Monday, September 16, 2019

The Spider Woman (1943)

The Pajama Suicides plague London but Holmes (Basil Rathbone) is out fishing. It seems his heart just isn’t in it anymore. Then he dies. Roll credits.

Just kidding. Obviously Holmes isn’t dead and these suicides are actually murders, but you already knew that. I wonder if a woman and a spider play a role in all of this.

It’s been over a year since my last Sherlock film and I’d like to finish them off at some point. Spider Woman makes ten of fourteen if I count correctly. Another is coming soon leaving three. They all have a certain consistency. A similar level of low grade humor, low grade mystery, and a bit of charm. Some better than others, and this one tends towards the others.

First, there is no mystery here. We know who the villain is, she (not fooled for a second about that death ruse) knows that Holmes is onto her. Seriously, he should just give up on those stupid disguises. We also know the why of the crimes. With old rich dudes, money is always the motive. All we have to figure out is the hows and this film gives us too few clues to piece it together. Spoiler alert, it involves a dwarf in blackface. Didn’t see that coming!

Pretty Gale Sondergaard plays a better than fair villain. She appeared in Bob Hope’s The Cat and the Canary and the completely unrelated Spider Woman Strikes Back, as well as a large number of genre pictures. She would retire at the cusp of 50 because she was blacklisted. After twenty years away she staged a minor comeback appearing in four more films before her death.

The Spider Woman offers fairly little. Generic Holmes and Watson story, tired plot lines, and nothing new. Worse yet part is set in a carnival. Hasn’t Holmes done that before? Can’t remember. Also, they get the science of spiders so very wrong. Still, it’s fairly short and holds your interest throughout. AMRU 3. Oh, and I really feel The Pajama Suicides would have been a better title.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Killers (1946)

A simple gas station attendant (Burt Lancaster) is killed by hit men. Why? An insurance investigator decides to investigate. Slowly Swede's life is revealed piece by piece.

Ok, so I watched The Killers (1946) because I confused it with The Killing (1956). Get your yuks out now. Both are film-noir and both highly rated. Killing was on my radar because it was directed by Stanley Kubrick but Killers should probably have been as well.

Lancaster was not the producer’s first choice. An ex-acrobat who learned acting in the USO, he had zero screen credits. Choices one and two were unavailable, so they went with the 32 year old complete unknown. When the rushes came back they realized they made the right choice. Top billing in his first Hollywood film and a star is born.

Adapted from an Ernest Hemingway short story, it was the only adaptation he personally approved of, although much of the film is original. Maybe that’s why it centers around the Killed and not the ones who did the Killing. Ava Gardner played the femme fatale whom we all remember from The Barefoot Contessa and nobody remembers from Shadow of the Thin Man. Killers is her highest rated film but I am curious to see Night of the Iguana, if for no other reason than because it has a cool name. Edmond O’Brien plays the investigator. He also was in Contessa, and in Seven Days in May with both Burt and Ava. He shows up in quite a few films I’ve seen and want to. I will keep an eye out for him in the future. Phil Brown plays a small speaking role. If you’re unfamiliar then someone must have taken you to Anchorhead and had your memory erased.

All in all a very interesting story. Told in chronological flashback, Swede’s story holds your interest and the ending pays off. It’s a well done noir and worth a second watch. AMRU 4.
“Don't ask a dying man to lie his soul into Hell.”

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Front Page (1931)

A newspaper reporter is quitting the business to marry his sweetheart, but his editor (Adolphe Menjou) isn’t giving up so easy. As a big story unfolds around them, the editor connives to keep Hildy in the game.

Filled with sharp dialog and quick wit, this stage adaptation was remade nine years later as His Girl Friday with Cary Grant in the lead. The story is principally the same except Hildy was gender bent to be Grant’s ex-wife, a fairly clever twist if you think about it. What Girl Friday had in marquee stars and Hollywood polish, The Front Page matched with a darker tone and pre-code edginess. The internet strongly prefers the Grant version but I liked it only a bit more. Billy Wilder directed another version in 1974 with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon which has to be pretty good. Additionally there are four TV versions and a Burt Reynolds vehicle.

Let’s talk about Adolphe Menjou. I just recently saw him in A Star is Born (1937) in which I barely remember him and also in A Farewell to Arms (1932) which I don’t remember him at all. To be fair, that was a while ago. Those were character roles but he is front and center in The Front Page. His career went from silent film villain, to ladies man, to background character. A healthy career filled with ‘A’ pictures. His roles diminished as things went on but when you spend your life crusading against Hollywood Commies and other phantoms, people don’t offer you the juiciest roles.

There was a surprising amount of casual racism. Reporters call in stories into their news desk that don’t pertain to the story at hand but provide atmosphere to the environment. Sometimes those stories involve language surprising to my puritanical ears. Equal parts hate and quaint. When Hildy tells the guys he’s getting married they ask if she is white. When the editor talks about a wife he loved, he says he “treated her white”. What does that even mean? The message I took was that while the reporters were hand-to-mouth working stiffs, society afforded an even lower caste for them to look down upon.

Another interesting pre-code remnant are pictures of topless women seen around the newsroom, particularly near the door. A fussy newsman orders a sandwich using “gluten bread”, comedically emphasizing the ‘gluten’, so I was curious what that could mean in 1931. Was there non-gluten bread back then? Googling gluten bread here in the 21st doesn’t produce useful results, so my question was left unanswered.

Other than the fact that audio equipment of the day required the actors to shout their lines, the movie plays very well. It was clever, charming, and surprisingly well shot. Oh, and the racism. AMRU 3.5.
“Williams is a poor bird who had the tough luck to kill a colored policeman in a town where the colored vote counts!”

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938)

A radio station is looking for a Little Miss America, a girl to sing while pitching bran flakes, and little Rebecca (Shirley Temple) is exactly who they are looking for. But step-dad Uncle Charlie thinks they are passing on her so he deposits her with her dead mom’s sister who will have nothing to do with this show business talk. There she learns to love country life and becomes friends with the neighbor (Randolph Scott!) who is searching for that little girl his incompetent assistant allowed to leave the studio before signing a bran flakes contract.

Our incompetent assistant is played by Jack Haley, whom some may remember as the Tin Man. Haley himself said that if it wasn’t for that role, nobody would remember him at all, and I tend to agree. Gloria Stuart played the ingenue/love interest. She was also Old Rose in Titanic. She lived to be a hundred. Also here is dancer Bill Robinson. Bojangles was a great and innovative tap dancer prior to making films. He was paired with Temple for three movies and eeked out a modicum of Hollywood fame.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is a remake of the Mary Pickford film of the same name. I understand many of Temple’s films were Pickford remakes. Pickford, who frequently played roles much younger than she, was 25 years old when making the original version compared to ten for Temple. Temple was up for the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, but didn’t get it. She remembered that as a lost opportunity to step out of Pickford’s shadow and do her own films. I wonder if Pickford auditioned.

Early in the film there was a sassy receptionist that I thought was going to be a major character. She wasn’t but I found out why all her scenes were sitting down. At 4’11 she was actually shorter than Shirley. I thought step-dad was going to be a gruff but amiable character but they went in the opposite direction with him. I forget that Demarest didn’t play likable much prior to My Three Sons.

I was looking for another film to see and I wasn’t motivated by anything on the DVR or streaming. I popped on TCM just before the beginning of Rebecca and decided to give it a chance. I Hadn’t seen a Shirley Temple film front to back, maybe ever, so I gave it a try. No part of it was terrible so I ended up seeing the whole film.

Maybe sacrilegious to say but little Shirley was charming, kinda cute, but only talented because she was young. Nobody marveled at her skill and as she matured she outgrew her specialness. Hollywood didn’t turn its back on her any more than she had nothing left to offer. In the end Rebecca was upbeat, well composed, and somewhat charming, but I won’t go out of my way to see another. Well made cotton candy is still cotton candy. AMRU 3.
“I never get nervous. I'm very self-reliant.”

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Black Scorpion (1957)

Geologists studying a volcanic eruption in Mexico discover that earthquakes have released giant prehistoric scorpions that were entombed in obsidian (or Dragon Stone). The process of holding a living creature in suspended animation inside a volcanic rock is known to scientists as bull shit (Bovem de Stercore to be scientific about it). Our heroes fight the monsters, find love, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Not many good films begin with voice over narration, and this is no exception. Here we cover all the elements that worked in better giant bug movies (Them!, Tarantula) and do it for a fraction of the cost. What we have is a formulaic, predictable, and reasonably pleasant waste of 81 minutes.

And the lack of a budget is on clear display. Most of the movie appears to be done with rear projection. A train is barrelling down the tracks towards a giant scorpion. The scene is tediously lengthened to increase suspense (spoiler, scorpion eats the train) so we see the train miniature (literally named Lionel Lines) pass by the same rock face at least three times. Another shot of a series of stop motion scorpions crawling out of a cave or crevasse is reused several times throughout the film. But this isn’t the worst of it. Money completely ran out before they could finish the major fight scenes so the scorpions appear as black silhouettes. Downright confounding.

I saw this one as a kid on Creature Double Feature way back when. I didn’t think much of it at the time but at least it wasn’t yet another ‘zilla film they were always throwing at us. With adult eyes I found it likable for what it was. Yet another bug film but with a certain charm. Set in Mexico, gringos got most of the lines, but I felt they were respectful of the culture, at least by 50’s standards. Under the best conditions nobody is frightened by scorpions when they have already been menaced by tarantulas, so don’t go looking for scares.

The Black Scorpion is what it is. Unoriginal, forgettable, and predictable. But I kinda liked it. AMRU 3. I suppose I have to see The Deadly Mantis now.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Eraserhead (1977)

Henry is invited to dinner by a girl to meet her parents. There he discovers that she’s had a baby. She thinks. That is, she thinks it’s a baby. Now they must get married. This is Henry’s nightmare, and maybe yours.

Eraserhead fades between a surreal dream-like half fantasy, into a disturbing total fantasy, then back again. We don’t always know what is sorta real and what isn’t. What we see is a bizarre man living in an unsettling world filled with disturbing images that don’t quite make sense. It’s an anxiety filled dream in a fantasy landscape that only vaguely resembles reality.

What’s the meaning on the Man in the Planet? The worms? The hair? The poodle-girl in the radia-tair? Sorry, mon frere, but I’m not going there. What is clear is that Henry lives in a low rent, disturbing, unsatisfying, sometimes hostile world and is unexpectedly saddled with a special needs child he had with a woman who barely tolerates him. What better food for nightmare could there be than this?

An amazing thing about this film is how consistent the tone is, despite the fact that production took five years to complete. A character sees something gross and disturbing and we look to the characters reaction to judge what we are to think of it. Is it normal is this world or the height of horror? What we see is a reaction halfway between. Jack Nance kept the iconic hair-do for the duration of the shoot. Jack would later die from injuries sustained in a brawl outside a donut shop. And so it goes.

Eraserhead is an enigmatic, bizarre, and fascinating study in world building. I’m certain some of the images are there just to confound, but it completely sets the tone. The viewer is in for a ride. AMRU 4.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Rio Bravo (1959)

While harassing the town drunk (Dean Martin), bad guy Joe shoots a man trying to intervene. Sheriff Chance (John Wayne) locks him up but bad Joe happens to have a rich and influential brother who doesn’t want baby bro to stand trial. Now our Sheriff has to stand down ruthless cutthroats with deputy drunk and grandpa Stumpy (Walter Brennan). Hottie Feathers (Angie Dickinson) shows up because why not.

What the hell is Ricky Nelson doing in this film? For the uninitiated, Ricky Nelson was a pop singer, teen heart throb, and star of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Think a nineteen year old Justin Bieber if he had a smidge of acting talent. The studio pushed him onto Howard Hawks who gave him the fewest lines and fairly little screen time. Guys of the day found it a little bit easier to convince their gals to see a western.

The luster started to diminish on Wayne’s career, his last few films not doing very well. The answer was to fall back on the John Wayne character which he successfully did into the 1970’s. Gone were the days of out of character roles and non-genre pictures. Not a bad trade off, really.

I suppose the point of adding the Dickinson character was to raise the stakes for our hero. Sassy and independent as she was, Feathers was still a woman that needed protection. 24 years her senior, Wayne was uncomfortable with the love scenes. Angie looked plenty comfortable to me.

I never thought of Dean Martin as a serious actor. Comedian and singer, but never an acTOR! But to be fair, this is the first feature I’ve seen him in, maybe ever. And he acted the living crap out of it. The Dude was a complex character with nuance and a real character arc. This was by far the best film he appeared in and I don’t expect that his other performances will match up.

Rio Bravo is a film school staple and a favorite of Quentin Tarantino. It is a very interesting film and the opening shot is quite good, but in the end it is just a hero's tale. Serve justice, save the town, get the girl, and leave the character growth for the people around you. AMRU 4.