Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Dodge City (1939)

Director: Michael Curtiz                                     Writer: Robert Buckner
Film Score: Max Steiner                                    Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Bruce Cabot and Alan Hale

The parade of great films from the year 1939 seems endless. While lesser known, Dodge City is still one of the better Errol Flynn films during his time at Warner Brothers, not only teaming him with fellow superstar Olivia de Havilland and frequent co-star Alan Hale, but boasting a terrific film score by Max Steiner and expert direction by Michael Curtiz and his cameraman Sol Polito. It would be hard to imagine how this film couldn’t have been great. While this was Flynn’s first western, he had already proved his abilities on horseback in Charge of the Light Brigade, and the success of this film led to a half dozen more. For this film Warners decided to go all out with a Technicolor extravaganza, similar to what they’d done the year before in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Co-starring as the villain of the picture was Bruce Cabot, still best known as one of the stars of King Kong, even though he had a lengthy career that lasted into the seventies. If there’s a weakness to the film it’s the screenplay by Robert Buckner. In it he takes a very thin story and pads it with just about every western cliché there was at the time. But Warners wanted to get their money’s worth from their lavish production and they certainly did.

The film begins with Henry O’Neill and his friends riding in on the new railroad to Dodge City. Along the way they race a stagecoach and meet up with his foreman on the railroad construction, Errol Flynn. Now that the job is over, Flynn and Alan Hale call in the marshals to have Bruce Cabot and his men arrested for illegal buffalo hunting. Unfortunately, years later after the city has been named, the place is overrun by men like Cabot. When John Litel tries to collect money from Cabot for cattle he’s purchased, he’s shot down in cold blood by Cabot’s men and then they kill the marshal when he tries to arrest them. Henry Travers is the town doctor who is desperate to get someone in town who will restore law and order. His niece is the orphaned Olivia de Havilland, coming north to the town with her brother William Lundigan. Flynn and Hale are taking them along with the cattle drive, but when Lundigan gets drunk and tries to shoot Flynn, he fires back and hits him in the leg. Unfortunately, the shooting starts a stampede and Lundigan is killed, earning Flynn the enduring hatred of de Havilland.

When Flynn tries to sell his cattle Cabot tries to buy them but Flynn won’t sell to him. And when Flynn does get a buyer, Cabot has him killed. The inevitable conflict between the two is clearly going to be the climax of the film, but Robert Buckner’s screenplay sure takes a long time to get there. Not only does Hale participate in a meeting of the Pure Prairie League, but goes right from there into a barroom fight. Cabot is on hand to hang him for the damages but fortunately Flynn is close by to prevent it. And while the townspeople want Flynn to become sheriff, it takes the death of a little boy to anger him enough to do it, which also has the benefit of thawing relations between him and de Havilland. Flynn’s character is terrific here. He is utterly unflappable whether in the face of a drunken William Lundigan or a homicidal Bruce Cabot. And of course he falls for Olivia de Havilland. This was the fifth of their eight films together and de Havilland is as radiant as ever. Ann Sheridan, while receiving third billing, doesn’t have much of a role at all playing a showgirl who is dating Cabot. The ubiquitous Charles Halton plays Cabot’s lawyer, while Frank McHugh is terrific as the owner-editor of the local newspaper. Cowboy Guinn “Big Boy” Williams also does a nice bit in comedy relief as one of the cowhands working for Flynn. Victory Jory plays Cabot’s right hand man and Ward Bond plays another of Cabot’s henchmen. And almost going unnoticed in a small role as the widow of John Litel is the wonderful Gloria Holden, best remembered for her starring role in Dracula’s Daughter at Universal.

Michael Curtiz makes some great shot selections in the film, one of which in the opening looks up between the horses of the rushing stagecoach. He also makes a unique placement of the camera from inside of the covered wagon when de Havilland is talking to Flynn. For Curtiz, however, the centerpiece of the film has to be the completely over-the-top barroom brawl where the entire saloon is literally dismantled, topped off by a cardboard cutout of a showgirl falling on top of Hale when he is knocked out behind the bar. As with most films from the period, the deep color saturation of Technicolor’s colors can be a bit much, but one scene in particular is impressive. When order has been restored and the newspaper announces that new families are coming to the town, Curtiz sets up a static shot at the train station that is beautifully composed, with the early morning California light slanting in on the back lot and the vivid red of the depot so breathtaking that it could be a framed color print on a wall. Max Steiner also provides a stately and magnificent film score, which elevates the film even more. Though it’s not much of a story, and most of it is tied to the town, Dodge City is a one of a kind western with a brilliant cast and crew that make it a highly recommended film experience.

Homefront (2013)

Director: Gary Fleder                                          Writer: Sylvester Stalone
Film Score: Nathan Johnson                              Cinematography: Steve Yedlin
Starring: Jason Statham, James Franco, Kate Bosworth and Wynona Rider

I gotta say, I’m not a big fan of Sylvester Stalone, even the Rocky films. But I have to hand it to him here in putting together an impressive film. Granted, it wasn’t his story--Homefront is based on the novel by Chuck Logan--but Stalone put the film together from the production side and even wrote the screenplay. One imagines that even twenty years ago he would have tried to play the lead, which would have ruined it. But here he gives way to a new generation of action heroes, Jason Statham, whom he had worked with on The Expendables films, and his generosity really pays off. Statham is a natural, especially after all of the hand-to-hand work he had done on Luc Besson’s Transporter series, and turned what could have been an ordinary action film into something quite good. What a lot of these films tend to rely on is the element of surprise, but Stalone’s script eschews that for something even better: suspense. The audience knows what is coming, and the sense of being powerless to stop it is tremendous. At the same time it doesn’t leave the protagonist in the dark, either, and that adds an element of sophistication to the proceedings that is a welcome change from most of the genre.

The film opens on a DEA drug bust of a biker gang that is running a meth lab out of the back of a bar. The inside man on the job is Jason Statham, with a rather bad looking long-hair wig. Running the drug operation is head biker Chuck Zito and his crazy son Linds Edwards. When the bust goes down and Statham grabs Edwards to prevent him from shooting one of the cops, Zito knows he’s the snitch, and tries to kill him before he and Edwards make their getaway. But Statham follows them on a motorcycle and in the ensuing chase Edwards is killed and Zito vows revenge. Flash forward two years later and Statham and his daughter, Izabela Vidovic are living in a small town in Louisiana. He is a widower and trying to start over by restoring an old house. At school, however, Vidovic gets picked on by a bully and when she beats him bloody, his white trash parents, Kate Bosworth and Marcus Hester, go after Statham. When Statham takes down Hester, Bosworth then runs to her brother, local meth dealer James Franco, and demands that he do something. After Franco breaks into Statham’s house and discovers he is a former DEA agent and what he did, he gets in contact with the imprisoned Zito through meth head Wynona Rider, and all out war is declared.

The film is sort of a cross between Cape Fear and Taken. While Statham is out in the back woods of Louisiana attempting to protect his daughter from a crazed meth cooker, he has plenty of law enforcement background that allows him an edge over his hillbilly enemies. There are a couple of other nice supporting roles that, unfortunately, don’t go anywhere in the film. The school psychologist is played by Rachelle Lefevre, and while she and Statham connect at Vidovic’s birthday party, nothing comes of it before the finale. The other nice part is Clancy Brown as the redneck sheriff and partner of Franco. Forever associated with his role in The Shawshank Redemption, he has a nice opportunity to step out of that shadow but isn’t given the time. It does make sense, though. The streamlining of the film is also one of the things that gives it real momentum and doesn’t allow the suspense to flag. The other disappointing gap in logic is that in the playground Vidovic has some real combat skills, and yet doesn’t use them when she’s being abducted. Franco also makes some stupid choices, even when Rider points them out to him. But none of that is enough to really keep the film from being great. Homefront is a terrific action picture that is recommended to fans of the genre, and a must see for fans of Statham and Stalone.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

It Happened One Night (1934)

Director: Frank Capra                                         Writer: Robert Riskin
Film Score: Howard Jackson                              Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly and Alan Hale

The original screwball comedy, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night is a fast-paced frolic that not only defined a genre, but earned Capra his first Academy Award as director and cemented his reputation as one of the great American directors. But the film did more than just win an award for its director. It was the first film to sweep all of the top five awards at the Oscars, winning not only for best director but best actor for Clark Gable, best actress for Claudette Colbert, best screenplay by Robert Riskin as well as best picture of the year. It was sweep that would not be repeated again for forty years. The screenplay by Robert Riskin is based on the short story “Night Bus,” by Samuel Hopkins Adams, first published in Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1933. As is the case in many Hollywood films of that era, Capra had offered the leads to many other actors before finally being able to acquire the services of Colbert and Gable. While its initial release to first-run houses only garnered mixed reviews, once the film went out across the country to the masses, Capra’s true audience made the film a box office smash.

The film begins onboard ship, with Claudette Colbert as a spoiled socialite who has married against her father’s wishes and is being held against her will. Eventually she escapes from her room and jumps overboard. She eludes her father’s investigators and boards a bus for New York, while Clark Gable, a drunken newspaper reporter, gets fired from his job and gets onboard the same bus. The more he gets to know her, the more curious he becomes about her since she seems to be a bit scattered, losing her suitcase and almost losing her ticket. When she’s stranded in Jacksonville Gable decides to stay as well, especially after he discovers Colbert’s identity from the front page of the newspaper, and he isn’t any more impressed with her new husband than her father is. With the next bus not due for twelve hours, Gable decides to help her by knocking some of the arrogance out of her behavior, since she doesn’t have any money and is dependent upon him. When the road is washed out and the bus has to stop, he buys them a room at a motel where he reveals his identity. Then he promises to get her to New York before her father can find her as long as he gets the exclusive rights to her getaway story for his newspaper so he can get hired back. Despite their rocky beginning, the two begin to bond with each other along the way, with inevitable results.

Like so many of the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties, much of the plot goes all the way back to Shakespeare comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and Taming of the Shrew, in this case the later, where Gable abuses Colbert rather than being impressed by her wealth in order to tame her snobbish behavior and get her to act in a more sympathetic way. The centerpiece of the film is the night they spend together in the motel, with Gable erecting a “wall of Jericho” between the two beds. But Capra’s humanism also comes through with a scene on the bus where a woman faints, or with the all of the regular people at the motel. Of course the bus breaks down again, and Roscoe Karnes figures out who she. But when he tries to strong-arm Gable the reporter comes up with a wonderful way to shut him up, and later takes on Alan Hale when he tries to steal his suitcase. As they get closer to New York, Colbert becomes more reluctant to return to her husband, and Gable becomes more disappointed that she isn’t single and he can’t pursue her.

Capra has some nice directorial touches, one of which is the long tracking shot at the motel when Colbert is walking to the showers. The bus scenes are also well done with a simulation of movement that adds much needed realism. There are some dead spots in the script as well, one of which is the singing aboard the bus, but they are few and don’t diminish the overall effect. Many of the devices in the film have become standard for romantic comedies through the years, the cordoning off of a single room the couple is forced to stay in, the misunderstanding when one of them leaves to fix things and makes the other believe they’ve been abandoned, and the angry reunion at the end. While there have been several acknowledged remakes, the king of unacknowledged rip-offs, Lawrence Kasdan, remade the film as French Kiss, with the male character helping to get the female to her husband being the unique characteristic of the film that has been otherwise rarely used as a romcom device. Though he had made some impressive films in the early thirties, It Happened One Night is the first film in what is typically thought of as Frank Capra’s classic period, and for many viewers is still considered his very best.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Fire Over England (1937)

Director: William K. Howard                               Writer: Clemence Dane & Sergei Nolbandov
Film Score: Richard Addinsell                            Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Flora Robson and Raymond Massey

This British film was released in the United States as a thinly veiled propaganda film aimed at garnering support for England in America at a time when Hitler was consolidating his power in Europe. Even the title, Fire Over England, seems to presage the eventual Battle of Britain that would come against the Nazi attempt to invade the British Isles just a few years later. In this historical drama it is King Philip of Spain who is threatening to invade with his armada, the same conflict that appears in a U.S. film that came out during the war, The Sea Hawk. And in both films Flora Robson plays Queen Elizabeth I. The film was produced by Alexander Korda and Erich Pommer and was based on a popular novel from the year before by A.E.W. Mason, best known for his novel The Four Feathers, which underwent numerous film adaptations. The title has a number of symbolic references including the literal ending of the piece, the burning of victims in the Inquisition, and the love between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley as well as the literal affair between Leigh and Olivier, and the abdication of Edward VIII to marry Wallis Simpson.

The film begins with Leslie Banks desperate to get through to the queen, Flora Robson, to warn her of Spain’s evil designs of world conquest and that there are enemies in her court. At the same time Vivien Leigh is running around the castle trying to find a lost pearl from the Queen’s dress, and her grandfather the Queen’s treasurer, Morton Selten, must build the finances of the country for more ships so that all will not be lost to Spain. The ambassador from Spain, Henry Oscar, complains that English ships under the control of Sir Francis Drake are behaving like pirates, and threatens that war will ensue if she doesn’t stop them. Laurence Olivier is one of those pirates, risking his life at the hands of Spanish Inquisitors to defend England, but is captured in one of the battles. His father, also onboard, knows the Spanish captain, however, and he allows Olivier to escape. Back in England, Banks urges striking Spain before they can complete their armada and Selten urges prudence and peace while building ships. Yet while Olivier has lost his father to execution the only thought in his mind seems to be making love to Leigh. James Mason wants to go back to Spain and report what has been going on in the court, but Banks knows he is a spy and denies the request. When he is killed trying to escape, Robson then asks Olivier to take his place and act as spy in Philip’s court.

Once there, however, he finds himself in the care of his host, Robert Newton and his wife, Tamara Desni. The only problem is that Desni and her father actually helped Olivier after he escaped Spanish capture and now she is torn between her love for him and her duty to Spain. It’s an odd film, partly because of the artificiality of the British set design, but mostly because the acting seems artificial too. The actors are very wooden and deliberate, except for Olivier who minces around the set, but they all spout simplistic dialogue. And the transparency of the propagandistic message doesn’t help either. Nor does the modern audience’s knowledge of the far superior and infinitely more entertaining The Sea Hawk from four years later. Even so, it’s not necessarily a bad film. Some of the exterior sets are pretty good, and the cinematography by the great James Wong Howe is pretty terrific. There is some nice use of shadow and camera movement that adds a lot to what is otherwise a very stilted film. Olivier has none of the dashing presence of Flynn and is probably the weakest part of the film. Leigh is constricted by a weak role as something of a ditz, but has some good moments in the second half. The film is also notable for an early appearance by scream queen Evelyn Ankers in a bit part as one of the queen's ladies in waiting. Fire Over England has some moments, and they can be fun, but it is pretty disappointing overall.

They Drive by Night (1940)

Director: Raoul Walsh                                       Writer: Jerry Wald & Richard Macaulay
Film Score: Adolph Deutsch                              Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino

While nearly everything about this film, from the cast and the director to the producer makes it seem like it should be a crime film, They Drive by Night is actually a more of a social commentary on the plight of wildcat truck drivers. George Raft and Humphrey Bogart are independent truckers who are trying to pay off their truck and make more than just a subsistence living working for someone else. But the going is tough as they are taken advantage of in almost every way, and worse, they have to drive nonstop in order to make their delivery times, which puts them in constant danger. The story was partly derived from the novel Long Haul by A.I. Bezzerides, and then combined with elements from the 1935 film, Bordertown, which accounts for the schizophrenic nature of the film, part social drama and part film noir. Warners decided that Raoul Walsh was the only director who could bring the two parts of the film together and merge them into one. At the same time Raft was looking for a way to break out of his parade of tough guy roles, while Bogart would benefit in the same way. In the end, both actors came out of the picture with tremendous performances that showed much more range than they had been allowed previously which led to stardom for Bogart and, ironically, a series of bad film choices for Raft that began a long career slide.

As the film opens, George Raft and Humphrey Bogart are brothers in the trucking business. But the business is tough, driving long hauls and seemingly always behind. As they head into L.A. with a load of apples, some kids playing chicken run them off the road. When Raft walks up to the nearest truck stop to call Charles C. Wilson, the guy they’re shipping to, for funds, they run into another trucker, John Litel, who tells him the guy’s a crook. Sure enough, Wilson not only doesn’t send them money but he sends another trucker, John Ridgely, to pick up the load as well as the repo man, Charles Halton, to take away their truck. Fortunately they dodge Halton while Ridgely helps them deliver the load rather than abandoning them. Then they go to Wilson’s in San Francisco and take the money by force, money they were owed for the haul. Back on the road to L.A. they pick up Ann Sheridan who has left her job at the truck stop diner. Up ahead on the road they see Litel who is falling asleep at the wheel and runs off the road, dying in the explosion. Finally they drop Bogart at his house where he’s met by his wife, Gale Page, while Raft and Sheridan head for L.A. and fall for each other on the way.

In the second half of the film Raft runs into an old friend, Alan Hale, who was able to buy his own trucks and now has his own company. But he has a scheming wife, Ida Lupino, who has her eye on Raft, even though he’s made it clear he’d never do anything with her. Hale gives them a tip on a load they can buy themselves, and then things start looking up as they pay off their truck and buy another load. But tragedy is waiting just around the corner, and after the brothers are forced off the road Lupino puts things into overdrive trying to land Raft, a drive that also includes murder. Lupino is a terrific choice for the femme fatale of the second half of the picture and while she seems to go a little overboard at the end of the film, she manages to make it work in context. But then all of the principals do a tremendous job, and that is probably due to the no-nonsense direction of Raoul Walsh. Of course Bogart and Lupino would go right from this film into another Walsh production, High Sierra, which would make both of the actors major stars rather than just supporting players. Raft would try to recapture the same magic with Edward G. Robinson in Manpower, a story of power company workers, but it didn’t have the same spark as the Walsh film. Ann Sheridan, on the other hand, would continue to make one great film after another throughout the forties at Warner Brothers.

The film earned good reviews and was popular with audiences, though it hasn’t really become a top tier film for modern audiences. One of the benefits of this being a Warner Brothers film is the surfeit of great character actors. The memorable Frank Faylen and Pat Flaherty play drivers in the truck stop, while Roscoe Karns has a running gag as a driver who is always playing on a pinball machine, and Henry O’Neill is the district attorney. If there’s a real negative it’s the role played by Alan Hale. A tremendous actor and a frequent comedy relief man, he was never a clown, but that’s exactly what this film tries to make him and it doesn’t work, especially considering that Hale is much too smart and that his character has apparently built up a thriving trucking business from nothing. Other than that, however, the snappy dialogue and the double entendres written by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay make the screenplay arguably the best part of the film. The film also benefits from a film score by Adolph Deutsch, though it is not as memorable as the ones he would later write for High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. In the end, They Drive by Night is not one of the Warner classics, but it is a great film and enjoyable for the stars and the writing and the crisp direction by Walsh.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Love Actually (2003)

Director: Richard Curtis                                   Writer: Richard Curtis
Film Score: Hans Zimmer                                Cinematography: John Toll
Starring: Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson and Laura Linney

This is such a stupid movie. And yet . . . if you hang around long enough, it’ll get you in the end. Love Actually is the worst kind of Love Boat romantic comedy that features not only every British star alive at the time, but a few Americans as well. What writer-director Richard Curtis attempts to do in this film is capture a snapshot of almost every kind of love there is, from decades old marriages to new romances and everything in between. And to top it off, he makes it all revolve around Christmas time and essentially does the filmic version of what actor Bill Nighy does in the movie. It shouldn’t work, not by a long shot, but there’s just never any one spot that’s so bad you have to turn it off and then suddenly you find you can’t turn it off. Which isn’t to say the film is good, it’s not. It’s atrocious, in fact. But there’s something about it that’s far greater than the sum of its parts. Curtis, of course, is a veteran of the British romantic comedy, having written Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary prior to this. By now he has a definite cinematic style that seems to have struck a chord with movie-going audiences, with self deprecating males and aggressive females who have their hearts in the right place no matter what kind of mistakes they make. It isn’t great cinema, but it’s frothy and fun, and sometimes it’s just the antidote for all of the searing drama and action films that fill up every other movie screen in the mall.

The film begins at Heathrow Airport with people of all kinds meeting their loved ones and Hugh Grant doing an incredibly corny voice over about how “love actually is all around.” Then everyone is introduced. Bill Highy is a lonely sixties rocker recording a new Christmas song. Colin Firth leaves his sick girlfriend behind to attend a wedding. Recent widower Liam Neeson is consoled by his friend, Emma Thompson. Kris Marshall is a horny delivery boy who is convinced he can’t get laid in England. Martin Freeman and Joanna Page are sex doubles for big stars in a feature film, and groom Chiwetel Ejiofor and best man Andrew Lincoln are best friends at Ejiofor’s wedding to Keira Knightly. Hugh Grant, the new prime minister of England, is instantly smitten with Nina Sosanya who works as a food server at 10 Downing Street, and bristles at U.S. President Billy Bob Thornton's treatment of her. When Firth comes home before the reception he finds out his brother is having an affair with his girlfriend and moves to France. Marshall then decides he needs to go to America if he ever wants to have sex. Linney notices Lincoln is obsessed with Ejiofor, or so she thinks, and at the funeral for Neeson’s wife the audience meets her 10-year-old son, Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Meanwhile Alan Rickman is being pursued at his office by his new secretary, Heike Makatsch, and at the same office Laura Linney is desperately in love with Rodrigo Santoro though they have barely spoken in nearly three years. And that’s all in the first twenty minutes.

The whole point of the exercise for Curtis seems to be figuring out how many of these strands he can weave together into one coherent whole. And it almost works. Everyone seems to know everyone else through someone else, a six-degrees of separation that tries to make the disparate lot seem somehow a unified ensemble. One of the conceits of the film is that Bill Nighy’s aging rocker is revamping one of his hit songs as a crassly commercial attempt to make money and renew his popularity. Throughout the film he denigrates the song for what it is and makes no attempt to pretend he likes it. Of course the song is competing for the top Christmas song in Britain that year--something they apparently do over there. And in a way it’s a nice analogy with what Curtis is doing in the film. He almost dares you to take the thing seriously, when the reality is it’s simply a piece of holiday fluff that makes no pretensions toward art. The two threads of the film that he saves for the end are arguably the best and the worst. The worst is the young Thomas Brodie-Sangster encouraged by step-dad Liam Neeson to tell the object of his desire that he loves her no matter what the cost. The best is easily Colin Firth and the surprising relationship he develops with his Portuguese maid, Lucia Moniz. That would have made an interesting movie all by itself. Surprisingly, Love Actually, while not actually good, is also not actually difficult to like.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch                                    Writers: Samson Raphaelson & Ben Hecht
Film Score: Werner R. Heymann                      Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan and Joseph Schildkraut

One of four films at MGM that teamed Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, The Shop Around the Corner is also one of the classic films of director Ernst Lubitsch. And yet it must be said that it is a very strange movie. The story is based on a play by Hungarian Miklós László and it was almost certainly through the influence of Lubitsch himself that screenwriter Samson Raphaelson did not translate the story to America. Instead he kept all of the Hungarian names and the highly structured etiquette of the period and it gives the piece a strange, disorienting feel the first time through. Nevertheless, it is still a charming story, one that would be remade twice, first a few years later as an MGM musical called In the Good Old Summertime starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson, and then by Nora Ephron nearly sixty years later as You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Stewart and Sullavan would follow up this film with the Nazi resistance picture The Mortal Storm later that year, which also featured the talents of Frank Morgan and cinematographer William Daniels. This film is only nominally a holiday picture, as it ends on Christmas day, but because of the strange nature of the story it never really caught on with the general public as a classic in the way that Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life eventually did.

The film begins in Budapest, Hungary, during the Depression. Delivery boy William Tracy pulls up in front of Matuschek and Company on his bike and talks to one of the clerks, the great Felix Bressart. Eventually all of the workers arrive, including Jimmy Stewart as the head clerk of the tiny department store and Joseph Schildkraut, a dandy who is always going on about how wonderful he is. Because all of them are so utterly dependent upon their jobs, they are frightened of anything they say that might disturb their boss, Frank Morgan, and have become incredibly obsequious, hanging on his every word. Stewart, however, is the only one who will be truthful with him, which brings him no end of scorn from Morgan but also a grudging respect. Before the store opens Stewart reads Bressart part of a letter he has received from a girl. It turns out he has been corresponding to a personal ad in the paper with a woman only interested in sophisticated discourse rather than “the vulgar details of how we earn our daily bread.” A little later Margaret Sullavan comes in looking for a job. Stewart tries to turn her away, but when Morgan think’s she’s a customer he falls all over her . . . until he learns what she wants and runs away to his office. Later, however, Sullavan manages to sell a horrible musical cigarette box and he hires her over the objection of Stewart.

Morgan, as it turns out, is in something of a crisis. He suspects his wife of having an affair and further suspects the culprit to be Stewart. He’s had him over to his house for dinner and when he does his wife fawns over Stewart. Stewart has also written poems and sent her flowers as well. And in that context Stewart’s honesty becomes an irritation that he can no longer bear. But Stewart has his own problems because he and Sullavan can’t stand each other and when they’re around each other they do nothing but exchange barbs. Meanwhile he also wants to get a raise from Morgan because he is going to meet his woman from the personal ads and is convinced he wants to marry her. Everything comes to a head just before Christmas. Morgan calls Stewart into his office and fires him before his date with his mystery woman. Now he can’t meet her because he doesn’t even have a job. But he goes anyway, not to meet with her but to have Bressart take a look at her to satisfy his curiosity. The bottom really falls out of his world, however, when it turns out his pen pal is none other than Sullavan. Wisely, he decides not to confront her with the truth, but instead begin a campaign of making Sullavan like him first. It’s not an easy task, considering she despises him, but it makes for a fascinating second half of the film.

Besides the setting, another aspect of the film that feels strange is that for some reason nearly all of the actors approach their roles as if they were, in fact, on stage. Stewart seems to be the only genuine film actor in the bunch and he, along with Bressart, are easily the best part of the film. Even Sullavan gives in to a broad interpretation of her role that feels forced and unsettling. Lubitsch had purchased the play on his own and attempted an independent production deal, but had difficulty getting any traction. Eventually he signed on with MGM as a director and the play was part of the deal. After deciding on his leading players, both were currently working on films and while he waited for them to finish he made Ninotchka. Along with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, Hollywood script doctor Ben Hecht worked on the screenplay in one of his many uncredited assignments and adds a great comedic touch to the character played by Bressart, though not so much when it comes to William Tracy’s role. The Shop Around the Corner is definitely a film that rewards repeat viewings. The strangeness eventually falls away and the viewer is left with a charming story that delivers the perfect dose of humor and sentiment in equal measure.

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 changed for the film to reference 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 Alien 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 “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 by Joseph Gershenson from existing recordings in the music library, 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.