Saturday, December 31, 2016

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Director: William Wyler                                     Writers: Arthur Wimperis & James Hilton
Film Score: Herbert Stothart                             Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright and Richard Ney

It’s no surprise that MGM’s Mrs. Miniver won the best picture Oscar in 1942. It seems that all through the war years anything having to do with the war itself (Casablanca, The Best Years of Our Lives) or England (How Green was My Valley, Rebecca) wound up in the top spot. This film makes no pretension of being coy about it, extolling the virtues of the British people in a scrolling prologue before the film even begins. Of course everyone knows about the flyers in the Battle of Britain, but less is known about the work and sacrifice of ordinary people all across the country and that’s exactly what the film attempts to convey. It’s a war film, so it doesn’t have a happy ending, but it is an uplifting picture and it’s easy to see why it won the Academy Award for best picture. The film was based on the 1940 novel by Jan Struther, and several screenwriters worked on it, including James Hilton who was the author of Lost Horizon. The film had gone into production prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and afterward the studio was allowed to ratchet up the confrontation between Greer Garson and the downed German pilot. The film was nominated for twelve Oscars, winning six in all, including awards for William Wyler, Greer Garson, Teresa Wright, the black and white cinematography of Joseph Ruttenberg, and the screenplay.

The film opens in London, with Greer Garson getting off the bus in a panic and running back to the store to buy a hat she had seen. On the train home to the village where she lives the audience meets the vicar, Henry Wilcoxon, and the lady of the manor, Dame May Whitty. Henry Travers is the ticket taker at the train station in the village and grows roses, naming one of his hybrids after Garson. Walter Pidgeon is her husband and he’s buying a car from Gerald Oliver Smith. He’s an architect and they have two small children and a grown son who is home for the summer from college. The film is obviously establishing the vision of a happy, healthy, middle-class existence in order to contrast it later with the horrors of war. Richard Ney is home from Oxford, full of disgust at the lingering caste system in Britain, and when Teresa Wright, the granddaughter of Whitty, comes to ask that Travers be persuaded not to enter his rose in competition--so that Whitty can win, as she does every year--it puts the two of them at odds, especially when she accuses him of being all talk and no action. It’s a romantic comedy trope that virtually assures they will fall in love by the end of the picture, but the audience doesn’t have to wait nearly that long. At church a few months later the vicar announces that Britain is at war, and it’s almost possible to see the wheels spinning in Ney’s head about needing to put his words into action, something not unnoticed by his parents.

Two months later Ney is in the air corps, and both he and Pidgeon are called in to help save the soldiers at Dunkirk. Then there’s talk of a German plane going down and no sign of the pilot, and the plot thickens when Garson finds Helmut Dantine in her garden while the men are gone. There are some nice bits of comedy, for example when Reginald Owen as the air-raid marshal tells everyone that the government has said people should stockpile food. Of course, he’s the town grocer and is putting in orders for everyone whether they like it or not. Dame Whitty also comes in for a bit of ridicule for her aristocratic posturing, especially when people’s lives are at stake. The acting in the film is uniformly excellent, although the Hollywood actors playing many of the British roles is one of the major sacrifices the film makes for American audiences. Another weakness is that the film was completely shot on the MGM back lot. But overall there’s little to criticize. Garson is tremendous, and deserved her Oscar for best actress. The film score by studio composer Herbert Stothart is fairly bland and forgettable, especially next to Max Steiner’s score for Now Voyager, which won the award. The film was praised as a propaganda film by FDR, who wanted Americans to get behind the British and support their newfound ally in the fight against the Germans. Though Mrs. Miniver is a predictable and unsubtle war story, it nevertheless has a lot to recommend it and was worthy of its best picture award.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Haunted Summer (1988)

Director: Ivan Passer                                       Writer: Lewis John Carlino
Film Score: Christopher Young                        Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Starring: Alice Krige, Philip Anglim, Eric Stoltz and Laura Dern

Ever since the first time I watched the prologue to Bride of Frankenstein, I have been fascinated with the creation story behind Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. In 1972 novelist Anne Edwards wrote an account of that time, and turned it into a sort of gothic novel in its own right. Haunted Summer was produced over fifteen years later and directed by Ivan Passer, a protégé of the great Milos Forman. The film takes a bit of time to warm to. At first it has an extremely dated quality, and the entire cast seems miscast, especially Philip Anglim who has to play the outsized Byron. While it’s difficult to think of specific actors who might have been better, there’s an inescapable feeling that any number of actors would have. Dern and Stotz bring their own baggage that undercut their characters, something that Milos Forman was able to avoid in his finest film. In fact, the example of what Forman was able to do in Amadeus looms over the entire production in a way that makes Passer’s film seem pale in comparison. It’s difficult not to warm to the charms of artists intent on enjoying themselves to the fullest in a time when lives were short and uncertain. But ultimately the story lacks a certain dramatic drive to it and mere experience isn’t really enough to carry it through to a satisfying conclusion, especially when the actual rainy writing contest never materializes.

The film begins with a stagecoach making its way through the Swiss countryside. The driver stops, as a rockslide has damaged the road, and yet Eric Stoltz as Percy Shelley is utterly unconcerned and insists he go ahead. Alice Krige, as Mary Shelley, and Laura Dern, as Mary’s stepsister, are equally reassured by his confidence. During a storm one night, Stoltz takes laudanum while Dern has a hallucination that ants are crawling all over her, and the three share a bed. After ten days on the road, Durn finally induces them to stop at an elegant hotel, where they cause a stir with their unconventional behavior. Her real reason for stopping there is that she knows this is the destination of Philip Anglim as Lord Byron, and his companion John Polidori, played by Alex Winter. Of course both Shelley and Byron, and to a lesser extent Mary, were reviled for their liberal views on sexuality and drug use in an age of great propriety in Europe, part of what they felt needed to be an overall social revolution to break down the existing power structures of church and state. Anglim rents a villa on Lake Geneva and the five of them spend several weeks there together. During the day the group is content to go out on the lake in a boat, or picnic by the water. Then Anglim pushes Stoltz into using Opium, Dern becomes jealous of Anglim’s sexual relationship with Winter, and Krige is struggling with her writing. But a series of events finally shake loose her imagination.

First, Byron unveils a painting he has purchased, “The Nightmare” by Henri Fuseli. Then the party takes a trip to an abandoned torture chamber and she later resists Anglim’s advances. Finally, she begins having nightmares herself. Several strands seem to weave themselves together as the basis of Krieg’s story. Anglim seems to be the model for Dr. Frankenstein, and his experimentation with drugs is his way of defying nature. But Anglim is also the model for the monster, with his deformed foot and his heartless treatment of both Dern and Winter. The place the film suffers the most is in the pedestrian direction of Passer. He doesn’t have the gift that his mentor Forman has for shooting in medium close shots that capture the humanity of the characters. Instead he opts for a more traditional style of direction that brings to mind a television production rather than a feature film. And this does nothing to ameliorate an already tenuous set design that suggests rather than immerses the characters in the past. The synthesized film score by Christopher Young is dated, but he is able to do things with it that a conventional orchestra wouldn’t, imbuing many scenes with an unsettling, nightmarish quality all its own. Ultimately, however, Haunted Summer fails to deliver on its promise, and a few drug-induced hallucinations are not enough to distract the viewer from the fact that the real creation of Frankenstein fails to emerge.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Letter (1940)

Director: William Wyler                                    Writer: Howard Koch
Film Score: Max Steiner                                  Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Starring: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson and Gale Sondergaard

Paramount had already filmed this play by Somerset Maugham in 1929 with famed actress Jeanne Eagles in the lead and Herbert Marshall as her lover. When Warner Brothers acquired the rights they turned The Letter into a film noir with Bette Davis in the lead and Herbert Marshall now playing the part of her cuckolded husband. It was a brilliant move as the story comes alive under the direction of veteran director William Wyler. While he would go on to do a couple of noirish thrillers in the fifties, it’s a shame that he didn’t get to work on more overt films noir during the forties because his work here seems as if he would have been tremendous at it. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, as was Wyler for his direction and Bette Davis for best actress. Though the film earned seven nominations in all, it failed to win in any of the categories. This was Wyler’s second film with Davis, after Jezebel won her an Oscar, and the two would go on to work together again in The Little Foxes. Howard Koch, who would win an Oscar for himself for his participation in Casablanca two years later, does an exceptional job of adapting Maugham’s play for the screen but had some stiff competition at the awards that year and wasn’t nominated.

The film opens on a rubber plantation near Singapore. Inside the house a shot is fired, and David Newell stumbles out onto the porch. Then Bette Davis emerges and empties the rest of the gun into him, even after he falls to the ground. The workers wake up and talk excitedly, while Davis tells Tetsu Komai to go get Bruce Lester, the foreman, and James Stephenson, their lawyer, as well as her husband, Herbert Marshall. The story she tells is that Newell had come to the house unannounced and began making unwanted advances toward her. The men, of course, believe her but Tetsu Komai suddenly disappears into the jungle. Nevertheless, she is unofficially under arrest and Stephenson takes her to Singapore early that morning to turn herself in. Waiting and watching from the foliage is Gale Sondergaard, who turns out to be Newell’s wife. This fact was something of a secret, as was Newell’s ownership of a gambling house, and so because of how that makes him look Stephenson believes the trial will be a mere formality. Later, however, Stephenson is visited by Victor Sen Yung who tells him of the existence of love letter from Davis to Newell that is in the possession of Sondergaard.

Though blackmail doesn’t come up in the conversation, it is heavily implied. As Yung leaves Stephenson tries to play it cool, but it’s a bombshell. When Stephenson confronts Davis she lies at first, then tells him the truth and from then on it’s strictly business between the two of them. Sondergaard makes two conditions for selling the letter, the first is ten thousand dollars delivered to her personally. The second is that the delivery be made by Davis herself. But the trial isn’t the end of the problems, it’s only the beginning, and the ending of the film is absolutely exquisite. There’s an old lawyer joke that goes, how do you tell when a lawyer is lying? His mouth is moving. The same can be said of Bette Davis. The only real suspense for the viewer in most of her films is how long it’s going to take everyone else in the film to realize it. But nobody does it better. James Stephenson also does a tremendous job as the family lawyer, disgusted at having to cover up for Davis’s crime and yet still hoping he can protect the pathetic Herbert Marshall, who actually manages to elicit some sympathy. Stephenson was given a well-deserved Oscar nomination but tragically died of a heart attack after making only three more films.

The sets are absolutely beautiful, and the rich black and white only serves to accentuate the alien quality of the jungle and the isolation of the house. The Chinatown set is also marvelous. The lighting is everything one would expect in a noir film, with high contrast and plenty of shadow. There’s some wonderful moving camera work when Davis is recounting her story of shooting David Newell, and when Davis is forced to meet with Sondergaard. The opening of the film, prior to the shooting, is also one of the most memorable in film history, done in one continuous shot. Tony Gaudio was nominated for an Oscar for his work behind the camera. Max Steiner’s score is a good one, and the melodic leitmotif that first appears in the title credits and throughout is memorable. Steiner earned one of his twenty Oscar nominations for the film. Finally, a couple of memorable character actors put in an appearance in the film. Cecil Kellaway, who appears briefly in a party scene, seems to have had his speaking part cut because he only has a cameo appearance. And Doris Lloyd plays the prison nurse. The Letter is everything the viewer could hope for in a Bette Davis picture from Warner Brothers and comes highly recommended.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Anthony Adverse (1936)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy                                   Writers: Sheridan Gibney & Milton Krims
Film Score: Erich Wolfgang Korngold              Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Starring: Fredric March, Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains and Gale Sondergaard

Anthony Adverse was only Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s second feature for Warner Brothers--the third if you count his adaptation of Mendelsohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His first was Captain Blood, and one would think the film misses the presence of Errol Flynn to go along with Olivia de Havilland. But by the time the second half of the picture begins, it’s clear the title character needs to be someone with a lot of innocence, which Flynn could never be convincing in trying to portray. Flynn was actually set to have a small, supporting role in this film, but because of his success in Captain Blood he was given a starring role in The Charge of the Light Brigade instead. This film is a costume drama set in France prior to the Revolution. And since part of the plot deals with opera, Warner’s tapped their resident expert from Vienna and had Korngold write the score, which unfairly won an Academy Award for Leo Forbstein as the head of the music department, not Korngold. The story is based on the 1933 novel of the same name by Hervey Allen, an adventure-romance that quickly became a bestseller. It takes the title character from Italy to Cuba to Africa--where he becomes a slave trader obsessed with making enough money to pay off his family’s debts and return home to the woman he loves--then to France and America.

The film begins with a carriage ride as Claude Rains and Anita Louise go to Rains’ estate after their wedding in Versailles. Rains has gout, and won’t be able to consummate the marriage that night, with seems fine with Louise, who appears to the be the victim of an arranged marriage to the rich Rains. As she prays that night she invokes the name of Louis Hayward, who had followed the carriage on horseback to the estate. While Rains is gone away to heal, Louise and Hayward carry on a torrid love affair, so committed are they that on the night of Rains’ return they play to run away together. But Rains finds out and takes Louise away the next morning, eventually dueling with Haywood and killing him--thanks to Louise’s ill-timed scream. Their journey continues to the French Alps where Louise has Hayward’s child and mercifully dies giving birth. Rains continues on to Italy and leaves the child at a convent, but the mother superior wants to get rid of him because he is a male. The head of the church, Henry O’Neill, allows him to stay as long as he remains inside the walls of the convent. By the time he’s a young boy, however, Billy Mauch begins to chafe at the restrictions, and the mother superior finally sends him to be apprenticed to Edmund Gwenn--who turns out to be Louise’s father, and the young boy’s grandfather. Gwenn soon realizes, but decides never to tell the boy.

Years later Fredric March is the adult Anthony, and the cook’s daughter is Olivia de Havilland. They fall in love, but when March tells Gwenn he wants to marry her, he doesn’t think it’s a match worthy of his grandson. Fate, however, intervenes. The two become separated when her father wins the lottery, but she makes him promise to find her later. No matter what good fortune they have, it seems circumstances always contrive to keep them apart. In the process March becomes someone he never wanted to be, but he also loses his innocence and that’s when things really get interesting, especially when Rains shows up again. In fact, the last act of the film is quite good, with circumstances for Adverse living up to his name. While the first half of the film has a lot of drive in the plot, the second act seems to lose its way as March tramps all over the globe and loses his own sense of purpose. The only problem with the final act is the ending, which lacks a real conclusion. Hervey Allen’s original novel was a huge, sprawling book of over twelve-hundred pages. In fact, when it was re-printed later in the 1970s it came out in three volumes, the third being Anthony Adverse in America. But the screenplay to Warners’ film ends before that section of the book begins, which accounts for the rather abrupt ending.

The performances in the film, while not up to the standards of the Errol Flynn swashbucklers, are very good. The scope of the story is impressive, and March does a tremendous job, especially as he goes from the idealistic orphan to a world-weary cynic, and somehow manages to get his idealism back again. Olivia de Havilland, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to do and is sort of wasted, not appearing again until the end of the film. Her character is also a bit muddled and that probably accounts for the fact that there is no clear motivation for her near the end. The film was a huge undertaking for Warner Brothers with an enormous cast, including a number of character actors like Frank Morgan, Akim Tamiroff, Ottola Nesmith, J. Carrol Naish, Frank Reicher, Leonard Mudie and Gale Sondergaard who won an Oscar for playing the scheming friend of Rains’ in the picture. Claude Rains does his evil best in the picture, as only he can do. Billy Mauch plays the young Anthony, and is yet another connection with Korngold, as he also played the title characters in The Prince and the Pauper which the composer also scored. Korngold’s score remains one of the high points of the film, and he even used part of the score as the basis of his violin concerto. While not a great, Anthony Adverse is an interesting if meandering film, and worth seeking out just for the experience.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Family Man (2000)

Director: Brett Ratner                                       Writers: David Diamond & David Weissman
Film Score: Danny Elfman                               Cinematography: Dante Spinotti
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Téa Leoni, Don Cheadle and Jeremy Piven

They say there’s nothing new under the sun, and when The Family Man was released in 2000 it wasn’t new either. But in the end that’s hardly the point. Screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman came up with a unique way to look at an old premise, turning It’s a Wonderful Life inside out in the process. Instead of a man who has a wonderful family and lots of friends seeing what their lives would be without him, this version has him rich and powerful like Potter and sticks him in a humble suburban existence to show him what is really important in life. The last man who would seem to be a likely candidate for directing this kind of film is Brett Ratner. Sure, he’d had a hit film, but Rush Hour’s over the top farce seems to have nothing to do with the kind of family friendly comedy-drama that “the two Davids” had written. The producers of the film thought the same thing. And yet Ratner was relentless in his pursuit of the picture, eventually worming his way into the director’s chair and being just as relentless about getting a reluctant Nicholas Cage to sign on. In looking at the final results, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone else could have handled this material with such a keen eye for exactly what it needed. Ratner’s direction is nearly flawless, and with a perfect cast and crew he ultimately created a new holiday classic to stand beside Capra’s original.

The film begins with Nicholas Cage and Téa Leoni at the airport saying goodbye. He’s going to London for a banking internship and suddenly she doesn’t want him to go, saying they should start their lives over, right then. But he leaves anyway. Flash forward thirteen years and Cage says goodbye in the morning to Amber Valletta after a passionate night together, before heading to the office as a rich investment banker who works for Josef Sommer. His secretary, Mary Beth Hurt, tells him that Leoni has called but he decides not to call her back and he stops in at a bodega on the way home. There he meets Don Cheadle looking like a gang banger, and is nearly killed as he tries to defuse a misunderstanding with the clerk over a lottery ticket. When Cheadle talks to Cage outside afterward and Cage says he has everything he needs, Cheadle laughs and says he’s going to enjoy what happens next. The next morning Cage wakes up on Christmas day in New Jersey, in bed with Leoni and now the parent of two children with her. After bolting out of the house and heading back to the city, no one knows who he is anymore. Then Cheadle turns up in his car as a wealthy businessman, and Cage learns that he’s some kind of angel who is giving him a glimpse of what life could have been like had he chosen a different path. And Cage can’t come back until he figures some things out.

At the center of the success of the film is the relationship between Nicholas Cage and Téa Leoni. They are terrific together. Cage is honest with her and it gets him nowhere, but later it becomes clear that his Jersey version made jokes like that all the time. Unable to go back to New York, he has no real choice but to settle in and see what happens. The young daughter, Makenzie Vega, is essential to the plot, seeing the new Cage as an alien and deciding to help him out by letting him know what he needs to do. This is terrific because it keep Don Cheadle’s role in a very specific category of being present only at the transitions from one reality to the other. Cheadle is terrific, playing three different roles as the angel. Jeremy Piven plays Jersey Cage’s best friend, and Harve Presnell is his father-in-law and owner of the tire store where Cage works. The other outstanding cast member is Lisa Thornhill, who wants to have an affair with Jersey Cage. Throughout, Nicholas Cage does a tremendous job of staying true to his character, dealing with life in New Jersey as best he can, but always trying to figure out a way to get back to New York. At the same time, it soon becomes obvious that the feelings he had for Téa Leoni didn’t go away just because he left her. The pull between those two things, his wealthy life in the city and his love for Leoni and their children, is the central conflict of the piece, and Bret Ratner does a magnificent job of making it all believable.

The film received a bunch of so-so reviews at the time from critics who apparently didn’t understand exactly what they were watching. The critic for the New York Times said Nicholas Cage was also miserable when he was rich. Wrong. And Roger Ebert said that Don Cheadle was a taxi driver. Way wrong. If reviewers can’t even remember simple plot points how are they going to accurately assess the brilliance of the screenplay and the way the director brought it to life? I would argue, they can’t. There’s something incredibly special about this film that has nothing to do with being a rehash of the Capra classic. Jimmy Stewart hated his life and wanted something different, not realizing that what he had was what he wanted all along. Nicholas Cage thinks he has everything he wants, but that’s only because he’s never experienced anything else. For Stewart the people around him are most important. For Cage it’s learning to want people around him. Ebert wondered at the end of his piece what happened to the Jersey family. But the answer was clearly on Cage’s face when he talks about them at the end of the film. It’s the same thing that happened to the protagonist’s daughter in Ken Grimwood’s Replay. They’re gone. Ultimately the film isn’t about looking backward and trying to recapture happiness from the past, it’s about going forward and capturing happiness for the future. And The Family Man does that beautifully.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Mummy (1959)

Director: Terence Fisher                                   Writer: Jimmy Sangster
Film Score: Franz Reizenstein                         Cinematography: Jack Asher
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux and George Pastell

In the late fifties Hammer pictures in England licensed the rights to remake Universal’s popular horror films from the thirties. For their first two films they produced Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula. But the third film, The Mummy, may be the best of the three as a work of art. The story, created from parts of all the Universal Mummy pictures, does a terrific job of using the best from each story and creating a satisfying movie that is arguably better than any of the ones in the original Universal franchise. The film begins in Egypt in 1895 during the height of exploration there, with an expedition led by Peter Cushing and his father, Felix Aylmer. Cushing has broken his leg and his uncle, Raymond Huntley, wants it to be set properly back in Cairo. But a new discovery keeps Cushing there to see what’s in the tomb they’ve found. Just as Aylmer and Huntley are about to enter the tomb, George Pastell shows up and warns them that if they desecrate the tomb they will die. Of course they ignore him and find a great treasure of artifacts, all undisturbed, including the body of Princess Ananka. When Huntley goes back to tell Cushing, Aylmer finds a scroll. His screams bring Huntley back to the tomb only to find that he’s lost his mind.

Aylmer is sent back to London, but by the time the expedition is over his condition hasn’t changed. Finally, Pastell vows revenge on all of those who led the expedition. Then the story shifts to London, four years later, as Aylmer begins to regain his memory. He tries to tell Cushing of accidentally bringing the mummy Kharis to life--a scene that is shown later in the film rather than the beginning as it was in the Karloff version--but of course they don’t believe him and think it’s simply part of his mental illness. Meanwhile, Pastell shows up in the village where Aylmer and Cushing live with a large box. When the box inadvertently falls into the swamp Pastel, in a particularly effective scene, brings the mummy, Christopher Lee, to life and sends him after Aylmer. After Aylmer’s death Cushing and Huntley begin looking through his papers for some kind of clue to find the murderer. When Cushing reads the legend of Ananka to Huntley, the flashback sequence is absolutely beautiful, the same story as the 1932 version but in color. Now all that is left for Pastell is for Lee to kill Huntley and Cushing. The ending, taken from The Mummy’s Ghost, is a nice twist on the original.

When the mummy begins the murders in England the plot threatens to slow down, but the appearance of Eddie Byrne saves it. The sumptuous color photography and the improvement in acting over their first two horror films really sets this film apart and makes it one of the most enjoyable of the Hammer horror films. Though Peter Cushing does a phenomenal job in almost all of the Hammer films, in this one he is particularly good. His serious consideration of the supernatural elements bring in the audience and aids in the suspension of disbelief, while his limp from the broken leg is a nice affectation. Christopher Lee, unfortunately, was saddled yet again with a monster role as he had in Curse of Frankenstein, though the Egyptian flashback sequence gives him a bit more to do. Felix Aylmer and Raymond Huntley are both excellent actors and add immensely to the production, as does Eddie Byrne later on and George Pastell throughout. Unfortunately, Yvonne Furneaux doesn’t have to do much acting at all, at least not until the end. She is one of the more beautiful of the Hammer girls, and she is also the best of the lot in terms of acting. One only wishes she could have been in more Hammer films.

In terms of the crew, the usual suspects were all present for the most part. Terence Fisher does his standard workmanlike job, and with the added opulence of the Egyptian as well as Victorian sets the picture looks terrific. He was particularly pleased with the fact that this film had very little of the kind of gore that the first two films did, more content to imply violence than actually show it. Jimmy Sangster is responsible for the screenplay, one of the better of his early stories. The only thing missing is James Bernard doing the film score. But it must be said that Franz Reizenstein does a tremendous job with the Egyptian motifs, and still manages to capture the percussive flavor of Bernard’s Hammer scores in the process and the music winds up being another high point. The film was shot entirely in the studio, and yet because most of the sets are interiors it works rather well. Even the Egyptian scenes at the beginning and during the flashback are nicely done. The Mummy, while containing nothing really original, still manages to be an impressive outing for Hammer that produced a number of sequels as well.

Things to Come (1936)

Director: William Cameron Menzies                Writer: H.G. Wells
Film Score: Arthur Bliss                                   Cinematography: Georges Périnal
Starring: Raymond Massey, Ann Todd, Derrick De Marney and Ralph Richardson

For this British production of Things to Come no less a luminary than H.G. Wells wrote the screenplay, an adaptation of his novel The Shape of Things to Come. The film is a decidedly odd attempt at science-fiction in an age when Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were the only real sci-fi oriented productions in the theaters--unless you count super-heroes like Superman, which I don’t. William Cameron Menzies, who would go on to helm the fantasy The Thief of Bagdad three years later, is behind the camera and does a respectable job at trying to emulate the kind of large-scale set design that had already been used by Fritz Lang a decade earlier in Metropolis. Hollywood actor Raymond Massy was given the lead role, probably in order to assure box-office receipts from the U.S. As far as the acting goes, it’s pretty negligible, considering that most of the dialogue is simply philosophical platitudes about war and progress from Wells. As a story, then, the film does not succeed. The special effects are certainly phenomenal for the time and they are really the only reason to watch the film today. One of the interesting aspects of the film is how prescient Wells seems to be about the near future, but how far afield his ideas go the further he goes into the future. The film score by Arthur Bliss, while sections of it apparently remain popular today, is really just as bombastic as the screenplay and not very listenable either.

The film opens with one of Wells’ eerily accurate predictions. It’s 1940 in allegorical Everytown, at Christmastime with the world on the brink of war. The juxtaposition of the people going blithely about their holiday shopping with posters all around declaring the war coming soon is unsettling. Raymond Massey and Maurice Braddell are not happy about it, but Edward Chapman believes there’s nothing to the rumors. As Christmas day ends, however, so does the peace. Britain mobilizes, yet again, against an unnamed but obvious German foe. The men go off to fight, and air raids follow--though Wells imagined the worst, that the Germans would also load their bombs with poison gas. Though the whole thing was filmed in the studio, the carnage is pretty realistic, and the shot of a dead little boy is chilling. The war proceeds apace, but instead of ending in 1945 it continues on into 1955 and then 1960. Six years later there are rumors that the enemy will be defeated soon but, just as happened in the First World War, the end is accompanied by a worldwide epidemic that turns victims into infectious zombies. It isn’t until 1970 that the epidemic ends, but that only means that people can get back to fighting the war. Braddell is now the doctor in town and his daughter, Ann Todd, is married to soldier Derrick De Marney and working for the boss, Ralph Richardson.

One day Raymond Massey comes flying into town in a futuristic airplane and meets with Richardson. Massy and others like him have banded together to end the war. Using their superior intelligence and logic, they defy the medieval barbarism that the world has descended into in order to end it. Unfortunately the film ultimately degenerates into a battle between the anti-intellectual Richardson and those who follow the civilizing influence of science. While interesting at the start, the film really bogs down in the middle. Ralph Richardson chews the scenery as the The Boss of Everytown and one imagines Peter Sellers playing the part had the film been made in the year in which it was set. It’s not until the third act that the real science-fiction aspects of the film emerge, and they are impressive. The miniatures are phenomenal, and they are integrated seamlessly into the live action. Giant flying machines that look like P-38s, and automated digging machines all resemble future advances. By the time 2036 arrives, society has moved their buildings and industry underground, leaving the surface of the earth peaceful and bucolic. But of course there’s always someone who hates things no matter how beneficial they are. Enter Cedric Hardwicke, who thinks progress is evil and must be stopped. Things to Come, while not entertaining is certainly interesting, which is not necessarily a recommendation.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Dark Passage (1947)

Director: Delmer Daves                                   Writer: Delmer Daves & David Goodis
Film Score: Franz Waxman                             Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Agnes Moorehead and Bruce Bennett

Dark Passage tends to be forgotten among the surfeit of riches that are the forties films of Humphrey Bogart at Warner Brothers. The reason is probably because the story is so sordid, at least in comparison to the more morally upright roles he played in films like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. In fact, the movie received poor reviews from critics at the time and was pulled by some theaters. Even today, amid his films with Lauren Bacall, the film takes a backseat when it really shouldn’t. Part of the reason is no doubt the use of the subjective point of view during the first act of the film. This was something MGM had done earlier that April with The Lady in the Lake and it didn’t go over too well with critics or audiences. Director Delmer Daves tried the same thing here, but fortunately Bogart becomes Bogart again by the middle of the picture and puts the audience on more familiar territory for the rest of the picture. The story is based on the hard-boiled novel The Dark Road by David Goodis. Delmer Daves made his start in films by writing screenplays, including The Petrified Forest, which also starred Bogart, and worked on the script after Goodis had turned in his adaptation. Daves wanted to shoot on location in San Francisco, and eventually the studio gave in an allowed him to take his cast and crew there to shoot exteriors.

Franz Waxman eschews the Warner Bros. opening theme and gets right into his main title music for the picture. The story begins with Humphrey Bogart breaking out of San Quentin prison north of San Francisco. He escapes in an empty trash barrel and there is a nice subjective shot from inside as he rolls down a hill after rocking off the back of the truck. But the subjective shots continue as he flags down a ride and knocks out Clifton Young to steal his clothes. Before he can drive away, Lauren Bacall stops and tells him to get into her car. Bacall gets them through a roadblock by hiding him under a tarp, but won’t explain why she’s helping him. Bogart goes with Bacall to her place, and later Agnes Moorehead stops by but he tells her through the door to go away. That night Bogart gets in a cab and has a terrifically written conversation with the driver, Tom D’Andrea. Turns out the cabbie recognizes his face, but he’s a good guy and gives Bogart the name of a doctor, Houseley Stevenson. Then the reason for the subjective point of view becomes clear as he meets with the plastic surgeon in order to change the way he looks. Rory Mallinson is a musician friend of Bogart’s who helps him hide after the surgery. Turns out Bogart knows Moorehead. She’s a busybody that nobody likes, and the one whose testimony put Bogart in prison by claiming he killed his ex-wife. Bogart would like to find out who really did it.

The story takes some real unexpected turns after the surgery and for a while, with Bogart shambling around in his bandages, it’s like something from a monster movie and the effect is startling. Bacall is terrific in the film, doing most of the talking in the middle of the picture, though the fact that her motives remain hidden for most of the film doesn’t really sit well. Bogart finally comes into his own when the bandages come off, and then he really takes over the picture. The rest of the cast is solid, but Agnes Moorehead is magnificent. She’s the quintessential shrew and she plays it to the hilt, and the climax of the film with her and Bogart is wonderful to watch. The sets are very well done, a modern apartment building where Bacall lives and a perfectly dingy operating room for the plastic surgery. Everything’s a big step up in quality from The Big Sleep a couple of years earlier, especially the real exteriors in San Francisco. Directory of photography Sydney Hickox does some nice work, including a nifty dream sequence while Bogart goes under the anesthetic. His lighting is nearly flawless, and the shots of the actors at dusk with the skyline in the background are particularly impressive. Franz Waxman, in one of his only scores for Warners, makes use the song “Too Marvelous For Words,” which had first appeared in the musical Ready, Willing and Able a decade earlier. Dark Passage is admittedly an odd film, but that’s really a great part of its charm, and allowing yourself to go along for the ride can make for a great viewing experience.

The Congress Dances (1931)

Director: Erik Charell                                      Writers: Robert Liebmann & Norbert Falk
Film Score: Werner R. Heymann                   Cinematography: Carl Hoffmann
Starring: Lilian Harvey, Willy Fritsch, Conrad Veidt and Carl-Heinz Schroth

This German film was made before Hitler took over in 1932. It’s a costume drama about the Congress of Vienna in 1814, in which the European powers met to make peace plans after the Napoleonic Wars. The Congress Dances (Der Kongreß tanzt) is a charming romantic comedy set in a world of manners that were by then long gone; the end of World War One had also seen the end of nearly all the old monarchies in Europe. Like many Ufa films from that period, an English and a French language version of the same film was produced for distribution overseas, with Henri Garat replacing Willy Fritsch as the Czar of Russia. The film was remade in Germany after the war, a 1955 version by director Franz Antel. Two stars of the film, Conrad Veidt and Lil Dagover, had worked together twelve years before in the silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Of course, Viedt would emigrate to the U.S. and become a well-known star in Hollywood, his most famous role, in Casablanca, coming shortly before his unexpected death. Lilian Harvey, who plays the lead, was born in England but grew up in Germany and Switzerland, and made several films with co-star Willy Fritsch for Ufa. This film led to a contract for Fox, but she returned to Germany during the Nazi rule and never really returned to the success she had attained in the early thirties.

The film opens with cannons being fired in Vienna. The aristocracy wonders who it’s for and this time it’s the King of Prussia, one of the many royals attending the Congress of Vienna. Conrad Veidt is the decadent Prince Metternich is hosting the congress at his estate, assisted by his manservant Carl-Heinz Schroth. At the moment he is upset by an enterprising young lady, Lilian Harvey, who insists on trying to sell gloves to every monarch who enters the city. It turns out, however, Schroth is in love with the girl. He tries to tell her to stop, but she is much more interested in the arrival of the Czar of Russia, Willy Fritsch. She can’t get near the Czar the next day so she throws a bouquet of flowers to him, but the people think it’s a bomb and she’s arrested. Schroth pleads on her behalf to Fritsch to intercede with Viedt and have her punishment commuted, even though it’s only a spanking on her bare behind. Fritsch arrive just in time to stop it, much to the disappointment of the young lad set to punish her. When Harvey and Fritsch finally meet, she doesn’t even know it’s him. Veidt is working with a countess, Lil Dagover, to keep Fritsch distracted so that deals at the congress can be made without him, but then he learns Harvey is serving the same purpose. Much to Schroth’s chagrin, he himself is put in charge of making sure things stay romantic between the girl he loves and the Czar.

One instantly notices the confident moving camera work of Carl Hoffmann, seemingly unperturbed by the requirements of filming in sound. One of his set pieces is a slow, 360 degree trip around a beer hall as the people sing together, beginning with Fritsch and Harvey at a corner table and eventually ending in the same place. The trip that Harvey makes in the carriage to visit the Czar is equally impressive as Hoffmann’s camera follows her, this time around the exterior sets. But this is just the beginning of an extensive fairy tale like sequence in which Harvey finds herself in the palace and can barely contain her excitement. While Schroth attempts to fob the Czar off on Dagover in order to keep him away from Harvey, it’s soon becomes clear to Fritsch what’s going on and he sends his double--played by Fritsch as well--to woo both women so he can attend the congress. Director Erik Charell left Germany in the wake of the Nazi takeover, but spent the rest of his career as a writer rather than a director. He does a terrific job here. The film score by Werner R. Heymann is also very good, and the film contains several songs sung by a chorus of extras that seem very advanced for the time in prefiguring the kind of big-budget musicals that would become popular in Hollywood twenty years later. The Congress Dances is a delightful film, and glimpse of a German film industry that, without Hitler, may have been able to challenge the dominance of Hollywood in a way no other country was able to do.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Warning Shadows (1923)

Director: Arthur Robison                                Writer: Albin Grau
Film Score: Ernst Riege                                Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner
Starring: Fritz Kortner, Ruth Weyher, Gustav von Wagenheim and Alexander Granach

The subtitle of this film is “A Nocturnal Hallucination” which, in keeping with many Weimar era silent films, particularly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, sort of telegraphs the ending. Nevertheless, Warning Shadows is a strange and eerie film that unfolds at a maddeningly slow pace, though to be fair that is really only from a modern perspective. To get the full effect of the lighting and effects work it was probably necessary to slow the pace of the film down to allow contemporary audiences to fully abort the artistry on the screen. In addition, the film contained no title cards, and so it does take some time on the part of the viewer before things gradually fall into place concerning the plot. The team that produced the film is part of the group that worked on Nosferatu with F.W. Murnau, principally Albin Grau who is responsible for the story itself, and cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner. Visually the film falls somewhere between the heavily staged Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the more naturalistic sets for Nosferatu. Director Arthur Robison was an American but had grown up in Germany and was certainly every bit as conscious of the Zeitgeist as the rest of the filmmakers of that period, as this film fits perfectly into that aesthetic and captures the particularly German fascination with the idea of the Doppelgänger.

The film begins on a stage, with the cast introduced by appearing before the screen and behind it as a shadow. Act One begins in a town square at night, with Alexander Granach skulking about. Gustav von Wagenheim is looking up longingly at the window where Fritz Kortner can be seen kissing his wife, Ruth Weyher, in silhouette. When he leaves she looks out of the window and sees the young man, who is then admitted into the house. Kortner, still in Weyher’s bedroom, remembers their wedding night and can barely contain his anger. The three other gentlemen now enter the square and are let inside while von Wagenheim gives Weyher flowers, all while Kortner is haunted by the images of all of the men trying to obtain her. As the three gentlemen pretend to kiss Weyher’s shadow, Kortner sees this from the other room and believes it’s real. She dismisses the servant who finds humor in this, and when Kortner confronts him the servant attempts to get back at her by telling Kortner that what he believes is true. Furious but composed he finds her entertaining all four men, who shake his hand, before all of them sit down to dine together. Kortner’s rage is obvious, though not to the diners. Meanwhile Granach is eventually invited in to entertain the party with his shadow show, with seemingly disastrous consequences, especially when Kortner becomes convinced that his wife’s hospitality is proof of her infidelity, which in the case of von Wagenheim, turns out to be true. Finally Kortner takes action with deadly results.

All of the acting is heavily stylized, as it was in Nosferatu. But since the earlier film dealt outright with a supernatural subject it seems to be less obtrusive than it is here. Still, this is pantomime rather than true acting and it does fit with the mildly expressionistic set design and the illusory nature of the story. The lighting is easily the most impressive aspect of the film. Fritz Arno Wagner is able to cast shadows off of all the actors behind them throughout the entire film. One almost expects the shadows to take on a life of their own, independent from the characters. And in a way they do. Alexander Granach and Gustav von Wagenheim are both back from Murnau’s vampire film as well. Granach is a bit more controlled in his role here, and has some impressive moments, especially when he’s putting on the shadow show. Wagenheim, on the other hand, undoubtedly had the ability to some extraordinary work during this period, but his overacting--again, part of the aesthetic of the time--does him no favors. Fritz Kortner and Ruth Weyher as the leads are just as hampered, Kortner going well over the top with self torture, and Weyher playing to the back row of the theater as well. Warning Shadows is nowhere near as artistic as its more exalted films from the same period, but it does make for fascinating viewing and rewards the viewers’ patience in the end.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Strange Holiday (1945)

Director: Arch Oboler                                      Writer: Arch Oboler
Film Score: Gordon Jenkins                           Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Starring: Claude Rains, Gloria Holden, Martin Koslek and Milton Kibbee

The only thing stranger than this picture is how Claude Rains ended up in a poverty row film distributed by PRC and funded by General Motors only a year after appearing in Passage to Marseille and Mr. Skeffington for Warner Brothers and a year before starring in Notorious for Alfred Hitchcock. Strange Holiday is an absolutely bizarre movie, part Twilight Zone and part propaganda film. It’s the dark side of It’s a Wonderful Life come to pass, essentially indicting viewers for apathy. It essentially imagines what America would be like if it allowed a dictatorial government like the one in Nazi Germany to take over and destroy our civil rights and take away our freedoms because ordinary citizens, fat and happy at home, didn’t care enough to do anything to stop it. The screenplay was originally a radio play from 1942 by writer-director Arch Oboler called This Precious Freedom, and first produced as a short film. General Motors financed the film and showed it to their employees and their families. It took Oboler three more years before he could get the financing to turn it into a feature, though at a running time of barely over an hour that’s being generous. In reality, the later version was simply padded with extra footage, and the bulk of the film featuring Rains was from the original short.

The film begins with documentary footage of various scenes of war accompanied by a voice-over straight out of an Ed Wood film. From Japanese samurai battles to the American Revolution and from cavalry charges in Europe to footage of World War Two, the montage finally ends with the atomic bomb. Then Claude Rains is seen in a jail cell. After the credits the film flashes back to Christmas time, with Raines taking pictures of his three children decorating the tree. The family is overly-wholesome and utterly American. Gloria Holden is his wife, posing for pictures for him in the kitchen like a Betty Crocker commercial. Throughout the film it continues to cut back to Rains in jail. He says the thing began in the North Woods, flying up and camping with Milton Kibbee for a few weeks. Rains isn’t interested in the war, only his contentment, willing to let the government handle things. On the way home their plane goes down in a field and they walk to a farmhouse where they’re told to leave. Then Rains hitches a ride with a truck driver, Wally Maher, who is just as unfriendly but gives him a ride for twenty bucks. When Rains gets into town he finds the streets empty and people he knows equally unfriendly. Then, when he finally gets home, everyone’s gone. Two guys grab and sap him and he wakes up in a jail cell with Charles McAvoy.

The suspense of the picture hinges on the fact that no one can tell Rains exactly what is going on. Finally, McAvoy tells him: the Bill of Rights has been removed from the Constitution. He’s brought in and questioned by Martin Koslek, who has a not so subtle German accent. Rains is insistent in demanding his rights, oblivious to the fact that he no longer has any. The film definitely wears its radio beginnings on its sleeve. Viewers can literally close their eyes and still get the full effect of the message. Rains, for whatever patriotic reason he had to appear in the film, does as well as he can with the two-dimensional character he is given. It’s also fascinating to see Gloria Holden in a straight role after being so closely associated with her role in Dracula’s Daughter. Martin Koslek’s Nazi is the only real equal to Rains. The rest of the cast is decidedly average, though it is interesting to see Guy Kibbee’s brother Milton on screen. He appeared in hundreds of films during his career, but most were of the low-budget variety. Ultimately it’s not a very satisfying film, despite its star, and the utterly ambiguous ending doesn’t help. Strange Holiday is simply a strange viewing experience that has to be seen to be believed.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Swing Time (1936)

Director: George Stevens                              Writers: Howard Lindsay & Allan Scott
Film Score: Jerome Kern                               Cinematography: David Abel
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore and Helen Broderick

Swing Time is generally considered to be the best of the Astaire-Rogers vehicles for RKO. Much of that success has to be due to director George Stevens, an A-list director who brought something more to the production than simply a knack for filming dance numbers. Unfortunately he was saddled with a sub-standard screenplay that undercuts his marvelous direction. The only songs that eventually become standards are “The Way You Look Tonight,” which Astaire not only sings in Rogers’ apartment, but Metaxa also sings to her in a nightclub, and “A Fine Romance.” Interestingly, both of the melodies were written to the same chord progression and sung together at the conclusion of the picture. “The Way You Look Tonight” even won the Academy Award for best song that year. The only other nomination was for Hermes Pan, the choreographer of the series. While contemporary critics lauded the dance numbers, today they don’t seem to have the same visual impressiveness as those in other films, probably due to the lack of really memorable music to accompany them. Recent research has uncovered the fact that Jerome Kern wasn’t especially inspired by the film and because Astaire didn’t like his tunes, he went to his rehearsal pianist Hal Borne to compose music better suited to the film. Because of his contract, Kern was able to have Borne’s name kept off the film credits. Ultimately, the conflict shows on the screen, and the film marked the beginning of the decline in popularity for the dancing duo’s pictures.

The film begins in a theater with a group of dancers finishing a performance. Fred Astaire as the leader is late for his wedding and is going to break up his act with magician Victor Moore. The other dancers in the group succeed in sabotaging his marriage to Betty Furness, and when Astaire tries to apologize by telling her father he’s in a new line of work, Landers Stevens tells him to come back successful and then he’ll give his consent. Moore goes with Astaire to New York, and immediately they run into Ginger Rogers who naturally takes an instant disliking to the dancer. But she also happens to work at a dance school. Helen Broderick is the sardonic secretary and Eric Blore is the fussy owner, and Astaire finagles a first free lesson with Rogers. Of course he acts the clod in order to continue the lesson as long as possible, and when she insults him in front of Blore she gets fired. But then Astaire dances with her to prove how good she is and wins her job back. Moore and Broderick also do a nice parody dance, and naturally Broderick gets fired anyway. Blore gets Astaire and Rogers an audition for a club but neither Astaire nor Moore have a dime between them, or a place to live. They gamble to make a living. But when Astaire misses the audition because he’s busy gambling to win a tux, she dislikes him even more. Nevertheless, his songs and persistence, as they must do in these films, pay off in the end.

The contrivance to keep them apart throughout the film is that Astaire still feels honor bound to Betty Furness but doesn’t have the nerve to tell Rogers. In terms of story, this is certainly one of the lesser films in the series, though it is popular with fans. Even the rival for Roger’s hand, Georges Metaxa, isn’t very interesting. And the big dance number, the waltz “Swing Time,” comes off rather oddly as well because it is a tap number and the orchestra plays at a very low volume most of the time in order to hear the tapping. And then there’s Astaire’s “Bojangles of Harlem” number in blackface. Sigh. One of the remnants of our minstrel past that was rife in Hollywood in the early part of the century. It’s probably one of the things that ruined Holiday Inn for modern audiences, and it’s something of a spoiler here as well. In terms of positives, one of the real treats of the Astaire-Rodgers films is the fluid moving camera work by David Abel, and not just in the dancing sequences. As far as the production is concerned, the sets are quite opulent and a big step up from earlier entries in the series. In particular, the upstate country set with snow in the wintertime is wonderfully realistic. And despite quibbles with the music, the dancing overall is still one of the reasons to watch the pictures. Swing Time, while not the best in the series, is certainly worth seeking out to see the dancing duo in prime form.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Bamboo Prison (1954)

Director: Lewis Seiler                                     Writers: Edwin Blum & Jack DeWitt
Music Director: Mischa Bakaleinikoff             Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Starring: Robert Francis, Dianne Foster, Brian Keith and E.G. Marshall

One of my favorite films of all time is The Caine Mutiny, but it took me a long time before I became curious about why I hadn’t seen Robert Francis in any other films. It was a disappointing blow to find out he had only appeared in four films before an airplane accident claimed his life in 1955. The Bamboo Prison was Francis’s penultimate film, but his last starring role. The film was one of the first to deal with the idea of “brainwashing” by the Chinese, and the kind of Communist psychological warfare that would be seen in Vietnam in the following decade. B-movie producer Brian Foy attempted to get the cooperation of the U.S. Army, but they declined due to the confusing nature of the screenplay. The story tries to give some possible justification for the numbers of military men who acquiesced to the Communist propaganda, suggesting that they may have been double agents. But the whole idea was too new for the Army to make that kind of endorsement, and would undermine their plan to investigating some of the returning prisoners who cooperated with the Communists. The mere suggestion that some American servicemen would succumb to Communist pressure in prisoner of war camps in order to escape abusive treatment was also in direct opposition to American ideas of patriotism and caused many communities to attempt bans on the film as Un-American.

The story begins with soldiers marching through the mud. They are prisoners of war in Korea. The voice over by Brian Keith tells of their mistreatment at the hands of the Chinese on the forced march. The only bed in the hut Keith is assigned to belongs to Robert Francis, who is apparently collaborating with the enemy. There’s a strong sense of the film attempting to emulate Stalag 17, which was released the year before to great acclaim. The soldiers run the gamut, from a Seattle car salesman to a kid from Arkansas, a black medic, and some Greek U.N. forces. But the attempt at broad humor is a little incongruous here, given the recent ending of the Korean War and how much more brutal the treatment of the prisoners was, and seems to work better in the World War II film. E.G. Marshall plays a Catholic priest who was accidentally caught up in the offensive, and steals what he can for the men. Keye Luke plays the Communist instructor for the camp, and then Dianne Foster shows up as the wife of the Russian liaison Murray Matheson. Once Keith gets a chance to talk to Francis alone, it comes out that they’re both working for Army intelligence, trying to gather information to use at the peace talks. Francis is eventually given privileges outside the camp by commandant Richard Loo, after being checked out by Matheson first. When Francis meets Foster for the first time, there’s the inkling of another intelligence connection between them.

The plot begins to twist when the audience learns that Marshall is really a Communist agent, and he’s been given a new assignment: to discover who the intelligence officer might be in the camp. This character caused some controversy for a number of reasons. The Catholic Church in the U.S. protested the characterization of a Communist agent as a priest, and writer Dale Francis made the discovery that the screenplay used actual speech material from real-life priest Father Kapaun who died in a Korean prisoner of war camp. The film is fairly impressive at times, but is undercut throughout by the comedy elements. And it’s not that they shouldn’t be there, but it’s played so broadly that it becomes too much of a contrast with the espionage. The crisp black and white photography doesn’t do the film any favors either, only serving to highlight the artificialness of the sets. The older, warmer film stock used by Paramount in Stalag 17 was much better. And, of course, almost all the dialogue was looped later which also gives the film a rather stilted feel. Of all the prisoners, Jack Kelley as a family man who wants to go home is probably the best. Brian Keith doesn’t get all that much screen time, and the rest of the men are fairly forgettable. One of the more powerful performances comes from Earle Hyman as a black medic. While the Communists attempt to turn him by pointing out the racism still endemic in America, he stays the course and refused to turn on his country.

The real star of the film is Robert Francis, though it’s sometimes difficult to assess just how good he is in the middle of what is admittedly a low-budget film. Still, he shows all of the same attributes that had gone into his memorable performance in The Caine Mutiny, and certainly had the potential to become a major Hollywood star. Prior to his death he was set to be loaned out to MGM to star opposite James Cagney in Tribute to a Bad Man. Francis’s second film had also been a western, They Rode West which teamed him again with actress May Wynn from his first film as well as Donna Reed. Dianne Foster does an adequate job here as the love interest, though no better, while E.G. Marshall gives a solid performance as the heavy. The direction by Lewis Seiler is certainly undistinguished, reminiscent of a TV movie, and indicative of the middle of the road work he did his entire career. The movie has no film score as such, but Brian Foy was able to draw upon the vast library of cues that Columbia had in its library from no less than eight composers, including Daniele Amfitheatrof. Musical director Mischa Bakaleinikoff composed the opening title sequence and was not doubt instrumental in selecting the cues that accompanied the rest of the film. While The Bamboo Prison is not a great film, as one of the rare opportunities to see Robert Francis it remains a valuable piece of Hollywood history.

The Oklahoma Kid (1939)

Director: Lloyd Bacon                                    Writers: Warren Duff & Robert Buckner
Film Score: Max Steiner                                Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Starring: James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane and Donald Crisp

Both James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart were known for making gangster pictures at Warner Brothers, and before Bogart came onto the scene Cagney had an equally successful career in early musicals. But The Oklahoma Kid is one of the few times that the two were ever in a western. It’s a testament to the talent of Warner Brothers’ artists that the film is no less convincing than if it had been a gangster picture. Unfortunately, contemporary audiences didn’t feel the same and the film was a box-office failure. The stretch was too great to believe the famous gangsters in a western. Part of the success of the picture for modern audiences has to go to director Lloyd Bacon, who began his career in the silent era. He had filmed the musicals that Cagney starred in earlier in the decade but he could really do anything, from historical dramas to comedies to war film. The presence of James Wong Howe behind the camera also makes for some excellent cinematography, and a terrific score by Max Steiner provides a wonderful finishing touch. The film began as an original idea by writer Edward E. Paramore about mountain men, and apparently had a lot in it that Cagney was interested in. According to the actor, the studio pulled Paramore off the project and had two other writers, Warren Duff and Robert Buckner, turn it into a standard western. Still, it retains a healthy dose of modern ideas, especially with Cagney’s character flatly claiming that the Indian land was stolen by whites, and that even the law is no protection from criminal elements.

The film begins, incongruously enough, in Washington D.C. in the oval office of Grover Cleveland. It turns out this is yet another story of the Cherokee land grab in the northwestern section of Oklahoma, east of the panhandle, that opened RKO’s Oscar winning Cimarron, but goes back as far as Tumbleweeds with William S. Hart, and probably earlier. When the money shows up to pay the Indians for their land Bogart is seen watching, dressed all in black, so it’s not difficult to know what part he’ll be playing. He and Ward Bond and a couple other bandits go after the stagecoach and steal the money, but James Cagney gives chase. He manages to steal the packhorse with the money and shoot one of Bogart’s men. Meanwhile, Hugh Sothern has big plans to set up a town in the territory, but needs the rest of the people to respect the property he wants so that his son, Harvey Stephens, can claim it for the town. His friend, Donald Crisp, is set to be judge of the territory and will live in the town with his daughter, Rosemary Lane. Stephens and Lane are set to be married, but Cagney comes into camp that night and can’t take his eyes off Lane so he kicks a bunch of boomers out of the hotel for her. After losing the money, Bogey and Bond try a new tack, sneaking into the territory early to claim the land the town wants so they can have exclusive rights to saloons and gambling. The land rush isn’t as dense as it was in Cimarron, but it’s still fairly exciting.

The conceit of the film is an interesting one, to keep the audience from knowing what side of the law Cagney is on--or his real identity--until the very end. In the saloon the night before the run Cagney spends some of the Indian money, and so Bogart turns him into the sheriff. But the next day Cagney gives the sheriff the slip, an action usually indicating guilt. The showdown comes years later as Sothern tries to take the town back from Bogart. Sothern is set up for murder by Bogart, and when Cagney reads about it in the papers he decides to take action. Unfortunately, he’s still wanted for stealing the Indian money. One of the tremendous aspects of the film is how it defies expectations. A real shock comes an hour into the film and gives the whole thing some real verisimilitude throughout the rest of the picture. In many ways, it really is a gangster picture set in the West. Both Cagney and Bogart do a tremendous job and are quite believable in their parts. Donald Crisp is sort of wasted, as he doesn’t get a lot of screen time. Perhaps the weakest member of the principal cast is Rosemary Lane who was a singer more than an actor, and only made a couple dozen pictures during her career. Good character casting includes Ward Bond and George Chesebro, as well as Al Bridge who can be seen in the beginning of the film as the Strip is being opened up. While The Oklahoma Kid is not a typical western, especially considering the stars, it is probably a better film because of it and comes highly recommended.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Green Hell (1940)

Director: James Whale                                   Writers: Frances Marion
Film Score: Frank Skinner                              Cinematography: Karl Freund
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Bennett, George Sanders and Vincent Price

Green Hell was one of James Whale’s final films, and it was fitting that he made it at Universal. After being summarily shown the door by the previous studio head, a change in the front office had him working for his old studio again, though in actuality under the auspices of independent producer Harry Edington. The story was an original work by Frances Marion who had done some terrific work under Irving Thalberg, but with his death a few years earlier she didn’t have the input by other writers that generally turned her scenarios into workable screenplays. The original title of her story was South of the Amazon, but the title of the film was changed to reflect the almost unbearable heat of the jungle. Unlike the dry, brown desert landscapes of North America, the jungle is lush and green. Unfortunately the story is incredibly weak and the dialogue isn’t much better, something Whale apparently didn’t seem to understand at the time. Whale was also not at the peak of his powers and so despite a very strong cast of major stars and an ace cinematographer in Karl Freund, the film was a disaster. By the time Joan Bennett shows up in the middle of the jungle, audiences began laughing freely at Marion’s dialogue and the over-ripe delivery of the actors. This was the only film Frances Marion would receive solo credit on, and it was the last film she would ever write.

The film begins on a loading dock in South America, with Vincent Price getting out of his car and going into a bar, meeting with Alan Hale as a British archeologist, and George Sanders as a ladies man looking for excitement. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is the expedition leader, a real adventurer, and John Morgan is his right hand man. Price wants to join the expedition, implying he has nothing to lose, but says a loving farewell to a mystery woman before he leaves. Then, the improbable George Bancroft as a Texas cowboy comes down the stairs singing. Gene Garrick is also along on his first adventure. Price is the mystery man of the group, apparently in love with two women and running away from both. The crew begins by heading up river at night, and two days later set out on land. They quickly run into hostile natives, who turn out to be the tribe of their native guide, Francis McDonald. Eventually they stumble upon the ruins of an ancient temple in the jungle and set up camp the following day. A passage way near the entrance leads to a giant obelisk at the center of the temple, with a golden sun atop it. Following a native out the rear passage, Price is hit by poison arrows and suffers an agonizing death, and then things get complicated when Joan Bennett shows up as Price’s wife a few weeks later.

Of course Bennett and Fairbanks fall for each other, and Sanders resents it. But Morgan is worried that Bennett isn’t what she says she is and that Fairbanks is falling into a trap. At the same time they’re distracted by the fact that all their native workers have disappeared. For an adventure film, there’s very little adventure until the end of the film and by then it’s way too late. Most of the story is taken up by the men fawning over Bennett. James Whale was no stranger to comedy, which is one of the things that made his horror films at the studio so entertaining. Unfortunately the humor in this film was completely unintended. George Bancroft is especially wearying, as doles out his cowboy wisdom throughout the entire picture. Another annoyance is Frank Skinner’s score, though it’s difficult to know whether it was him or the sound effects department that put a droning theremin-like warble on the soundtrack throughout most of the picture. The Incan temple set would be used again later that year for a Universal sequel, The Mummy’s Hand. As bad as it is, Green Hell is still kind of fascinating, watching a group of A-list actors slogging their way through a B picture. None of them had anything good to say about it afterward, and it essentially ended Whale’s career in Hollywood. Certainly not worth seeking out, but if you get the chance to see it, by all means take a look.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Mummy's Hand (1940)

Director: Christy Cabanne                              Writers: Griffin Jay & Maxwell Shane
Film Score: Frank Skinner                              Cinematography: Elwood Bredell
Starring: Dick Foran, Peggy Moran, Wallace Ford and George Zucco

The poor Mummy. Of all of the Universal horror franchises, this monster was the least respected and quickly went from a defrocked Egyptian priest in the first film with Boris Karloff to a shuffling collection of bandages that was used as little more than a murder weapon in the sequels. Worse than that, Universal tried to turn The Mummy’s Hand into something of a horror-comedy eight years before Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Here the ersatz comedy team consists of Dick Foran and Wallace Ford. Add to that the faux magic of Cecil Kellaway and whatever attempt at suspense and fear there had been in the screenplay was dissipated by these comedic elements. And then there’s the fact that the film is not really a sequel at all, but rather an updated version of The Mummy. Only instead of the Karloff character who comes to life and attempts to regain his lost love, the dead priest remains wrapped in bandages to do the bidding of others. Unlike the minimal attempt to make the other franchises in Universal’s monster pantheon somewhat interesting and follow from the original film, the Mummy series was immediately turned into little more than B-movie programmers, with second-rate writers and directors and, with the exception of horror stars like George Zucco and Lon Chaney Jr., B-list actors as well. As a result, this is the first of a long line of substandard Universal mummy films.

The Mummy doesn’t even get original theme music in the sequels, as the main titles--like the rest of the film--are accompanied by Frank Skinner’s music for Son of Frankenstein. The film opens with Eduardo Ciannelli renewing the curse on all those who desecrate the tombs of the pharos. From there, George Zucco gets off the train at the Cairo station and heads out into the desert the following day to an ancient temple to meet with Ciannelli. In a pool of water, similar to the one used by Karloff in the original, Zucco is shown flashback scenes of the origin of the mummy from the first film but in close up Karloff is replaced by Tom Tyler who plays the monster in this film. Ciannelli shows Zucco how to revive Tyler as the mummy before he hands over the high priesthood to Zucco and dies. Back in Cairo, Dick Foran and Wallace Ford have been fired by the museum, but Foran stumbles onto a valuable piece of pottery in the market that gives clues to the location of the tomb of Ananka, played by Zita Johann in the original. Charles Trowbridge takes them in to show their find to the head of the museum, but he turns out to be George Zucco. Obviously Zucco isn’t going to finance and expedition to uncover the tomb he has vowed to protect, so the two men call on Cecil Kellaway, a magician who has a daughter, Peggy Moran, to finance the dig. Zucco then uses the mummy to attempt to kill the members of the expedition before they are able to find the tomb.

Tom Tyler, who was known mostly for westerns, was chosen to play the monster because of a slight resemblance to Karloff, but it would be his only appearance in a Universal horror film as the studio later jettisoned the whole connection to the original film and used Lon Chaney Jr. in subsequent entries for the name recognition. The whole production is a contrast in seemingly cheap location shots, and some relatively sumptuous interiors. But that can be explained by the existing sets Universal had on the lot. The sands of the Egyptian desert have been replaced by scrub brush in the foothills of California, and even the dig seems to be taking place on a beach rather than the desert. For the huge interior of Ananka’s tomb, the production used an existing set from James Whale’s 1940 adventure film Green Hell, which had been completed earlier that year. Director Christy Cabanne hadn’t really been successful after the silent era had ended, and so it’s no wonder that the film lacks anything remotely artistic. But while screenwriters Griffin Jay and Maxwell Shane added some inanities to the screenplay like the Mummy being active only during the full moon, their invention of the forbidden tana leaves is one that would be latched upon for all subsequent films in the franchise, and be used in any number of ways. The Mummy’s Hand is a pale imitation of the original and, unfortunately, would set the stage for a string of uninspired Mummy films to come.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Gladiator (2000)

Director: Ridley Scott                                  Writers: David Franzoni & John Logan
Film Score: Hans Zimmer                           Cinematography: John Mathieson
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen and Oliver Reed

Love him or hate him, Ridley Scott is one of the industry’s all time great filmmakers, and Gladiator is one of his all time great films. It’s a powerful story, derivative of Spartacus and The Fall of the Roman Empire, but going in a very different direction. Where the Kirk Douglas film was all about a slave rebellion, the Russell Crow venture focuses on individual vengeance, and while the Roman epic emphasizes realism and historical accuracy, Scott’s story sacrifices that for action and suspense. It’s really the best of both worlds. But the comparisons are also appropriate as the scope of the film demonstrates a revival of the kind of epic rarely seen in Hollywood since the sixties. There’s simply nothing to complain about in this picture. The photography by John Mathieson is stunningly beautiful, and combined with the color manipulation and CGI work it makes for a hyper-realistic experience. Hans Zimmer’s score provides the kind of rousing, mirror image of the visuals that he is known for. And the acting is first rate, although Russell Crowe engenders the same kind of opposing reactions as the director, but his presence is nevertheless an example of the perfect casting for the kinds of characters that inhabit Scott’s film. The ultimate recognition for the picture came in the form of an Academy Award for best picture, and four more Oscars to go along with it, including one for Crowe as best actor.

The film begins with an action sequence, the Roman Legions preparing for war in the north with Teutonic barbarians who threaten their northern frontier. They are led by their general, Russell Crowe, and overseen by the emperor, Richard Harris. The battle is filmed and edited in a similar fashion as the opening of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan two years earlier and is just as effective. After the victory Harris’s children, Joaquin Phoenix and Connie Nielsen, along with several senators make their way north to hear who Harris will choose as his successor. When the scheming Phoenix learns that it is going to be Crowe instead of himself, he kills his father and tries to do the same to Crowe, but the general manages to escape. Back in Italy Phoenix has Crowe’s entire family killed and then sells him into slavery. Crowe is assisted in his recovery by fellow slave Djimon Hounsou, and eventually they meet their master, Oliver Reed, who trains gladiators. Crowe doesn’t let on that he knows how to fight until Reed puts him into the ring for the first time chained to Hounsou, but he defeats everyone he goes up against. Back in Rome, Phoenix has ignored the Senate and instituted regular games of death in the Coliseum in order to distract the people from the neglect of the government. Derek Jacobi and John Schrapnel are the two senators who attempt to resist, but the mob loves the games. All of which sets up the return of Crowe to Rome in the guise of a skilled and victorious gladiator who threatens to win the people’s hearts away from Phoenix.

Joaquin Phoenix and Russell Crowe are the two sides of the central conflict, one is for complete dictatorial rule while the other has been urged by Harris to reinstate the Senate as the ruling body in Rome. While Phoenix attempts to dissolve the Senate altogether, Crowe seeks only revenge for his family. But Connie Nielsen also does a tremendous job as Phoenix’s sister, especially considering the new emperor essentially wants her to be his wife rather than his sister, with all that implies. She walks a dangerous line as she is in league with the Senate and in love with Crowe, and must do so while trying to keep her son, Spencer Treat Clark, from being seduced away from her by Phoenix. The film is also notable for being the final screen performance of the great Oliver Reed, who is commanding onscreen, but cost the production tremendously when some scenes had to be computer created as he died before principal photography had ended. Djimon Hounsou is also a great addition to the cast, from another culture but connected to Crowe by his humanity. And fellow gladiator Ralf Moeller is equally great as he comes to respect Crowe for his prodigious skill in the ring. Tommy Flanagan, as Crowe’s servant, is the other major player who is integral to the plot toward the end of the film.

The film was made by Ridley Scott in association with Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks. Screenwriter David Franzoni had, in fact, written Spielberg’s historical drama Amistad, which also starred Djimon Hounsou. But Scott brought in John Logan to re-write the dialogue more to his liking, and on the strength of the director and the huge budget, one hundred million dollars, Russell Crowe was eager to sign on. But trouble began prior to production, and several other uncredited screenwriters were brought onboard to sculpt Crowe’s character more to the actor’s liking. In terms of historical accuracy, this was never really a consideration for Scott, who was intent on making a picture with mass audience appeal. Some critics had a problem with the kind of cartoon-like effects that were a major part of the film, something that would become ubiquitous in subsequent years and resulted in films like 300 that were nearly all special effects. Others were unimpressed with the acting, especially by Crowe, but like Titanic a few years earlier, it is the spectacle that is really the major point of the film rather than artistic merit or brilliant acting. Oscar wins for costume design and visual effects only reinforce that idea. Ultimately, Gladiator is one of those best picture Oscar winners that gives audiences something they can only experience through the magic of the movies, an impressive feat in its own right.