Saturday, December 28, 2019

In The Good Old Summertime (1949)

A remake of The Shop Around the Corner (1940), now set in an 1890’s American music shop, and with color, songs, and Judy Garland! What could be better? The original, in every way.

Let’s make a few things clear. Technicolor does not necessarily make a film better, the songs were tedious, and Judy was a poor actress. But let’s give it some credit. The change of setting was a good idea. A music show makes sense given that it’s now a musical. It’s nice to see the older Buster Keaton get a paycheck. Van Johnson wasn’t a terrible substitute for Jimmy Stewart and Judy should have been an improvement on the forgettable Margaret Sullavan. So what went wrong?

It is an almost scene by scene remake of the original excluding the most dramatic parts! The tone was all wrong giving it a more comedic, almost slapstick quality. We are not charmed when the love interests are introduced. I was annoyed. We are left with the formula of add nothing except forgettable songs, subtract much of the charm and drama, and replace actors with poor substitutes. Cuddles Sakall might work in small roles but he was not up to the task of taking on Frank Morgan. And let’s face it. Ernst Lubitsch was the master.

In The Good Old Summertime is not remembered as one of Judy’s best, but fans will like it because that’s what they do. Given my druthers I would have watched Meet Me in St. Louis this season but a DVR issue sabotaged that idea. And after watching this and The Clock, I think I’m done with Judy for a while. If anything good came from this experience, it’s realizing how much I actually like The Shop Around the Corner. AMRU 2.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Holly and the Ivy (1952)

Good girl Jenny wants to get married (shush, don’t tell anyone!) but can’t because she must care for her doddering father, the Parson. That’s like an Angelican priest. Prospective hubby-to-be doesn’t understand why little sister doesn’t step up and take care of pops, but things are complicated. And there’s just no talking to father. You know, because he’s a Parson. So, naughty little sis, soldier bro, crazy aunts, and random guy show up to celebrate Christmas and discuss family issues.

I needed a new Christmas movie for the season and seem to have hit all the biggies. TCM made me aware of this one and I watched it the night it aired. They liked it way better than I.

Jenny's soldier brother is played by Denholm Elliott. You know, Marcus Brody from Indiana Jones. You won't recognize him. I'm was somewhat put off by the fact that 31 year old Jenny was played by 45 year old Celia Johnson, who apparently skipped makeup day. She was seventeen years older than her fiancee and six younger than her dad, Ralph Richardson. Ralph's pretty famous, but I don't expect to see too many of his films. He was the Supreme Being in Time Bandits.

The Holly and the Ivy is a British production based on a British play, and few films are British-er. Chuck full of overly formal conversations using understated expressions that will make you wonder what the hell is going on half the time. What we see is loads of set up before the family overcomes all of their problems in about ninety seconds right at the end of the film.

I wanted to like Holly and Ivy, and was tempted to give it a generous 3, but it’s fairly uninteresting. All is resolved but little is revealed, and we ignore the fact that Parson Pops turns out not to be the judgmental and narrow-minded clergyman his family and the entire town know him to be, for their entire lives.

Some of the family members faith has slipped and a redeeming feature is that rather than have them be rejuvenated by the spirit of Christmas, the father learns to accept them for who they are. A far better moral. I just wish it wasn’t so damn boring. AMRU 2.5.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Dark Waters (1944)

Pretty young woman (Merle Oberon) survives a u-boat attack that killed the rest of her family. She has no one to stay with despite apparently being fairly wealthy now. As luck would have it an aunt and uncle she’s never met live on a plantation not too far from the hospital. An overly helpful doctor offers to take her there and check in on her constantly. Things are not as they seem! Or they are?

I have a better film on my DVR. But it was late and I didn’t want to watch a two plus hour movie. So, instead I found something on Amazon Prime that was only 89 minutes, after twenty minutes of searching. Smart, aren’t I? Dark Waters sounded like an interesting film-noir. Wrong on both counts.

Merle Oberon is a rather enigmatic leading lady. Quite pretty, somewhat exotic, and a pretty good actress, but her films are mostly forgettable. After Wuthering Heights (1939), none of them have more than a few thousand votes on IMDb. 1939 was a bad year for your best film. Despite playing the delicate flower (why does a rich woman in her 30’s need relatives to stay with?) she was charming and had chemistry with her obligatory romantic partner.

The cast was rounded out by Elisha Cook, Jr. (playing an Elisha Cook, Jr. type) and Thomas Mitchell (speaking of 1939) as Uncle’s business partner. Both great character actors that always seem to find their way into great films. And films like this. I presume Merle was playing a woman much younger than herself making our creepy doctor's behavior seem even worse as he looked every bit of his 40 years plus a few.

Dark Waters (not to be confused with Dark Waters, or Dark Waters, or even Dark Waters) is labeled film-noir but it’s not really. It has some of the elements but in actuality its just a crime drama. I wasn’t expecting a “good” film but I did have higher hopes based on the cast. But it’s the film that lets the cast down. The audio and video quality could have been better but the main flaw is the pacing. Scenes drag as the director beats us over the head with the “good guy is good” message. Certain elements didn’t make sense, like, “what the hell is the plan?” When you spend an hour and a half on a small story the audience should not be left guessing. Also, they treat a lamp briefly going out then back on like a paranormal event. They are in a house, deep, deep in the bayou, during world war 2. Faulty wires anyone? The real mystery is how they have electricity in the first place.

I watched it, liked the performances, and was left disappointed. If they cut ten minutes and wrote a more satisfying ending, you might have something there. As is, AMRU 2.5.

I will not fear long movies, I will not fear long movies, I will not fear long movies ...

Friday, November 29, 2019

The Clock (1945)

A serviceman (Robert Walker) in New York on a 48 hour leave bumbles into a young woman (Judy Garland) and coerces her into showing him around town. Despite her better judgement and a total lack of chemistry, he monopolizes all of her free time. Will love bloom?

Robert Walker is better known, to me at least, for his performance in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (Criss Cross), whose premiere he barely lived long enough to see. His hyper-innocent lost puppy dog character in The Clock was reminiscent of his upbeat psychopath on the Train.

Judy is a Hollywood legend, one I have yet to fully appreciate. Despite her legend status she appeared in only 34 feature films, nine with Mickey Rooney. I have a couple of her better films on my life list (this is the second of her films I have seen) but a movie-a-day calendar recommended The Clock. Primarily a singer, this is one of only three films where she does not sing. I’m not sure if that would have saved it. Like her co-star, Judy’s life was cut short by a toxic lifestyle. Our two leads would live to the ripe old age of 79, combined.

Prolific character actor James Gleason has a memorable scene with his real-life wife. A veteran of 135 films over thirty years, he has appeared in four films I’ve seen prior. Keenan Wynn had an amusing scene as a drunk. He has popped up in many movies.

I’m just going to come out and say it. Judy wasn’t much of an actress. She was charming and cute, but I don’t see any reason why her Alice would fall in love with Walker’s Joe. In fact there were more than enough red flags. If your relationship begins anything like how this film depicts, run. Fast.

The Clock is a somewhat amusing non-com romance that some will be charmed with, but not me. It drags in parts, lacks an emotional hook, and the leads have no chemistry. Maybe that’s because Judy was screwing the director. AMRU 2.5.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Chinatown (1974)

Private Investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman to find out if her husband is having an affair. Husband is Mulwray, a big-wig at the drought stricken Los Angeles water department and is seeing a young blonde. The scandal goes public, lawsuits are filed, and shenanigans come to light about the water department and things become complex.

If you don’t like films where you don’t know what’s going on, Chinatown is not for you. Everyone has secrets and nothing is as it seems. Diane Ladd had a small role. You know, Laura Dern’s mom. There are a few pieces of trivia I’d like to include here but it would reveal details best revealed by watching. I won’t do it to this caliber of film, leaving me with less to say.

Chinatown is neo-noir, a modern interpretation of the 40’s and 50’s film style. It is set in the late 1930’s and follows many of the same conventions but with a more modern sensibility. Code-banned topics are dealt with using code-banned language. Nicholson’s Jake is present in every scene.

Many lesser films use the obfuscation game to make their films seem complex or deep. But Chinatown is a masterpiece. All the pieces fit together in the end, the performances are exceptional, and the cinematography is spectacular. It demands a second viewing and I look forward to that. Too bad the director is a child molester. AMRU 4.5.
“But, Mrs. Mulwray, I goddamn near lost my nose. And I like it. I like breathing through it. And I still think you're hiding something.”

Monday, November 11, 2019

Up In Smoke (1978)

Pedro (Cheech Marin) and Stoner Man (Tommy Chong) go on adventures trying to score some pot that culminates with them unknowingly driving a van made of weed from Tijuana to Los Angeles. Stoner antics ensue.

Cheech and Chong had been working together for ten years before somehow convincing a studio to let them make a film. Once finished, the studio had no idea how to market it, so the boys made comic strips and left them around making it feel like an underground film.

The Altmanesque direction style was no accident. Director Lou Adler was a fan of Robert Altman’s style and much of the dialog is ‘layered’ almost to the point of obfuscation. Lots of stars had small roles like Strother Martin, Edie Adams, Tom Skerritt, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them Ellen Barkin and Harry Dean Stanton. Stacy Keach played the comedically authoritarian narc.

The granddaddy of the Stoner Comedy genre, Up In Smoke can be amusing at times but sadly it does not hold up. The gags lack any real creativity and the layered dialog makes it hard to understand. I was a fan of their comedy albums back in the day so I was happy to watch, but it doesn’t earn anything past AMRU 2.5. They boys made seven films together in as many years and IMDb and Metacritic both agree, this was the best of them.

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

A famous hunter (Joel McCray) is on yet another adventure when his ship crashes into a reef and sinks. He is the only survivor. He finds a creepy mansion owned by a strange man who is also hosting guests who were shipwrecked earlier that week. Something of an epidemic.

Turns out our host is an avid hunting fan but he’s grown bored with regular hunting. He wants to hunt The Most Dangerous Game, and would love to go on a hunt for our hero Bob. With Bob. He wants to hunt with Bob. Yea, that’s what I meant.

The most famous adaptation of the popular short story, we see Hollywood shoe horn a love interest into an adventure story, because why not. Fay Wray and screen brother Robert Armstrong were already on location filming King Kong, so let’s go make another film during the downtime. Some of the same set pieces are recognizable like the log Kong shakes Fay’s rescuers off to their deaths.

Our villain is played by character actor Leslie Banks. He suffered a facial injury during the Great War and used it to his advantage, playing menacing characters to the end. With McCray acting like the handsome piece of wood that was the custom of the day and Wray doing little more than screaming, Banks’ Zaroff was by far the most interesting character. Armstrong played a drunken buffoon. I don’t think it was until James Bond that the stock Hero character was allowed to be at all clever.

Not a super memorable film. It was short and served its purpose. I appreciate that they kept some of the anti-hunting theme from the source material. Zarloff was interesting but we pretty much know how it would all pan out. AMRU 3.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

A handsome young fop has his portrait done then wishes on a creepy cat statue that the portrait would age while he stays young. This actually happens so he tries to keep it a secret. Also, he starts behaving like a dick.

Everyone’s favorite cad George Sanders’ selfish and cynical outlook influences the young Gray to do as he pleases, consequences be damned. As such he has the best lines. Angela Lansbury is adorable as Dorian’s first love. She was nominated for an Oscar. It’s unsettling for me to think of Jessica Fletcher as hot. Donna Reed plays his new love and the only character who visibly ages. Rat Packer Peter Lawford had a small role.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is an interesting thriller. There is violence and an element of the supernatural, but it doesn’t quite read horror to me. It is in actuality a period melodrama with elevated language, well appointed sets, and little action. It’s not until the second act that the portrait starts to do its work that things get dark, though it never becomes a truly dark film.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a well made and interesting character study, and a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel. All of Oscar Wilde’s wit is present in Sanders’ Lord Wotton, who is a delight to listen to. This is also the only adaptation of merit, at least so far. AMRU 3.5.
“If I could get back my youth, I'd do anything in the world except get up early, take exercise or be respectable.”

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Omen (1976)

Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is a rich diplomat whose wife lost a child at birth. Not wanting to disappoint her he is pressured into getting a replacement baby by some rando priest, and doesn’t tell her. Born at exactly the same time, too: June 6 at 6 AM. Wonder what that means. Things are fine until the boy turns five and bad stuff starts to happen.

Much like the other two great Demon horror films of the era, The Omen is a well acted, well written, slow burn that avoids the cheesy pitfalls common with the genre. A big difference with The Exorcist is the lack of horror effects. Little gore and no devil iconography. One could question if this was happening all in his mind. I have yet to see Rosemary’s Baby.

Gregory Peck’s son had killed himself prior to casting and the role of the grieving, conflicted parent appealed to him. Plus being married to Lee Remick is pretty sweet.

Smart, well acted horror films are a rarity with even some of the more popular ones being cliche laden exploitation films. The Omen is a great movie that also happens to be a horror film. It didn’t change cinema quite like how The Exorcist did, a slightly better film, but perhaps it would have had the former not existed. AMRU 4. I have to say I had a similar reaction to going to church as a boy.
“Look at me, Damien! It's all for you!”

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Terror (1963)

Andre (Jack Nicholson) is a Napoleonic soldier separated from his battalion. Exhausted and thirsty, he happens upon a hot young woman (Sandra Knight) who calls herself Helene. She leads him to water then tries to drown him. He wakes up in the cabin of an old woman who says he just imagined the young woman. Her mute servant tells him (just go with it) to seek the girl at the castle of the Baron Victor von Leppe (Boris Karloff), who says he just imagined the young woman. But Andre is obsessed.

There is so much wrong with this film. Jack and Barron henchman Dick Miller’s stilted and unnatural delivery appear to channel Keanu Reeves. There are extended shots of Karloff pointlessly walking, ape-like, around his underfurnshed mansion slowly coming to the realization that he will never again be in a good movie. The secrets of the movie are revealed in a haphazard way and the great twist at the end would make even soap opera fans groan.

What really happened here is that director Roger Corman finished early on The Raven (1963), sent everyone but Karloff and Nicholson home, then filmed random scenes of Karloff on existing sets. He then continued with Jack and a couple other actors trying to improvise a new movie. When the editors came back and said it was a mess, they had Nicholson and Miller do some exposition in a studio to try and fit it all together.

The core of the story isn’t bad. A witch mesmerizes a young woman who resembles the Barron’s dead wife to torment him for killing her son. Not great, but by B movie standards, not bad at all. But it doesn’t work because of the previously mentioned terrible acting, the ‘saved it in the editing’ filming schedule, and the mind numbingly stupid twists at the end (yea, that’s right, two stupid twists). Dick and Jack are fighting, then cooperate, then fight again. No reason. Fix those problems and you will have a serviceable if forgettable film. With those problems you have a film Jack Nicholson wants everyone to forget.

I remember a scene at the very end of a film I saw as a boy that stuck with me. I didn’t remember the content of the story nor the context of the scene. That film was this and that scene was dumb plot twist number two. I remember the actor reacting not with horror but with an ‘Ew, that’s gross!’ look on his face. That part was remembered correctly.

I’m sure Roger Corman turned a profit on The Terror. He was notorious for his tight shoots and tighter budgets. He wouldn’t spend a nickel to make a movie better unless it returned him a dime. He didn’t have the luxury of time here but I can’t help think that with a little better planning and some creative writing even the twists could have been successful. As it exists, however, AMRU 2.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Omega Man (1971)

Dr. Neville (Charlton Heston) is the last survivor of a biological world war. He travels around during the day collecting supplies and killing people… oh, yea. There are these other people roaming around in the darkness. Bizarre cultists he needs to gun down. Has to, otherwise they would kill him. They wear black robes, cannot stand the daylight, and hate all forms of modern technology because it destroyed the world. Can’t really argue with that point given the circumstances.

Anyhow, Neville wanders all day doing his “shopping” and looking for their ‘nest’ so he can wipe them all out once and for all. And trying to find a cure. That too. He is a doctor after all. Oh, look! A chick!

Dr. Neville is a very lonely man. He plays chess with a bust of Julius Caesar, hears phantom telephones ringing, and goes to the movies just to hear human voices. Strangely he watches the Woodstock film, not a very Charlton Heston-like choice. He watches with the same creepy, lecherous stare he eyes his new love interest with (Rosalind Cash).

Pretty light on the horror elements, this is the second of three major adaptations of Richard Matheson’s 'I Am Legend', the least faithful to the book and arguably the worst. The heart and humanity of the original story was replaced with an action hero gunning down evil zealots. Some will find The Omega Man fun. It has a free spirit attitude and lots of explosions, but Neville and the other characters behave illogically and the world makes no sense. Plus the score was terrible and the Heston stunt double looked nothing like him.

Omega Man is a shoot-em-up action film based on an intelligent novel. Is Neville a no-nonsense killing machine or a researcher trying to save humanity? Are the cultists evil monsters or the poor afflicted? At times the movie seems to want to have it both ways but in the end errs on the side of inane. Does the light of technology triumph over the darkness of superstition? The same superstitious darkness caused by our enlightened technology? This is a dumb movie based on a smart book that doesn’t quite work on it’s own terms. Wait a minute, is the Christlike Neville actually the villain? Naw! AMRU 2.5.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

House (1977)

A schoolgirl learns that her father is remarrying so she runs off to stay with her dead mom’s sister. For some reason she brings along her schoolmates. Turns out auntie lives in a haunted house.

Did I think Suspiria was weird? Christ, where to begin.

The story itself isn’t unconventional, save for the fact that all the characters are Japanese schoolgirls in appropriate uniform. So, there’s that. The girls travel to the house, auntie behaves weird, people go missing, then things go off the rails. Standard haunted house fare. The difference lies in the mise en scene.

The schoolgirls are named for their primary trait: Gorgeous is slightly prettier than the rest, Fantasy … ummm … sees ghosts, Prof is smart and wears glasses, Melody plays the piano, Kung Fu knows karate, Sweet is sweet, and the fat one is called Mac. You know, short for stomach. She’s not really fat, just has a round face and wears loose fitting clothing. The girls were models with little or no acting experience, not that you can tell. They went on to do little else. Only Aunty was a real actor.

The settings and action in the movie are augmented by silly set pieces, backdrops, and cartoon-like animation and effects. It’s hard to take anything seriously, even when things get violent. And things do get violent. The effect is a surreal, otherworldly experience. While you can like the characters, you never become emotionally invested in them. And when you think you know what will happen next, you are wrong.

House deserves a second viewing. It is absolutely bonkers and becomes more comedic as it becomes more graphic. It is remarkable if only for how absurd it is. I don’t know if it’s a good film, but it’s a memorable one. AMRU 4. So, Mac is Dopey, Prof is Doc, Sweet is Bashful, Melody is also Dopey …

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Suspiria (1977)

An American woman (Jessica Harper), travels to Freiberg to join an exclusive ballet school. When she arrives late and during a storm she passes by another student who is running away. Suzy later learns that the girl was brutally murdered later that night. No red flags there, so she proceeds to get to know here schoolmates and start training.

In another film I would say something like “all is not as it seems” but from the very offset, all does not seem well. Strange behavior, strange lighting, strange sets, strange score. Strange movie. The audience is on edge from the very onset, even when the main character doesn’t appear to be so.

Our hero Suzy befriends Sara, who was friends with Pat, the girl who fled (and died). She knows something strange is going on and tries to find out what. Originally the ballet students were to be young girls but a hyper-violent film starring tweens would have been problematic. So they hired twenty-somethings but kept some of the adolescent dialog. SSSSSSSS!

Running the ballet school is old friend Alida Valli (The Third Man, Eyes Without a Face) and Joan Bennett, who I’ve not seen in anything just yet. This is my first Dario Argento film which should not be a surprise as I’m not much of a fan of the Giallo style. It’s a good thing I started with his most famous and arguably best.

I experienced a few moments of confusion watching Suspiria. They were cleared up when I saw a video analysis which included footage that wasn’t in my version. I watched from TCM who prides themselves for showing films uncut, but clearly this was not the case here. I wonder what else I missed. The movie wasn’t as violent as its reputation.

Suspiria is a weird film. The strange narrative style, expressive sets, bizarre lighting, and oppressive score give the viewer a disquieting feeling. This cannot be overstated. Nothing looks real so the viewer does not know if the regular rules of reality apply. And what to make of the expression on the face of the character at the very end? I would definitely see it again even if my copy was uncut. This is a memorable film. AMRU 4.
“Susie... Sarah... I once read that names which begin with the letter 'S' are the names of SNAKES!”

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Exorcist (1973)

The sweet, innocent Regan (Linda Blair) starts exhibiting strange behavior, so mom (Ellen Burstyn) takes her to a doctor. They do invasive tests but can’t find anything wrong, so they give up and tell her to take her to a psychiatrist. Soon the psychiatrists give up and tell her to take her to an exorcist. After initially claiming that there is no such thing as exorcists, the priest gives in and performs the ritual. Things don’t go well.

Many films have apocryphal stories of extreme audience reactions. People diving out of the way of an oncoming train in The Great Train Robbery plus William Castle’s many legal waiver and fitness test gimmicks. On a similar note, people did not riot when they heard Wells’ radio performance of War of the Worlds. Here with The Exorcist, we have the real deal. Legit paramedics were occasionally called for hysterical viewers. Castle, I’m sure, was jealous. Before the disturbing horror scenes later in the film is a realistic angiograph scene which I am sure convinced many to not undergo the procedure.

The version I saw was titled “The Version You’ve Never Seen” so now that I’ve seen it, I don’t know what to think. This version includes an inverted crab walk scene that had been cut from the original. The Exorcist is a slow burn, even dragging a bit. But remember, before this film the general public did not know what an exorcism was. Nor did they know what they were about to experience, so we must forgive modern audiences with an “Get on with it, already!” attitude. Myself included. When we get to the Evil, The Exorcist does not disappoint.

Mom turns to Father Karras to exorcise her daughter. He cautions that this could make things worse, but there really isn’t anything worse. So Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) is called in to lead. The forty three year old von Sydow wore heavy old-age makeup to take on this role. He’s ninety now and still working. Some may remember him from The Force Awakens or as the Three-Eyed Raven back before the series tanked. Old friend Lee J. Cobb played a detective watching the action mostly from the outside.

The Exorcist is rightly an icon of horror. It's a well written, well acted, very original shocker. Production was very troubled. The shoot was a form of hell for the actors, but the result was unquestionable. Maybe they beat us over the head with the "Regan is sweet and innocent" message, but that's forgivable. Don't care why demon is doing this, that's ok. you aren't subjected to exposition. Do care? The hints are in there. AMRU 4.
"The Power of Christ Compels you!"

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Mummy (1959)

A noted archaeologist plunders … I mean excavates the tomb of a beautiful Egyptian princess. While his young son (middle-aged Peter Cushing) nurses a broken leg, an Egyptian in a fez warns dad not to desecrate the burial site lest he incur the wrath of Karnak. But desecraters will be desecraters. Dad is alone in the tomb when something happens and he spends the next three years in a home for the mentally disordered (been there). Finally dad explains that he was reading a Scroll of Life he found when a mummy came out of nowhere and attacked him. The game is afoot.

I have never been too charmed by these Hammer horror updates. They are a brightly colored, slightly sexy and bloody, simplified versions of the originals, and The Mummy is no different. What they add in blood and cleavage they lose in creepy atmosphere. Here the story elements are mostly stolen from various Universal Mummy films with little new added. So, why was I so immensely entertained by it? The best reason I can figure is that after watching The Love Wanga, the high quality print, bright set pieces, flowery language, and decent acting was a very welcome change. There was no question how the story would end, only the details.

Once again Christopher Lee plays the monster while Cushing plays our hero. Kharis is doomed to stand guard over his beloved Princess because he tried to use that very same Scroll of Life to bring her back after she was embalmed, and if you saw the sexy, sexy embalming scene, you’d understand. Gosh, is Cushing’s lovely bride the spitting image of Kharis' long dead Princess? Of course she is.

Lee looks great at the Mummy. Distinctive from the Universal movies and downright menacing. Sure, the ending is dumb and it has the cleanest, least ornate, and most brightly lit ancient tomb on film, but I loved every second of it. The Mummy is by no means a great film. IMDb rates it lower than the Frankenstein and Dracula efforts, but based on my reaction on the night I watched, I rate it a bit higher. AMRU 4.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

The Love Wanga (1936)

or Ouanga, or Drums of the Jungle ...

Pretti Klili (Fredi Washington) is the daughter of a Haitian plantation owner and a practitioner of voodoo. When her white lover returns from New York with his new white fiancee she declares that if she cannot have him, nobody can. Enter into this is Adam’s overseer LeStrange (Sheldon Leonard) who says if he can’t have Klili, nobody can. Something of a love rectangle. Love stinks.

This film made my radar because it is the second ever to feature zombies after White Zombie. It is super low budget and surprisingly hard to get. I contacted another blogger who turned me on to Something Weird Video. When I thanked him, he ominously replied “Better watch it first -- THEN decide if you want to thank me!” I’ve watched it. While it’s no White Zombie, I do thank him.

Our protagonist appears to be voodoo priestess Klili. Absolutely the villain but it’s she whom the story follows. We understand her motivation. We understand her desire to use voodoo to harm lovely blond Eve because she earned Adam’s affections (wait, what? Adam and Eve? Goddammit …) Anyhow, Klili is on screen for almost the entirety of the film. We don’t hate her, we kinda root for her.

One cannot watch old films, especially Hollywood films, and completely ignore the issue of race. Many discriminate through exclusion. Films, even those set in the underbelly of the city or even inside prisons, won’t have even a single black person on screen. And those that do cast them either as comic relief or in servant roles. A few were well meaning but the scenes don’t age well. Here is another approach. Klili is a light skinned Haitian in love with a white man. He chooses to marry Eve even though she is no whiter than Klili. It’s what’s inside that matters, but not in a good way. LeStrange cautions her to keep to her “own kind” (let’s ignore for the moment that Leonard Sheldon looks nor behaves nothing like any of the other Haitians).

This somewhat mirrors Fredi Washington’s real-life experience. White enough to “pass”, she refused and that cost her better roles. But our characters aren’t expressing what is true or right (except, ironically, maybe our villain) but the reality of the time and culture they were in. Somewhat thought provoking. I am curious to learn the perspective of the non-white bread.

Interesting as these elements are, The Love Wanga is a very low budget film. The story is rather simple, the dialog trite, the acting stilted, the video quality terrible, and the audio even worse. It was a tough film to watch for those reasons, but it did feature two bona fide zombies. And for this it is memorable. Still, I can’t bring myself to rate it any higher than 2.5. By the way, a Wanga (or Ouanga) is a voodoo spell.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Scarlet Claw (1944)

Holmes and Watson are in Quebec listening to a lecture on the occult by Lord Penrose. The small Canadian town of La Mort Rouge where the Lord is from has a folk tale where people and livestock were mysteriously killed, their throats ripped out. The Lord takes an important phone call and learns that his wife was murdered in exactly the same way. He uses this fact to thumb his nose at that smug skeptic Sherlock.

Penrose doesn’t want Holmes snooping around but Sherlock received a letter from the deceased asking for his help, so he investigates. There are many suspicious characters in this small town and Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and his trusted assistant Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) are on the case.

There are a couple ways The Scarlet Claw resembles The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is actually mentioned early in the film. The primary being where a murderer uses old legends to cover his crimes -- OH I’M SORRY DID YOU THINK REAL GHOSTS AND MONSTERS WERE AT PLAY? MAYBE I SHOULD HAVE ISSUED A SPOILER WARNING! -- There are other similarities but I shan’t share.

What makes this episode slightly better and recent ones is that you don’t actually know who the bad guy is, and there are many suspects. One complaint I do have is that Holmes doesn’t seem terribly adept at preventing additional murders, arriving just after the nick of time.

Hey, look! It’s Ian Wolf! That guy was in everything … blah blah blah. I also recognized the name Kay Harding, but she was only in one other film I saw, another Sherlock. She was only in seven films.

You know, I’m starting to feel sorry for Watson. Sure, he’s full of bluster. He overshares in front of suspects, stumbles around, and here gets stuck in the mud. But he’s a real doctor (even gets to do some actual doctoring this time), is fiercely loyal, and always answers the call. Here he was twice referred to as Holmes’ “assistant” and is teased by Sherlock himself. Just not fair. Let’s give good old John Watson, MD some credit, shall we?

This episode lands on a higher note than the previous. It had atmosphere, excellent character performances, and real mystery. AMRU 3.5.
“Aw, what you need is more faith and less imagination!”

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Gold Rush (1925)

Prospectors face difficult times seeking gold in the Klondike. Amongst them is our little Tramp, who gets himself into predicaments and falls in love.

Production began with Lita Grey as the romantic lead, who was only sixteen at the time and first met Chaplin when she was just twelve. So, he started doing the sex thing and she became pregnant. Funny how that happens. They were forced to get married which delayed production for a few months. He recast the lead with Lita’s friend, Georgia Hale, with whom he started doing the sex thing. At least she was an adult.

Chaplin recut the film in 1942, rewriting the title cards, reorganizing some scenes, added a synchronized score, and even cutting short a long kiss with Hale, with whom he was no longer doing the sex thing. The copy I watched was a best effort to recreate the original 1925 version.

In the end Charlie gets the girl (and you had no doubt) and comes out on top. Unlike The Kid which had real emotional gravity and great performances, there is little to draw you in here. The last of the great Chaplin films, I have to say I never found him particularly funny. But before I trash Chaplin, let me explain where I am coming from. The Gold Rush is an “all time great film”. The fifth highest grossing silent film, selected by the National Film Registry, and on everyone’s top whatever list. These are high standards. But it’s not even on my personal top ten SILENT films list, let alone an all time great. Apart from the Dancing Rolls bit, which was pretty good, I wasn’t charmed.

The Tramp meets up with a big burly prospector as well as a big burly outlaw. Little Charlie is the butt of all the jokes, runs some scams of his own, and wins the heart of a woman who literally treats him like garbage. It’s not a bad film by any stretch. It’s entertaining for the most part, but not a masterpiece of cinema. I won’t need to see it again. AMRU 3. Watch Buster Keaton.

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

An Xperimental rocket lands in an English farm. What went up with three astronauts came down with only one and two empty space suits. Our heroic pilot Victor can't talk to explain what happened. Chaos reigns as things go from bad to worse.

The spelling of Xperiment is explained by this being the first Sci-Fi film to earn an X rating. Apparently that meant something different in 1955 Britain. British films lacked the polish and style of Hollywood which gives them a certain charm. Another difference is their choice for protagonist. In America he would be a young hotshot or a thirty-something hunk, with a love interest either way. Here he’s a fifty-something bombastic professor who bullies everyone into doing what he wants. In real life he would have been taken into custody on day one.

Here we find that annoying Sci-Fi trope where the mystery is explained by two minutes of speculative, ridiculous exposition that makes sense to nobody, and the audience is expected to accept it without question. Nothing further happens in the film to support or better explain this hypothesis.

The Quatermass Xperiment was based on a TV mini-series and spawned a series of TV and feature film sequels. They tried rebooting it in 2005 to less than spectacular results. It’s interesting, maybe counter intuitive, to continually make feature film versions of television productions, but that’s what seems to have happened here. Don’t we usually do it the other way around? TV and film reboots happened so often I’m not certain they are part of the same Quatermass universe.

Let’s get back to what a jerk our hero really is. Quatermass launches the rocket without authorization because he's impatient. And every decision he makes along the way seems to be incidental to the safety and well being of the people around him. How is this our hero?

1950’s British level production quality, interesting concept, short enough not to bore me. Pilot Victor's makeup was creepily effective (although wife didn't mention anything about his looks) and the final monster was quite good. The story? Well, it was almost interesting enough to be a Dr. Who episode. AMRU 3.

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.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Wrong Man (1956)

Broke Musician Manny (Henry Fonda) tries to borrow against his wife’s life insurance policy to pay for her dental work and is mistakenly identified as an armed robber. Other eyewitnesses positively identify him as the assailant and his handwriting matches the notes. His world swirls down the crapper while his hot wife (Vera Miles) goes off the rails.

Manny is an aw shucks nice and honest man. Kind to his mother, patient to his wife and child. We know this because Hitch beats us over the head with it. Repeatedly and to the point that it  longer than the hour forty five run time. Also, have I pointed out that he was THE WRONG MAN? Oh, we did? Good. Sometimes suspense comes at the expense of subtly.

Not one of Hitchcock’s top films, in fact I judge it pretty low on his list. Maybe lowest if his post war work, be he had done so many it’s hard to say. Not that it is tragically flawed. Not compared to Rope and Strangers on a Train, which were less boring. Fonda’s Manny is two dimensional and uninteresting. Also at 50 he was 24 years older than wife Vera Miles. Creepier still, they had an eight year old boy. Maybe the most interesting part is Miles’ performance in the third act. She played the standard dutiful wife up to that point before the stress really takes its toll.

Only Hitchcock film for Fonda but Vera will also star in Psycho. Least interesting of the post-war Hitchcock (so far), but still manages an AMRU 3.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Return of Doctor X (1939)

A reporter scores an interview with beautiful star of the stage Angela, but when he arrives he finds her dead. Stabbed in the heart and everything. Rather than call the police, he runs a sensationalist news story. When she shows up at the newspaper very much alive and threatening to sue, our hero finds himself out of a job. He starts pestering his hunky doctor friend to find out if someone could survive such a wound. Lucky for our heroes, hunky doctor is asked to identify the body of a man who died in exactly the same way. The trail leads to artificial blood and the hunky Doctor’s boss’ creepy assistant (Humphrey Bogart).

Wait, what? Yes, you heard that right. Humphrey Bogart plays the creepy Doctor X. The studio naturally wanted Boris Karloff for the role but couldn’t get him. So instead they enlisted WB bit actor Bogart, who was none too pleased. Still, he did a better than fair job in his only horror role. Ostensibly a sequel to the 1932 film it shares no similarity save for a character called Doctor X. Different backstory, different first name, and, of course, different actor.

Not much horror in this one unless you count the way our hunky doctor practically orders a pretty nurse to go on a date with him, then leaves her in the car while he runs around trying to solve his little mystery. I guess you do what you must to keep your job.

The Return of Doctor X has a fair amount of atmosphere with a little sci-fi thrown in, and Bogie was rather creepy in the role, even if he felt his unfamous self too good to do genre movies. Was being a gangster thug so much better? Nice and short, you may find it worth your time. I did. AMRU 3.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Berlin Express (1948)

An American, a Russian, a German, and an Englishman walk into a bar. I mean a train. Going to Berlin. Post-war Germany is divided by the three main allied powers. Or four, I don’t know. Anyhow a German professor is working to reunite Germany for peace, so he gets blown up. Because the allied authorities are just rounding people up for questioning and nothing else, our band of multi-ethnic heroes investigate. Turns out there are these Germans who aren’t too keen on this whole ‘peace’ idea.

Enigmatic Merle Oberon played the German professor’s faithful helper. She mostly appeared in period costume dramas which is why I haven’t visited her before. Jacques Tourneur is one of those directors who could have been a big name given different circumstances. This is the sixth of his film that I’ve seen and the least interesting.

Berlin Express bares a certain resemblance to The Third Man. Actually filmed in Germany (the first US film to do so after the war) we see the war’s aftermath and the consequences the people must face. But Berlin Express isn’t quite the film. Story, acting, script, and cinematography, it pales in comparison. I don’t mean to imply that it is a bad film. The Third Man is a masterpiece, and this was, well, made by RKO. Berlin Express is quite watchable if you step clear of the comparison. It holds your interest if not your memory.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Having burned his way out of town, Orson Welles focused on the stage. In order to get his stage musical financed he promised to make a traditional, Hollywood, action thriller. What he actually made was a two and a half hour mess. He wanted voice level to be almost too low to hear and blast the audience away with sound effects. Because EvErYboDy lOvEs ThAt! Fortunately, studio meddling turned it into something watchable.

Our hero is poor Michael O’Hara who is actually Orson Welles with an Irish Accent. He earns a job on a rich lawyer’s yacht by hitting on his hot young wife (Rita Hayworth). And by saving her from thugs. There he continues his infatuation with hot Elsa and gets caught up in what we here are referring to as ‘intrigue’.

Hayworth was Welles estranged wife at the time, fun fun. He had her hair cut and bleached, which was a no-no back in the day. Rita’s strawberry blond hair was her trademark and you just don’t go messing with studio property. Were you to film in Fenway park you don’t go and paint the Green Monster blue. Welles was his own worst enemy.

I refrain from spoiling the story but in actuality the viewer has no clue where it's going for the majority of the runtime anyhow. Even Welles' O'Hara seems to have a dumbfounded expression on his face throughout the film. Studio boss Harry Cohen said he'd never hire the same man to produce, direct, and star in a film because he could never fire him. But, you know, Cohen was an ass.

Film purists will defend Welles artistic vision, but that’s not what he promised the studio. Maybe his version would have been a masterpiece, but he hadn't earned the right to make it. Not from Hollywood's perspective, at least. What we got was an interesting, weird as hell, and watchable hour and a half long film. AMRU 3.5.
“George, that’s the first time anyone ever thought enough of you to call you a shark. If you were a good lawyer you’d be flattered.”

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Dial M for Murder (1954)

Tony (Ray Milland) discovers that his rich hot wife (Grace Kelly) is having an affair, so he arranges for a complicated hit on her. When that doesn’t pan out, he tries to frame her for a murder. And everyone lived happily ever after.

Whenever you plot to kill the hot, hot Grace Kelly, you cannot be the protagonist, but Milland almost pulls it off. He gets the bulk of the screen time, is charming almost to a fault, and you can almost see his point of view. Almost. Ex-tennis pro Tony is a manipulator. If the rich Margot divorces him he loses his means to a comfy lifestyle. If she dies, he takes it all. He manipulates the would-be assassin with surgical precision. When things go awry he tries to engineer his way out of things, manipulating Margot in the process. A true master at work.

Ray Milland was a better actor than his reputation. He did a bunch of forgettable light rom-coms but his better work (The Lost Weekend) proves his ability. Dial M for Murder is a better work. Cary Grant was considered for the role but Cary must always play nice guy.

Filmed almost entirely in one room, the studio decided to make it 3D. Hitch had no interest in even making the movie, but he was contractually obligated. Not exactly a recipe for success but this is Hitchcock we are talking about. It was a great stage play and Hitch’s tenacity made it an excellent film. Then he made Rear Window.

Dial M for Murder is a smart, charming story. It is very wordy in a good way and the crime plan is very well thought out. There is no real mystery except to see how it all plays out. It’s Hitchcock at the top of his game. In his top five, for sure. Mom would have loved it. AMRU 4.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Being There (1979)

Chance (Peter Sellers) is a simple man who tends the garden for an old rich man. When the old man dies in his sleep, he is forced to leave the estate for the first time. He is injured by a parking car owned by a rich industrialist and DC power broker. Fearing he will sue, they take him in and mistake his simple speech for deep insights. Simpleton Chance the gardener becomes Chauncy Gardiner, philosophical guru.

Peter Sellers was nuts. He became so engrossed with the characters he play that he didn’t know who he was between projects. Panther director Blake Edwards thought him mentally ill with no real personality of his own. Friends would be confused when they would see him after a significant absence and find him to be a different person. There are so many weird stories about his life that I am surprised a biopic hasn’t been made.

Once inside the fancy Rand estate, Chauncy befriends another sick old man Benjamin (Melvyn Douglas), who is a close friend of the president (Jack Warden). He also attracts the affection of Ben’s wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine). Chauncy likes to watch.

Most of Being There is people interpreting Chance’s words as insightful or clever, filling in the gaps themselves as a sort of conversational Rorschach test. In one scene Chance is in an elevator, sitting in a wheelchair, chatting with the man helping him to his room. Chance says he’s never been in “one of these before”, meaning the elevator and the man assumes he means a wheelchair. They continue conversing without knowing they are talking about different things. It’s a masterful scene.

Being There is a unique film and Sellers was brilliantly understated in his role. Nominated for an Oscar, he very well may have deserved it. He was nuts, but he was also a genius. AMRU 4.
“I have no claim. I don't even know what one looks like.”