Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Benson Murder Case (1930)

Routine entry in the "Philo Vance" series, with William Powell in his third turn as S.S. Van Dine's amateur detective investigating the murder of a ruthless stockbroker. It's a little unusual in that the murder doesn't take place until roughly halfway through the film, and as a result it takes a while to really get going.

This was the third and final of the Vance films produced by Paramount, before the series switched over to Warner Bros. Frank Tuttle's direction here is noticeably less fluid than in the previous two entries he helmed. The fine supporting cast includes series regulars Eugene Pallette as Sgt. Heath and E.H. Calvert as District Attorney Markham, and Natalie Moorhead, William "Stage" Boyd, Paul Lukas, Richard Tucker, and Mischa Auer. Overall, it is certainly a bit static and creaky, but Powell's typically suave and charming performance is enough to recommend it.

The Curtain Pole (1909)

Early American slapstick comedy, directed by D.W. Griffith and starring future comedy producer Mack Sennett as a French dandy who goes in search of a new curtain pole to replace the one he has broken. Transporting the pole back through the streets, he proceeds to wreck everything in his path, causing the irate townspeople to give chase.

It is an atypical effort for Griffith, and a rather impersonal one, being just one of the many short subjects he directed for Biograph during this time (and shot on the streets of Fort Lee, NJ). While it demonstrates his penchant for rousing chase sequences, the staging and editing feel loose and rather clumsy compared to his best dramatic efforts of the period, though are certainly moments of effective slapstick (mostly involving Sennett in a runaway carriage). Clearly inspired by the French chase comedies of the Pathe company, it is mainly of interest now as a forerunner of the kind of screen comedy that its star would perfect at Keystone a few years later.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Frankenstein (1931)

This is a film I have seen many times over the years (including three times with an audience) and a film whose reputation as an influential classic of its genre has always seemed justified to me on the basis of Karloff's iconic performance. He achieves a combination of almost childlike innocence and fear which make his actions and responses to the world around him all the more tragic.

If I have one criticism of the film, it's that Whale's sometimes campy approach to the material too often undercuts the power of Karloff's incredibly poignant and haunting performance for me. There are a number of scenes -- such as the hunchback stealing the wrong brain, the inopportune arrival of Frankenstein's fiancée and company at his laboratory, and the Monster showing up at Frankenstein's wedding -- in which Whale seems to be actively resisting the tragic tone of the story. In my experience, seen with an audience, it unfortunately tends to provoke distracting laughter throughout, in part a reflection of the audience's over-familiarity with the situations through countless imitations and parody over the years, but also disconcerting in how much of the response seems intentional as a result of the direction.

For a long time, I preferred this film over Universal's other landmark horror film of the same year, DRACULA, which I found stagy and creaky in comparison to FRANKENSTEIN's stylish direction and fluid cinematography. Now, I find DRACULA more effective in its dreamlike, almost ethereal atmosphere and the sense of dread that Lugosi's performance produces, but FRANKENSTEIN continues to impress me for the deep humanity Karloff achieves in playing the Monster.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Haunting (1963)

An intelligent, atmospheric gothic horror film, adapted from the Shirley Jackson novel "The Haunting of Hill House", about a New England manor that is possessed by the tortured spirits of its past inhabitants. Julie Harris delivers a strong and nuanced performance as the sad, tormented Eleanor Lance, who is called to take part in a paranormal research project at the house, and who gradually descends into hysteria as a result of what she encounters there. Equally effective in their parts are Richard Johnson as the somewhat overzealous paranormal investigator Dr. Markway, Claire Bloom as the mysterious Theo, possessed with ESP abilities, and Russ Tamblyn as Luke, the sarcastic skeptic of the group.

Robert Wise's direction shows the influence of his time spent working with Val Lewton's B-horror unit at RKO in the '40s, leaving the supernatural goings-on entirely to the audience's imagination, and borrowing heavily from Lewton's approach of using shadows and sound to conjure up effects far more horrifying than any on-screen depictions would be. Generally, the choice works here, but is perhaps less powerful than it could be, as it grows increasingly ineffective through repetition as the characters are menaced by off-screen wailing and pounding. Alternately, Wise seems unwilling to explore further the possibilities of the horror being purely psychological, the result of Eleanor's past experiences, rather than something explicitly supernatural.

Still, it's undeniably an expertly-directed and splendidly-mounted production, with a really fine cast and exceptional production design. Wise's endlessly creative and skillful use of the screen space is particularly admirable, moving the characters deftly through the cavernous, looming layout of the manor house in such a way that is both logical and yet disorienting in its perspective, greatly aided by the tight editing and sharp, deep focus photography.

Seen 10/25/14 at Loew's Jersey in a nice 35mm print.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Limousine Love (1928)

Very funny two-reel farce, with Charley Chase -- en route to his wedding -- finding himself stuck in a car with a woman who's lost her clothes, and her jealous husband who would kill them both if he found his wife with another man. The second half of the film, with Chase trying desperately to hide the woman with the help of both her unsuspecting husband and the entire wedding party, is a masterpiece of construction.

Chase milks the comic possibilities of this situation for all their worth, and creates a classic comedy of embarrassment that ranks among the very best of the films he made for Hal Roach. He's expertly directed here by Fred L. Guiol, and supported by a fine ensemble cast including master of the slow-burn Edgar Kennedy as the jealous husband, Viola Richard as the embarrassed wife, and Edna Marion as the suspicious bride-to-be.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thale (2012)

I was in the mood for a break from the usual Hollywood fare tonight, and this Norwegian sci-fi fantasy fit the bill just fine. A pair of young men, who run a cleaning service specializing in bloody crime scenes, are called out on a job at a remote station in the woods. Once there, they discover a young woman with a troubled past who turns out to be a mythical, tailed creature that inhabits the woods, and is being hunted by the ruthless scientists who have been performing experiments on her since childhood.

Shot on a low budget, it is a bit slow going at times, especially toward the end, but it's nonetheless an effective and haunting supernatural flick that lives up to the potential of its unusual premise, and its atmospheric sense of unease and dread is certainly a welcome change from the shock-a-minute torture porn typical of the horror films coming out of Hollywood these days.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Last Picture Show (1971)

I watched this one for the first time tonight and was not prepared for how it moved me. Bogdanovich's film is set in a small town in Texas, and is an evocative portrait of a group of young people on the cusp of adulthood as they struggle to come into their own. Having grown up in a similarly small town myself, it certainly struck a chord with me as one of the best depictions of the sense of malaise and directionlessness endemic to that milieu.

It deals fundamentally with America's present by reflecting on its past -- how did we get here from where we've been? Watching it in 2014, it inspires further reflection on the fact that it's impossible to imagine a film like this being made today.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mammy (1930)

Excellent Al Jolson vehicle and pre-Code musical drama, from the Irving Berlin play, about romance and intrigue behind the scenes of a traveling minstrel show. Al, the troupe's endman and star attraction, is in love with manager's daughter, but finds himself accused of the attempted murder of the company interlocutor after real bullets are substituted in his prop gun during the act one night.

Berlin's hit songs include "Across the Breakfast Table, Looking at You", "Night Boat to Albany", "Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle?", and "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy", all performed with great gusto by Jolson. Louise Dresser turns in a touching performance as Al's mother. Directed with snappy pacing by Michael Curtiz, and featuring sequences shot in 2-color Technicolor, capturing the atmosphere of the minstrel show with a vibrant sense of immediacy and authenticity.

Clarence Cheats at Croquet (1915)

A pleasant and genteel little comedy, produced by the Thanhouser company in New Rochelle, NY -- one of the many films produced by this pioneering studio in the early days of motion pictures. The premise is standard stuff, centering around a croquet match between two opponents squaring off for the affection of a young woman.

Nicely photographed and deliberately paced with mild slapstick and subdued characterizations. Of special interest now as an example of the wide range of short comedy subjects being produced at that time outside of the major comedy "factories" like Keystone.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Hatchet Man (1932)

Bizarre, lurid pre-Code melodrama, directed by William Wellman and starring Edward G. Robinson as Wong Low Get, the "hatchet man" (a highly-respected assassin) for the warring Tong factions in San Francisco's Chinatown. When he is dispatched to kill his closest friend, Wong Low takes charge of the man's daughter. Years pass and Wong Low marries the now-grown daughter (Loretta Young), but she is in love with another man, and this discovery causes Wong Low's life to fall apart around him. When he learns that the other man has dishonored his wife and sold her in to sexual slavery, Wong Low sets out to seek revenge.

The absurdity of seeing stars like Robinson and Loretta Young playing Chinese characters in yellowface is worsened by the insensitive, simplistic characterizations and awkward, uncomfortable cultural stereotyping (with characters frequently either speaking in proverbs or engaging in barbaric fighting), and is representative of the inherent racism in the "Yellow Peril" trope so prevalent in Hollywood films -- and American culture in general -- during this time.

One of the lesser films that Wellman made during this prolific and interesting period of his career for Warner Bros., his normally subtle and economic directorial style too often lapses into heavy-handed symbolism and other effects that call unnecessary attention to themselves (such as filming Robinson's murder of his friend in silhouette). Despite the obviously problematic nature of his role, Robinson's performance is otherwise characteristically sensitive and restrained, while the rest of the cast-- which includes Leslie Fenton, Dudley Digges, Edmund Breese, Tully Marshall and J. Carrol Naish -- fares far less well in their parts.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

English Without Tears (1944)

Dry British romantic farce -- by Terrence Rattigan and Anatole de Grunwald -- about a wealthy, eccentric amateur ornithologist (delightfully played by Margaret Rutherford) who travels to the League of Nations on a mission to protect the rights of English birds at home and abroad. Her campaign is interrupted both by the outbreak of war, and a budding, complicated romance between her daughter and the family butler, now an enlisted man in the British army.

Both a comedy of manners and a mild satire on British wartime attitudes, with amusing dialogue and a good performance by Rutherford that showcases her considerable gifts for playing comedy. The cast also includes Michael Wilding, Penelope Dudley-Ward, Lilli Palmer, and Albert Lieven, under the direction of Harold French. AKA HER MAN GILBEY.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Hello, Sister! (1933)

Erich von Stroheim's first talkie -- and final directorial effort -- was this surprisingly frank and grim pre-Code romantic drama, based on an unproduced play by Dawn Powell, about a young couple struggling to find happiness in Depression-era New York. Originally titled WALKING DOWN BROADWAY, Stroheim had his version of the film taken out of his hands by Fox producers Winfield Sheehan and Sol Wurtzel, who re-worked it with new footage shot by a team of directors reported to include Alfred L. Werker, Raoul Walsh and Alan Crosland (though the final film contains no directorial credit), and released it as HELLO SISTER in 1933, which was a commercial failure. That failure, combined with the wild and untrue rumors surrounding the production regarding Stroheim's supposed excesses (in reality, he brought the film in on-budget and ahead of schedule), spelled the end of his career as a filmmaker. Stroheim's original cut of the film was destroyed, and even the theatrical release version was long thought to be lost until a print was recovered by William K. Everson in the 1970s.

Seen today, it's a fascinating and frustrating work. It is disappointing that Stroheim's original cut has not survived, but what remains -- even after the studio tampering -- is an exceptional film in many ways. It is -- despite the multitude of directors involved in its final incarnation -- an astonishingly personal film, too, filled with Stroheim's stylistic and thematic touches that are startlingly powerful and brilliant in their simplicity. James Wong Howe's cinematography is exquisite as usual; there is one camera move in particular -- a slow tracking shot on a mural of "The Last Supper" -- that is breathtaking for its sheer perfection. The fine cast includes earnest and sympathetic James Dunn, the lovely Boots Mallory, tough, sexy Minna Gombell, and most effectively, ZaSu Pitts in an intriguingly offbeat and quirky performance that one wishes there remained more of in the final film. Overall, a flawed but noble end to Stroheim's remarkable filmmaking career.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Outside the Law (1930)

Edward G. Robinson stars in this tough pre-code crime drama -- directed by Tod Browning -- about a crook and his girlfriend who double-cross a local crime boss when they attempt to pull off a high-stakes bank heist in his territory at Christmas. A remake of Browning's 1921 silent film of the same name, this was his second talkie, and his first in a three-picture deal with Universal (the story -- by Browning and Garrett Fort -- would be filmed for a third time, also at Universal, in 1946 under the title INSIDE JOB).

It's interesting to see Robinson playing a gangster a year before his breakout performance in LITTLE CAESAR, and indeed, his "Cobra" Collins here seems like a prototype of Rico Bandello, especially with his distinctive delivery of gangland slang. Robinson is always a delight to watch, as he struts around like a rooster with his cocksure posturing, looking impeccably stylish and puffing on a cigar. It's easy to see the qualities here that brought him to the attention of Warner Bros. and would make him a star. Robinson is one of those actors for whom the sound film medium seemed to be invented; like Cagney, he's endlessly fascinating in how he uses his voice and body in subtle but highly expressive ways, and that is evident even in this early role, where he commands attention every time he is on screen.

Unfortunately, things get deadly dull when he is off-screen, especially in the second half which spends long stretches of time with bickering crooks Mary Nolan and Owen Moore, neither of whom seem particularly at ease in their roles. The plot drags interminably through their scenes together, taking place in a single, claustrophobic apartment set, only picking up a bit at the end during their final confrontation with Cobra, but by this point any tension in the drama has fizzled, and the ending is dramatically unsatisfying as a result.

Still, it's nicely shot by Roy Overbaugh, with some effective high-contrast lighting in the bank heist scenes, and filled with some of Browning's trademark flourishes, especially his emphasis on certain props to reveal character details, and his affinity with sideshows and dime museums (in the form of a bizarre "living art" exhibit). Browning's talkies are frustrating experiences because they are largely stagy, static affairs, yet often contain tantalizing traces of his distinctive visual style that made his silent films so interesting even when the plots were absurd. This one is no exception, but it makes an interesting counterpart to his earlier filming of the same story.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

So This is Love (1928)

An enjoyable if decidedly minor romantic comedy, about a timid dressmaker and a brutish prizefighter battling it out over the affection of a charming delicatessen girl. Pleasantly acted by Shirley Mason, Johnnie Walker and William Collier Jr., and skillfully directed by Capra with characteristic sincerity and verve. His handling of the climactic boxing match -- both well-staged and tightly-edited -- is especially effective.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Singing Fool (1928)

This wildly popular follow-up to THE JAZZ SINGER is probably the best of the Al Jolson vehicles made at Warners. The story -- about a nightclub singer who rises meteorically to the top, loses his wife to another man and his son to illness, and hits rock bottom before finding redemption through his music -- is pure schmaltz, but it undeniably works thanks to Jolson's charismatic performance and energy. The charming Betty Bronson appears opposite Jolson here, and four-year-old Davey Lee is a standout as the tragic "Sonny Boy".

Despite the heavy-handedness of the material (strains of "Vesti la guibba" play on the soundtrack as the broken-hearted Jolson applies his blackface makeup), the film features some of Jolson's best and bounciest tunes, including "There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" and "I'm Sittin' on Top of the World", though extant prints of the film are missing the delightfully corny "The Spaniard That Blighted My Life", which was cut shortly after release for copyright reasons. The hit song from the film, "Sonny Boy", is sung no fewer than three times, most dramatically at the film's climax, when the melodrama reaches a fever pitch as Jolson is forced to perform the tune before an audience just moments after his son's death.

With its winning combination of Jolson's dynamic screen presence, first-rate songs and the novelty of sound, the film was a wild hit when released  in 1928, and went on to become the highest-grossing American film until GONE WITH THE WIND eleven years later.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Night and the City (1950)

An exceptionally strong film, certainly one of Jules Dassin's most remarkable achievements, and one of the very best post-war crime dramas. Evocatively photographed on location in London (due to 20th Century-Fox having some finances tied up there after the war), the B&W cinematography and settings create a highly stylized yet seedy, gritty and hellishly sinister atmosphere. Dassin maintains a relentlessly bleak and cynical tone throughout, right up to the fatalistic ending.

Richard Widmark is perfectly cast as the desperate hustler Harry Fabian, a maniacal sociopath driven only by self-interest, who has his eyes set on controlling the entire wrestling industry in London. His grand ambitions cause him to stop at nothing to get what he wants, but when his scheme goes fatally awry, he finds himself betrayed by the people whose lives he has destroyed in pursuit of success. Widmark's characteristically intense performance must rank as one of his finest.

Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Hugh Marlowe, and Francis L. Sullivan make up the fine supporting cast, but special mention really should be made of Herbert Lom as the ruthless wrestling kingpin and Mike Mazurki as the murderous prizefighter.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Desert Song (1943)

Lavish Technicolor musical and action-packed adventure story, adapted from the 1926 Romberg operetta -- here updated to take place in the days right before the second World War -- about an American pianist in French Morocco who secretly fights to defend the Arabs against the Nazis.

Dennis Morgan and Irene Manning make for appealing leads, but lack the chemistry to make the most of the film's romantic plot. The good supporting cast includes Bruce Cabot, Gene Lockhart, Faye Emerson, Curt Bois, Marcel Dalio and Nestor Paiva, but none of them are given much to do with their characters. Only Lynne Overman as Morgan's friend, a wise-cracking American journalist eager to get a big scoop, really makes an impression.

Director Robert Florey was always an interesting craftsman, one who was interested in experimentation, but who never seemed to really develop a distinctive visual style of his own. As a result, much of the film is shot flat and conventionally, with occasional visual flourishes and interesting camera angles, especially during the music numbers, that call attention to themselves rather than working as part of the overall style. Still, his skillful handling of the rousing action sequences is admirable.

Long unavailable due to rights issues, it has recently become available again in a restored version that does justice to the gorgeous Technicolor cinematography (by Bert Glennon) which gives the film much of its appeal and heightens its stylized, fantastic qualities.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Greene Murder Case (1929)

Second film in the "Philo Vance" series, with William Powell returning after THE CANARY MURDER CASE as S.S. Van Dine's debonair amateur sleuth. Also returning from the previous film in able support are E.H. Calvert as District Attorney Markham and Eugene Pallette as Sgt. Heath, as well as Jean Arthur, albeit in a different role this time.

The plot is a standard whodunit: when members of the Greene family -- each of whom stand to inherit part of a fortune -- start turning up dead in their own home, Philo Vance is called in to help the police solve the murders.

Worth noting are some moments of especially fluid camerawork for an early talkie such as this, and a well-staged action climax on the roof of the family mansion, featuring an impressive combination of live-action and matte work to suggest the full scale of the house. Powell and Pallette are a great deal of fun to watch together, and keep the proceedings lively with moments of tongue-in-cheek humor. A solid piece of well-crafted, unpretentious entertainment that works perfectly well for what it is.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Ghost Train (1941)

A fun, entertaining little British comedy-mystery, based on the oft-filmed play by Arnold Ridley and updated to a contemporary (World War II) time frame, about a group of passengers who get stranded on a dark and stormy night at a remote train station in the middle of the countryside that is reputedly haunted by a phantom train.

There are plenty of chills and suspenseful moments, though there is also a great deal of silly humor in the form of British music hall comedian Arthur Askey. His good-natured silliness is rather endearing, even if his character is called on by the script to annoy the other characters to no end (and perhaps works a little too well in this regard at times). Much of the fun comes simply from watching the interaction of the colorful cast of characters, especially Kathleen Harrison as the spinsterly Miss Bourne and Herbert Lomas as the ominous stationmaster. Walter Forde's direction does a fine job in balancing the mystery and the comedy, while Jack Cox's shadowy cinematography adds considerably to the suspenseful atmosphere. Recommended viewing for fans of the genre.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Miracles for Sale (1939)

Tod Browning's final film is an entertaining if rather tepid supernatural mystery about a magician who becomes involved in helping the police to solve the murder of a phony spiritualist. Running a brisk 68 minutes, it has the feel of a B programmer, though produced with characteristically high production values by MGM and greatly aided by Browning's distinctive style.

The story (based on Clayton Rawson's book, "Death from a Top Hat") seems tailor made for Browning, given its themes of magic, deception, crime, and the supernatural. Robert Young and Florence Rice make for appealing leads, and they are ably supported by a good cast including the likes of Frank Craven, Henry Hull, Lee Bowman, Astrid Allwyn, Cliff Clark, and William Demarest. There are some good atmospheric thrills but also some moments of cornball humor that work against the macabre tone. It's a minor film, to be sure, but a fine and fitting swan song for this most unique director.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Excellent piece of action-adventure filmmaking combined with historical fiction. Seeing it again for the first time since its initial theatrical run, I was struck by just how well it works. The nearly 2 1/2 hour running time moves briskly from scene to scene without ever lagging, and maintains its energy from the quiet tension of the first sequence to the explosive catharsis of the final shot.

The opening sequence in particular marks a new stylistic maturity for Tarantino. A superb ensemble cast, excellent editing and photography, and a tight script come together under Tarantino's expert direction to create an entertaining pastiche of war pictures and Spaghetti westerns. I'm partial to JACKIE BROWN, but this may be the best film Tarantino has yet directed. All of the elements come together splendidly here.

Ninotchka (1939)

This is the third of four films that Ernst Lubitsch made for MGM (he'd previously directed THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG and THE MERRY WIDOW for the studio, and would direct THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER the following year). MGM was not a studio known for being particularly hospitable to highly personal filmmakers like Lubitsch, but it did excel at producing polished, sophisticated romantic comedies, and the result here is one of Lubitsch's finest films. Though perhaps a little softer around the edges than his earlier films for Paramount, with the sexual innuendos toned down due to the production code, there are still some biting satirical jokes -- mainly about Communism and the Soviet Union -- that deliver a punch thanks to the sharp writing of Walter Reisch, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. It's stylistically a bit more restrained than Lubitsch's Paramount comedies, but benefits greatly from the sumptuous Cedric Gibbons art direction and sparkling William Daniels cinematography.

Garbo is quite funny in her rare, highly-publicized comic turn, with a dry, understated delivery that is perfectly suited to the character of the icy Soviet envoy, though it is Melvyn Douglas who delivers some of the film's biggest laughs, demonstrating here what a fine light comedian he was, especially in his failed attempts to get Ninotchka to crack a smile with his corny jokes. The supporting cast is superb, especially Ina Claire as the former Russian aristocrat trying to reclaim her confiscated jewels; Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach as the trio of Russian agents on official business in Paris who find themselves seduced by capitalism; and Bela Lugosi in a brief but effective turn as the commissar. The final gag is a classic, and one of the funniest moments in Lubitsch's entire filmography.