Monday 18 February 2019

I Died a Thousand Times (1955)

Director: Stuart Heisler
Writer: W. R. Burnett, from his novel, High Sierra
Stars: Jack Palance, Shelley Winters, Lori Nelson, Lee Marvin and Gonzalez Gonzalez

Index: 2019 Centennials.

One of the most common complaints about Hollywood nowadays is that every movie they release seems to be a remake, a sequel or a reboot. As I write, Alita: Battle Angel, an American remake of a Japanese anime, is at the top of the box office, and The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, the fourth film in a franchise based on a toy, is in second place in its second week. The highest grossing film on the list, Glass, with $104.6m to its credit in five weeks, is the third in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable trilogy. However, remakes and sequels are hardly new concepts and many would be surprised at just how prevalent this sort of behaviour has always been. Case in point: I Died a Thousand Times might appear to be an original picture with an impressive cast, but it’s actually the third adaptation of a novel, High Sierra, to the big screen. The novelist, W. R. Burnett, wrote the screenplay for the first in 1941 (with John Huston) and returned to do a very similar job on this one in 1955. The director of the first, Raoul Walsh, also directed the second in 1949.

While sequels need their own justification, there have been plenty of historical reasons to remake movies because the industry has rarely stood still and the times have always been a-changin’. When Walsh made High Sierra in 1941, he did so using a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio in black and white, as was the norm at the time. When Burnett returned to rewrite his script only fourteen years later, the resulting film was shot in CinemaScope and WarnerColor. It looks completely different and much more appropriate, given that it’s set in the countryside around Mount Whitney, the highest peak in California, and colour and widescreen help with that a great deal. Back in 1941, High Sierra, by comparison, looks best in its indoor scenes with criminals arguing and planning. Each, however, told the same story and in a very similar way, right down to dialogue and choreography. They’re gangster films; the version made in between them, Colorado Territory, was, at least, a western, the story translated to that of an outlaw sprung from jail to rob a train.

Tuesday 12 February 2019

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

Director: Val Guest
Writer: Nigel Kneale, from his own screenplay for The Creature
Stars: Forrest Tucker and Peter Cushing

Index: 2019 Centennials.

I’m personally valuing my centennial review choices not only because they allow me to discover new favourites through research but also because they allow me to revisit old friends in much better circumstances. For instance, I’ve seen The Abominable Snowman before, but not in the last three decades and not in pristine Hammerscope. I probably last saw it as a teenager on a small black and white television, emphatically not the best way to see anything. Then again, Nigel Kneale based his script on a screenplay that he’d written for The Creature, a 1955 episode of BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, that nobody, as far as we know, has ever seen on anything but a small black and white television. That’s because it was broadcast live from Lime Grove Studios, with a repeat four days later, also broadcast live. No recording is known to exist and one may not have been made, though some similar broadcasts around this time were telerecorded and the oldest to survive, the first two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment, were written by Nigel Kneale.

Like The Quatermass Experiment, The Creature was produced and directed by Rudolph Cartier, who worked with Kneale often; they’d made three serials about Prof. Bernard Quatermass and a 1954 adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Television was primitive back in the early to mid fifties but Cartier and Kneale kept pushing the envelope forward. The Quatermass Experiment, in 1953, was the first original British science fiction show produced for adults. Nineteen Eighty-Four was accompanied by a live orchestra performing one studio over, watching the production as they played on a closed-circuit screen; questions were asked in Parliament about whether the BBC should broadcast such “horrific”, “subversive” material, and on a Sunday no less. The Creature brought the outdoors into the studio with a great deal of exterior footage previously shot in the Alps being projected behind the actors. Quatermass II in 1955 also benefitted from some filming on location and was telerecorded onto 35mm film, so that it could be easily re-broadcast.

Thursday 7 February 2019

I’ve Lived Before (1956)

Director: Richard Bartlett
Writers: Norman Jolley and William Talman
Stars: Jock Mahoney, Leigh Snowden. Ann Harding and John McIntire

Index: 2019 Centennials.

I often talk about other people when writing centennial reviews, because I select them for more reasons than just the person born a hundred years earlier. Usually, however, they’re other actors in the film or they’re in the crew that made it: a writer, a producer or a director, maybe even a cinematographer or composer. Here, the key person to talk about wasn’t involved at all and I can’t be sure that she even saw this feature. Her name was Bridie Murphy Corkell and she died a year later, having become the centre of a rather bizarre storm that, even more bizarrely, hasn’t quite dissipated yet. For our purposes, her story began in Pueblo, CO, in 1952, even though she wasn’t there either. A housewife called Virginia Tighe was and she was being placed into hypnotic regression by a local businessman called Morey Bernstein, who conjured up the bright idea to take her memories back further than her childhood. The result was that Tighe recounted, vividly and lucidly, her previous life as Bridey Murphy, born in Cork in Ireland in 1798.

While Mrs. Tighe didn’t capitalise on this, insisting that her name be kept private—she became Ruth Simmons to posterity—Morey Bernstein did. He quickly went to the press and William J. Barker published a string of articles in The Denver Post in 1954. Two years later, Doubleday published Bernstein’s book on the subject, The Search for Bridey Murphy, which became a bestseller and a sensation of epic proportions. Naturally, given that the story even prompted Bridey Murphy “come as you were” parties, Hollywood rapidly took notice, adapting the book into a Paramount film, also titled The Search for Bridey Murphy and starring Teresa Wright and Louis Hayward. Just as naturally, there was a rapidly rushed into production knock-off, albeit one rather less exploitative in tone than an Asylum production nowadays. I’ve Lived Before was a Universal picture about the buzzword of the day, reincarnation, but it doesn’t mention Bridey Murphy even once. However, it was still just as clearly a product of her phenomenon as the official adaptation.

Tuesday 5 February 2019

The Big Circus (1959)

Director: Joseph M. Newman
Writer: Irwin Allen & Charles Bennett and Irving Wallace, based on a story by Irwin Allen
Stars: Victor Mature, Red Buttons, Rhonda Fleming, Kathryn Grant, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, David Nelson, Steve Allen and Gilbert Roland

Index: 2019 Centennials.

Oh hey, that’s a big screen! Irwin Allen’s attempt to bring what ringmaster Vincent Price calls “a spectacle of unparalleled beauty” to our eyeballs was done in TechniColor and CinemaScope and it looks huge. It takes all of ten seconds to dwarf Price in one of the rings of a immense circus tent; he’s so tiny that we wouldn’t have a clue who he was if it wasn’t for his instantly recognisable voice. He’s Hans Hagenfeld and this is not his story, as important a star as Price was in 1959; he made this in between House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler. In fact, the story here frankly doesn’t matter because it’s good old fashioned Hollywood hokum, crammed full of pointless romances, ridiculous plot devices and transparent mysteries; what isn’t entirely stupid was lifted directly from Cecil B. DeMille’s Academy Award-winning The Greatest Show on Earth, made seven years earlier. What matters is the spectacle, because the movie is as gaudy and outrageous and enjoyable as any circus and, arguably, that’s why, as bad as it is, it works so well.

Of course, times have changed since 1959 and I’m not only referring to the lyrics of the clichéd musical theme song number which suggest that, “There’s nothing as gay as a day at the circus with you.” Circuses were still big in the fifties and this one comes fitted with all of the reasons why they’re not still big today: there’s a lion act in which the big cats don’t look particularly comfortable, an array of elephants painted from trunk to tail in different colours and a slapstick routine with clowns that’s taken straight from the Keystone Kops playbook. Nowadays, we like our lions and elephants to roam free and our clowns to be kept far away from our kids because, after Stephen King’s It, every damn one of them’s scared silly whenever they see one. To a child of the 21st century, this will be as old fashioned as the Enid Blyton books I read in the seventies about kids running away to join the circus. To them, it’ll be a curiosity of a bygone era and their parents might find themselves having to explain more than they might believe.

Thursday 24 January 2019

Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966)

Director: Coleman Francis
Writer: Coleman Francis
Stars: Coleman Francis, Tony Cardoza, Harold Saunders and John Carradine

Index: 2019 Centennials.

Sometimes it’s easy to think that cinema is all about the celebrities, because they’re who get the press, but they’re just the surface and there are a thousand others below for each one above. Case in point: Coleman Francis, who would have been a hundred years old today. He never made it to celebrity status, though though he did find cult fame posthumously courtesy of the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000, which lampooned each of the three films he wrote and directed, as well as a couple of others in which he merely appeared. Take a good look at his filmography, though, and you’ll see that he connected all over the cult movie map. He acted for W. Lee Wilder, brother of Billy, in Killers from Space; Ray Dennis Steckler, in Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters (playing two separate roles); and Russ Meyer, in both Motorpsycho and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. He narrated Steckler’s The Thrill Killers, had a bit part in This Island Earth and appeared in two episodes of Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe. I’d like those credits!

Of course, most of those roles were so tiny as to be often uncredited. When he finally got a credit, for Stakeout on Dope Street, it was spelled wrong, and when he achieved a major role, it was in an exploitation film as inconsequential as 1959’s T-Bird Gang. What he will always be remembered for are the three features that he wrote and directed himself, features so bad that they underline once and for all how Ed Wood was not the worst filmmaker of all time. The first of these was The Beast of Yucca Flats, my go to choice for the worst film ever made. Certainly it has the weirdest stream of consciousness narration that I’ve ever heard, while Tor Johnson stumbles around the desert suffering from radiation burns and searching for a plot. That was 1961. Two years later, Francis made The Skydivers aka Fiend from Half Moon Bay, with a larger role for his producer, Tony Cardoza. Finally came Night Train to Mundo Fine aka Red Zone Cuba, shot in 1961 but not released until 1966 and the only one not to include his wife and kids in the cast.

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Our Man in Havana (1959)

Director: Carol Reed
Writer: Graham Greene, from his novel of the same name
Stars: Alec Guinness, Burl Ives, Maureen O'Hara, Ernie Kovacs, Noël Coward and Ralph Richardson

Index: 2019 Centennials.

As with House of Bamboo for Robert Stack, I couldn’t resist revisiting another fifties feature that I’ve previously covered for my next centennial review; this time, I’m remembering the pioneering American comedian, actor and writer, Ernie Kovacs, who was born a hundred years ago today in Trenton, NJ. While Kovacs only made a handful of films, just ten of them in the five year period before a car crash took his life in 1962, most would seem to be solid choices for this project. He competed against Jack Lemmon for the ladies in Operation Mad Ball and researched New York witches in Bell, Book and Candle. He tried to stymie Doris Day’s attempts to transport lobsters in It Happened to Jane and ran a backwater radar station in Japan in Wake Me When It’s Over. He worked to steal John Wayne’s gold mine in North to Alaska and played a memorable professional mourner in Five Golden Hours. However, none of those films had a fraction of the pedigree of this comedy, in which he played the polite but lethal Capt. Segura of the Cuban secret police.

Our Man in Havana began life in 1958 as a sardonic spy novel by the acclaimed British writer Graham Greene. It was the last of what he called his “entertainments”, which were popular thrillers as against “novels”, which were serious literary efforts, but it wasn’t entirely fictional. Greene had always been passionate about world travel, often visiting the sort of places that most didn’t: Mexico while it was being secularised; the leper colonies of the Congo Basin and the British Cameroons; and Haiti under the brutal rule of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. These travels led to his sister recruiting him into MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, in 1941, where his supervisor was Kim Philby, not yet revealed as a Soviet double agent. While working in counter-espionage, he learned about German agents in Portugal, such as “Garbo”, who created entirely fake reports in order to earn bonuses and generate expenses. He turned this into a film script, set in Estonia just before the Second World War, but it never reached production in that form.

Sunday 13 January 2019

House of Bamboo (1955)

Director: Samuel Fuller
Writer: Harry Kleiner with additional dialogue by Samuel Fuller
Stars: Robert Ryan, Robert Stack, Shirley Yamaguchi and Cameron Mitchell

Index: 2019 Centennials.

I’ve reviewed House of Bamboo before, but that was a decade ago and I felt that Robert Stack’s centennial was a good opportunity for me to revisit because I wasn’t as impressed with either his performance or the film as a whole as I expected to be. I enjoyed it much more second time through and I found additional appreciation by following up with the film that inspired it, 1948’s The Street with No Name. That was an old school film noir, shot in 4:3 and in black and white, with an overt message: that the FBI are damn good at what they do and they’re not happy about the return of organised gangsterism. I didn’t even know that “gangsterism” was a word, but, when it’s brought to life by a young Richard Widmark, it’s clearly something to be taken seriously! Two members of that film’s crew revisited it seven years later to reinterpret their work in rather different ways. That’s writer Harry Kleiner, who adapted his basic story to post-war Japan, and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, who expanded his vision into colour and widescreen.

Watching the two movies in succession is a real eye-opener. Kleiner didn’t merely change the names and locations in his story so it would praise the Japanese equivalent of the FBI instead; he reworked it completely to fit a new time and place and restructured the aspects that didn’t gel; the part played here by Shirley Yamaguchi, for instance, couldn’t be more different to the equivalent played by Barbara Lawrence in The Street with No Name. That it’s a better part is beside the point; what’s important is that it’s a much more appropriate part given the other changes made. MacDonald’s work benefits from technical differences. I’d call out his composition of frame and use of light and shadow in the earlier film, but this is something else entirely. House of Bamboo was shot in colour and in CinemaScope, which meant that MacDonald had fully twice as much screen to fill. He did so magnificently, with what critic Keith Uhlich correctly described in Slant as “some of the most stunning examples of widescreen photography in the history of cinema.”

Tuesday 1 January 2019

Noose (1948)

Director: Edmond T. Gréville
Writer: Richard Llewellyn, based on his play of the same name
Stars: Carole Landis, Derek Farr and Joseph Calleia

Index: 2019 Centennials.

Frances Lillian Mary Ridste, better known as Carole Landis, would have been one hundred years old today but, unlike a surprisingly high percentage of those I’ve been covering for my centennial reviews, she didn’t even come close: she committed suicide in 1948, shortly after completing her two final films in the UK. This was the first, released in September, a couple of months after her death in July; the other was The Brass Monkey, which came out in December. She crammed a great deal into her short life, though, starting out her show business career as a hula dancer in a San Francisco nightclub at the age of fifteen, hired only becuse the manager felt sorry for her. After all, she was the youngest of five children, whose father left after her birth, and her mother worked menial jobs to make ends meet. So, after she’d saved a hundred bucks doing her hula dance at the Royal Hawaiian or singing with a dance band, she changed her name to Carole Landis and moved to Hollywood. Carole was an homage to her favourite actress, Carole Lombard.

By the time she made her screen debut, in Gold Diggers of 1937 at the age of only seventeen, she’d already been married twice, to the same gentleman, Irving Wheeler, who had still already become history. The first wedding was in January 1934, when she was only fifteen and Wheeler nineteen, but her mother had it annulled a month later. After gaining permission from her absent father, who lived nearby, they were re-married in August, only for Carole to promptly walk out after three weeks. By the time she began a film career, that whole relationship was over, though neither filed for divorce and Wheeler re-emerged four years later with a $250,000 lawsuit against Busby Berkeley for alienation of affection. His wife had moved up in the world pretty quickly. Relationships weren’t a strong point though. Berkeley did propose but they never married. She did marry Willis Hunt, Jr., a yacht broker, in 1940 but left after two months. Her fourth and fifth marriages, to Capt. Thomas Wallace and W. Horace Schmidlapp, lasted under two years.