Monday 19 February 2024

The Killers (1964)

Director: Donald Siegel
Writer: Gene L. Coon, based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway
Stars: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Clu Gulager, Claude Akins, Norman Fell and Ronald Reagan

Index: 2024 Centennials.

I was surprised to find that I hadn’t seen The Killers, at least in this incarnation, the 1964 feature by Donald Siegel, not yet to shrink that into Don. It started out as a short story by Ernest Hemingway, originally published in 1927, which was set in Chicago during a peak era for organised crime: prohibition. It’s about a couple of hitmen, Max and Al, who arrive at Henry’s Lunch-Room to murder a Swedish boxer called Ole Anderson, only to find that he isn’t there. It’s an interesting story, because Anderson doesn’t die within it; instead Hemingway focuses on the responses of the various characters to the knowledge that he’s about to. It’s been adapted to screen many times, most notably by Anthony Veiller in 1946 in a version that I have seen and rate very highly indeed as one of the best films noir Hollywood ever made. That version is far more cinematic than the painful wait of the story, with the hit happening first and the story behind it unfolding in flashback, giving a debuting Burt Lancaster plenty of screen time as Anderson.

This later version updates that one, keeping the hit at the start and the story behind it in flashback, but with the two hitmen as the reasons why the story is told. In 1946, that was done by Edmund O’Brien as an insurance investigator called Jim Reardon; here, it’s the killers who mount an investigation because one of them is puzzled by why his victim was completely resigned to his imminent demise. As the names have all been changed and the timeframe was updated to the sixties, the killers are now Charlie and Lee and the victim is Jerry Nichols. Charlie recognises him as Johnny North, a former race car champion who supposedly pulled off a heist of a mail truck that netted him a million bucks, so he starts to wonder about why they were paid well above the typical rate for the hit and where that money went, given that whoever hired them didn’t care. Thus the investigation, which unfolds chronologically within the contemporary scenes, while the back story fleshes out through the memories of the characters that they interview.

Saturday 3 February 2024

The Marriage Circle (1924)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writer: Paul Bern, based on the play Only a Dream by Lothar Schmidt
Stars: Monte Blue, Florence Vidor, Creighton Hale, Adolphe Menjou, Marie Prevost, harry Myers and Dale Fuller

There must have been something in the air in early 1924, because two out of the first four films have been outright comedies that verge on the screwball. Finances of the Grand Duke was directed by an unlikely German, F. W. Murnau, but The Marriage Circle by a far more likely one, Ernst Lubitsch, though this was a Hollywood feature, his second after 1923’s Rosita.

He made that while under contract to Mary Pickford but, while the film was a success with both the critics and the public, they clashed in production enough that he was able to sign to a Warner Brothers contract instead, one that unusually allowed him complete creative and casting control.

Whatever reasons Jack Warner had for that, it worked, because this is a treat of a comedy. Yes, we ache to slap some sense into Dr. Franz Braun for most of the running time, but that’s fine. If he had the requisite amount of sense to begin with, this would be a five minute short.

We’re in Vienna, which an introductory title confidently tells us is “the city of laughter and light romance”. There’s laughter and romance in this film, but not so much as we might think for a comedy about relationships. We’re doing all the laughing while the characters get into more and more outrageous misconceptions.

Thursday 25 January 2024

The Song of Bernadette (1943)

Director: Henry King
Writer: George Seaton, from the novel by Franz Werfel
Stars: William Eythe, Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Lee J. Cobb, Gladys Cooper and Jennifer Jones

Index: The First Thirty.

After eight pictures in just over three years, Vincent Price took a break from the big screen to bring a play, Gas Light, to Broadway as Angel Street, playing the lead for three years in what was a surprisingly long run for a non-musical.

If not following up with a part in the seven times Oscar nominated American film version in 1944 might seem like a lost opportunity, it’s fair to say that he did pretty well returning in this film, which landed eight nominations and three wins, including Best Actress for a very deserving Jennifer Jones.

It’s another historical film, this one an epic hagiography that lasted two and a half hours, all the better to underline how well Jones was able to endow the lead character with holiness and innocence. It’s very Hollywood innocence, but Jones bolstered the pale and beautiful waif trope with quiet and consistent strength. It’s a bravado performance and it’s easy to buy into what she’s selling.

What she’s selling, of course, is Christianity, in particular, Roman Catholicism, a persistent enemy of Hollywood. The National Legion of Decency, a powerful Catholic lobbyist group, famously warned churchgoers away from long lists of morally depraved films. This is exactly the sort of picture they hoped would be made after the imposition of the Production Code.

It’s the true story of Bernadette Soubirous, the young French peasant girl who saw visions of the Immaculate Conception in the grotto at Massabielle, outside the town of Lourdes, and followed her instructions, one of which was to wash herself in a non-existent spring, which promptly bubbled into existence and proved to have healing powers.

Monday 22 January 2024

Hudson’s Bay (1940)

Director: Irving Pichel
Writer: Lamar Trotti, based on incidents from the life of Pierre Esprit Radisson
Stars: Paul Muni, Gene Tierney, Laird Cregar, John Sutton, Virginia Field, Vincent Price and Nigel Bruce

Index: The First Thirty.

This is an odd movie because it’s Hollywood tackling history again and it feels every bit as inaccurate as ever, but, for the most part, it’s surprisingly accurate. Now, I never met Pierre Esprit Radisson, who died centuries before I’d even become a gleam in my father’s eye, but it feels like Paul Muni’s portrayal is pure fiction. Apparently, it isn’t, though his interpretation can be debated by the historians.

Maybe one reason why the film feels wrong is because it starts out with O Canada, which is a little out of place, given that it’s 1667 and it’s New France. O Canada was written in 1880 and didn’t become Canada’s national anthem until as late as 1980. OK, let’s let that slide and leap headlong into swashbuckler territory!

And yes, that’s how it feels when Paul Muni, as Radisson, and Laird Cregar, as his brother-in-law, Gooseberry, waltz into the government house in Albany. They’re fur trappers and the French governor doesn’t want to know about their plan to trade with the Native Americans around Hudson’s Bay, so they’re coming south to talk with the British. They have no interest either and promptly lock them up.

However, their outrageous French Canadian accents combine with their carefree attitudes and their quickness with fists to set this up as a belated colonial sequel to The Adventures of Robin Hood. Gooseberry is very Little John and his purloined jail cell key trick is an animated Disney adaptation special.

Saturday 20 January 2024

Wild Oranges (1924)

Director: King Vidor
Writer: King Vidor, based on a story by Joseph Hergesheimer, with titles by Tom Miranda
Stars: Frank Mayo, Virginia Valli, Ford Sterling and Nigel deBrulier

In 1922, a poll of Literary Digest critics had the “most important American writer” be one Joseph Hergesheimer. Hollywood leapt at his work, this following Java Head and The Bright Shawl in 1923. However, he was known for his descriptive writing rather than plotting and that doesn’t make him an easy writer to adapt.

I’m eager to dive into his descriptions for Wild Oranges, set by a dilapidated plantation house somewhere on the Georgia coast where one scared man and his granddaughter live, plagued by a huge man-child. This is a glorious location to set a descriptive novella, but it’s a difficult job to turn into production design.

However, there’s little else here. Outside of a brief prologue, we spend our entire time at this house or in the water around it to watch only five characters play their parts in a story that we could have written ourselves from the five minute mark.

That’s excluding John Woolfolk’s bride in a brief prologue. These newlyweds are driving a horse-drawn carriage into the new world of married bliss when a newspaper blows across the road and panics the horses. The unnamed Mrs. Woolfolk is thrown from the carriage at a corner and dies immediately. So distraught is her husband that he aims to forget the world by sailing it on his yacht with Paul Halvard, a cook and sailor his only companion. The pulpy title cards by Tom Miranda call it “a haven of solitude upon the vast wastes of the sea.”

We find that out as they’re dropping anchor in this inlet on the Georgian coast, but it looks more like the Island of Dr. Moreau because an array of scared people with faces designed for the movies see them and stare in horror.

Friday 19 January 2024

Brigham Young (1940)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writer: Michael Wilson, from the book by L. C. Moyzisch
Stars: James Mason, Danielle Darrieux and Michael Rennie

Index: 2017 Centennials.

At what point, I wonder, do spoilers come into play when covering a film based on historical fact? Well, my mindset these days was forged by a theatrical viewing of Public Enemies, at which I was shocked at the audible shock of one audience member when Johnny Depp’s character was killed. Yes, that’s public enemy number one John Dillinger, who was shot and killed by special agents in 1934. If American audience members can be blissfully unaware of such a historic American event, are they likely to know much about, say, espionage in Turkey during World War II? Probably not, so I’ll be careful here, though I have to highlight that this film, while based on a memoir, isn’t remotely as true as the ballsy opening scene might suggest. Rather than merely plaster the usual ‘this is a true story’ onto the screen, we’re also placed inside the House of Commons, as an MP asks if the book, Operation Cicero, is factual. The reply? ‘It must be regretfully admitted that, in substance, the story to which the honourable member refers is a true one.’

In a nutshell, this story involved a man selling a substantial amount of British secrets to the Nazis for cash. In reality, his name was Elyesa Bazna, a Turkish man of Albanian descent, who worked as valet to Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, the British Ambassador to Turkey. The latter had a habit of taking secret documents home, in a dispatch box, and Bazna’s locksmithing skills allowed him to open this and photograph them. In late 1943, he contacted L. C. Moyzisch at the German Embassy in Ankara, and sold him a first batch of pictures. Given the codename of Cicero, he continued to do this for some months. Eventually the British discovered the leak and investigated, even mounting a sting operation that failed. However, the pressure was mounting and Cicero decided that it was time to quit. He stopped selling information in February 1944 and left the embassy in April. What’s wild is that the Nazis failed to act on any of this important information, not trusting it, and the British failed to catch Bazna.

Wednesday 17 January 2024

The House of the Seven Gables (1940)

Director: Joe May
Writer: Harold Greene, based on a story by Lester Cole, in turn based on the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Stars: George Sanders, Margaret Lindsey, Vincent Price, Dick Foran, Nan Grey, Cecil Kellaway and Alan Napier

Index: The First Thirty.

Universal continued to try out new genres for Vincent Price. From comedy to historical, from sci-fi horror to jungle adventure, here’s a gothic drama loosely based on the classic 1851 novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I’ve seen this before and relatively recently, but I found that I liked it more on a second viewing.

It changes the book, but it’s closer than the average Hollywood adaptation and adheres to its spirit. The two largest changes are a shift from revelatory flashbacks to a chronological approach that fits a ninety minute feature and a new romantic angle between two of the lead characters, which works surprisingly well.

The former means that we learn the history behind the Pyncheons from moment one. Back in the 17th century, Col. Jaffrey Pyncheon, an important colonial government leader, stole the land of Matthew Maule by accusing him of witchcraft. He’s hanged, of course, but curses Pyncheon, who’s found dead in the mansion he builds on Maule’s land, a day after moving in. Maule’s curse continues down the years.

Fast forward to the 19th century and Seven Gables is still in the Pyncheon family. Now it’s the colonel’s great-grandson Gerald who rules the roost, with three more Pyncheons present: his two sons, Jaffrey and Clifford, and a cousin of theirs, Hepzibah.

This new Jaffrey, to whom George Sanders is able to endow a suitably slimy demeanour, is starting his career as a lawyer. Clifford, whom Price initially plays in a very light manner, is a budding composer very much in love with his cousin, who, in the form of Margaret Lindsey, happily returns all his affections. This is a new romantic angle, because Clifford and Hepzibah were brother and sister in the book.

Tuesday 16 January 2024

The Brute (1953)

Director: Luis Buñuel
Writers: Luis Alcoriza and Luis Buñuel, based on a story by Luis Buñuel
Stars: Pedro Armendáriz, Katy Jurado, Rosita Arenas and Andrés Soler

Index: 2024 Centennials.

Any opportunity I can get to watch a Luis Buñuel movie I’ll happily take and here’s one from his Mexican period that’s new to me. I know his early work as a surrealist, working with Salvador Dalí on films like Un Chien Andalou—yes, the one with the eyeball slice—and much of his later award-winning work, including The Exterminating Angel which I absolutely adore. However, it’s his mid-period work in Mexico that I tend to appreciate most, especially his exquisitely written melodramas that somehow avoid those scenes we all know were written specifically to win awards for actors. This may not have the depth of Los Olvidados, but it’s a tough story with some highly memorable characters, not only El Bruto himself, played by Pedro Armendáriz, one of the pivotal Latino actors of any country in the forties and fifties; but also Andrés Soler, one of the great Mexican actors from the era; and our first centenarian for 2024, Katy Jurado, who plays a real piece of work here who is responsible for most of what happens in the film.

She may not be responsible for the initial plot device, which is a landlord telling the tenants of a block of flats he owns that they’re all being evicted. He’s Andrés Cabrera, clearly a well off gentleman but one eager to get the 150,000 pesos he’s been offered for the land the flats sit on, which doesn’t make the news any easier for his tenants. Times are hard, not so much that they can’t pay their rent but enough that they struggle to make ends meet otherwise, the diet being whatever they can afford and their health affected by whether they can pay for medicine or not. So they resist, a quartet of brave tenants speaking for them all when they dismiss the eviction notice and say that they’ll fight to stay. Given that the movie is called The Brute, it’s not hard to see that them standing up for their rights or even just what they perceive might be their rights will be dangerous. Señor Cabrera gives them twenty days. It’s pretty clear that they’ll ignore it.

Sunday 14 January 2024

Green Hell (1940)

Director: James Whale
Writer: Frances Marion
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Bennett, John Howard, Alan Hale, George Bancroft, Vincent Price, Gene Garrick and George Sanders

Index: The First Thirty.

I had no idea what Green Hell was going into it, except that I thought it was a war movie. It isn’t. It’s a jungle adventure yarn, set in South America, and the names behind it bode well. It isn’t just the stars, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. top billed, Joan Bennett as the female lead and George Sanders listed separately. It’s also the crew: James Whale as director, flying solo for the last time; Frances Marion as writer, with a pair of Oscar wins behind her; and Karl Freund as cinematographer, my favourite such from the classic era.

The bad news is that it’s really not the best work of anyone involved. On the other hand, the good news is that it’s not without its joys, especially early on.

Vincent Price actually starts us off, as David Richardson, clad in a white suit and in search of Dr. Loren in a crowded South American bar. That’s Alan Hale and he’s got Forrester there with him too, a total lech in the able form of George Sanders. They’re putting an expedition together to seek Incan treasure in the jungle. Outside, in a vain attempt to fight off flower girls, is expedition leader Keith Brandon, in the able form of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

It’ll take a year, maybe two, but Richardson says that he has nobody, even if he makes sure to bid someone farewell before leaving, telling them that he loves them. This seems odd but it becomes odder when they start up a river and he asks a colleague if it’s possible to love two women simultaneously, think yourself faithful to each and yet still ache to be free.

Thursday 11 January 2024

The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Director: Joe May
Writers: Lester Cole and Kurt Siodmak, from a story by Joe May and Kurt Siodmak, a sequel to The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells
Stars: Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price, Nan Grey, John Sutton, Cecil Kellaway and John Napier

Index: The First Thirty.

I thought I’d seen all the original Universal horror movies, but this may be an exception. It’s also a lot better than I expected it to be, in most part due to an intelligent script by Curt Siodmak, going by Kurt here. He had written a number of scripts back in Germany, including Menschen am Sonntag, but would become more known for his horror movies, such as The Wolf Man, I Walked with a Zombie and Donovan’s Brain, the latter of which was based on his novel.

For a start, he didn’t let us see the Invisible Man too quickly. And yes, that’s a pun. It’s not the only one you’ll read because the picture is full of them. But we hear much about Geoffrey Radcliffe before he shows up.

Initially, he’s on death row, two hours away from being executed for murder. He’s visited by Dr. Frank Griffin, brother to Claude Rains’s character in The Invisible Man, here named as John Griffin. And, when the officials come for him, he’s gone. There were two guards in the room and Geoffrey talked with them after the doctor had left. Then he walked round the cell and disappeared. His clothes are right there on the floor.

Of course, we know what happened, so we’ll not be shocked when we see the effects of an invisible man walking into the woods to dress from a deliberately placed suitcase. We know his presence by now.