Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Modern Times (1936)

A factory worker tweaks out at his menial job, is mistaken for a communist, winds up in jail, then out of work, and finally falls in love with a “Gamin”, which is some sort of small woodland creature. Roll credits.

Modern Times is definitely the last ever silent film, absolutely, sorda, kinda, not really. Released nine years after the birth of sound cinema, it has a synchronized soundtrack with sound effects, music, and even some spoken words. The principle story, however, unfolds in pantomime with title cards. Just like The Jazz Singer (1927). Go figure.

It’s hard to exaggerate the influence of Modern Times. It was at once forward thinking while also giving cinema goers one last look at the silent era. And doing it in a way that entertained audiences of the day. Chaplin’s comedic bits would be referenced and imitated for decades. The Lucy Chocolate Conveyor Belt bit, itself referenced countless times, owes direct inspiration. And Chaplin appears to have taken inspiration from Metropolis (1927), a much more serious film.

But my modern eyes struggled with a few issues. If we sympathize with him when he cracks up from the monotony and frantic pace of factory work, how do we feel when he desperately tries to find work in the same factory? Also, played for laughs, he essentially screws up at everything he tries to do. But he somehow manages to win the heart of a young “Gamin”, which is some sort of small woodland creature.

Modern Times lacks a clear point of view. Is the Tramp to be associated with the communist marchers? Does he side with the cruel factory or the strikers who closed it? In the end the Tramp takes no position. He is a leaf in the wind with no direction of his own. All he wants is to be happy, and be with a hot young “Gamin”, which is some sort of small woodland creature. For my purposes, I wasn't amused by the comedic bits and wished there was more of a message other than "Modern life is hard". We knew that. Paulette Goddard was hot.  AMRU 3.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Man who Knew Too Much (1956)

A vacationing couple (Stewart and Day) and their son have a chance encounter with a strange french man in Morocco. Soon he is murdered but delivers a critical message to husband Benjamin. The authorities want to know the message, but the baddies have his little boy. So, the befuddled doctor husband and hottie singer-wife run around amateur sleuthing to save the day, and their boy.

Those familiar with Hitch’s 1934 film of the same name pretty much know the story. Bits were added and things were given to the wife to do, but the basic story line is intact. While the original was somewhat unpolished and suffered from poor audio and video quality, this version suffered from pacing issues and too familiar of a story. I think I’d have liked it better had I not seen the original.

Hitch called the first Man the work of a talented amateur, but preferred it over this, the higher budget and more polished version. My issue here however has to do with certain scenes being dragged out way too long. We see the thing, we understand what might happen, we hear the music build, then stare at my watch. Building suspense, Hitch would say. Just get on with it! I would.

What worked was Doris Day, who is utterly charming in every scene. Her signature song Que Sera, Sera came from here, which Day initially wasn’t very fond of. What didn’t work was Stewart, who is very Jekyll and Hyde with me. Love him in some movies, not so much in others. This one not so much. It's not that he's a poor actor, it's just that he can be so one-note. In so many films he plays exactly the same character in different circumstances, and I don't find it charming.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is a serviceable film, but brought little original to the table. Much more watchable than the 1934 version, but simply not that interesting. Especially compared to the other films Hitch was making at the time. AMRU 3.
“If you ever get hungry, our garden back home is full of snails. We tried everything to get rid of them. We never thought of a Frenchman!”

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Black Cat (1934)

A young, newly married couple (David Manners and Julie Bishop) honeymoon in Hungary when they meet up with the creepy Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). They share a carriage ride that crashes in the rain. So, creepy doctor, creepy assistant, and our young couple walk to the creepy house of the creepy Poelzig (Boris Karloff). Our creeps have a backstory that involves a prisoner of war camp that stood exactly where the creepy house now does. Oh, and something about stealing Vitus’ wife and daughter. And there’s this deal where Vitus is terrified of cats. Black cats, specifically.

Based on the title of the Poe story of the same name, The Black Cat bears no resemblance to the source material. Fans may remember Manners as the dashing leading man from Dracula and The Mummy films. He also played supporting characters in better films. His lack of real acting talent encouraged him to leave Hollywood before he reached forty. Fans might not remember Julie Bishop or Jacqueline Wells, or Diane Duval, or whatever other name she acted under. I had never seen her in anything before. This is the first of eight films starring the two biggest names in horror at the time (Boris and Bela, that is), and was a huge commercial success despite, or maybe because of, its controversial, satanic themes.

What a weird-ass film! Not too sure what to make of it. Director Edgar G. Ulmer was becoming recognized for his work when he started seeing the wife of a studio producer, who also happened to be the nephew of Carl Laemmle himself. Maybe it was that, or just being a strange dude, but he walked away from his contract and concentrated on independent projects. He would later do The Man from Planet X and Detour.

Strange tone, ambiguous story elements, and reasonably short. If you are looking for a good, atmospheric early horror film other than the biggies, and before they became parodies of themselves, The Black Cat fits the bill. AMRU 3.5.
“Come, Vitus. Are we men or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures? You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmaros 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel, childishly thirsting for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life. We shall play a little game, Vitus. A game of death, if you like…”