Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Touchback (2011)

Director: Don Handfield                                    Writer: Don Handfield
Film Score: William Ross                                  Cinematography: David Rush Morrison
Starring: Brian Presley, Kurt Russell, Melanie Lynskey and Christine Lahti

It’s tempting to want to compare Touchback to It’s a Wonderful Life, and there is some crossover, but the underlying premise of each is very different, especially when you consider the motivation of the main characters. Brian Presley plays a high school football star who wins the big game, a state championship against an overwhelming favorite, but is severely injured making the winning touchdown and loses his college scholarship in the process. Flash ahead a decade later and Presley is now a struggling soy farmer, married to Melanie Lynskey and with two little girls. Add to that the fact that his leg is crippled, his land is being foreclosed on and his crops are about to rot on the vine, and his devastation is nearly complete. With no way out, he drives up to the bluff overlooking his high school football stadium, plugs up the tailpipe of his truck and turns over the engine. Like George Bailey from Frank Capra’s iconic film, he feels there’s no other choice than to leave his family with some insurance money and the ability to begin anew, without him.

But the similarity ends there. In the Capra film Jimmy Stewart is given the opportunity to see what life for people around him would have been like in his absence, and so his motivation becomes to get back what he had in his life, mainly his wife and children. What motivates Presley, however, is that he hates his life and wants it to be what it could have been, which is a very big difference. In the later film Presley will have the opportunity to change the direction of his life and create a new future for himself. It’s a tempting opportunity, but the price in this case is leaving behind his wife and children which he seems more than willing to do. After passing out in his truck, Presley eventually wakes up because the truck runs out of gas, yet another cruel irony in his life. When he realizes he isn’t dead, he steps out of his truck and discovers he’s back in high school. It’s still a week away from the big game and he has a decision to make: go for the win and ruin his leg again, or sit out the game and go to Ohio State and possibly the pros. One of the interesting things about the premise is the way that his older and wiser self perceives his high school experience. It quickly becomes clear through the reactions of his other classmates that he was an incredible jerk to kids who were not in his social clique. This point is made all the clearer when he tries to rekindle the relationship with his wife.

While he had married Lynskey after his injury, his attempts to befriend her prior to that meet only with scorn as he is clearly slumming in her eyes, as well as already dating the head cheerleader. But he is also able to spend more time with his hard-working single mother, Christine Lahti, and get a new perspective on the head coach of the football team, Kurt Russell. It turns out that Russell is offered a college job nearly every year and yet he chooses to stay in the small town where he grew up. While Presley believes the choice is clear, he is mystified that he keeps getting resistance from everyone in his life. Presley is fairly unconvincing as a football player because of his small stature, but as a mid-level actor he does an adequate job. Melanie Lynskey is a lot more difficult to believe because of all her years on Two and a Half Men, especially trying to play a high school age girl. Most of the supporting cast is equally underwhelming, but Christine Lahti does well enough in a stereotyped role and Kurt Russell, while not quite phoning it in after perfecting the type in Miracle, is still a welcome presence. Ultimately the ending of the film returns to emulate the Capra classic, but because of the distinct difference in motivation it lacks much of the joy. Touchback is interesting, in a way, but not much of a film, maybe enjoyable for lovers of football film, but don’t go into it for the acting.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

White Zombie (1932)

Director: Victor Halperin                                    Writers: Garnett Weston
Music: Abe Meyer                                             Cinematography: Arthur Martinelli
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn and Robert Frazer

The Halperin Brothers, in attempting to recapture the same sort of suspense and horror that Universal did with Dracula, nearly succeeded. Though White Zombie is something on the order of a Z-grade movie, it has a lot going for it. The story is based on the novel The Magic Island by William Seabrook, its title a reference to the blonde woman in her wedding dress being turned into a zombie. Though this was an independent production, many of the interiors were shot at Universal Studios and made use of their extensive back lot to create one of the more effective early horror efforts. The Halperin’s also had the use of Jack Pierce to do the makeup, as well as one of Universal’s stars in Bela Lugosi and the success of the film at the time was no doubt largely due to his presence. The other actors are not nearly as successful and they tend to bring the production down considerably, and were primarily responsible for negative reviews during its initial release. The acting is still bad today, but the film has its own charm and does have some nice touches.

The story begins with the credits appearing over a throng of singing blacks in Haiti burying a body in the middle of the road. This is something settlers heading out to the American West used to do to prevent the corpses from being dug up. Like the opening of Dracula, a stagecoach rides into view, with John Harron and his fiancé Madge Bellamy newly arrived on the island. They are stopped by none other than Bela Lugoi, first introduced as a pair of eyes. He says nothing as he places his hand on Bellamy’s scarf. But when zombies begin coming down the hill like something George Romero would shoot nearly forty years later, driver Clarence Muse takes off leaving the scarf in Lugosi’s hands. At the plantation the couple meet the minister, Joseph Cawthorn, who tries to warn them about their host, Robert Frazer, who it turns out wants Bellamy for his own. Frazer then goes to the owner of a sugar mill, Bela Lugosi, and asks him for help, promising anything in return. Lugosi gives him a potion to give to Bellamy, which induces a death-like trance on her wedding night, and they hold a funeral for her on the plantation. Harron then gives into a drunken depression and wanders out into the graveyard only to find Bellamy’s casket has been stolen along with her body. Naturally, Harron enlists the help of Cawthorn who is eager to discover the truth behind the myths.

Despite the poor production values, there are some nice artistic touches by director Victor Halperin and his cameraman Arthur Martinelli. The superimposition of Lugosi’s eyes in the beginning of the film, as well as his face in a glass of champagne are well done, as are the split screen of Harron and Bellamy toward the end. Halperin also makes good use of the crypt set, shot from inside, to create what amounts to an iris effect, and uses some interesting framing devices and moving cameras throughout. When Harron is in Cawthorn’s office telling him about the disappearance of Bellamy, the scene begins by shooting Cawthorn’s face through Harron’s arm, and at the end of the scene it returns to the same place for the fadeout. Likewise, Halperin was able to get the most out of his time at Universal, and the great hall from Dracula, as well as the exterior matte shot of the castle, are impressive. One negative on the technical side, but standard procedure for early talkies, is the lack of a film score. The only music cues--when Lugosi is putting Bellamy into the trance with a wax voodoo doll, or in the ruined castle where Lugosi lives--are not stock music but new recordings of obscure classical pieces by musical director Abe Meyer that don’t go with the action very well at all.

The star of the film is clearly Lugosi, and he seems much more confident here than he did the year before in Dracula. There are even some jokes in the script, like when Lugosi emphasizes the word “wine.” The gesture with the interlocking hands when he controls the zombie’s is a nice one, and Jack Pierce’s makeup is a great look for the villain of the piece. The only other notable performance, however, even though it is a tiny role, has to be Clarence Muse. While saddled with the stereotype of the frightened black man, all bulging eyes and quavering voice, he actually manages to instill some dignity in his role, probably because he keeps his voice very serious and refuses to go overboard with the facial characterization. As for the rest of the cast, they are what they are, has-beens from the silent era who aren’t really up for the challenge or, in the case of Cawthorn, badly miscast. Though the film has received more positive attention recently, especially with the Roan restoration, White Zombie an uneven production at best with some impressive visuals and a nice performance by Bela Lugosi.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Alien (1979)

Director: Ridley Scott                                         Writers: Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                              Cinematography: Derek Vanlint
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skeritt, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto

For a long time now I’ve felt that science-fiction isn’t really a genre at all, that it’s more of a setting for other types of stories. Ridley Scott’s Alien is a case in point. Despite its futuristic trappings, it’s just an old-fashioned monster movie. In fact, it could be one of the best horror films of all time. The monster is so impressive for its time that it makes the monsters in John Carpenter’s The Thing seem almost amateurish by comparison. And yet, like so many classic films it’s doubtful whether it would even get made today, at least not with the screenplay as it exists. The monster doesn’t make an appearance until nearly an hour into the film. In fact, nothing really horrific happens for a long time. In this way it is also similar to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, though in that film the lack of a shark early on was due to technical difficulties, but it actually made for a more suspenseful film. The similarity wasn’t accidental, however. The screenplay by Dan O’Bannon was a purposeful pastiche of ideas from various horror and science-fiction films and when he was pitching his finished script to the studios he even described it as Jaws in space. The film narrowly escaped an early death when a deal was almost struck with Roger Corman. Fortunately the producers gave the project to Ridley Scott and when 20th Century Fox saw his storyboards they instantly doubled the budget.

The film begins with a shot of the mining ship Nostromo heading back to Earth. The computer that operates the ship, called Mother, wakes up the crew, which should be their indication that they are nearly home. Instead, they are still in deep space and the ship has responded to a distress signal from an uninhabited planet that they are tasked to investigate. Tom Skeritt is the commander of the ship and is the only one with access to Mother. The executive officer is John Hurt and the navigator is Veronica Cartwright, and both go with Skeritt to investigate an enormous ship that looks as if it has been on the planet for some time. They find a single humanoid at the helm, and he is of equally gigantic stature but long dead, and a hole in the floor is eaten away and leads down to a bed of cocoon-like objects. As Hurt is investigating, one of the cocoons opens and Ridley Scott makes a wonderful choice to simply cut back to the ship with the three trying to enter. Warrant officer, and third in command, Sigourney Weaver doesn’t want to let them in because of quarantine regulations, but science officer Ian Holm overrides her and opens the hatch. When they cut Hurt’s helmet off they find a spider-like creature has attached itself to his head and wrapped its tail around his neck. And though the creature is frightening enough on its own, the real battle takes place as the rest of the crew is dispatched one by one, old dark house style.

One of the most impressive things about the film is the attention to detail. When the crew fires up the hardware to fly home, they are all at their stations going through their checklists and doing what look to be real jobs. As they land on the planet, there is also some damage done to the ship that delays them as they have to wait for repairs. Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Koto are particularly good at playing the disgruntled blue-collar workers who have to fix the ship and want a bigger share of the payment for the minerals. Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay takes time to establish characters and this not only builds suspense in general but empathy for the specific characters. And the characters themselves are also convincing because of their age. They are not a bunch of twenty-year-olds, but people who look like they could actually have been working on mining vessels for a few years. Another important aspect of the film was the design of the monster by artist H.R. Giger, who not only created the monster but designed the look of the surface of the planet, the ship, and the alien cocoons as well. Ridley Scott’s tremendous direction is also excellent, emphasizing the seriousness that was inherent in the screenplay and working toward the same vision as O’Bannon.

There were several scenes and ideas that were cut from the film, which only served to streamline the story and make it that much more thrilling. But most of those ideas were revived on future films in the franchise. In fact, the durability of the story itself, not only spawning four sequels so far but a merging with the Predator franchise is argument enough for its status as a classic. But there is so much more that went into the film, the production design on the Nostromo, which was nominated for an Oscar, the special effects for the miniatures and monsters, which won the film’s only Academy Award, and the film score by Jerry Goldsmith. Originally Goldsmith wanted to do a kind of romantic score, something on the order of the water dance from Creature from the Black Lagoon, but when Scott and the executives at the studio hated it, he composed a more conventional scary score and, of course, they loved it. The film is full of incredibly memorable scenes, the face-hugger, the chest-buster, and the creature hiding in the escape pod. But ultimately the goal of both Dan O’Bannon and Ridley Scott to make a first-class sci-fi horror film was fully realized and the film is rightfully considered one of the finest films in the genre.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Illusionist (2006)

Director: Neil Burger                                         Writer: Neil Burger
Film Score: Philip Glass                                   Cinematography: Dick Pope
Starring: Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell and Paul Giamatti

The first film I ever saw Edward Norton in was The Italian Job . . . and I hated him. Not his performance, I hated the character, which I was supposed to. The only problem was it worked too well and I didn’t want to watch him in another movie at all . . . because I hated him. I wasn’t a big fan of Rufus Sewell, either. Jessica Biel, on the other hand, is a goddess, but the only thing I really knew her from was the lame television show Seventh Heaven. What actually brought me kicking and screaming to this film was Paul Giamatti, whom I had absolutely fallen in love with in Sideways and was equally impressed with in John Adams. I’m glad, though, because The Illusionist is a terrific film with a lot of fascinating aspects to it. If there’s a downside it is that it is told in the form of a fairy tale, which is no doubt due to the source material, a short story by Steven Millhauser called “Eisenheim the Illusionist.” Though set in Austria, the film was shot primarily in Czech Republic, including the studio sequences which were shot at the Barrandov Studios in Prague. Production design by Czech Ondrej Nekvasil is very good, especially the theater scenes and the rooms in the palace. But it was the cinematography by Dick Pope that earned the film its only Academy Award nomination.

The film begins in a small theater in Vienna, with Edward Norton sitting alone onstage. As something begins to form to his right, a woman in the audience claims to see something and Paul Giamatti as the chief inspector arrests him. Later Giamatti goes to see Rufus Sewell, the crown prince, and gives his report with the bulk of the film being told in flashback. He begins with the history of Norton, played by Aaron Johnson, and his fascination with magic. The boy also meets Eleanor Thomlinson, the young duchess who will grow up to become Jessica Biel, and they form a bond. Over the next few years the two fall in love, but are separated because he is a peasant. So he leaves to travel the world, and begins performing his act in public, showing up in Vienna fifteen years later as Edward Norton. His act is fairly straightforward for a magician of his day, and helped along by computer graphics. Sewell attends the next performance and the crown prince tells Biel to go up as Norton’s assistant. Norton recognizes her instantly, but it takes her until after the show. At a command performance at the palace, he subtly humiliates Sewell and then when Biel comes to see Norton the two of them physically consummate their love.

The key to the film is when he asks her, by the firelight, if she really wants to go away with him. She says that Sewell’s men will hunt them down wherever they go. And the rest of the film is quite magical indeed, especially with Giamatti playing a nineteenth-century version of Columbo. Edward Norton does a very credible job as the title character. Though his accent is a bit sketchy, his dark brooding manner is just right for the part. Rufus Sewell is also good as the angry, abusive prince, but it’s Paul Giamatti who commands the screen, and even he is not without his deficiencies as the chief inspector. Within the confines of the fairy-tale story, however, it all comes together. Jessica Biel is probably the weakest of the leads, and her role could have been played by any competent actress. Character actor Eddie Marsan puts in a nice turn as Norton’s manager, and would be wonderfully cast a few years later as Inspector Lestrade in the Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes films. The illusions are great, especially the first time viewing, and it has a very satisfying conclusion. Also, the film score by Philip Glass is very good at evoking the late nineteenth century and the CD has become an out of print rarity. The Illusionist, while not being a great film, certainly has a lot to recommend it, and for fans of any of the principals it is a must see.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Director: Guy Ritchie                                         Writers: Michael R. Johnson & Anthony Peckham
Film Score: Hans Zimmer                                 Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Mark Strong and Rachel McAdams

Though Robert Downey Jr. had made his comeback sometime before this, in the Iron Man films, for me it really began the previous year in Zodiac, and continued after Iron Man in The Soloist. But where his true métier shows is in the wonderfully reimagined films of the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle detective, Sherlock Holmes. Using all of modern technology, green screen and computer graphic effects, this steam punk update of the Victorian era was not the first. Films like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing had been there first, but it was the élan of Downey as Holmes and his onscreen relationship with Jude Law as Dr. Watson--as it always has been--that has made these revisions a classic, unlike their valiant predecessors. The original story was pieced together by producer Lionel Wigram from various motifs in Doyle’s stories rather than specific story elements themselves, as well as ideas and people who were in London at the time. The plot, in its most simplistic form, resembles the gothic flavor of The Hound of the Baskervilles in pitting Holmes’ intellect and reasoning against an apparent supernatural force.

The film begins with a beautifully constructed studio title sequence that is made from cobblestones on a rainy street, complete with Hans Zimmer’s barroom piano on the soundtrack. A coach passes by and then the camera catches up to it. It’s a police wagon with Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade and other policemen, as well as Jude Law as Watson, loading their guns for an apparent raid. But then the coach is seen chasing someone, Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes, and the meaning is clear, the coach is trying to catch up to Holmes. Downey is after someone who leads him inside a labyrinthine building. Next the audience sees one of the unique aspects of the film. Downey needs to dispatch a night watchman and goes through all the moves in his head in slow motion before he attacks. This glimpse into the mind of Holmes is rarely seen in most films. Then, like something from the Perils of Pauline, the objective is shown, a woman on a slab the apparent victim of some dark ritual with Holmes rushing in to save her. Downey is almost ambushed but he is saved by Law and their witty repartee begins at once. Finally they capture Mark Strong as Lord Blackwood and the case is solved.

After the newspaper credits roll the scene shifts to Law showing his flat to an older gentleman, as he is getting married and leaving 221-B Baker Street. Downey, on the other hand, is despondent without a case, something reminiscent of the film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. He comes between Law and his fiancée Kelly Reilly at dinner then goes boxing for recreation, destroying his opponent in the same way. The scene next shifts to the hanging of Strong, in which Downey is informed by Strong that more will die after his death, followed by the appearance of Downey’s former love interest, Rachel McAdams who mysteriously hires him to locate a missing person. The film really gets going when Strong apparently has risen from the dead and the missing person McAdams is after is found in the coffin instead. The race is on to stop the murders and find Strong before he can fulfill his prophecy. It’s a solid story, full of twists and leavened with plenty of humor, especially from Downey. The primary criticism of the film is that it transformed the mystery story into an action movie, complete with armed fighting, explosions, and numerous miraculous getaways. Still, the characters are the real draw and they are responsible for the bulk of the positive criticism the film received.

Robert Downey and Jude Law are like an old married couple in the film and it’s a joy to watch. Downey apparently advocated for the casting of Rachel McAdams, though for me she was the weakest character in the bunch, and the part would have benefited from a much stronger actress. The villain, on the other hand, could not have been more perfectly selected. Mark Strong does a terrific job as Blackwood--based on the likeness and public image of Aleister Crowley--and he would go on to play another villain in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood the following year. Eddie Marsan is a great foil for Downey as Lestrade, but Hans Matheson is a weak choice for the aptly named Lord Coward, and was likewise the low point in an otherwise brilliant cast a decade earlier in Bille August’s Les Misérables. Director Guy Ritchie actually does a solid job with the special effects and has a good eye for interesting camera setups. Color manipulation of the film helps to give it a period feel, though a more sepia tone rather than the blue-green tint would have perhaps been more interesting. Hans Zimmer’s score is also quite inventive, using a scratchy violin--an instrument associated with Holmes as well as English folk music--to give the music a distinctive personality. In all, Sherlock Holmes is a great addition to a legendary tradition and hopefully a franchise that will continue for many years.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Dr. X (1932)

Director: Michael Curtiz                                     Writers: Robert Tasker & Earl Baldwin
Music: Bernhard Kaun                                       Cinematography: Ray Rennahan
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Robert Warwick and George Rosener

This is actually the first of five horror films that Fay Wray made in a row that essentially cemented her image as Hollywood’s first scream queen. It’s also one of the first sound films to use the two-strip Technicolor process and, as such, is the first color horror film. In essence, however, Dr. X is really more of an old dark house picture than anything else, but that makes sense as the story began as a Broadway play called The Terror. The film stars Lionel Atwill as the title character, Dr. Xavier, and Fay Wray as his daughter, with Lee Tracey as the wisecracking reporter and comedy relief. Though Atwill had done a previous film for Fox, this was the beginning of a long and distinguished career, first at Warner Brothers, and then at Universal, before he became typecast and languished in poverty row productions until his death. The other notable member of the production is Michael Curtiz, a brilliant director who would go on to become one of the most prolific and artistic directors in Hollywood. The opening credits were composed by Berhard Kaun, who also penned the opening title song for Universal’s Frankenstein the previous year.

The film begins with Lee Tracy as a newspaper reporter hiding on the docks where a mortuary is located. He follows a car containing police detectives and a doctor, Lionel Atwill, but can’t gain access to see what it’s all about. He thinks it’s another victim of the Moon Murderer who kills every time there’s a full moon, and so does Atwill who performs an autopsy on the latest vicitm. But police commissioner Robert Warwick is convinced that the murderer is connected to Atwill’s private medical school because of the use of a scalpel to dispatch the victims. Atwill, of course, is outraged at the suggestion, but offers to conduct the investigation himself to avoid the publicity. Meanwhile Tracy, unnerved after hiding in the morgue, manages to get all of the story. Fay Wray is Atwill’s daughter and lives at the school with him. All of the students are gone on vacation but his faculty are eccentrics who have rather suspicious backgrounds, which makes them prime suspects in Warwick’s mind. Nevertheless, he gives Atwill forty-eight hours to find the killer or he’ll come into the school and arrest all of the professors and conduct his own investigation. Tracy follows the group out to a desolate location on Long Island as Atwill commences with his psychological testing of his staff.

The great Michael Curtiz is behind the camera in one of his early films, and a precursor to The Mystery of the Wax Museum, also in color. As always, even early in his career, Curtiz has a deft hand and has wonderful shot selection. One of his favorite techniques is the use of shadow in a number of ingenious ways. He also has a unique way with close-ups. While some people don’t particularly like the two-strip Technicolor, the pastel greens and reds are perfect for creating a sepia atmosphere that couldn’t be better for a horror film. The pre-code aspects of the film are incredibly forced as Tracy goes into a brothel to make his first phone call to the newspaper, and then runs across a still in the old dark house, and a completely bizarre beach scene seemingly tacked on so that Fay Wray can wear a swimsuit that rides well up her thighs exposing her bottoms underneath. One of the character actors is Harry Holman as a beat cop, recognized primarily for his penultimate film role as the high school principal in It’s a Wonderful Life fifteen years later. Leila Bennett plays the slightly dim housekeeper who is forced to reenact the last murder while Atwill conducts his experiment. Assisting Atwill are his henchman George Rosener and another professor, Preston Foster, who has only one arm and is therefore above suspicion. Dr. X is a rather tepid horror film, and the comedy is unwelcome most of the time, but the color photography and Curtiz’s direction made it a hit at the time and an enjoyable period piece to watch today.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Strange Door (1951)

Director: Joseph Pevney                                    Writer: Jerry Sackheim
Film Score: Hans Salter                                     Cinematography: Irving Glassberg
Starring: Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff, Richard Wyler and Sally Forrest

The Strange Door is a story adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Sire de Malétroit’s Door.” What’s immediately noticeable about the film is the late medieval setting which brings to mind the costumed horror pictures of Val Lewton rather than the more gothic flavor of the Universal horror films. Director Joseph Pevney had only begun working for Universal the previous year. He began as a stage actor and eventually moved from New York to Hollywood, his best-known role coming in the 1947 boxing film Body and Soul starring John Garfield. The only other film he directed at Universal that was related to their horror pictures was the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces starring James Cagney. While Pevney’s directorial vision does have some nice touches, overall it’s a fairly forgettable film that uses Stevenson’s original story as an excuse for excess, both by Jerry Sackheim in his lurid screenplay and the overacting by Charles Laughton. As with most of the Universal product from this period, the film score was cobbled together from existing cues in the music library by Joseph Gershenson, but the majority of the cues can be traced back to the work of Hans Salter and Frank Skinner, especially their distinctive music from The Wolf Man.

The film begins with Charles Laughton’s coach dropping him off at a tavern. Once inside he meets with his servants who point out a young nobleman of dubious morality, Richard Wyler, trying to kiss every woman in the place. He agrees with the men that Wyler will be acceptable. When he leaves, his men stage a fake fight in which Wyler thinks he has killed a man. Escaping, he hops into a carriage owned by Laughton and taken to his residence. There, as he is trying to escape the posse that is after him, he enters the door to the mansion and can’t get out. In another room he meets Laughton, who is pleasant at first, but eventually turns vicious as he tells Wyler that he will not be leaving. With no other option, Wyler relents, but that night Sally Forrest steals into his room to tell him something. He is only interested in one thing, however, and after kissing her she runs away. The next morning one of Laughton’s men, Michael Pate, tells him that he will gladly show him a means of escape and takes him to the window of his bedroom, three stories up, and says he may leave any time. Later Laughton introduces Wyler to Forrest formally, and while both of them ask not to be forced into marriage, Laughton insists.

At the same time Laughton has a spying servant named Voltan, played by Boris Karloff. Laughton keeps his demented brother, Paul Cavanaugh, chained in a dungeon, complete with torture chamber, and plans to punish him by marrying his daughter off to a scoundrel. What Laughton doesn’t know is that Cavanaugh is only playing at being crazy and that Karloff is actually working for him. But the key to his cell is the only one that Karloff doesn’t possess. Fortunately for Wyler, one of the guests at the wedding is a friend, Alan Napier, and he promises to help Wyler escape that night. And this is just the beginning of a convoluted story that doesn’t really make sense until the very end. While veteran producer Ted Richmond was no doubt attempting to ride the long deceased coattails of the second horror cycle that had ended after the Second World War, the picture is far more reminiscent of what Roger Corman would do at AIP in the sixties. This is reinforced even more the presence of a visibly aging Karloff. It’s not much of a role, either, and it’s clear he was only brought in for name recognition. Laughton, on the other hand, hams it up every time he’s on the screen and gives everyone else in the cast very little room to maneuver. Ultimately, The Strange Door is a B-movie that holds interest only for Universal horror fans as a curiosity.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Strange Woman (1946)

Director: Edgar Ulmer                                        Writers: Herb Meadow
Film Score: Carmen Dragon                              Cinematography: Lucien Andriot
Starring: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward and Alan Napier

Released through United Artists, The Strange Woman is an historical drama and one of only thirty or so films the stunning Hedy Lamarr made during her short career. Unfortunately this is a low-budget production led by Hunt Stromberg, former MGM producer, and helmed by low-budget director Edgar Ulmer. The screenplay is based on the novel of the same name written by Ben Ames Williams. The project itself came about from a partnership between Lamarr and Jack Chertok who was a producer of comedy shorts at MGM. Lamarr wanted to maintain some sort of independence in Hollywood at a time when few stars were able to be successful doing so. She was looking for the right dramatic vehicle and no doubt pursued this property after the success of a previous Williams film adaptation Leave Her to Heaven with Gene Tierney the previous year. Unfortunately independence came at a price, and low production values and the overly simplistic story line were unable to capture the same kind of magic that the earlier film had. Nevertheless, the film did make money, and led Lamarr to undertake a second production with Stromberg, Dishonored Lady, the following year.

The film begins in Bangor, Maine in 1824 at the general store owned by Gene Lockhart. Drunkard Dennis Hoey comes in demanding whisky, but has no money. Lockhart refuses him but kind-hearted Edith Evanson pays for it because she feels sorry for the man’s daughter, Jo Ann Marlowe, who will grow up to become Hedy Lamarr. In the tradition of characters like Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind, or Bette Davis in Jezebel, the young girl has an evil streak that is troublesome as she nearly drowns a boy and then takes credit for saving him. Alan Napier as the town judge offers the little girl a place in his home as hired help, but she flatly refuses in order to keep her freedom. Lamarr as a young woman intends to use her good looks and conniving ways to get a rich man to propose to her. Thus far Hoey has been able to chase off any man who comes near her, but when he has a heart attack and dies, Lockhart maneuvers himself into position to marry her to keep her off the welfare of the town. She marries him, but immediately sends for his son, Louis Hayward, the boy she almost drowned, and flirts with him to the infuriation of Lockhart.

The irony is, despite her wicked ways with men, Lamarr is determined to use Lockhart’s money to help the poor, give money to the church, and to try and make a better life for others than she had growing up. This is the strangeness of the title. When she thinks that Lockhart is dying, she makes her mind up to marry Hayward, but as soon as she sets eyes on George Sanders, the fiancé of her best friend, Hillary Brooke, she begins a new maneuver to make him her ultimate conquest. While Lamarr remembers the reviews for her picture as being less than complementary, she actually did a nice job. Reviewers at the time were more put off by the inappropriateness of George Sanders in the role of a relative innocent, something that definitely went against type and doesn’t really work in the film. Not that Louis Hayward is much better. In fact, other than Gene Lockhart and Alan Napier, most of the cast is fairly underwhelming. Director Edgar Ulmer has some artistic sense, but it’s difficult to know how much the use of the cheap sets make his touches look too obvious or whether that’s just the nature of his artistry. He makes nice use of tracking shots and overhead crane shots at times, but somehow they simply come off as clunky and distracting rather than an integral part of the picture, and the image of lightning striking a tree as Lamarr achieves her goal is melodramatic in the extreme. Still, The Strange Woman is worth seeing for the presence of Hedy Lamarr, despite its many weaknesses.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Kiss Before Dying (1956)

Director: Gerd Oswald                                      Writer: Ira Levin
Film Score: Lionel Newman                              Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Starring: Robert Wagner, Joanne Woodward, Jeffrey Hunter and Virginia Leith

While the late Ira Levin wrote some terrific stage plays--Deathtrap being the most well known--he is actually far more famous for his suspense novels which have become iconic in their film versions. These include The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and this one, his first, A Kiss Before Dying. Though it seems a fairly straightforward tale of a psychopath, it is told in such an interesting way that it maintains interest throughout. Though it’s certainly not the same story, there are very definite similarities between Levin’s novel and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. There’s also a connection in the plot with elements of Leave Her to Heaven, while prefiguring part of Psycho. Director Gerd Owen was a German director who spent the majority of his career in television, and one can see why. This was his first Hollywood feature and it has a noticeable lack of close-ups. He does manage to work well within the wide-screen format, setting up shots with characters on the opposite sides of the screen. It’s a testament to the strength of the original story that, even with the changes necessary to adapt the screenplay it still plays well, even to the present day.

The film begins with Robert Wagner learning that his girlfriend, Joanne Woodward, is pregnant. They are both college students from single-parent families. Wagner’s father has died, but Woodward’s wealthy father divorced her mother and left them with nothing. Though he claims to love her, it’s very clear that Wagner is not enthused about the prospect of getting married and puts Woodward off for a few days. Meanwhile he does some research in the library and steals some poison from the chemistry lab in the school of pharmacy. But when she doesn’t take the pills he has to think fast, and when they meet at the court building to get the marriage license, he throws her off the twelve story building. It’s an absolutely chilling sequence in which Wagner’s character displays a complete lack of emotion as he kills Woodward. But he’s not through yet. Jeffrey Hunter is a police detective who worked on campus as a tutor, with Woodward as one of his subjects. And while he’s ready to write off the death as a suicide--something that Wagner put in place--her sister, Virginia Leith isn’t convinced and begins a one-woman campaign to find the killer. This leads to yet another murder as Wagner tries to cover his tracks but brings even more suspicion to the case.

Robert Wagner is an interesting screen presence. He adopts a moody persona similar to the late James Dean, but the lack of close-ups by director Gerd Oswald doesn’t allow it to really translate as such on the screen. While this was relatively early in his career, he had already made a name for himself in films like Prince Valiant and Beneath the 12-Mile Reef. For Joanne Woodward, this was only her second film and she always hated her performance in it. One can see why. It’s a callow performance that has none of the depth she would bring to later roles. Jeffrey Hunter has one of those thankless roles as the third wheel, a good-looking guy who is forced to wear Clark Kent glasses and never gets the girl. One of the other stars in the film is Mary Astor who plays Wagner’s mother. Best known for her role in The Maltese Falcon, she hadn’t been in a film for over seven years, though she did a lot of television work between. George Macready plays the father of Joanne Woodward and Virginia Leith. A former model, she acquits herself well, though she was never a riveting onscreen presence. Though released by United Artists, the film was really a 20th Century Fox production put together by Darryl Zanuck but filmed independently. Though not the best film of its kind, A Kiss Before Dying is an effective noir story that remains part of a long tradition of crime dramas about psychotic killers who murder for money.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

Director: Andrew Leman                                   Writer: Sean Branney
Film Score: Troy Sterling Nies                          Cinematography: David Robertson
Starring: Matt Foyer, John Bolen, Ralph Lucas and Chad Fifer

Back in the 1980s, when I first began studying film, I had a strong sense of the uniqueness of the silent form of cinema. So different was it, I felt, from sound film that it seemed to be an entirely different category of art, and thus it was not just an outmoded form of film but a separate one that could easily stand beside any sound film. Why, I wondered at the time, was no one making silent films anymore, and immediately following that was the thought that someone should. Now, the Mel Brooks comedy Silent Movie was never intended to be a serious excursion into the genre and so it wasn’t until the French film The Artist won the Academy Award for best picture in 2011 that my vision was realized in a critical way. But the Howard Philips Lovecraft Historical Society actually proved the concept six years earlier in one of the most remarkable films I have ever experienced. The Call of Cthulhu is, quite simply, not just one of the great horror films ever made, but a magnificent film period. My hope that they would stick to the silent form was dashed when their next release, The Whisperer in Darkness, was made as a sound film. Ultimately the disappointing nature of the later film proves just how valid the silent form is, and I can only hope that they will return to producing more stunning silent films in the nature of their first.

The original story by H.P. Lovecraft “The Call of Cthulhu” seems an unlikely one to be made into a film. With his love of British literature of the nineteenth century, Lovecraft’s epistolary story is built around the idea of a series of discoveries of primary sources and flashbacks within flashbacks that lead to an accidental encounter with a god from another dimension, the hydra-headed Cthulhu. The film begins with Matt Foyer putting the last piece of a puzzle in place on Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Clearly, he is in an institution, with a pipe-smoking psychiatrist across the table from him, John Bolen. Foyer wants all of his research burned, but relents to tell the story to Bolen. It began as the executor of the estate of his great-uncle, Ralph Lucas. Among his papers he found a large file on the Cthulhu cult as well as newspaper clippings and written accounts of many seemingly unrelated unexplained phenomenon. They begin with the nightmarish dreams of an artist, Chad Fifer, then a carved idol of the demi-god himself acquired by a New Orleans police inspector, David Mersault. When a chance encounter with a scrap of newspaper tells the story of a derelict fishing boat found by a Norwegian freighter, it leads Foyer to Norway and the diary of the only survivor aboard the ship and his near fatal encounter with Cthulhu himself.

While the form may be old, the techniques are definitely not. There is a burnished glow to the black and white lighting that gives the feel of silver nitrate in a way most reproductions of classic silent films fail to convey. Director Andrew Leman also uses iris effects and miniatures, stop-motion and matte paintings, Dutch angles green screens in very effective ways. The lighting itself is a tremendous achievement and is one of the major components of the film. The other is the incredible film score, the work of three composers, which gives the crowning touch to achieving the goal of successfully adapting Lovecraft to the screen. Matt Foyer, the protagonist, is wonderfully morose in the film, with sunken eyes and a haunted expression. The rest of the cast, mostly amateur actors, does remarkably well under the direction of Leman. In fact, one of the great performances in the film is by Clarence Henry Hunt as a cult member in Louisiana. The tilted camera and the lighting give the effect of countless horror films from the thirties and forties. Also, the stop-motion animation for the monster is an absolutely brilliant homage to the golden era of film. And even though Leman made the bulk of his choices for economic reasons, it doesn’t matter. He still manages to pull off the best Lovecraft film ever made, and demonstrated the viability of silent film as a valid art form in the process. As a result The Call of Cthulhu is, and will remain, one of my favorite films of all time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Deadline at Dawn (1946)

Director: Harold Clurman                                  Writers: Clifford Odets & Cornell Woolrich
Film Score: Hanns Eisler                                  Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Starring: Susan Hayward, Paul Lukas, Bill Williams and Joseph Calleia

One of the many films made from stories by the great crime writer Cornell Woolrich, Deadline at Dawn is given the RKO touch and, even though it doesn’t really have any major stars, it manages pack a lot of interest into the story and gets the most from its second-string cast. There are a couple of major flaws in the picture that no doubt keep it from being considered a classic. The most obvious is the unbelievable plot, and it never really recovers from that. Not only is the motivation for not reporting the murder incredibly thin, but the investigation is extremely convoluted. But if you can look past those obvious flaws, it’s kind of an endearing film, and the ending, while it strains credulity to the breaking point, is surprisingly satisfying. Not a noir film in any way, it’s really an amateur sleuth mystery with a few Expressionistic touches thrown in and a ticking clock is the only means of ratcheting up the suspense. The film was the only one ever directed by theater director Harold Clurman and while it wasn’t the best choice of projects he was ably assisted by fellow theater collaborator Clifford Odets on the screenplay, which also has its charms.

Behind the credits a blind man, Marvin Miller, makes his way up the stairs of an apartment building. He knocks on the door of his ex-wife, Lola Lane. A fly on her face makes it look as though she’s dead, but then she opens the door and lets him in. He needs the money she owes him, but when she goes to get it she discovers a sailor she recently had up to her room has stolen it. Down on the street the sailor, Bill Williams, is talking to the owner of a newsstand. It’s hot out, and when he goes to get his handkerchief the money drops out, but it’s clear he didn’t know it was there. Nevertheless, he takes the money and wanders into a dance hall and meets taxi dancer Susan Hayward. She’s a bit surly because she hates her job, but Williams’ small-town charm wins her over. When he confesses that he did take the money, but that he was drunk and doesn’t remember doing it, she agrees to help him put it back. When they get there, however, it turns out Lane is dead. Everyone in the bar where he met her knows Williams went home with her, so he figures his only chance not to get arrested is to find the murderer himself, before he has to catch his bus at six in the morning and go back to his base. Reluctantly, Hayward decides to help him.

The two split up to investigate, Hayward heading to Greenwich Village to follow a woman with a limp, and Williams getting into the cab of Paul Lukas to chase a nervous man who ran out of the alley near Lane’s apartment. Eventually Lukas is dragged into the investigation as well. Susan Hayward, who would become more of a star in the fifties than she was here, is obviously cast because she has a look that’s sort of a cross between Joan Bennett and Hedy Lamarr. She’s wonderfully alluring and the audience can see the wheels turning in her head, though they don’t know exactly what she’s thinking. Paul Lukas plays a fascinating character, something of a cross between the fairy godfather and Bulldog Drummond. The lines that Odets wrote for him are full of philosophical observations and sentimental drivel and yet somehow never become tiresome. Even Bill Williams, not the greatest actor by a long shot, makes an interesting presence. And though his small town sailor boy wears thin after a while, just watching Hayward fall for him makes it a little easier to take.

If composer Hanns Eisler is not a well-known name it is because he only spent a short time in Hollywood working on some interesting but obscure films. But when the communist witch-hunts began he decided to return to Europe rather than deal with the insidious and extra-legal investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The film came at an opportune time for Hayward. Her last film as a loan out under her Paramount contract, where she was miserable, the success of the film helped her get a new contract with Universal. While the picture is set in New York City, it was filmed exclusively on the 20th Century Fox backlot but, again, all of the things that could be a negative for so many films don’t seem to diminish this one. In addition, there are several distinctive character actors who appear in cameo roles including Curly Wright as a fruit peddler, Dick Elliott as a drunk man on the street, Al Bridge as a police detective, and the great Roman Bohnen as the frantic man with the dying cat. Deadline at Dawn is simply an odd film, in a tremendous number of ways, and yet it’s easy to see why it was so popular with audiences because somehow it all works.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Director: Jonathan Demme                              Writer: Ted Tally & Thomas Harris
Film Score: Howard Shore                               Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn and Ted Levine

I’ll never forget how delighted I was when The Silence of the Lambs swept the top awards at the Oscars in early 1992. Ostensibly a horror film, it was not only the first such film to win a major Oscar since Frederick March won the best actor award for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sixty years earlier, it was also the first film to win the top five Academy Awards since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1972. I was also pleased because I had already been a longtime fan of author Thomas Harris and knew that the added publicity would not only increase exposure to his latest novel, but also the first book in the series, Red Dragon, and the film that had been made of it, Manhunter. The screenplay by Ted Tally is a good one, hewing close to Thomas Harris’s original vision, and winning an Oscar in the process. He actually knew Harris and began thinking about a screenplay after receiving an advanced copy of the novel from the author prior to publication. Originally Gene Hackman was the principal mover in trying to produce the film, possibly directing and starring as Hannibal Lecter, the character eventually played by Anthony Hopkins. But Hackman dropped out and Jonathan Demme was brought in to direct. An interesting choice considering the wide range of films he had directed previously and the modest success of most of them.

The story opens on the FBI training grounds in Quantico, Virginia. Jodie Foster plays a cadet who is called into the office of Scott Glenn, head of the behavioral sciences unit, the division that studies serial killers. Glenn is conducting interviews with all incarcerated killers and all have participated except the notorious Anthony Hopkins. Glenn hopes he’ll open up to a rookie in a way he wouldn’t with a veteran officer. She asks if the interview has anything to do with an ongoing investigation into a killer called Buffalo Bill, but he assures her it doesn’t. At the prison she is briefed by the brilliantly creepy Anthony Heald and Frankie Faison is the guard in the maximum-security wing who tells her the rules. But nothing can prepare the viewer for the dolly shot down the corridor from Foster’s point of view and seeing the brightly lit cell with Hopkins, standing dead still in the middle of the floor, eyes blazing. Hopkins, in addition to being a serial killer who ate his victims, is also a brilliant psychologist. He senses immediately that Foster is there to learn about Buffalo Bill, even if she doesn’t know it. Glenn warned her not to give him any personal information about herself but, desperate to make a good showing, she answers questions about her personal life in order to gain information he has about the new killer.

The subplot concerns the killer himself, Ted Levine in his breakout role after appearing in a series of TV movies and bit parts in feature films. He removes much of the skin off of his victims before dumping them in one of the many rivers around Ohio. His latest victim is a young woman, Brooke Smith in only her second film. She is captured when Levine pretends to be attempting to lift a couch into the back of his van with a broken arm. He keeps her in what looks like a partially filled in well in the basement of his house, feeding her very little, and telling her to put lotion on her skin. Meanwhile Foster’s relationship with Hopkins becomes increasingly complex. Glenn has to admit to her that she was sent in to get information about Levine and now she goes with him on several errands concerning the case. Hopkins uses his relationship with Foster to get transferred to Tennessee, as it turns out that Smith is the daughter of a U.S. Senator from that state, the beautiful Diane Baker. Their meeting in an airplane hanger, with Hopkins trussed up so that only his lips and eyes can move, is wonderfully chilling. Eventually the two story lines weave together, with Hopkins’ unique relationship with Foster deepening as he gradually allows her to get ever closer to discovering Levine.

Ultimately, it’s the direction by Jonathan Demme that really defines the film. The choices he makes are very confident, from the long tracking shot that opens the film beneath the credits, to the judicious use of closeups on all of the lead characters, to the entire Memphis courthouse scene, as well as the finale. Demme not only won an Oscar for best direction, but the film won for best picture as well. Finally, both Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster were given statuettes for their performances, completing the sweep of the top honors at that year’s Academy Awards. Other notable faces appearing in the film are the great Dan Butler as an entomologist and Charles Napier as a Memphis police officer, while directors Roger Corman and George Romero make cameo appearances as the director of the FBI and an FBI field agent respectively. The film score was composed by Howard Shore, a Canadian composer who was an excellent choice considering he had worked extensively with Canadian horror director David Cronenberg prior to the film. Though not initially a blockbuster hit, the brilliant characterizations in the film and the solid direction, combined with a controversial plotline, all worked in concert to make The Silence of the Lambs one of the great horror films of all time.