Monday, January 16, 2017

Interstellar (2014)

Director: Christopher Nolan                              Writers: Jonathan & Christopher Nolan
Film Score: Hans Zimmer                                 Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn

Ah yes, Christopher Nolan, a man who has a deft hand at visuals that could confidently be called impressive, combined with a congenitally defective sense of narrative and dialogue. Unfortunately, in his complete lack of understanding about how abjectly impoverished his writing is he’s not alone, and it won’t be long until the inability of the younger generation of writer-directors to understand narrative and what makes a good story is all that viewers will soon be left with. If you turned off the sound and simply watched Interstellar, you might think you were watching an Academy Award winning film. If you closed your eyes and simply listened, however, you’d swear you were screening a high school visual arts class project. It’s that bad. All of which makes assessing the film fairly challenging. It’s not a horrible film by any stretch, and it takes no effort to remain interested in the story--at least until the ending. But the screenplay, co-written by Nolan’s brother Jonathan undercuts the good parts of the film at every turn. The dialogue does absolutely nothing to develop the characters, as all of them remain two-dimensional throughout the entire film. It delivers no useful information to the viewer, leaving them a bit mystified as to all of the theoretical plot holes in the scientific underpinning of the story. And finally it’s so far-fetched as to render the entire exercise nearly pointless. But it sure is gorgeous to watch.

Matthew McConaughey is a former test pilot who was scrubbed from the space program when his plane went down. Now he lives on a farm in the Midwest as a widower with his father-in-law, John Lithgow, and his two kids. The time is the near future and while the world has ended warfare, a blight has destroyed all of the grain crops on earth except for corn. He hates farming, his son can’t get into college, his daughter has a poltergeist in her bedroom, and the earth is dying from lack of oxygen. Meanwhile dust storms come sweeping across the landscape every few days and get dirt everywhere. It’s not until McConaughey becomes interested in the poltergeist that things begin to happen. It turns out that the books being pulled off her shelves by invisible hands are an attempt to communicate using binary code. He figures out that the information is a location, and when they go their government agents capture them. It turns out, however, that the location is a secret space program run by Michael Caine designed to go into a worm hole near Saturn that can take astronauts to a distant galaxy to repopulate another planet from the dying Earth. Anne Hathaway is Caine’s daughter and they need McConaughey to fly the ship. It’s actually a little more interesting than it sounds.

But again, the visuals are the only interesting thing about the film, and even they have some problems. The Dust Bowl like conditions are wonderful to look at, but they can hardly be called original. And the space sequences seem oddly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jessica Chastain and Casey Afleck appear later as the older versions of McConaughey’s kids, and there are spiffy cameos by Ellen Burstyn and Matt Damon, who turns out to be nothing like his character in The Martian. The thing that’s so disappointing is how much could have been done with the idea, and how extravagantly it was squandered by Nolan. The project had originally been designed for Stephen Spielberg and, even though it had been written by Jonathan Nolan at that point, it’s difficult to believe that it would have made it to the screen without an extensive rewrite. One thing Spielberg is known for is the quality of the screenplays he works with. It’s troubling to read how many fans think this is one of the best films of all time, considering how incredibly bad the dialogue is, and that doesn’t bode well for the future. The actors do as well as they can, saddled with insipid dialogue that does nothing to give them any life. The whole thing is reminiscent of the philosophical drudgery of the 1936 film by H.G. Wells, Things to Come, in that it lacks anything resembling a story. While Interstellar has tension and suspense, and boasts some great actors working in visually compelling landscapes, ultimately it can’t overcome a crippling screenplay that never gets off the launch pad.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Director: Norman Jewison                                Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Film Score: Quincy Jones                                Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates and Lee Grant

In 1963 Sidney Poitier won the Academy Award for best actor in Lilies of the Field. It was the first time a black actor had won an Oscar for anything in twenty-five years. But clearly this was a token, as the Academy wouldn’t see fit to do it again for another twenty years when Lou Gossett Jr. won a supporting actor Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman in 1982. In the meantime, however, Poitier continued to star in powerful dramas like In the Heat of the Night that pointedly dealt with the black experience in America and the struggle blacks face every day to be afforded the same respect and dignity that whites give to each other as a matter of course. And looked at in that light it’s not surprising at all that the Academy ignored him during the rest of the sixties. The story began as a novel by John Ball from two years earlier that won an Edgar Award for best first novel. The idea is a brilliant one, a white police officer and a black one working together in the South almost against their wills, especially as it’s set against the Civil Rights movement of the mid-sixties. It’s easy to see why it struck a chord with audiences and went on to be nominated for seven Oscars and won five, including best picture of 1967 and best screenplay for Stirling Silliphant’s adaptation. Of course Sidney Poitier was completely ignored by the Academy. They would let him win for portraying a black man helping nuns to build a church, but not for playing a black man standing up for his rights as a human being in the American South.

The film begins with the unmistakable voice of Ray Charles singing the title song. A train pulls into a sleepy Southern town in Mississippi and deposits Sidney Poitier at the station. At the diner across town police officer Warren Oates is just finishing supper, but when he heads back out in his cruiser he finds Jack Teter dead in a downtown alley. Later a gum-chewing Rod Steiger shows up to take over the crime scene. Oates is sent out to check the train station and when he finds Poitier he arrests him immediately. Of course the cops try to intimidate him, and his refusal to be scared makes Steiger reconsider him ever so slightly. But he’s really taken aback when he learns that Poitier is a police officer in Philadelphia. The first good thing that happens is Steiger chews out Oates for not questioning Poitier, and after a call to his chief everything is straightened out. Except that when Steiger finds out he’s the number one homicide detective in the city, he actually floats the idea that maybe Poitier can help solve their murder for them. Against his better judgment--and since his train doesn’t leave until noon the next day--Poitier decides to do it. But that’s just the beginning of the hostilities. Poitier is used to acting like a cop, not a cowed black man in the Jim Crow South, and Steiger chafes at having to defend him. Even when Steiger wants him to quit the case, Poitier won’t back down.

It’s actually an interesting case that isn’t solved very easily. But the longer Poitier stays around, the more hidden Southern indiscretions he winds up uncovering, and he’s in a place where people are not going to sit still for a black man uncovering their secrets even with Steiger’s protection. There are two standout moments in the film, one obvious and the other less so. The first one is early on when Steiger gets irritated because he has a suspect and Poitier says he’s innocent. So when Steiger tries to make fun of his first name and asks what they call him up in Philadelphia he says, “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” The line is so good that it was used for the title of the misguided sequel three years later. The second comes near the end of the film when the two are over at Steiger’s house, and for a moment they forget that they’re enemies, just talking the way cops will. When Steiger talks about being lonely, and Poitier commiserates with him, suddenly Steiger frowns and says, “Don’t get smart, black boy. No pity, thank you.” In a time honored code of the South, blacks are not allowed to feel sorry for whites because it would mean that they are lower than blacks in some way. No matter how poor off a white person is, they still have to be seen in their own minds as better than blacks.

As good as Sidney Poitier is, and he is tremendous, Rod Steiger is magnificent as the redneck police chief who gradually has to concede that Poitier is good at his job and not only the equal but the better of his small police department. As a result, Steiger won an Oscar for his performance. Lee Grant, in a very small role, is the dead man’s wife and she was fortunate to be given such a realistic part instead of the clichéd writing that is usually foisted upon this type of character. William Schallert shows up as the mayor, and an impossibly young Matt Clark makes a surprise appearance later on. In the early seventies there were some incredibly good film scores for crime dramas that utilized soul and jazz music, but this isn’t one of them. Quincy Jones was ahead of the curve, perhaps, but even sixties scores like Bullitt by Lalo Schifrin were much better than this. Had he stayed with the blues sensibility that opened the film it could have been great, but as it stands the pre-Shaft music is lackluster by comparison. The two songs by Ray Charles are the only really memorable tunes. Other Oscars went to the sound design team and to Harold Ashby for his editing of the picture. But In the Heat of the Night will always be remembered best for capturing a particular time in this country’s social history, and offering the promise of hope amid the harsh realities of oppression.

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Director: Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly             Writers: Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Film Score: Lennie Hayton                               Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Starring: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor and Jean Hagen

One of the great shocks of watching Universal’s The Old Dark House from 1932 is when Melvyn Douglas, on the way to said house in a rain storm, starts crooning “Singin’ in the Rain.” But while the film of the same name wasn’t released until twenty years later, the song is originally from the MGM musical, The Hollywood Review of 1929. This makes sense because Singin’ in the Rain is set in the late twenties as Hollywood was converting from silent to sound films. The new musical sends up the whole studio system and--except for a lengthy, self-indulgent dance number by Gene Kelly at the end--it is an absolutely perfect screen musical. The film is the brainchild of MGM producer Arthur Freed who began working on musicals at the studio in 1929, and all of the songs were either written by him, and Nacio Herb Brown, or had been used in one of the many musicals he had worked on over the years. The production also used existing sets where they could, and costumes already in wardrobe, which fit perfectly with the film’s storyline. Nevertheless, as with most of MGM’s musicals there were cost overruns, especially filming the dance numbers. While the film wasn’t a huge hit at the time, it was a success, making a profit for the studio after going half a million dollars over budget in the course of production. All four principals do a tremendous job and while there were discussions about other to work with Kelly during pre-production, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in those roles.

The credits open on Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor singing the title song in yellow rain slickers and umbrellas behind the opening credits. The film proper begins at a grand premiere of the new silent film by movie stars Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen. Gossip columnist Madge Blake asks Kelly to tell his story and his studio publicity recitation is a wonderfully ironic counterpoint to the actual visuals. The vaudeville song and dance routine of “Fit as a Fiddle” is particularly good. He and O’Connor come to Hollywood with O’Connor playing piano and Kelly doing stunt work, then the studio head puts him in a leading role opposite Hagen. On stage after the premier one thing becomes clear, Kelly won’t let her get in a word edgewise. The reason: she has a horrible speaking voice. Trying to escape fans after the show, Kelly winds up in the car of Debbie Reynolds and she accidentally insults him by saying he’s not a real actor. But the tables turn at a party he attends when she is one of the dancers that comes out of a giant cake. Later, when studio head Millard Mitchell finds out The Jazz Singer has been a huge hit, he wants to convert Kelly and Hagen’s newest film to sound, but with disastrous consequences because of Jean Hagen’s voice and Kelly’s inability to act. The finished product at the sneak preview is one of the funniest moments in the picture. It’s not until O’Connor comes up with the idea of dubbing Hagen’s footage with Reynolds’ voice that it saves the picture--but also unleashes some unintended consequences.

The film does an excellent job of emulating the style of films of the period, the dress and the studio system in particular--Gene Kelly even looks like John Gilbert with his big grin--and the dancing and musical numbers throughout are impressive. Donald O’Connor’s set piece “Make ‘em Laugh,” Gene Kelly’s solo on the title number, as well as the trio doing “Good Morning” are all classic routines of the cinema musical. And the tap routine by Kelly and O’Connor on “Moses” is also outstanding. The only flaws in the picture are when Kelly tries to be too self-consciously artistic. One example is the song “You Were Meant for Me” when he is trying to tell Reynolds how much he likes her in the empty studio, dancing together with nothing but lights on a wooden floor. But at least that song fits in with the plot. When Kelly and O’Connor cook up an idea in the office of Millard Mitchell to change the new film into a modern musical, the endless dance sequence of “Broadway Melody” with Cyd Charisse is pure torture to watch because it is completely out of context and relates to nothing else in the picture. It’s as much of a non sequitur in the film as it is in the onscreen movie they’re making. That aside, however, there’s nothing to complain about in the film. Like a lot of films recognized as classics today, it wasn’t considered so at the time, and the film was only nominated for two Oscars, one for the performance of Jean Hagen and the other for Lennie Hayton’s film score.

The A List essay by Judy Gerstel begins on exactly the right note: “Only a curmudgeonly wet blanket couldn’t love Singin’ in the Rain.” She also goes on to say that there is something “slyly subversive” about the picture, which also rings true. Critic Jacqueline T. Lynch has gone so far as to connect the film with Sunset Boulevard from two years earlier in the way that they both deal with the end of the silent era though in very different ways, while Gertsel also sees it as a negative image of All About Eve from the same year. Gerstel begins with a bit of the historical background before getting to the real reason for the film’s success: Gene Kelly. He not only starred and choreographed the picture; he received co-director credit along with Stanley Donen. But she also accurately assesses the impact that Donald O’Connor has, saying that he nearly steals the show, and how perfect Debbie Reynolds is as an opposite type to the glamorous “movie star” Gene Hagen. Thematically, Gertsel sees the film as pulling the veil back on the illusion that is Hollywood, everything from the wardrobe of the stars at the premiere, to Kelly’s fabrication of his background, to the dubbing of Hagen’s voice by Reynolds, and yet at the same time being able to “still seduce us with that very artifice.” It’s a nice summation of what makes Singin’ in the Rain such an enduring classic and for many--myself included--the quintessential Hollywood musical.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Footsteps in the Dark (1941)

Director: Lloyd Bacon                                       Writers: Lester Cole & John Wexley
Film Score: Friedrich Hollaender                      Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: Errol Flynn, Brenda Marshall, Ralph Bellamy and Alan Hale

A welcome bit of whimsy from Warner Brothers and their star swashbuckler Errol Flynn, Footsteps in the Dark is a comedic murder mystery that tries to capture something of the success of The Thin Man. Of course it fails miserably, but it is still an entertaining frolic. The story is a complicated mix of clues and gags without any real suspects, which is probably its biggest weakness. It began as a German play entitled Kazenzugen by Lazlo Fodor, which was then translated into English by Bernard Merivale and had various titles, including Blondie White as well as the title of the film. Warner Brothers purchased the rights in 1937 and it was originally going to feature Edward G. Robinson, as the star had recently made a couple of comedies like A Slight Case of Murder that were similar in spirit to this. But by the time the film was ready to go before the cameras Robinson was already committed to doing The Sea Wolf. At the same time Errol Flynn, who had appeared in seven historical dramas in a row, wanted desperately to do something different and so he was assigned to the film. Flynn was happy about the change, and there was even talk of a sequel, but the audience wasn’t and the film failed at the box office. The reviews at the time were mixed, though most critics clearly understood that while it was not great cinema that there was plenty to enjoy about the film if the viewer doesn’t take it too seriously.

The film begins with Errol Flynn sneaking into a house late one night. But it turns out it’s his own house and he climbs in bed next to sleeping wife Brenda Marshall. The next morning at breakfast the papers are advertising a bestselling murder mystery called, what else, Footsteps in the Dark. Flynn’s mother-in-law, Lucile Watson, think’s the book is a scandal. The family lawyer, Grant Mitchell, comes over and it turns out Watson is suing the publisher of the novel for slander because the characters are all thinly veiled versions of all the people in their social circle. Flynn wholeheartedly agrees, but on the way to work at his job as a wealthy investment counselor he tells Mitchell to stop the suit while extolling the virtues of deception. He puts in a perfunctory appearance at his office then has his driver, Allen Jenkins, swap cars at a garage and take him to a suburban house where he sets to work writing about the society people he lives and works among. Clearly, he is the author of Footsteps in the Dark. But then Noel Madison comes to his office one day, subtly implying that he wants Flynn to fence stolen diamonds for him under the cover of his work, and also suggesting that he knows about Flynn’s writing as a way to coerce him. At the same time the captain of the homicide squad, Alan Hale, who is a friend but knows Flynn only as the writer, goes on the radio at the behest of Watson to knock the book, which might cut into sales.

Hale’s point is that real detective work is much more scientific, and when a report comes in about a dead man found on a yacht, detective William Frawley dares Flynn to come and see them at work. The coroner thinks the man drank himself to death, but once Flynn confirms the victim is Noel Madison he knows it’s murder. Now all he has to do is prove it. His only clues are Madison’s secretive servant, Turhan Bey, and a blonde burlesque performer, Lee Patrick. Ralph Bellamy plays the dentist who gives Patrick her alibi. At the same time his mother-in-law hires private detective Roscoe Karns to spy on him. The film is a rather awkward attempt at comedy, though in the end it seems to work and one wishes Flynn had had the opportunity to make more films in the series and become more comfortable in the role. In this outing Flynn is too urbane to play the character in the way someone like William Powell would have. But when looked at in another way the film is almost better because of it. There’s something charming about Flynn’s awkward attempt to pretend he’s a Texas oilman, and the lies he tells to his wife and mother-in-law. The amateurishness actually makes his performance seem more realistic. In addition to the rest of the tremendous character work by all of the above, Gary Owen also appears as a witness in the case, and Frank Faylen plays a taxi driver, no doubt a warm-up for his role in It’s a Wonderful Life. For fans of Flynn the film is essential, for everyone else Footsteps in the Dark is flawed but fun.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Director: William Dieterle                                  Writers: Norman Reilly Raine & Heinz Herald
Film Score: Max Steiner                                   Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Starring: Paul Muni, Gloria Holden, Henry O’Neill and Joseph Schildkraut

The winner of the Academy Award for best picture of 1937 went to The Life of Emile Zola, another in a string of films that attempted to deal with the increasing restriction of freedom in Nazi Germany. The second half of the film deals with the Dreyfuss Affair in France at the end of the nineteenth century, in which a Jewish officer was convicted on treason simply because of his religion. Thus, the criticisms that the title character wields in the name of freedom could just as easily be transferred to Germany in the years before World War Two. Nevertheless, the episode was an embarrassment to the French and so the film was not seen in that country until the early fifties. The complicated writing credits are due to the fact that everyone who had written anything on the Dreyfuss Affair at the time came out of the woodwork to accuse Warner Brothers of plagiarism, and the studio responded by purchasing the rights to all of those works by three authors. As a result, Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg earned Oscars, along with screenwriter Norman Reilly Raine, for their play about Dreyfuss. Apparently Bette Davis expressed interest in playing the character of Nana, but since the part was so small the studio turned her down. Paul Muni was fresh off of his success in The Story of Louis Pasteur and so the part was a natural. Interestingly, while Joseph Schildkraut has a very small part as Dreyfuss he was given the Academy Award for best supporting actor, though this would be his last film at Warners.

The film begins in Paris, in 1862. Paul Muni as Zola and Vladimir Sokoloff as the painter Cezanne are starving artists sharing a flat together, and Gloria Holden is Muni’s fiancée. After he gets a job at a book publisher, he gets married and begins publishing his novels. But almost immediately the government wants to ban them as being offensive and he gets fired. Soon he begins writing about the injustices he sees all around him, police corruption, lack of protection for poor citizens, rampant crime. Then he meets prostitute Erin O’Brien-Moore and uses her life story as the basis for his novel Nana, which becomes a huge bestseller, and his publisher John Litel is pleased to give him a royalty check that gets the writer out of poverty. Then the Franco-Prussuan war impoverishes all of France, the author writes the book Downfall to expose the truth about the war. The general staff demands he be punished in retaliation, but Muni continues to write book after book criticizing the flaws in French society, and becomes a rich man in the process. When a letter is sent to the German attaché in Paris from the home of Robert Barrat as Count Esterhazy, it is stolen and shown to the French high command. The letter appears to be a list of secret military documents and it works its way up the chain of command beginning with Louis Calhern and finally the Minister of war Gilbert Emery who suddenly decides that since Joseph Schildkraut, as Alfred Dreyfus, is a Jew, he must be the traitor.

At first Muni, fat and happy as a bestselling author, is completely uninterested in the case. The court-martial finds Schildkraut guilty, and he is exiled to Devil’s Island after a public humiliation. Later, French intelligence officer Henry O’Neill uncovers the truth, but the general staff insist on covering the whole thing up to hide their mistake. Schildkraut’s wife, Gale Sondergaard, won’t rest until her husband has been exonerated and she finally gets Muni back to his old form and he puts his reputation on the line for justice. Muni does a solid job, but it’s not really the part itself that makes the film great but the story. Nevertheless, he delivers an impressive closing speech during his trial. This was Gloria Holden’s first film after the successful Dracula’s Daughter at Universal the year before, playing one of the many wife characters that would populate the bulk of her career. Donald Crisp plays Muni’s lawyer to good effect, while Ralph Morgan appears as the commander of Paris. And Henry O’Neill does a splendid job as the one officer who tries to be honest. The film is directed well by William Dieterle, one of Warner’s stable of great directors, and he was nominated for an Oscar, as was Max Steiner for his film score--though in those days the award would have gone to the head of department instead of the actual composer. The film was nominated for nine Oscars and won three. The Life of Emile Zola contains a wealth of great character acting and is an uplifting story of social activism that still resonates with audiences today.

The Grand Illusion (1937)

Director: Jean Renoir                                        Writers: Charles Spaak & Jean Renoir
Film Score: Joseph Kosma                               Cinematography: Christian Matras
Starring: Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio and Erich von Stroheim

Jean Renoir’s incredible anti-war film The Grand Illusion (La grande illusion) was thought to be lost in its original form, taken back to Germany by the Nazis and leaving the world with only butchered copies that were unable to convey the magic that the great director had originally captured on film. Fortunately the original negative was discovered in Munich in the late fifties and the film is now considered one of the greatest in cinematic history. Because the film is set during World War One, there is a natural impetus to compare it to All Quiet on the Western Front. But they are very different films and ultimately have very different messages. The story by Erich Maria Remarque is one of disillusionment, and while there is certainly some of that in Renoir’s film there is far more emphasis on relationships in all forms, whether they be between races, citizens of one country, or citizens of the world. In the earlier film the illusion is that of the glory of war. In the French film it is the illusion of separation between people. At the end of the film Marcel Dalio says to Jean Gabin that borders are all man-made. The implication is clear, so are all of humanity’s attempts to separate people and make them enemies. The only problem is we act on that illusion because we believe it is real.

The film begins with pilot Jean Gabin listening to a phonograph in a bar and planning on meeting his girlfriend later. But he’s told he needs to take an officer, Pierre Fresnay, to the front immediately. Fresnay want to check out some ambiguous images on an aerial recognizance photograph. In the very next scene, German pilot Erich von Stroheim comes in from just having shot down a plane and sends someone to go after the pilot to invite him to lunch. The pilot turns out to be Gabin, with Fresnay in tow. They sit down to eat with the German staff officers and the civility is incredibly comical. Later the two are transferred to a prisoner of war camp for officers, and the comedy continues inside the camp. While the Germans have no compunction about taking valuables from the prisoners, the French officers receive regular packages of food from France while the Germans are forced to eat what they can scrounge. Marcel Dalio gets the best parcels of all because his family is wealthy. Julien Carette was a comedic actor as a civilian, but the snobbish Fresnay doesn’t appreciate his humor. Later, Georges Péclet wants to know from Gabin if they can trust Frenay, because they are digging a tunnel.

One meaning of the title comes from the fact that this is 1914 and the war has barely begun. When Gabin tells Péclet that the war will be over before they get the tunnel finished, Péclet tells him he’s deluding himself. The bigger illusion, however, may be that they’ll ever escape at all. But by the end of the film it’s clear that it is the illusion of aristocracy that is really the subject of the film. As a war film, the story is tremendously influential. The film is the precursor to any number of serio-comic prison-break films, from The Great Escape and Stalag 17 in the 1950s, to Victory thirty years later. The men also insist on putting on a show, complete with costumes and men in drag, which prefigures Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as the singing of “La Marseillaise,” which infuriates the Germans just a it would in Casablanca. For announcing the news that the French had retaken one of their forts and inspiring the French officers to sing the anthem, Gabin finds himself in solitary confinement until it nearly drives him mad. But that’s nothing after he and the other officers find out that they have to move camps before the tunnel is done. As the war drags on they change camps several times. The last camp they are assigned to has, as its commandant, none other than Erich von Stroheim, and the parallels with The Great Escape become even more numerous. It’s a mountain fortress with thick, stone walls that defy escape. And still, they keep trying.

One of the many fascinating aspects of the film for American audiences is the class distinctions that are made throughout the film. Von Stroheim treats Frenay with great deference because of their shared nobility, the same thing that keeps Gabin from entirely trusting Frenay. For von Stroheim’s part, he understands that the old monarchical system will certainly be over when the war ends, but this doesn’t seem to bother Frenay. The production is outstanding, and the restored negative certainly makes it the equal of anything produced in Hollywood at the time. Director Jean Renoir likes to zoom in on his actors on occasion without cutting, and it is one of the few individual touches that can be noticed immediately. Of course the acting is magnificent. Jean Gabin is a force on the screen, natural and magnetic at the same time. Pierre Fresnay, while inspiring disdain, nevertheless acquits himself as a character with a moral center. And it’s always a pleasure to see the great Erich von Stroheim onscreen. Dita Parlo doesn’t appear until near the end of the film, but she is an important part of the story and she does a terrific job as well. The Grand Illusion certainly earns its reputation as one of the great films of all time, an influential and artistic film that is as compelling as it is beautiful to look at.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Director: William Wyler                                     Writers: Arthur Wimperis & James Hilton
Film Score: Herbert Stothart                             Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright and Richard Ney

It’s no surprise that MGM’s Mrs. Miniver won the best picture Oscar in 1942. It seems that all through the war years anything having to do with the war itself (Casablanca, The Best Years of Our Lives) or England (How Green was My Valley, Rebecca) wound up in the top spot. This film makes no pretension of being coy about it, extolling the virtues of the British people in a scrolling prologue before the film even begins. Of course everyone knows about the flyers in the Battle of Britain, but less is known about the work and sacrifice of ordinary people all across the country and that’s exactly what the film attempts to convey. It’s a war film, so it doesn’t have a happy ending, but it is an uplifting picture and it’s easy to see why it won the Academy Award for best picture. The film was based on the 1940 novel by Jan Struther, and several screenwriters worked on it, including James Hilton who was the author of Lost Horizon. The film had gone into production prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and afterward the studio was allowed to ratchet up the confrontation between Greer Garson and the downed German pilot. The film was nominated for twelve Oscars, winning six in all, including awards for William Wyler, Greer Garson, Teresa Wright, the black and white cinematography of Joseph Ruttenberg, and the screenplay.

The film opens in London, with Greer Garson getting off the bus in a panic and running back to the store to buy a hat she had seen. On the train home to the village where she lives the audience meets the vicar, Henry Wilcoxon, and the lady of the manor, Dame May Whitty. Henry Travers is the ticket taker at the train station in the village and grows roses, naming one of his hybrids after Garson. Walter Pidgeon is her husband and he’s buying a car from Gerald Oliver Smith. He’s an architect and they have two small children and a grown son who is home for the summer from college. The film is obviously establishing the vision of a happy, healthy, middle-class existence in order to contrast it later with the horrors of war. Richard Ney is home from Oxford, full of disgust at the lingering caste system in Britain, and when Teresa Wright, the granddaughter of Whitty, comes to ask that Travers be persuaded not to enter his rose in competition--so that Whitty can win, as she does every year--it puts the two of them at odds, especially when she accuses him of being all talk and no action. It’s a romantic comedy trope that virtually assures they will fall in love by the end of the picture, but the audience doesn’t have to wait nearly that long. At church a few months later the vicar announces that Britain is at war, and it’s almost possible to see the wheels spinning in Ney’s head about needing to put his words into action, something not unnoticed by his parents.

Two months later Ney is in the air corps, and both he and Pidgeon are called in to help save the soldiers at Dunkirk. Then there’s talk of a German plane going down and no sign of the pilot, and the plot thickens when Garson finds Helmut Dantine in her garden while the men are gone. There are some nice bits of comedy, for example when Reginald Owen as the air-raid marshal tells everyone that the government has said people should stockpile food. Of course, he’s the town grocer and is putting in orders for everyone whether they like it or not. Dame Whitty also comes in for a bit of ridicule for her aristocratic posturing, especially when people’s lives are at stake. The acting in the film is uniformly excellent, although the Hollywood actors playing many of the British roles is one of the major sacrifices the film makes for American audiences. Another weakness is that the film was completely shot on the MGM back lot. But overall there’s little to criticize. Garson is tremendous, and deserved her Oscar for best actress. The film score by studio composer Herbert Stothart is fairly bland and forgettable, especially next to Max Steiner’s score for Now Voyager, which won the award. The film was praised as a propaganda film by FDR, who wanted Americans to get behind the British and support their newfound ally in the fight against the Germans. Though Mrs. Miniver is a predictable and unsubtle war story, it nevertheless has a lot to recommend it and was worthy of its best picture award.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Haunted Summer (1988)

Director: Ivan Passer                                       Writer: Lewis John Carlino
Film Score: Christopher Young                        Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Starring: Alice Krige, Philip Anglim, Eric Stoltz and Laura Dern

Ever since the first time I watched the prologue to Bride of Frankenstein, I have been fascinated with the creation story behind Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. In 1972 novelist Anne Edwards wrote an account of that time, and turned it into a sort of gothic novel in its own right. Haunted Summer was produced over fifteen years later and directed by Ivan Passer, a protégé of the great Milos Forman. The film takes a bit of time to warm to. At first it has an extremely dated quality, and the entire cast seems miscast, especially Philip Anglim who has to play the outsized Byron. While it’s difficult to think of specific actors who might have been better, there’s an inescapable feeling that any number of actors would have. Dern and Stotz bring their own baggage that undercut their characters, something that Milos Forman was able to avoid in his finest film. In fact, the example of what Forman was able to do in Amadeus looms over the entire production in a way that makes Passer’s film seem pale in comparison. It’s difficult not to warm to the charms of artists intent on enjoying themselves to the fullest in a time when lives were short and uncertain. But ultimately the story lacks a certain dramatic drive to it and mere experience isn’t really enough to carry it through to a satisfying conclusion, especially when the actual rainy writing contest never materializes.

The film begins with a stagecoach making its way through the Swiss countryside. The driver stops, as a rockslide has damaged the road, and yet Eric Stoltz as Percy Shelley is utterly unconcerned and insists he go ahead. Alice Krige, as Mary Shelley, and Laura Dern, as Mary’s stepsister, are equally reassured by his confidence. During a storm one night, Stoltz takes laudanum while Dern has a hallucination that ants are crawling all over her, and the three share a bed. After ten days on the road, Durn finally induces them to stop at an elegant hotel, where they cause a stir with their unconventional behavior. Her real reason for stopping there is that she knows this is the destination of Philip Anglim as Lord Byron, and his companion John Polidori, played by Alex Winter. Of course both Shelley and Byron, and to a lesser extent Mary, were reviled for their liberal views on sexuality and drug use in an age of great propriety in Europe, part of what they felt needed to be an overall social revolution to break down the existing power structures of church and state. Anglim rents a villa on Lake Geneva and the five of them spend several weeks there together. During the day the group is content to go out on the lake in a boat, or picnic by the water. Then Anglim pushes Stoltz into using Opium, Dern becomes jealous of Anglim’s sexual relationship with Winter, and Krige is struggling with her writing. But a series of events finally shake loose her imagination.

First, Byron unveils a painting he has purchased, “The Nightmare” by Henri Fuseli. Then the party takes a trip to an abandoned torture chamber and she later resists Anglim’s advances. Finally, she begins having nightmares herself. Several strands seem to weave themselves together as the basis of Krieg’s story. Anglim seems to be the model for Dr. Frankenstein, and his experimentation with drugs is his way of defying nature. But Anglim is also the model for the monster, with his deformed foot and his heartless treatment of both Dern and Winter. The place the film suffers the most is in the pedestrian direction of Passer. He doesn’t have the gift that his mentor Forman has for shooting in medium close shots that capture the humanity of the characters. Instead he opts for a more traditional style of direction that brings to mind a television production rather than a feature film. And this does nothing to ameliorate an already tenuous set design that suggests rather than immerses the characters in the past. The synthesized film score by Christopher Young is dated, but he is able to do things with it that a conventional orchestra wouldn’t, imbuing many scenes with an unsettling, nightmarish quality all its own. Ultimately, however, Haunted Summer fails to deliver on its promise, and a few drug-induced hallucinations are not enough to distract the viewer from the fact that the real creation of Frankenstein fails to emerge.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Letter (1940)

Director: William Wyler                                    Writer: Howard Koch
Film Score: Max Steiner                                  Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Starring: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson and Gale Sondergaard

Paramount had already filmed this play by Somerset Maugham in 1929 with famed actress Jeanne Eagles in the lead and Herbert Marshall as her lover. When Warner Brothers acquired the rights they turned The Letter into a film noir with Bette Davis in the lead and Herbert Marshall now playing the part of her cuckolded husband. It was a brilliant move as the story comes alive under the direction of veteran director William Wyler. While he would go on to do a couple of noirish thrillers in the fifties, it’s a shame that he didn’t get to work on more overt films noir during the forties because his work here seems as if he would have been tremendous at it. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, as was Wyler for his direction and Bette Davis for best actress. Though the film earned seven nominations in all, it failed to win in any of the categories. This was Wyler’s second film with Davis, after Jezebel won her an Oscar, and the two would go on to work together again in The Little Foxes. Howard Koch, who would win an Oscar for himself for his participation in Casablanca two years later, does an exceptional job of adapting Maugham’s play for the screen but had some stiff competition at the awards that year and wasn’t nominated.

The film opens on a rubber plantation near Singapore. Inside the house a shot is fired, and David Newell stumbles out onto the porch. Then Bette Davis emerges and empties the rest of the gun into him, even after he falls to the ground. The workers wake up and talk excitedly, while Davis tells Tetsu Komai to go get Bruce Lester, the foreman, and James Stephenson, their lawyer, as well as her husband, Herbert Marshall. The story she tells is that Newell had come to the house unannounced and began making unwanted advances toward her. The men, of course, believe her but Tetsu Komai suddenly disappears into the jungle. Nevertheless, she is unofficially under arrest and Stephenson takes her to Singapore early that morning to turn herself in. Waiting and watching from the foliage is Gale Sondergaard, who turns out to be Newell’s wife. This fact was something of a secret, as was Newell’s ownership of a gambling house, and so because of how that makes him look Stephenson believes the trial will be a mere formality. Later, however, Stephenson is visited by Victor Sen Yung who tells him of the existence of love letter from Davis to Newell that is in the possession of Sondergaard.

Though blackmail doesn’t come up in the conversation, it is heavily implied. As Yung leaves Stephenson tries to play it cool, but it’s a bombshell. When Stephenson confronts Davis she lies at first, then tells him the truth and from then on it’s strictly business between the two of them. Sondergaard makes two conditions for selling the letter, the first is ten thousand dollars delivered to her personally. The second is that the delivery be made by Davis herself. But the trial isn’t the end of the problems, it’s only the beginning, and the ending of the film is absolutely exquisite. There’s an old lawyer joke that goes, how do you tell when a lawyer is lying? His mouth is moving. The same can be said of Bette Davis. The only real suspense for the viewer in most of her films is how long it’s going to take everyone else in the film to realize it. But nobody does it better. James Stephenson also does a tremendous job as the family lawyer, disgusted at having to cover up for Davis’s crime and yet still hoping he can protect the pathetic Herbert Marshall, who actually manages to elicit some sympathy. Stephenson was given a well-deserved Oscar nomination but tragically died of a heart attack after making only three more films.

The sets are absolutely beautiful, and the rich black and white only serves to accentuate the alien quality of the jungle and the isolation of the house. The Chinatown set is also marvelous. The lighting is everything one would expect in a noir film, with high contrast and plenty of shadow. There’s some wonderful moving camera work when Davis is recounting her story of shooting David Newell, and when Davis is forced to meet with Sondergaard. The opening of the film, prior to the shooting, is also one of the most memorable in film history, done in one continuous shot. Tony Gaudio was nominated for an Oscar for his work behind the camera. Max Steiner’s score is a good one, and the melodic leitmotif that first appears in the title credits and throughout is memorable. Steiner earned one of his twenty Oscar nominations for the film. Finally, a couple of memorable character actors put in an appearance in the film. Cecil Kellaway, who appears briefly in a party scene, seems to have had his speaking part cut because he only has a cameo appearance. And Doris Lloyd plays the prison nurse. The Letter is everything the viewer could hope for in a Bette Davis picture from Warner Brothers and comes highly recommended.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Anthony Adverse (1936)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy                                   Writers: Sheridan Gibney & Milton Krims
Film Score: Erich Wolfgang Korngold              Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Starring: Fredric March, Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains and Gale Sondergaard

Anthony Adverse was only Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s second feature for Warner Brothers--the third if you count his adaptation of Mendelsohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His first was Captain Blood, and one would think the film misses the presence of Errol Flynn to go along with Olivia de Havilland. But by the time the second half of the picture begins, it’s clear the title character needs to be someone with a lot of innocence, which Flynn could never be convincing in trying to portray. Flynn was actually set to have a small, supporting role in this film, but because of his success in Captain Blood he was given a starring role in The Charge of the Light Brigade. This film is a costume drama set in France prior to the Revolution. And since part of the plot deals with opera, Warner’s tapped their resident expert from Vienna and had Korngold write the score, which unfairly won an Academy Award for Leo Forbstein as the head of the music department, not Korngold. The story is based on the 1933 novel of the same name by Hervey Allen, an adventure-romance that quickly became a bestseller. It takes the title character from Italy to Cuba to Africa--where he becomes a slave trader obsessed with making enough money to pay off his family’s debts and return home to the woman he loves--then to France and America.

The film begins with a carriage ride as Claude Rains and Anita Louise go to Rains’ estate after their wedding in Versailles. Rains has gout, and won’t be able to consummate the marriage that night, with seems fine with Louise, who appears to the be the victim of an arranged marriage to the rich Rains. As she prays that night she invokes the name of Louis Hayward, who had followed the carriage on horseback to the estate. While Rains is gone away to heal, Louise and Hayward carry on a torrid love affair, so committed are they that on the night of Rains’ return they play to run away together. But Rains finds out and takes Louise away the next morning, eventually dueling with Haywood and killing him--thanks to Louise’s ill-timed scream. Their journey continues to the French Alps where Louise has Hayward’s child and mercifully dies giving birth. Rains continues on to Italy and leaves the child at a convent, but the mother superior wants to get rid of him because he is a male. The head of the church, Henry O’Neill, allows him to stay as long as he remains inside the walls of the convent. By the time he’s a young boy, however, Billy Mauch begins to chafe at the restrictions, and the mother superior finally sends him to be apprenticed to Edmund Gwenn--who turns out to be Louise’s father, and the young boy’s grandfather. Gwenn soon realizes, but decides never to tell the boy.

Years later Fredric March is the adult Anthony, and the cook’s daughter is Olivia de Havilland. They fall in love, but when March tells Gwenn he wants to marry her, he doesn’t think it’s a match worthy of his grandson. Fate, however, intervenes. The two become separated when her father wins the lottery, but she makes him promise to find her later. No matter what good fortune they have, it seems circumstances always contrive to keep them apart. In the process March becomes someone he never wanted to be, but he also loses his innocence and that’s when things really get interesting, especially when Rains shows up again. In fact, the last act of the film is quite good, with circumstances for Adverse living up to his name. While the first half of the film has a lot of drive in the plot, the second act seems to lose its way as March tramps all over the globe and loses his own sense of purpose. The only problem with the final act is the ending, which lacks a real conclusion. Hervey Allen’s original novel was a huge, sprawling book of over twelve-hundred pages. In fact, when it was re-printed later in the 1970s it came out in three volumes, the third being Anthony Adverse in America. But the screenplay to Warners’ film ends before that section of the book begins, which accounts for the rather abrupt ending.

The performances in the film, while not up to the standards of the Errol Flynn swashbucklers, are very good. The scope of the story is impressive, and March does a tremendous job, especially as he goes from the idealistic orphan to a world-weary cynic, and somehow manages to get his idealism back again. Olivia de Havilland, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to do and is sort of wasted, not appearing again until the end of the film. Her character is also a bit muddled and that probably accounts for the fact that there is no clear motivation for her near the end. The film was a huge undertaking for Warner Brothers with an enormous cast, including a number of character actors like Frank Morgan, Akim Tamiroff, Ottola Nesmith, J. Carrol Naish, Frank Reicher, Leonard Mudie and Gale Sondergaard who won an Oscar for playing the scheming friend of Rains’ in the picture. Claude Rains does his evil best in the picture, as only he can do. Billy Mauch plays the young Anthony, and is yet another connection with Korngold, as he also played the title characters in The Prince and the Pauper which the composer also scored. Korngold’s score remains one of the high points of the film, and he even used part of the score as the basis of his violin concerto. While not a great, Anthony Adverse is an interesting if meandering film, and worth seeking out just for the experience.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Family Man (2000)

Director: Brett Ratner                                       Writers: David Diamond & David Weissman
Film Score: Danny Elfman                               Cinematography: Dante Spinotti
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Téa Leoni, Don Cheadle and Jeremy Piven

They say there’s nothing new under the sun, and when The Family Man was released in 2000 it wasn’t new either. But in the end that’s hardly the point. Screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman came up with a unique way to look at an old premise, turning It’s a Wonderful Life inside out in the process. Instead of a man who has a wonderful family and lots of friends seeing what their lives would be without him, this version has him rich and powerful like Potter and sticks him in a humble suburban existence to show him what is really important in life. The last man who would seem to be a likely candidate for directing this kind of film is Brett Ratner. Sure, he’d had a hit film, but Rush Hour’s over the top farce seems to have nothing to do with the kind of family friendly comedy-drama that “the two Davids” had written. The producers of the film thought the same thing. And yet Ratner was relentless in his pursuit of the picture, eventually worming his way into the director’s chair and being just as relentless about getting a reluctant Nicholas Cage to sign on. In looking at the final results, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone else could have handled this material with such a keen eye for exactly what it needed. Ratner’s direction is nearly flawless, and with a perfect cast and crew he ultimately created a new holiday classic to stand beside Capra’s original.

The film begins with Nicholas Cage and Téa Leoni at the airport saying goodbye. He’s going to London for a banking internship and suddenly she doesn’t want him to go, saying they should start their lives over, right then. But he leaves anyway. Flash forward thirteen years and Cage says goodbye in the morning to Amber Valletta after a passionate night together, before heading to the office as a rich investment banker who works for Josef Sommer. His secretary, Mary Beth Hurt, tells him that Leoni has called but he decides not to call her back and he stops in at a bodega on the way home. There he meets Don Cheadle looking like a gang banger, and is nearly killed as he tries to defuse a misunderstanding with the clerk over a lottery ticket. When Cheadle talks to Cage outside afterward and Cage says he has everything he needs, Cheadle laughs and says he’s going to enjoy what happens next. The next morning Cage wakes up on Christmas day in New Jersey, in bed with Leoni and now the parent of two children with her. After bolting out of the house and heading back to the city, no one knows who he is anymore. Then Cheadle turns up in his car as a wealthy businessman, and Cage learns that he’s some kind of angel who is giving him a glimpse of what life could have been like had he chosen a different path. And Cage can’t come back until he figures some things out.

At the center of the success of the film is the relationship between Nicholas Cage and Téa Leoni. They are terrific together. Cage is honest with her and it gets him nowhere, but later it becomes clear that his Jersey version made jokes like that all the time. Unable to go back to New York, he has no real choice but to settle in and see what happens. The young daughter, Makenzie Vega, is essential to the plot, seeing the new Cage as an alien and deciding to help him out by letting him know what he needs to do. This is terrific because it keep Don Cheadle’s role in a very specific category of being present only at the transitions from one reality to the other. Cheadle is terrific, playing three different roles as the angel. Jeremy Piven plays Jersey Cage’s best friend, and Harve Presnell is his father-in-law and owner of the tire store where Cage works. The other outstanding cast member is Lisa Thornhill, who wants to have an affair with Jersey Cage. Throughout, Nicholas Cage does a tremendous job of staying true to his character, dealing with life in New Jersey as best he can, but always trying to figure out a way to get back to New York. At the same time, it soon becomes obvious that the feelings he had for Téa Leoni didn’t go away just because he left her. The pull between those two things, his wealthy life in the city and his love for Leoni and their children, is the central conflict of the piece, and Bret Ratner does a magnificent job of making it all believable.

The film received a bunch of so-so reviews at the time from critics who apparently didn’t understand exactly what they were watching. The critic for the New York Times said Nicholas Cage was also miserable when he was rich. Wrong. And Roger Ebert said that Don Cheadle was a taxi driver. Way wrong. If reviewers can’t even remember simple plot points how are they going to accurately assess the brilliance of the screenplay and the way the director brought it to life? I would argue, they can’t. There’s something incredibly special about this film that has nothing to do with being a rehash of the Capra classic. Jimmy Stewart hated his life and wanted something different, not realizing that what he had was what he wanted all along. Nicholas Cage thinks he has everything he wants, but that’s only because he’s never experienced anything else. For Stewart the people around him are most important. For Cage it’s learning to want people around him. Ebert wondered at the end of his piece what happened to the Jersey family. But the answer was clearly on Cage’s face when he talks about them at the end of the film. It’s the same thing that happened to the protagonist’s daughter in Ken Grimwood’s Replay. They’re gone. Ultimately the film isn’t about looking backward and trying to recapture happiness from the past, it’s about going forward and capturing happiness for the future. And The Family Man does that beautifully.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Mummy (1959)

Director: Terence Fisher                                   Writer: Jimmy Sangster
Film Score: Franz Reizenstein                         Cinematography: Jack Asher
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux and George Pastell

In the late fifties Hammer pictures in England licensed the rights to remake Universal’s popular horror films from the thirties. For their first two films they produced Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula. But the third film, The Mummy, may be the best of the three as a work of art. The story, created from parts of all the Universal Mummy pictures, does a terrific job of using the best from each story and creating a satisfying movie that is arguably better than any of the ones in the original Universal franchise. The film begins in Egypt in 1895 during the height of exploration there, with an expedition led by Peter Cushing and his father, Felix Aylmer. Cushing has broken his leg and his uncle, Raymond Huntley, wants it to be set properly back in Cairo. But a new discovery keeps Cushing there to see what’s in the tomb they’ve found. Just as Aylmer and Huntley are about to enter the tomb, George Pastell shows up and warns them that if they desecrate the tomb they will die. Of course they ignore him and find a great treasure of artifacts, all undisturbed, including the body of Princess Ananka. When Huntley goes back to tell Cushing, Aylmer finds a scroll. His screams bring Huntley back to the tomb only to find that he’s lost his mind.

Aylmer is sent back to London, but by the time the expedition is over his condition hasn’t changed. Finally, Pastell vows revenge on all of those who led the expedition. Then the story shifts to London, four years later, as Aylmer begins to regain his memory. He tries to tell Cushing of accidentally bringing the mummy Kharis to life--a scene that is shown later in the film rather than the beginning as it was in the Karloff version--but of course they don’t believe him and think it’s simply part of his mental illness. Meanwhile, Pastell shows up in the village where Aylmer and Cushing live with a large box. When the box inadvertently falls into the swamp Pastel, in a particularly effective scene, brings the mummy, Christopher Lee, to life and sends him after Aylmer. After Aylmer’s death Cushing and Huntley begin looking through his papers for some kind of clue to find the murderer. When Cushing reads the legend of Ananka to Huntley, the flashback sequence is absolutely beautiful, the same story as the 1932 version but in color. Now all that is left for Pastell is for Lee to kill Huntley and Cushing. The ending, taken from The Mummy’s Ghost, is a nice twist on the original.

When the mummy begins the murders in England the plot threatens to slow down, but the appearance of Eddie Byrne saves it. The sumptuous color photography and the improvement in acting over their first two horror films really sets this film apart and makes it one of the most enjoyable of the Hammer horror films. Though Peter Cushing does a phenomenal job in almost all of the Hammer films, in this one he is particularly good. His serious consideration of the supernatural elements bring in the audience and aids in the suspension of disbelief, while his limp from the broken leg is a nice affectation. Christopher Lee, unfortunately, was saddled yet again with a monster role as he had in Curse of Frankenstein, though the Egyptian flashback sequence gives him a bit more to do. Felix Aylmer and Raymond Huntley are both excellent actors and add immensely to the production, as does Eddie Byrne later on and George Pastell throughout. Unfortunately, Yvonne Furneaux doesn’t have to do much acting at all, at least not until the end. She is one of the more beautiful of the Hammer girls, and she is also the best of the lot in terms of acting. One only wishes she could have been in more Hammer films.

In terms of the crew, the usual suspects were all present for the most part. Terence Fisher does his standard workmanlike job, and with the added opulence of the Egyptian as well as Victorian sets the picture looks terrific. He was particularly pleased with the fact that this film had very little of the kind of gore that the first two films did, more content to imply violence than actually show it. Jimmy Sangster is responsible for the screenplay, one of the better of his early stories. The only thing missing is James Bernard doing the film score. But it must be said that Franz Reizenstein does a tremendous job with the Egyptian motifs, and still manages to capture the percussive flavor of Bernard’s Hammer scores in the process and the music winds up being another high point. The film was shot entirely in the studio, and yet because most of the sets are interiors it works rather well. Even the Egyptian scenes at the beginning and during the flashback are nicely done. The Mummy, while containing nothing really original, still manages to be an impressive outing for Hammer that produced a number of sequels as well.