Saturday 31 December 2011

The Hoodlum (1951)

Director: Max Nosseck
Stars: Lawrence Tierney, Allene Roberts, Marjorie Riordan and Edward Tierney

It's dark, it's tense, it's 1951 and the film is called The Hoodlum. Yes, this is a Lawrence Tierney B-movie, which means it's going to be a tough ride. Tierney was a tough character, not just on screen but off it too, as Quentin Tarantino found out the hard way while making Reservoir Dogs. Here he's Vincent Lubeck, a career criminal who seems to only do two things: commit crimes and get caught. He begins this film in jail, up for parole after serving five years for armed robbery. The warden totally doesn't want to know, but his mother pleads for his release, with the dubious explanation that he fights the whole world. Well, that's Tierney through and through. We know that if mama doesn't persuade the board, we wouldn't have a movie, so out comes Lubeck to work at the gas station his brother has put a down payment on from his father's life insurance. Unfortunately it's right opposite the Fidelity Bank so guess how long Lubeck takes to turn...

Tierney is exactly what you'd expect if you've seen him in anything, especially from this era. He looks like handsome leading man material, but he's all darkness, like a coiled spring just waiting to explode on someone, anyone, maybe you. I love these roles of his because they exude danger the way few could manage, even in the noir era. A lot of actors could handle the grittiness but didn't feel dangerous. Tierney was dangerous just walking on screen. The fact that he sounded like George Raft trying to be Humphrey Bogart was merely the icing on the cake. What makes this particular film stand out isn't what he does as Vincent Lubeck, though he does it well, it's the fact that his screen brother, Johnny Lubeck, is played by his real one, Edward Tierney, making his first and only credited appearance under that name. He did find some success in Germany later under the name of Ed Tracy, but it's clear here that he isn't the talent his brother was.

The story is by Sam Neuman and Nat Tanchuck, and what I've seen of their work elsewhere isn't too impressive. For instance, Tanchuck's previous film was Chained for Life, a horrendous biopic of Daisy and Violet Hilton that didn't even benefit from the Siamese twins playing themselves. When a sensationalist biopic can't even live up to the levels of reality, it's an abject failure. Yet here they wrote a tight film, only a minute over an hour long and shot on an independent budget by director Max Nosseck, his second of four films with Tierney after Dillinger six years earlier. It isn't particularly groundbreaking, but it's a satisfying and often tense B movie that packs a lot into a small space, not least another powerful showing from Tierney. He leaves a notable trail of destruction in his wake here, only his immigrant mother able to tear him a new one when it's too late. Neuman and Tanchuck wrote a great death scene for Lisa Golm as Mrs Lubeck.
In fact, The Hoodlum builds well for everyone. The more obvious scenes are early on, as the film struggles to get going on whatever budget the independent Jack Schwarz Productions could bring to bear. The actors are capable but hardly Oscar-worthy. The uncredited Gene Roth is the standout early on as the prison warden who doesn't want Lubeck released, but he chews his way through a small part with gusto, somehow reminding of both Raymond Burr and William Castle as he shows Lubeck the electric chair. Edward Tierney is initially subdued and careful as Johnny; Allene Roberts is suitably innocent as his girl, Rosa, who Vincent naturally targets; and Marjorie Riordan is a sultry bank secretary who flirts with him while he pumps her gas. It's once all hell has broken loose that they get their moments to shine, though none as brightly as Golm. After her, it's Marjorie Riordan who gets the best scene. She deserved a bigger part.

The Hoodlum has gone unseen for many years, hardly surprising given its obscurity and status as an independent picture in a time when those were rare creatures indeed. After its original theatrical run, courtesy of United Artists, in 1951, it didn't see theatres again until almost half a century later when a new print was made. It certainly doesn't deserve to remain in obscurity, as it's a thoroughly entertaining piece. It stands up as an indie noir, as a Lawrence Tierney picture and as the one time he acted alongside one of his brothers. He never worked with Edward again and never shared the screen with his other brother, Scott Brady, even though both had prolific film careers. Scott's ran for 63 films from 1948 to 1984, when he played the sheriff in Gremlins. Lawrence Tierney notched up 64, but in a much longer period from 1943 to 2000, mostly because he was so difficult a man to work with. It's hard to believe he's been gone for over a decade though.

Monday 3 October 2011

Thor (2011)

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Stars: Chris Hemsworth and Anthony Hopkins
It didn't take a lot to realise that I'm hardly the intended audience for this film. I asked a question of everyone who saw it early on that nobody understood, even those who were paid to review it. I simply wanted to know how Tadanobu Asano did in his first English language film. Having now seen Thor, I can understand the blank faces I got in response. He is utterly wasted in this film, far beyond anything I could have imagined. If viewers didn't know who he was, which is pretty likely for anyone not up on modern Japanese cinema, this certainly wouldn't have helped. He's almost not in the film at all and when he is, he's doing precisely nothing. Given that his next English language film is a screen adaptation of the game of Battleships (no, I'm not kidding), I can hardly be hopeful for a new international career, let alone my dream of seeing him playing opposite Johnny Depp in a quirky and artful drama. What a heartbreaking waste of talent.

The biggest problem Thor has, and it has many, is that Tadanobu Asano is not alone. I spent the near two hour running time being mildly disappointed, even though I came in with precisely no expectations, not having any background with the Marvel character at all. Yet when the ride was over and my brain reengaged, mild disappointment gradually built to the level of bewilderment. The more I thought about Thor, the less there was to think about. It reached the point where I'm not sure that there's anything at all in this film of any substance, leaving it as a two hour trailer for The Avengers. It isn't just Tadanobu Asano, it's everything else. Everyone and everything in this film is a heartbreaking waste of talent. I'm a long-standing fan of B-movie exploitation and yet I can't think of a single film that wasted my time more. I've seen worse films, to be sure, but I enjoyed the majority far more than this. This was literally two hours of my life I won't get back.

The story begins in Puente Antigua, as a continuation from the end of Iron Man 2, a capable if predictable Marvel blockbuster, as Thor arrives on the planet Earth to encounter a strange breed of human: field astrophysicists. Then we hop back to 965 AD so Anthony Hopkins can provide a primer on Norse mythology: frost giants, Asgard, aliens, Mjolnir, the whole thing. Yeah, aliens. These Norse gods are aliens who just hop down to Earth once in a while from Asgard to play at being gods. Earth is one of the nine realms, each accessible through some sort of Stargate. It's all very dark, very CGI and very Star Trek. Kenneth Branagh, a surprising choice of director to shoot a Marvel blockbuster, doesn't have the epic flair that Peter Jackson demonstrated in Lord of the Rings or the ability to focus on detail like Zack Snyder in 300. A few shots suggest we're in a spaceship but it's just the camera movements.

Anthony Hopkins looks like Anthony Hopkins in an Odin suit. Sometimes being a star can only be an obstacle to a performance. He does what you expect Hopkins to do, but by the end of this film I found that I hadn't disliked one of his performances this much since Red Dragon. In this version of Norse mythology, Odin, the king of Asgard, is the mighty warrior you might expect, but one who has fallen back into being a soft spoken peacemaker of a Norse god. I was waiting for him to cry havoc and let loose the berserkers, only to materialise a table to sit round and compromise. In comparison, his son Thor, about to take over as king, struts to the throne as if he was a WWE wrestler approaching the ring. Chris Hemsworth plays him rather like Brad Pitt would play Iron Man, only a little less flippant. I expected the We Will Rock You chant from A Knight's Tale. His brother Loki is jealous, scheming and ultimately forgettable. He may be the least villain ever.

The setup, within this shiny but obviously entirely CGI environment, is predictable. Loki invites the frost giants to show up and interrupt the ceremony, all on the sly of course. Odin forbids any reaction but Thor takes the Stargate to Jotunheim to piss them off anyway and his father has to calm things down. This action is enough to shift Thor in his esteem from his imminent heir to an undesirable element who he promptly strips of his powers and hurls down to Earth for the field astrophysicists to hit with their van. He does throw his mighty hammer Mjolnir after him, with an accompanying oath that its power will only manifest when his son is once more worthy. Even as this CGI action unfolds, I couldn't help but wonder that if it was this easy to outmanoeuver Thor, just why Loki hadn't got rid of him years before. However thinking about plot holes in this film is a dangerous business: there are more holes than plot.

The story from here is pretty obvious. Thor goes to get his hammer but SHIELD gets there first. Loki plots and schemes. Odin is removed from the field of play. Thor's buddies go to help him. Cue the battle. Cue the redemption scene. Cue the comeback. Cue the credits. It's all acutely disappointing, all the more so because there's no attempt to build any substance around it. Just as Asgard is a shiny bundle of CGI that never contains anyone without a direct purpose for being in a scene, Earth is apparently a single street in a single town entirely surrounded by desert, in which only the main characters have any function and then only very specific ones. Jane Foster, the lead astrophysicist, is there only as a token love interest. Her mentor, Dr Erik Selvig, is there because he knows Norse mythology. Her assistant, Darcy Lewis, is there for comic relief, which, unbelievably, amounts to one poor joke repeated twice. SHIELD are there to look impressive.
To be fair, the actors were capable, however dumb their parts were. Natalie Portman is solid as the love interest, but casting Natalie Portman as merely a love interest is like taking Mjolnir to crack a nut. She is painfully wasted in a throwaway role that feels all the more so because she does everything she can to embue it with meaning. Her acting chops merely highlight how the many other talented actors in this film didn't do the same, through their own fault or not. Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgård and Tadanobu Asano are massive talents who get varying degrees of not a heck of a lot to do. Kat Dennings brings a weak periodic laugh but she's worth more than that. In this film only Thor really gets more to do than the extras who run around Puente Antigua looking scared, and they are only a hair's breadth above the frost giants, who are suitably sinister, but like everything in Jotunheim nothing more than shiny and meaningless CGI.

That leaves Hemsworth, Hopkins and Hiddleston, a triple H if you will, someone who would have looked a little less Hollywood than Hemsworth. Fortunately he does a decent job, once he wakes up in the hospital on Earth. Before that he's acutely annoying, but as a stranger in a strange land he's less cocky and more arrogant in a good sense, simply aware of how powerful he is. Depth arrives when he can't pick up Mjolnir, as that awareness falls away and he becomes fragile and unsure, obviously alien emotions to him. As the film revolves entirely around him, his showing is an anchor for the threadbare storyline. Without it, this would have been even more lacking than it is. Certainly Odin and Loki are nothing to focus on. Hopkins is unable to do anything with a bad part except make it worse and Tom Hiddleston, as Loki, is stuck playing a weak villain who gets weak scenes to be weak in. It's hardly surprising to find that he's weak and utterly forgettable.

Bizarrely the only character I can praise is that of Heimdall, guardian of the Bifrost, the Stargate that serves as the public transit system between worlds. This is bizarre because while actors like Ray Stevenson may look like Norse gods, only Heimdall feels like one, yet he's played by a black English actor, Idris Elba. It's a strange casting choice that is wrong on every level there is, except the actual performance that Elba delivers. He provides the only epicness that the film can boast. He epitomises timeless power, something sadly lacking in a film rooted in Norse mythology and shot by Kenneth Branagh who guided many of the actors through references to Shakespeare. It's amazing how empty this film is given that its character inspirations come from archetypes like Falstaff, Cassius and Edmund from King Lear, along with Peter O'Toole and Errol Flynn. Most took their roles because of Branagh's presence, some before there was a script. That speaks volumes.

Perhaps most surprising was that for a summer blockbuster, especially one based on a Marvel comic book character, there's not a lot of actual action, and when it arrives it's embarrassing. In the early scenes, everything is CGI and hard to see. Towards the end, when the film equivalent of a boss arrives to devastate the town, like a '50s sci fi monster, the battle is quick and lacking. Of the five warriors there, only three get shots in. The victory makes no sense. Even the moment in which Thor proves himself inevitably worthy was played badly. It read to me far more that the superhero in this film really isn't Thor at all, it's his hammer Mjolnir. It's at once Superman's cape and Batman's gadgets, but I never got the impression that Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne would die without those artefacts. Without Mjolnir, Thor is less than nothing. There's a final battle with Loki which shows off more CGI and relies on a deus ex machina. It's all embarrassing.

What surprises me is how much success Thor has managed to achieve, namely a gross of almost $450m and apparent critical acclaim from numerous fronts, including many who I'd expected would have hated it. Last time a superhero movie was made by a director pulled from the world of international art cinema rather than that of Hollywood blockbusters, the fans rebelled. Many good things have been said about Ang Lee's Hulk, but I haven't heard any from comic book fans. Here, those comic book fans seem to like it, if not outright love it and ache for the inevitable sequel. Roger Ebert was one of a few detracting critics, claiming that it failed as a movie but succeeded as marketing. Other critics were far more favourable, Richard Roeper even describing it as 'the most entertaining superhero debut since the original Spider-Man'. Adding my small voice to such esteemed company, I hated it with a passion that I haven't felt in a long time.

Sunday 18 September 2011

The Last of Mrs Cheyney (1929)

Director: Sidney Franklin
Stars: Norma Shearer, Basil Rathbone, Herbert Bunston and George Barraud
It's been a while since I've seen the 1937 version of this story, a golden age production featuring an all star cast including Joan Crawford, William Powell, Robert Montgomery, Frank Morgan and Nigel Bruce, among others. This predated it by eight years and an entire era, given that this is a precode, albeit one somewhat unique in its timing. The precodes got away with much that the production era simply couldn't, but they built up to their heyday: it's the pictures from 1932 to 1934 that are usually so notable, not the ones from the end of the twenties. This one, from 1929, closer to the silent era than the glory days of Warren William, opens with plenty of sparkling innuendo, much of it sexual. Verbal banter was an art long before this but it was a highlight of the early precodes because of how hard it was to move microphones, a key reason why so many were adapted from plays. Yet it's rare to see one quite so forward quite this early.

Otherwise it feels very late twenties. The early actors are very carefully enunciated, as befits a very early sound film. Only Hedda Hopper sounds remotely natural until Basil Rathbone wanders out of Mrs Cheyney's charity concert and promptly dominates the scene, not only with his clever and deliberate wit but with his effortless voice. He looks scarily young, somehow much younger than he appeared in films made only a year later, though he is buried under a good deal of makeup. He is excellent, matched only by Norma Shearer in the lead role. These two shine in a succession of glorious scenes, both as individual actors full of subtle nuance and as an engaging and charismatic pair. It's a shame that Rathbone's star hadn't yet risen to allow his name to join Shearer's above the title. Their interplay is an enticing to and fro affair, as Mrs Cheyney has Lord Arthur Dilling notably on the hop for a while, only for it to shift back and forth between them.
I can't help but see the film as a collection of these scenes, because they and the two characters they contain are so full of life, while the rest of the film is so sadly lacking. Only George Barraud comes close to the lead couple, as Charles, Cheyney's intriguing butler. Everyone else in the cast is either far too good at being intensely annoying, such as Herbert Bunston and Cyril Chadwick, or too inconsequential to have much presence. Both these actors do their jobs well, as do the various ladies in the cast, but that doesn't make them enjoyable to watch. Late in the film is a breakfast scene, with almost the entire supporting cast bouncing off each other. It's perhaps the only scene in which they any offer any entertainment and then as an ensemble rather than as individuals; yet they're still overshadowed by Basil Rathbone sitting quietly at the end of the table and the underlying attempt to keep the most outrageous events impeccably polite.

The term for such stories was 'comedy of manners' and that's notably more accurate here than usual. It's particularly fascinating to watch the reactions in this story. Certain actions naturally deserve contempt while others warrant forgiveness, though it takes impeccable manners and breeding to appropriately distinguish between the two. Larceny is far less heinous a crime than the abuse of hospitality, it seems, and early dishonesty can be outranked by later honesty, as long as the circumstances are appropriate. In other hands, this would be a crime drama with the MacGuffin the £50,000 string of pearls that Mrs Webley keeps by her bedside at night. Yet this is a comedy of manners with the MacGuffin the true moral character of the thief caught in the act. That's a quaint and fascinating concept, as much so as the bizarre facial acting that goes on between two people who don't look at each other very much. That happens a lot here.
What all this quaintness leaves is a strange anomaly. From one angle it's a notable precode, full of moral ambiguity, with a strong leading lady and plenty of very forward dialogue. Yet instead of the usual modernity of the late precode pictures, full of reaction to the social situations of the time, this looks backward to a past age. So from another angle, it's a stagebound and talkative early sound picture that feels antiquated in its focus on manners, titles and reputations. I don't think I've ever seen such a quintessential mix of both ends of the precode era in a single film before. I'm far more used to seeing the past and future in late twenties movies for a different reason, one that's very apparent here: most of these actors were on their way out, while a few were on their way in. As with many early talkies, it's impossible not to realise which actors would thrive in the sound era, not because we recognise them but because it's just that obvious.

I've been a Rathbone fan for years, but it's been tough to work backwards from his heyday in the code era to his earlier work. While movies like The Bishop Murder Case, The Lady of Scandal and Sin Takes a Holiday were decent and interesting films, for some reason I recall them less than A Notorious Affair, a much worse picture that epitomised the stodgy play-sourced early talkies. It's refreshing to see a dynamic Rathbone here: whether he's in command, attacking with his wit and romancing more emphatically than we might expect, or whether he's forced onto the defensive, battled back by the wit of Mrs Cheyney. It's a great performance, the earliest of his I've seen yet and presumably his sound debut, given that his previous film was three years earlier: a silent Ben Lyon picture called The Great Deception in 1926. The Last of Mrs Cheyney shows us a demonstrative Rathbone six years before stardom and a full decade before Sherlock Holmes.
On the other hand, it took a long while for me to appreciate Norma Shearer. It's easy to see her as important only as the wife of MGM's wunderkind, Irving Thalberg, but that's unfair. She was the female lead in MGM's first production, the Lon Chaney film He Who Gets Slapped, three years before marrying Thalberg, and her precodes demonstrate just how important she was as a strong woman who showed a young female audience how to escape the morals of the previous generation. Never mind overblown late thirties fare like The Women, watch her in precodes, as a succession of sexually active unmarried women, not pretty young things cast adrift in a man's world but sophisticated and experienced divorcées. Hollywood forgot her not for what she could do, but because, as with Warren William, for what she couldn't do any more under the code. This may be the best I've ever seen her, full of nuance and play, especially in the first half of the film.

Now I should go back to the 1937 version, not only to compare the quality of the two films and to see how they treat the same material differently, but to examine how far my understanding of such things has come in the intervening time. I saw the 1937 version early into my exploration of classic Hollywood and remember being impressed, but I can't help but wonder now whether I was really being impressed by the film or my early experiences of people like William Powell and Robert Montgomery. Like many modern viewers, I found that golden age films opened a glorious voyage of discovery, but after seven or eight intensive years of travelling through filmographies, both backwards and sideways, I realise that much of that gold was really gilt and the real magic is often harder to find. I have a feeling that this is going to be a great example, the 1929 version not as slick, not as polished, not as star studded, but a much better film for all that.

Sunday 14 August 2011

The Coward (1915)

Director: Reginald Barker & Thomas H Ince
Stars: Frank Keenan and Charles Ray

Charles Ray had a long career for Thomas Ince, but it was this film that made him a star, which he remained for the rest of the teens and into the twenties. It's easy to see why because, even as Frank Winslow, the coward of the title, he still manages to elicit some of our sympathy, ably demonstrating the torment he suddenly finds himself in as the American Civil War begins. He's pressured from many sides to sign up for the Confederacy, not least that he's the son of stern old Col Jefferson Beverly Winslow. Yet, 'Mother, I am afraid... afraid!' he wails, unable to enlist at the recruiting station. He's wracked with emotion, exhibiting an enticing combination of strength and weakness, and there's plenty of opportunity for Ray to demonstrate his dramatic range. He comes over as a strange cross between Henry Fonda and William Haines. In the end he signs up only because his dad is going to shoot him if he doesn't. How's that for incentive?

Such depth of character is only one reason why The Coward proved eye opening to me. I'm used to movies from the teens faring much better visually than with characterisation. They often had grand sets shot with capable camerawork, but rarely much to populate into them beyond simple generic storylines. Thomas Ince, famed for 1916's Civilization, sits high on the rankings of early American directors, behind only D W Griffith and Cecil B De Mille, but this is the first time I've seen one of his pictures and it certainly stands up far better than I expected. The other surprise is that the film's promise to be 'a dramatic episode of the American Civil War' is achieved not only through drama but through a surprisingly sparing use of intertitles. For the longest time, they serve only to introduce characters or to allow us to read a letter that progresses the story. It takes a long while before we read any dialogue and that's kept to a bare minimum throughout.

Charles Ray shares top billing with Frank Keenan, who plays his father. It's hard to say who gets most screen time, but if it's Keenan it's mostly through the inflexibility of his character casting a shadow over the entire film, as if he were a statue or a ghost perpetually in the background. Col Winslow has all the strength that his son doesn't have, so much so that he only has to stand up to easily dominate a scene. His toughest moments are very subtle ones, such as the one where he waits in his study for his son's decision to enlist, his power demonstrated more through a slow movement of his gun than through any choice of words. Even when his son deserts and he takes his place to keep the family honour intact, the character is too inflexible for Keenan to do much more than allow his eyes to shine in the night or to seethe quietly in the emotional scenes. He plays him well but simply has less chances to emote because of how his character is written.

Meanwhile, Frank gets opportunity after opportunity to build a character, though his story arc is more of a simple fall/rise than a more traditional and complex rise/fall/rise. He gets only a brief few moments before he's exposed as a coward, albeit one with some ambiguity, and what little sympathy he wrings out of us is soon lost as he quickly and surely sinks even lower. Yet there wouldn't be much of a plot if he wasn't given a chance for redemption and that comes through the Yankee command arriving in Cotton Creek, VA and taking up residence in Winslow Hall. He hides in the attic, where he fortuitously overhears massively important enemy secrets that he finally discovers the courage to take action over. There's more to the plot than that, but it gives you a good idea of the story arc that Frank Winslow is carried through. Ray impresses here, both as a coward and something of an action hero, albeit a frantic one.

With the success of this film, Charles Ray found fame, after a few years playing innocent country boys for Ince. He stayed with Ince and did well, but rarely strayed outside the same type of role, formula being even more important in the teens than it is today. Once you found a formula, you stayed with it and milked it as long as you could. Whether it was a growing desire on Ray's part to do something different or a growing egotism, he eventually reached the point of founding his own production company and sinking his entire fortune into a version of The Courtship of Myles Standish in 1923. After it flopped badly, his career never recovered and when he died in 1943 at the age of 52, he had deteriorated through smaller roles to bit parts and eventually extra work on Poverty Row. If he had survived to 1950, he could have been a good choice for one of Norma Desmond's silent bridge partners in Sunset Boulevard.

Frank Keenan didn't find the fame that Ray did, even though he was officially this movie's star. If he's remembered today, it's probably for being Keenan Wynn's grandfather, rather than for his long stage career or for a decade and a half of film work. After a few roles in 1909, he became serious about the movies in 1914, meaning that this was still pretty early for him, even though at 57 he was already older than Charles Ray would ever get. He would make many more pictures, though he didn't survive the silent era and it's doubtful any were particularly different from this. The inflexibility of Col Winslow fit him well, given that he was known as a 'furniture actor', one who was usually so drunk that it was only the furniture that kept him upright. With that in mind, his casting here seems even more appropriate, but the few outdoor scenes more surprising, as he gets at least a few dynamic moments. Maybe those were his sober days.

Nobody else gets a remote opportunity to shine, at least through their own merits. The officers on both sides look the part, but credit is more due to the costume and makeup departments than the actors. The negro servants at Winslow Hall are white actors in blackface, albeit done rather better than usual. The chase scene is impressive for 1914, as are the battle scenes which prove that explosions were as big business almost a century ago as they are today. Yet all this is visual as there's little structure given to the grandeur. We see the South rush into battle but we don't know any more than that they're hitting the North's weakest point. It's about explosions, flags and clouds of smoke, not anything logistical. Yet putting all this together helps to highlight to me yet again that there were filmmakers working before 1920 who could make a picture that stands up to viewing today. Each one I see makes me wonder all the more about what has been lost.

Friday 29 July 2011

The Black Scorpion (1957)

Director: Edward Ludwig
Stars: Richard Denning, Mara Corday, Carlos Rivas and Mario Navarro
Celebrating the 50's Monster Mash blogathon organised by Nathanael Hood at Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear.

Mara Corday made two very different monster movies in 1957: The Giant Claw for Columbia and The Black Scorpion for Warner Brothers. The former saw her take on what has often been called the most ludicrous monster ever to disgrace a creature feature, La Carcagne, something like a zombie chicken version of Big Bird with a mohawk. Imagine how bad that description could look like at battleship size and then take my word that the actual creature looks worse. On the other hand, the latter saw her face off instead against effects supervised by Willis O'Brien, the original master of stop motion animation, though he wasn't working with apes or dinosaurs for a change. To assist him is Pete Peterson, who had cut his teeth on Mighty Joe Young, O'Brien's previous film. He would work with him again on Behemoth, the Sea Monster. When we see the the creature's ugly drooling face head on it's truly awful, but the animation is enjoyable throughout.

The film starts as it means to go on with the destruction of wide swathes of Mexico through a volcanic eruption and a subsequent earthquake. Driving to the remote village of San Lorenzo to take a look are Dr Henry 'Hank' Scott and Dr Artur Ramos. Scott is a geologist played by Richard Denning, a couple of years after Creature with the Atom Brain and three since Creature from the Black Lagoon. Ramos is Carlos Rivas, Texan born but of Mexican heritage and so believable as Dr Scott's local equivalent, a professor of geology from Mexico City. He's certainly much better here than in The Madmen of Mandoras, which later became They Saved Hitler's Brain. What the pair find, a couple of miles south of the village, is weird damage, certainly not natural. A police car that preceded them in by a couple of hours is mangled and its occupants gone. They find a baby in its crib. They find the corpse of Sgt Baker, propped up in a corner with an empty gun.

The padre in San Lorenzo talks of a demon bull that the townsfolk are afraid of. People are dying all over, steers too. He doesn't believe it, or at least so he says, but his congregation do. Heading up towards the crater, against the will of the army, Scott and Ramos find Teresa Alvarez, thrown from her horse and in need of rescue, but who otherwise seems to be capable enough. She's played by Mara Corday, who obviously relishes a role she can get her teeth into. Teresa is a real go getter, especially when compared to her equivalent part in Tarantula. She's run a ranch up on the hills ever since her father died and she has enough firm leadership and respect from her men to call them back to work during such a time of chaos. She does switch into a stereotypical naysayer mode on occasion but it means an intriguing character balance: half of her is as tough as her father; the other half is a sappy romantic lead. The two halves fight it out throughout.
Surely Corday's best genre role, Teresa Alvarez isn't everything she should be but she's much more dynamic than usual. Corday does a solid job in good company. Denning was a capable and experienced leading man, close to the end of a prolific career with 85 movies behind him in only two decades and only five more to come. He doesn't dominate here, because the scorpions lead the way but he keeps our attention on the side of humanity. Carlos Rivas is a decent sidekick but while he plays well off Denning he gets little opportunity to shine otherwise. Carlos Múzquiz gets little screen time but still impresses as the very matter of fact Dr Velazco. Unfortunately there's also a child actor in the film, the powerfully sincere Mario Navarro as Juanito, who latches onto Hank at the Alvarez ranch and proves a capable stowaway who's impossible to shake loose. He's seven and a half but he can ride and shoot and who knows what else. He's annoying.

The first scorpion we see is at the Alvarez ranch too, broken out of obsidian by Dr Ramos. It's only a little thing but amazingly it comes out alive. After this, it doesn't take long for us to see his giant kin, as the title promises. There's much to praise. The creatures aren't man made here like in Tarantula or of mysterious alien origin like The Giant Claw; instead they escape from vast underground tunnels opened to the surface by the volcano. There are many of them, not just one, though the Black Scorpion of the title is bigger and more dominant than the rest. Willis O'Brien and his assistant give them a great finishing move too, a powerful stab downward with the stinger, which can't help but elicit a positive reaction from the audience. 'Scorpion! Finish him! Fatality!' The disasters keep on adding up too, these rural Mexicans having a tough time of it: first a volcano, then an earthquake, ensuing giant scorpions, even a cattle stampede. Then to finish the scorpions off Dr Velazco in Mexico City wants to take them down with poison gas.
The story is better than many of its competitors and I don't just mean The Giant Claw. It's hardly groundbreaking stuff, let me be clear, but scriptwriters David Duncan and Robert Blees, working from Paul Yawitz's story, know what they're doing and they do it capably enough. I can certainly see myself coming back to this one a lot more often than most of these creature features, but to be fair the biggest reason would be Willis O'Brien's animation work, which really dominates the film. Not all the effects are solid: the scorpions look awful in facial close ups and the budget ran out before everything could be completed, so a few scenes have the giant scorpions appear in silhouette form because only the backing had been completed at that time. Fortunately much of the work had been done and there are two setpieces in particular to praise, plus a shorter scene in which an army of scorpions take on a toy train.

The first is a very traditional one, staged underground inside a huge cave in the volcano, into which Drs Scott and Ramos descend to investigate. They find old school stop motion animation, scenes that could easily have been shot thirty years earlier for more classic movies. There's that army of scorpions again, plus a giant tick and a thirty foot worm that I thought was a caterpillar. The critters fight each other too in odd prehistoric battles, one on one, two on one, whatever. These scenes are awesome fun, though the rear projection is far from pristine and there's Juanito to deal with as a stowaway, an annoying distraction from a gloriously retro war of the monsters. The second comes at the finalé, inside a large stadium in Mexico City. It's a gladiatorial orgy of monster violence with the black scorpion taking on all comers, including a helicopter. This stop motion work is joyous and it makes me smile just to remember it. It's what this genre was about.

Sunday 10 July 2011

Alfred (or the Story of a Wonder Fish) (2011)

Directors: Aaron Hobson, Jean-Charles Lehuby and Mathieu Rigot
Stars: Sarah Marie Curtis, Aaron Hobson and Michael Sullivan

My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2011.
The only live action fiction in Selection 2011, Alfred rambles along like a beat poem but leaves us thoroughly engaged in a quirky story. It begins with a burp and gets cruder, foul language being punctuation in this short, but the mumbling narrative means we don't quite catch it all anyway. This was annoying for a while but gradually I realised how appropriate it was. It feels like a story told to you by a drunkard late one night in a noisy bar. You don't catch every word, not that every word was probably even spoken, but you always catch enough to get the gist. The fast pace and editing helps this impression too, as does the surreal nature of the story which is never fully explained. Quite why Jack wanders around with his fish in a bowl we don't really know but it doesn't matter. The whole thing is just as gloriously absurd, but it's consistent enough that we grin throughout rather than wonder what the director was smoking.

Jack's fish is named Alfred, as you might imagine from the title, and the story explains how he saved Jack's life. I won't spoil how, but it's just a punchline to a joke detailed enough to become its own story. The other players are Jenna, a young runaway, and her twisted but unnamed dad who is chasing her to bring her home. She meets Jack, who whisks her away and the rest of the story writes itself, if you happen to have the mind of a Terry Gilliam. Fortunately the imagination isn't just in the situation comedy but in the way it's shot too. We don't merely see our barefoot runaway dance around Alfred's fishbowl in the forecourt of a gas station to the accompaniment of a banjo picking attendant, we see it from the fish's perspective too, a wonderful touch indeed. I'd love to see Alfred again, though only a teaser seems to be online. While it began flawed and abrasive, it grew in magnetism and it remains fondly in my memory a couple of weeks on.

Millhaven (2010)

Director: Bartek Kulas
My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2011.
I'm well acquainted with The Curse of Millhaven, a song by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds from their 1995 album Murder Ballads, which follows nine tracks about murder and mayhem in myriad forms with a cover of Bob Dylan's Death is Not the End. I once gave a copy to my stepdaughter for Christmas in a subtle attempt to transition her from the fake alternative music ClearChannel radio fed her to real alternative music that was even more subversive. I wrote a poem based on one of the other songs on the album too, fashioning my own story around its tempo and title. Obviously the material inspires creativity, as this Polish animated short takes one of the songs and brings it to vivid life, as much through an amazing cover version as the glorious animation that accompanies it. Director Bartek Kulas knew the song from Kinga Preis's version, only for it to return to him in another by Katarzyna Groniec, which contains far more nuance and playfulness.

The story concerns a girl called Lottie who has been presiding over a reign of terror in the town of Millhaven. She's the curse of the song's title, though she's only fourteen, and she's eventually hoisted by her own petard, only to remain unapologetic in an asylum. Cave's song is a galloping narrative ballad, but Groniec's version is acutely sinister, not only in the way she builds a superb performance along with the story she sings, going from deceptive sweetness to outright lunacy through pitch and depth, but through Roman Kołakowski's translation, not direct but more of an interpretation. It misses out entire verses of the original song but adds freakish descriptive colour, swapping lines like 'twenty cops burst through my door without even phoning' for 'I was just brushing the blood out of my hair when in barged a bunch of cops'. No wonder hearing Groniec's cover drew Kulas to animate the material. It invited such a treatment.

Kulas's animation is as filled with haunting textures as the music and it grows with the story as well as Groniec's voice and the deep piano that stalks her. His Lottie is an ethereal marionette whose hair is almost as long as she is and almost as much of a character, but the way she moves depends on the point in the lyrics. He combines Christ poses with hypnotic stares to accompany the religious hints Kołakowski introduced in his translation. She plays to the camera like her dark work is a performance piece of art, like she's a Flamenco dancer, a guitar strummer or a kung fu fighter. The flies and spiders that crawl over the inside of the screen ensure the piece seethes. Kulas shot everything in halftone monochromes for which he'd been seeking a use for years and he overlaid a texture that suggests only a subtle barrier between Lottie and us. By far the best piece in Selection 2011, this is a masterpiece of a song and an animation. My wife plays it often.

Millhaven can be viewed at the director's website.

The Grandma's Village (2007)

Director: Dragana Zarevska
My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2011.
Unfortunately the longest piece in Selection 2011 was the least interesting to me, not because of it the story it told but because it didn't seem able to find a focus. The title refers to the village of Babino in Macedonia (Yugoslav Macedonia not Greek Macedonia), which is populated entirely by grandmas, fifteen of them, who live in relative solitude. The only descriptions that I've managed to find online suggest that filmmaker Dragana Zarevska aimed at a cinematic poem in honour of these women, but if so, it's in free verse. She did capture some character, both of the grandmas and the town itself, but a generous eighteen minutes of running time didn't leave me with either a consistent message or tone. For a while it seemed to be a sinister piece, with talk of witches and curses, footage of a stalking black cat and sped up reenactments of stories. Yet the women seem normal and characterful. Why the suggestion otherwise?

There are some good scenes. I enjoyed the ones where Zarevska sat down on a wall with a trio of grannies who simply talked, not about anything in particular but just to talk. What we get out of this is a good deal of character and humour, these old women in their isolated village able to make the young filmmaker laugh. Unfortunately this is as inconsistent within the film as a whole as anything else within it, some scenes engaging, others apparently superfluous. What I found most engrossing were the textures of an old village, from the architecture, which is worn, to the techniques these grannies use in their everyday lives. It was interesting to watch people in this modern day creating and dying fabric and dusting a mule. It was also fascinating to see the culture clash evident as they discover what a modern video camera can do. These scenes of different worlds connecting could easily have been the focus of the film. Sadly they weren't.

111° Longitude (2009)

Directors: Yuri Makino and Cindy Stilwell

My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2011.
From a technical perspective, 111° Longitude is an interesting piece. Made by two female friends and filmmakers who met at film school in New York City, they each tell about themselves while the stills and footage they shot is combined through split screen to highlight the similarities and the differences in their lives at different points on the 111th meridian: Cindy Stilwell in Montana and Yuri Makino in Arizona. There's complexity that I'd like to explore through further viewings but one time through was still enough to highlight a few things, not least that the comparisons being drawn aren't between snow and tumbleweeds but between transience and permanence. What I got out of the film was a surprising conclusion: namely how much transience is easy and consistent, while permanence is so different that it becomes difficult how to decide on it. That's a grand challenge to explore in a nine minute short.

For a while, Makino and Stilwell talk about movement and the visuals we see highlight how much consistency transience really has. We see trains, overpasses and hotels, which look precisely the same regardless where they are, something neatly highlighted by a clever illusion of motion between the two halves of the split screen. Was it Stevie Wonder who always stayed in the same hotel chain, as the layout of the rooms is identical? The message seems to be that transience is comfortable because you don't have to commit. Permanence is another matter. Makino suggests that Tucson is a place where people go to hide or heal or start over. It's somewhere to settle and while there are many similarities drawn between the two locations, there's a major gap between them that highlights how serious permanence is. Beautifully shot, well composed and compared, I feel like there's more depth here to discover. I'd like a second run through to find out.

So Who am I Anyway? (2011)

Director: Lisa Wegner

My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2011.
While the theme of Selection 2011 turned out to be self, it did so predominantly through factual filmmaking, five of the seven shorts selected this year being documentaries. Of those five, this one was the most obviously oriented around self because the only person we see is director Lisa Wegner, over and over again, in a very personal experiment that aims to capture on film who she really is. Apparently made in response to negative comments people had made about her, she chose to examine the truth behind them and did so by positioning a camera to capture her as she entered or left a room, presumably in her own house. It's an intriguing visual experiment, especially for a visual artist, because of the levels of meaning that it opens up. I was fascinated more by how I reacted to the finished piece than in the conclusions it drew. At the end of the day it was hardly surprising to find that Wegner is everything we see, not just one anything.

What was surprising is how much complexity came out of such a simple setup. Initially she looks into the camera, emotes into it in apparently unscripted ways. We see individual moments, good and bad. She doesn't speak but there's commentary both in the text overlay and in the choice of music that plays in the background, backing up her mood swings amazingly well. We see growth, reinvention and change, yet those were always going to be transient. What fascinated me was the relationship between Wegner, a filmmaker, and her camera. For a while it seems blisteringly honest as she lets the camera peel away the layers that protect her from the world. As it runs on, we wonder how much the camera captures her and how much it shapes her, as well as how she uses it. She's an artist, after all. Do filmmakers need a script to get a point across? It says plenty that I'm still thinking about what these ten rivetting minutes really meant two weeks later.

So Who am I Anyway? can be viewed for free on YouTube.

Louis Lee (2006)

Director: Steve Weiss

My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2011.
At Selection 2011, film programmer Steve Weiss suggested that the theme of this year's films was self. He doesn't consciously pick a theme, it just emerges gradually from his choices, but having programmed these wonderful selections of shorts at the Phoenix Art Museum for many years, it's only appropriate that this year's eventual theme would allow him to include one of his own shorts, the first of his films I've ever seen. It's a short documentary, almost entirely visual, put together as a tribute to the work of Phoenix native Louis Lee in creating a rock garden which looks unlike any rock garden you've seen. The work took decades, probably because there was no end goal, just a creativity let loose to do what it would that ended only with Lee's death in 2006. While the camerawork is inconsistent, possibly shot at different times and with different equipment, it ably provides us with a vision of why this rock garden is worthy of capture on film.

I can certainly see why it has captured so much interest. It's insanely ornate but very organic, reminding in many ways of an outsider artist's take on Antoni Gaudí. Watching the camera roll through the garden reminded me of walking through the streets and parks of Barcelona, seeing art everywhere, occasionally structured but more often somehow grown. There's no common structural design here, just rocks arranged in different ways to meet different locational needs, combined with pots, trinkets and statues. Nothing is consistent except the overriding vision of taking all this stuff and creating something artistic with it. The film feels much the same way, with the roaming camerawork mixed with ethnic music and some clips from interviews Steve Gompf made with Lee in 1994. The last one worked particularly well, bringing a sense of humour to the piece that the audience reacted to. So what else haven't you shown us yet, Steve?

Louis Lee can be viewed at YouTube.

The Performers (2011)

Director: Bob Miller
My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2011.
Bob Miller's website describes him as a photographer and a visual journalist and both those arts are capably showcased here in a short piece about dancers at the BalletMet Columbus, shot as a project in multimedia storytelling at Syracuse University but also available to view at Vimeo. We listen to sound clips from interviews with dancers, quick and pithy comments that occasionally overlap, combining to provide an common impression, one that the visuals aim to bolster. There is no direct connection between the two; we have no idea who is speaking and who we're looking at. Everyone is just a nameless dancer, but that's appropriate given the comments about leaving their bodies and becoming the characters that they portray. We don't need to have their names on screen and we don't need to know who is speaking. We only need to understand the moments that they speak to.

While the piece is short, less than six minutes even when you factor in the credits, it's composed thoughtfully, very much a piece of two halves. The first half speaks to capturing the moment, so the visuals are still photographs, artfully shot with as much attention to colour as to composition. As the comments speak to escape, transformation, living in the moment, everything remains still and exotic. Then halfway through, just as a dancer speaks about coming back to reality, the film does that and returns to what we expect a film to do: move. Sure enough, the comments begin to address movement and we see a range of visuals tied to that, showing us what a human body can do. No wonder these dancers feel so alive while practicing their art, whether on stage or not. It's more than performance, it's who they are. They're dancers who dance because it's how they connect to the universe. That's what the film succeeds in showing us.

The Performers can be viewed at Vimeo.

Five Guns West (1955)

Director: Roger Corman
Stars: John Lund and Dorothy Malone

How better to follow up a western by William Castle than with one by Roger Corman, but even earlier in his career. This was only Corman's second film as a director, after Swamp Women. Yet while Swamp Women and Five Guns West aren't movie classics, they're both intriguing pointers to the qualities that Corman would soon bring to the B movie world. For instance, this is poor as a western but fascinating as a prototype for the wartime caper movie. While I was impressed by The Secret Invasion, a 1968 wartime caper movie directed by Corman and written by R Wright Campbell, I assumed that it simply exploited the previous year's The Dirty Dozen, which set the stage for so many such films. Yet it would seem that its real source was another wartime caper movie, 1955's Five Guns West, directed by Corman and written by R Wright Campbell, who even appears in this one too to highlight how involved he was with the picture.

The only real difference is in the choice of war. The concept is just as you'd expect in all those World War II movies: a military officer gathers together a collection of surprising characters to send on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. You won't find any Nazis here though, as Five Guns West is set in the days when 'strange dark figures rode under the flag of the confederacy'. The military officer is a Confederate captain and the men he assembles are the sort of outlaws you'd expect in the old west, all of whom he pardons so as to send into battle because the South was desperate for capable men in a losing war. The mission is simple, to bring back Stephan Jethro, a traitor who has defected to the Union with $30,000; but tough, as it involves making a hard four day ride in three days, avoiding Indians, crossing Union lines and holding up a stage escorted by the Union army. In another day, it's just what you'd expect Kelly's Heroes to do.

As Corman's films tended to be, it's ambitious for a low budget picture. I'm talking here about pictures he directed, because there was often a recognisable touch of philosophy, literacy and sense of history in the films he directed personally that you won't find in pictures like Dinocroc vs Supergator that he only touched as an executive producer. So with writer Campbell, he bands together five very different men with very different goals, fleshes out their characters and provides them with story arcs. Unfortunately the characters end up more interesting than the action they're placed into. It's very much a three act play and the first act is successful far beyond the other two, setting the stage and introducing the players. Once they have something to do, our level of interest wanes as the second and third acts prove unsatisfying for different reasons: guts and budget respectively.
The five outlaws pressed into service are played by Corman regulars for the most part, only John Lund making his sole appearance for Corman here. He had been an established B movie leading man for well over a decade, making him a logical choice for Govern Sturges, the professional highwayman and murderer who quickly dominates the group. He's strong and quiet, reminiscent of a less iconic Charles Bronson. Strangely, Lund's most remembered role today is probably the supporting one he had in High Society a year after this film. With Sturges quiet, it falls to Touch Connors to be colourful and he plays gambler Hale Clinton as a cut rate Maverick, even though Maverick wouldn't appear on screens for another couple of years. He's a troublemaker, who shot and killed an unarmed man after an argument over cards. Connors was the male lead in Swamp Women, his first of four Corman movies in two years. He wouldn't play Mannix until 1967.

The Candy brothers bring the team up to four. Young Billy Candy is played by Jonathan Haze, a long term Corman collaborator who appeared in Monster from the Ocean Floor and The Fast and the Furious, pictures Corman produced before he even started directing, and most of his credits would end up being for Corman. He's restless, crazy and a little dumb, giving Haze opportunity to chew up the scenery on occasion. He'd shot two law officers in a failed attempt to spring his brother Johnny from prison, where he'd been locked up for murder. Johnny is a sharpshooter, as quiet as Sturges but not as strong, probably mostly because the Bob Campbell who plays him is also the R Wright Campbell who wrote the picture. He's a better writer than actor and he knew it. He wrote the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces as well as a number of Corman films, including The Masque of the Red Death, The Secret Invasion and well, Teenage Cave Man.

That leaves Paul Birch as J C Haggard, handed twenty years of hard labour for illegally driving cattle to New Orleans, a run that ended with the deaths of seven men. Unlike the others, he's obviously a decent man, who only wants to get on with his life without all the craziness that war brought. He's a grizzled oldtimer with a requisite deep voice, though he's not as cantankerous as many actors who specialised in such characters tended to be. Birch may be best known as the original Marlboro Man, but he was a film veteran before he joined Corman's stock company and began to get roles of more substance than he got as an uncredited musician singing with the Plainsmen. He would make plenty of Corman films over the next couple of years, from The Beast with a Million Eyes to Day the World Ended via Apache Woman, but he'd quit after a physical confrontation with Corman during Not of This Earth in 1957, his part completed by a double.
If this all sounds a little testosterone fuelled, you'd be right, as there's plenty of opportunity for an exploration of group dynamics. Who will team up with who? Who's going to fight who? Who's going to end up with the gold? This keeps us interested for a while but hardly for 78 minutes and the fights are poorly choreographed to boot. Fortunately there is a woman in the picture, though only one and it takes a full half hour for her to arrive. She's Shalee, in the lovely form of Dorothy Malone, who mans a stage post with her drunken uncle Mike, stranded when the surrounding town died. She's tough and quick with a gun, the same year she made The Fast and the Furious and five other pictures. How's that for a B movie pin up girl? Well, a year later she'd win an Oscar for playing a nymphomaniac in Written on the Wind. That was a Douglas Sirk soap, pointing to the most famous role she would have: a long run on Peyton Place beginning in 1964.

Unfortunately, while Dorothy Malone does a fine job as Shalee, it mostly isn't the one we need. Sure, she gets to snoop around a little and get into trouble, but she's really there to stir up the men. After all, just as we don't see a woman in the picture until she shows up, neither do these characters and they're not working to screen time. These men were all serving time in prison before being acquired by the army and sent on their mission. Who knows how long it had been since any of them had even seen a woman, let alone been allowed to do anything with one. Yet along comes Shalee, one woman to their five men. This second act should be blistering with sexual tension but it isn't and I'm not sure where the blame lies. Malone had all it took to do that and Campbell sets up a couple of scenes to take advantage of it, but it's half hearted and shied away from. It feels like Campbell and Corman simply didn't want to go there, which is a shame.

After the second act, a waiting game centered around Shalee's staging post, disappoints in its lack of sexual tension, the third act disappoints in its lack of action. Eventually the stage arrives, accompanied by Union soldiers led by James B Sikking in his screen debut. He gets a couple of lines before they kill him, but strangely he wouldn't return to film until 1964's The Strangler, and he wouldn't appear on TV until an episode of Assignment: Underwater in 1961. Hill Street Blues wouldn't show up until 1981, but he's recognisable here 26 years earlier. There's violence and gunplay and revelation, but it's unsatisfying, stilted and slow. Everything gets resolved, but we really don't care too much, partly because the revelations are unsurprising but partly because there's no real imagination at play with the guns. There is one scene of genuine tension, where Johnny gets under the stage post and shoots up through the floor, but that's it.

It all made me wonder just what Corman and Campbell aimed at. They set up the component parts of a fascinating western but completely failed to deliver on those fronts. It became routine, without anything to make it stand out among a substantial crowd until we put it into perspective in movie history, something that Corman's name invites. Could it have been that Campbell was really the originator of the wartime caper flick, merely too early and too independently to spark anything? Only when someone else caught on, could he then build on it in The Secret Invasion. That reminds of the complex Jurassic Park/Carnosaur situation, where Carnosaur the movie was a ripoff of Jurassic Park the movie, but both scripts were sourced from books, where Jurassic Park the book was a ripoff of Carnosaur the book. Maybe when Campbell wrote The Secret Invasion, his ripoff was merely credit returning to where credit was due.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Cave of Outlaws (1951)

Director: William Castle
Stars: Macdonald Carey and Alexis Smith

I couldn't resist Cave of Outlaws for a host of different reasons, not least that it isn't available on DVD but Netflix are streaming it anyway. It's a real genre hybrid for a start, taking elements of mystery, romance, comedy and suspense and mixing them all up within the framework of a western. It's a Technicolor picture from 1951, so it looks a little otherworldly, especially given that the many underground sequences are shot on location inside the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. It's directed by William Castle and is the earliest of his films I've seen thus far within his obscure middle period, after entries in crime series such as the Whistler and the Crime Doctor but before his famous horror titles. It's also set in the Arizona territory in 1880, in the equivalent of which I currently live, and prominently features the famous frontier company of Wells Fargo, for whom I currently work. These are only the most obvious reasons why it's an interesting film today.

It wasn't that important in 1951 though and it obviously wasn't an expensive production. While the sets and Alexis Smith's costumes are worth looking at, this was made for Universal who were known for such things on a much grander scale than this. The acting is decent, but a few scenes needed a second take that never came. The stars are recognisable but not major: Macdonald Carey in the lead, Alexis Smith as the leading lady and Edgar Buchanan and Victor Jory backing them up. You may know these folks from television, but not at this point as the roles they would become best known for were still in the future. Carey began Days of Our Lives in 1965, literally as he provided the famous opening words. Buchanan had started Petticoat Junction two years earlier and would remain with it for its entire run. Smith's TV work was notable much later. She played a recurring character on Dallas and was nominated for a primetime Emmy for Cheers.

Carey is hardly a standard hero, as he begins the film freshly released from prison. He was guilty too, as we saw during the prologue when his eighteen year old self took part in a violent train robbery that left many men dead. The heist itself is successful and they make off with the Wells Fargo payroll of gold, but a posse is close on their heels. Pete Carver leads the gang into a colossal cave system, but he's the only one who gets to walk out. The posse follows them in and shoots the rest dead. The payroll followed the corpse of Pete's dad down a vast and inaccessible drop, so when he's released from Kansas State Prison fifteen years later, we can expect him to be a lot of things, from bitter to driven, but we don't expect him to be the hero of the film. 'He's grown up to be a tough one,' the governor tells a Wells Fargo detective, 'smart and tough'. Carey plays it quiet though, like a low budget Gary Cooper, so we keep our minds open anyway.
Having set itself up as a gold hunting western, Cave of Outlaws proves that it has a funny bone as Carver arrives back in what is now a booming copper town called Copper Bend. Everyone is interested in him. 'How do you know it's Pete Carver?' asks one local. 'I seen him with my own eyes,' replies another. 'Ever seen him before?' 'No...' You see, though fifteen years have passed and everyone knows the gold is in the cave, nobody has found it yet and they all expect Carver to quickly become a rich man. Some beat him up for his dough. Many aim to become his friend sharpish. Others want to exploit his fame or extend him credit because they expect him to be able to pay those bills soon enough. Even the doc who cleans him up after he's mugged drops hints that the town needs a hospital bad. The main characters all have their own interests in him and the gold too: Dobbs, Elizabeth Trent and Ben Cross.

Dobbs is the Wells Fargo detective, the only man in town who seems to have any patience. He sits back with his eyes open, waiting to see what unfolds. Edgar Buchanan is a great choice for the role, suitably old enough to be the voice of patient experience yet young and bright eyed enough to be up to the task at hand. He's been looking for this gold for twelve years. Ben Cross is the local bad guy, as you'd expect in the form of perennial screen villain Victor Jory. He owns the town, having acquired all the copper rights in the area through fair means or foul. He wants Carver to help him find the gold, without Dobbs noticing, pay his debts which all end up owed to him, and then get the hell out of town. Elizabeth Trent wants him, as her husband ran the local paper, the Copper Bend Clarion, but disappeared a year earlier and she's out of business until someone can bankroll its reopening, which Carver promptly does on credit.
You can almost write the story from there, because while the mix of genres ensures that it's an interesting ride, each of those genres unfolds exactly as you expect. You can be sure that Carver is after the gold, but not for the reasons we're led to expect. You can be sure he's interested in Liz Trent, a presumed widow in some ostentatious 1880 dresses, and you can be just as sure that Ben Cross is interested in her too. You can also be sure that Liz's husband is going to show up at some point in the story, alive or dead, just so he won't end up as a loose end. You can be sure that the gold is going to be a consistent MacGuffin that drives most of the characters, all the way until the end of the film. You can be sure that there's going to be brawling, a couple of gunfights and a showdown in the caves. You can even be sure that the plate glass windows at the Clarion are going to get people thrown through them. None of these things will surprise.

What does surprise is how sparkly the dialogue gets, as there are some blistering lines. At one point Liz ends Carver's fierce kiss and he asks, 'What's the matter? My credit's good everywhere else.' The romance is surprising too, not only because this is a Production Code era film and the lady is technically married at the time, but because Pete and Liz share far more arguments than they do kisses. The attention to detail is surprising too, as the writing is more consistent than I would have expected for a 75 minute B movie. I liked the cute scene that has Carver and Dobbs watch a couple of kids play acting as the Bandit of the Cave and the Wells Fargo agent. The cat and mouse game Carver and Dobbs play is intriguing, as they're ostensibly on opposite sides but frequently work together. I was surprised that the name of Dobbs didn't carry more reference though: this western about gold came only three years after The Treasure of the Sierre Madre.

The acting is capable without ever being stunning. Edgar Buchanan is the best of the bunch as Dobbs, the only character who doesn't jump to conclusions. Liz Trent spends most of the picture doing that, so Alexis Smith ends up mostly as the means by which her costumes move. Victor Jory played villains so often that he could do so in his sleep, which he does here. Few others get much of a look in, though Houseley Stevenson makes the most of his brief role as Cooley, Liz's printer, who rejoins the paper as it reopens for love and loyalty rather than pay. Russ Tamblyn is the young Carver but grows up too soon and I didn't even recognise Lee Marvin as the conductor who gets a couple of throwing knives to the back during the train heist. So the Carlsbad Caverns steal the film, eerily shot by Irving Glassberg. It's the caves that stand out most here, with the unusual mix of genres notable too in the best mid-period William Castle that I've seen yet.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Kongo (1932)

Director: William Cowen
Stars: Walter Huston, Lupe Velez, Conrad Nagel and Virginia Bruce

Kongo is a glorious anomaly. Not only was it a remake that returned its story to its roots and did it exactly as it was intended, it was a remake of a Lon Chaney movie that surpassed the original. I'm not aware of another instance where anyone ever outdid Chaney and doubt anyone ever did but circumstances were on Walter Huston's side here, as he was working in the precode era and so had a lot more artistic freedom than Chaney did back in the silent days. The mere four years between the two versions were vast, given the changes Hollywood had gone through. It helps that Huston didn't really take Chaney's place either, Chaney took his, as Huston originated the role on Broadway in 1926 in a play by Chester DeVonde and Kilbourn Gordon. The play was Kongo, while the loosely adapted 1928 screen adaptation was West of Zanzibar. By 1932, when the story was revisited under its original name, Chaney was dead and Huston was a star.

West of Zanzibar is a great film, one of a number of great films Chaney made for regular director Tod Browning and he excelled once more in the lead role of Dead Legs Phroso, but it's not quite up to the level of his many masterpieces, perhaps because some of its scenes were excised for release. Hollywood was already converting to sound in 1928, though Chaney resisted that trend fearing that the air of mystery he generated so well wouldn't translate successfully if audiences heard him, so West of Zanzibar is silent. By 1932, the staginess of the early talkies had vanished as the studios mastered the technology, and while Kongo is mostly shot in and around the jungle hut of Deadlegs Flint, it carries as authentic a feel as any jungle picture I've seen. The sets were built for Red Dust, with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, but they work perfectly here too, darkest Africa never appearing quite so dark and reeking of sweat from moment one.

The switch to sound also marked the beginning of the precode era, a time of unbridled artistic freedom that lasted until the Production Code was enforced in 1934, which promptly muzzled Hollywood's output for three decades. Kongo is a prime example of what the studios could get away with within that brief period that could never have been revisited later. In fact, it's hard to imagine anyone remaking this one even today, because those who would stoop to the levels of brutality it exhibits wouldn't be able to capture the underlying soul and humanity of the story. It also benefits from release at a time when parts of the world map were still marked 'unexplored' and setting stories in such exotic climes could seem entirely believable whether they had any authenticity or not. It's notable that this film never feels racist, even though it centres around a brutal white ivory trader in the heart of Africa amidst a whole host of primitive natives.
Deadlegs Flint got his nickname for a reason: he's a cripple with knife slashes over his cheeks. He has a necklace and a slight waistcoat, but underneath is nothing but sweat, which permeates this film so palpably that it's almost a member of the cast. Scantily clad Lupe Velez is so slippery that it's astounding that her outfit doesn't fall off. Flint is wheelchair bound but he lives in attic space accessible only by climbing a rope. He carries a whip to back up his statement that 'I'm the law here.' He has a pet monkey that sits on his lap and sleeps with him. He has a hat with a skull on top of it to make him appear important to the natives. They all glisten with sweat too, topless black men who carry blazing torches and wear headdresses, war paint and necklaces of teeth. Their leader is a wizened cripple whom they carry about. Flint does magic tricks with fire to impress them, when sugar cubes aren't enough, and to reassert his dominance.

I mention all this detail because it provides a texture that is unmatched in cinema, engrossingly exotic. The only thing as omnipresent as the sweat is the sound of the drums. This is nowhere we've seen before, intoxicating swamp country with alligators and salamanders and a way of life we can only imagine. Perhaps most importantly, Flint has become part of this world, not just by being tough enough to survive in it, as Gable and Harlow were in Red Dust, but by becoming an intrinsic part of the scenery. He's not just Deadlegs Flint, he's Big Boss Flint and King Flint. He's infiltrated himself into the mythology of the natives. Just as Flint was surely influenced by Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, so the film itself was surely influenced by the Congo river and the descriptions Conrad used in his story. One I don't remember precisely compared jungle humidity to walking through an emptied fishtank. That returns to me every time I watch Kongo.

As much as he reeks of sweat, Flint also reeks of vengeance. He burns for revenge against 'the man who stole my wife, the man who kicked my spine in, the man who sneered.' He measures the passage of time only against what Gregg Whitehall did to him and what he'll do to redress the balance. Everything is part of his plan: his presence here in the jungle, his elevation to god status over the superstitious natives, the eighty mile juju circle he's enforced around him that no other trader can enter without his permission. Thus has he existed for so long with little white company: only a pair of assistants, the cowardly Cookie Harris and a big tattooed brute called Hogan, and a sex slave maid named Tula, Lupe Velez infinitely more exotic here than she ever was as the Mexican Spitfire. Having already proven his brutality in many ways, this plan proves his diabolical patience.

You see, Whitehall has a daughter, who grew up in a convent, and it's through her that he plans to get to her father. Viewers of precodes generally tend to be shocked, not at the content of the films which is tame compared to today, but that such content could be in films so old. Used only to code-era Hollywood films, precodes are glimpses into a time when the cinematic rules they're used to simply didn't apply. Kongo is a film that makes precode fans gasp with astonishment, as Deadlegs Flint descends to depths that seem utterly out of place in black and white yet are all the more powerful for it. So Flint has Hogan kidnap Ann Whitehall from the convent to establish instead in a Zanzibar brothel. After a time, he has her brought into the juju circle, where he has her eat scraps from the floor and drink tainted water. He keeps her drunk and bedraggled. When she comes down with malignant black fever, he gives her brandy to feed her delirium.
This is all astounding to watch, all the more because Ann Whitehall is played by Virginia Bruce, an elegant classic Hollywood leading lady, one of the original Goldwyn Girls who had just wed silent legend John Gilbert. Seeing her tormented and degraded here is as shocking as realising that the Jennifer Connolly doing lesbian sex shows in Requiem for a Dream is the same Jennifer Connolly that made Labyrinth. They reach the same depths, as when Ann Whitehall talks back to Flint, he throws her in a room and has Hogan rape her, but the realisation that this is 1932 is world shaking. Early hints at Flint's brutality, such as when he shoots a native for overhearing a conversation then has him hung up as a warning to all blacks, aren't preparation enough. Yet it all plays consistently with the tone of the film. Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Flint has found a kinship with the jungle and descended into a savage and aggressive brutality.

The natives are superstitious souls who Flint feeds with cheap carnival tricks, like decapitating Tula and having her severed head speak, but they're already one with the jungle setting. White men don't manage so well unless they embrace that the way Flint and Tula have. When another white man arrives, twitching and swaying like he has an army of ants all over him, we see what happens if they fight it. He's both a doctor and a dope addict. 'My name's Kingsland and I'm a mess,' is his introduction. Flint has him work on his crippled legs to relieve his pain in return for byang root, the drug that he's addicted to, but Ann brings him out of that dependence. He finds purpose in her salvation, but this story doesn't let anything be that simple. Tula hooks him again with her seductive powers and when he stops Flint twisting her tongue with wire in punishment, Flint cuts him, ties him up and dumps him in the swamp for the leeches to bleed clean.

And so the story runs until the blisteringly brutal ending, which I won't spoil but is as much a kick in the gut as any twist in any movie. The ramifications of it are soul destroying and yet there's a chance for as much redemption as anyone who's seen a Lon Chaney story arc can expect. It all fits the same themes of cruelty and sacrifice that Chaney mined so well and so often that it isn't surprising to watch him tell the same story in West of Zanzibar, but Walter Huston owns the role. Watching him ratchet up the intensity level to degrees that Chaney never considered, I'm always stunned at what he achieved here, but he was a star in the precode days for a reason, deep and versatile in his explorations of morality. He's vibrant, brutal, driven. When Kingsland operates on him without anaesthetic, he just lies there and chomps his cigar. When Ann asks him, 'How did the Almighty ever allow a man like you on this earth?' he's already been led him to face that too.

He has able support, not only from Velez and Bruce, but from Conrad Nagel as Dr Kingsland, who deliberately and appropriately overacts when he's stoned. The overdone acting fits the material in ways that is rarely the case. Bruce overacts too, but she's playing a woman deliberately driven to the depths who nonetheless manages to keep something human inside and must concentrate to keep it there. Velez is purest exotica, a gorgeous vision of a primitive beast, as are the natives whose voodoo religion expects them to burn widows alive as the moon rises. Such atmosphere is rare and in my opinion, has never been matched. The textures are such that we feel the rain, the swamp, the sweat, the addiction, the death drums, the masks, the animal magnetism, even the pidgin English. Cinema never got closer to the worlds that Robert E Howard conjured up for the pulps and even the precodes outdid this perhaps only with Freaks. Even then it's a close call.

Monday 4 July 2011

Midnight Alibi (1934)

Director: Alan Crosland
Star: Richard Barthelmess

Richard Barthelmess is one of the forgotten greats of Hollywood and while he made a few more films, including a late and great turn as Rita Hayworth's screen husband in Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings, Midnight Alibi effectively marked the end of a great career, because Warner Brothers did not renew his contract. Throughout the precode era, he had enjoyed a fixed annual salary and the ability to choose his own material. With such freedom, he served as the screen's preeminent social conscience, making powerful message films railing against the corruption of government, society and business like The Finger Points, Son of the Gods and Heroes for Sale, along with cinematic visions as powerful as The Dawn Patrol and The Last Flight. None of that meant much to Warner Brothers, who felt it financially imperative that they shed expensive contracts like his or Ruth Chatterton's. When they came up for renewal, they simply didn't renew them.

That's fair enough, though sad for us in hindsight. What isn't fair is that they gave Barthelmess such a half baked sendoff after a unique career. Based on a Damon Runyan story called The Old Doll's House, Midnight Alibi is a scant 58 minutes short and it doesn't feel remotely as cared for as any previous Barthelmess picture. It feels like a vaguely ignored afterthought, what the music industry calls 'contractual obligations', one that rambles across what seems like every genre in the book in a vain hope to find one that sticks. It really shouldn't be worth watching and you can be sure that it fails on a grand scale, but there's still much for us to see because Barthelmess is an almost constant presence and there's Helen Chandler to look forward to as well, another unjustly forgotten name who gifted precode audiences with a string of magnificent performances that go well beyond her turn as Mina in the Béla Lugosi version of Dracula.

It begins as a thriller, Barthelmess playing Lance McGowan, some sort of crime boss who returns from abroad on the noon boat. His importance can be gauged through everyone in town knowing of his return, from senators to drunks who put their heads through doors for ten bucks. He's calm though, carrying himself with purpose, but politely chatting up a fellow passenger, Joan Morley, who he met on the boat. His men tell him that Angie the Ox is the head honcho now, running his illegal empire from the Hummingbird Club. It isn't surprising to find that Joan is Angie's kid sister. So McGowan starts taking on the Ox by showing up at his underground gambling halls, exuding so much presence that the folks running the games let him win, even when he rolls dice under a hat. Eventually, of course, he ends up at the Hummingbird, though he's been warned not to. The ensuing battle leaves him leaping over the wall to the Old Doll's House next door to escape.

And here all the momentum the film has built is promptly stopped in its tracks. Thus far it's sped along with a dynamic lead, a morally ambiguous antihero with a suitable mob. There's conflict everywhere you look, with hints of turf war and dangerous romance. It's dynamic and powerful. Well, it was. Now we leave that entirely behind so that Abigail Ardsley, the Old Doll who has lived alone in this house for decades, tells him a story about her youth because he looks like someone she loved long ago. We experience this story in flashback, with Helen Chandler turning eighteen as her ethereal younger self and Barthelmess as her father's clerk, Robert Anders. The pair are in love and want to marry, but her father won't have any of it. After discovering them mid-kiss, he casts Robert out and, when he comes back that night to ask her to elope, he shoots him dead. That's this film all over: every time a story begins it promptly ends again.

Barthelmess reminds a little of Brando in the first half and Patrick MacGoohan in the second. He's much better as the tough guy, because he had a serious presence to him that commanded our attention, even though he was hardly what you'd expect in a dynamic leading man. He was short, though a little taller than Cagney or Robinson, but wasn't as striking as either. Lillian Gish thought he had the most beautiful face of any Hollywood actor, but somehow he appeared both inconsequential and utterly deserving of our attention. He's too soft in the romantic scenes here, in which Helen Chandler dominates. She had a nervous sort of energy about her that makes it difficult to watch anyone else when she's on screen, even when playing opposite someone else with the same sort of magnetism. She's wonderful here, but she and Barthelmess were both better in The Last Flight.

Having changed from a thriller to a historical drama, now it becomes a romance as we return to the Lance and Joan subplot, but compared to Helen Chandler Ann Dvorak isn't much to look at and she's too melodramatic for us to care. Lance McGowan decides to be both tough and soppy. He goes back to Angie's place unarmed on a dangerous mission to forge a future and he goes back to the Old Doll to take her a dog. After all, she never talked to her father again and her door stayed unlocked for 45 years until he walked through it, so he wants her to have some company. Actually he brings her a bunch of dogs so she can pick one. She chooses a wire haired terrier, because it is 1934 after all. He calls it Skippy, which was the real name of Asta, to which name it changed after The Thin Man, which was released about six weeks earlier than this film. And then it becomes a melodrama, a courtroom story and of course a folk tale with a happy ending.

This film has everything, but most of it isn't that substantial. The story is riddled with holes, not something Damon Runyon was known for so perhaps we can blame Warren Duff's screenplay, or the restrictions of length the film was subjected to. At less than an hour, it can't even effectively explore one story, let alone half a dozen. What we can watch are the actors who give it what life it has, not just Barthelmess and Chandler but Helen Lowell, who plays the Old Doll. Already 68, this was surprisingly close to the beginning of her screen career rather than the end. She'd made five silent films between 1919 and 1924 but proceeded to hit 1934 with a vengeance, making no less than seven in that year alone. She'd make another nineteen before she died in 1937. She's well worth watching. While the explanation of the title is hardly surprising by the time it arrives, it's a touching moment that she carries well.

At the end of the day, the film is more important for what it represents than what it contains. It's the last film Richard Barthelmess made under his First National contract, which had transferred to Warner Brothers when they bought that company. Without the control that contract gave him, he made a couple of B movies then retired to live off his real estate investments. He returned for Only Angels Have Wings and three more pictures in the early forties, but that was it for a career that had flourished for a decade and a half. Fortunately he made a lot of movies in that time and we can look back at many of them, including three famous pictures. It was when D W Griffith cast him in two great leading roles opposite Lillian Gish, in 1919's Broken Blossoms and 1920's Way Down East, that he became a star. A third film, Tol'able David, made for his own production company, cemented a stellar career which didn't founder until here. This was the end of an era.