Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Medicine Man (1930)

Jack Benny stars in a rare dramatic turn in this odd and rather unpleasant melodrama. A charming but predatory snake oil salesman, in town with his medicine show to bilk the locals, strikes up a romance with a vulnerable young woman who, along with her younger brother, suffers cruel abuse at the hands of her father.

Benny is surprisingly effective as the medicine show huckster, making the character's sympathetic turn at the end believable through his usual affable personality. But the film's attempt at a happy ending is undercut by the relentless cruelty and meanness of many of the scenes, and the overall effect leaves a bad taste.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Informer (1929)

British part-talkie version of the Liam O'Flaherty play -- later famously filmed by John Ford in 1935 -- about an IRA member, Gypo Nolan, who has a crisis of conscience when he informs on a fellow party member, Francis McPhillip, wanted for murder, resulting in McPhillip's death at the hands of the police, and an ill-gotten cash reward for Nolan.

The great Swedish actor Lars Hanson offers an interesting interpretation of Gypo Nolan, quite different from Victor McLaglen's take on the character in the Ford remake. Hanson brings a real intensity to the role, conveying the character's haunted conscience and sense of guilt from the moment he betrays his comrade, and the knowledge of the inevitable fate that awaits him in return for his actions. This was also the final film of Hungarian actress Lya De Putti, who delivers a strong performance as Nolan's girlfriend, who has her own crisis of conscience when the IRA leaders come looking for him.

Made during the transitional period for sound film technology, it is an odd hybrid of silent footage (with music and effects) during the first half, and mostly synchronized dialogue in the second half (both Hanson and De Putti are somewhat distractingly dubbed). Arthur Robison's direction is most distinctive in the silent sequences, aided greatly by the high-contrast cinematography of Werner Brandes and Theodor Sparkuhl, and marked by a remarkably fluid use of the camera and editing, while the sound sequences are more stagy, too often bringing the action to a halt for the dialogue. The climax in the church is an exceptionally powerful and beautiful scene, with an effective combination of sound and image.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The 39 Steps (1935)

It seems odd to think of this as an "early" Hitchcock film, since the director already had well over a dozen films (including a couple of minor classics) under his belt by the time he made this one, but it is a significant prototype for his later work that looks forward to themes, plot devices and imagery he would return to again throughout his career. Even with its excellent script, and fine performances by Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, it's really the little moments, the subtle but effective touches that Hitchcock brings to the material, that make this one hold up so well. It's certainly one of his most formally inventive works, representing perhaps the moment when Hitchcock's use of sound caught up with his mastery of the image to create his first wholly-realized masterpiece in the sound film medium.

Two moments in particular stand out: the moment when the maid discovers the body of a murdered woman, and turns to the camera with her mouth wide open in horror -- but instead of a scream, we hear the piercing whistle of the train in the shot that immediately follows; and the moment when the pious but hypocritical crofter, discovering that his wife has given away his best coat to the fugitive, begins to beat her mercilessly (off-screen) before cutting away to the sounds of hearty laughter from Donat and the local constable as they inspect a conveniently-placed hymn book, left in the front pocket of the crofter's coat, that has stopped a bullet from hitting Donat's heart.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Face at the Window (1939)

Atmospheric British thriller -- starring magnificent, eccentric screen villain Tod Slaughter in a characteristically fine performance -- about a series of mysterious murders by a killer known only as "The Wolf" that have left 1880 Paris in a grip of fear. The on-screen introductory text lets us know what to expect, describing the story as a "melodrama of the old school - dear to the hearts of all who enjoy either a shudder or a laugh at the heights of villainy".

Slaughter has a fascinating and commanding screen presence, conveying a grand, melodramatic villainy in the finest over-the-top theatrical tradition that he perfected on the Victorian stage. I first encountered his work in the 1936 film of THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, and was captivated by his performance as Sweeney Todd. He became a familiar face in low-budget British thrillers of the '30s and '40s, with his macabre sense of humor perfectly suited to the tone of these films. Slaughter clearly had a great deal of fun with these juicy roles, while still managing to be genuinely terrifying when the story called for it. He's even afforded an especially garish death scene here.

The production is enhanced by a strong period atmosphere that belies the film's low budget. Good, exciting fun that never takes itself too seriously and is all the better for it.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Marihuana (1936)

Also known as THE WEED WITH ROOTS IN HELL, this is an above-average exploitation flick by Dwain Esper. The cautionary tale begins when a group of teens, seeking new thrills, succumb to the temptation of the "giggle weed" at a beach party one night. Before they know it, they're incapacitated by maniacal laughter and give themselves over to wild debauchery. It's all fun and games until one of their party drowns while skinny-dipping, and another girl, Burma, finds herself pregnant. After the father is killed while smuggling drugs, Burma gives up her baby on the advice of the dealers, and is roped in to selling drugs herself. She begins to enjoy the high life of a drug dealer with her reputation as "Blondie, Ice Queen of the Snow Peddlers", but her newfound success is threatened when she decides to kidnap her own child back, and must learn that crime does not pay.

Esper takes this sensationalist material and turns it into as stylistic tour-de-force that sometimes borders on the unintentionally surreal. The pacing is at times languid, almost dreamlike, and creates an odd and disorienting effect when intercut with undercranked silent footage, such as in the nocturnal skinny-dipping sequence. There are some good camera moves as well, and at one point Esper finds creative ways of obscuring frontal nudity with clever camera angles. He also employs an effective use of classical music on the soundtrack, particularly in the sequence where Burma is forced to walk home after rejecting her boyfriend's sexual advances, with the tone of the music creating an interesting contrast with the tone of the scene.

But most of all, Esper is clearly having a ball exploiting the subject matter, and makes sure his audiences -- who spent their hard-earned money to see it -- have fun too. With its scenes of wild parties, playful nudity and illicit drug-taking, this one's a hoot.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Birdcage (1996)

Watched this one tonight in honor of Robin Williams' untimely passing. The film is just as funny as ever, but it was certainly sad to watch it and realize we will never see any more performances by this incredibly gifted actor and funnyman.

A remake of the French farce "La Cage Aux Folles", THE BIRDCAGE holds up well on the strength of its phenomenal cast headed by Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman and Dianne Weist, ably supported by fine character actors including Christine Baranski, Tom McGowan and especially Hank Azaria. Williams and Lane are a joy to watch, and you can't help but get caught up in the fun they're clearing having with the material. Williams is generally playing straight man to Lane here, but he has a few moments where his brilliant, manic comic energy comes through at full force. He also manages some quietly subdued and genuinely touching moments, too.

Elaine May's screenplay offers many funny if familiar comedy situations, the best of which come directly from its French predecessor, combined with some mild satire of Clinton-era political scandals and the 24 hour news cycle. Mike Nichols' expert direction keeps things moving at a good pace and effectively builds the energy required of a farce comedy. But most of all it is the great performances that sell the premise and make this one a favorite I return to every so often when I need a good laugh.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Big Boodle (1957)

Tight, tough little thriller about an American croupier in Havana (Errol Flynn, in a fine late-career performance) who finds himself wanted by both the police and a crime syndicate after a mysterious woman passes him 500 counterfeit pesos over the gambling table one night. Flynn brings a subdued energy and quiet dignity to his role of the unlucky casino dealer trying to clear his name. Richard Wilson's skillful but unpretentious direction keeps the suspense strong and the story moving at a good pace through its many twists and turns toward the exciting climax at Morro Castle. Good location photography of pre-Castro era Havana by Lee Garmes adds to the atmosphere.