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.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Haxan (1922)

Silent horror film from Denmark that has established something of a cult following over the years, about the history and practice of witchcraft in the middle ages. Astonishing direction by Benjamin Christensen demonstrates a singular visual style, bringing a painterly quality to the lighting through heavy use of shadows and high-contrast effects to achieve some indelible imagery. In its depiction of witchcraft and Satanic rituals, the film retains its power to unsettle and shock, with a liberal of amount of nudity and disturbing images such as demons draining the blood out of an infant before tossing it into a cauldron, and the witches lining up and kissing the devil's bare ass. Christensen himself plays Satan as a hideous, scaly, horned creature with a perpetually protruding and lascivious tongue. The various demonic creatures, with their grotesque masks and makeup, are especially horrifying in their design. There are some interesting depictions of the witches' rites and rituals, and the medieval witch hunts and instruments of torture used to extract confessions from them. Christensen ends his historical survey with an epilogue that offers hysteria as an explanation of supposed cases of demonic possession in the modern era, drawing a comparison between the persecution of the mentally ill with the persecution of accused witches in medieval times.

However, due to Christensen's approach to the material, the film does suffer from pacing and structural issues. It contains a number of truly memorable images, some of them among the most powerful and evocative from the entire silent era, but too many scenes tend to drag, especially when focusing on the minutiae of certain historical details, and overall the film feels like less than the sum of its parts.

Re-released in 1968 in a special sound version titled WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES, with an effective modern jazz score and narration by William S. Burroughs.

Seven Footprints to Satan (1929)

Delirious, terrifying late-silent American horror film, directed by Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen (HAXAN). A timid, wealthy young idler (Creighton Hale) dreams of going on big adventures to Africa, but on the night of a society ball, he and his financee (Thelma Todd) are kidnapped and taken to the lair of a group of Satanists, who enslave and torture victims through various means. The young couple encounter one gruesome, uncanny character after another in their attempts to escape before they are called for a meeting with Satan himself to determine their fate.

Christensen pulls out all the stops, employing the kind of highly-stylized lighting effects and grotesque imagery that he used so effectively in HAXAN, and putting it to the service of an "old dark house" thriller. He finds a magnificent use for some of Hollywood's most unusual character actors, with the likes of Sheldon Lewis, William V. Mong, Sojin, Nora Cecil, and Angelo Rossitto among the bizarre residents in the Satanists' den. Christensen's penchant for perverse imagery includes such moments as a young girl (Loretta Young, in one of her earliest roles) being stripped, bound and lashed as her feet are pawed by a gorilla (played by, who else, Charles Gemora).

The basic set-up is the stuff of countless "old dark house" movies, so popular around this time with films like THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927), THE CAT CREEPS and THE BAT WHISPERS (both 1930), and it's even possible to imagine it being played for "fright" comedy by someone like Bob Hope or Lou Costello. But in Christensen's hands, this familiar premise turns dark, taking a genuinely sinister turn, and becomes the stuff of nightmares. Indeed, the film has the emotionally-draining effect of a bad dream. It's exhausting, frustrating, terrifying, and even the light tone of its last-minute, twist ending does not alleviate the horror that has been built up over the previous hour, instead ringing as ironically false as Murnau's happy ending to THE LAST LAUGH. By that point, Christensen has already done his work in scaring us.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

High School Hellcats (1958)

Routine bit of '50s juvenile delinquency exploitation from AIP, about a good girl who arrives at a new school and tries to win the approval of the school's all-girl gang, but soon finds herself in over her head when things get out of control. The story has echoes of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE in its premise of an alienated teen rebelling against her distant parents who just don't understand her. Nowhere near as lurid as its title suggests, it's never quite as much fun as it seems like it should have been. Only the finale -- a visually striking sequence taking place in an abandoned, dark movie theater -- achieves the really melodramatic, hysterical tone that could have enlivened the rest of the film.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Africa Screams (1949)

Average Abbott & Costello vehicle, with Bud and Lou as a couple of New York department store salesmen who join a safari to Africa after convincing a scheming fortune hunter (Hillary Brooke) that Lou possesses knowledge of a rare map that will lead them to diamonds. What the film lacks in top-notch comedy material, it makes up for in a top-notch cast, especially Shemp Howard as a far-sighted crack shot and Joe Besser as the fussy butler. There are also fun appearances by Clyde Beatty and Frank Buck, playing themselves, and Max and Buddy Baer as a suitably tough pair of henchmen.

As one of the team's independently-produced pictures, it shows its low budget, with the safari clearly taking place entirely on sound stages and studio tanks, but in some ways the artifice just adds to the charm of the film. It certainly benefits from the skillful direction of the always-reliable Charles Barton. Though it's below the level of their best work, it still provides some solid comedy, especially in Costello's interactions with Howard and Besser. Costello also gets some good "fright" gags involving various wild animals, which are always good for a laugh. Other highlights include Costello trapped in a lion's cage, and a subsequent scene in which Abbott -- believing the lion has devoured Costello -- laments inconsolably about the way he treated his old pal, until he realizes Costello is still alive, and immediately loses his temper and smacks him across the face.

The best gag occurs as a throwaway. While Bud and Lou are having a heated argument in their tent, Joe Besser keeps popping in and out, filling up a glass of water. When they finally ask him what he's doing, Besser replies, with his inimitable delivery,  "Oh, my tent is on fire!"

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Violent, suspenseful modern-day Western, about a one-armed stranger, John J. McCreedy (Spencer Tracy), who shows up unexpectedly in a small, desolate town to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a Japanese farmer. The town has been all-but-abandoned except for a group of vicious, racist thugs who hold the locals in a grip of terror, even rendering the sheriff powerless. Tracy, finding himself up against a formidable cast of menacing tough guys, including Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, and Ernest Borgnine, quickly figures out that the men don't want him poking around for fear of what he might find, and realizes he has to get out of town before he ends up their next victim.

John Sturges' masterful use of the Scope frame showcases the vast, bleak expanse of the Western landscapes, utilizing the large, sprawling spaces in unique ways to create a disorienting sense of claustrophobia. Sturges also handles the action sequences with characteristic skill, particularly the violent match in which Tracy brutalizes Borgnine with Judo moves, and the suspenseful show-down between Tracy and Ryan. Tracy is particularly effective in his role, bringing a world-weariness to the character that suggests he has seen a lot and is prepared to seek justice at any cost, and Borgnine stands out among the supporting cast, expertly demonstrating his range in playing a maniacal thug. The film benefits immensely from William C. Mellor's cinematography, Newell P. Kimlin's tight editing, and Andre Previn's rousing score.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Underworld (1927)

Josef von Sternberg's prototypical gangster film prefigures the "classic" Warner Bros. gangster films of the early '30s, both in terms of plot and characterizations, to an astonishing degree, although it was one of several such films that appeared around the time (Lewis Milestone's THE RACKET being another example).

The plot centers around a romantic triangle between gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft), his girlfriend Feathers (Evelyn Brent), and reformed alcoholic lawyer "Rolls Royce" (Clive Brook), whom Bull had rescued from the gutter. Bull is so busy defending his Chicago gangland territory that he hardly realizes what is transpiring between his girlfriend and the lawyer until it's too late. The resulting tensions culminate in an exciting finale in which Bull, holed up in his apartment, shoots it out with the cops before having a change of heart after learning of Feathers' true affection for him.

Despite its rather soft ending, the film boasts an excellent script by Chicago newspaperman Ben Hecht, who won an Academy Award for his work. Featuring stunning cinematography by Bert Glennon, shot with characteristic Paramount high-gloss, UNDERWORLD is a key work in the formation of the gangster film, and a triumph of style under Sternberg's direction.

To Catch a Thief (1955)

Made during the height of Hitchcock’s creative powers, this film is easy to dismiss as a relative trifle compared to his better-remembered films from that period, but its paper-thin plot doesn't matter much when you have the gorgeous location photography, French Riviera setting, and of course Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. One criticism I have of Hitchcock’s work from this period (especially his remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH) is that it occasionally feels over-produced where the simpler, lighter touch of his British work might have worked even better, and there are moments in THIEF that feel unnecessarily drawn out in this regard (particularly the costume ball toward the end). All in all, however, it’s the kind of cinematic confection that Hitchcock had pretty much perfected by this point in his career.

I sometimes wonder if this one gets overlooked because it was not included among Hitchcock’s Paramount titles that were sold to Universal, and is therefore excluded from that studio’s home video box sets and is perhaps not as easily accessible (plus the current Paramount DVD leaves something to be desired in comparison to the restorations that Universal did on his other films). [Seen at Loew's Jersey, 35mm print, January 26, 2013.]

Friday, August 01, 2014

Barefoot in the Park (1967)

I am not normally a big fan of Neil Simon's plays, and those works of his that I enjoy most have usually taken me a couple viewings to really get in to. My response to them probably has something to do with the shrill tone of much of his humor, with characters and situations that can border on the unpleasant. I had a similarly lukewarm reaction to this romantic farce, centering around a mismatched newly-wed couple -- she a free-spirit, he a conservative lawyer -- adjusting to the bohemian lifestyle in a run-down little Greenwich Village flat populated by oddball characters. Adapted by Simon from his 1963 play, much of the humor is strikingly dated now, and probably seemed a little dated already by 1967.

Jane Fonda and Robert Redford are effective enough in the leads, but lack the chemistry to make the most of their comic sparring. Fonda brings the requisite energy to her role, but Redford seems ill-at-ease with playing comedy. The real stand-outs in the cast are the delightful Mildred Natwick as Fonda's mother, and Charles Boyer as the eccentric neighbor who lives upstairs. The film is not helped by the slack pacing and unimaginative direction by Gene Saks, which fails to really capture the energy that the material probably had on the stage. There are too many situations that feel underdeveloped, especially the climax on the roof of the apartment building, which has the opportunity for some good "thrill" comedy but goes nowhere. Overall, it's a charming-enough film, but one that suffers from missed potential.