Saturday, October 20, 2012

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

Director: Jacques Tourneur                             Writers: Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray
Film Score: Roy Webb                                   Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Starring: Frances Dee, Tom Conway and James Ellison

Though the Val Lewton films of the mid 1940s for RKO garnered much critical praise in the latter part of the century in comparison with Universal’s more overt monster movies, time has brought them back to a more realistic appraisal: workmanlike B-picture psychological thrillers with a lot of style. But horror films to rival Universal? Certainly not. As producer of the entire series, Lewton himself was initially responsible for most of the early spin by denigrating the Universal series every chance he could get. But it was mostly sour grapes, as he watched the monster rallies deliver millions at the box office while RKO denied him the opportunity to work on more high-quality pictures that he felt befitted his talent.

I Walked With a Zombie is no exception. Curt Siodmak’s screenplay is half Jane Eyre and half White Zombie, as Frances Dee comes to the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian to take care of Tom Conway’s catatonic wife and falls in love with him in the bargain. Siodmak’s time at Universal shows in an early sequence as Dee is traveling to the island with Conway. She thinks to herself that the island is beautiful and Conway interrupts her thoughts to tell her everything she sees about her is really death, a similar conversation to the one in Universal’s Dracula’s Daughter from 1936. Then there is the figurehead from the ship with the arrow in his chest, reminiscent of the door knocker from Most Dangerous Game, and Conway’s wife walking around in the dark like one of Dracula’s wives, all of which makes for a curious mélange.

In the end, however, it’s a disappointing mixture. While Roy Webb's score for the film is excellent, the calypso singer who conveys the family’s tragedy in song borders on the comic, a device used with similar dissonance in the film Brute Force a few years later. More gothic suspense than horror, the only truly frightening scene in the film is when Dee is taking Conway’s wife to see the voodoo doctor, who simply turns out to be Conway’s mother. Any hint of the supernatural is thus dispelled and, along with it, the audience’s enthusiasm. The revelation of the family secret is predictable, and the final resolution melodramatic.

One of the best lines from Carrie Rickey’s review of the film in The B List, is when she calls I Walked With A Zombie “a sixty-nine-minute tone poem scored to the rhythms of calypso and Chopin.” What that visual poetry is attempting to evoke, however, is open for interpretation. For one thing, there is a lot of talking in comparison with the few scenes at the voodoo camp. Also the lack of real fear by Dee and Conway tends to attenuate the suspense. This, I think, is my interpretation of her comment, that the film itself is something of a trance-like experience. Interesting, but not one in the Lewton cannon that merits a repeat viewing.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Annie Hall (1977)

Director: Woody Allen                                    Writer: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Music Department: Artie Butler                       Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Carol Kane and Tony Roberts

Now this is more like it. Not only an A List entry, but an academy award winner for best picture. Given that, Annie Hall is obviously a great film. I have to confess, however, that I’m probably one of five people in the country who hadn’t seen the film until recently. As a result, there is more than a little pop culture shock I experienced in seeing it over thirty years since its original release. Everything from the film, it seems, has been recycled through the years in some way.

To begin with, there is Woody Allen’s stand up monologue at the beginning, which was co-opted by Seinfeld. Then there is the fact that the scenes are shown out of sequence; not a new idea but one that was really popularized later by Quentin Tarantino, most famously in Pulp Fiction. Diane Keaton’s distinctive wardrobe was also put on Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally over a decade later. Then there are lines like “those who can't, teach; those who can’t teach, teach gym” which was used verbatim in School of Rock. And finally, even conceptual elements have been stolen, like the lobster scene in which Allen attempts to repeat the magic with a later date, only to have it flop. This idea was also used to good effect in the snowman scene in Groundhog Day, and less so in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

So, all of that was a bit distracting to wade through the first time. What remained was a very good romantic comedy, though not one that we’re typically used to since Sleepless in Seattle. For one thing, the film doesn’t end with the consummation of the relationship, but traces it full circle, from first meeting to reconnection after a bad break-up. Allen’s self-deprecating humor is prominent, of course. The quirky charm of Diane Keaton must have been captivating before it became a cliché. Supporting roles by actors like Tony Roberts who would work for Allen as something of a stock company, and goofy cameos by the likes of Carol Kane, Shelley Duvall, and Paul Simon were put to good use. But finally it’s Allen’s style as a filmmaker that is showcased here, and in that the film is decidedly a success on nearly every level.

In his review of the picture for The A List, Jay Carr focuses on Allen’s envelope pushing in all sorts of areas, from the out of sequence narrative to the first person narration, to Keaton’s wardrobe and the fun-house mirroring of Allen’s life—-all things, ironically, that have made their way in the last thirty years comfortably back into the envelope, absorbed with seeming ease into the culture at large. And that, in the final analysis, is the ultimate praise for any true masterpiece, a label that, in the case of Annie Hall, certainly fits.