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 clich├ęd 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.