Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Family Business (1989)

Director: Sidney Lumet                                   Writer: Vincent Patrick
Film Score: Cy Coleman                                 Cinematography: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Starring: Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, Matthew Broderick and Rosanna DeSoto

Sidney Lumet was a brilliant director. The guy could go from comedy to tragedy without blinking an eye, and many of his films are classics. And while Family Business may not be a classic, it’s a beautifully conceived comedy/drama that takes advantage of a great cast to raise it into something very entertaining. The film bombed at the box office for reasons that escape me. Criticism from reviewers at the time claimed the film couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a caper movie or a family drama, or harped on the fact that none of the principals who are supposed to be family look even remotely alike. But the telling thing for me is that video rentals of the film were very brisk and, I think, redeem the picture, making it clear that there is entertainment value to be had. It was also filmed at the end of the eighties and so for viewers today it has very little of the dated quality of many films from that decade.

The film begins with a Passover Seder at the home of Dustin Hoffman’s in-laws. His son, Matthew Broderick, is clearly on the outs with him, especially when he wants to bail out his grandfather Sean Connery, Hoffman’s father, out of jail. It turns out that the dysfunction in the family results from Connery’s criminal career in which he dragged Hoffman along as a kid. Hoffman did a year in prison as a result and never forgave him. But Broderick, who has dropped out of graduate school, has a caper he wants help with. A scientist at a genetics lab says he was fired unfairly and offers him a million dollars to steal the experiment he’s working on. Hoffman, of course, freaks out and refuses to have any part in the burglary. Connery, however, knows how to push his buttons and eventually gets him onboard, ostensibly to look out for Broderick. The caper is carefully orchestrated until Broderick forgets the lab book and, going back in for it, trips the alarm and is arrested. Hoffman is beside himself with guilt and the conclusion is actually pretty gut wrenching.

Of course the major hurdle to watching the picture is the supposed relationship of the three principals who seem to be from different planets rather than the same bloodline. The thing that is important to note, however, is that’s exactly the way the novel by Vincent Patrick was written. Lumet didn’t just cobble together a bunch of A-list talent and have a screenplay written around them; he chose those specific actors for the parts that were already in the screenplay. Given that, it’s actually a brilliant job of casting. What is apparent in this family tree is the dominance of the mother’s genetic contribution. While Connery is Scottish, his mother is Native American and his nomadic lifestyle is what drives his character. Hoffman’s mother was Italian and his facial characteristics and quasi-mob career definitely fit within that stereotype. Finally, Broderick’s mother is Jewish and he represents that aspect of his personality just fine. The acting itself, however, is something else again.

I like almost nothing that Matthew Broderick has been in, but this is a good one. The fact that Sean Connery and Dustin Hoffman are assisting him is no doubt a big reason for my ability to tolerate him. His scenes with Sean Connery are fairly convincing, and Connery is very good with Hoffman. The three of them together, however, are an odd mix and the only time it really comes together and clicks is when Hoffman agrees to go on the caper and really becomes the character who was trained in crime by his father. The film moves along well and, though some critics have problems with the ending, it actually does make sense that Connery would make his own separate deal and spend the money. There is also a wonderful supporting cast, Rosanna DeSoto as Hoffman’s wife, the great Janet Carroll as Connery’s girlfriend, James Tolkan as a judge, Deborah Rush as a defense attorney, and Victoria Jackson in a bit part as Broderick’s girlfriend. Family Business is not a great film, but it is solid and entertaining if given a chance.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Valkyrie (2008)

Director: Bryan Singer                                    Writers: Christopher McQuarrie & Nathan Alexander
Film Score: John Ottman                                Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Starring: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp

The story of Valkyrie, the plot to assassinate Hitler during World War Two, has been told several times on film but this is only the second film to focus exclusively on Claus von Stauffenberg, the military colonel who came up with the plot and planted the bomb. Officials in Germany were not thrilled with Tom Cruise being cast in the role because of his belief in scientology, but eventually the fact that the film would tell the story of von Stauffenberg and so many others who resisted Hitler, caused them to eventually gve permission for the company to film in certain historical buildings in Berlin, even though the story had been filmed in German a few years earlier as Operation Valkyrie. While director Bryan Singer, who had made a series of Superman films, would not seem a likely choice for an historical drama of this nature, he had filmed Stephen King’s Apt Pupil which dealt tangentially with Nazism. Cruise was chosen for his obvious cache both in pre-production and at the box office. And it is a very good film, regardless of your thoughts about Cruise.

The film begins eerily with the oath to Hitler being shouted out. The scene then shifts to Tom Cruise as von Stauffenberg being disabled in North Africa, but not without first letting the audience know how much he hates what Hitler is doing. When a bomb planted on Hitler’s plane, engineered by Kenneth Branagh, fails to blow up, Cruise is recruited to assist with removing Hitler. He doesn’t believe in suicide missions, however, and wants something with a possibility of success. That’s when he comes up with Valkyrie, Hitler’s own plan to mobilize Germany’s version of the National Guard were he to be killed. With so many high-ranking officers in Berlin on their side, all they have to do is blame the death on the SS and use the mobilization to take over the government themselves. Of course the plan calls for killing Hitler, something that Cruise has no problem with at all. They also have to get key personnel, like general Tom Wilkinson and Hitler staff member Eddie Izzard to along once the plan gets rolling.

The film is incredibly suspenseful, even knowing what the outcome is. The conspirators came very close to pulling it off but circumstances, as they sometimes do, worked against them. Though Tom Cruise most definitely wouldn’t be my first choice for this project, he does a credible job. Fortunately he has a terrific supporting cast. Kenneth Branagh was chilling playing Reinhard Heydrich in Conspiracy, and does well in a brief part playing a conspirator here. Bill Nighy gets a lot of screen time as a general at Berlin’s high command, but his character is too cowardly for his position and ultimately winds up being responsible for the failure of the plot. Tom Wilkinson is wonderful as the general who goes where the wind blows and can’t be counted on, while Terence Stamp is the retired general who heads the conspiracy. Eddie Izzard is good as Cruise’s man on the inside, and an utterly believable Thomas Kretschmann is the major who is the key to taking command of the city. And finally, Dutch actress Carice van Houten has a small role as Cruise’s wife.

In spite of the comic book affiliations of director Bryan Singer, the film looks great and deserved a much better box office reception that it received. Of course critics both in Europe and America bashed Tom Cruise’s performance, which led to lower sales that expected and diminished the reputation of a film that deserves to be seen, and a story that needs to be told. It’s difficult to convey the fear that pervaded nearly every strata of German society at the time, and therefore difficult to gauge the depth of the resistance movement within the country during the Nazi era, but it was extensive. This film goes a long way to rectifying that situation. Again, in spite of what you think of Tom Cruise this is a very good film that is well done cinematically, and is definitely entertaining. And while there are certainly elements that reek of Hollywood it’s almost beside the point. The story is what demands attention here. As such, Valkryie is a solid, well-realized historical drama that deserves a place in any World War Two collection of films.

The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)

Director: James Whale                                   Writer: George Bruce
Film Score: Lucien Moraweck                         Cinematography: Robert H. Planck
Starring: Louis Hayward, Joan Bennett, Warren William and Alan Hale

In most film histories United Artists seems to be little more than a footnote, probably because they had no identifiable style or stable of artists. But, of course, they wouldn’t. They were a releasing company that independent production companies distributed their pictures through. As such, however, they were a much-needed place where artists could go to make films away from the often times stultifying oppression of the major studios. Independent producers who could raise the financing, could hire the director and stars they wanted, make a film, and get it into theaters all on their own. This film was produced by Edward Small, who had started in the silent era and worked in Hollywood until the 1970s. He hired A-list director James Whale, who had left Universal the year before over creative differences, and B-list star Louis Hayward to make Alexandre Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask, one of many costume dramas that the producer would make over the next few years, filling a niche that audiences at the time enjoyed.

The classic story begins in France in 1638 as the new King Louis is born, but as the current king Albert Dekker is making the announcement, another twin son is born. Walter Kingsford immediately whisks the other child away, but scheming Joseph Schildkraut has hidden himself in the room and has heard everything. After the king is informed, Kingsford has the child sent away with Warren William’s D’Artagnan to raise the child as his own. Five years later, Dekker dies and the new king takes the throne with Schildkraut as his tutor and by the time the new king, Louis Hayward, is twenty-one, Schildkraut maneuvers him into arresting William and his unknown twin brother to be hanged. The Musketeers, including Alan Hale as Porthos, had sent the king’s men away previously, so this time ninety soldiers were needed to bring them to Paris. Instead of being angry at meeting his double, however, Hayward decides to use him to do all of his unpleasant tasks, including spending time with soon to be queen Joan Bennett. When the king leaves Paris with his mistress Hayward, as Philippe, frees the Musketeers and it’s Schildkraut who then has him imprisoned with the iron mask.

The story has very little to do with Dumas’ novel, and seems to have much more kinship with Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. There’s a lightheartedness makes for a very charming picture, leaving out much of the suspense and intrigue of the original. James Whale does a tremendous job directing and one instantly realizes how much his talents were wasted at Universal by typecasting him as a horror director. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was originally approached for the lead, as the previous version of the story was filmed by his father as The Iron Mask, but Small wanted Haywood instead. Though Louis Hayward is not one of my favorite actors, he does an admirable job here in the dual role. Joan Bennett is radiant as the princess of Spain and the helper of the Musketeers. Alan Hale’s role, unfortunately, is rather small. In fact, the entire Musketeer presence is greatly reduced in George Bruce’s script. Finally, couple of supporting cast members are also worthy of note. The first is one of the soldiers who is sent to capture the Musketeers, none other than the great Peter Cushing in his very first film role. The other is the wonderful Dwight Frye as Schildkraut’s valet.

If you’ve only seen the modern adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask with Leonardo DiCaprio it’s important to know that this is a very different film. Most of the previous versions took their cue from the silent version with Douglas Fairbanks rather than going back to Dumas’ original novel and the important role in the story played by the Musketeers. Warren William was a tremendous talent and it’s a shame that he didn’t merit more screen time as D’Artagnan because he’s terrific. James Whale would film only two more features before retiring in semi-obscurity, but he was a masterful director who deserved much more recognition in his lifetime than he received. The 1939 version of The Man in the Iron Mask is no swashbuckler, but it does hold interest all the way through its two hour running time and is well worth the investment.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

Director: Robert Florey                                    Writers: Tom Reed & Dale Van Every
Music: Heinz Roemheld                                  Cinematography: Karl Freund
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Leon Ames, Sidney Fox and Bert Roach

Murders in the Rue Morgue is probably as close as Hollywood ever came to an out-and-out Expressionist horror film. Sure, Frankenstein had some very Expressionistic sets, but it also had a lot that weren’t and the emphasis of the set design was still on realism. And while Son of Frankenstein would seem to be the quintessential example, it used more of a minimalist approach like something from a play rather than pure Expressionism. This film opens with a carnival that is immediately reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, one of the few purely Expressionist film ever made. But there are lots of other influences at work here, the least of them, unfortunately, Edgar Allan Poe, whose story was supposed to be the inspiration for the film. Jack the Ripper is evoked by the young women who disappear and wind up in the river, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher” makes an appearance when bodies begin disappearing from the morgue, and the old man who runs the morgue is positively Dickensian.

The first part of the film is almost science-fiction, as far as that goes. The mad Dr. Mirakle, played by Bela Lugosi, is doing Darwin in 1846 in Paris, over a decade before The Origin of the Species was published. Of course the sideshow patrons think he’s a lunatic for believing that man evolved from apes. They are right about the lunatic part, however, as Lugosi attempts to impress an audience that contains medical student Leon Ames and his girlfriend Sidney Fox by showing how he can communicate with an ape in the animal’s language. After nearly being killed by the ape, however, the couple leaves in a hurry, but Lugosi sends his henchman, Noble Johnson, to find out where she lives. After that Lugosi goes out into the foggy night, kidnaps a streetwalker, torturing her in order to extract her blood and kills her in the process. When Ames learns that several bodies have been found, all with the same markings, he begins to investigate. As he studies the foreign substance found in the women’s blood, Lugosi makes a desperate attempt to kidnap Fox and it’s only here that the Poe story comes into play at all.

What is instantly impressive is Karl Freund’s beautiful and fluid cinematography, his camera following the crowd at the carnival and moving effortlessly along the street tracking Lugosi’s carriage, while crane shots move from the street to the second floor balcony and back again. And the camera attached to the swing is the same device that was used in William Wellman’s Wings from 1929. But it’s the sets that are probably the best part of the film. The heavy use of shadows in the lighting is very well done, reminiscent of Murnau’s Nosferatu, and the way the sets are painted and constructed are all strongly Expressionist. Put together with Freund’s moving camera it gives the exteriors a real three dimensional quality that is rarely scene in films from the thirties. The special effects, when used in the finale, are also very well done and only barely distinguishable as such.

When viewed exclusively from the production aspect, the film is incredibly good, one of the best films made in the early thirties. Unfortunately the rest of it is not very good. Abandoning Poe for the majority of the story and then bringing it in at the end just doesn’t work. Poe’s story is a locked room mystery, not a horror story. And the plot was much better rendered in the Technicolor remake titled Phantom of the Rue Morgue with Karl Malden in 1954. Ames is okay, but Lugosi’s part just isn’t very interesting. He does a decent job, but it’s a goofy script that doesn’t come close to matching the visuals surrounding it. For Lugosi, his career immediately began to descend from the heights he had reached in Dracula. Part of that was his refusal to star in Frankenstein beneath the heavy makeup for the monster which, ironically, Robert Florey had also been originally tabbed to direct. For all that, Murders in the Rue Morgue is a must-see film for production design and Karl Freund’s camera work, just don’t expect a story to match it.

The Big Parade (1926)

Director: King Vidor                                           Writer: Joseph Farnham & Laurence Stallings
Film Score: Carl Davis (1988)                            Cinematography: John Arnold
Starring: John Gilbert, Renée Adorée, Tom O’Brien and Karl Dane

King Vidor is not only one of the all-time great directors, he’s one of the few who were able to make great films in both the silent and sound era. The two silent films that he is best known for are intimate epics about America, about the common man, and because of that still resonate to this day. The Crowd, from 1928, deals with idealism and what happens to life when those dreams are not reached, when we must resign ourselves not to being great but simply being happy. This film, The Big Parade from 1925, is ostensibly a World War One film, but again is about people in this country from all walks of life who come together and accomplish something great, despite the odds. In a way, he was doing Capra before Capra. It also doesn’t hurt that he worked with some of the greatest stars in the business, and that he was working for the most prestigious motion picture company at the time. In this case his star was John Gilbert, and the film company MGM.

The film begins by looking at the men who will be going off to fight the war. Karl Dane is a construction worker, Tom O’Brien is a bartender, and John Gilbert is the lazy son of wealthy parents and has no intention of enlisting. That is, until his girl Claire Adams tells him how much more she would love him if he did. But while his mother is devastated, his father is delighted when he signs up and soon he is off to France and doing just about everything but fighting. The solders are ordered to shovel manure one night before they go to sleep in a hayloft. They sing when they do march, and seem to be having all sorts of fun even while simply washing their clothes. Gilbert soon falls for a French girl, Renée Adorée, and their inability to communicate in words is another humorous aspect of the film. Eventually, however, the men have to go off to battle and the film finally takes a turn for the serious. No one knows who will make it home and who won’t, or if Gilbert will ever see Adorée again.

What’s interesting is that some of the plot ideas from the film would be rehashed a few years later in William Wellman’s Wings, especially the idea of the boy who is in love with the girl he grew up with, going off to war and falling in love with someone else. And there are brief glimpses of flying scenes of the type used in the later film. But this is not a war film, per se, not in the way that Wings is, and certainly nowhere near something like All Quiet on the Western Front. My previous invocation of Frank Capra earlier is far more apt. There is a lot of humor in the film and an innocence in the way that the soldiers are portrayed that would scarcely seem to be indicative of what most American soldiers experienced during The Great War. One of the exceptional things about the film for modern audiences, however, is the terrific score by Carl Davis. Though the film has no sound effects everything musical, from drums to bugles to whistling, is mimicked by the score in a way that is very satisfying. The composer, who also wrote the music for the World War Two series The World at War, also does a magnificent job during the battle scenes with particularly chilling music.

Vidor is masterful behind the camera, framing shots in such a way that they achieve maximum impact without drawing attention to themselves. John Gilbert is also very good. He has a real knack for the physical comedy required in the role and seems extremely confident in pulling it off. The rest of the cast is average the exceptions being Renée Adorée, who became a star after this film but died at the same time silent films did, and Karl Dane who is a little too goofy for my taste. The film is the highest grossing film of the silent era, and it’s easy to see why. A story like this that cuts across classes, has lots of comedy, and finishes quite romantically was bound to bring in a big audience. And while the film was praised at the time for not glorify war, the horrors of war are definitely a small part of the film and buried in among more light-hearted fare, and so it can’t really be seen as an anti-war picture either. The Big Parade is, in the end, a solid film that displays John Gilbert’s talents extremely well and is a very entertaining.

Breach (2007)

Director: Billy Ray                                             Writers: Adam Mazer & William Rotko
Film Score: Mychael Danna                               Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Starring: Chris Cooper, Laura Linney, Ryan Phillippe and Bruce Davison

Chris Cooper is one of those stars that should have had much more success than he has managed to accrue thus far in his career. He’s one of my favorite actors and yet has, for the most part, been consigned to supporting roles. Fortunately Breach shows him off to full advantage and he is allowed to exhibit the considerable skills he possesses. The film is based on the true story of FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who was a spy for the Soviet Union for over twenty years and while the real Hanssen had an unassuming, amiable look about him, Cooper brings real menace to the role. But he also has a tremendous supporting cast that includes the multi-Oscar nominated Laura Linney as the head of the task force investigating Cooper, while Ryan Phillippe plays the mole they plant in his office to get the evidence they need to arrest him. In addition, the cast includes Bruce Davison, Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert and Kathleen Quinlan.

The film begins with Ryan Phillippe on a stakeout, attempting to get incriminating evidence on a possible terrorist. He’s trying to move up in his job at the F.B.I., married to a beautiful wife, and eager to make agent. When he’s pulled off of his assignment and sent in to work for Chris Cooper, he is told to get evidence of Cooper’s pornography addiction, a seemingly low-priority detail after being on anti-terrorism. But when he discovers that Cooper is an ultra-strict Catholic who is as paranoid as he is skilled, it seems inconceivable that he’s involved in something that vulgar. So he meets with task force leader Laura Linney who finally tells him that Cooper is a mole who has been passing on valuable intelligence to the Russians for decades, which resulted in the deaths of numerous double-agents working around the world. This is something altogether different. Suddenly now Phillippe has been thrust into an investigation of vital importance to the country. And Cooper is not someone to be deceived for long.

The film is one of the most suspenseful I’ve ever seen. Despite the seeming inconsequence of failure where Cooper would only go to jail for a few years, there is a palpable sense of mortal danger for Phillippe if he’s caught. At the same time he can’t tell his wife, Caroline Dhavernas, and when the extremely creepy Cooper begins invading their private life she chafes at the intrusion and their relationship deteriorates. Meanwhile, Phillippe learns that Cooper’s home life is just as controlled and paranoid as when he’s at work. Kathleen Quinlan plays his wife and it’s as if she’s in a cult and Cooper’s the leader. At work Cooper is under the thumb of Gary Cole, who came out of law enforcement, and doesn’t like him much but with only a couple years until retirement he can’t do much about it. At one point Phillippe, wanting to quit, goes to his father, Bruce Davison for advice, while Dennis Haysbert plays the agent who is really running the investigation for Linney.

If the film has a weakness among critics it would be Ryan Phillippe’s performance. But it’s difficult to imagine someone doing better. He has also had a couple of other very good performances in Flags of Our Fathers just prior, and The Lincoln Lawyer after. Some of the other criticism has revolved around inaccuracies in the plot. That has never been something that has bothered me in historical dramas. In fact, when it’s done to enhance the plot it almost always makes the film better. And in reality it’s a far more accurate film than something like Argo, which was also great. The performance of the film, however, belongs to Chris Cooper. The menace that he brings to the role and the depth of character that he displays should have earned him an Oscar nomination, but it was a particularly strong field that year--though he was certainly better than Johnny Depp. Breach is a pressure-cooker of a film that delivers suspense and entertainment in large doses, and highly recommended for the brilliant performance of Chris Cooper.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Somewhat Gentle Man (2011)

Director: Hans Petter Moland                             Writer: Kim Fupz Aakeson
Film Score: Halfdan E                                       Cinematography: Philip Øgaard
Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Bjørn Floberg, Gard Eldsvold and Jorunn Kjellsby

This is a tremendous black comedy from Norway that stars the incomparable Stellan Skarsgård. A Somewhat Gentle Man (En ganske snill mann) is very reminiscent of what Alexander Payne does in this country, and since he has directed some of my favorite films this film has definitely joined that list. Everyone in the film does a wonderful job with the deadpan humor and I don’t see how this can keep from being remade in the U.S., especially with all of the product that has been coming out of Scandinavia recently, from Insomnia which was based on the Norwegian film of the same name with Stellan Skarsgård, to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which was originally a TV movie in Sweden, to the television series The Bridge which is based on a joint Swedish-Danish series. And there’s a lot more. This coming to the fore of Scandinavian art, even with most of it being co-opted by Hollywood, is still a great thing for that part of Europe, especially with American product getting so stale with the glut of super-hero and young adult films.

This film begins with a morose Stellan Skarsgård being released from prison after twelve years. The corrections officer gives him a bottle of booze and tells him to keep looking forward. Eventually he makes his way to a pub owned by a friend, and there he meets his old crime boss Bjørn Floberg and his muscle Gard Eldsvold. They’ve found the man who is responsible for sending Skarsgård to prison and they stake him out at his work. At the same time Skarsgård is living in the basement of Floberg’s sister, Jorunn Kjellsby, and working a new job as an auto mechanic for Bjørn Sundquist. All the men are decidedly past middle age and the bland, matter of fact way they go about their investigation is what gives the film its humor. Meanwhile Skarsgård’s is wife, who works at a burger joint, is still bitter but not above giving him a quickie in the kitchen, though his son, who calls him his uncle to his pregnant girlfriend, still has a sense of humor about the whole thing. But this is just the beginning, and the more involved things get the funnier the story becomes.

The emphasis here is really on the relationships, not only between Skarsgård and his crime boss but with his sister Kjellsby, as well as his mechanic boss’s manager, Jannike Kruse, not to mention his son and his ex-wife. The music by Danish composer Halfdan E is also pretty good at times. It’s not nearly as prevalent as Rolfe Kent’s scores for Alexander Payne, which is a shame, but the jaunty themes juxtaposed with the dark humor are the perfect accompaniment when they do pop up. Stellan Skarsgård is magnificent, as always, and watching him in an actual Scandinavian film is a real treat. At the Norwegian Film Awards, the Amandas, Skarsgård won the award for best actor, while director Hans Petter Moland won the award for best director at the Berlin Film Festival that year. Why it didn’t at least get nominated for best foreign film at the Oscars is beyond me, but then the Academy still hasn’t been able to embrace comedy in any meaningful way yet. A Somewhat Gentle Man is an absolutely great film, and if you like Alexander Payne, it’s something you absolutely have to see.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Director: Nicholas Ray                                      Writer: Stewart Stern & Irving Schulman
Film Score: Leonard Rosenman                         Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus and Ann Doren

Teen angst. Abundant fodder for films in the last thirty years, it really began in the mid-fifties with films like The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle, and this iconic picture, Rebel Without a Cause. The problem with trying to look at films like this objectively is that they very quickly became a cliché before the decade was out with teenage exploitation horror films and Elvis Presley. But it’s not just the genre. Even the supporting actors in the film like Jim Backus and Edward Platt would become cliché’s in their own right in goofy sixties sitcoms. Natalie Wood, who was much better known as the symbol of purity and innocence from West Side Story, the last of this kind of film, doesn’t seem to resonate as the “bad girl.” So, at the end of the day this film is really about the performance of James Dean. And it’s a good one. Though associated with Marlon Brando for his brooding style, Dean seems far superior to Brando here, with an introspective style that doesn’t seem overdone.

The story begins on Easter Sunday evening in the police station, James Dean being picked up for drunkenness and Natalie Wood for running away from home. Their parents, of course, are clueless to the cause of their unhappiness, but then so are the kids themselves. Dean’s parents moved because of his previous difficulties, and he just happens to live next door to Wood. At school on his first day he has a run-in with a gang in leather jackets and cuffed jeans. Later at the planetarium in Los Angeles they force him into a knife fight, which he wins, then challenge him to a drag race off a cliff, last one out of the car being the loser. But when Corey Allen can’t get out of the car he plunges into the ocean to his death. Dean hates his parents because his father, Jim Backus, is weak and allows his mother, Ann Doren, to dominate him. He goes to tell the police and even they don’t want him around. Finally, he and Wood go to an abandoned mansion in the hills just to be alone, but trouble follows them.

Whatever has made the film a classic over the years certainly has nothing to do with the plot, because there’s very little of one. It is simply a character piece and because Dean died a few days before the film opened, it instantly became successful and has pretty much stayed that way. That said, it definitely is a huge step up from something like Crime in the Streets, which suffers from way too much unmotivated angst. While I’m sure there are dozens of cultural analyses that deal with fifties malaise, that’s not really what should make a film lasting. The work should be able to stand on it’s own and I’m not sure this one does. As editor Jay Carr points out in his A List essay that the film began as simply another teen film, made to compete with the other studios. But because of the breakout performance that James Dean had earlier that year in East of Eden, Jack Warner scrapped the idea and turned the film into a Warnercolor prestige picture.

As is the case with so many A List entries, Carr reads way more into the picture than is really there. Sure, Dean is good, so far as it goes, but declaring that he and the film would “define a new genre, zap the zeitgeist, and be instrumental in opening the floodgates of the 1960s?” Come on. There have been disaffected youths in this country almost from the time the country began. To say that fifties teens were any more traumatized than any other previous generation makes for nicely self-indulgent analysis but doesn’t make it true. Carr talks about the shallowness of the writing for Natalie Wood’s character but then fails to notice that the entire film is written that way. Sure, Dean seems tormented, but he’s not really saying anything that means anything. In fact, Dean’s obsession with honor seems more like an eighteenth-century throwback than something new.

This is teen exploitation, pure and simple, however wide the screen and deep the colors and popular the stars. It’s a film about teenagers that was meant to appeal to teenagers. The fifties saw the birth of disposable income and the studios were out to get their slice of the pie. The real tragedy is in not knowing what kind of adult actor Dean would have become after he shed his now-indelible teen image. Sal Mineo’s character, far from being the latent homosexual of Carr’s imaginings, is simply searching for a role model that he never had, and in that sense he is no different than Dean. The fantasy family scene at the end is obvious and forced, as is the planetarium allegory that ham-handedly attempts to impart some cosmic significance to the story. Ultimately Rebel Without a Cause is a moderately successful film interesting for the presence of James Dean, and in that sense it is worth viewing, but to make it out as something more is to vastly over-rate the film’s significance and under-rate the viewing audience’s intelligence.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937)

Director: James P. Hogan                                 Writer: Edward T. Lowe
Film Score: Friedrich Hollaender                        Cinematography: Victor Milner
Starring: Ray Milland, Heather Angel, Reginald Denny and Porter Hall

Unlike the many Sherlock Holmes films which, in each of their incarnations, has had a relatively stable cast, the stories of mystery writer H.C. ‘Sapper’ McNeile and his detective Bulldog Drummond have been a bit more inconsistent, without particular stars to point to in representing his detective. Also, where Holmes continues to appear on screen to this day, Drummond’s appearances ended in 1969. He has been played by the likes of Ronald Coleman and Tom Conway, while John Howard played the role the most times in seven films in the late 1930s. Bulldog Drummond Escapes was Ray Milland’s only appearance as the detective. And where Conan Doyle and his fans are incredibly serious about their murders, and like their wit extremely dry, the Drummond stories are played nearly as camp with Drummond running around nearly breathless with excitement as he tracks down murderers and thieves. In this case it’s both.

The film begins with Ray Milland as Drummond landing a plane in a dangerously thick fog on a matter of life and death. The life, it turns out, is the birth of Reginald Denny’s first child. Denny is one of several rotating friends that fulfill the Watson role in the stories. On his way to London Milland is stopped by Heather Angel who steals his car. At the same time he hears a man being shot and sees him sink into a swamp. But the car is eventually discovered by his butler, E.E. Clive, and in it Angel has left behind her purse. When delivering it back to her house Milland learns that she is being held against her will by Porter Hall. The head of Scotland Yard, Sir Guy Standing, is friends with Hall, however, and wants Milland to stay out of it. Of course there’s no way that will happen and he heads back immediately to see what he can to for Angel, including romantically. But Hall is always a step ahead of Milland. Just when he thinks he has the evidence, it disappears, until finally the whole thing becomes a mad dash in the dark through every room in the mansion.

There’s not a lot here that’s particularly cinematic. It’s a fun mystery story that is entertaining and that is really the point. Milland is perfect for the role of the melodramatic and romantic detective. This was one of his first real leads in the motion pictures after breaking out in Universal’s Three Smart Girls. British actress Heather Angel became a Drummond regular after this, appearing in four of the next five films starring John Howard. Reginald Denny is terrific in a screwball role as Milland’s best friend. He was best know for his work in supporting roles, most famously in Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House. Character actor regular Porter Hall does a nice imitation of an aristocrat, playing against type from his usual everyman roles. E.E. Clive, so memorable from Universal horror films, is hilarious as Milland’s butler, and in a bit part as a nurse is the great Doris Lloyd. Again, it’s a light and frothy film, and not intended as anything more. If there’s one downside, though, it’s the lack of music. Even though stock music by Friedrich Hollaender and Heinz Roemheld was used, it really needed to be far more prevalent, especially during the climax where there was no music at all. Otherwise, Bulldog Drummond Escapes certainly fulfills its purpose as a fun mystery story.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Damned (1947)

Director: René Clément                                    Writers: René Clément & Jacques Rémy
Film Score: Yves Baudrier                                Cinematography: Henri Alekan
Starring: Henri Vidal, Paul Bernard, Florence Marley and Marcel Dalio

After World War Two, when trade relations between Western Europe and the United States normalized, French film critics noticed a trend in the backlog of films made in the U.S. during the war. The style the noticed was dubbed film noir and almost immediately French filmmakers attempted to replicate the style. They didn’t need the gritty realism of the urban settings of the U.S., however, because they had their own post-war landscape to play against, as well as the stories of intrigue coming right out of their war experience. The Damned (Les maudits) is a terrific war film, part film noir, part suspense film, part psychological thriller. Before François Truffaut trashed him in print, writer-director René Clément had a tremendous reputation as a post-war filmmaker in France and had won six first prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, including one in 1947 for this film in the adventure and crime film category. Fortunately, his work is being rediscovered and his greatness is gradually being recognized.

The film begins with Henri Vidal coming home to Royan on the Atlantic coast in April of 1945 after the Germans have been driven out. But once back home in his room his voice-over in the present lets the audience know that the entire film is a flashback to when his fate was determined the very next day in Oslo. There, onboard a German submarine, ideological Nazi’s from all over Europe head for South America to start a new front. French newspaper man Paul Bernard, Italian industrial magnate Fosco Giachetti and his beautiful German wife Florence Marley, Nazi general Kurt Kronefeld, Scandinavian girl Anne Campion and her scientist father Lucien Hector, SS collaborator Jo Dest and his young criminal assistant Michel Auclair, are all believers in their lost cause, attempting to cross the ocean undetected to continue their efforts for The Third Reich. But first they have to pass through the English Channel and, when a depth charge goes off nearby, Marley receives a head wound that puts her into a coma. Without a doctor onboard they decide to stop in Royan to get one, and Vidal is one. But Vidal is also keeping a secret that could cost him his life.

The photography is excellent. It’s not Hollywood with its depth of focus, but it is effective. The scenes on the submarine are claustrophobic, though without the kind of realism that would come later with Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot because there is absolutely no movement in the interior scenes while the war footage of the sub shows it rising a plunging on the surface. The scenes in Royan and South America, however, are wonderful in their use of shadow and chiaroscuro lighting, as well as some great high angle shots and moving camerawork, which are every bit the equal of studio productions in the U.S. Henri Vidal definitely carries the show, but Paul Bernard is also very good. The French actors playing other nationalities are less convincing. One of the real treats in the film, in a small role as the agent in South America who is supposed to take possession of the cargo of Nazis, is the great French actor Marcel Dalio who was in lots of Hollywood films but is perhaps best remembered for his role as Emil the croupier in Casablanca. The Damned definitely suffers from its post-war financial limitations but, considering that, it makes the film all the more impressive. In the end it’s a terrific French film that takes on recent history with a lot of artistic flair.

Backstairs (1921)

Director: Paul Leni                                          Writer: Carl Mayer
Film Score: Hans Landsberger                         Cinematography: Willy Hameister
Starring: Henny Porten, Fritz Kortner, William Dieterle and Eugene Dieterle

In Siegfried Kracauer’s seminal work on German silent film, From Caligari to Hitler, he has a footnote containing a single sentence from a source he did not find otherwise terribly convincing: “If it is permissible to describe the Caligari and Lubitsch trends as thesis and antithesis in the early German film, we may say that Waxworks represents the synthesis of these two influences.” But I would say that even that assessment misses the mark. Paul Leni’s Backstairs (Hintertreppe) would seem to be the film that most perfectly assimilates both the Expressionist look of Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the romantic sentiments of Ernst Lubitsch. This style of story, with Expressionistic sets and an intimate love story, was known as kammerspiel in the German theater and quickly made it’s way to film, finally reaching its apotheosis with F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise in Hollywood and Ecstasy with Hedy Lamarr in Austria.

The story is simple enough. The maid at a boarding house, Henny Porten, slips down the back stairs at night to meet her lover, William Dieterle, in the alley. What she doesn’t realize, however, is that she is being watched by a crippled postman, Fritz Kortner, who lives in the basement of the building. When her lover doesn’t meet her one night she looks for a letter from him the next day from Kortner. This is repeated for the next two nights until finally Porten gets word from him. It’s clear that Kortner is obsessed with the beautiful Porten, but equally as obvious that she sees absolutely nothing in him other than his job. She is so happy to get the letter that she can’t resist showing him, plunging him into despair, and making it even worse when she brings down wine to his room later that evening to celebrate with him. What she discovers, however, destroys her happiness when it turns out to have been the Kortner who wrote the letter and while she forgives him, it’s little consolation to either of them. What’s absolutely fascinating, however, is that he keeps writing more letters and the absolutely heart-wrenching consequences that come about as a result.

Director Paul Leni also worked with theater director Leopold Jessner on the film, and the two couldn’t have been a more perfect together. Leni’s sets are wonderfully Expressionistic. They lack the extreme nature of Caligari, but the film is the better for it, and it would really set the template for the kind of sets that would be used in Fritz Lang’s films all the way to Murnau’s Sunrise. Likewise, what Jessner manages to wring out of the human drama in the piece is breathtaking. The emotions that Porten and Kortner display are so strong and so identifiable that the film has no need for title cards at all, though it’s clear there probably were some at the time. From stills taken from the film there also appear to be a few short scenes missing as well. Nevertheless, even that can’t diminish what is a powerful story and brilliantly conceived film. The story was also written by Carl Mayer, one of the great screenwriters of the German cinema, which only adds to the film’s greatness.

The film’s star, Henny Porten, elected to stay in Germany even after the Nazi’s took power, which was bad luck because her husband was Jewish. By 1932 she was one of the biggest female movie stars in the country but, because she wouldn’t divorce her husband, Joseph Goebbles blackballed her and her career never really recovered after that. Even when she finally wanted to leave the country it was too late, as Goebbles decided it would sent a bad message and invalidated her passport. In this film one can see why she epitomized the German ideal of womanhood, blonde and voluptuous and thoroughly captivating onscreen. Fritz Kortner does a nice job as the crippled postman, and eventual Hollywood director William Dieterle does fine in his small role as the lover. Paul Leni, of course, immigrated to the United States and was on the verge of a tremendous Hollywood career after some impressive work at Universal before he unexpectedly died in 1929. Backstairs is a tremendous film, not only for its time but in comparison to any silent film. It is a real find and comes highly recommended.

The Republic of Love (2003)

Director: Deepa Mehta                                    Writers: Deepa Mehta & Esta Spalding
Film Score: Talvin Singh                                 Cinematography: Douglas Koch
Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Emilia Fox, Edward Fox and Jackie Burroughs

This is an absolutely fascinating film. It certainly didn’t start that way, however, and I was tempted not to keep going. But once Bruce Greenwood and Emilia Fox finally meet, the whole thing takes on an absolutely magical quality that defies conventions and still succeeds in being a tremendously entertaining romance. I hesitate to call The Republic of Love a romantic comedy because the expectations of that genre are definitely very different while this film nearly borders on being a straight drama. At every turn the film does something different than expected, and I attribute that to it being made in Canada rather than Hollywood. In a way it’s almost too simplistic of a story for Hollywood, something that town would claim could never work. But it does. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Canadian writer Carol Shields. It’s a very literary story, with the narrative alternating between the two protagonists, and director Deepa Mehta along with Esta Spalding did a terrific job adapting it for the screen.

The film begins with the one concession to its literary beginnings, with Bruce Greenwood’s character as a baby being mothered by twenty-seven beautiful young women training to be homemakers. The story then shifts to the present day with Greenwood talking to his actual mother on the phone. He’s a late-night radio host, divorced three times and currently single, with no hope of meeting anyone. Meanwhile Emilia Fox is in the middle of a loveless romance with Lloyd Owen who is, literally, putting her to sleep. When he suggests he move in with her, that’s just the impetus she needs to break it off. It’s not until a birthday party at the home of mutual friends that they finally meet and, wow, what a meeting. The two fall for each other hard, the sure sign of disaster in a romcom. But she’s off to Paris the next day and once she’s gone he can’t stop himself from writing her a love letter, quickly becoming convinced that he’s blown it by doing so. But when she returns he’s waiting at the airport and they have the perfect reunion. Another red flag for audiences, and they’re right because the rest of the film is an emotional shocker.

The first thing that stands out to the viewer is the visual style of the film. There is as much an emphasis on setting as there is on character. The subway, the streets and the buildings of Toronto are clean, pristine and present a perfect winter backdrop for the film, again defying conventions by eschewing a spring romance. Director Deepa Mehta is an Indian director based out of Toronto, and she definitely brings the spirit of Bollywood to the film, deemphasizing the humor in the genre and ratcheting up the drama in a skillful way. She also brought in composer Talvin Singh to give the film score an Indian sound as well. But again, it’s not overwhelming and somehow fits with the story. In fact, at the beginning of the film when she’s showing the deterioration of Fox’s relationship, she has Owen bring home a Bollywood film and Fox falls asleep while watching it with him. The blend of cultures works, giving the film an undercurrent of the exotic and the fantastic while dealing with the mundane evolution of relationships.

My favorite aspect of the film is definitely Bruce Greenwood. For much too long he has been working in supporting roles, and it’s great to see him as a lead. After his breakout in the television drama St. Elsewhere he delivered a tour de force performance in the mini series Twist of Fate, but languished in TV after that, only recently returning to the big screen in a series of modern science-fiction films including the new Star Trek series. Mehta wanted him because he’s Canadian, and while he didn’t come onboard right away, he eventually trusted her vision and became one of the film’s producers as well. Emilia Fox is wonderful as his love interest, thirty years old and still scared of never achieving the perfect relationship that he parents have. She also gets to act opposite her real-life father, the great British actor Edward Fox. Rounding out the cast are Jackie Burroughs as Greenwood's mother, best known for her iconic performance playing Christopher Walken’s mother in The Dead Zone, and the immediately recognizable Jan Rubes from Witness. This is not a standard romantic comedy in any way, but I really think fans of the genre will appreciate it. The Republic of Love is a beautiful film and most definitely a rewarding screen experience.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Contagion (2011)

Director: Steven Soderbergh                         Writer: Scott Z. Burns
Film Score: Cliff Martinez                              Cinematography: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Laurence Fishburn, Matt Damon, Jennifer Ehle and Marion Cotillard

Superficially, Contagion seems like just another star-studded epidemic disaster film. And yet this one takes a very different turn with an emphasis on realism. This, of course, makes sense coming from Participant Media, which has made dozens of high-quality documentaries over the past ten years. Still, it’s a difficult line to walk between information and entertainment. There’s a discernable difference between plot-driven epidemic films like The Andromeda Strain or Outbreak and something that proposes to be as accurate as possible about what a worldwide pandemic would look like. Gone are the soap opera sub-plots and the mustache-twirling military men, and instead are realistic people who are trying, against the odds, to do the jobs they were trained for. And just like real life, not everyone makes it out alive. Just because these brave people work with infectious diseases doesn't mean that they have some kind of special immunity. While the disaster-type films can be more entertaining in a way, they can also be exponentially exasperating in watching the contrived situations. On the other hand, the real-life simulation can be a bit boring if it’s not what you’re expecting.

The film begins on Day 2 of the outbreak with Gwyneth Paltrow at the Chicago airport, clearly sick. When she gets home to Minnesota she infects her son, but not husband Matt Damon who is immune. Meanwhile there are outbreaks in Japan, Hong Kong and London. Laurence Fishburn, the head of The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, is naturally alerted and he sends out one of his doctors, Kate Winslet, to Minnesota and she makes the connection with the deaths there to the outbreak in Chicago. Once the disease is clearly verging on epidemic proportions the World Health Organization gets involved and sends someone to Hong Kong where Paltrow had been flying home from. Marion Cotillard is the doctor in charge of this investigation and pins down the casino Paltrow had been in and all of the people around her there who died as well, but winds up caught up in something unexpected. The doctor doing the lab work at the CDC is Jennifer Ehle and, with the help of Elliot Gould who isolates the virus and is able to grow it, finally comes up with a vaccine.

This is definitely not a thrill-ride disaster film, but it is harrowing in its own way. At the same time that the scientific work is going on the public’s reaction to the news is almost more dangerous. Jude Law is a blogger with a huge audience and he is only interested in manipulating the public in order to make a pile of money off of the epidemic. And, of course, as things progress there is looting and rioting and the worst of human nature that comes out. There are some great twists with Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard, and the other thing is the incredible realism displayed by Jennifer Ehle in the face of the disaster. Instead of being panicked by the situation she works the problem, tells the truth, and controls the situation rather than letting it control her. The reason, I’m sure, for the all-star cast is no doubt due to director Steven Soderbergh who has the ability to get tons of stars to work for him. He’s done some nice work and this falls into the same category, not brilliant but certainly entertaining. Contagion is a unique story, a different take on the genre that's well worth checking out as long as expectations are adjusted accordingly.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Director: Sergio Leone                                     Writers: Victor Andrés Catina & Sergio Leone
Film Score: Ennio Morricone                            Cinematography: Massimo Dallamano
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, Gian Maria Volonté and Wolfgang Lukschy

Though chronologically set after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, this film is actually the first of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood and it set the standard for a new type of western hero. But that innovation was not original with Leone. The film is actually an unacknowledged remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo from three years earlier and the Japanese film company, Toho, won a court case against Leone despite the director’s contention that the story was based just as much on Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest and Carlo Goldoni’s play Servant of Two Masters. In A Fistful of Dollars instead of private detective or a mysterious Samurai warrior drifting into town, this time it’s a cowboy with no name wearing a poncho. A unique symbol of the series, the poncho was something Leone and costume designer Carlo Simi put together to make the character distinct, and in the final film of the series, the prequel, Eastwood can be seen putting it on at the end of the film.

When Clint Eastwood stops for water at what looks like a deserted Mexican town, he is accosted by a group of gunmen who shoot to scare his horse. But he hops off and has a drink at José Calvo’s bar and is filled in on the town. Two families run the place, the Rojo’s buy and sell liquor to bootleggers who sell in in Texas, while the Baxter family does the same with guns. Mostly what happens in the town is the men wind up killing each other for being affiliated with one of the two families. As Calvo tells Eastwood, it’s one boss too many. When the Rojo’s kill an entire company of Mexican soldiers for the gold they’re transporting, Eastwood decides to play both of the families against each other, and gets paid by both sides for doing it. First he sends the Rojo’s on a phony hunt for soldiers who survived and tells the Baxters who meet them for a shootout. Later, Eastwood steals back Marianne Koch who had been kidnapped but the Rojos believe it was the Baxters and retaliate, with devastating results. The finale features Eastwood’s now iconic bullet-proof vest.

Eastwood was not the first choice of Sergio Leone. In fact, he was on the second list he had put together after everyone on the short list declined. It was Richard Harrison who suggested him and Eastwood leapt at the chance to shed his good-guy cowboy image from Rawhide and play an anti-hero. Leone’s style of filmmaking is certainly unique. He takes his time and allows events to unfold sometimes with excruciating slowness. Some of this, ironically, is because he had composer Ennio Morricone record parts of the score before the film was completed and in editing Leone liked the music so much that he allowed the scenes to run longer than they might have otherwise. But the most distinctive thing about the film is the violence, particularly in the way that there is no justification for it. Eastwood is there for the money, and killing is the way he earns it. His lack of remorse or morality is what keeps him alive and, unlike many Hollywood westerns, he doesn’t allow himself the luxury of guilt. A Fistful of Dollars is not the best of the trilogy, but it did set the stage for better films to come and really began to shape the path that Clint Eastwood would follow for the rest of his career.

The Mad Monster (1942)

Director: Sam Newfield                                   Writer: Fred Myton
Film Score: David Chudnow                            Cinematography: Jack Greenhalgh
Starring: George Zucco, Johnny Downs, Anne Nagel and Glenn Strange

After the success of Universal’s The Wolf Man, no company worked faster to copy the film than Sigmund Neufeld’s unit for PRC. B-movie writer Fred Myton was put to work on a wolf-transformation screenplay while special effects man Gene Stone was given the task to re-create the transformation scenes from the Lon Chaney Jr. film. Rather than copy the plot of The Wolf Man screenplay, however, Myton decided to replicate Man Made Monster from the year before. That film also starred Chaney as well as Anne Nagel, and George Zucco was scheduled as the star for their low-budget rip-off. The result was The Mad Monster, distributed by poverty row PRC and hitting the screens a mere five months after Universal revived their horror product with their new monster. Zucco plays his standard, elegant, mad doctor, while Strange does Chaney’s Lennie from Of Mice and Men a year before he would replace Chaney as the Frankenstein monster in the last three Universal monster conclaves.

The film opens with a wolf howling at the moon. George Zucco has taken the blood of another wolf and transfused it into Glenn Strange and a few moments later he turns into a snarling wolf. At this point Zucco has an imaginary discussion with the professors who ran him out of the science department at the college and he vows revenge, that each will die at the hands of his creation. Meanwhile Zucco’s daughter, Anne Nagel, is tired of being cooped up in the country house while her father performs his experiments, but she does develop a simplistic relationship with Strange. When Zucco sets his monster loose the first night and it kills a village child, Strange roams the swamp in his overalls looking confused rather than out for blood, with the sound effects growling independently of his facial movements. The only way to reverse the effects is for Zucco to inject him with the antidote. But, as all things do in the world of horror, Strange begins to transform on his own which causes all kinds of trouble for Zucco.

Here’s the thing. This is certainly a grade-Z movie, there’s no disputing that . . . and yet it’s not. It may have a lowly 3.5 on IMDb, but it is not a bad film. Glenn Strange may be doing the worst Lennie impression ever, but for some reason it’s okay. There’s some bad acting, sure, but the principals are all pretty good. Zucco is dependable as always, and Anne Nagel is all right as well. While reporter Johnny Downs is a little too gee-wiz Johnny Olson, the old professors are actually quite credible. It all comes down to expectations and, in that respect, the film is surprisingly interesting and skillfully done with the paucity of funds at their disposal. It’s not a studio production, and anyone expecting that will undoubtedly be disappointed. But for fans of Universal’s monster pictures, The Mad Monster is definitely an interesting pastiche of Chaney Junior’s first two horror films for the studio.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Director: Paul Leni                                          Writers: Robert F. Hill & Alfred A. Cohn
Film Score: Hugo Riesenfeld                           Cinematography: Gilbert Warrenton
Starring: Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Forrest Stanley and Tully Marshall

The opening of Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary is a treat for Universal horror film buffs, as it is the same opening used for Son of Dracula sixteen years later, a hand wiping away dust and cobwebs to reveal the main titles of the picture. It is sufficiently eerie and is the real beginning of the great horror film history at Universal. I say this because, at the time, the Chaney films were never considered horror films and so this film, even with the non-supernatural reveal at the end, is much more of an influence on Dracula and Frankenstein four years later than Chaney had been. Director Paul Leni had emerged directly out of the German school of Expressionist cinema having filmed Waxworks for Ufa and then coming to Hollywood for this film as well as The Man Who Laughs for Universal. Unfortunately Leni would not go on to work in the sound era as he unexpectedly died in 1929, but his influence on Universal’s horror films would be felt for the next twenty years.

This film has a wonderful opening montage. After the credits we are told that the wealthy millionaire Cyrus West is dying and that medicine can no longer help him. The visual of a man in a wheelchair surrounded by gigantic bottles is terrific. Then we are told the relatives are waiting like cats around a canary, and then we see giant cats around the bottles and West dying. Two envelopes are left behind after his death, the first is a will that is not to be opened for twenty years, the second only to be opened if the instructions of the will are not followed out. Based on the hit play by John Willard, this is the first of a group of films that would come to constitute their own sub-genre: the old dark house mystery. These are gothic tales in which relatives are gather at an old, usually rumored to be haunted, mansion and told to spend any number of nights there in order to earn the right to inherit the money they have been left.

Martha Mattox is the old crone who has been the caretaker of the house for the last twenty years and Tully Marshall is the lawyer who has come to read the will. But he’s disturbed because someone has recently been in the safe and opened the envelopes. Arthur Edmund Carewe and Forrest Stanley are the first of the heirs to arrive at the house, followed by Flora Finch and Gertrude Astor. Then Creighton Hale shows up as the comedy relief, looking a bit like Harold Lloyd. The last to arrive is Laura La Plante who winds up inheriting the estate. But there’s a condition on the will that the heir be declared sane. And before she can be examined by a psychiatrist there is plenty of time for one or more people to try and drive her mad in the old house so that they can inherit instead. To put even more fear into the guests a guard comes into the house claiming that a lunatic has escaped and is on the property, followed of course by creepy hands coming out of nowhere and disappearing bodies.

In terms of influence, the story itself has been copied over the years with numerous variations. Leni’s gothic sensibilities, however, are what make their way into the horror films of the thirties almost intact. The camera angles, many times shooting up from the floor, are brilliant, and the moving camera work is astounding. When Marshall takes the letters from the safe at the beginning of the film and whisks them over to the table the camera not only follows him, but the way it simultaneously zooms in on the letters is breathtaking. The lighting is terrific, with lots of shadow-play, and he also makes good use of superimposition. Even the titles, in the German tradition, are animated on occasion for effect. The acting, however, is decidedly second rate. There are no real stars here, and many of the comedic moments from Hale and Finch wear thin before too long. Nevertheless, The Cat and the Canary is a great film from a directorial viewpoint and, while interesting for fans of silent films, is essential for students of Universal’s horror legacy.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Citizen Kane (1941)

Director: Orson Welles                                     Writer: Herman Mankiewicz & Orson Welles
Film Score: Bernard Herrmann                          Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore and Agnes Moorehead

While I completely understand and respect Orson Welles’ prodigious talents, I’ve never really enjoyed watching him on screen. The most telling example of this is that my favorite film of his is Touch of Evil, where he is almost unrecognizable. Perhaps that’s why I don’t particularly enjoy Citizen Kane more. While I’m incredibly appreciative of the film as a work of art, I don’t really find it entertaining. It’s an incredible cinematic experience, but it’s not something that I return to for repeat viewings. It is then, as so many critics say, the greatest film of all time? Not for me. Nevertheless, Welles’ thinly-veiled biography of Randolph Hearst is something unique in film history and, while not very influential, that creative difference has set it apart, earning it accolades down through the decades that have made it a perennial number one on the all-time lists of films both in the United States and around the world.

The film opens with a wonderful montage that begins on a No Trespassing sign, a perfect encapsulation of the character. After dissolves that reveal the broken down ruins of the estate called Xanadu, the camera stops on a window and the light goes out symbolizing the death of Charles Foster Kane. From there the scene shifts to inside and the final words of Welles’ character: Rosebud. Next a newsreel tells the story in a few short minutes of the life of Kane, and when it finishes the men watching it in the screening room are given orders by their boss to find out what Rosebud means. The rest of the film is told in flashbacks, remembrances of the men and women who knew the man, piecing together the inside story of the media mogul. From the lawyer who was in charge of his millions until he came of age, to his manager, to his best friend and finally his ex-wife, emerges a portrait of a man who didn’t know who he was and yet insisted on exerting his undefined will on everyone around him until he drove them all away.

The first thing one is struck by is the photography. The whole film is highly stylized, at times with thoroughly composed shots giving an almost static quality to the scene, and others with chiaroscuro lighting that is extremely gothic. The deep focus lenses and low-angle shots, while not exactly new, were used in a new way to emphasize the foreground while maintaining focus on the background as well, allowing for more new and interesting compositions. The next thing that draws attention is the idiosyncratic film score by Bernard Herrmann that, while not intrusive, captures the same fragmented quality of the visuals. Finally, there is the overlapping dialogue, realistic in sound if not substance. For the substance of the text is deceptive, like Kane himself, pompous and important sounding but with little actual meaning. And the through story, the search for Rosebud, while providing a great reveal at the end, in retrospect seems almost too simplistic. But then that would seem to be the whole point. For the reminiscences of a man’s life are not the man himself. They are a dream, a fantasy that seems real at the time but in reality is nothing more than a memory or a nightmare.

The A List essay by Godfrey Cheshire is very good on this point. He first explains that the film is really two films, the Hollywood picture distributed by RKO which is separate from its enormous reputation. He goes on to say that the reputation has nearly subsumed the actual picture. I was happy to see him tell first-timers to dial back their expectations because all of the techniques that seemed so innovative at the time have subsequently been co-opted even by television. But his best point, one that I’m not sure is articulated all that well, is to view the film from the perspective of radio, the medium that Welles came from. The way I read this is that the film is our imagination of what the story, if told on radio, would look like in our minds, very much like a dream or a memory. His final, well though out point, is that Citizen Kane’s reputation actually comes from the fact that it, more than any other Hollywood film, is a work of art created almost wholly by its author, Orson Welles, and thus cannot be viewed the same as the other art by committee creations of the golden age of cinema. And in that respect, at least, it is one of the greatest films of all time.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Beast of the City (1932)

Director: Charles Brabin                                   Writers: W.R. Burnett & Ben Hecht
Sound: Douglas Shearer                                  Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Starring: Walter Huston, Jean Harlow, Wallace Ford and Jean Hersholt

This is another crime story from the popular writer W.R. Burnett, the author of Little Caesar and Public Enemy. MGM wanted to show that a film about police, rather than the criminals, could be just as exciting and just as violent and just as big at the box office. But rather than showing the success of the police, the film deals more with their frustrations and inability to put known criminals, especially those in organized crime, behind bars. Beast of the City is also something of a curiosity when considering its place amid the other pre-code films of the era. Though it has very little violence throughout most of the film, it saves it all for the end where the final bloodbath packs in as much as most gangster pictures. And yet because the shootings are precipitated by the police and the criminals all get what was coming to them, the Legion of Decency actually endorsed the picture.

The film begins by showing the inner workings of the police radio center in New York City, with a dispatcher sending radio signals out to all of the cars. When a call comes in that four men have been found murdered the homicide squad, led by Walter Huston, takes a look and determines that Jean Hersholt and his henchman J. Carrol Naish are responsible and take them in for questioning. But without hard evidence they’re turned loose, infuriating Huston so much that he tells the police chief he may have to resort to “hot lead” to stop them. Prophetic words. Huston’s brother, Wallace Ford, is also a cop on the vice squad. He takes a more practical approach to the murders, and if Hersholt is killing other criminals he’s not going to get too upset about it. He agrees to help Huston by questioning Hersholt’s girlfriend, Jean Harlow, but winds up falling for her instead. Meanwhile Huston gets promoted to chief of police but won’t give his brother a promotion. So when Ford gets an offer from Hersholt that he can’t refuse . . . he doesn’t.

As a story it has some interest, but pales in comparison to Warner Brother’s gangster films of the same period. While all the elements pitting the police against the mob are there it lacks anything close to suspense. But that seems to be the whole point. The most infamous scene in the picture is the finale where the Huston and his intimates on the force, though dubious in its legality, make martyrs of themselves. But where the story is weak the production itself is very good, with director Charles Brabin doing a tremendous job. Like so many films from this period, the camera work is excellent, with long tracking shots of the police chasing down criminals though an alley and gliding along the jury stand in the courtroom, or crane shots moving up the stairs with Huston and his wife at home. By the same token, however, the early sound systems left much to be desired and it’s difficult to make out the dialogue at times.

Huston does a solid job with his usual sober characterization, and fortunately Ford hadn’t yet reached the stage in his career where he was doing a faux Lou Costello. Jean Harlow has a couple of interesting scenes, the most compelling of which his her dance for Ford, but nothing else really to speak of. J. Carrol Naish’s small role also gives him very little room to demonstrate his talents, but he is memorable in the finale. And though he had done dozens of shorts under the name Mickey McGuire going back to the silent era, this was actually Mickey Rooney’s first feature film playing Huston’s young son. Beast of the City is certainly an interesting film, but it lacks a lot of the personality that made Warner Brother’s gangster pictures so popular. It does have its bright spots, however, and is worth checking out for the ending alone.