a highlights reel from CSI, and there are memorable shots like the bath scene, Ashley Ladd's eaten face and what happens to the harmonica. This is a lovely little touch and it's not the only one: there's also a giant rabbit (and his credit) and the inevitable ending is handled very well indeed. With obvious inspirations from films from Deliverance to Night of the Living Dead, Roth plays our expectations enough to create something new and while it's not difficult to see through some of them, some of the others are gems. No wonder it was the biggest horror hit of the year.