Monday, May 17, 2021

The Narrow Margin (1952)

Director: Richard Fleischer                             Writer: Earl Felton
Film Score: Roy Webb                                    Cinematography: George E. Diskant
Starring: Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White and Paul Maxey

One of RKO’s lesser noir outings, The Narrow Margin has a relatively undistinguished cast but a fairly interesting story that makes up for it. There’s something about it that sort of crackles on the screen. Not a lot, but enough to make it interesting in its own way. Watching the film, I couldn’t help wonder what it would have been like if it had been a Fox property and starred Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney. With both of those stars playing the scenes at a lower boil it might have worked even better. In fact, Howard Hughes was reportedly so impressed with the film that he wanted to remake it with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. The film was directed by Richard Fleischer, and Hughes decided instead to bring him in to reshoot some of the scenes in His Kind of Woman with the two stars, for which Earl Fenton also wrote new dialogue. He does a terrific job here, especially working within the tight confines of a passenger train for most of the picture. Felton’s screenplay was based on a short story called “Target,” by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard, and it has some clever lines of dialogue, though perhaps a bit over the top with Charles McGraw’s hard-boiled attitude. It’s certainly a B picture for the studio, but it holds its own in a field crowded with similar pictures in the late forties and early fifties.

The film begins as a train is pulling into the station in Chicago. Two cops, Charles McGraw and Don Beddoe are on their way to pick up a witness and take her to a trial in Los Angeles. She’s the widow of a mobster and McGraw doesn’t like it one bit. The easygoing Beddoe is older and wiser and doesn’t complain. They have to catch their train in an hour and head to the apartment of Marie Windsor—who isn’t very happy about the whole thing either. On the way out Beddoe is gunned down, and that makes McGraw hate Windsor even more. But he has a job to do, however distasteful, and he intends to see it through. Though the gunman knows what he looks like, nobody knows what Windsor looks like, so he uses that to his advantage and they make it onto the train without anyone spotting her. Nevertheless, McGraw has been tailed by a couple of guys who do everything they can to find her. David Clarke is about as subtle as a sock in the jaw, and doesn’t care a bit that McGraw knows who he is and what he’s looking for. His partner, on the other hand, the smarmy Peter Brocco, tries bribery and guilt to see if he has more luck. Both strike out initially, but it’s a long trip to L.A. with plenty of time for McGraw to make a mistake. And yet he still manages to stay one step ahead of the bad guys without strangling Windsor in the process. For the audience, the longer the trip goes on, the more suspicious the regulars on the train becom--especially fat man Paul Maxey--and the more the tension mounts.

The film is vaguely reminiscent of elements of the atrocious Detour from 1945, in that Windsor is a real bitch and McGraw doesn’t like her one bit. And yet they’re stuck on a nightmare trip together. At the same time, it seems there are recognizable elements that would show up a few years later in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, namely the mysterious blonde, Jacqueline White, who winds up running into McGraw on a regular basis, and a case of mistaken identity. And speaking of Hitchcock, this film has an annoying brat of a kid in Gordon Gebert who essentially screams his lines all through the movie, something Hitch would never have allowed--not just because it’s less grating on the ears but because a polite child is simply much more interesting. One of the more impressive aspects of the film is the cinematography by George Diskant. He does some fine work with a moving camera onboard the train, and especially during the fight scene between McGraw and Clarke. On the flip side, however, is the lack of a real film score. While I’ve cited Roy Webb as composer, the score--when there is one on the soundtrack--was cobbled together from existing cues by various composers including Webb. There’s an attempt to compensate by surprising train noises that sound like gunshots, but it still leaves the film without a melodic center and it suffers for it. While not a great film, The Narrow Margin is an entertaining story working at the edges of film noir and well worth taking a look at.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Albuquerque (1948)

Director: Ray Enright                                    Writers: Gene Lewis & Clarence Young
Film Score: Darrell Calker                             Cinematography: Fred Jackman Jr.
Starring: Randolph Scott, Barbara Britton, Gabby Hayes and Lon Chaney Jr.

Another of Randolph Scott’s great westerns from his middle period--this one directed by Ray Enright at Paramount--Albuquerque is a Cinecolor production from the novel of the same name by Luke Short. Enright, who had been directing films since the late twenties, helmed a string of westerns in the forties, a few of them with Scott, and so he was an old hand at this stuff by now. The credits roll over Darrell Calker’s rousing music, with a stagecoach in the distance growing ever nearer. The color is gorgeous, a lot less garish than Technicolor, and the red of the soil, the snow on the mountains, and the green of the trees is a wonder to behold. The opening scene, however, with Gabby Hayes as the driver and Lee White providing a little comedy, is disappointingly done with rear projection. When the scene shifts to the interior of the coach, Randolph Scott is entertaining Karolyn Grimes with a Señor Wences talking-hand bit. Also onboard are Catherine Craig and Lorin Raker. Naturally, bandits force the coach to stop to rob it. But when guns fire and Raker is killed, the coach takes off with Grimes inside and Scott hops on one of the bandit’s horses and saves the day. But the chase is a little disorienting to watch. Every time the natural exteriors are onscreen it’s breathtaking, and then the rear screen ruins the effect. The other issue with the photography later on is the rather obvious day-for-night shooting, which is also unfortunate.

Once the group makes it to town Gabby alerts the sheriff, Grimes is reunited with her father, and Craig gives the bad news to her brother that all their money was stolen. Then Scott finds out he’s not welcome there because he’s related to George Cleveland, the man who runs the town and everyone hates. Turns out Sheriff Bernard Nedell works for Cleveland, and so do the bandits that robbed Craig’s money. Cleveland’s head honcho is none other than a tired looking Lon Chaney Jr. Cleveland wants Scott to run his hauling operation for the mines in the hills and pass the business on to him. At first Scott is flattered. But at the local saloon he spies the bandits, and sees Chaney running them out, sort of friendly like. Scott is also suspicious of the sheriff. Then everything becomes clear when he learns that Cleveland’s primary competitors hauling freight for the mines are Craig and her brother, Russell Hayden. And it takes even less time for Scott to get their money back from Cleveland and offer his services to the two of them. So the film sets itself up as a conflict between Scott and his new friends, against his evil uncle and his corrupt business. Scott naturally takes a liking to Craig, but unfortunately Hayden falls all over himself for Barbara Britton when she turns up in town.

It’s a solid film, sitting squarely in the tradition, and it doesn’t disappoint. Scott is dependable as the white hat, and his supporting cast does a nice job as well. Catherine Craig is lovely as the love interest, tough and patient, while Gaby Hayes plays the exact same salty sidekick he’d been playing since the early thirties. Barbara Britton was new to me, but she gives a great performance as well. The only disappointment is that Lon Chaney Jr. wasn’t used more, or at least to better effect, as he was capable of giving a tremendous performance when given the chance. Of course Karolyn Grimes is most familiar to film audiences as little Zuzu Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. And another recognizable face from the same film is Dick Elliott who shows up as a cook. But George Cleveland is no Lionel Barrymore, and he’s a little too tame as the wheel-chaired villain. The most notable thing about the picture, though, is how fantastic the photography is. Not only the exteriors and the color print, but the long focus work and the moving camera close ups by cinematographer Fred Jackman Jr. are outstanding. The issues with rear projection and day-for-night aside, it’s a fantastic looking film. The score by Calker is more than serviceable, if fairly generic, though the set design goes a little overboard trying to stress the New Mexico locale. It’s a familiar story, especially some seventy years later, but it does have some unique plot points that might even have been better had they not been telegraphed to the audience ahead of time. Albuquerque is nothing out of the ordinary, but is a fun film that delivers on all genre expectations.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Ed Wood (1994)

Director: Tim Burton                                       Writers: Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
Film Score: Howard Shore                             Cinematography: Stefan Czapsky
Starring: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker and Bill Murray

Ed Wood is just a brilliant film. Ironic, considering that the director himself has resided at the top of worst film lists since his death in 1978. But screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski were at a crossroads in their careers after having the kind of success with their film Problem Child that kept them from getting other, more serious, work. So they set out to write a screenplay about one of their favorite auteurs, Edward D. Wood Jr. Of course Wood is well known to most horror film buffs for his shockingly bad Plan 9 from Outer Space, arguably the worst feature film ever made. The other aspect of Wood’s career, however, and the one that the writers focused on, was his relationship with an ageing Bela Lugosi. In trying to see if they could get their idea to the screen, the pair first wrote a treatment, and then attempted to get Tim Burton’s name attached to it somehow in order to increase their chances of success. What happened next was something they never could have imagined. Burton loved the treatment and wanted to make it his next film. The problem? Alexander and Karaszewski didn’t have an actual screenplay. Had they put Burton off for a year to write it, they feared he might never get back to it. But they knew they had six weeks while Burton was doing post-production on his current film, so the two locked themselves in Alexander’s apartment and churned out an overlong screenplay that they couldn’t figure out how to cut. But it didn’t matter. Burton wanted to shoot it as is and immediately set about casting.

To no one’s surprise, the director’s choice of leading man was Johnny Depp, but the actor actually brings so much to the role that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing it. Even more important, however, was who to cast to play Lugosi. Again, it was Burton who thought screen veteran Martin Landau would be perfect for the role, as much for his considerable talent as for the arc of his career, which early on had him working for Alfred Hitchcock in North by Northwest, and by the end found him mired in television on Gilligan’s Island with the Harlem Globetrotters. It turned out to be a genius move, and was acknowledged as such when Landau won the Oscar for best supporting actor. The rest of Ed Wood's posse is played by a great group of stars. Sarah Jessica Parker plays Wood’s girlfriend, and the only one to even suggest that maybe Wood’s films aren’t as good as he thinks they are. Bill Murray is tremendous as Wood’s friend, the wannabe transvestite Bunny Breckinridge, while Jeffrey Jones plays the not-so-Amazing Criswell. Lisa Marie Smith appears as TV host Vampira, and Patricia Arquette is Wood’s later wife Kathy. Also appearing in small roles are Rance Howard, G.D. Spradlin, and Vincent D’Onofrio, as well as a host of terrific character actors in supporting roles.

The film begins with Jeffrey Jones as Criswell, sitting up in a coffin and intoning a variation on his speech from Plan 9, but making it about Wood instead. The credits roll over a stormy night in Hollywood, and when they finish Depp is seen pacing outside a theater as his wartime play The Casual Company premiers. His play, however, is no better than his films would be and receives dreadful reviews. By day, Depp works as a studio flunky delivering props and dreams of the day when he can make films of his own. Always with his ear to the ground, he hears of a producer who had promotional materials printed for a film called I Changed My Sex but no film. Since Depp is a cross-dresser he gets himself assigned as director—after meeting Bela Lugosi and shoehorning him into the production—and proceeds to film Glen or Glenda? which is not about sex change at all. So the distributor hates it, a film exec he sends it to thinks it’s a joke, and meanwhile he develops a relationship with Lugosi that not only includes putting him in every picture he makes, but running out to his suburban ranch house whenever the former Dracula runs out of drugs or decides to kill himself. When Depp gets the backing he needs from Juliet Landau to make Bride of the Monster he launches into the picture and only finds out later that there was no money. But somehow he keeps on going, his can-do attitude and a delusional belief in his own abilities all he needs to stay ahead of his creditors and remain a legend in his own mind.

When veteran makeup artist Rick Baker was having trouble with the color of Martin Landau’s makeup, Burton went up to the monitor and turned the color off and everyone knew then it had to be filmed in black and white. Alexander and Karaszewski were ecstatic because of how incredibly artistic they knew it would be, but also rightly assumed that they would lose a huge chunk of their audience, which they did. But while the film was a box office flop in 1994, and took another decade to come out on DVD, it has since been recognized for the masterwork it is and has earned well-deserved critical praise ever since. The black and white photography, for one, was masterfully carried out by cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, who had to go to great lengths to get the lighting just right in numerous scenes. And the story itself, while mercifully not camp, maintains an impossibly fine balance between the overwhelming love it has for its characters—especially Lugosi—and sort of being a little like an Ed Wood film itself. The crowning touch is Howard Shore’s perfect film score, one that emulates some of the stock music that Wood used in his films, a lighthearted fifties sci-fi ethos, and the humorous underpinning of much of the actual story. Tim Burton is far from my favorite director. I’ve actually hated the few films of his I’ve seen and happily ignored the rest. But Ed Wood is in a class by itself and is one of my favorite films of all time. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

American Blue Note (1989)

Director: Ralph Toporoff                                   Writers: Ralph Toporoff & Gilbert Girion
Film Score: Larry Schanker                             Cinematography: Joey Forsyte
Starring: Peter MacNicol, Carl Capotorto, Jonathan Walker and Trini Alvarado

This is an odd little film. Years ago when I was looking for films about jazz this was one of the first I came across because, of course, Blue Note is right there in the title. American Blue Note stars Peter MacNicol, who’s best known for playing a lawyer on TV’s Ally McBeal and Chicago Hope. In this film he plays an alto saxophonist in the early sixties whose dream is to be part of a well-known jazz group in New York. The film was clearly a labor of love for writer-director Ralph Toporoff, who began his career as a photographer and then moved into cinematography, and the story is based on events from his own life. Made in 1989, the film had good reviews from the festivals it played, but Toporoff couldn’t find a U.S. distributor and so it didn’t reach theaters until two years later. That, however, is overstating the case, as a few midnight showings at downtown theaters, or matinees at the local mall were the only actual screenings it received and no one really saw it at the time. As the film is centered on a jazz group, the music is obviously important, and there are some clever touches in the film. A sort of running music gag throughout is that the audience rarely ever hears them play jazz, and one particular song, “Palm Beach Rhumba,” repeatedly represents the musical purgatory the group finds themselves in. At the same time the subdued jazz on the soundtrack is terrific. No solos, but then that’s not the point. It’s a mood setter, a laid back, West Coast cool that threatens to remain completely anonymous in New York City, and as such it’s the best possible choice for composer Larry Schanker’s score.

The film opens with Peter MacNicol answering the phone, alto saxophone hanging from his neckstrap, politely answering a telephone survey and not wanting to hang up after it’s over. The credits roll over photos, notes and sheet music of the Jack Solow Quintet, as the group plays on the soundtrack. The song, it turns out, is at an audition for the great Louis Guss. The rest of the group include trumpet player Jonathan Walker, pianist Carl Capotorto, drummer Tim Guinee and bassist Bill Christopher-Myers, and they get the gig primarily because they have a car. The group is definitely small time, but MacNicol has dreams of playing on 52nd Street at a real jazz club. He talks to club owner Joe Wrann about an audition, but the guy is noncommittal and the impression is he doesn’t want to hear them. The gig turns out to be in a tavern in Jersey, a tiny place, playing for two or three guys drinking at the bar. MacNicol’s embarrassed onstage patter is brutally painful. But then so is the conversation between the guys, and when it comes down to it really, all of the dialogue in the entire film. The tension is built around the fact that the group is about to break up, but MacNicol isn’t ready to give up on the dream yet. A new photo is MacNichol’s answer, but of course he’s just stalling for time. Their next big gig is a wedding reception with Capotorto on accordion, and more auditions are interspersed with scenes from everyday life. Meanwhile the band slowly disintegrates and MacNichol is powerless to stop it.

While the film wears its independent pedigree on its sleeve, there’s a certain charm to it all that’s difficult to describe. It should be awful, but it kind of grows on you after a while. The guys are just guys, men actually, out of college and working regular jobs but still young. And they don’t try to be “characters” in the way the guys from Diner come off. Though looking at the poster art for the film it seems that’s the audience the film was aiming for. More importantly, however, it’s the women in the film who steal the show. Zohra Lampert’s doting, mater-of-fact, Catholic mother is wonderfully understated, while Margaret Devine’s spacey coffee shop waitress is absolutely lovely. Charlotte d’Amboise captures MacNichol’s heart as well as the viewers’, and Trini Alvarado is just drop-dead gorgeous. One of my all-time favorite actresses, Roma Maffia, even has a small role as a secretary at the musicians union. Other familiar faces that turn up include Mel Johnson Jr., who takes a nice turn singing at one of the group’s gigs, and Dave Florek as a photographer. If there’s a drawback to the film it’s MacNichol’s characterization. His nervous and embarrassed behavior becomes maddening to watch over time. Everyone around him has more important things going on in their lives and yet real life seems to be the one thing he is utterly unable to navigate. So, yeah, the whole thing’s kind of strange, but American Blue Note is still worth seeking out--especially now that it’s finally been released on DVD--for its subdued portrayal of life in a simpler time.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Changeling (1980)

Director: Peter Medak                                      Writers: William Gray & Diana Maddox
Film Score: Rick Wilkins                                   Cinematography: John Coquillon
Starring: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas and Ruth Springford

The Changeling is easily the best ghost story every committed to film. It’s just so damn scary it’s ridiculous. I’m sure that jaded slasher film watchers will wonder what all the fuss is about, but they’re the ones who are missing out and I feel bad for them. Once disbelief is suspended this film is a fright fest precisely because it has no monsters, no demonic possessions, no decapitations, and no walking corpses. Instead, an immense respect for traditional ghost story tropes is demonstrated before the film makes them its own and brings the story to an incredibly satisfying climax. The film is a Canadian production, and though it received mixed reviews on its release, it also took home a slew of Genie awards, Canada’s answer to the Oscars. The story was based on the experiences of playwright and composer Russell Hunter, who apparently lived through something similar in Denver, Colorado, and was then adapted for the screen by William Gray and Diana Maddox. The film is set in Seattle, which is also great because the rainy skies and gloomy atmosphere really add to the overall effect. But as with so many of these productions--Stake Out comes to mind--other than local landmarks like the Rainier Tower and the University of Washington, most of the exteriors were filmed in Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia, including the haunted house itself. Even the Flatiron Building in Vancouver is substituted for the old Triangle Hotel in Pioneer Square.

The film opens on a two-lane highway in upstate New York, the hills and the road covered with snow at the end of November where George C. Scott’s station wagon has broken down. While he calls for help, a dump truck appears on the horizon. His wife and daughter are playing in the snow in front of the car so the truck driver can’t see them, and when a car skids out in front of him he smashes into the rear of the station wagon, killing Scott’s family. Some weeks later, Scott is seen walking through the streets of New York, credits rolling over him and Rick Wilkins’ appropriately piano-based score underneath. Back at his empty apartment he prepares to leave for Seattle, and his little girl’s small, red and white ball goes with him. Scott is a composer, and has a job teaching at the University of Washington. He meets with Trish Van Devere of the historical preservation society, and she rents him an old Victorian house in the suburbs, one with a piano--one note on which won’t play. The first supernatural element happens when Scott leaves the room and the note plays by itself. At a concert of Scott’s works later, the audience is also introduced to senator Melvin Douglas. Then one morning Scott is awakened by a loud banging noise that reverberates through the entire house. Later, while composing, a sort of lullaby keeps going through his head and he plays with the idea on the piano and records it onto a reel-to-reel tape deck. Again, the next morning, the pounding awakens him.

When Scott hears another noise, water running, and more strange sounds that seem to be coming from the third floor, he then sees a vision of a dead boy in a bathtub. When he goes to Van Devere at her office he’s accosted by Ruth Springford, who tells him the place is haunted. After a window above the third floor seems to break on its own, that’s when Scott has had enough and begins investigating. But the more he uncovers, the more the supernatural events intensify, with some sort of entity pushing Scott to finally discover the truth about what went on in that house. The film is just a masterful example of gradually bringing the viewer--along with Scott--into the mystery of the house. And the way he undergoes the investigation is remarkable. But the absolute best thing about George C. Scott’s performance is that he’s never scared. He’s never really frightened, though he is overcome by the emotion of his discovery and the existence of the supernatural. For some reason, that makes what is happening even scarier because there’s no catharsis. The audience is left to deal with their fear on their own, and it’s a brilliant narrative strategy. Trish Ven Devere is a lovely presence in the film, and acts as Scott’s sidekick throughout, just as interested in discovering the mystery as he is--despite Springford’s warning--while Melvin Douglas gives a terrific performance as the aged Senator from a wealthy family who, as it turns out, is central to the plot. Finally, a host of little known Canadian supporting actors round out the cast, providing through their relative anonymity very little distraction from the story itself.

The cinematography is beautifully atmospheric, and the film benefits tremendously from Peter Medak’s unhurried direction. John Coquillon’s camera floats in and out of rooms, occasionally finding itself up above them, looking through a fisheye lens, and always seems to generate emotional tension with visuals that replicate those very same feelings. It’s a remarkable technique. The screenplay is terrific as well, with wonderfully subtle lines, like when the handyman interrupts Scott at the piano playing a piece of sheet music. He says, “I’m sorry to disturb your composing,” and Scott answers, “That’s all right, this one’s already been composed.” And when dealing with the ghost, Scott asks all the right questions, makes all the right observations, and always behaves in a logical and believable manner. The pace of the story is perfection, ratcheting up the tension slightly with every new discovery as the supernatural elements become increasingly more frightening. About the only questionable aspect to the entire film is the role played by Ruth Springford, a sort of modern Mrs. Danvers who attempts to inject an artificial element of fear into a story that really doesn’t need it. Rick Wilkins’ score is the crowning touch, the perfect blend of soft, classical underscore with an unexpected haunting dissonance when the story calls for it. The Changeling is one of the great ghost stories of all time, and its reputation has only grown over the decades. It gets my highest recommendation.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Director: Raoul Walsh                                  Writers: Douglas Fairbanks & Lotta Woods
Music: Mortimer Wilson                                Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Julanne Johnston, Snitz Edwards and Anna-May Wong

The Thief of Bagdad was really the apotheosis of Douglas Fairbanks’ career. He would produce a few other notable films, like The Iron Mask in 1929, and a small number of sound films, like The Adventures of Don Juan in 1934, but this was essentially the last of the kind of smiling, swashbuckling silent film that became so associated with him that its very image is now a shorthand way of evoking the period, as Jean Dujardin would do so brilliantly in The Artist in 2010. That said, however, the film itself is also one of the only reasons that United Artists was able to stay afloat. By the mid twenties Chaplin’s films were few and far between, while Pickford and Griffith were churning out box office duds. Fairbanks, on the other hand, was incredibly popular at this time and his films made tons of money. As with so many silent films, the best way to watch it is really the only way to watch it, in this case the Cohen Film Collection version with Carl Davis’s score, which utilizes music from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, named after the main character from One Thousand and One Nights. Not only is the music fantastic, but the print is clean and clear and, best of all, has muted tinting instead of the garish, oversaturated effect on most cheaper versions.

The film opens on the desert, with a man telling a boy a story, the words written in the stars, “Happiness must be earned,” and quotes from the Koran and the Arabian Nights. The story proper begins in the streets of Bagdad, with wonderfully tall sets designed by William Cameron Menzies--who would finish his career on the remake of the film in 1940. Fairbanks is shown in a deep sleep in the middle of it all next to a drinking fountain. But he’s not really asleep. A man comes to take a drink, and when he walks away his purse is in Fairbanks’ hand. Later the thief winds up in a mosque where Charles Belcher says that only through work can people find happiness. But Fairbanks derides him and says he just takes what he wants. As soon as he leaves he witnesses the flogging of a thief. Instead of giving him pause, however, he wants to steal the jewel the thief was flogged for, just to see if he can get away with it. And he does. At the end of his day he climbs down a deep well to see his master, Snitz Edwards, and give him all he’s stolen. Meanwhile in Mongolia the prince, Sôjin Kamiyama, has the same attitude as Fairbanks, but on a grander scale, and wants to invade Bagdad and occupy the caliph’s palace by pretending to be a suitor to the princess. The parade of suitors and their treasure is too much temptation for Fairbanks, but once inside the palace he winds up in the bedroom of the princess, Julanne Johnston, and falls in love with her, profoundly changing the meaning of life for him.

The bulk of the story concerns Fairbanks’ attempts to keep Johnston from being forced to wed one of the inappropriate suitors, and hopefully marry her for himself. But this is especially difficult since Johnston’s scheming maid, Anna May Wong, is giving inside information to Kamiyama. The second half of the film is then a hero’s journey to earn the right to marry the princess, and the various magical places and monsters he must overcome are like something out of Greek mythology. The pantomime by Fairbanks seems overly broad, even by the standards of other films from that year, but then that was his style. Though he’s athletic and exuberant and it’s all fairly infectious, even that tends to wear thin after a while. Despite that criticism, however, everything else in the film is incredibly well done including the magnificently outsized set design by Menzies, the seamless special effects by Coy Watson, and the costumes by Paul Burns. It really is a spectacular film. The great Raoul Walsh doesn’t move his camera at all, but with so much to look at and take in, it isn’t missed. The sets are a feast for the eyes, and he does use a few interesting camera angles here and there. Assisting him is Arthur Edeson, who does some exceptional work with long focus shots, and would go on film dozens more classics in the next twenty years. It’s a long film, at two and a half hours, but it never seems to flag and holds interest throughout.

In The A List essay by Joe Morgenstern he begins by mentioning one of the things that silent movie makers never could quite figure out: how much to tell the viewer through title cards and how much to leave out. While many films of the twenties feel like talkies without dialogue, necessitating a large number of title cards, this is one area where The Thief of Bagdad has no issue, and Fairbanks strikes the perfect balance between necessary information conveyed via the printed word and the abundant amount of screen time that requires none. Morgenstern also rightly praises William Cameron Menzies whose work on this film, with its gargantuan sets and mythical monsters and special effects, quite honestly has never been surpassed. One reason for this, the author states, has to do with the vertical nature of the sets, in opposition to the way that later film advances widened out the picture instead. Finally, he bemoans the fact that so few people watch silent films these days, and how much they are truly missing out, especially when it comes to a film like this. There really is almost nothing to criticize about The Thief of Bagdad, and when seen in its best and most complete form it is the equal, if not superior to, anything that has been produced in the nearly hundred years since it was first released. Now that’s an impressive feat.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Getaway (1972)

Director: Sam Peckinpah                                 Writer: Walter Hill
Film Score: Quincy Jones                                Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Starring: Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw, Ben Johnson and Al Lettieri

Sam Peckinpah was a really great director . . . and I’ve only seen a couple of his films. But the opening credit sequence of The Getaway is so well done, so finely crafted to evoke a specific response from the viewer, that it’s difficult not to see in that alone the hands of a master filmmaker. The director had done something similar in the marriage scene in Ride the High Country a decade earlier, and so it’s clear he’d had this cinematic capability for a long time. Screenwriter Walter Hill--who would go on to pen several hits, including The Long Riders, 48 Hours, Aliens, and even the 1994 sequel to this film starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger--had a fantastic piece of literature to work with in adapting noir novelist Jim Thompson’s original story, but he also made some nice changes that played into Peckinpah’s strength as a director. At every turn Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw are met with obstacles, and as the noose keeps tightening the story becomes almost a comedy of errors. But the plot of the film is almost as convoluted as the road to making the film itself--and is a fascinating story beyond the scope of this review. Though Peckinpah had hired Jerry Fielding to score the picture, he was replaced by Quincy Jones, who does a workmanlike job. While initial reviews of the film were negative, the picture’s status has only grown over the years and is now rightfully considered a classic for both the director and McQueen.

There have been hundreds of prison films made, but how does one convey to the viewer the real emotional torment of doing time in prison? The prisoner can be shown in his cell, alone, but so what? That visual doesn’t convey emotion on its own. The prisoner can tell the viewer in voiceover, but again, that’s telling not showing. What Peckinpah does--just in the opening credit sequence--is to do what only film can do, by juxtaposing images in order to convey a feeling or an emotion. Steve McQueen is doing time in prison. The sound of his parole hearing is heard in voiceover as he is escorted to the meeting. But beneath that conversation is the sound of machinery, constant and unrelenting. Then the scenes of the hearing are intercut with McQueen working in the machine shop at the prison. And still the machines keep ratcheting up beneath the soundtrack. When his parole is denied--accompanied by a stern look from warden Ben Johnson--the machine noise is pushed up to drown out every other sound. McQueen is then taken back to work and, after turning on his machine, the noise filling his ears, he slams it off. He tries again, and slams it off again. The increasing noise of the machines is accompanied by close ups of the prisoner and his thousand-yard stare--and brief glimpses of his life on the outside. And still the noise of the machines grinds on. Only then is he shown alone in his cell. It’s a powerful cinematic moment, visuals and sound combining to convey the emotion of being imprisoned, time working on a mind like a Chinese water torture, wanting nothing else but for the noise to stop. And that’s the genius of Sam Peckinpah.

When McQueen is finally taken to see his girlfriend, Ali MacGraw, he tells her to go to the warden and promise him anything, any price, to let the parole go through. And she does. After getting out, Peckinpah eliminates music from the soundtrack in the next few scenes in order to convey the cessation of the machines in McQueen’s brain. The story also provides even more realism when McQueen and MacGraw are finally alone. Instead of ravishing her, which is the usual trope, he needs time to process his incarceration. He can’t just instantly get back to normal. The deal for getting out of prison is robbing a bank for Johnson. But instead of using his own crew McQueen is forced to use Johnson’s men, Al Lettieri and Bo Hopkins. McQueen doesn’t like it, but he’s stuck. He and MacGraw operate separately from the other two, and they all meet at the bank and everything goes well, that is until Hopkins isn’t paying attention to the security guard, gets shot, then returns fire and kills him. Once in the getaway car, however, Lettieri sees Hopkins as a liability and kills him, dumping the body on the street. At the meet up before the delivery, Lettieri tries to kill McQueen, which he had expected all along, and McQueen turns the tables on him. But Lettieri, who had bragged earlier that he never wears a bulletproof vest, is wearing one now. And thus begins the title of the film as McQueen and MacGraw try to get away with the money without even realizing Lettieri is hot on their trail.

But even that brief summary of the first half of the film leaves a ton of things out. Walter Hill’s screenplay has the characters running a gauntlet of unexpected twists and turns that the viewer must endure right along with them. There are so many suspenseful scenes, one after another, that it’s nearly unbearable--and very difficult not to divulge. Even something as simple as McQueen driving up the ramp in a parking garage to find a spot is imbued with a tremendous amount of tension. McQueen is his usual intense, stolid self, and though I haven’t seen Ali MacGraw in a lot of things other than Winds of War, while she's pretty, she's not a very good actress. The rest of the cast was primarily TV actors, including Sally Struthers, Jack Dodson, Ben Johnson, and low-budget series regular, Dub Taylor. The exceptions are the fantastic Al Lettieri, who played Sollozzo in the original Godfather, Richard Bright, who played Al Neri in The Godfather II, and the iconic Slim Pickens. While the film is definitely of its time, the early nineteen seventies, it is also so much more, as the clothes and cars and film stock are the least of it. Sam Peckinpah’s emphasis on both the characters--especially MacGraw's--and the intricate plot make The Getaway a must see, not only for fans of McQueen, but for fans of crime dramas from any era.

Dames (1934)

Director: Ray Enright                                           Writer: Delmer Daves
Choreography: Busby Berkeley                           Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Starring: Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler and Guy Kibbee

Another outing by Warners’ musical team, with Busby Berkeley providing his distinctive choreography, Dames harkens back to earlier musicals like Broadway Melody from 1929 in that it’s a lot of fast-talking quips and visual gags rather than a more story-centered film like Footlight Parade, or pretty much any Astaire-Rogers film at RKO. It’s an odd film in many ways. While it revolves around putting on a musical show, as all of the films do, it shows very little of the backstage drama that usually informs these kinds of musicals. Most of the story is centered on tepid comedy antics than the music itself, and the result is it’s definitely not up to the standards of the usual Warners’ musicals, despite the musical numbers themselves directed by Berkeley. That said, however, even lesser Berkeley is still pretty impressive. The likely explanation for this is that film was kind of slapped together. Hal Wallis had trouble finding a director, and right up until shooting the cast had yet to be finalized. Meanwhile, Berkeley had attained complete autonomy at the studio and worked on his numbers entirely independent of the rest of the film. Because of that, one of his pre-code numbers had to be cut by Wallis because the producer had no intention of letting the Hays Office do it for him. So it stands to reason that the finished product feels cobbled together and never really gels.

The story opens by establishing the financial empire of Hugh Herbert. Guy Kibbee comes into the lobby looking for the boss, but he has to get through a phalanx of armed guards protecting Herbert from kidnappers. Kibbee has been brought there to be told that his wife--Herbert’s cousin--is going to be given ten million dollars inheritance before Herbert dies. The main stipulation of the endowment is that the family be morally upright, and that they have nothing to do with their other relations, namely actor Dick Powell. What none of them know is that Kibbee’s daughter, Ruby Keeler, has already fallen in love with Powell. Herbert is going to stay with the family for a month first, before he gives them the money, but Keeler’s mother, Zasu Pitts is afraid her daughter is going to ruin things by talking about Powell. Then, on his way back home, Kibbee finds his sleeping compartment on the train has been invaded by dancer Joan Blondell and is desperate to keep Herbert from finding out. Once Kibbee’s back home, Powell busts in and tries to get Herbert to finance the show he’s written but is chased out of the house. Finally, Blondell shows up with a plan to blackmail Kibbee in order to get the money to put on Powell’s show, which she does. Now all Kibbee has to do is keep Herbert from finding out, and Powell his uncle’s new morality league from shutting the show down.

While Ruby Keeler was a terrific dancer, she could hardly be said to be as good at acting and she’s a little tough to watch. But she doesn’t even dance in any of the Berkeley numbers. Dick Powell is just as bad, but in a completely different way as he hams it up over the top in every scene he’s in. Joan Blondell, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to have her heart in it at all, and since she was seven months pregnant at that time that may be why. The only bright spot in the entire cast is actually Guy Kibbee, who does a solid job with his comedy bits in a way that everyone else seems unable to replicate. There’s also a fun little cameo by actor Harry Holman who is most recognizable to movie buffs as Principal Partridge of Bedford Falls High School in It’s a Wonderful Life. And the dance director at Powell’s show, Charles Williams, is yet another actor from that film who played Cousin Eustace. The Berkeley numbers have the usual cast of thousands, with tons of extras and beautiful girls, and the kaleidoscope sequences are fantastic. The story itself likely comes out of the fact that by 1934 the Production Code was actually being enforced and in turn it forced Dames to adhere to morality--a major plot point in the film--that the better musicals didn’t have to. Delmer Daves’ story tries to poke fun at the idea, but it’s not strong enough to carry the entire film.

The songs in the film are actually pretty good, but they never went on to any great acclaim, with the exception of one that has since become a standard, “I Only Have Eyes for You.” One of the smart things the film does, is sort of preview the songs first, having Powell sing a verse and chorus to Keeler or Blondell, so that when they are presented in the show at the end of the film they are already familiar to the audience. Something similar happens with the cinematograph by Sid Hickox, and that is the first two-thirds of the film are shot fairly static like a typical thirties film, but as the final third begins there are a number of moving camera shots, some of them overhead, that really prepare the viewer for Berkeley’s filmed choreography at the end. It’s a nice touch. And honestly, Busby Berkeley’s numbers are the only real reason to watch the film. While the conceit is that the numbers are being performed onstage, once the camera moves onto the stage the entire show is purely cinematic. Even though the screenplay is pretty weak, Berkeley does some of his best work on the musical numbers, but it’s a shame that the whole production wasn’t stronger because in context they seem as weak as the story itself. In the end the Berkeley numbers are interesting, but little else in Dames is.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman (1944)

Director: Roy William Neill                           Writer: Bertram Millhauser
Film Score: Hans J. Salter                           Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Gale Sondergaard and Vernon Downing

For the seventh installment of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series, screenwriter Bertram Millhauser used parts of several Conan Doyle stories, “The Adventure of the Dying Detective” (1913), The Sign of the Four (1890) and “The Final Problem” (1893) among others, for his story called The Spider Woman. Oddly, while the film uses more Conan Doyle material that any other film, Universal decided for some reason to omit “Sherlock Holmes” from the title of the picture, as it would for the rest of the series. Director Roy William Neill, for which this was his fourth Holmes film in a row, adds some nice touches to the usual medium shots and close ups. One is a long shot in Sondergaard’s apartment, which seems quite unique for the time, and another is an overhead shot of Holmes’ apartment at 221B Baker Street, both of which add some nice variety to what is essential a B movie. The great Hans Salter was assigned the chore of selecting stock music--primarily from previously written cues by himself and Frank Skinner--for the film from Universal’s library. And Charles Van Enger, the director of photograph on the previous entry, is behind the camera on this outing as well.

The film opens on the London rooftops with a man falling through a window to his death, one of a string of apparent suicides by men wearing pajamas. Meanwhile Homes and Watson have been in Scotland fishing, but Basil Rathbone as Holmes believes the deaths are murders because none of the men left suicide notes. Then, after confesses to having dizzy spells to Nigel Bruce as Watson, he faints and falls into the river to his death, all of which unleashes a crime wave in the city. Everyone who knew him is upset, even Dennis Hoey as Lestrade. But, of course, Rathbone eventually turns back up in disguise. Since all the dead men were rich, and the murders subtle, he believes the murderer a woman, and sets out to trap her by going undercover as a rich Indian gambler. The film’s villain Gale Sondergaard and her associate Vernon Downing naturally fall into the trap when she invites Rathbone to her gaming establishment. But when the two spend time together at her apartment, it’s not quite clear who really has the upper hand. That night Rathbone sets his trap. Henchman Harry Cording goes up on the roof, and soon a large tarantula comes through the vent, but both of them die at the hands of Rathbone. So now the detective knows the method and the murderer, but the real mystery will be figuring out a way to tie the two together.

Rathbone and Bruce do their usual stalwart jobs on the production, along with Dennis Hoey. As a villain, Gale Sondergaard makes a valiant attempt but lacks the menace associated with a typical Holmes villain--two years later Universal made an attempt to capitalize on her appearance here by reprising her role for another film, The Spider Woman Strikes Back, but it has no relationship to the Holmes series. After that the quality of the acting drops off precipitously. Vernon Downing as the nervous assistant is a bit wooden, and Alec Craig as a phony professor is a little over the top. There’s nothing particularly special about the film, and in some ways abandoning the World War Two connection that the previous films revolved around is something of a disappointment--though Tojo, Hitler and Mussolini do put in an appearance in the finale. There’s also the fact that Rathbone’s disguises, while well done, are fairly easy to detect for regular watchers of the series. Where the story excels is in completely accepting these familiar tropes, and because Rathbone has to figure out exactly how the murders are committed rather than who the culprit is, it makes it slightly more interesting than it might have been otherwise. For fans of the series, however, very little of that matters as The Spider Woman is simply another fun romp with Universal’s Holmes and Watson.