Monday, October 28, 2013

Thin Ice (2011)

Director: Jill Sprecher                                   Writers: Jill Sprecher & Karen Sprecher
Film Score: Jeff Danna                                 Cinematography: Dick Pope
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Lea Thompson and Billy Crudup

In the tradition of black comedies like Fargo and suspense films like A Simple Plan, Jill Sprecher’s Thin Ice sneaks up on the viewer, beginning with what seems like a domestic tale of a down on his luck insurance agent who has a bit of a gambling problem. But eventually things turn dark when his attempt to make a small score, with a small-scale theft in order to set things right again, turns terribly wrong. Greg Kinnear plays the hapless agent, a man who can’t help himself and lies to everyone. On the road in a small Midwestern town, he gives a seminar to prospective agents on how to make sales. At the bar that night he meets a woman and takes her back to his room, but when he wakes up the next morning she is gone . . . along with his wallet.

Back at home we learn that he is separated from his wife, Lea Thompson. He’s also taken on a beginner agent, David Harbour, who hasn’t tested for his license yet, taking sixty-five percent of his commissions in the process. It’s not until Harbour takes him out to see Alan Arkin that the wheels start turning. While he’s there, instrument appraiser Bob Balban turns up and tells him the violin Arkin inherited is worth twenty-five thousand dollars. Kinnear offers to buy it, but apparently Arkin’s dog loves the sound of it. Kinnear goes back later to swap the violin with a cheap copy, and locksmith Billy Crudup has to let him into the house. But when Arkin’s neighbor shows up and picks up the phone to call the cops, Crudup attacks him with a hammer and kills him. It’s then that things go south for Kinnear, and his association with Crudup turns into a nightmare he can’t seem to wake up from.

Kinnear, who first made his mark in You’ve Got Mail and then cemented his reputation in As Good as It Gets, is superb here, especially at the beginning of the film. He has a sly knowingness, a hubris that is perfect for the predicament he gets himself into. He plays it straight, all the way through, which adds tremendously to the comedy effect. Arkin, of course, is masterful as the doddering old man. Crudup is the psychotic ex-convict and plays the part perfectly. The supporting cast is also excellent, including David Harbour as the apprentice agent and Michelle Arthur as Kinnear’s secretary. Most of the criticism of the film has to do with the ending. Instead of the resolution coming in a natural way, the complaints are that the script has Kinnear spending several minutes simply narrating the reveal. The thing is, with this type of film, the reveal has to be this way, and several other similar films end exactly the same way. Perhaps this one goes on longer than most, but I still found it a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Apparently the studio took the film away from Jill Sprecher, edited it in the way they wanted, removing characters and such, and changing the title, which had been The Convincer. The poster for the film even went so far as to copy Fargo by proclaiming in bold letters: Kinosha, Wi! She was so upset with the result that she asked the studio to remove her name from the film, which they didn’t do. Supposedly there was going to be a video release that included Sprecher’s original film, but there’s been no sign of it thus far. While Thin Ice has received mixed reviews, I was delighted with it from start to finish, even before the final reveal. And that surprise ending has endeared the film to me even more. If you like films like Fargo, give this one a chance.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Brides of Dracula (1960)

Director: Terence Fisher                                Writers: Jimmy Sangster & Peter Bryan
Film Score: Malcolm Williamson                    Cinematography: Jack Asher
Starring: Peter Cushing, David Peel, Freda Jackson and Yvonne Monlaur

Christopher Lee refused to be involved in any more of Hammer’s Dracula films after being virtually denied dialogue in Horror of Dracula. And he was more than justified. With his incredibly rich, cultured voice, the potential was there to do a brilliant version of Bram Stoker’s novel in a way that wouldn’t be realized until the 1979 Dracula with Frank Langela and Laurence Olivier--with a fantastic score by John Williams. (The less said about Francis Ford Coppola the better.) As a result, Hammer was forced to carry on without him. They still had Peter Cushing, the nominal star of the first film, and The Brides of Dracula is a game attempt to go on without Lee. After all he did die in the first film and, just as with Dracula’s Daughter for Universal in 1936, it did make a certain kind of sense in terms of continuing the story line.

The plot begins with a young French woman, Yvonne Monlaur, being seduced on her way through Eastern Europe to the castle of Marita Hunt. There she’s told the story of the Baroness’s son, David Peel, who is apparently crazy. But when she meets him he doesn’t seem so. He shows her that he has been chained, imprisoned against his will, and she gladly steals the key from his mother and releases him. Unknown to her, however, he is a vampire and quickly kills his mother before leaving the castle. Meanwhile, the priest of the local village has called in Peter Cushing to help with the unexplained deaths that have been occurring. Cushing, of course, makes all the connections, especially when he finds Monlaur passed out on the road in shock. Peel is now the new head of the cult of the undead, turning women into vampires and the only one who can stop him is Cushing.

It’s an odd story that takes it’s time getting going. Martita Hunt makes a great Barroness, old and enigmatic, making the audience wonder what she’s doing. The weak link, as in most Hammer productions, is the female acting. Yvonne Monlaur, for all her charms, is maddening to watch. The script makes her clueless, not understanding what she’s done even after Hunt has died. David Peel also makes an unlikely vampire, his blonde hair going against type, and not in a good way. It seems like the script would have been better focusing on Dracula’s wives and concocting a plot around them. There is an interesting twist on the mythology, however, in having any victim of the vampires turn into vampires themselves without having to drink the blood of their attacker.

At the end of the day Peter Cushing is the only reason for watching the film. He was always great as Van Helsing, though even this was one of his lesser performances. In fact, everything about the production was second string with the exception of Cushing and the direction by Terence Fisher. Instead of James Bernard handling the composing chores, this time they were handed off to Malcolm Williamson. And the sets aren’t nearly as atmospheric as later films would be. Still, there’s something about Hammer’s early horror pictures that was captivating and while this is definitely a notch below, The Brides of Dracula is still worth watching.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Director: Rupert Julian                                 Writers: Elliot J. Clawson & Raymond L. Schrock
Film Score: Sam Perry                                Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Starring: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry and Arthur Edmund Carewe

Lon Chaney’s iconic portrayal of the ghost of the Paris Opera is often considered the peak of the silent horror film. The irony is that there really were no silent horror films, at least they weren’t called that at the time. The first horror films began in the sound era with Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein. And at first even those were still considered adaptations of classic gothic novels. Nevertheless, The Phantom of the Opera contains one of the most memorable scenes in all of silent cinema, if not the history of cinema, as Mary Philbin unmasks Lon Chaney and the audience sees that horrible skull-like visage of the monster, then the camera moves behind him to get a second reveal from Philbin’s point of view as he points an accusatory finger at her in a reenactment of the Bluebeard story.

Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, Chaney plays the mysterious masked man who lives under the Paris Opera House. He has been training a young singer, Mary Philbin, and forces the opera managers to feature her. When they refuse, he cuts down the chandelier killing dozens of patrons, after which they relent. At the same time, Philbin is dating Norman Kerry, a wealthy soldier who is more than a little jealous at the attention she is giving this mystery man. But the phantom beats him to the punch and abducts her from the stage, taking her below the theater to his hidden chambers, only accessible across and underground lake. Though Philbin is allowed above for the masked ball, this is clearly only so that Chaney may eavesdrop and assess her true feelings for Kerry. What he finds out, sends him into a rage.

In addition to the unmasking scene, the other great set piece is the masked ball, filmed in two-strip Technicolor. Though notable more for its novelty than any intrinsic artistic value, it is still a remarkable scene and adds to the cache of the picture as a whole. And it’s a picture that needs it. Other than Chaney’s performance, the story is a rather banal romance that suffers from the intrusion of attempted comedy, melodrama, and inferior acting by Philbin. Further, the actual film itself has suffered from editing and reissue. There are at least five separate versions of the film, the last from 1930 a version that uses inferior second takes and was intended more as a safety print but is the most visually appealing. The original 1925 print is closer to the original intent, and while it has suffered from age it is the most narratively coherent and still the definitive version.

Philbin would act for only a few more years, as would Kerry, whose career ended with the coming of sound. Chaney, of course, would make only one sound film, a remake of The Unholy Three. Despite its success and promise, Chaney died from throat cancer that year ending a brilliant cinematic career. Arthur Edmund Carewe, however, who played the police inspector, continued to act into the sound era in two other memorable horror films, Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum. The film has gone on to achieve classic status, due largely to Chaney’s performance, not only his expert pantomime but his makeup and the masks he created to convey emotion. The Phantom of the Opera has spawned numerous remakes, none of which come close to capturing Chaney’s original magic and terrifying persona and so, despite its flaws, it remains one of the all time great silent films.

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Director: Michael Curtiz                                Writers: Don Mullaly & Carl Erickson
Music: Bernhard Kaun                                  Cinematography: Ray Rennahan
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh

One of the issues with watching a movie filmed in the Technicolor two-strip process is that it looks a little too much like a colorized black and white film. Once you can get past that, however, they are a marvel to watch. Mystery of the Wax Museum is probably the most famous early color film. It stars the wonderful Fay Wray in one of her most prolific years in horror films, which saw not only this film released but The Vampire Bat, also with Lionel Atwill, and King Kong. Like many films from the early thirties it suffers from the lack of a proper film score, but that is about the only knock against it. It’s a first rate thriller, perhaps not exactly a horror film proper, but it has been categorized as such for decades. Not only does it boast one of the all-time great directors at the beginning of his career, but skilled actors and a story that has been remade several times.

The film begins in London twelve years earlier. Lionel Atwill is the proprietor and creator of a wax museum that has fallen on hard times. But hope comes in the form of a rich patron who wants to promote the artistic qualities of Atwill’s work. Unfortunately his current investor is broke and, to collect the insurance money, sets the museum on fire and locks Atwill inside. Twelve years later it’s New Year’s Eve in New York City. Atwill is wheelchair bound and reopening his museum. At the same time a mysterious man with a hideously deformed face is stealing bodies from the morgue and newspaper reporter Glenda Farrell is on the case, suspicious when one of the wax figures in Atwill’s museum looks like a recent murder victim. Her roommate, Fay Wray, is dating one of Atwill’s apprentices and as the film gets deeper into the plot, all three storylines begin to converge around the museum.

Even at this early stage in his career, one notices the extraordinary gifts of director Michael Curtiz. His fluid camerawork in the early New York scenes is amazing, and his work with shadows is equally impressive. Lionel Atwill gives the kind of solid performance that one expects from him, with the added bonus that this early in his career he exhibits a lot more physicality than his parts would later call for. Fay Wray is good as well, the heroine who captivates Atwill’s imagination, putting her in mortal danger. But the real star of the film is Glenda Farrell as the wise-cracking reporter. She is magnificent in this film and one wishes she had the kind of face that would have allowed for more leading parts. Warners’ contract player Frank McHugh is terrific as the tough editor of the newspaper Farrell works for. And in a supporting role is Gavin Gordon who was so distinctive as Lord Byron in The Bride of Frankenstein.

The film was made with the same actors and crew that made Dr. X, which was also filmed in the two-strip color process. Because of the laborious nature of the Technicolor process and the lack of audience receptiveness to it, many of those films were allowed to be destroyed by the studios, including Wax Museum. But in 1970 a print was found in Jack Warner’s private collection after his death and has since become a classic of the horror genre as well as early thirties filmmaking. The film would be remade several more times, the first with Vincent Price in House of Wax, this time using the new 3-D process as well as a stereo soundtrack. One of my favorites, though, is a quirky remake by Roger Corman called Bucket of Blood. Mystery of the Wax Museum remains a gem for so many reasons and is highly recommended for fans of depression-era films.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Beast with Five Fingers (1946)

Director: Robert Florey                                  Writer: Curt Siodmak
Film Score: Max Steiner                                Cinematography: Wesley Anderson
Starring: Peter Lorre, Robert Alda, Andrea King and Victor Francen

Ah, Curt Siodmak, he of the autonomous body part horror story. This one is an old dark house mystery written during his brief tenure at Warner Brothers and just before he began writing more for television. Unlike Donovan’s Brain, which was trapped in a jar and had to wreak havoc through telepathy, this time we have an actual hand operating on it’s own to seek revenge on the dead owner’s enemies. Siodmak certainly had a gift, and wrote some remarkable works at Universal like The Wolf Man and Son of Dracula, but for me his science-fiction works strain credulity. Granted, this story was not originally his, concocted by British author William Fryer Harvey in 1928, but The Beast with Five Fingers is right in Siodmak’s wheelhouse, no doubt inspired by his novel Donovan’s Brain, published four years earlier.

The setting is an odd one, in a tiny village in the Swiss Alps. Robert Alda, decked out in jet-black hair and a pencil moustache, plays a con man working tourists to the village. He is friends with a famous concert pianist who lives in a large villa. Victor Francen is the pianist, the victim of a stroke who only has the use of his left hand. Alda is apparently a skilled musician himself and transcribed a number of works for the left hand for Francen. Also living in the villa are Francen’s secretary, Peter Lorre, obsessed with astrology and certain he can learn some important secret found in the books of Francen’s library, and his nurse Andrea King, in love with Alda and wanting to leave the employ of Francen. One night Francen wakes up, agitated, and heads out in his wheelchair, accidentally falling down the stairs and killing himself. When the relatives show up, Charles Dingle and John Alvin, they’re more than a little shocked and angry to learn that Francen has left his entire estate to King. It’s at this point that people begin dying, apparently at the “hand” of Francen.

This is definitely a flawed film. Warner Brothers never really had much success in the horror genre, with the exception of Michael Curtiz’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. When Siodmak adapted the story he had Paul Henreid in mind for the part of Francen’s secretary but the actor, who saw himself only as a leading man, flatly rejected the idea. Director Robert Florey was so insulted at being given the project that he boycotted the film and stayed away from the studio for three months without pay. When he returned, however, he was still expected to film the project. Both Florey and Peter Lorre hated the script and wanted to do the film in an expressionistic style, all from the point of view of Lorre’s character. They were turned down by Jack Warner and saddled with the original script. Lorre had a hard time taking the film seriously and it shows in his performance, walking through the film as if he were in a trance. And while this might be explained by Florey’s attempt to shoehorn his original idea into the film, all of the overt suggestions of that attempt were edited out by the studio, and what remains is underwhelming.

Robert Alda received top billing in the picture but has very little to do. While he makes a decent red herring, he also brings very little to the plot. Andrea King, while not necessarily bad, is certainly no great shakes as an actress, and the bizarre hairstyle given to her by the makeup department defies explanation. J. Carrol Naish plays the local police commissioner and does a respectable job, that is, until the end. There the script has him inexplicably hamming it up directly to the audience and making a joke out of the whole thing. The film hangs on a delicate precipice as it is at that point, and this utterly destroys it. Charles Dingle brings his usual cunning to the proceedings, but in this context it seems entirely out of place. The special effects utilizing real hands are one of the highlights of the film, but when the rubber hand is used it falls flat. Easily the best aspect of the film is Max Steiner’s score, but even that is a little too vaguely reminiscent of Gone With the Wind at times. The Beast with Five Fingers might be considered a classic by many, but for discerning fans of the genre it is ultimately a let down.

The Great Raid (2005)

Director: John Dahl                                       Writers: Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro
Film Score: Trevor Rabin                               Cinematography: Peter Menzies Jr.
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Benjamin Bratt, James Franco and Connie Nielsen

The two theaters of war during World War Two were incredibly different in terms of the context in which the fighting took place. Both were equally deadly, but there was something about the European settings, the villages and towns, the farmland and forests, that were vaguely familiar. The Pacific, by comparison, was barbaric, a jungle hell that contained a fanatical, alien enemy that almost defied comprehension. The Great Raid is another story of heroism from the Asian theater and the Philippines in in specific. While it might be hard to imagine that even more stories could still be coming out of the war, it was a war that engulfed the entire planet and so it shouldn’t be surprising that there still remain dozens of untold acts of heroism, this one no longer among them.

The story of the Pacific theater of operations during the war is certainly framed by Pearl Harbor, but the Japanese had a much larger plan than just that target. One of their other objectives was the Philippines, and after the crippling of the Pacific Fleet the Americans were unable to support the troops they had there. After MacArthur pulled out, all of the troops left on the islands were captured by the Japanese. But their captors were trained never to give up and so they were disgusted by the U.S. surrender. They took the prisoners on a forced march, the Bataan Death March, to kill off all the weak ones. The rest they kept in temporary prisoner of war camps, occasionally forcing entire camp populations into bomb shelters and burning them alive to show their contempt. When the U.S. returned a few years later, their overpowering of the Japanese on the islands precipitated a lot more mass killings, something the Americans wanted to avoid but couldn’t hold up the prosecution of the war to do anything about.

The Great Raid is the story of the U.S. military’s attempt to rescue 500 prisoners before the Japanese killed them. The senior officer in the camp is Joseph Fiennes. He has recently come down with malaria, and his other officers are trying to keep him alive until the rescue comes. They don’t know about the mission, but they do know the U.S. soldiers are on the islands and know that it’s just a matter of time. They manage to get medical supplies and some food through the underground working in Manilla. The woman in charge of helping the prisoners is Connie Nielson. She had apparently met Fiennes before the capture and he has since fallen in love with her. It’s the thing that keeps him alive. Meanwhile Benjamin Bratt has been put in charge of the raid, and he delegates the planning to James Franco.

It’s not a terribly exciting story in cinematic terms, but that is really one of its charms. For once it’s nice to see a U.S. military operation of incredible importance come off successfully. In fact, there were only two casualties while over five hundred soldiers were liberated. In addition, there is a wonderful sequence in which the Filipino soldiers are given a vital role in the rescue and they deliver. Ultimately, the film is character driven and in that respect it really is good. Many fans and critics say the film is overlong and boring, but I heartily disagree. All of the principal actors do a tremendous job and there is a lot of suspense as well as outrage in seeing the barbarity of the Japanese soldiers. John Dahl, who has exclusively done television work since, did a brilliant job with a straightforward story and has honored all who were involved in this great episode in American military history. The Great Raid is an important story that needed to be told, how fortunate then that it is also a moving and entertaining war film.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Italian Job (2003)

Director: F. Gary Gray                                   Writer: Donna & Wayne Powers
Film Score: John Powell                                Cinematography: Wally Pfister
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton and Donald Sutherland

This is one of my favorite films of all time. In the first place I love caper films, and this is one of the best. Secondly, it has a tremendous cast that work wonderfully together and make the viewer long for a sequel. Unfortunately, the ascension of nearly all of them to star status has made that a virtual impossibility. While The Italian Job could in one sense be seen as a remake of the 1968 original, that film was an attempt at comedy farce and failed miserably. The only thing that remains of the original is the use of the Cooper Minis as getaway cars, and that is much to the modern film’s benefit. The husband and wife team of Donna and Wayne Powers used the idea of the heist as a springboard to create a modern caper film that is not only original but incredibly entertaining.

The story starts, aptly enough, in Italy. Donald Sutherland is an expert safecracker and the head of a crew after a safe full of gold bars. On this job he’s turning over the operations of the team to Mark Wahlberg and it succeeds in a great way. Once out of danger with gold in hand, they head over the Alps to safety but Edward Norton has plans of his own. He steals the gold for himself, leaves the rest of the crew for dead, and disappears. A year later in Philadelphia Charlize Theron, Sutherland’s daughter, is seen cracking a safe, but she is actually doing consulting work working for the police. When Wahlberg shows up, suggesting that they work together to get the gold back, she hesitates. But eventually she teams up with the crew for revenge. The rest of the crew includes wheelman Jason Statham, before the Transporter series, explosives expert Mos Def, and computer hacker Seth Green.

The plan is to get Theron inside Norton’s mansion in L.A. so that she can crack the safe. To move the gold they will take three modified Mini Coopers inside the house, load them up, and drive them out. Norton, however, accidentally discovers their plan and threatens the success of the entire endeavor. But then Wahlberg has the idea of doing it just like the Italian Job, only on a larger scale, and it sets up one of the most satisfying climaxes in recent memory. Some of the other great character actors in the film are Boris Lee Krutonog as a pawnshop owner, Olek Krupa as the head of the Russian mafia, Franky G as an actual mechanic, and Shawn Fanning, the inventor of Napster, as himself. There is also a very understated score by John Powell that is part techno, part pop, but not nearly as garish and intrusive as that kind of score could be in the wrong hands.

The direction by F. Gary Gray is what really makes the film, however. He had done some nice work previously, especially on The Negotiator with Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, but even that film seems tame by comparison. There is an energy that won’t quit in this project, and some very nice image manipulation that adds a lot of extra character to the locations. The script is funny without being farcical, and warm without being sentimental, edgy without taking itself too seriously, and exciting without resorting to a lot of CGI and impossible stunts. Like most action thrillers it was completely ignored at Oscar time, but that shouldn’t dissuade anyone from taking a look. The Italian Job has become a staple of cable TV, that in itself a stamp of approval, and delivers as much satisfaction on the fifth viewing as it does the first.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

So Evil My Love (1948)

Director: Lewis Allen                                     Writers: Ronald Millar & Leonard Spigelgass
Film Score: Victor Young                              Cinematography: Mutz Greenbaum
Starring: Ray Milland, Ann Todd, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Leo G. Caroll

I always felt that Ray Milland suffered unnecessarily under the label the poor man’s Cary Grant. Milland was his own actor, his own character, far more suspicious and far less charming than Grant and shouldn’t have had to apologize for it in any way. He also won an Academy Award for The Lost Weekend, something Grant was never able to accomplish. In this historical drama, based on a true story, Milland is up to the kind of no good that no doubt led Alfred Hitchcock to cast him in Dial M for Murder a few years later. So Evil My Love is in the same mold. Coming back from Jamaica Milland is one of several people who have contracted malaria, and the ship’s doctor has convinced the missionary’s widow onboard, Ann Todd, to help him with those afflicted. While thanking her after docking, it becomes clear that he is eluding the police.

Todd is penniless except for a small house in London that her husband left her where she takes in lodgers to make ends meet, one of whom is the destitute Milland. All is not as it seems, however, as Milland has a girlfriend and regularly meets with his accomplice, Raymond Lovell. The two plan a robbery of paintings and are foiled, dashing all of Milland’s plans for solvency. But then Milland hits on a new idea. A starving artist himself, he paints a portrait of Todd as a way of seducing her. Later she visits an old school friend, Geraldine Fitzgerald, in order to borrow money from her for Milland, and learns Fitzgerald is trapped in a loveless marriage to a man who hopes to become a peer. When Milland discovers letters to Todd from Fitzgerald that disclose an affair she’s having, he coerces Todd to go against everything she has believed in to blackmail Fitzgerald’s husband so they can move to France.

The story is based on the novel by Joseph Shearing, pen name of Marjorie Bowen, itself suggested by the mysterious death of a London barrister in 1876. This is a British production by Paramount’s English division and has lots of ornate and realistic sets. The thing is, however, it doesn’t feel like a period piece. Because of the year it was filmed, it has much more of a noir sensibility. But it’s even more than that. What strikes me is that it would have been incredibly good as a Hitchcock vehicle, which is not to say that it’s bad at all. The film begins at a leisurely pace and takes quite a while before the tension begins to ratchet up. Hitch would probably have reconfigured it and brought in the suspense much earlier. But the ending is still incredibly satisfying.

Milland is just Milland, smooth and supremely confident. And speaking of Hitchcock, Ann Todd had recently co-starred in the director’s The Paradine Case the year before. She has the same type of screen presence as one of Hitch’s early female leads, Joan Fontaine. Also onboard is Hitch’s favorite character actor, Leo G. Caroll, though he doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. Geraldine Fitzgerald plays Todd’s friend, married to a man she despises, who keeps her prisoner in his house, and threatens to have her committed to an asylum. But her domestic imprisonment actually begins to drive her mad and her subdued breakdown at the end of the film is well done. Lewis Allen had directed Milland previously in The Uninvited and it seems here that he succeeds more from the material rather than talent. Still, there are a lot of good scenes and interesting set-ups, especially utilizing the magnificent sets. So Evil My Love is definitely a sleeper, but is ultimately very rewarding.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Director: John Huston                                    Writers: Ben Maddow & John Huston
Film Score: Miklós Rózsa                              Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen, Louis Calhern and James Whitmore

John Huston was just one of the all time great directors, and this is one of the great caper films of all time, right up there with Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and The Sting. Huston had a knack for finding great properties, even if they’d already been done before, getting his second of twelve Oscar nominations for The Maltese Falcon which had previously been filmed twice. His Academy Award was for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, based on the novel by Ret Marut, a German living in Mexico. The Asphalt Jungle was written by the prolific crime novelist W.R. Burnett. And while Huston was credited for writing many of his screenplays, most of them were very direct adaptations of existing works, his attempt to bring what was great about the novels to the screen intact, a lesson many modern screenwriters could learn from.

This story is centered on the mild mannered Sam Jaffe who has just been released from prison, all the while sitting on a jewelry heist he had been planning before he went in. Once out he goes to numbers runner Marc Lawrence to see if he can get financing for the caper. Lawrence brings in the great Louis Calhern as the money man, Anthony Caruso as the safecracker, James Whitmore as the wheelman and Sterling Hayden as the muscle. Unknown to the crew, however, Calhern is actually broke and is planning on taking the diamonds to be fenced and never coming back. Hayden is the real loose cannon, a small time hood who is addicted to betting on horses. For some reason, however, he’s the one that Jaffe trusts the most and confides in him that they should stick together in case anything unexpected happens, just to protect their investment. The wonderful Jean Hagen plays Hayden’s love interest, though he’s not really interested. She’s down on her luck and just hanging on.

Meanwhile, police commissioner John McIntire is infuriated that his men can’t get a better handle on the crime that is going on in his Midwestern city. What he doesn’t realize is that most of his detectives are on the take. Nevertheless, he pushes for a war on crime a the same time the crew is making their move and the two groups run headlong into each other with predictable results. The Asphalt Jungle is typically classified as a noir film, and there certainly are elements of the style in abundance, the night scenes in the city, shadows and cynicism, and a wonderful film score by Miklós Rózsa. Burnett, however, was never really a noir writer. He wrote wonderful crime stories that, when filmed during the heyday of noir seemed tailor made for the genre. I would categorize the first half of picture as more of a caper film, with the emphasis of the plot on the heist and the police. The second half, though, is strictly noir, with everyone in the cast seemingly falling into the abyss.

One of the things that annoys me, however, is the emphasis of the modern advertising on Marilyn Monroe, plastering her face and image on the posters and DVDs when she has little more than a cameo in the picture. Not only does it diminish the true stars of the picture, but has to be a disappointment for Monroe fans who see almost nothing of her. Jean Hagen is the real actress here, a serious artist who was stuck playing ditzy stereotypes for too much of her career. It’s too bad, because she was a gifted performer. Hayden is a freight train, rumbling through the picture from beginning to end with characters either climbing aboard or being unceremoniously tossed off, while Huston is the engineer, heading down the tracks he laid in the screenplay and opening the throttle full. The Asphalt Jungle is just a fantastic film and a testament to Huston’s genius that it wound up being remade three more times. Highly recommended, especially for fans of the genre.

Lured (1947)

Director: Douglas Sirk                                     Writer: Leo Rosten
Film Score: Michel Michelet                            Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: Lucille Ball, George Sanders, Charles Coburn and Cedric Hardwicke

The tale of Jack the Ripper has been fodder for more films and television shows than possibly any other. Lured is a modern rendering of the story told by Douglas Sirk, most famous for his exposés of modern life in the fifties. A United Artists production, what the film lacks in substance it more than makes up for in style. For one thing, the caliber of talent is wonderful to watch. In addition to the stars receiving top billing are George Zucco, Alan Napier, Boris Karloff and a host of British character actors. For another, the script is both realistic and unique. It’s a complicated mystery story that is equally engaging.

The title comes from the fact that this Ripper meets young women through ads in the personals column in London newspapers. Once he has them believing that he wants to marry them and take them away from their lower-class existence, he kills them. But before all that he sends a poem to Scotland Yard that gives all kinds of obscure clues about the victim. Thus far, seven have died and The Yard is no closer to finding a suspect than when they started. But this is not really a suspense film, per se. Lucille Ball brings her exquisite comedic touch to the proceedings and transforms the film into something much more light hearted.

Lucille Ball plays a taxi dancer whose friend has gone missing. When she goes to the police and discovers that her friend has become a victim of the poet murderer. Charles Coburn takes a chance on her and enlists her as one of the police to track down the killer. But in doing this she has missed an audition as a dancer for a posh nightclub owned by George Sanders. Sanders happens to meet her a couple of times while she is working on the case and they fall for each other. But before the wedding bells ring, evidence linking the murder of the girls is found in Sanders’ study and, when he finds out Ball has been working for the police, believes she was only trying to set him up.

One of the nice things about his film is the realism. In sending out Ball on the case, the police have her answer every single ad in the personals column and so, quite naturally, she manages to uncover all sorts of untoward activities. One of these is a brilliant cameo appearance by Boris Karloff as a crazed fashion designer. Sirk does a solid job of directing this sort of hybrid story. The film has a nice, deliberate pacing that really works for the content. Michel Michelet score is a tad obvious, though he was never one of the great composers for the screen, but with the light touch of the acting, especially by Ball and George Zucco, it works. Lured is not a great movie, and would never be mistaken as a “classic” but it is a wonderful piece of entertainment that reminds us of a time when even lesser works could be equally rewarding.

The Vikings (1958)

Director: Richard Fleischer                              Writer: Calder Willingham
Film Score: Mario Nascimbene                        Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Ernest Borgnine

This is one of those big, fifties epics that either holds up well today or doesn’t. For me, it’s the later. The sets are impressive, and it’s loaded with great actors, but the script really doesn’t go anywhere. There seems to be little in the way of motivation or dramatic arc, an especially glaring omission after recently seeing the History Channel’s series Vikings. Of course it’s not the film’s fault that it fails to live up to modern comparisons, but there are plenty of fifties films that still do because what they lack in realism they make up for in character and story. The Vikings is based on the novel by Edison Marshall and it’s clear that there are huge chunks that were culled from the story to make it fit into the two-hour time frame of the film. There are also some very odd choices, not the least of which is the way no one wants to tell Tony Curtis what his true lineage is.

The story begins with a raid by the Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok, played by Ernest Borgnine, in which he kills the king of North Umbria and impregnates the queen. With no heir to the throne the king’s cousin ascends, but the queen keeps the fact of her son a secret, telling only the priest. She makes the baby a necklace with the end of the king’s sword and he is taken to Italy. Twenty years later one of my favorite actors, James Donald as Egbert, is secretly working with the Vikings so that his lands may avoid pillaging, and when the new king figures this out Egbert barely escapes back to Norway with the raiders. There he meets Ragnar’s son Einar, Kirk Douglas, and the headstrong slave Eric, Tony Curtis. It quickly becomes apparent to Egbert that Eric is Ragnar’s son, as well as the rightful heir to the throne of North Umbria. And what does he do with that knowledge? Absolutely nothing.

This is one of the perils of adapting a novel for the screen. Without the internal dialogue of the novel, letting the reading know why characters make the decisions they make, it’s impossible to make sense of their actions. Most screenwriters get around this through dialogue with other characters that lets the viewer in on their motivations. But Calder Willingham chose not to do this, which raises the question throughout the entire film of why that device was even necessary. I’m sure it made sense in the book, but no one tells Curtis at all, not even at the end of the film. There is a love triangle, of sorts, between Douglas, Curtis, and Janet Leigh, who has been promised by her father, the King of Wales, as the wife of the new King of North Umbria. But she is stolen from her ship and taken back to Norway, protected by the slave who loves her--real life husband Curtis--and the Viking who wants her to be his queen, Douglas.

One of the things that director Richard Fleischer wanted to stress was authenticity, and there are some impressive feats, not the least of which is the construction of three Viking ships made to exact specifications from the museum in Oslo. But the garish Technicolor sort of diminishes the effect, the clean costumes and sets belying their true, artificial nature. This is one aspect where the more recent series is excellent. The film score by Italian composer Mario Nascimbene also tries so hard to establish a dominant theme in the music that it tends to draw too much attention to itself. The Vikings is, however, a grand and glorious epic, one of those films that I would see on Sunday afternoons on television as a kid, complete with the great Orson Welles narrating the prologue. For that it has good associations and is a film that I can return to for spectacle more than story.

The Invisible Man (1933)

Director: James Whale                                    Writer: R.C. Sherriff
Film Score: Heinz Roemheld                           Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Claude Rains, Gloria Stewart, Henry Travers and William Harrigan

There’s a lot of irony surrounding Claude Rains’ first motion picture. For one thing, prior to beginning his acting career he had an almost indecipherable Cockney accent and had to train himself to be understood. And yet, in the end, his rich, cultured voice is one of the treasures of the screen. How fascinating, then, that his first film is one in which his face is never seen until the very last frames of the picture, depending almost entirely on his voice to convey his prodigious talent. This adaptation of H.G. Wells’ popular novel The Invisible Man was James Whale’s third “horror” film at Universal, following Frankenstein and The Old Dark House. To the director’s horror, however, each became more successful than the last until he felt in peril of becoming typecast, especially when his next horror outing, The Bride of Frankenstein, quickly became one of the most beloved horror films of all time.

R.C. Sherriff’s screenplay takes Wells’ story and gives it that James Whale touch. Claude Rains, trudging through the snow, comes upon an inn where he wants to work on his experiment in anonymity. He has discovered the secret of invisibility but unfortunately can’t turn himself back. Ordinarily the urgency to find a cure wouldn’t be as dire, but in this case by the time he learns that the invisibility drug is slowly driving him insane it’s too late. Henry Travers is the scientist he was working for, and his daughter Gloria Stewart is engaged to Rains. Back at the inn, his idea of working in peace is shattered by the nosiness of Una O’Connor and her patrons. It’s here that Rains snaps and heads back to town to enlist the aide of William Harrigan to carry out his reign of terror.

Whale’s direction is eccentric as the man himself. He has wonderfully fluid camera movements and interesting framing devices for close-ups. Early in the film he has Gloria Holden talking to William Harrigan through a screen of flowers, in close-up her head is seen floating above the blossoms. In a strange way this can be juxtaposed with a later scene where Claude Rains is seen running around his room with his head invisible. And this eccentricity runs to the acting as well. In one sense all of the actors save Travers give over-the-top performances, with O’Conner seemingly being paid by the scream. Holden’s performance, in particular, seems rather stilted with phony emotion. But then that’s part of the charm in watching a James Whale production.

Henry Travers, who would be typecast himself after his iconic performance in It’s a Wonderful Life as the angel Clarence, was a solid character actor prior to that, enhancing films as diverse as the western Dodge City and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. After his outing with Capra he only did four more films. Harrigan had a long career playing heavies, and much of Whale’s stock company makes appearances as well, from E.E. Clive and Dwight Frye, to John Carradine and Forrester Harvey. The great composter Heinz Roemheld provides the distinctive opening theme and a spare score, while John Fulton does an admirable job with the special effects, from props on wires like the fire log and books, to the invisibility of Rains with black covering and double exposures. Whatever flaws the picture may have, it is still miles beyond anything similar from that same year, with the exception of King Kong, and this makes The Invisible Man a classic in every sense of the word.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Haunting (1963)

Director: Robert Wise                                     Writer: Nelson Gidding
Film Score: Humphrey Searle                         Cinematography: Davis Boulton
Starring: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn

I’m not a huge fan of ghost stories though they can, at times, be entertaining. Two of my favorites are the film The Changeling, with George C. Scott, and the novel The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons. Both are incredibly well done and outright chilling. To my mind, even though both of them came twenty years later, they must have received some inspiration from The Haunting, based on the novel by Shirley Jackson, herself no doubt inspired by the plethora of ghost stories written during the Victorian Era. At the helm is Oscar award winning director Robert Wise who began his career at RKO in the forties and had a very diverse career, directing pictures in every genre from horror, to noir, to westerns, to musicals.

Hill House, some ninety years old, has a gruesome past. The man who built the ornate monstrosity for his family had both of his wives die before him. His daughter, however, lived in the house until she died of old age while the woman she left it to hung herself. Eventually it passed to another old woman who winds up being asked by Richard Johnson to rent the place for his supernatural research. Of the half dozen or so people he asks to stay with him, only two show up. Julie Harris is a timid woman who uses the opportunity to get away from her claustrophobic family. The other is Claire Bloom, a genuine psychic who has little experience with ghosts. The fourth member is Russ Tamblyn, the new owner’s skeptical nephew who wants to make sure nothing happens to the place so he can sell it at a profit when he inherits the house.

It’s an atmospheric film, but the personalities don’t work for me. The first hour is incredibly talky, with Johnson trying to play both sides of the fence, in the same breath defending the idea of the supernatural and at the same time enumerating all the ways people have of explaining it away. In the end his overconfidence is a little off-putting. Tamblyn, of course, isn’t having any of it and makes a joke out of everyone’s unease. The part of the script that makes little sense is how wildly the relationship swings between the two women. In one moment they’re best friends and in the next they look ready to tear each other’s hair out. Part of this has to do with the fact that Bloom is always reading Harris’s mind, which I’m sure is made clearer in the book. Things really don’t begin to get scary until Johnson’s wife comes to stay and the house finally comes alive.

In the end it’s more of a psychological thriller than a ghost story, and Johnson’s initial assertion is true, that the ghosts never kill anyone. Instead it’s their own fears and mental instability that makes people complicit in their own deaths. For my taste it wasn’t very satisfying. For this type of thing I much prefer Robert Bloch’s screenplay for Cabinet of Caligari from the previous year. And in both films a more satisfying interpretation comes in light of the kind of domestic incarceration of woman as described in Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” When viewed in this way the film is much more satisfying, but that certainly isn’t implicit in the writing of the screenplay. As it stands, The Haunting is more of a disappointment than an effective ghost story.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Gravity (2013)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón                                 Writers: Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón
Film Score: Steven Price                                Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris and Paul Sharma

Halfway into this incredibly suspenseful film, Sandra Bullock’s character articulates precisely what makes it so suspenseful. Believing she is going to die, she tells herself that everyone knows they’re going to die, and that she even knows when it’s going to happen to her. Then she says, “I know I’m going to die today. So why am I still scared?” This is the foundation that Gravity is built on, that the fear of death, regardless of our knowledge, is always present. Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón centered their script on this idea and it really delivers. Lots of fans are calling this the greatest space film ever made. I’m not sure that’s the case, but for my money it’s certainly the most realistic. I’ve never experienced a film that not only made me feel what it must feel like to be in space, but just how omnipresent the peril is.

The film begins at the end of the mission of space shuttle Explorer. The crew of five is fairly inconsequential to the plot. The captain of the ship, Amy Warren, and crewmember Paul Sharma are only heard as voices on Bullock’s headset. Though there are third-person shots in the film, the film is exclusively from Bullock’s point of view. George Clooney, on his last space mission, is outside the craft with Sharma and Bullock to assist Bullock in repairing the Hubble telescope. She plays a scientist who has no space experience but was sent on the mission to do the necessary repairs. Suddenly the crew gets a warning from Mission Control in Houston that space debris from a missile strike on a defunct satellite is heading their way and traveling at speeds as fast as a bullet relative to them. In the aftermath of the debris storm, Bullock is catapulted out into space alone.

The rest of the story is so improbable as to strain credulity, and yet it works beautifully. Far from destroying the suspension of disbelief, the viewer craves the possibilities that are put in front of Bullock as she attempts to make her way to safety. Clooney is his usual confident, cocky self and though he doesn’t have as much screen time as I would have hoped, he is effective as the wily veteran space jockey. The film, however, is Bullock’s. Originally conceived for Angelina Jolie, and at one point offered to Natalie Portman, the film eventually wound up in Bullock’s lab and she makes the most of it. No stranger to suspense from appearances in films like Speed and The Net, she has a look and style that, for me, is an acquired taste. Even so, she does an incredible job of making me care what happens to her, not really in an objective way but in a way the puts the viewer in her place.

It’s not a terribly inventive film, but the technical aspects are astounding. Director Alfonso Cuarón knows his way around CGI from his work on one of the Harry Potter films. The realism of the space setting is simply remarkable and even astronauts who have worked on shuttle missions remarked on its authenticity. For me, the thematic elements and comparisons to terrestrial equivalents are beside the point. The dark, cold void of space, the utter indifference of the universe to the spark of life floating above the earth, that is the real star. Gravity is not so much a story as it is an experience. And from my seat in the theater, it was an experience well worth having.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Unsuspected (1947)

Director: Michael Curtiz                                    Writer: Ranald MacDougall
Film Score: Franz Waxman                              Cinematography: Elwood Bredell
Starring: Claude Rains, Joan Caulfield, Audrey Totter and Ted North

The Unsuspected is an incredibly convoluted story that ultimately winds up being a satisfying noirish murder mystery. Claude Rains is a radio personality who is famous for reading true crime stories. While delivering his broadcast one night his secretary is murdered in his study and the scene is made to look like suicide. At Rains’ birthday party a few days later, Ted North shows up claiming to have been married to Rains’ niece, Joan Caulfield, who died a few weeks earlier in a shipwreck at sea. When she shows back up after having been rescued and convalesced in South America, everyone is surprised, including her cousin, Audrey Totter, who had already moved into her room. To make matters more complicated, Caulfield doesn’t remember marrying North. Caufield is rich, but apparently so is North, so that can’t be a motive for deception. Also, Totter married the man Caufield was in love with, Hurd Hatfield. And that’s just the beginning of the twists.

The screenplay is based on the novel by Edgar award winning mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong, and the screenplay was written by Ranald MacDougall, who was best know for adapting James M. Cain’s Midred Pierce for the screen. It’s a taut script, and that’s partially one of the problems the film has. It takes a good hour into the film to really get straight all of the characters and figure out what’s going on. Up until then a lot of characters enter the picture without a lot of explanation as to what they’re doing there. Still, if the viewer stays with it, it delivers it’s own kind of reward when the plot begins coalescing at a rapid pace in the last half hour. Some critics have compared the film to Laura because of a picture of Caulfield over the fireplace and her presumed death, but there doesn’t really seem to be any pretense to this by the filmmakers as she returns early in the film and the painting has no real function after that.

Rains does a nice job carrying the film, with his smooth demeanor and unflappable personality. The weakest role is definitely that of Joan Caulfield, who was a model before she became and actress and it sort of shows. Audrey Totter grabs the camera by the horns and makes full use of her acting abilities as Rains’ other niece. Constance Bennett is equally as assertive in her role as the director of Rains’ radio program. She’s brassy and, unfortunately, the script is a little too self-deprecating in the lines she has to deliver, as she’s quite lovely even this late in her career. Jack Lambert plays a killer who is under the thrall of Rains, for some reason, and the wonderful character actor Fred Clark makes the most of a small but vital role in the story. All of the actors have a scene or two in the film that is quite impressive and though it’s decidedly a second-tier cast they make a good ensemble.

The story is pretty much a straight murder mystery, though some critics recognize in it some nice noir touches by director Michael Curtiz. Most of these, however, are in the first few minutes of the film when Rains’ secretary is being murdered and intercut with Rains’ radio broadcast. It’s a stalwart outing for Curtiz, and he has some memorable moments. One is when a street scene is shown through the window of a moving bus, and then the camera pushes through the window onto the scene itself. The film score by Franz Waxman is good, but lacks the kind of memorable melodic hooks that are associated with the best of his works. The Unsuspected is by no means a great film, but it is enjoyable, especially for the work of Michael Curtiz. For fans of Claude Rains, however, it’s a must see.

Transporter 2 (2005)

Director: Louis Leterrier                                   Writers: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen
Film Score: Alexandre Azaria                          Cinematography: Mitchell Amundsen
Starring: Jason Statham, Amber Valletta, Keith David and François Berléand

Despite what the blurbs say, Transporter 2 is not better than the original. It is, however, almost as fun. My biggest issue with the film is the direction the franchise is apparently heading, away from a more realistic action/adventure hero toward more of a superhero. In this way Luc Besson has turned the story into something more like The Fifth Element, which I didn’t like very much, especially with the bra-and-panties clad hit woman in high heels. Another aspect that brings the film down a notch, in my opinion, is the move from the European setting of the first film to the United States. It’s a huge disappointment and something that the film never really recovers from.

The sequel has Jason Statham as a babysitter this time out. Filling in for a fellow driver, he takes Hunter Clary to and from school for his rich parents Amber Valletta and Matthew Modine. The couple is having marital problems and Valletta asks Statham to take Clary to his doctor appointment, which he readily agrees to. Meanwhile villain Alessandro Gassman has been delivered an antidote of some kind, which he keeps locked in a vault. At the doctor’s office Gassman’s team of Kate Nauta, Jason Flemyng and Jeff Chase attempt to inject Clary with a virus that will infect Modine, a government official, in the hopes that he will infect the rest of the government. After Statham fights them off at the office, however, they forego their subterfuge and simply kidnap the boy. François Berléand, as the French detective, is in Miami on vacation and Statham enlists his help which gets Berléand arrested, a good thing as it turns out because the police computers have the information Statham needs to stop Gassman in the nick of time.

The one thing this film has over its predecessor, however, is an amazing cast. It’s fantastic to see Valletta again. She really needs to get some more starring roles because she is a captivating presence onscreen. The great Keith David is on hand as the head of the police division involved with the kidnapping. Gassman is a decent villain, but Jason Flemyng is easily the creepiest guy on the screen. Kate Nauta fulfills Besson’s role of the scantily clad blonde who seems infinitely more threatening than Gassman. It’s nice to have François Berléand back again as the laid-back inspector, though the film doesn’t give him a whole lot to do. Modine is easily the worst of the leads, though perhaps that’s a bit harsh. In the end, his is a fairly generic character that could have been played better by a dozen other actors. Statham, however, is reliably solid in his lead role. His fight scenes are well done and believable, and his character’s good-guy ethos is refreshing.

I love Luc Besson and, as far as I’m concerned, any film he’s associated with is worth watching. That said, this is decidedly a lesser effort. One of the most puzzling aspects of the film is how Gassman is portrayed in his opening scenes as an expert fighter who is seen taking on a dozen fighters in combat practice. And yet, when the confrontation finally comes at the end of the film, his skill set seems far less impressive than Statham’s. I mean, the fight wasn’t even close and the outcome is so obvious that it didn’t have a lot of suspense. I would like to have seen Statham get in nearly over his head for once and make the audience squirm a bit. Also, there are a few impossible super-hero moves that, as I said above, edge this film a bit more toward James Bond territory than I’d like. Still, Transporter 2 is an entertaining film for those who enjoyed the first film and Jason Statham’s character. I know I certainly did.

Friday, October 11, 2013

All the King's Men (1949)

Director: Robert Rossen                                  Writer: Robert Rossen
Film Score: Louis Gruenberg                           Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Starring: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru and Mercedes McCambridge

After having become familiar with the Kingfish through the Ken Burns' documentary Huey Long, this film fails to have the impact it no doubt had on audiences of its day. Having said that, All The King’s Men is still a powerful film and it’s easy to see why it won the Oscar for best picture that year. One of the most interesting things about it is that, other than Broderick Crawford who was a popular actor though not a great one, there were no real stars in the film. Of course, the film is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Robert Penn Warren but, to my mind, the credit for the film’s greatness must go to writer-director Robert Rossen, who began writing screenplays in the late thirties and would make his greatest film a decade after this one: The Hustler.

The film opens with newspaper reporter John Ireland being assigned to cover a small county election in an unnamed southern state. Broderick Crawford is running for a county commissioner seat and is harassed by the current, corrupt politicians when he tries to tell the people the truth. When the political machine running one of the candidates for governor needs to split the opposition vote, they commandeer Crawford in order to do so. But eventually he learns he’s a patsy and decides to run on his own and almost wins. He is helped by former machine member Mercedes McCambridge, who comes over to his side, and Ireland who joins as his researcher, digging dirt up on enemies so Crawford can blackmail them with it. Crawford wins the next election in a landslide and uses any corrupt methods he can to do good in the state, building roads and hospitals and helping the poor who elected him.

Eventually the story begins to shift more toward Ireland. His girl, he finds out, is having an affair with Crawford, and he’s forced to dig up dirt on her father, a well-respected judge that he likes very much. John Ireland, who looks like a bit like Dick York, is not the greatest actor, and the script doesn’t help him much. Though he is the de facto protagonist, he has very little ability to exert his own will and falls into Crawford’s orbit. The film does as well, as Crawford is really the primary focus. Corrupt politician’s are nothing new, and weren’t in 1949 either, but there’s something about the character of Huey Long that was different. Though he clearly relished his role as “king” of Louisiana, he was also decidedly a populist and the graft that he was involved in was in order to do something meaningful for the working poor from which he emerged.

Rossen does a tremendous job in translating Warren’s book for the screen, paring it down to its essentials and keeping it moving relentlessly toward the fatalistic ending. That said, it almost cries out for more characterization, leaving the viewer wanting to know more about these lives and the relationships between the characters. The film’s merits were acknowledged at Oscar time, with awards for best picture--which went to Rossen as producer of his own film--as well as Crawford for best actor and McCambridge for supporting actress. It also earned two more nominations for Rossen, direction and writing, and for Ireland as supporting actor. The film even inspired a remake fifty five years later with Sean Penn in the title role. At the end of the day, All The King’s Men is an Oscar winning film that is worthy of it’s award and while nothing we haven’t seen before, is a powerful story and a worthy of viewing.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Out of the Past (1947)

Director: Jacques Tourneur                              Writer: Daniel Mainwaring
Film Score: Roy Webb                                    Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas and Virginia Huston

This classic noir film is based on the novel Build My Gallows High by Daniel Mainwaring--writing as Geoffrey Homes--and it’s a pretty good title for the story it contains. Mainwaring also wrote the screenplay and by the time it hit the theaters it was called Out of the Past, which emphasizes a different aspect of the film. And the story does revolve around these two themes, the first being Mitchum’s own complicity in his demise, his obsession with a woman that drives him to disregard reason and plunge headlong into his own demise. The second theme is the cliché of never being able to leave the mob, when the past comes back to reclaim Mitchum. As much as he’d like to be “out of the past,” to his dismay he realizes he was never really gone at all.

The film begins with Paul Valentine rolling into a sleepy little Northern California town and stopping at a gas station owned by Robert Mitchum. Mitchum, meanwhile, is fishing with Virginia Huston and telling her how he’d like to marry her and settle down. Mitchum had changed his name, and now that Valentine has found him he says that crime boss Kirk Douglas wants to see him. It’s a request he can’t refuse, but he takes Huston along to tell her all about his past. The flashback begins with Mitchum being hired to find Douglas’s girlfriend, Jane Greer, and to bring her back along with the forty thousand dollars she stole from him. It’s a good paying job, so Mitchum agrees. But when he finds her in Mexico he suddenly has no desire to bring her back and instead tries to think of a way the two of them can disappear together. It works for a while, but when Greer vanishes for good Mitchum decides to do the same and buys a gas station.

And that’s when the real noir begins. Like most films of the genre, it’s “nasty, brutish and short,” but packs an emotional punch that few other genres can match, which no doubt accounts for its continuing success with audiences. This is a classic RKO outing with Jacques Tourneur at the helm, setting up all kinds of great shots, like the one on the beach in Mexico with Mitchum symbolically caught in the fishing nets behind he and Greer. The script is terrific, full of wisecracks and witty dialogue provided by Daniel Mainwaring and uncredited help from none other than James M. Cain, and a plot that continues to leisurely tighten down to the breaking point. House composer Roy Webb provides an appropriate, if unmemorable, score for the picture and all the actors acquit themselves well, especially Kirk Douglas in only his second film role after The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers with Barbara Stanwyck.

Stephanie Zacharek’s essay in The B List is wonderful, exactly what a film analysis should be. She is not compelled, like most reviewers, to fully detail the plot for the reader, instead assuming that they’ve already seen the film or will after reading her essay. She takes the view that the femme fatale role is reversed in the film, a view that is clearly antithetical to the story on the surface, but she makes it work in her explanation. In this theory Greer is so nakedly opportunistic that she is actually the “honest” female, while Huston is the one attempting to get Mitchum in her clutches by marrying him in order to get what she wants. It’s thin, but it works, and is incredibly admirable in the attempt. The most obvious thematic element to explore is that of doubling, something that the remake, Against All Odds, brings even more to the fore in the story. Out of the Past could be the quintessential film noir, a beautifully written and photographed film that cries out for even more interpretation that it has already received, and still seems able to be mined for much, much more.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Keyhole (1933)

Director: Michael Curtiz                                   Writer: Robert Presnell
Film Score: W. Franke Harling                         Cinematography: Barney McGill
Starring: Kay Francis, George Brent, Allen Jenkins and Glenda Farrell

A lightweight story of blackmail, The Keyhole is an early film by director Michael Curtiz that features the fabulous Kay Francis. Based on a short story entitled “Adventuress” by Alice D.G. Miller, the story has Francis being blackmailed by her former dance partner Monroe Owsley. The reason for the blackmail? Francis is married to wealthy businessman Henry Kolker because she didn’t know that Owsley never went through with the divorce from their European marriage. Unwilling to have her husband exposed as being married to a bigamist, she paid Owsley ten thousand dollars in hush money. But when he returns demanding fifty thousand, she knows she’ll never be free of him. Kolker’s sister, Helen Ware, however, has a plan. If Francis goes to Cuba on vacation and Owsley follows her, she’ll make a call to the state department to have his visa cancelled and he will be unable to return to the United States.

So far, so good. Except that all of this sneaking around to protect Kolker’s name has him suspicious. Sure that Francis is having an affair, he hires private detective George Brent to follow her. Unfortunately, Brent’s cryptic conversation with Kolker has him believing that Kolker wants her set up to avoid paying alimony. He begins wooing her, but things get even more complicated when Brent begins falling for the irresistible Francis onboard the ship to Cuba. In the supporting cast are a pair of wonderful character actors. Allen Jenkins, who was in over a hundred films plays Brent’s assistant pretending to be his valet. He falls for the terrific Glenda Farrell onboard the ship. Farrell had worked for Curtiz earlier in the year on The Mystery of the Wax Museum. She’s pretending to be a rich, Englishwoman but is really out to snag a rich husband while Jenkins is pretending to be from a wealthy family in the States, neither realizing they’re conning the other.

It’s a very entertaining picture. Brent, who made his start in film as an extra in John Ford’s The Iron Horse, was a staple of depression era Warner Brothers’ films and went on to have a solid career up through the mid fifties. He’s great here as Francis’s love interest. It’s quite an enjoyable film and Curtiz, even at this early stage in his career, has a unique touch with unexpected shots that bespeak a real artist at work with the camera. The film was originally to co-star William Powell, who had starred with Francis in six other films, but he was replaced by Brent in the first of six pairings of their own that make the duo a very successful onscreen pair. The title of the picture was something of a gimmick, opening and closing as the camera zooms in and pulls back from a large keyhole. While nothing out of the ordinary, The Keyhole is a solid film with good performances by a great cast and crew and ultimately a satisfactory viewing experience.

The High and the Mighty (1954)

Director: William A. Wellman                            Writer: Ernest K. Gann
Film Score: Dimitri Tiomkin                              Cinematography: Archie Stout
Starring: John Wayne, Robert Stack, Claire Trevor and Sidney Blackmer

This is a difficult film to assess, though through no fault of its own. First, there is the overwhelming image of all of the disaster film of the seventies, with washed-up actors herded together to emote in a crisis, that initially makes the film seem cliché ridden. But since this is the first of its kind and set the template for those films, that can’t really be held against it. The second is the popularity of the spoof films that began with Airplane, and the unflattering comparison that is inevitable with Robert Stack as the pilot. Third, there is the Apollo 13 parallel, with Wally Brown desperately doing the math in the cockpit and getting it wrong. The final problem with the film is Dimitri Tiomkin’s bombastic score, which is so over-the-top with its choir of angels that it makes the film hard to take seriously at times. However, if you can try to put those things out of your mind, The High and the Mighty is quite an interesting film to watch.

The story began its life as a novel by Ernest Gann about a flight he made from Honolulu to Portland. Naturally, Gann was tabbed as the screenwriter and John Wayne’s production company picked up the film. Gann had also written the screenplay for Island in the Sky the previous year, a film that also starred Wayne and was directed by William Wellman. Wayne plays Dan Roman, a pilot who lost his wife and child in a crash where he was the pilot, and on this trip he's the co-pilot on a plane heading to San Francisco from Honolulu. The pilot is Robert Stack and his crew consists of Wally Brown as the navigator and hot shot back-up pilot Hobie Wheeler. Throughout the flight there are shudders and shakes that indicate something is wrong with the plane, but nothing can be discovered until it’s too late. Once past the point of no return one of the engines flames out, punching holes in the fuel tank and raising the possibility that the plane will have to ditch in the ocean before it reaches land.

The flying Love Boat full of passengers is interesting as well. Most of the big stars in Hollywood at the time refused to be in the film because there were no leading roles, so the ensemble cast includes mostly second-tier stars and has-beens. Claire Trevor and Jan Sterling play aging women who suddenly feel their beauty has gone. Sidney Blackmer plays a jealous husband with a gun in his pocket and a passenger he’d like to use it on, Paul Kelly. The great Phil Harris is unfortunately saddled with Ann Doran who is the completely panicked passenger who thinks she’s going to die and isn’t shy about letting everyone know about it. Paul Fix is a dying man who therefore has a fairly upbeat attitude about the impending crash. John Qualen, who was so memorable in Casablanca, is also onboard as a stereotypical Italian. The rest of the cast includes John Howard, Laraine Day, Robert Newton, David Brian, and Regis Toomey.

Dimitri Tomkin would score a big hit with the opening theme song, one that became associated with John Wayne for the rest of his career. Heard from the vantage point of some sixty years later, however, it’s an awkward leitmotif, similar to that in another fifties classic, High Noon, and eventually becomes just as obtrusive. The airplane set is fairly claustrophobic, but that just adds to the tension. Despite the claims that Wayne hated the role, he does a nice job at calming down the passengers as well as a stressed-out Robert Stack and has the same self-assuredness that he exhibited as far back as Stagecoach--which also featured Claire Trevor. The rich, Technicolor reeks of the fifties, as does the colorful, affluent clothing of the women. In the end it’s a fascinating look at the genesis of the disaster film and while the peril is not nearly as great as it would be in later films, The High and the Mighty is still worth a look for its creation of genre conventions that remain with us to this day.