Sunday, March 31, 2019
While doing research on Val Lewton for the post I wrote on the new Shout Factory Blu-ray of THE BODY SNATCHER, I discovered that the last film he produced before his untimely death at age 46 was a Western for Universal called APACHE DRUMS in 1951. The movie just so happened to be available for free on XfinityOnDemand, and I watched it last night.
APACHE DRUMS is a taut, exciting Western, and it certainly has the Lewton touch about it. The movie starts out with a voice over from a Native American perspective--quite unusual for the time. The speaker explains that a tribe of Mescalero Apaches has been driven away from their lands in the American Southwest, and now the group suffers from hunger. We then are introduced to the people inhabiting the small hamlet of Spanish Boot. A gambler with a bad reputation, Sam Leeds (Stephen McNally) has just killed two men in self defense over a poker game. Leeds is told to leave town by the mayor/blacksmith, Joe Madden (Willard Parker). Madden has a grudge against Leeds because both men are attracted to Sally (Coleen Gray). The town also forces out a dance hall owner and her girls (one gets the idea that the girls do more than just dance). Leeds follows the women out of town, and later comes across their bodies, massacred by Mescaleros now on the warpath. Leeds rides back to Spanish Boot to warn the townspeople, but at first they don't believe him. They soon learn the truth, and Leeds and Madden must put aside their differences and work together in holding off the Apaches.
One might assume that APACHE DRUMS is just another B-movie Hollywood Western, but it's much more than that. For one thing, director Hugo Fregonese uses a number of what I would call John Ford-like shot compositions. I would say the entire picture has a Fordian-like aspect to it, no doubt enhanced by the presence of Arthur Shields as the fire-and-brimstone town Reverend (he played a very similar role in Ford's DRUMS ACROSS THE MOHAWK). The story takes its time at the beginning to establish the main characters and the situation, and once the threat of the Apaches is established, and the helplessness of the town is conveyed (the people are essentially cut off and they have no water supply), the tension never lets up.
Stephen McNally's Sam Leeds is a very interesting character. He's a flawed man, who readily admits to Sally that the honest, hard-working way of life doesn't appeal to him. But he changes over the course of the story, by volunteering to go out and bring the town water and by leading the standoff against the Apaches at the end. McNally usually played villains and tough guys, so he's very believable as Leeds--he gives the man a kind of cocksure quality. Willard Parker (who would go on to star in the Terence Fisher-directed British science-fiction film THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING) is much more of a straight arrow as Joe Madden. Coleen Gray's Sally, the nice girl in the middle, even says that the reason she prefers Sam Leeds is that she wants to change a bad man--at least there's an example of a woman in a movie actually admitting this.
The most notable aspect of APACHE DRUMS is the extended climax, where the townspeople hole up in the church and try to fight off the Apaches until help arrives. The town church is basically a large room with window-like openings set high in the walls, which prevents those within from seeing what is going on outside. The effect gives the church a tomb-like feeling. As the townspeople wait out the night, the Apaches can be heard constantly chanting outside. Most filmmakers would cut to the massing Apaches over and over again, but this doesn't happen here--they are almost a supernatural presence, more felt rather than seen. None of the attacking Apaches are individualized either. Usually in this type of Western there is a chief or lead warrior character that is a counterpoint to the main hero. There isn't here, which makes the massed Apaches seem even more menacing. The only fully fledged Native American role is that of an Apache who is an Army Scout (Armando Silvestre) and fights alongside the townsfolk--he winds up being braver than most of the white men he is defending.
When one thinks of Val Lewton, one thinks of horror films, and the climax of APACHE DRUMS gives a viewer plenty of opportunities to be reminded of that genre. For one thing, there's a quite effective example of one of Lewton's famed "buses"--a sudden unexpected occurrence that jolts the audience. When some of the Apaches do make it through the high window-like openings of the church, they are painted in various shades of body paint, making them seem like bizarre demons. Eventually the Apaches set the town of Spanish Boot on fire, which results in giving the interior of the church an eerie orange glow. The use of color in this film was just as striking as Lewton's use of black & white for his RKO thrillers. (The cinematographer for APACHE DRUMS was Charles P. Boyle.)
One can't help but be reminded of the legendary movie ZULU while watching the climax of APACHE DRUMS--especially when at one point the townspeople sing "Men of Harlech" to drown out the chanting of the Apaches! (ZULU writer-director Cy Endfield must have seen this movie.) I would even rank the climax of APACHE DRUMS as one of the best sequences in any Lewton-produced movie.
You can't help but wonder what would have happened had Val Lewton lived and continued to work for Universal. Would the studio have put Lewton to work on any of its horror & science-fiction pictures? What APACHE DRUMS proves is that Lewton easily handled color, and he could have worked in any genre. The man had a knack for taking low-budget pictures and making more out of them than others could.
Saturday, March 30, 2019
I had been debating for a while on whether I should even buy the new Shout Factory Blu-ray of THE BODY SNATCHER. The movie is my personal favorite among the series of famed thrillers produced by Val Lewton for RKO Studios during the 1940s. But I already own the Val Lewton DVD set, which came out in 2005. I try to avoid re-buying classic black & white movies on Blu-ray, especially when they run only about 70 minutes, as most of the Val Lewton titles do.
CAT PEOPLE and THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE have both recently come out on Blu-ray, but I haven't purchased those. I certainly admire those films, as I do all the Val Lewton series....but I don't watch them as regularly as I do other famed classic horror movies. There are moments during the Lewton series when things feel a bit pretentious, with all the literary allusions and the habit of characters to pontificate instead of talk like real people.
Shout Factory's Blu-ray of THE BODY SNATCHER is definitely a worthy purchase. It's the best I've ever seen any of the Val Lewton RKO movies look.
What makes THE BODY SNATCHER my favorite among the Val Lewton series is the magnificent performance by Boris Karloff. I wouldn't call THE BODY SNATCHER a straight horror film--it's more of a historical melodrama--but Karloff's John Gray provides more menace than most of the supernatural creatures the actor ever portrayed. The cabman/body snatcher Gray has a ragged dignity about him, what with his top hat and long coat, and Karloff goes all out in showing his delight in having the esteemed Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) in his thrall. The dialogue exchanges between Karloff and Daniell are an outstanding example of the art of great screen acting. Daniell deserves as much credit as Karloff for making THE BODY SNATCHER memorable, ably showing how MacFarlane's haughty manner is merely a front to cover the man's weaknesses.
Bela Lugosi is also in THE BODY SNATCHER--he gets second billing, even though his part is rather small. Lugosi was put into the film mainly to give it some ballyhoo, and many have complained that he doesn't have much to do. Film historian Greg Mank has established from interviews with those who worked on the production that Lugosi seemed listless and out of sorts during it, but the character that he plays is supposed to be a somewhat of a pathetic fellow. THE BODY SNATCHER is the last time that Karloff and Lugosi would appear together in a feature film, and their very last scene together--where Karloff shows Lugosi how he goes about his grisly business--is one of their best as a screen team.
Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in THE BODY SNATCHER
THE BODY SNATCHER also gets high marks for Robert Wise's direction and the early 1800s Edinburgh atmosphere (even though it was filmed in California). I've always felt that Val Lewton's style worked better in a period setting.
The visual quality of Shout Factory's Blu-ray of THE BODY SNATCHER is superb. The image is razor sharp, with more brightness and clarity. The increased depth of the picture really brings out the eeriness of Karloff's creepy grin. The old Val Lewton DVD set had plenty of complaints about the quality of the prints used...this Blu-ray blows the DVD version of the movie out of the water. The soundtrack is much improved as well.
Shout Factory carries over some of the extras from the Lewton DVD box set. There's an audio commentary with Robert Wise and Steve Haberman that was on the earlier DVD, and a fine documentary called SHADOWS IN THE DARK: THE VAL LEWTON LEGACY.
The new extras include an extensive stills and poster gallery (what gets me about the advertising for this movie is how almost all of it features artwork of Karloff digging up shapely female bodies). A 12 minute feature on the movie showcases Greg Mank. It's great to see and hear Mank talk about any classic horror film, but I wish it had been much longer, considering how much superlative writing and research Mank has done on THE BODY SNATCHER. It would have been even better if Shout Factory had gotten Mank to do a brand new audio commentary.
I'm sure eventually all of the Val Lewton/RKO series of films will be on Blu-ray. I don't know if I will get them when they do (they'd better come with a boatload of new extras), but I'm glad I made an exception with this new Blu-ray of THE BODY SNATCHER. It looks stunning in HD, and it makes one appreciate even more (if that's possible) the performances of Boris Karloff and Henry Daniell.
Wednesday, March 27, 2019
My last post concerned FORT YUMA GOLD, which is included on a Spaghetti Western double feature blu-ray just released by Mill Creek. Today I'll discuss the other film on the disc, DAMNED HOT DAY OF FIRE.
DAMNED HOT DAY OF FIRE (1968) isn't even the title used on the print featured on this Blu-ray. The movie goes by the name GATLING GUN, which is a far more appropriate moniker. (The original Italian title was QUEL CALDO MALEDETTO GIORNO DI FUOCO.) Near the end of the Civil War, Richard Gatling gives a demonstration of his newly invented machine gun to a group of Union representatives at a secret Western location. One of the group, however, is a traitor, and Gatling and his gun are soon spirited away and hidden. A Captain Chris Tanner (Robert Woods), who has been working as a Pinkerton agent, is blamed and arrested. Alan Pinkerton himself arranges for Tanner to be given a false identity so he can be released and go after the people responsible for Gatling's abduction. The agent goes West and deals with mistrust and deceit at every turn.
DAMNED HOT DAY OF FIRE plays more like a spy story instead of a Western (one could also compare it to an episode of THE WILD, WILD, WEST). Because Pinkerton arranged Chris Tanner's false identity and escape from jail in secret, no one takes the agent's word during his investigations concerning Gatling's disappearance. Tanner has to fight off as many Union supporters as he does bad guys. The agent has a bit of James Bond in him--he beds two different women to get information, and he infiltrates a villain's stronghold by taking out the guards with darts from a blow gun. Tanner, like 007, is almost indestructible--he's beaten up and shot multiple times during the story. Robert Woods was actually an American actor who appeared in a number of European productions during the 1960s and 70s. He's adequate in the role of Chris Tanner, but he underplays it (was he trying to give off a Clint Eastwood-type of vibe?). The role of Tanner needed someone with more heroic vitality--Giuliano Gemma, who starred in FORT YUMA GOLD, would have been a good choice for the part.
The performer who makes the biggest impression by far is Hollywood character actor John Ireland in the role of main villain Tarpas. The Native-American-Mexican bandit Tarpas isn't interested in Civil War politics--he just wants the huge ransom demanded for Gatling and his gun. Ireland plays the role to the hilt, showing how the man's ancestry has given him a huge chip on his shoulder. (Nearly everyone who comes into contact with Tarpas--even his fellow bad guys--refer to him as "half-breed" and look down on him.) Tarpas's anger at his social standing gives him a more solid foundation than the typical over-the-top Euro Western villain. There's a sub-plot about how Tarpas wants to use the ransom money to convince a beautiful saloon girl to go away with him--but the woman is disgusted by the man, even though the bandit has bought an entire saloon for her. Tarpas's travails make him far more interesting to watch than the hero of the film.
The supporting cast features a couple of faces familiar to fans of Euro Cult cinema--Gerard Herter, who appeared in THE BIG GUNDOWN, and Jorge Rigaud, who played in HORROR EXPRESS.
DAMNED HOT DAY OF FIRE was co-written and directed by Paolo Bianchi, who made a few other minor Spaghetti Westerns around this period. The movie isn't a fantastic example of the genre, but I give Bianchi credit for trying to inject some out-of-the-way ideas such as the spy angle and Tarpas' attitude over his background. The movie certainly isn't boring.
Before the movie starts on this disc, Mill Creek has inserted one of those "We did the best we could with the best available elements" screen texts. Actually this film is somewhat better looking than FORT YUMA GOLD, and the sound quality is much improved. Once again the only audio track offered is an English dub, but there is a point in the movie where for about a minute or so the track is in Italian with English subtitles. The movie is in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and the print used on this Blu-ray runs about 100 minutes.
As I mentioned in my post on FORT YUMA GOLD, the movies on this Blu-ray are not spectacular, but they will entertain fans of Euro Westerns--and this disc can be had for a very cheap price.
Sunday, March 24, 2019
Mill Creek has just released a "Western Double Feature" Blu-ray containing the films FORT YUMA GOLD and DAMNED HOT DAY OF FIRE. These are two somewhat obscure Spaghetti Westerns--I had never heard of them before--but they do have a couple things in common: they are both set during the Civil War and the lead character in each film is part of a secret mission. Today I'll be looking at FORT YUMA GOLD.
FORT YUMA GOLD is also known as FOR A FEW EXTRA DOLLARS, and the title that appears onscreen on this print used here is PER POCHI DOLLARI ANCORA. The most common year used for this production is 1966. Giuliano Gemma (the star of the original RINGO Euro Westerns) plays Confederate officer Gary Hammond, who is being held in a POW camp at the end of the war. Hammond is sent to the Western location of Fort Yuma--he's tasked to stop a group of Southern raiders from attacking the fort. Hammond agrees because the Union knows that the raiders are coming, and the men will be surely massacred. The attack on Fort Yuma is just a ruse, however--the leaders of it really want to steal the gold hidden in the fort while the battle is taking place. Hammond finds this out, among other things, as he fights through various complications to reach his goal.
FORT YUMA GOLD plays more like a traditional American Western. The action scenes are well done, but the movie doesn't have the outlandish elements of most Euro Westerns. What helps the story is the charismatic screen presence of Giuliano Gemma. The movie takes great advantage of Gemma's athleticism--he spends more time engaging in fistfights instead of gunplay. (He also gets to take part in an extensive barroom brawl.) The villains here do not have the bizarre extremism of most Spaghetti Western bad guys. I recognized a few faces from the Sergio Leone Westerns in the supporting cast, but the one other performer that stands out is a cute blonde French actress named Sophie Daumier. She plays a saloon singer who gets involved in Hammond's plight, and her character's name is...I'm not making this up....Connie Breastfull.
There are six different writers credited on the film, and the story does have a patchwork quality to it--about every five minutes something else crops up to keep Hammond from getting to Fort Yuma. The movie was directed by Giorgio Ferroni, under the name of "Calvin J. Padget". He does a serviceable job, nothing spectacular. The music on this print is credited to Ennio Morricone and Gianni Ferrio...according to IMDB, the movie inserted some Morricone tracks on the score just so they could use his name! (If the score was by Ferrio, it's what you'd expect for this type of film.)
The running time for the print on this disc is about 100 minutes. It's nearly impossible to know what the "correct" running time for any Spaghetti Western is, and since I had never seen it before, I have no idea if this is an uncut version. Mill Creek presents the film in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the visual quality is okay to mediocre at times. The sound quality is substandard--it is very thin, so thin I had to turn up the volume a few notches. The voice track is an English dub, even though the opening credits are in Italian. There is not an original Italian voice track, or subtitles, or any extras at all--this is a Mill Creek release, after all, and you get what you pay for (I got this Blu-ray for less than $10 from Amazon).
FORT YUMA GOLD is no major discovery, and Mill Creek's presentation of it is rather lacking....but if you are a Spaghetti Western fan you will probably enjoy it--just don't have any great expectations. I'll be covering the other film on this Blu-ray next.
Saturday, March 23, 2019
Shout Factory's latest Hammer home video release is one of the company's more offbeat productions--the 1966 tale concerning witchcraft in modern England called THE WITCHES. (The American release title was THE DEVIL'S OWN.)
The movie starts with a effective pre-credits sequence, showing how Englishwoman Gwen Mayfield, a teacher in Africa, was menaced by voodoo-inspired revolutionaries. Traumatized by the event, Gwen goes back to England and is hired to run a school at a small village called Haddaby. Despite the village's pastoral beauty, Gwen senses that something strange is underfoot, and sure enough, finds out that the majority of the town practises a bizarre form of diabolism.
It was Joan Fontaine that thought Peter Curtis' novel THE DEVIL'S OWN would make a good film, and the project was brought to Hammer's attention. The company had already worked with such past-their-prime Hollywood talents such as Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead. THE WITCHES doesn't really fit into the "old hag" mini-genre--Fontaine certainly doesn't look haggish here, and she's not the main menace. The character she plays here is very much like the ones she portrayed during her peak acting years--a emotionally fragile woman who is dealing with an unusual situation.
It seems to me that, with Joan Fontaine being the star of the picture, Hammer tried to do things a bit differently. Instead of one of the company's usual directors, Cyril Frankel does the honors here, and Nigel Kneale wrote the script. The only cast member that could be called a Hammer regular was Duncan Lamont, who plays the enthusiastic village butcher. THE WITCHES also features a fair amount of location work.
The problem is that THE WITCHES isn't very thrilling. The story takes awhile to get to the point, even though the viewer has figured things out long beforehand. The main location for the village, Hambleden, is quite picturesque...maybe too picturesque, because it doesn't give off any sense of menace--and neither does a sequence that has Fontaine being stampeded by a flock of...sheep! Late in the story the plot takes an abrupt turn, which does nothing but delay the proceedings. The finale features a diabolic ceremony that has several middle-aged English actors gyrating about as if they were in a Lady Gaga music video--it's one of the goofiest things I've ever seen in a movie, and believe me, I've seen plenty. The story would have worked much better as a black & white Val Lewton-type of film--or as an hour long episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE or ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS.
There's no complaints about Shout Factory's presentation of THE WITCHES on Blu-ray. The picture and sound quality is excellent. The film is in 1.66:1 widescreen, and the visuals are very clear and colorful. The DTS-HD mono audio is quite robust.
The extras include a 50 minute documentary entitled HAMMER GLAMOUR. I believe this program was included on an earlier Hammer Blu-ray release. It's quite enjoyable, featuring interviews with such Hammer starlets as Martine Beswicke, Caroline Munro, Vera Day, Valerie Leon, and others. There's a stills gallery, and original trailers and TV spots. (In America the movie, under the title THE DEVIL'S OWN, was paired with the infamous SLAVE GIRLS--there's a double feature for you.)
A new audio commentary is provided with Ted Newsom. (On the Blu-ray case Constantine Nasr is listed as participating in it, but Newsom does all the talking.) Newsom's commentary is rather meandering, but he does address the script's weaknesses. The Blu-ray case sleeve has reversible artwork featuring the American poster for the film.
I had actually never seen THE WITCHES before I got this Blu-ray--it was one of the Hammer titles released on home video by Anchor Bay in the 1990s that I didn't get. Shout Factory's Blu-ray presentation of it is very fine...but the movie itself is just okay.
Wednesday, March 20, 2019
The new documentary APOLLO 11 is absolutely stunning.
Director-editor Todd Douglas Miller assembled the film from hundreds of hours of actual NASA footage and audio produced over the course of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The picture and sound quality was cleaned up, and the result, when seen on the big screen, is breathtaking in its clarity and scope. The footage may be nearly fifty years old, but Miller's choice of images makes the documentary feel as if it was filmed yesterday.
There are no enhancements to the footage, no celebrity narrators, and the graphics added to help the viewer chart the progress of the mission are simple and unobtrusive. Everything in the film comes from the archives. Miller allows the footage, and the mission audio, to tell the story. Even though it's a story we all know, the presentation of it here makes it far more gripping and exciting than any fictional narrative.
What comes through in APOLLO 11 is the immensity and magnitude of what the mission, and the people who were involved in it, accomplished. Because the film is not injected with any Hollywood-style melodramatics, we are focused on what is happening, in the precise manner in which it happened. Because we are seeing and hearing the real thing, the situation becomes much more powerful.
What really struck me was how deceptively calm everyone sounded on the mission audio--you'd think these men were discussing installing a refrigerator instead of executing probably the most important event in human history. Obviously astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins take center stage here, but APOLLO 11 makes clear how many thousands of other people had a part in making the mission a success.
The footage taken in outer space is amazing--it blows away any 21st Century CGI. Ironically, all the footage used is in the public domain--anyone could have used it to make their own documentary, but I doubt it would have had the impact of Miller's work. The atmospheric music score is by Matt Morton, and he used a 1968 synthesizer to record it.
The release of APOLLO 11 was certainly timed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, but it is particularly welcome in today's world, when everyone seems to be at each other's throats. APOLLO 11 is a powerful reminder of what humanity can accomplish, and how much more mankind needs to accomplish. Forget about all the contemporary superhero epics--this is a film featuring real special effects and real heroes, and it needs to be seen by as many people as possible.
Saturday, March 16, 2019
Flicker Alley presents a wonderful find on home video--a rediscovered and restored 1929 German silent version of the most famous Sherlock Holmes story, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. The Blu-ray release also features a 1914 German film adaptation of the tale.
For me the discovery of a lost Sherlock Holmes film is the equivalent of a lost movie featuring a superhero character. This 1929 film (German title DER HUND VON BASKERVILLE) was the last silent Sherlock Holmes feature. According to the booklet included with the Blu-ray, the movie was restored from a 35mm nitrate print held by the Polish National Film Archive and a 9.5mm Pathe-Baby print. There are a few scenes missing, but they are recreated in the film by stills and title cards. The visual quality isn't spectacular, but the important point is that the film is now available.
The 1929 German HUND was directed by Richard Oswald, and it follows the Conan Doyle novel fairly closely (the story structure actually has a lot in common with the Hammer Films 1959 version). What highlights the 1929 version is how atmospheric it is. In most film adaptations Baskerville Hall is just a large house--here it is almost a main character, a dark, moody place that has an interior design that reminds a film buff of the work done by Universal's Charles D. Hall or Hammer's Bernard Robinson. The moor in this version is quite notable as well--a dank, windblown, expressionistic landscape that gives off the feeling of dread and menace. Oswald (who also is credited as a writer on the film) turns the story into more of a old dark house mystery--the movie feels as if it was made by Paul Leni for Universal.
The creepy particulars of this version are welcome, because the Sherlock Holmes presented here, as played by American actor Carlyle Blackwell, is rather ordinary. (The title card introducing him says that he is "the genial detective".) Blackwell doesn't have the eccentricities of a Jeremy Brett or the intensity of a Basil Rathbone--he reacts to just about everything with a hearty laugh. He does get to wear the deerstalker and smoke a pipe. The most notable actor in this production is Fritz Rasp, who plays the villainous Stapleton. Rasp appeared in a number of great German silent films as various creepy characters, so his casting here gives the game away fairly easy.
As for the actual hound, the movie suffers the way most of the other versions of the tale always do--the "demon dog" doesn't come off as very demonic. Nevertheless, this 1929 silent is very well done, and it will be of interest especially for lovers of silent thrillers.
The 1914 DER HUND VON BASKERVILLE included on this Blu-ray is very much a product of its time. Richard Oswald was just the writer on this one--the movie was directed by Rudolf Meinert, who would go on to be production manager of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, and the photography was by Karl Freund, the future legendary cinematographer. The 1914 version is more of a adventure serial instead of a straight Holmes adaptation. The story is filled with secret passages, booby traps, last-second escapes, and the like. The character of Holmes takes second fiddle to that of Stapleton, who here becomes something of a super villain. Friedrich Kuhne, who plays Stapleton, acts in a broadly melodramatic manner, so much so that he becomes almost unintentionally funny. He's constantly raising his eyebrows and giving sideways dirty looks to people, and his dastardly deeds seem rather excessive--at one point he blows up a mailbox just to prevent Sherlock Holmes from receiving a letter! One does need to remember that this a 1914 European film, and allowances must be made for its style. The Holmes here is played by a Danish actor named Alvin Neuss, and he's more of a action hero than a detective. (He is introduced in a moodily lit scene wearing a dressing gown and smoking a pipe--this is the one moment in the film that comes closest to Conan Doyle.) The movie was successful enough in Europe to spawn a long line of sequels.
Flicker Alley adds two short programs as extras: one on the history of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES novel and how Conan Doyle came to write it, and one concerning the restoration of the 1929 HUND. A 25-page essay is included which also discusses the two films and their respective restorations. The disc is playable for A,B, and C regions.
Once again Flicker Alley has put together a magnificent package while also giving the general public the chance to see two features that were almost impossible to view before. I must point out that this Blu-ray is not cheap--the only reason I got it was that I recently purchased a new supply of contact lenses, and as a bonus I qualified for some gift cards (I figured I might as well use them on something I normally wouldn't get.) Sherlock Holmes aficionados will certainly be intrigued by this release. I wouldn't rate these two films as among the best Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but they probably have the most unique background.
Monday, March 11, 2019
What I love most about Turner Classic Movies is how many obscure films they show. particularly ones from the 1930s. Last week TCM presented a 1934 melodrama called THE MAN WITH TWO FACES. The movie stars Edward G. Robinson, and it was produced by First National/Warners.
Robinson plays Damon Wells, a renowned (and acerbic) stage actor who is trying out a new play starring his equally renowned actress sister Jessica (Mary Astor). Jessica is making something of a comeback--she hasn't acted in three years, since her estranged husband Stanley Vance was supposedly killed. Jessica is still dealing with the after effects of her horrid marriage, but it looks like the play is bound to be a success on Broadway. Unfortunately her husband (Louis Calhern) decides to return, and his appearance causes Jessica to fall into a near-catatonic state. Stanley uses his power over Jessica to try and sell her share of the new play, and the woman's family and friends are at a loss on what to do about the situation. Brother Damon takes it upon himself to use his acting skills in a plot to rid the world of Stanley forever--but the imperious actor may be too smart for his own good.
THE MAN WITH TWO FACES is one of those early Thirties movies that doesn't take up too much of one's time (it's only 73 minutes long) and winds up being quite entertaining. It offers up a choice role for Edward G. Robinson, and one can tell he enjoyed himself immensely. Instead of playing another gangster or tough guy, Robinson got to portray an intelligent, talented artist who uses his brains instead of brawn. Damon Wells is a talented individual, and he knows it. He's prone to bossing people around and being demanding--he treats his current girlfriend (Mae Clarke) like hired help--but he does truly care about his sister, and he goes to great lengths to relieve her plight. It's great to see such a grand actor like Robinson have a showcase like this.
Mary Astor gets stuck with a difficult role as Jessica--she spends most of the movie shambling around like a zombie after her husband returns. At the start of the story, when Jessica is still "normal", she's a lively, vibrant personality, which makes it hard to believe she would be reduced to almost a vegetable just at the sight of her husband. It's never really explained what type of hold Stanley has over Jessica--is it hypnotism? Maybe it's a good idea that the man's hold over his wife is left vague--if the viewer tries to fill in the blanks, one can come up with all sorts of sinister implications. Louis Calhern plays Stanley as a smirking fellow who constantly displays a phony courtesy. He doesn't try to be outwardly evil--at one point, though, he does unexpected slap Jessica in the face, which comes as a bit of a shock. It helps that Calhern is taller than the rest of the main cast.
Ricardo Cortez is also in the movie--he's the play's producer, and he also is sweet on Jessica. It's surprising that Cortez wasn't the dangerous husband, considering how many Pre-Code con men he portrayed. I've mentioned on this blog before that every time I see Mae Clarke in a classic film, I come away more impressed by her. Her performance here backed up that opinion. Mae provides the comic relief as Damon Wells' "actress" girlfriend Daphne, and she just about steals the film. The sarcastic Daphne gets off plenty of quips, and Clarke holds her own very well with Robinson. She also gets to do an impromptu version of "Stormy Weather", and wear a cute maid outfit that we don't see her in enough. I would have loved to have seen Robinson and Clarke play similar characters in other films.
THE MAN WITH TWO FACES has an impressive pedigree--it was based on a play written by George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott. Archie Mayo directs in the typical 1930s Warners fast-paced manner. I'm not going to reveal Damon's plan to solve his sister's problem, since this is not a well-known film, but it's easy to figure out while you are watching it. I will say that the movie's screenplay could have easily been turned into a COLUMBO episode. Even if the plot is quite simple to discern once the film gets going, it's worth checking out for Edward G. Robinson and Mae Clarke.
Sunday, March 10, 2019
STAND-IN is a 1937 light comedy satirizing the Hollywood studio system of the period, and it has just been released on home video by Classic Flix. The movie was produced by Walter Wanger and originally released by United Artists.
The New York-based bank of Pettypacker and Sons is planning to sell their shares of Colossal Studios, but the firm's expert numbers cruncher Atterbury Dodd (Leslie Howard) thinks the company has the potential to be a wise investment. Dodd is sent to California to try to improve the studio's financial situation, but the meek mathematician is out of his element dealing with nutty film folk like an intense producer with a drinking problem (Humphrey Bogart), a temperamental "foreign" director (Alan Mowbray), a snooty leading lady who's seen better days (Marla Shelton), and a pain-in-the-neck publicity hack (Jack Carson). Dodd does attract the sympathy (and affections) of studio stand-in and former child star Lester Plum (Joan Blondell), who he hires as his secretary. Except for Lester, everyone else in Hollywood considers the straight-laced Dodd a fool, but he manages to save Colossal from being sold off to a shady financier (C. Henry Gordon).
STAND-IN isn't spectacular, but it is a nice little film, a pleasant diversion for 90 minutes. What makes it work are the performances of Leslie Howard and Joan Blondell. Howard in particular surprised me here. The character of Atterbury Dodd--a staid, mild-mannered man of efficiency--could easily wind up being annoying, but Howard makes Dodd humorously likable, and the actor even exhibits an unexpected talent for physical comedy. Joan Blondell is as appealing as always--her line deliveries make the dialogue far more snappier than it really is. Blondell is so charismatic here that even in a fictional context it's hard to believe that her strangely-named Lester is a stand-in instead of the No. 1 actress for Colossal Studios. The viewer is awarded the treat of seeing Joan perform "On the Good Ship Lollipop".
Joan Blondell, Humphrey Bogart, and Leslie Howard
Humphrey Bogart fans might be disappointed at his supporting role, but this movie did give him a chance to break away from the many bad guy parts he was given around this time. (When one thinks about it, however, there are some similarities between movie producers and gangsters.) Bogart doesn't go the total comic route here--he displays his typical intensity--but he does get to do a few things one wouldn't expect from him, such as carry around a dog and perform a drunk scene while dressed in top hat and tails. The rest of the actors in the film have one-dimensional, generic roles.
Director Tay Garnett stages the story in an efficient manner, and classic film buffs will enjoy the inside Hollywood jokes and looks at a 1930s movie studio back lot. (Of course, during the back lot scenes we see cowboys and showgirls mingling in the background--has there ever been a back lot sequence in any form of entertainment that didn't have cowboys and showgirls wandering around??) The climax of the story veers a bit into Frank Capra territory, with Dodd trying to get the entire working staff of the studio on his side to help stave off its shutdown. One might say the entire movie has a Capraesque tone to it, with a kind, decent, naive man fighting large odds and being supported by a street-smart woman who winds up falling for him. (The roles of Atterbury Dodd and Lester could have easily been played by James Stewart and Jean Arthur.)
Before the movie starts on this Blu-ray, Classic Flix has inserted a title card discussing how much restoration work went into it. The black & white movie looks very good--I wouldn't say it looks stupendous--and the sound is very sharp and clear. The only extras are a restoration comparison and a few trailers for other Classic Flix product. It's too bad that an audio commentary was not provided by a reputable classic film historian--I would have loved to know more behind-the-scenes information about it.
Sunday, March 3, 2019
While scrolling through the list of free movies available on Xfinity OnDemand last night, I stumbled upon a Western I had never heard of--a 1957 film produced by Universal called QUANTEZ, starring Fred MacMurray and one of my favorites, Dorothy Malone.
The movie begins with five figures riding hell bent for leather through an arid landscape. The group is in flight from a posse after committing a bank robbery. The members of the group are Gentry (Fred MacMurray), Heller (John Larch), Teach (John Gavin), Gato (Sydney Chaplin), and Heller's woman Chaney (Dorothy Malone). The fugitives' horses need rest badly, and they decide to stop off at a small village called Quantez before crossing the border. They find Quantez to be deserted--what they don't know is that the inhabitants have been chased away by an Apache chief (Michael Ansara). The group rests for the night, and spends most of the time sniping at one another. Things come to a head the next morning, when the individual battles between the group are settled and the Apaches attack.
Despite the presence of major stars like MacMurray and Malone, QUANTEZ has a very B-movie attitude about it. The film is only 80 minutes long, and the budget couldn't have been all that much, considering there are only a few main characters, and the story takes place in an abandoned small town. (The movie is in color and Cinemascope.) If you are looking for Wild West action, you won't find much in QUANTEZ--even the climatic Indian attack is rather generic. The movie is more of an "adult" Western concerning the interplay between a disparate group of people.
The leader of the group is not Fred MacMurray--it's John Larch as Heller, a violent blowhard who does more talking than thinking. MacMurray's Gentry is a plain-spoken, practical man who makes knowing observations about all the other characters--if Anthony Mann had directed this film, Gentry would have been played by James Stewart. John Gavin's Teach is young and inexperienced, and Sydney Chaplin (Charlie's son) as Gato is a sneaky fellow. Gato is a white man raised by Native Americans, and during the group's stay he secretly ventures off into the hills and makes contact with Michael Ansara's Apache chief.
Dorothy Malone plays another of her many "beautiful women who have led a hard life" roles as Chaney. (If you think the name of Chaney is unusual for such a woman--could it have been an in-joke, since that same year Malone played Lon Chaney's first wife in the biopic THE MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES, also for Universal?) Since Chaney is the only woman in the film, you can guess that she causes trouble among all the men in the group. (Despite admitting she's been treated like trash most of her life, and suffering the effects of outrunning a posse on horseback, she still looks pretty darn good.) Heller yells at her and bosses her around--at one point he demands that she sing, reminding me of a similar scene involving Claire Trevor in KEY LARGO.
The movie gives no background information on the characters at the beginning--we learn about them and their situation as the story goes along. Due to this, it's hard to get all that involved in the group's plight. You've no doubt guessed that the main conflict in the tale is between the bombastic Heller and the sensible Gentry. A wandering peddler (James Barton) who ventures into the town during the night happens to reveal a major fact about Gentry's past. This just makes the viewer wonder why Gentry would even go on a bank raid with a fellow like Heller in the first place. Fred MacMurray played a number of tough characters in his acting career, which may surprise people today who only know him from Disney movies and the MY THREE SONS TV show. MacMurray is very good as Gentry, portraying him in a quiet Gary Cooper-type manner.
QUANTEZ has a somewhat downbeat ending. This ending, and the role that Gentry has to play in it, probably was the result of the revelations about the man's past. The movie was directed in a basic manner by one Henry Keller, who I am not familiar with. QUANTEZ reminded me of the many Western TV show episodes I've seen on various retro cable channels. You could easily edit the script of this movie down to an hour, change the character names, and use it for just about every TV Western of the period (for all I know, somebody might have done that, maybe more than once). QUANTEZ is an okay time filler, nothing more.
Saturday, March 2, 2019
This is my contribution to Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, The Blogathon. I must point out that the day I am writing this, March 2, happens to be the birthday of Willis O'Brien...and yesterday, March 1, was the birthday of Lionel Atwill--two men who had a major impact on the movie career of Fay Wray.
Fay Wray is mostly remembered now as a "Scream Queen", which is unfair, considering that her true horror film roles were very few, and they were all filmed in a period of a couple years. Her body of acting work is far more extensive than that. Nevertheless, it is her horror films that still get shown on retro movie cable channels and get the most coverage on the internet.
Picking MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) for this blogathon might be too obvious a choice. The movie happens to be a huge favorite of mine--as a matter of fact, it's one of my fifty top favorite movies of all time. There's so many things I love about this film--the bizarre fusion of Gothic horror and Pre-Code big city Warners smart aleck attitude; the shot compositions of director Michael Curtiz; the atmospheric art direction of Anton Grot; and Perc Westmore's gruesome makeup for Lionel Atwill's mentally and physically scarred wax sculptor Ivan Igor, one of the best monster makeups ever.
The movie was filmed in two-strip Technicolor, and on the DVD I have of it, the colors have faded considerably--but I think that adds to the overall weirdness of the tale. MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM lasts only about 80 minutes long, but it has enough plot for two pictures (modern day critics of the film feel that there's too much plot, and it's too confusing at times). Like almost all Pre-Code films made at Warner Bros., the story moves so fast, and has so much going on in it that one forgets about any plot holes and just goes along for the ride.
I could go on and on about MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM--but this is a Fay Wray--Robert Riskin blogathon, and I'm specifically covering Fay Wray here. So let's focus on Fay's performance as Charlotte Duncan.
Fay Wray gets second billing in the opening credits, but the real female lead of the film is Glenda Farrell as snoopy and sarcastic newspaper reporter Florence Dempsey. It is Florence's investigations that lead to the revelation that the supposedly wheelchair-bound and decrepit wax museum proprietor Ivan Igor is actually a horribly burned madman who is murdering people and covering their bodies in wax.
Igor's original wax museum in London was burned down in 1921 by his unscrupulous partner as a scheme to collect on the insurance. (Igor wound up terribly disfigured by the fire--he hides his burns with a wax mask.) Now in 1933 Igor has opened a new museum in New York City. Unable to create wax sculptures due to his damaged hands, Igor targets those unfortunate folks who happen to resemble his old wax creations. This leads him to taking an interest in Fay Wray as Charlotte--she happens to be dating one of the sculptors in Igor's employ, a man named Ralph Burton (Allen Vincent). Charlotte also happens to be friend and roommate of Florence--if you think that's too much of a coincidence you'll just have to accept that nearly every character in the story is connected to each other in some way.
The reason for Igor's interest in Charlotte is that she resembles what he considered his masterpiece--a wax statue of Marie Antoinette that was the highlight of his London museum. (In the beginning sequence of the film, set in London of 1921, we can clearly see that the statue of Marie Antoinette is Fay Wray. Many nitpickers have pointed out over the years that Fay doesn't keep totally still during her posing as the statue--but if your attention is focused on that sort of thing you probably shouldn't be watching this type of film in the first place.)
Fay Wray really has more of a supporting role as Charlotte--she doesn't have all that many scenes, and she certainly can't compete with the showy performances of Lionel Atwill and Glenda Farrell. We don't get to know much about Charlotte. Unlike Florence, she doesn't seem to have a job--but at all times she is smartly and fashionably dressed. The relationship between Charlotte and Florence is fascinating. Despite the fact that they are roommates, they are as different from each other as can be. Are they childhood friends, or related to one another? Could their living arrangements be due to the Depression? I would have loved to have seen more films with Wray and Farrell playing these characters. (Glenda Farrell of course would go on to star in her own film series as newshound Torchy Blane, a somewhat toned-down version of Florence.)
Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM
The difference between Charlotte and Florence is shown in a scene where, while dressed in sleepwear (this is a Pre-Code movie, after all) they discuss what relationships they prefer. The respectable and proper Charlotte is proud of her pairing with Ralph, despite the fact that he doesn't make a lot of money. Florence just wants a man "with lots and lots of dough".
Charlotte is meant to be the attractive damsel in distress, the object of Lionel Atwill's warped desires. She doesn't have the spunk or the attitude of Florence. One can say that the part of Charlotte is a boring one--Fay Wray doesn't get to spout snappy comebacks the way Glenda Farrell does. But Wray does make Charlotte likable and believable. When Ivan Igor is first introduced to Charlotte, he immediately sees in her the likeness of his lost statue of Marie Antoinette (helped no doubt by a fade in of Wray as the Antoinette statue over Charlotte's image, apparently to make sure all the viewers get the idea). Igor is smitten with Charlotte's beauty, and he tells her this. Wray shows that the young woman is a bit disconcerted by the strange old man's compliments, but she still responds to him with kindness and respect. In all her Scream Queen roles, Wray displayed an innate decency that made her characters incapable of anticipating what lies in store for them.
Wray really gets to shine in the climax of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. She arrives alone at the museum to surprise Ralph. As she walks furtively among the wax exhibits, one gets the feeling that the figures are "staring" at her. (I love how the New York wax museum appears to be set inside what looks like a art deco department store.) Charlotte eventually encounters Igor, and he manoeuvres her down into a magnificent secret laboratory which features a large boiling cauldron of wax. Igor finally reveals his plans to encase Charlotte in wax as a new Marie Antoinette and make her "immortal". Wray lets out one of her incredible screams (nobody could scream like Fay Wray) and she starts beating on Igor's face. The mad sculptor's wax face cracks, showing the horrible burned countenance beneath. Wray's screams, and her reading of the line "YOU FIEND!!" may be overtly melodramatic, but they perfectly fit the situation at hand. Igor shows Charlotte the dead body of his former partner, causing her to faint. This enables Igor to strap Charlotte down to a table and prepare her to be covered in wax. (After Charlotte is strapped down, she is shown covered in a sheet with bare shoulders exposed--giving one the risque impression that her clothes were removed by Igor.) Ralph and the police break in, and Charlotte is saved in time, while Igor is shot and plunges into the wax cauldron.
The final sequence of the film doesn't even feature Charlotte at all--it shows Florence receiving kudos for her story covering the whole affair, and then getting a marriage proposal from her equally sarcastic editor boss (Frank McHugh). Maybe it's just as well that we don't see Charlotte after her experience. A traumatized woman dealing with the after effects of such an ordeal wouldn't have suited the film's cynical nature.
In all honesty Fay Wray is definitely overshadowed by Glenda Farrell in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM--Farrell by far has the better part. Wray does play a true Scream Queen role, but that's nothing to look down on. The term "Scream Queen" may be considered a derogatory term in the 21st Century, but one must shouldn't judge such a role by the standards of today. Wray's damsels in distress never acted silly--they always had a dignity about them. Even Wray's Ann Darrow in KING KONG, whether down-and-out on the streets of New York or running around half-dressed in the jungles of Skull Island, still had a nobility about her. Wray was an exceptionally beautiful woman--in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM she's the beneficiary of some exquisite close-ups--but her Scream Queen characters never came off as vain or arrogant. Fay Wray certainly knew how to scream--but the reason she fit in so well in the horror films she appeared in was due to a kindly and appealing nature which came through to the audience. One can easily understand why Lionel Atwill and Kong longed for her, and why so many others wanted to rescue her.
Fay Wray was much, much more than a Scream Queen....but when she did have to play one, she did it better than almost anyone else before or since.