Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Bamboo Prison (1954)

Director: Lewis Seiler                                     Writers: Edwin Blum & Jack DeWitt
Music Director: Mischa Bakaleinikoff             Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Starring: Robert Francis, Dianne Foster, Brian Keith and E.G. Marshall

One of my favorite films of all time is The Caine Mutiny, but it took me a long time before I became curious about why I hadn’t seen Robert Francis in any other films. It was a disappointing blow to find out he had only appeared in four films before an airplane accident claimed his life in 1955. The Bamboo Prison was Francis’s penultimate film, but his last starring role. The film was one of the first to deal with the idea of “brainwashing” by the Chinese, and the kind of Communist psychological warfare that would be seen in Vietnam in the following decade. B-movie producer Brian Foy attempted to get the cooperation of the U.S. Army, but they declined due to the confusing nature of the screenplay. The story tries to give some possible justification for the numbers of military men who acquiesced to the Communist propaganda, suggesting that they may have been double agents. But the whole idea was too new for the Army to make that kind of endorsement, and would undermine their plan to investigating some of the returning prisoners who cooperated with the Communists. The mere suggestion that some American servicemen would succumb to Communist pressure in prisoner of war camps in order to escape abusive treatment was also in direct opposition to American ideas of patriotism and caused many communities to attempt bans on the film as Un-American.

The story begins with soldiers marching through the mud. They are prisoners of war in Korea. The voice over by Brian Keith tells of their mistreatment at the hands of the Chinese on the forced march. The only bed in the hut Keith is assigned to belongs to Robert Francis, who is apparently collaborating with the enemy. There’s a strong sense of the film attempting to emulate Stalag 17, which was released the year before to great acclaim. The soldiers run the gamut, from a Seattle car salesman to a kid from Arkansas, a black medic, and some Greek U.N. forces. But the attempt at broad humor is a little incongruous here, given the recent ending of the Korean War and how much more brutal the treatment of the prisoners was, and seems to work better in the World War II film. E.G. Marshall plays a Catholic priest who was accidentally caught up in the offensive, and steals what he can for the men. Keye Luke plays the Communist instructor for the camp, and then Dianne Foster shows up as the wife of the Russian liaison Murray Matheson. Once Keith gets a chance to talk to Francis alone, it comes out that they’re both working for Army intelligence, trying to gather information to use at the peace talks. Francis is eventually given privileges outside the camp by commandant Richard Loo, after being checked out by Matheson first. When Francis meets Foster for the first time, there’s the inkling of another intelligence connection between them.

The plot begins to twist when the audience learns that Marshall is really a Communist agent, and he’s been given a new assignment: to discover who the intelligence officer might be in the camp. This character caused some controversy for a number of reasons. The Catholic Church in the U.S. protested the characterization of a Communist agent as a priest, and writer Dale Francis made the discovery that the screenplay used actual speech material from real-life priest Father Kapaun who died in a Korean prisoner of war camp. The film is fairly impressive at times, but is undercut throughout by the comedy elements. And it’s not that they shouldn’t be there, but it’s played so broadly that it becomes too much of a contrast with the espionage. The crisp black and white photography doesn’t do the film any favors either, only serving to highlight the artificialness of the sets. The older, warmer film stock used by Paramount in Stalag 17 was much better. And, of course, almost all the dialogue was looped later which also gives the film a rather stilted feel. Of all the prisoners, Jack Kelley as a family man who wants to go home is probably the best. Brian Keith doesn’t get all that much screen time, and the rest of the men are fairly forgettable. One of the more powerful performances comes from Earle Hyman as a black medic. While the Communists attempt to turn him by pointing out the racism still endemic in America, he stays the course and refused to turn on his country.

The real star of the film is Robert Francis, though it’s sometimes difficult to assess just how good he is in the middle of what is admittedly a low-budget film. Still, he shows all of the same attributes that had gone into his memorable performance in The Caine Mutiny, and certainly had the potential to become a major Hollywood star. Prior to his death he was set to be loaned out to MGM to star opposite James Cagney in Tribute to a Bad Man. Francis’s second film had also been a western, They Rode West which teamed him again with actress May Wynn from his first film as well as Donna Reed. Dianne Foster does an adequate job here as the love interest, though no better, while E.G. Marshall gives a solid performance as the heavy. The direction by Lewis Seiler is certainly undistinguished, reminiscent of a TV movie, and indicative of the middle of the road work he did his entire career. The movie has no film score as such, but Brian Foy was able to draw upon the vast library of cues that Columbia had in its library from no less than eight composers, including Daniele Amfitheatrof. Musical director Mischa Bakaleinikoff composed the opening title sequence and was not doubt instrumental in selecting the cues that accompanied the rest of the film. While The Bamboo Prison is not a great film, as one of the rare opportunities to see Robert Francis it remains a valuable piece of Hollywood history.

The Oklahoma Kid (1939)

Director: Lloyd Bacon                                    Writers: Warren Duff & Robert Buckner
Film Score: Max Steiner                                Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Starring: James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane and Donald Crisp

Both James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart were known for making gangster pictures at Warner Brothers, and before Bogart came onto the scene Cagney had an equally successful career in early musicals. But The Oklahoma Kid is one of the few times that the two were ever in a western. It’s a testament to the talent of Warner Brothers’ artists that the film is no less convincing than if it had been a gangster picture. Unfortunately, contemporary audiences didn’t feel the same and the film was a box-office failure. The stretch was too great to believe the famous gangsters in a western. Part of the success of the picture for modern audiences has to go to director Lloyd Bacon, who began his career in the silent era. He had filmed the musicals that Cagney starred in earlier in the decade but he could really do anything, from historical dramas to comedies to war film. The presence of James Wong Howe behind the camera also makes for some excellent cinematography, and a terrific score by Max Steiner provides a wonderful finishing touch. The film began as an original idea by writer Edward E. Paramore about mountain men, and apparently had a lot in it that Cagney was interested in. According to the actor, the studio pulled Paramore off the project and had two other writers, Warren Duff and Robert Buckner, turn it into a standard western. Still, it retains a healthy dose of modern ideas, especially with Cagney’s character flatly claiming that the Indian land was stolen by whites, and that even the law is no protection from criminal elements.

The film begins, incongruously enough, in Washington D.C. in the oval office of Grover Cleveland. It turns out this is yet another story of the Cherokee land grab in the northwestern section of Oklahoma, east of the panhandle, that opened RKO’s Oscar winning Cimarron, but goes back as far as Tumbleweeds with William S. Hart, and probably earlier. When the money shows up to pay the Indians for their land Bogart is seen watching, dressed all in black, so it’s not difficult to know what part he’ll be playing. He and Ward Bond and a couple other bandits go after the stagecoach and steal the money, but James Cagney gives chase. He manages to steal the packhorse with the money and shoot one of Bogart’s men. Meanwhile, Hugh Sothern has big plans to set up a town in the territory, but needs the rest of the people to respect the property he wants so that his son, Harvey Stephens, can claim it for the town. His friend, Donald Crisp, is set to be judge of the territory and will live in the town with his daughter, Rosemary Lane. Stephens and Lane are set to be married, but Cagney comes into camp that night and can’t take his eyes off Lane so he kicks a bunch of boomers out of the hotel for her. After losing the money, Bogey and Bond try a new tack, sneaking into the territory early to claim the land the town wants so they can have exclusive rights to saloons and gambling. The land rush isn’t as dense as it was in Cimarron, but it’s still fairly exciting.

The conceit of the film is an interesting one, to keep the audience from knowing what side of the law Cagney is on--or his real identity--until the very end. In the saloon the night before the run Cagney spends some of the Indian money, and so Bogart turns him into the sheriff. But the next day Cagney gives the sheriff the slip, an action usually indicating guilt. The showdown comes years later as Sothern tries to take the town back from Bogart. Sothern is set up for murder by Bogart, and when Cagney reads about it in the papers he decides to take action. Unfortunately, he’s still wanted for stealing the Indian money. One of the tremendous aspects of the film is how it defies expectations. A real shock comes an hour into the film and gives the whole thing some real verisimilitude throughout the rest of the picture. In many ways, it really is a gangster picture set in the West. Both Cagney and Bogart do a tremendous job and are quite believable in their parts. Donald Crisp is sort of wasted, as he doesn’t get a lot of screen time. Perhaps the weakest member of the principal cast is Rosemary Lane who was a singer more than an actor, and only made a couple dozen pictures during her career. Good character casting includes Ward Bond and George Chesebro, as well as Al Bridge who can be seen in the beginning of the film as the Strip is being opened up. While The Oklahoma Kid is not a typical western, especially considering the stars, it is probably a better film because of it and comes highly recommended.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Green Hell (1940)

Director: James Whale                                   Writers: Frances Marion
Film Score: Frank Skinner                              Cinematography: Karl Freund
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Bennett, George Sanders and Vincent Price

Green Hell was one of James Whale’s final films, and it was fitting that he made it at Universal. After being summarily shown the door by the previous studio head, a change in the front office had him working for his old studio again, though in actuality under the auspices of independent producer Harry Edington. The story was an original work by Frances Marion who had done some terrific work under Irving Thalberg, but with his death a few years earlier she didn’t have the input by other writers that generally turned her scenarios into workable screenplays. The original title of her story was South of the Amazon, but the title of the film was changed to reflect the almost unbearable heat of the jungle. Unlike the dry, brown desert landscapes of North America, the jungle is lush and green. Unfortunately the story is incredibly weak and the dialogue isn’t much better, something Whale apparently didn’t seem to understand at the time. Whale was also not at the peak of his powers and so despite a very strong cast of major stars and an ace cinematographer in Karl Freund, the film was a disaster. By the time Joan Bennett shows up in the middle of the jungle, audiences began laughing freely at Marion’s dialogue and the over-ripe delivery of the actors. This was the only film Frances Marion would receive solo credit on, and it was the last film she would ever write.

The film begins on a loading dock in South America, with Vincent Price getting out of his car and going into a bar, meeting with Alan Hale as a British archeologist, and George Sanders as a ladies man looking for excitement. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is the expedition leader, a real adventurer, and John Morgan is his right hand man. Price wants to join the expedition, implying he has nothing to lose, but says a loving farewell to a mystery woman before he leaves. Then, the improbable George Bancroft as a Texas cowboy comes down the stairs singing. Gene Garrick is also along on his first adventure. Price is the mystery man of the group, apparently in love with two women and running away from both. The crew begins by heading up river at night, and two days later set out on land. They quickly run into hostile natives, who turn out to be the tribe of their native guide, Francis McDonald. Eventually they stumble upon the ruins of an ancient temple in the jungle and set up camp the following day. A passage way near the entrance leads to a giant obelisk at the center of the temple, with a golden sun atop it. Following a native out the rear passage, Price is hit by poison arrows and suffers an agonizing death, and then things get complicated when Joan Bennett shows up as Price’s wife a few weeks later.

Of course Bennett and Fairbanks fall for each other, and Sanders resents it. But Morgan is worried that Bennett isn’t what she says she is and that Fairbanks is falling into a trap. At the same time they’re distracted by the fact that all their native workers have disappeared. For an adventure film, there’s very little adventure until the end of the film and by then it’s way too late. Most of the story is taken up by the men fawning over Bennett. James Whale was no stranger to comedy, which is one of the things that made his horror films at the studio so entertaining. Unfortunately the humor in this film was completely unintended. George Bancroft is especially wearying, as doles out his cowboy wisdom throughout the entire picture. Another annoyance is Frank Skinner’s score, though it’s difficult to know whether it was him or the sound effects department that put a droning theremin-like warble on the soundtrack throughout most of the picture. The Incan temple set would be used again later that year for a Universal sequel, The Mummy’s Hand. As bad as it is, Green Hell is still kind of fascinating, watching a group of A-list actors slogging their way through a B picture. None of them had anything good to say about it afterward, and it essentially ended Whale’s career in Hollywood. Certainly not worth seeking out, but if you get the chance to see it, by all means take a look.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Mummy's Hand (1940)

Director: Christy Cabanne                              Writers: Griffin Jay & Maxwell Shane
Film Score: Frank Skinner                              Cinematography: Elwood Bredell
Starring: Dick Foran, Peggy Moran, Wallace Ford and George Zucco

The poor Mummy. Of all of the Universal horror franchises, this monster was the least respected and quickly went from a defrocked Egyptian priest in the first film with Boris Karloff to a shuffling collection of bandages that was used as little more than a murder weapon in the sequels. Worse than that, Universal tried to turn The Mummy’s Hand into something of a horror-comedy eight years before Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Here the ersatz comedy team consists of Dick Foran and Wallace Ford. Add to that the faux magic of Cecil Kellaway and whatever attempt at suspense and fear there had been in the screenplay was dissipated by these comedic elements. And then there’s the fact that the film is not really a sequel at all, but rather an updated version of The Mummy. Only instead of the Karloff character who comes to life and attempts to regain his lost love, the dead priest remains wrapped in bandages to do the bidding of others. Unlike the minimal attempt to make the other franchises in Universal’s monster pantheon somewhat interesting and follow from the original film, the Mummy series was immediately turned into little more than B-movie programmers, with second-rate writers and directors and, with the exception of horror stars like George Zucco and Lon Chaney Jr., B-list actors as well. As a result, this is the first of a long line of substandard Universal mummy films.

The Mummy doesn’t even get original theme music in the sequels, as the main titles--like the rest of the film--are accompanied by Frank Skinner’s music for Son of Frankenstein. The film opens with Eduardo Ciannelli renewing the curse on all those who desecrate the tombs of the pharos. From there, George Zucco gets off the train at the Cairo station and heads out into the desert the following day to an ancient temple to meet with Ciannelli. In a pool of water, similar to the one used by Karloff in the original, Zucco is shown flashback scenes of the origin of the mummy from the first film but in close up Karloff is replaced by Tom Tyler who plays the monster in this film. Ciannelli shows Zucco how to revive Tyler as the mummy before he hands over the high priesthood to Zucco and dies. Back in Cairo, Dick Foran and Wallace Ford have been fired by the museum, but Foran stumbles onto a valuable piece of pottery in the market that gives clues to the location of the tomb of Ananka, played by Zita Johann in the original. Charles Trowbridge takes them in to show their find to the head of the museum, but he turns out to be George Zucco. Obviously Zucco isn’t going to finance and expedition to uncover the tomb he has vowed to protect, so the two men call on Cecil Kellaway, a magician who has a daughter, Peggy Moran, to finance the dig. Zucco then uses the mummy to attempt to kill the members of the expedition before they are able to find the tomb.

Tom Tyler, who was known mostly for westerns, was chosen to play the monster because of a slight resemblance to Karloff, but it would be his only appearance in a Universal horror film as the studio later jettisoned the whole connection to the original film and used Lon Chaney Jr. in subsequent entries for the name recognition. The whole production is a contrast in seemingly cheap location shots, and some relatively sumptuous interiors. But that can be explained by the existing sets Universal had on the lot. The sands of the Egyptian desert have been replaced by scrub brush in the foothills of California, and even the dig seems to be taking place on a beach rather than the desert. For the huge interior of Ananka’s tomb, the production used an existing set from James Whale’s 1940 adventure film Green Hell, which had been completed earlier that year. Director Christy Cabanne hadn’t really been successful after the silent era had ended, and so it’s no wonder that the film lacks anything remotely artistic. But while screenwriters Griffin Jay and Maxwell Shane added some inanities to the screenplay like the Mummy being active only during the full moon, their invention of the forbidden tana leaves is one that would be latched upon for all subsequent films in the franchise, and be used in any number of ways. The Mummy’s Hand is a pale imitation of the original and, unfortunately, would set the stage for a string of uninspired Mummy films to come.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Gladiator (2000)

Director: Ridley Scott                                  Writers: David Franzoni & John Logan
Film Score: Hans Zimmer                           Cinematography: John Mathieson
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen and Oliver Reed

Love him or hate him, Ridley Scott is one of the industry’s all time great filmmakers, and Gladiator is one of his all time great films. It’s a powerful story, derivative of Spartacus and The Fall of the Roman Empire, but going in a very different direction. Where the Kirk Douglas film was all about a slave rebellion, the Russell Crow venture focuses on individual vengeance, and while the Roman epic emphasizes realism and historical accuracy, Scott’s story sacrifices that for action and suspense. It’s really the best of both worlds. But the comparisons are also appropriate as the scope of the film demonstrates a revival of the kind of epic rarely seen in Hollywood since the sixties. There’s simply nothing to complain about in this picture. The photography by John Mathieson is stunningly beautiful, and combined with the color manipulation and CGI work it makes for a hyper-realistic experience. Hans Zimmer’s score provides the kind of rousing, mirror image of the visuals that he is known for. And the acting is first rate, although Russell Crowe engenders the same kind of opposing reactions as the director, but his presence is nevertheless an example of the perfect casting for the kinds of characters that inhabit Scott’s film. The ultimate recognition for the picture came in the form of an Academy Award for best picture, and four more Oscars to go along with it, including one for Crowe as best actor.

The film begins with an action sequence, the Roman Legions preparing for war in the north with Teutonic barbarians who threaten their northern frontier. They are led by their general, Russell Crowe, and overseen by the emperor, Richard Harris. The battle is filmed and edited in a similar fashion as the opening to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan two years earlier and is just as effective. After the victory Harris’s children, Joaquin Phoenix and Connie Nielsen, along with several senators make their way north to hear who Harris will choose as his successor. When the scheming Phoenix learns that it is going to be Crowe instead of himself, he kills his father and tries to do the same to Crowe, but the general manages to escape. Back in Italy Phoenix has Crowe’s entire family killed and then sells him into slavery. Crowe is assisted in his recovery by fellow slave Djimon Hounsou, and eventually they meet their master, Oliver Reed, who trains gladiators. Crowe doesn’t let on that he knows how to fight until Reed puts him into the ring for the first time chained to Hounsou, but he defeats everyone he goes up against. Back in Rome, Phoenix has ignored the Senate and instituted regular games of death in the Coliseum in order to distract the people from the neglect of the government. Derek Jacobi and John Schrapnel are the two senators who attempt to resist, but the mob loves the games. All of which sets up the return of Crowe to Rome in the guise of a skilled and victorious gladiator who threatens to win the people’s hearts away from Phoenix.

Joaquin Phoenix and Russell Crowe are the two sides of the central conflict, one is for complete dictatorial rule while the other has been urged by Harris to reinstate the Senate as the ruling body in Rome. While Phoenix attempts to dissolve the Senate altogether, Crowe seeks only revenge for his family. But Connie Nielsen also does a tremendous job as Phoenix’s sister, especially considering the new emperor essentially wants her to be his wife rather than his sister, with all that implies. She walks a dangerous line as she is in league with the Senate and in love with Crowe, and must do so while trying to keep her son, Spencer Treat Clark, from being seduced away from her by Phoenix. The film is also notable for being the final screen performance of the great Oliver Reed, who is commanding onscreen, but cost the production tremendously when some scenes had to be computer created as he died before principal photography had ended. Djimon Hounsou is also a great addition to the cast, from another culture but connected to Crowe by his humanity. And fellow gladiator Ralf Moeller is equally great as he comes to respect Crowe for his prodigious skill in the ring. Tommy Flanagan, as Crowe’s servant, is the other major player who is integral to the plot toward the end of the film.

The film was made by Ridley Scott in association with Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks. Screenwriter David Franzoni had, in fact, written Spielberg’s historical drama Amistad, which also starred Djimon Hounsou. But Scott brought in John Logan to re-write the dialogue more to his liking, and on the strength of the director and the huge budget, one hundred million dollars, Russell Crowe was eager to sign on. But trouble began prior to production, and several other uncredited screenwriters were brought onboard to sculpt Crowe’s character more to the actor’s liking. In terms of historical accuracy, this was never really a consideration for Scott, who was intent on making a picture with mass audience appeal. Some critics had a problem with the kind of cartoon-like effects that were a major part of the film, something that would become ubiquitous in subsequent years and resulted in films like 300 that were nearly all special effects. Others were unimpressed with the acting, especially by Crowe, but like Titanic a few years earlier, it is the spectacle that is really the major point of the film rather than artistic merit or brilliant acting. Oscar wins for costume design and visual effects only reinforce that idea. Ultimately, Gladiator is one of those best picture Oscar winners that gives audiences something they can only experience through the magic of the movies, an impressive feat in its own right.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Reader (2008)

Director: Stephen Daldry                             Writer: David Hare
Film Score: Nico Muhly                               Cinematography: Roger Deakins & Chris Menges
Stars: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross and Bruno Ganz

One of the amazing things a film can do, on occasion, is to illuminate a concept or idea in a way that makes it understandable on a visceral level where it might not have been on a purely intellectual level. The film is The Reader, and the subject is statutory rape. Put that way it sounds a lot more melodramatic than it is, but despite it’s lack of histrionics, this is a film that wraps its historical morality play in a far more serious question: should statutory rape protections be the same for boys as they are for girls? The answer the film provides is a resounding yes. We all know about the sexual double standard that exists in Western Civilization, if not the world, and statutory rape seems no different in that respect. While outraged at the thought of an older man taking advantage of an underage girl, there seems to be less of a concern about underage boys being taught the “facts of life” by an older woman. The attitude seems to be more of a nudge with the elbow and a “that a boy” wink than the horrified call to the police that usually accompanies a similar situation with the opposite sex. What The Reader does so deftly is to demonstrate the profoundly destructive nature of a sexual relationship on a 16-year old boy in a way that could not be clearer. The confusion of love and sex at an early age, while sometimes difficult to understand rationally, is so obvious in the visual medium of film that it should cause all of us to reexamine our own prejudices in this regard.

The film begins in the present, with lawyer Ralph Fiennes in the morning making breakfast for his lover. Everything is neat, orderly, so perfectly sterile and cold it’s as if he needs to impose all of the order and control he lacks in his emotional life upon his physical surroundings. Then she emerges from the bedroom naked and asks him if any woman stays long enough with him to find out what goes on in his head. After she leaves the scene shifts to Fiennes’ past, where he is played by David Kross. The young boy gets off the train, not looking too well, and vomits in front of the building where Kate Winslet lives. She hugs him and takes him home, and after a few months of confinement to his bed because of scarlet fever, he goes back to thank her. Later, when he has the courage, he goes back to her apartment and the two begin a sexual liaison that consumes Kross emotionally. One of the oddities of their relationship is that she has him read to her the books he is studying in school. The relationship is obviously not an equal one and when she is told she is getting a promotion at work--from a ticket taker on the city trains, to a desk in an office--she simply disappears from her apartment leaving Kross devastated. Years later, while Kross is in law school, the episode has clearly left him emotionally scarred in a way that affects all his relationships with women. But then, while his class is studying the trial of five women accused of war crimes, the film takes a turn for the surreal when Kross discovers Winslet is one of those women.

This is such a powerful film, and the performances are so real, that it seems almost criminal the film didn’t win an Oscar for best picture that year, losing out to the more stylized drama of Slumdog Millionaire. The one bright spot at the awards is that Kate Winslet won and Academy Award for best actress, one of her best performances ever. The emotional detachment she displays while playing the character is incredible. And the detachment she has for David Kross is mirrored by that for the Jewish concentration camp prisoners that she allows to burn alive in a church rather than let them escape. But both of these acts actually stem from her stunted intellectual growth that is a result of illiteracy. Not only does her inability to read cause her to leave town when she gets a promotion, but it explains her inhumanity to everyone, including Kross. And still, Winslet manages to wring pathos from the viewer at the same time, a brilliant feat for any actor. David Kross is also exceptional as the emotionally torn boy who tragically refuses the advances of a beautiful girl his own age because of his mistaken feelings for Winslet. And though his part is much smaller, Ralph Fiennes, delivers an terrific performance as well, especially when he reconnects with Winslet--in a way--later in life. Nevertheless, his emotional ruin at her hands when he was a boy remains with him, haunting him and refusing to providing him with anything resembling closure, a testament to the effect of the illegal act Winslet perpetrated, no less damaging than what she did to the Holocaust victims.

Director Stephen Daldry has filmed some incredibly searing portraits of young people dealing with the stresses usually reserved for adult life, and this film falls naturally into that category. The story comes from the novel by Bernhard Schlink, a typically brief and introspective work that is characteristic of modern German novelists. But David Hare also deserves major credit for working the material into a form that is so cinematically revelatory. While the novel allows the reader to see the incongruity between the main character’s thoughts and what has happened to him on an emotional level, the film must do that in a much more direct way, and it succeeds admirably. Daltry had two directors of photography, one imagines one for the historical sequences and the other for the modern, but whatever the division of labor they both do an masterful job as well. Also on hand in a small role as a law professor is one of Germany’s cinematic treasures, Bruno Ganz, as well as a host of young European actors who give full meaning to the term supporting actor. The piano-based score by Nico Muhly lacks anything melodic, but works well in the way it matches the seriousness of the story. The Reader is probably one of the best films to come out in the last thirty years, certainly better than many of the films that have won the best picture Oscar in that time period, and deserves to be mentioned along with the greatest films of all time. It gets my highest recommendation.

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Director: Boris Ingster                                     Writers: Frank Partos & Nathanael West
Film Score: Roy Webb                                    Cinematography: Nicholas Musurace
Starring: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet and Charles Halton

The beginnings of film noir are usually traced back to the 1941 remake of The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart, but it’s an uncomfortable starting point because that film really isn’t a noir film, as such. A better case could actually be made for this RKO film from the previous year. Stranger on the Third Floor seems to use almost every noir cliché in the book, from chiaroscuro lighting and a moving camera, flashback and dream sequences, to voice over and an investigation montage. Had it been made five years later it would almost certainly be knocked as a second-rate noir thriller for that very reason. But there has to be due credit given to the fact that the film was made prior to any of the classic noirs of the period and so it must be reassessed in those terms. This was Boris Ingerster’s first film as a director in America, after working with Serge Eisenstein in Russia and emigrating at the beginning of the war. His understanding of montage and lighting is certainly solid and seemingly influential, as it would show up in hundreds of films over the next decade. While another European immigrant, Peter Lorre, is given top billing, his role is fairly small. After having played out his character in the Mr. Moto films for 20th Century Fox, his agent was able to get him a two-picture deal at RKO, and this film was followed by a bit part in a Kay Kyser horror comedy with Boris Karloff.

The film begins at a lunch counter with John McGuire meeting his fiancé Margaret Tallichet and telling her about the new apartment he wants to rent for the two of them. He’s a beat reporter who witnessed a murder and was able to get himself a raise by writing about it for the paper. At the trial he says he saw Elisha Cook Jr. standing over the body of the dead man and an open cash register in a diner, and Cook ran away after being spotted. But McGuire never witnessed the actual killing. The case is much too open and shut for Tallichet, and she worries Cook didn’t really do it, especially when McGuire is the chief witness for the state. So when the guilty verdict comes in, McGuire isn’t very happy when Tallichet threatens to break things off. He walks around for a while, arguing with himself in voice over, and runs into Peter Lorre sitting on the front stoop of his ratty apartment building--which just happens to be across the street from the scene of the murder. Charles Halton, the bank inspector from It’s a Wonderful Life, plays McGuire’s annoying next door neighbor who complains to the landlady when he types and night, and then snores so loud it keeps McGuire awake. When McGuire catches Lorre on his floor trying to hide, then gets away when he chases him, he notices Halton isn’t snoring any more. Then he begins to wonder what will happen if Halton is found murdered. No one saw Lorre, but plenty of people know McGuire hated Halton, and suddenly he feels as if he’s in the same situation as Cook and is haunted by a nightmare in which he’s convicted of murder.

Of course, when McGuire finally gets up the courage to check he discovers that Halton is dead, and he wants to run just like Cook did. It’s only when he’s talking about it with Tallichet that he gets the idea that both murders were committed by the same man, Peter Lorre, and his only chance of being cleared is to catch the murderer himself. RKO’s actors were never great the way they were at the other studios, and usually appear fairly wooden onscreen. John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet are no exception. But McGuire does some nice work anyway, when he becomes obsessed by the notion that everyone will think he’s guilty. Peter Lorre has a small role, and no dialogue at all until the final scene. He’s very good in it, but a tad derivative of his work in Fritz Lang’s M that he made in Germany a decade earlier. In the screenplay, written by Frank Partos from an original story idea of his, Lorre’s more unsavory qualities were toned down and his humane qualities played up. Partos was also given help in the writing by none other than Nathanael West, whose novel Day of the Locust is a classic of American literature and criticism of Hollywood. There are also a number of character actors that crop up, the most familiar face being that of Herb Vigran as a reporter in the courthouse bull pen.

But it’s the look of the film that is the real draw. The moving camera work by Nicholas Musurace, particularly in the courthouse and on the streets, is terrific. Wonderfully deep shadows also accompany the camerawork and make for an explicit connection to the kind of noir films the studio would specialize during the war. Much of the middle third of the film is shown in flashbacks, but even more impressive is the long dream sequence in which much of the courtroom and jail is suggested through light and shadow. The montage in which Tallichet goes around asking everyone in the neighborhood if they’ve seen Lorre is also exceptionally done. In fact, when the film was originally released the critics felt that it was too “arty” and it never really gained an audience. Today, however, it is recognized as the beginning of a movement. The music, by RKO composer Roy Webb, is below his usual level melodic invention and that’s another aspect of the film that fails to elevate it. It’s not a very sterling example of the genre, but in retrospect it’s a clearly delineated beginning of what would come to be called film noir. Though it’s not a great film, Stranger on the Third Floor has much to recommend it and is worthy of seeking out if for no other reason than its place in film history.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

Director: John Hughes                                   Writer: John Hughes
Film Score: Ira Newborn                                Cinematography: Donald Peterman
Starring: Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins and William Windom

I never really cared much for John Hughes’ films. In comedic terms they try to play too heavily on sentiment and as a result the comedy and the drama become mutually exclusive rather than complementing each other. It’s a bit like what Judd Apatow tries to do today, and it just doesn’t sit well because the sentiment seems grafted on rather than integral to the story. But Hughes did make a couple of films that rose above the rest, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off in 1986, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles from the following year. The later is probably the peak of his career and because the sentiment is absent, for the most part, throughout much of the film it’s more successful than the rest. It’s also one of the great Thanksgiving films of all time, comedy or no. The film was certainly a departure for the writer-director, as he had been associated almost exclusively with teen comedies for most of his career. In this outing he has two veteran comedians starring in the film, doing his interpretation of a buddy picture. Steve Martin benefitted tremendously from the picture, breaking out after a string of rather juvenile films for Carl Reiner and taking his career in a new direction as a straight man. Candy would continue to work with Hughes for a while, even starring in Uncle Buck, but his career was cut short by his untimely death in 1994.

The film opens two days before Thanksgiving in New York, with Steve Martin and Lyman Ward in an advertising meeting with client William Windom who can’t decide on which layout to go with for his cosmetics firm. With time ticking down until Martin’s flight home to Chicago leaves, Ward assures him he’ll never get a cab. When they’ve finally been spring loose and are down on the street, the only cab Martin finds has also been spied by Kevin Bacon and the two race for it. But just as Martin is about to win, he trips over the steamer trunk of John Candy and misses out. After taking the bus to the airport, Martin finds out his plane has been delayed anyway. He and Candy meet at the boarding gate and are seated together on the flight, much to Martin’s dismay. The story is an updated version of The Odd Couple, with the finicky Martin having to endure the slobbish behavior of Candy. While in the air the Chicago airport becomes snowed in and the two are forced to land in Wichita, and though Candy is able to get them the last hotel room in town it only has one double bed and the two are forced to sleep together. It’s then that Martin’s disgust gets the better of him and he takes it out verbally on Candy. Martin immediately regrets it, but this is probably the moment that cements whatever substitutes for friendship in their relationship. The mishaps continue, with the train breaking down the following morning, riding a bus to the airport, and renting a car that catches on fire later that night.

The entire film is just one long endurance contest for Steve Martin, and the comedy comes from seeing just how much of John Candy’s grotesqueries he can stand. It’s actually pretty impressive for just how many of those situations Hughes can come up with, Candy taking his shoes and socks off in the plane, washing his socks in the sink and destroying the bathroom at the hotel, as well as shaking a handful of tobacco spit, being crammed into a bus together, almost getting run over in the snow, and riding in a burned out car. One of the great delights of the picture is the plethora of guest stars that populate the film, popping up everywhere along the line. Windom is an absolute delight in the opening as the silent executive who can’t make up his mind, and returns in the final button to the film after the credits. In addition to Kevin Bacon, and Lyman Ward who was so effective as the clueless father in Ferris Beuller, Larry Hankin is a maniacal cab driver, Dylan Baker is a hayseed truck driver, Martin Ferrero is the night watchman at a hotel, and Michael McKean plays a state trooper. Edie McClurg is a particular standout as the rude agent at the rental car agency that Martin blows up at. While Steve Martin’s performance is rather stylized when he gets angry or tries to run, it’s simply part of his overall aesthetic. Candy, on the other hand, is a natural. The two are, in fact, an odd couple, and that’s what makes them work so well together.

The best sequence in the film has to be when the two are driving in the middle of the night in a rental car. John Candy is terrific pretending to play along with Ray Charles’ “The Mess Around” and gets not only one but both of his arms caught on the seat and nearly crashes the car. The two get turned around and when they get back on the road they are going the wrong way on the freeway. Two semi trucks bear down on them and as they are caught between Martin’s face turns into a skull, and when he looks over at Candy his nemesis has suddenly transformed into a laughing devil. When the car eventually catches on fire it’s the icing on the cake to a laugh out loud scene. Laila Robins plays Martin’s wife who is waiting for him at home with the kids, but her sequences are the least interesting in the film. The soundtrack relies heavily on pop and country tunes, and while the whole thing suffers from eighties datedness the actual compositions by Ira Newborn still hold up well and by this time have become an integral part of the experience. The relentless nature of the trip home and the comedy that John Hughes manages to wring out of it is a really wonderful thing to watch. Though the two men become better people as a result of their travels together, that really isn’t the point. The journey’s the thing. And for generations, that journey home to Thanksgiving has been made palatable by watching Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles and thinking, “at least it isn't that bad.”

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Director: Steven Spielberg                              Writer: Steven Spielberg
Film Score: John Williams                               Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr and Bob Balaban

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is good, but it’s not that good. I mean, come on, if you’re going to put a Steven Spielberg film from the seventies on The A List it’s gotta be Jaws, right? By the time we get to E.T. the bloom was really off the rose and it was time for the director to move on to bigger and better things. Still, Close Encounters was a memorable film, especially considering the Zeitgeist of the period. Erich von Danken had published Chariots of the Gods to popular success, and Charles Berlitz’s books about the Bermuda Triangle were all the rage, so to come out with a big-budget, family friendly film about aliens was a natural. The other thing that was a natural was special effects that had been designed for his pal George Lucas’s Star Wars, which had been released six months earlier. When Spielberg finally gets around to using those effects in full, in the climax, they are spectacular, just what one would wish that contact with alien life could be like. But while the climax of a film should be the culmination of everything that has come before, it seems to be the only real point of this film. That certainly doesn’t make the film bad; in fact it’s quite delightful. But in comparison to Jaws, for instance, it’s nowhere close. That film had a three acts that nearly stand on their own and everything comes together in the end. Here, it’s just one long journey to the payoff, without which there’s very little else. So to label it one of the one hundred essential films of all time is, as often happens in The A List, a little difficult to understand.

The film begins with a scene lifted--if not directly then in spirit--from William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, a sand-blown desert, this time in Mexico, in which airplanes that had vanished into the Bermuda Triangle have miraculously appeared exactly how they looked at the time, in 1945. The great François Truffaut is among those investigating the find, and Bob Balaban is interpreting for him. From there, the scene switches to commercial aircraft landing in Indianapolis who see the UFO, but once the collision is avoided they don’t want to report it officially. Then, outside of Muncie, Indiana, little Cary Guffey wakes up and walks downstairs to see aliens in the kitchen, while everything electronic in the house turns on. Elsewhere, Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr are living the seventies suburban nightmare with three kids and not enough money. Dreyfuss is a lineman and a power outage has spread across the county. While trying to find his way on the dark country roads he has an encounter with four small space ships and comes back to the house changed in some indefinable way, and gets fired the next day. While Truffaut is globetrotting the world and discovering the musical notes that people in India heard, Dreyfuss spends his day on the corner where he and several others, including Guffey and his mother Melinda Dillon, saw the ships disappear into the sky. Then, two nights later, the ship comes back and takes Guffey. It’s a harrowing experience that the Air Force makes light of, though they are secretly heading toward the rendezvous at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming that is at the heart of the movie.

Spielberg himself wrote the screenplay, with assistance from four other writers. As a result, the film is long on visuals and light on interesting dialogue. It certainly was a simpler time, when UN peacekeeping troops had nothing better to do than to chase after lost merchant ships that appeared in the middle of the Gobi Desert. And the product placement that was so unique back then seems decidedly garish today. What is interesting about the film is the human drama, especially as Dreyfuss’s family falls apart and Dillon’s quest for her missing son lead in the same direction. Of course, the secretive government agencies that would be so much a part of E.T. are here in more recognizable form, and in an Area 51 type operation that they can’t cover up this time. I remember seeing the film in the theater when it came out and it was entertaining but certainly not transcendent, because so much of what was good about it then had to do with the ideas about UFOs that were in the air at the time. Today it seems fairly one-note, especially when compared to Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Of course it’s wonderful to see Truffaut, a mere seven years before his untimely death. And Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon are terrific together. The film would influence projects as diverse as Cocoon and The Abyss, but ultimately there are much better films from the seventies that represent the craft of Spielberg prior to The Color Purple and his trajectory toward more meaningful historical films.

In his essay for The A List, Matt Zoller Seitz does manage to touch on what remains powerful about the film, “not just what extraterrestrial life might look like but how proof of its existence might make us feel.” But then he spends the bulk of the film recounting the plot, always a tip off that there isn’t a whole lot to talk about otherwise. And that is the case here. It’s telling that when Seitz does get around to analyzing the film he spends far more time talking about E.T. than the actual subject of the essay. He calls the later film an “unofficial sequel,” but the two are so vastly different that it doesn’t make sense on its face. E.T. began with the meeting of the extra-terrestrial, and the dramatic arc of the film was about the relationship that evolved between the “fatherless suburban boy and a stranded alien botanist.” Close Encounters, on the other hand, tries to deal realistically with the subject in the way that it had been presented in the culture at large at the time. Seitz even seems to understand this disparity when at the end of his piece calls E.T. “a storybook addendum” to the earlier film, which only serves to point out the distinct difference between them, then goes on talking about E.T. and never comes back. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is certainly a spectacle worthy of praise, and an absolutely entertaining film to watch. But strictly in terms of Spielberg’s seventies output it’s not only not his best, it’s not even his second best film of the decade.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Laura (1944)

Director: Otto Preminger                                 Writer: Jay Dratler & Betty Reinhardt
Film Score: David Raksin                                Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Starring: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb and Vincent Price

This is the first of Otto Preminger’s films featuring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. The second was Where the Sidewalk Ends in 1950, and while an interesting film is not nearly the iconic movie that this one is. Laura is odd in many ways. It is often cited as one of the classic examples of film noir, and yet the first half has very little of the usual features of those kinds of films. Much of it takes place during the daytime, and almost none of it on the streets. There’s no real sense of chiaroscuro lighting and no real femme fatale in the story. And yet film noir fans have always claimed it for their own. But it’s easy to see why, as the film is so incredibly good. The one inescapable noir aspect throughout is an overwhelming sense of obsession in the film, by both Dana Andrews and Clifton Webb, and to a lesser extent Vincent Price. And this obsession is only magnified by David Raksin’s impressive score. The film is based on a serialized story by Vera Caspary called “Ring Twice for Laura.” She had been approached by Otto Preminger who offered to work on adapting it as a Broadway play with her, but she decided to produce the play on her own. Unable to attract a major star, however, she couldn’t get financing and settled on expanding it to novel form, then promptly sold the film rights to 20th Century Fox and it wound up in Preminger’s lap anyway after Rouben Mamoulian botched the first attempt to film the story.

The opening credits begin over the omnipresent portrait of Gene Tierney as the title character, accompanied by David Raksin’s inspired song of the same name. The story begins in the home of Clifton Webb, a supercilious newspaper columnist who is writing something of an obituary for the recently murdered Tierney. Dana Andrews, as a police detective, interviews him briefly while Webb is in the tub and then the columnist invites himself along as he goes to question the other witnesses. One of those is Judith Anderson who was in love with Tierney’s fiancé, Vincent Price, who just happens to be in her apartment when they get there. Webb is convinced that Tierney was never going to marry him, and Price makes himself look even guiltier by trying to plant the key to her country cabin in her apartment. At a restaurant that night Webb gives Andrews the whole backstory on Tierney. Fiver years earlier she was a struggling advertising flunky who suffered Webb’s withering wrath when she tried to get his endorsement for a fountain pen campaign. But eventually he had the idea of turning her into a woman of culture like Pygmalion, and as soon as he succeeded she began casting about for someone more to her liking than the shriveled up Webb. The fact that she chooses Price just about drives Webb to distraction, and eventually both he and Andrews become convinced that there’s something more to the relationship than either of them knows.

After interviewing all the witnesses, Andrews can’t help wandering around her empty apartment, and before long he becomes obsessed with Tierney. But almost everyone is a suspect, Webb because he was spurned, Price because he may have been as well, and Anderson because she wanted Price for herself. There’s so much to like about this film it’s difficult to know where to start. Gene Tierney may be the star of the picture, but Clifton Webb absolutely steals the show. It’s really his film from start to finish, and many of the lines he is given are priceless. But in fact, focusing too much on Webb is a shame because of how good Dana Andrews is. He does a stellar job because his character keeps almost everything to himself, never letting on the way he is connecting all of the information he gathers in what seems like offhand questions most of the time. Because of his seemingly distracted manner, it pulls the killer into his trap. His mannerisms when he is thinking about Tierney, and especially when Webb accurately accuses him of being in love with her, are absolutely masterful. This is an early role for Vincent Price, before he became associated with horror pictures. His obviously phony claims of innocence are undercut by his behavior and for modern audiences his later filmic associations only help him in the role. Judith Anderson, is also terrific as the rich widow who can’t seem to get her hooks into the slippery Price, except when he needs her money.

Andrews’ obsession with the dead Tierney is the primary feature of the film, and it is reinforced by Preminger’s camera as it lovingly looks at every object in her apartment. It’s also reinforced by the other main character in the film: the music. David Raksin’s theme is heard in almost every variation there is, from jazz to classical, on a record player and in a restaurant. It’s the thing throughout the first half of the film that keeps Tierney present, in spirit if not the flesh. That and the clock. Preminger himself seems obsessed by the twin grandfather clocks in Tierney’s and Webb’s apartments, and never lets a moment go by to center them in the shot, but the payoff in the final, closing image of the film makes it all worth it. The second half of the film is probably most like noir when the action moves out to Tierney’s country house at night in the rain and Price turns out to me much more than he pretends. Back in the city the entire climax takes place at night, too, with some nice high-contrast lighting by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle who won an Academy Award for his work. Otto Preminger was honored with a best director nomination, as was Webb for his performance, but the most glaring omission that year was that David Raksin was overlooked for his score, especially considering that no less than twenty nominations were given out in that category with two each going to Max Steiner and Miklós Rózsa. Though it’s more of a mystery than film noir, Laura is an incredibly satisfying film that certainly deserves its classic status.

The Exorcist (1973)

Director: William Friedkin                                 Writer: William Peter Blatty
Film Score: Jack Nitzsche                                Cinematography: Owen Roizman
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller and Max von Sydow

One of the incredible ironies of religion is how much Christians love the Devil. I don’t mean literally, but the reality is that while God appears to be reticent in making himself known to man, the Devil has had no such inhibitions. This is something Arthur Miller makes wonderfully clear in his introduction to The Crucible. While it seems almost impossible to prove the existence of God, it seems very easy to prove that Satan is real and thereby indirectly proving God is also. When someone says they hear the voice of God, people usually think they’re nuts. But when someone says they have been contacted by evil spirits, people look at them wide-eyed with more than a willingness to believe. This is really the great trick of The Exorcist, first a best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty and then a blockbuster movie phenomenon when it was initially released. Several sequels followed and it has since become a franchise. Unlike monster movies that present a terror from without, this film’s secret lies in the idea that no one is safe from the spirit world, and once that world gets access through even an innocent child it will do anything it can to manifest itself to an unsuspecting humanity.

The film opens with a beautifully shot sequence in Iraq, something Steven Spielberg would crib for the opening of Close Encounters with Françios Truffaut in Mexico. Max von Sydow is a retired priest doing archeological work and discovers an artifact that seems to frighten him, a figure with a strange face. It causes him to leave, in fact, but not before facing down a giant statue with the same evil face. Across the world in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., Ellen Burstyn is a Hollywood actress shooting a film there, staying in a brownstone with her daughter, Linda Blair. Burstyn hears noises in the attic one morning and assumes it’s rats, while in her daughter’s room the window is wide open and it’s freezing so she shuts it. On location at the college, priest Jason Miller watches with the rest of the crowd before leaving when the scene is over. The music by Jack Nizsche that accompanies Burstyn as she walks home on Halloween is something that would inspire John Carpenter’s main theme for, what else, Halloween. She also sees Miller on her way home and she remembers him for later. Miller is an interesting case, a priest who has lost his faith and essentially works as a psychologist. He visits his mother, who lives alone in New York, whenever he can but feels guilty that she won’t move into assisted living. Burstyn, meanwhile, discovers Blair has been playing with a Ouija board. It’s after this that several things happen at once.

The rats in the attic turn out to be a poltergeist that attacks Blair, and Miller’s mother winds up dying in a mental hospital. The church is vandalized and Burstyn takes Blair to a psychologist, but her behavior becomes exponentially worse. Finally the doctors, running out of ideas, refer her to Miller for a possible exorcism. When Bursyn comes home one night to find that her boyfriend has been killed jumping out of her daughter’s window, Lee J. Cobb, a homicide detective, comes sniffing around to ask questions. By the time Miller gets involved the situation is beyond belief, with Blair being completely possessed, and so the church recommends he bring in von Sydow to perform the rite. When seen from forty years later, The Exorcist is a marvel of restraint. Though at first blush it wouldn’t seem so, considering the legendary status of the scenes with Linda Blair, the film actually has exquisite pacing of the kind that has all but disappeared in Hollywood productions over the past thirty years. In fact, it’s almost a full hour into the film before anything genuinely horrifying happens, and when it does . . . all hell breaks lose. Friedkin takes his time to set up the characters, make them believable, and allow the audience to invest in them before unleashing something from beyond this world, and pitting the two holy men against it.

Jason Miller’s character is perfect for the story. To have a priest who has stopped believing have to face the Devil--the very proof of God’s existence--is the masterstroke of Blatty’s original novel. The amazing Max von Sydow is, quite literally, ageless. He was playing eighty-year-old men while still in his forties, and his roles have only recently caught up to his age. He is masterful as the priest who has seen it all before. Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair are also terrific in retrospect, especially in the believability of their mother-daughter relationship. But among this surfeit of acting talent, Lee J. Cobb’s role almost seems like an afterthought, and by the end of the film almost beside the point. The special effects were state of the art at the time and are still much more impressive than the CGI of modern horror films. The suburban setting is one that would be revisited by the Spielberg produced Poltergeist as a way to heighten the horror, and the Catholic iconography is deliciously frightening in and of itself. The shame is that modern audiences, who have become jaded to this sort of thing, wise to special effects and impatient at the pacing, will never be able to shed their disbelief long enough to really appreciate the artistry of what a film like this can really do. But the fault is not in the film. This is a classic in every sense of the word.

In Terrence Rafferty’s essay in The A List he begins by making a nice historical parallel by comparing the expulsion of the evil spirit from Blair’s body to the expulsion of Richard Nixon from the White House. He also adds some quite humorous personal history from the time the film was released, and as it was written to coincide with the release of the director’s cut, some equally humorous anecdotes about the feud between Friedkin and Blatty, especially over the ending. The one addition that merited praise from Rafferty is the extended screen time for Max von Sydow, whom he calls “the planet’s greatest living actor.” Hear, hear! The writer compares him to an old western gunslinger who has seen too much to really get excited over anything, and perfectly describes him as “the one person involved in the movie who understands that it’s not a theological parable but an exceptionally perverse western.” Cross genre references like that are something that don’t usually spring immediately to mind, but once you hear them you can’t see the film in any other way. Rafferty’s dry humor is just what is needed for a gross-out flick like The Exorcist, and rightfully credits the film with the explosion--pun intended--of the genre.

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

Director: Bruce Humberstone                           Writer: Dwight Taylor
Film Score: Cyril J. Mockridge                          Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Starring: Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis and Laird Cregar

Despite the title, I Wake Up Screaming is something of an odd mix of film noir and comedy. The concept had been tried before when Warner Brothers remade The Maltese Falcon as a comedy with Bette Davis in 1936 and named it Satan Met a Lady, but it works better here, primarily due to the presence of Betty Grable who is a lot more familiar with comedy than Davis ever was. The film was originally titled Hot Spot, a double meaning for both celebrity and the electric chair, and there were even posters made with that title. In retrospect that would have been a much better title than the misleading one it ended up with. Most books on noir call in a prototype, or early noir, and give it a lot of praise. But while it does have the dark look of the city and is filled with chiaroscuro lighting, it doesn’t seem worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as most noir films which take themselves far more seriously. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t a good picture. In fact, it’s a quite enjoyable mystery, livened considerably by the comedic elements. It was based on the hard-boiled novel of the same name by Steve Fisher that did deserve the title. The novel was originally set in Hollywood, but it would be another decade before studios became comfortable criticizing themselves, so Darryl Zanuck switched the location to New York.

The credits begin with a generic shot of a city at night, accompanied by the popular theme from Street Scene, by Alfred Newman from a decade earlier, that Fox used in many of their other films. The film begins with Victor Mature in the basement of the police station, being grilled under the bright lights for the murder of Carole Landis. When detective William Gargan asks him to tell the story again, he begins by meeting Landis as a waitress in a coffee shop with friends Alan Mobray and Allyn Joslin, then taking her out the next night to a nightclub where she turns heads as part of a plan the three of them have to turn her from a nobody into a society darling. Elisha Cook Jr. is the doorman at the hotel where she lives with her sister, Betty Grable, who is now in the next room at the police station being questioned herself. Sparks fly when Grable meets Mature the following morning, as she is sure he’s up to no good making her sister think she can be a star, but it’s also clear Mature likes her a lot. Things go south when Landis takes an offer from a Hollywood big shot and tells everyone she’s moving to California. Back at the police station Grable remembers seeing creepy Laird Cregar staring at her sister at the coffee shop, but then he winds up being the detective in charge of the whole investigation. It turns out that Grable found Mature over the body of her sister in the apartment, and that’s how they both became suspects, because Landis knew they were in love with each other.

The whole thing is such a strange mixture of the obsessive cop, Laird Cregar, behaving like Javert in Les Misérables, so certain is he that Victor Mature is guilty. But it’s Cregar himself who is the most suspicious character in the film. The writing by Dwight Taylor is also very well done, especially the gags that he gives to Mature and Grable. There’s also a positively delightful bit of physical humor with a cop and a Murphy bed. All the leads are terrific, and very watchable. A few familiar character actors pop up during the course of the film, Bert Stevens and Frank McClure show up at a nightclub, Frank Orth plays a cemetery caretaker, and the unforgettable Charles Lane appears as a florist. One of the decided weaknesses of the film is the score, if you can even call it that, by Cyril J. Mockridge. Unlike the repeated use of the theme song by David Raksin in different forms for Laura three years later, Mockridge simply repeats the same recording of Street Scene over and over for the dramatic scenes, and for the love theme for Grable and Mature he uses “Over the Rainbow.” At times, when Grable is alone, “Mona Lisa” shows up, but it’s pretty unimaginative overall. I Wake Up Screaming is an enjoyable film that could be a disappointment if gone into expecting straight noir. But as a somewhat clichéd murder mystery-comedy it’s quite good.