Monday, October 31, 2016

Dead of Night (1945)

An architect is asked stay the weekend in a country estate to plan renovations. He is introduced to other guests and realizes he knows them from a recurring dream he can’t quite remember. A skeptical psychologist offers scientific explanations for everything, but coincidental happenings makes his story harder to explain away. The other guests relate strange stories they too cannot explain.

English movies are kinda weird. The cinematography is stage-like, the dialog matter-of-fact, and the score, if there is one, understated. In other words, very non-Hollywood. This makes it hard to create the dreamlike setting the story requires. This takes some getting used to, but for now I can’t help but notice it.

Here is Ealing Studio's only attempt at horror. Apparently taken from an H.G. Wells story, it's strange that the movie does not take place, as one would expect, in the dead of night. I'll track down the original story sometime.

Anyhow, the movie features Michael Redgrave (The Lady Vanishes, The Innocents) but apparently only in one flashback sequence, a creepy ventriloquist story. Another story, about two golfer friends competing for the affections of a lady young enough to be their granddaughter, was interesting for two reasons. First, it was silly and light-hearted, and thus broke the tone of the rest of the film, and secondly because I recognized them from The Lady Vanishes. They played fanatical cricket fans anxious to get back to London to see a match. Essentially they played the same characters with different names.

This is a better than fair film. The side stories were interesting, if mostly unrelated to the principle narrative. It could have used more atmosphere, but the story was unique and the ending did not disappoint. It even inspired a Twilight Zone episode. AMRU 3.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

Someone is murdering women with afflictions, and hot mute Helen is cautioned to stay inside the spooky mansion where she tends to a crazy old invalid. Soon, the audience learns that the serial killer may be inside. Quickly this becomes a whodunnit with a small number of suspects.

I can’t say enough of Elsa Lanchester. She had a fairly small character role and was delightful. She makes me what to take up drinking brandy. Also here, as the crazy old invalid, is Barrymore sister Ethel. Not a famous as brothers John and Lionel, but she outlived them and worked right up to the end. Aging leading man George Brent was showing his age and longtime readers will remember Kent Smith as Doctor Hunky love-interest from such works as Cat People and to a lesser extent Curse of the Cat People.

Dorothy McGuire shined as the pretty mute. Did some great face acting, as they would say. She used her “I suspect him” face when looking at a suspect that she suspects with great effect. A forty year old Joan Crawford wanted the role but I think we’re better off that she didn’t get it.

Not a lot to say about this one. Spooky mansion, questionable characters, murderer on the loose, we’ve seen these tropes before. The Spiral Staircase wasn’t an amazing mystery, but it did keep you guessing and the reveal didn’t cheat. The overall film making was good as was the acting for the most part (Kent Smith notwithstanding). I would have preferred one or two more legitimate suspects, and it was a little melodramatic at times, but it all worked in the end. AMRU 3.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Unholy Three (1925)

A circus is closed down after a brawl, so some of the performers … you know what. Just go back and read the first paragraph I wrote for the 1930 remake. I’ll wait.

Ok, so we’re back. Yea. that, almost exactly. Same story. Same scenes, same pacing, some of the same stars. Even the sets looked alike. The courtroom scene in the third act was someone different, but the end result was the same. Oh, yea, and the ape was different. But the biggest difference was the tone. There was a certain goofiness in the remake, while the original was a serious drama.

Suddenly one day all movies had to be talkies, Just about no exceptions would be tolerated. What’s a studio to do? I know, remake recent successful silent films. London After Midnight (1927) became Mark of the Vampire (1935), West of Zanzibar (1928) became Kongo (1932). There’s a whole wiki article on the subject. Hollywood loves doing the same crap over again, but here the motivation here was to take advantage of the gimmick of sound rather than to reinterpret it for a newer audience. A similar thing happened again with the gimmick of color, but to a lesser extent.

Let’s talk about the ape, shall we? While the remake used veteran gorilla Charles Gemora in a suit, the original used an actual ape. A chimp, to be exact. While chimps are amazingly strong (tear your arms off, they will!), they aren’t large and imposing for screen purposes. So, director Tod Browning was resourceful. He filmed the chimp in scaled down sets for the tight shots and used a dwarf dressed as Chaney with his back turned in others. The illusion wasn’t always successful but the attempt was appreciated.

For two movies that are almost duplicates, the difference in tone was startling. Despite being silent certain elements of the story were clearer, specifically  Echo and the pickpocket’s relationship. Also, this was more believable. Mae Busch was five years older than Lila Lee at the time of filming, and Chaney aged a ton in the five years since. All in all, The Unholy Three adds credibility to the argument that Tod Browning excelled at silent direction. Sound direction, not so much. AMRU 3.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Claudin (Claude) is a veteran violinist infatuated with a hot young starlet. He pays for her singing lessons without her knowledge. But when he is dismissed from the orchestra he tries to sell his concerto. Believing his work is being stolen, he goes on a murderous rampage and has acid thrown in his face. Thus he becomes The Phantom!

I love The Phantom of the Opera. That is, the 1925 Lon Chaney silent horror film. I don’t know from the source material, but a key element for me is the fear and mystery of the Phantom character. He is both menacing and heroic. In Claude Rains’ version, however, there is little mystery (the authorities know who he is and are just searching for him), and he comes off as something of a weenie. He just likes Christine so much but can’t bring himself to tell her.

Eighteen year old Susanna Foster played Christine, the love interest and object of the Phantom’s obsession. Her career would last barely a year longer when she quit to take care of her siblings. I would think Hollywood money would be invaluable in that end, but I’ll withhold judgement until I see her True Hollywood Story episode. Later in life she was discovered living in a car. Maybe it was a nice car, who knows.

Hume Cronyn (Lifeboat) had a small roll and I totally missed him in it. Had he affected a terrible cockney accent maybe I would have spotted him. Nelson Eddy was one of the dashing men vying for Christine’s affection. Some twenty five or so years later the Rhode Island local would die of a stroke during a concert performance. And so it goes.

Phantom of the Opera (no The on this one) is a well made and very good looking film. As much of the action takes place during performances, music lovers have that. However I prefer Chaney’s menacingly iconic villain over Rains’ mousy nice guy who just snaps. AMRU 3.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Bell Book and Candle (1958)

Hot witch Gillian (Kim Novak) is bored and wants to meet her elderly neighbor Shep (James Stewart). When she learns that he is soon to marry a hot mortal, she uses magic to intervene.

Lovers meet, lovers love, lovers part with hard feelings, lovers reunite through grand gesture. Roll credits. The Rom Com formula is like clockwork. You can set your watch by it. The key to its success is how much we believe in the romance, and how much we like the characters. While Novak’s Gillian is mostly emotionless (witches can’t cry, you understand) and her interest in twice-her-age Stewart is somewhat confounding, we do become invested in their story.

Jack Lemmon was at his prime as Gil’s somewhat mischievous brother. Elsa Lanchester was great as her batty aunt. Hermione Granger .. I mean Gringots ...I MEAN GINGOLD was also delightful. Janice Rule played the young woman Gil had to steal Shep away from. I remembered her from a Twilight Zone episode.

One functional complaint of the movie is that we aren’t to sympathize with the undeserving girlfriend. See Susan Hayward’s shrewish and tragic bride-to-be in I Married a Witch. She was both beautiful and wonderfully unsympathetic. Here we are told why Rule’s character isn’t nice, but we don’t actually see it. I felt sorry for her.

Enigmatic comedian Ernie Kovacs was understated as an author of books on witchcraft. His unconventional and sometimes controversial comedic style made him a legend with comedians, but because much of his television work was lost, he is all but forgotten by audiences today. He died in a car accident less than four years later, and ten days before his 43rd birthday.

Beautifully filmed, well acted, visually stunning, very charming, and amusing when it needed to be, Bell Book and Candle (no commas!) is delightful. It was, along with I Married a Witch, a principle inspiration for Bewitched. AMRU 4. Elizabeth Montgomery was hot. Ask your dad.
“Shep, you just never learned to spell.”

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Big Heat (1953)

Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is a cop that doesn’t play by the rules. When investigating the suicide of a fellow cop, he is told to back off. Not Dave Bannion. Back off isn’t in his vocabulary.

Big fan of Fritz Lang. M (1931) and Metropolis (1927) are wonderful films. Always liked Glenn Ford, too. And Gloria Grahame is one of my favorite Marilyn Monroe knockoffs. IMdb and Rotten Tomatoes both give The Big Heat very high rating, and I am more than a little confused by this. The story itself is fine. Cop investigates, gets too nosey, is burned, then the story is revealed. Been done a million times, and sometimes not as well. But oh, but the acting, it’s brutal. The dialog seems like it was written as a group project in a film-noir 101 class, and the over the top score beats us over our heads with the message. It's pretty cheesy.

A young Lee Marvin played the heavy. Blink and you'll miss a very young Carolyn Jones (Morticia in The Addams Family). Here, she’s a blond. Marlon Brando’s sister is also here. But let’s talk about Gloria, shall we?

Longtime readers may remember Grahame from such hits as The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and small parts in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Song of the Thin Man (1947). Eventually I will see her in a Lonely Place (1950) and maybe never in Oklahoma! (1955). She got this job as the babydoll floozy because Marilyn was too expensive. She didn’t get along too well in Hollywood, perhaps bristling over the stream of shallow sexpot roles she was offered, and quality work dried up.

Her personal life wasn’t much better. Her marriage to second husband Nicholas Ray may have been doomed when he found her in bed with his thirteen year old son. But don’t get the wrong idea, she made an honest man of the younger Ray when he later became her fourth husband. She ended up doing a lot of stage and TV work then died young of cancer. Cancer is a bitch.

The Big Heat isn’t terrible, but I am mystified by its reputation. It is over stylized in a bad way, almost laughable. When Bannion is having a touching moment with his family I don’t need the score to smother me with sentiment. I get it. Never-the-less, I won’t punish it for high expectations. AMRU 3.