10/10/2010

Scarlet Street (1945)


On a rainy night in New York City, lonely, hen-pecked bank teller Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) wanders home from a party thrown in his honour by smug boss J.J. Hogarth (Russell Hicks), a gold watch all he has to show for 25 years of loyal service. When Cross stumbles upon a man assaulting a woman beneath a street lamp, he comes to her aid, fending off the attacker with his umbrella. The girl, one Kitty March (Joan Bennett), is not entirely grateful but agrees to have a drink with Chris anyway and he soon finds himself falling helplessly in love with her. When Kitty learns that he enjoys painting and lives in Greenwich Village, she gladly consents to see him again, assuming Chris to be a famous bohemian artist. This could hardly be further from the truth. At home, Cross is emasculated and scorned by his hateful harpy of a wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan), who still dotes on her deceased first husband and sneers maliciously at Chris's hobby, forcing him to set up his easel in the bathroom to escape her viperish philistinism. Kitty's misunderstanding prompts her and abusive pimp boyfriend Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea) to lead the naïve, lovestruck Cross down that well-worn road to perdition, the parasitical pair encouraging him to steal money from the vault at work to fix her up with a swish studio apartment. Worse, Johnny then succeeds in selling Chris's canvases to a noted critic and credits Kitty as the artist. Matters come to a head when Cross finally realises the full extent of Kitty's treachery and manipulation and her masochistic love for Johnny. In an explosive fit of rage, he murders her with an icepick and then allows Johnny to go to the gas chamber in his stead. However, Chris's guilty conscience begins to dog his every step and the poor fellow ultimately finds himself suicidally depressed, destitute and utterly alone.


Fresh from The Woman In The Window, Fritz Lang (above with his leading lady) reunited stars Robinson, Bennett and Duryea for Scarlet Street, a devastating noir about a harmless drudge who is destroyed by an ill-advised infatuation. The emotional liebestod of Chris Cross was adapted by Dudley Nichols from Georges De La Fouchardière's novel La Chienne, which had previously been filmed by Jean Renoir in 1931. Bennett makes for a wonderfully earthy, uncouth femme fatale as “Lazy Legs”, Duryea is suitably sleazy and this may well be Edward G. Robinson's finest hour, his performance deeply sad and affecting. As bold and bleak a vision of urban hell as you could wish to find - with some exquisitely stark, gloomy cinematography from Milton Krasner - do yourselves a favour and watch Scarlet Street in its entirety below.

15/09/2010

Shadow Of A Doubt (1943)


Alfred Hitchock's daughter Patricia always insisted that Shadow Of A Doubt was her father's favourite amongst his own films but the man himself denied this in conversation with François Truffaut, telling the Frenchman that it was merely the film he found easiest to defend with pedantic critics, “our friends, the plausibles and logicians.” Whatever the truth, it's certainly one of my favourite Hitchcock's (right up there with Notorious, 1946, and Strangers On A Train, 1951) and unquestionably a masterpiece. 17 years before Psycho, Hitch made a serial killer his protagonist and over four decades before David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), he ghosted in behind the manicured lawns of leafy suburbia to subject a “typical, representative” all-American family to a cruel experiment in evil.

Shadow Of A Doubt opens in derelict wasteland beneath the Pulaski Skyway in Newark, New Jersey, where bums stare out across the water at nothing and skeletons of old cars dot the landscape. Next we cut to a quiet neighbourhood street where the local kids are playing baseball. Joseph Valentine's camera wanders over to a front door and then up, up to the upstairs window of what turns out to be a rooming house, cloaked in shade. Inside Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) lies on his bed fully dressed, listening to the noise below and toying with a cigar. Handfuls of scrunched-up bank notes are scattered across the bedside table and rug. This guy is bad medicine. Charlie's landlady Mrs Martin (Constance Purdy) enters and tells him that two men have been looking for him. He fobs her off, waits for her to leave and then tosses a drinking glass angrily against the basin. Striding out into the street, Charlie walks right passed his two pursuers and proceeds up the pavement without batting an eye. They follow Charlie but he manages to escape into the industrial zone. After this temporary reprieve, the fugitive sends a wire to sunny Santa Rosa, California - the sort of place where even the traffic cops go to work with a smile on their faces - to inform his beloved elder sister Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge) that he's coming to stay. This is joyous news to Emma and her daughter Charlotte, also known as “Charlie” (Teresa Wright), who can't wait to be reunited with their favourite relative. But they're about to find out, just as we have, that there's a great deal more to the handsome, urbane “Uncle Charlie” than meets the eye. Arriving by train, the old devil comes to town in a thick plume of smoke and everyone is delighted - aside from the precocious Ann (Edna May Wonacott) who would rather be reading and bank clerk patriarch Joe (Henry Travers) who is more interested in speculating about the best way to kill a man with his ghoulish neighbour Herb (Hume Cronyn). After the initial greetings, Charlie's act soon begins to unravel, prone as he is to making misanthropic outbursts (some of them conveying Hitch's own dark attitudes towards “horrible, faded, fat, greedy women”). He makes a major mistake in presenting Young Charlie with a second-hand emerald ring engraved inside with a dead woman's initials, something she is instinctively suspicious of and which prompts her to launch an investigation of her own.


In Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock made the spiral a recurring visual motif. Here it's sharp straight lines - horizontal, vertical and diagonal - that he obsesses over. In Charlie's room at the boarding house, shadows are cast by the window blinds so that they criss-cross his body like prison bars. He wears a pinstripe suit that begins to take on the look of a convict's duds. When he outruns the cops, hiding on a rooftop, the road below noticeably dissects the land at an angle. Then in Santa Rosa it's the white picket fences, telegraph wires, train tracks, wooden floors, stairs and bannisters that cut up and layer the screen. Uncle Charlie's hated world is one of oppressive grids. He feels stifled and bored by conformity, convention and bourgeois concerns and is hungry for transgression ("The whole world's a joke to me"). He wants to break out beyond these suffocating lines and out-pace his past but somehow they just keep on pinning him back. Even when he does get lucky and the cops chase the wrong man into an aeroplane propellor on a runway in Maine, Charlie finds himself hitting the tracks soon after, his own waltz with death finally ceased.

The two Charlies are almost twins – both introduced lying contemplatively on beds, she believing telepathy has brought him to Santa Rosa to relieve her teenage ennui - so it's ironic that it turns out to be Young Charlie who has to bring her namesake down. The experience provides her with a hard lesson and she is less innocent and all the more worldly for her run-in with the Merry Widow Murderer (the camera panning back like a gasp when she discovers the truth from a news clipping in the library is marvellous). Her romance with Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), one of the detectives on the case, provides her with the consolation that at least one other person knew the real Charles Oakley, the man who tried to execute her, after he has so undeservedly been buried a saint by the townsfolk. Otherwise she wouldn't have been able to share the burden with another living soul for the sake of her poor mother.


The story for Shadow Of A Doubt came from the real-life case of serial strangler Earle Leonard Nelson, who, like Uncle Charlie, was known to have suffered a childhood accident in which he crashed his bicycle into a streetcar, after which he began to behave extremely erratically and went on to kill at least 20 women during the mid-twenties. Gordon McDonell, a novelist married to the head of David O. Selznick's story department, thought Nelson's case would make a good subject for a film and met Hitchcock for lunch at the Brown Derby one day to discuss the idea. The director saw great potential in it and hired playwrights Thornton Wilder (Our Town, 1938) and Sally Benson (Junior Miss, 1941) to work on the screenplay, with later revisions made by his own wife Alma. Wilder was eventually called up for military service and Hitch had to accompany him on the train all the way to a training base in Florida just to get his chubby digits on the last few pages of script. Hitch originally wanted to cast William Powell in the lead but MGM refused to loan him out. However, Powell did get to play the part on Cecil B. DeMille's Lux Radio Theater in January 1944, as did Cary Grant in 1950 for the Screen Directors Playhouse. The magnificent Joe Cotten reprised his Uncle Charlie for the Screen Guild Theater in 1943 and 1948.

10/09/2010

My Little Chickadee (1940)


W.C. Fields has a crack at the Old West. In more ways than one.

When Flower Belle Lee (Mae West) is exiled in disgrace from the town of Little Bend for fraternising with the infamous Masked Bandit, she takes a train to Greasewood City on which she meets a sauntering conniver named Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields), whom she marries on the spot with the help of a crooked gambler posing as a reverend (Donald Meek from Stagecoach, 1939) after spying his carpet bag filled with bank notes. However, Flower Belle soon learns that the greenbacks in question are mere facsimiles, vouchers for bottles of Twillie's “Famous Lizard Oil Hair Tonic and Corn Cure” and that her ersatz husband is really a small-time huckster and purveyor of “Novelties and Notions.” Prowling the gambling tables of the town's Last Gasp saloon, Twillie is soon evicted for cheating. However, when local bigwig Jeff Badger (Joseph Calleia) gets a look at his voluptuous lady wife, he hurriedly appoints him sheriff – a job with an unusually high mortality rate in Greasewood.


West and Fields, who had had adjacent dressing rooms at Paramount during the glory days of the early thirties, were finally teamed up at Universal in 1940 when both were arguably somewhat past their prime. Nevertheless, the duo, previously considered incompatible comedically, collaborated on a screenplay with West claiming to have written the bulk of it, leaving gaps for Fields to fill in his own comic bits, something he is said to have worked out on the back of a torn envelope (as he did with The Bank Dick, 1940). Producer Lester Cowan, who had overseen Fields' last team-up, with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy in the circus-set You Can't Cheat An Honest Man (1939), was brought in to supervise while the director was Edward F. Cline, another (uncredited) veteran of that film and a former Keystone man who claimed to have invented the Bathing Beauty. Fields had worked with Cline twice previously and would do so twice more but there was still some animosity between them, according to Fields' biographer Robert Lewis Taylor, who claimed the comedian was unable to resist mocking a director whom he regarded as ludicrously old fashioned and out-of-step. Fields would apparently treat “every suggestion [Cline] made as a pure distillate of obsolescent corn”, capering around the set, billowing an invisible cape and raising his eyebrows in overblown theatrical fashion to satirise him. Fields would also prove a nuisance to Mae West, who soon grew tired of his incessant, Martini-induced attempts to woo her off-camera: “Bill's a good guy but it's a shame he has to be so god-damned cute”.

Upon the finished film's release, Newsweek worried that the two stars were “diametrically opposed” because West dealt primarily in innuendo and deft wordplay while Fields regarded a script as “a necessary evil, to be ignored at the spur of any moment in favour of the hair-trigger ad-libbing that is the essence of his humour”. Although the periodical conceded that the predicted “war of temperaments” never materialised, it ultimately concluded that My Little Chickadee “isn't the comedy riot it promised to be”, a fair assessment that still rings true today. It is a highly flawed outing rather in the spirit of Laurel and Hardy's Way Out West (1937) but one that's impressively staged and shot and there are plenty of nice moments. Mae's shoot-out with the Injuns for one, her mathematics lesson at the schoolhouse for another. Fields meanwhile goes to bed with a goat by accident, battles a feather boa with a fork and gets to make wildly inventive use of his preposterous vocabulary. In search of Flower Belle he asks for “yon damsel with the hothouse cognomen”. When she shuts him out of the bridal suite, he exclaims, “Egad! The child's afraid of me – she's all 'atwit!” Another fine example is the lengthy bar-room anecdote below about the time he knocked down Chicago Molly, “a tough paloma” who threw a “melange of hot lunch” in his face one day on New York's Lower East Side.


There are recurring Fieldsian themes evident in My Little Chickadee – not least his frustration with women – but the price of West's appearance is that it forces him to play the lecher, a demand that sits uneasily with his familiar blowhard persona (though he did repeat this bit of business in the following year's madcap Never Give A Sucker An Even Break, prowling around a mountaintop after Margaret Dumont's naive daughter). He's clearly much happier glugging “sheep dip” under the disapproving eye of town busybody Mrs Gideon (Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West) than trying to seduce Mae in an ill-fitting nightie. However, the fact that he keeps his sheriff's badge pinned on to this ridiculous garb is a neat summation of his attitude towards a position of authority he has obtained by fraud. As a Western, My Little Chickadee features lawless towns, gushing steam trains, a gun battle, an attempted hanging, racism towards Indians (Fields repeatedly referring to his stoical, blanket-wearing Man Friday as a “red rascal”) and a pioneering newspaperman (Dick Foran) determined to bring civilised values to Greasewood some years before Dutton Peabody picked up a pen in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). As for the ending, in which West and Fields part company by swapping catchphrases, it's as nicely judged and respectful a moment as you could wish to see.

08/09/2010

Fallen Angel (1945)


After Laura (1944), Otto Preminger returned with this underrated but less successful noir, again with Dana Andrews, cinematographer Joseph LaShelle and composer David Raksin on board. While all are on good form (check out LaShelle's use of Venetian blinds in the lighting of Andrews and Linda Darnell below), the end result is something of a poor man's Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).


Andrews plays Eric Stanton, an out-of-work press agent and world class bastard who is kicked off a bus in small-town Walton, California, with nothing but a lonely dollar and a handful of moths in his trouser pocket. There he meets Stella (Darnell), a slutty waitress at a beach-side diner called Pop's Eats, whom half the men in town appear to have a stake in. Stanton fancies a piece of the action himself and decides to stick around. Stella is a born tramp who steals from the cash register and is on the look-out for a man who can give her security, stability and a nice home, far away from the hamburger grill and coffee pots. Stanton can't offer that. Not yet. In order to rustle up the dough, this utterly shameless professional huckster hatches a plan to sweep wealthy, bookish local spinster June Mills (Alice Faye) off her feet, then hustle her into a shotgun marriage and ditch her in time to set up shop with Stella on the Mills nest egg. However, when the latter is suddenly murdered on Eric's wedding night, he finds himself the prime suspect and is forced to take his angelic new bride on the run. They hole up in a shabby hotel in Frisco and only then does Stanton realise where his loyalties and affections really ought to lie.

The repeated use of a Raksin song, 'Slowly' (seemingly the only record available on the jukebox at Pop's diner), is a fairly clear indication that Preminger was aspiring here to repeat Laura's formula for success – that film spawning the hugely popular 'Theme from Laura'. Sadly, although Fallen Angel shares its predecessor's focus on the sudden death of a desirable woman and a subsequent investigation into her many suitors, it lacks Laura's delicate characterisation – preferring much broader strokes. The juxtaposition of raunchy, smouldering Darnell with the wholesome musical actress and radio personality Alice Faye, for instance, is heavily hammered home. Nominal star Faye was so disgusted with the final cut – which Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck had meddled with to ensure Darnell was given a more prominent role – that she sped off the studio lot, tossed her dressing room key to a security guard and didn't return to the screen for another 16 years. Andrews though has plenty to get his teeth into. Eric Stanton is a marvelously unscrupulous cad, desperate and devious, just as happy pushing tickets for "Psychic Extraordinary" Professor Madley (John Carradine) and his spurious “spook act” as marrying a virginal church organist for her money. Stanton's eventual antagonist, meanwhile, grizzled ex-New York City cop Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), is a clear forerunner of Andrews' Mark Dixon in Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950), a sadist who dons kid gloves to beat a confession out of his suspects. Also worth mentioning are Percy Kilbride as the kindly Pop, in love with Darnell and always willing to think the best of her, even when all evidence points to the contrary, and Anne Revere as June's elder sister Clara, who sees through Stanton but can't bring herself to stand in the way of June's chance at happiness.


Fallen Angel is better than its reputation might suggest although the whodunnit ending is somehow not as satisfying as it might have been. Harry Kleiner's screenplay was derived from a novel of the same name by the mysterious Marty Holland, of whom little is known beyond the fact that "he" was a woman named Mary and that another of her books, The File On Thelma Jordon (1949), was turned into a film by Robert Siodmak in 1950 starring Barbara Stanwyck.

06/09/2010

Out Of The Past (1947)

“You're no good and neither am I. That's why we deserve each other.”
- Kathie Moffat

A stranger (Paul Valentine) pulls in at Jeff Bailey's gas station in sleepy Bridgeport, California. He asks Jimmy, the deaf-mute kid (Dickie Moore) on the forecourt, where the owner is. Jimmy plays dumb. The man crosses the street to Marny's Café, pulls up a stool and orders coffee with cream, listening to the hostess's gossipy chatter. He claims to be an old friend of Jeff's just passing through town but somehow we're not so sure. Returning to his car, he finds a wary Jeff (Robert Mitchum) returned from the river bank, lugging his rod and tackle box. “Hello Joe.”

So begins a journey that will take the secretive Jeff Bailey back into a past he thought he could leave behind, back into the clutches of the vicious racketeer he once betrayed who never forgets. On the long night drive up to Whit Sterling's (Kirk Douglas) mansion at Lake Tahoe, Jeff spills the beans to his wholesome, loving girlfriend Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) and we cut to a flashback. Before Bridgeport, Jeff was a low-rent private eye named Markham, not Bailey, who had been called in by Sterling to find Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), the moll who shot him and left him for dead minus $40,000. Jeff traced her to Acapulco, Mexico, where, one fine day, she walked into his life, straight out of a sunbeam. Instead of turning her over to Sterling, Jeff drinks bourbon with her at Pablo's, takes her for midnight walks along the beach and falls in love, the pair eventually escaping together back to San Francisco. All goes well until the lovers happen to run into Jeff's jilted ex-partner, “a stupid, oily gent” named Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), at a racetrack by chance. He tries to blackmail them. After a fist fight with Jeff, Kathie shoots Fisher and that's where they parted. Now Whit has the tax man investigating his past and he wants Jeff to undertake one final job to clear the outstanding debt. But are things really that straightforward? Kathie is back with Whit now, so the odds are against it.

Horror specialist Jacques Tourneur directed this archetypal noir for RKO from a novel by one “Geoffrey Homes” called Build My Gallows High (1946). The author's real name was Daniel Mainwaring and it's he who was responsible for the adaptation, with uncredited revisions made by Frank Fenton and pulp maestro James M. Cain. There's some truly great hard-boiled narration and dialogue on show (“Let's go down to the bar. You can cool off while we try and impress each other”) and the plot construction is amazingly intricate. You really have to pay attention here, especially during the San Francisco sequence in which Whit tries to entrap Jeff in the murder of two-bit accountant Leonard Eels (Ken Niles). On top of that you get Mitchum in a grubby trenchcoat at his laconic, fatalistic best, baby-faced Jane Greer as a .45-toting femme fatale to rival Brigid O'Shaughnessy (“You're like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another,” sneers Mitchum), a magnificently reptilian Kirk Douglas and a bevy of beautiful, long, hanging shadows from cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. There are also two memorable deaths to speak of: Joe reeled in off the top of a waterfall after finding himself snagged with Jimmy's hook, pulled crashing down to infinity on the rocks below, and Kathie's, taken out by a spray of machine-gun bullets as she returns fire from the passenger seat of a moving car with a dead man slumped behind the wheel. The end is also very moving, in which Ann is comforted by Jimmy's assurance that Jeff had intended to run away with Kathie after all, hoping to recreate those idyllic days in Acapulco – a half-truth that, without any further explanation of its extenuating circumstances, becomes a betrayal to set her free from mourning, from becoming ensnared by the past herself. Mitchum and Greer would be reunited for The Big Steal in 1949 but, trust me, it doesn't get much better than this.

03/09/2010

Gilda (1946)

“I hated her so I couldn't get her out of my mind for a minute.”
- Johnny Farrell

American drifter and gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is saved from a waterfront mugging in Buenos Aires by a mysterious German gentleman with a spring-loaded cane. The stranger turns out to be Ballin Mundsun (George Macready), owner of a local casino, who offers Johnny a job as his right hand man. The pair become inseparable until Ballin disappears on a trip and returns with a “surprise”, a new bride on his arm in the shape of walking powder keg Gilda (Rita Hayworth), who just so happens to be an old flame of Johnny's. What follows is one of the most twisted psycho-sexual melodramas ever put before the public as the trio become embroiled in a decidedly unhealthy and abusive ménage à trois, stuffed with sado-masochism, emotional torture and bitter jealousy from all angles. With sexual tension descending on the gambling hall like a thick ocean fog, it's a small wonder that anyone can make out the roulette wheels clearly enough to place their bets.

The phlegmatic Mundsun appears to take pleasure in Gilda's lies about where she goes at night and obvious dalliances with other men, savouring the heartache of being made a cuckold by this most destructive of femme fatales, a girl he has put on a pedestal and made a goddess for that very purpose. This icy masochist almost certainly relishes the thought of having Johnny, the virile surrogate he has appointed to be Gilda's guardian, take her “swimming,” having after all “bought” the pair of them for his personal amusement. Johnny is equally sexually ambiguous - clearly happiest in the days before Gilda's arrival when he first entered Ballin's world with an agreement that “women and gambling don't mix.” “You must lead a gay life,” he says to his employer early on, after Ballin refers to the concealed blade inside his phallic walking stick as his idea of a “friend,” an item Johnny is instinctively attracted to for the violence and decadence it promises and represents. He can be misogynistic (“Statistics show that there are more women in the world than anything else. Except insects”) and his hatred of Gilda soon becomes an all-consuming passion – sparked either by her past rejection of him, her barbed taunts now or her disruption of his comfortable partnership with Ballin. The feeling is mutual. “I hate you so much that I would destroy myself to take you down with me,” breathes Gilda. Ballin soon notices their animosity and observes, “Hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting... There is a heat in it, that one can feel.” He sympathises: “Hate is the only thing that has ever warmed me.” Gilda feels that warmth too, enjoying the intrigue and anger she creates all around her more than the material wealth and pretty decorations she has acquired in marrying Ballin for his money. Gilda knows and accepts that the men in her life treat her like an expensive object and exploits the appreciative roar of the crowd. But it's Johnny's burning, lustful hatred that really excites her and such dangerous games can't go on for ever.

Two of Gilda's minor characters prove the most acute observers of this most corrosive of love triangles. Uncle Pio (Steven Geray), the dryly philosophical washroom attendant with a “worm's-eye view” on proceedings, senses the deep loneliness behind Gilda's carnival mask and tells her: “You smoke too much. I notice only frustrated people smoke too much and only lonely people are frustrated.” Johnny Farrell also chain-smokes throughout the film. He too is in dire need of a hug and it's Uncle Pio who finally breaks up the trio for good when he stabs the vengeful, resurrected Ballin so that Johnny and Gilda can go straight. Joseph Calleia's ever-watchful Detective Obregon makes the pithiest summary of their tortuous relationship: “You two kids love each other pretty terribly, don't you? It's the most curious love-hate pattern I've ever had the pleasure of witnessing.” Amen brother. There never was a woman like Gilda.

Rita Hayworth never forgave producer Virginia Van Upp for forever dooming her to be typecast as Gilda, a fantasy role no mortal woman could ever hope to live up to. “Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda and woke up with me,” she famously lamented. However, Gilda ensured her place among the true gods of the screen and proved a box office smash with returning servicemen who longed to see more of the pin-up girl that got them through the war. Hayworth didn't disappoint, tossing her hair and vamping it up with the best of them. “Decent? Me?” The script was written by Jo Eisinger and Marion Parsonnet from an original story by E.A. Ellington with contributions from an uncredited Ben Hecht.

02/09/2010

Arsenic & Old Lace (1944)


Halloween night, Brooklyn. Newly-married drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) dashes home to tell his beloved maiden aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) the good news before zipping off to Niagara Falls on his honeymoon with bride Elaine (Priscilla Lane), daughter to the stuffy reverend next door. However, when Mortimer happens to idly open up the window seat in his aunts' living room, he finds a corpse there staring glassily back at him. Horrified, he learns that this is in fact the twelfth or possibly thirteenth lonely old man the spinsters have done away with (“A very bad habit”), poisoning them with elderberry wine as an act of “mercy” and burying them in the cellar with the aid of Teddy (John Alexander), Mortimer's insane, bugle-blowing brother who believes himself to be 26th President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt, digging graves for yellow fever victims at the Panama Canal. Frantically trying to work out what to do, Mortimer is then confronted by two more serial killers - his other brother, the violently unstable Jonathan (Raymond Massey) and his accomplice, Dr Einstein (Peter Lorre), a schnapps-slugging renegade plastic surgeon who has inadvertently made Jonathan over to look like Boris Karloff after seeing a certain movie. Total madness descends as the lights go out, involving the Brewsters, Elaine, several misplaced bodies, a gaggle of Irish cops with literary ambitions and the arrival of Mr Witherspoon (Edward Everett Horton), director of the Happydale asylum, a “rest home” where just about everyone involved would clearly be better off. And, on top of all that, the cab driver outside still hasn't been paid.


Frank Capra completed this macabre screwball farce in 1941 but it wasn't released until three years later when Joseph Kesselring's hit play had finished its Broadway run. Hull, Adair and Alexander all reprised their stage roles but Massey was called in as a replacement for the real Boris Karloff, whose casting on stage had made a self-referential joke out of Jonathan Brewster's sinister, scarred appearance. Sadly this may be Cary Grant's least successful comic performance, a hysterical, hyperactive turn full of wild mugging and cartoonish double-takes. Naturally he looks as sharp as ever and is certainly game for the material but ultimately his incessant wackiness comes across as a little too much. The rest of the cast are all nicely suited to their wide-eyed character parts and there's plenty of pleasing black humour on show. Here's director Capra having some fun on set with a bound and gagged Grant, just after a narrow escape from one of Lorre's “operations.”

01/09/2010

My Darling Clementine (1946)


Arizona, 1881. Young James Earp (Don Garner) lies stricken, face down in the mud, twin shotgun shells buried deep in his spine. The fire's been doused by torrential rain, which keeps on coming. An unwashed cooking pot stands neglected, filling up with water. The Earps' scrawny herd has disappeared, rustled by the killer and his posse, leaving the range completely deserted but for the returning brothers appearing over the horizon. Stooped inside their slickers and peering out into the night, these three men are entirely unaware of the tragedy that awaits them. Their kid sibling, slain at 18. He'll never get to give his girl the gold trinket he's been saving up for.

On finding James's body, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda), former marshal to Dodge City turned cowpoke, heads straight back to Tombstone and accepts the mayor's offer of a job after all. Pinning on the tin star once more means that Earp is able to pursue a personal investigation into the murder through public office, with surviving brothers Morgan (Ward Bond) and Virgil (Tim Holt) sworn in as deputies. His motive becomes a mission to bring order and civilisation to this “rough lookin' country” so that “kids will be able to grow up and live safe.” He's already had his own wild trail beard shaved off, kicked a meddlesome drunken Indian off the land (ahem) and put Mexican good-time girl Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) in her place - the horse trough. Next on his agenda is the town's unofficial lawman, the enigmatic man in black Doc Holliday (Victor Mature). Riddled with tuberculosis, bitter self-loathing and decadent Eastern manners and culture, this Doc is sick and determined to drink himself to death. He sneers and tosses a shot glass on seeing his reflection in the frame of his diploma, smashing it to pieces, and later fails in an attempted operation to save Chihuahua from a nasty bullet wound. “A man could almost follow your trail from graveyard to graveyard,” observes Wyatt and the remark proves prophetic – it'll end in Doc's own. Their battle for supremacy forms the core of John Ford's film – the run-ins with Walter Brennan's degenerate Clanton clan only really serving as bookends. Earp and Holliday end up forming a kind of coalition government, built on the consensus that the centre must be protected from extremists like the bull whip-wielding Old Man Clanton so that the civilised values they share may be allowed to flourish and prosper.


And sure enough they succeed, even if the gunfight at the O.K. Corral means Doc's last stand. A new church is under construction with the scent of fresh-cut lumber in the air, the pioneering Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor is doing a roaring trade in honeysuckle blossom cologne (“Sweet smellin' stuff!”) and the unspoiled Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs), having battled her way through every mining town and cow camp between here and Boston only to be scorned by Holliday, has settled in and intends to set up a school. You can even hear Shakespeare in Tombstone, so long as that “eminent actor" and "sterling tragedian” Granville Thorndyke (Alan Mowbray) happens to be holding court, back by popular demand at the Bird Cage theatre or held hostage by “tavern louts” at the local saloon. Doc's even had Mac the bartender (J. Farrell MacDonald) serving up champagne, if you can believe it. With the Clantons wiped out and Doc and Chihuahua gone, the West is won, Wyatt's mission is complete and James Earp can rest in peace.


“I knew Wyatt Earp... and he told me about the fight at the O.K. Corral. So we did it exactly the way it had been,” said director Ford in typically matter-of-fact fashion. This famous historical episode has been re-enacted many times on screen but never better than here and, really, how many directors could lay claim to that level of expert, eye-witness testimony, even if Ford and screenwriters Samuel G. Engel, Sam Hellman and Winston Miller did take a few liberties with the truth? Apparently Ford met the real Earp (1848-1929) during the silent era when he was working as a prop boy on the same Western the great gunslinger was advising on - the young Ford plying Earp with fresh coffee to get the facts about the shoot-out. Though the real-time reconstruction of it in My Darling Clementine is impressively handled, it's the film's topical subtext that would have resonated most with audiences upon its release in 1946, as Peter Biskind explains:

“While the relation of films to their immediate historical context is often oblique, here it is not. Earp is the ex-marshal of Dodge City. Like returning GI's, he has put down the gun in favour of pacific pursuits. He finds, however, that he has been premature, that before Tombstone (read, the home front) can be made safe for kids (read, democracy), he has to pick up the gun once again, in much the same way that both corporate liberals and conservatives alike basically agreed on the necessity of remilitarising America for the Cold War.”

Fonda, fresh out of the US Navy, was thus the perfect choice to add authenticity to this most all-American of roles. Here he is in one of my favourite exchanges from a brilliant movie:

Wyatt: “Mac, you ever been in love?”
Mac: “No. I've been a bartender all my life.”

31/08/2010

The Big Heat (1953)

You know instantly that any film that opens with a close-up of a .38 revolver isn't going to end well and The Big Heat doesn't. A cop reaches for the gun and blows his brains out seconds later.

Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is assigned to investigate this suicide and suspects the dead man's widow, Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan), of suppressing a note. Bannion meets with the late Officer Duncan's mistress Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green), only to learn that she's been bumped off soon after. Warned off pursuing the matter further by the corrupt and compromised men upstairs, Bannion believes local mob boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) is the cause of it all and confronts him at home. Soon afterwards Bannion begins to receive death threats but ignores them for the sake of the case. Finally Bannion's world is shattered when his loving Stepford wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon's older sister) is killed by a car bomb that was meant for him. Distraught, Bannion insults his smug and cowardly superiors and turns in his badge, preferring to go it alone rather than work within the confines of a system he considers terminally corrupt. Now a civilian avenger on a “hate binge”, Bannion encounters Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame), moll to Lagana's sadistic henchman Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), who feels sorry for him and appreciates his saving a dice girl from Stone's cigar burns. However, their friendship means a cruel and unusual punishment for Debby before Bannion can finally nail Stone and Lagana for good.

Fritz Lang's film was adapted for the screen by former crime reporter Sidney Boehm from a Saturday Evening Post serial and novel by William P. McGivern. It's a great fit for Lang, who gets to explore a favourite theme – the thin line, easily blurred, between cops and crooks, good and evil. The Big Heat presents a nightmare world of brutal violence in which the fictional town of Kenport is ruled by an all-powerful crime syndicate whose members spend their leisure hours lounging around a poker table alongside police commissioners, city councillors and judges. Homicide detective Bannion's only isle of solitude from the sea of vice all around him is his perfect fifties home – a domestic idyll where his cute daughter Joyce (Linda Bennett) is free to build block castles while he and his resourceful wife share sips of beer and fried steak. The intrusion into this suburban paradise – first by an obscene phone call and then by the fatal bomb – is too much to bear. These three little kittens lose a great deal more than their mittens and it's this devastating tragedy that causes Bannion to snap and ignore his colleague's warning that, “No man's an island Dave. You can't set yourself against the world and get away with it.” He removes himself from society to stalk the night as a trenchcoated vigilante, only to find, much to his surprise, that there are a few good people he can depend on after all – folk like Debby Marsh, the crippled lady at the wrecking yard, Lieutenant Wilkes (Willis Bouchey) and his brother-in-law's old army buddies. Lang told an interviewer in March 1953 that he considered Bannion, “a symbol of hope in these days of taxes, insecurity and the H-bomb,” and perhaps this is why. He is not only incorruptible himself but his cause sparks the community into action against the hoods and crime lords.

The coffee scalding scene above is rightly remembered as the most shocking act of violence against a woman on the American screen since Cagney mashed a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face in The Public Enemy (1931). However, it is only one of several such cruelties against females in The Big Heat, the others being the murders of Lucy Chapman and Katie Bannion and Vince Stone's bullying of the croupier girl. Women in Boehm's script are either maternal saints like Katie or fallen sinners like Lucy or the blackmailing Mrs Duncan. Debby Marsh must die to earn her revenge against Vince Stone and does just that, her hideous scars temporarily concealed by a mink collar as she hits the ground shot – a Two-Face redeemed. Another female presence in the film is that of Lagana's mother – an austere portrait of whom hangs in his office, looking down on her son's shady deals with an approving eye. His admiration for this “great lady” and his first appearance, in which a henchman in a flannel bath robe and silk pyjamas lights him a cigarette in bed, make less than subtle suggestions about Lagana's “aberrant” sexuality. A touch of homophobic propaganda there - if you want to lead a good, clean American life, don't get into organised crime. Those boys get up to all kinds of nonsense.

Ford and Grahame would be reunited in Lang's next feature, Human Desire (1954), an adaptation of Émile Zola's novel La Bête Humaine (1890), previously filmed by Jean Renoir in 1938 starring Jean Gabin.

29/08/2010

Kiss Them For Me (1957)


Cary Grant, Lief Erickson and Jayne Mansfield in Stanley Donen's film of Frederic Wakeman's 1944 novel Shore Leave for 20th Century Fox. Previously adapted for Broadway by Luther Davis, Donen's film of the same source is a weird, uneven hybrid of Second World War comedy and issue drama - odd given that the same filmmaker was so comfortable in similar territory when he directed Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in On The Town in 1949. The plot concerns three decorated US navy pilots who are granted four days leave from bombing the South Pacific. They shack up in a plush suite in San Francisco's Fairmount Hotel and plan to spend their leisure time chilling out, sipping “Stingers” and scoring big time with any suggestible females who happen to take advantage of their open door policy. However, they've hardly had a chance to plug in the jukebox or make a start on trashing the place before the festivities are interrupted by a fastidious manager, army bureaucrats and the odious Eddie Turnbill (Erickson), a shipyard tycoon who wants the boys to make a series of rousing, morale-boosting speeches to his workers. Southern rube Mississip (Larry Blyden) and aspiring congressman McCann (Ray Walston) are game but Lieutenant Commander Andy Crewson (Grant) is exhausted and jaded with what he regards as cynical propaganda duties and shameless profiteering, preferring instead to pursue Turnbill's elegant fiancée (model Suzy Parker) and give Shore Patrol a run for their money.

Grant's experience shows here and his portrayal of a charismatic born leader suffering under the strains of undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress is highly affecting and a skilful variation on his familiar comic persona. His cool performance is one reason to persist with Kiss Them For Me (which must have seemed dated the day it was released) and co-star Jayne Mansfield is another. A one-woman riot with a healthy awareness of her own inherent ridiculousness, Mansfield was the sort of busty blonde starlet who made Marilyn Monroe look quietly understated. Her megawatt sex appeal is particularly well-matched here with Nathaniel Frey's gormless Chief Petty Officer Ruddle. Ever since her tragic demise in a car crash in 1967, this subtlety-free pin-up has remained a cult figure and been made the subject of several musical tributes, particularly in the punk era. Perhaps the most interesting of these is this bhangra-inflected 1991 effort from ageing goths Siouxsie & the Banshees, which takes its title from the Donen film. Somehow it's difficult to imagine the formidable Siouxsie Sioux getting stuck into this confused, late period Cary Grant vehicle with a packet of Digestives and her feet up but I suppose it takes all sorts.

27/08/2010

Track Of The Cat (1954)


Oh dear. Track Of The Cat is an absolutely god awful, bum-numbingly boring Western in which Big Bob Mitchum heads out into the deep snow of the Colorado mountains in search of the titular “black painter” that has been picking off his cattle. Doesn't sound so bad, right? Well that's only the half of it. While bully boy Mitchum is out hunting the unseen feline, his dysfunctional family are busy thrashing out an unbelievably tedious and clichéd psychodrama of epic proportions, screeching at one another across the kitchen table and airing long-cherished resentments about mother's loveless religious zealotry, pa's boozing and young Harold's (Tab Hunter) reluctance to stand up for himself. Voice of reason Teresa Wright (so good in Hitchcock's Shadow Of A Doubt, 1943) wanders around as an old maid sister imploring people to overcome their repressions and express themselves while Harold's girl Gwen (Diana Lynn) lusts after Mitchum's manly insolence and urges the meeker brother to fight his own battles. Sensitive middle sibling Arthur (William Hopper) meanwhile is slain early on by the panther but it's a good hour later before the quarrelling Bridge family have gotten it together enough to bury the poor bastard, so absorbed are they in their own angst. Yea gods. Anthony Mann can't have lost much sleep.

The turgid sub-Tennessee Williams/Ibsen bickering aside, the mountain-top ranch setting and snowy locations shot by William H. Clothier in “Warner Color” are unusual and occasionally very beautiful while Roy Webb's score carries more than its fair share of the dramatic burden. It was clearly an off day for the costume department, however. Mitchum and Hopper look absurd in their winter coats – the former's being a thick red hunter's jacket with a black Charlie Brown stripe across the middle, the latter's a furry cow hide duffle coat complete with hood. Two obvious Christmas presents if ever I saw them. When Hopper gets killed, Mitchum adopts the cow coat for himself and bobs his way down the mountainside in snowshoes and the spectacle of his wading gait is utterly ridiculous. It should be tragic when the big man realises he's lost his lunch box but his blubbing is less than convincing and the scene in which three timely gusts of wind blow out his last matches one by one is laugh out loud funny. So too is his burning of the volume of Keats he finds inside his late brother's coat pocket. Yeah, take that Keats. 'Posthumia' my arse. And the final insult? There is no cat. All we get is some off-screen growling and a couple of POV shots, including one in which the hapless Hopper recoils in horror as he is mauled to death. When the previously spineless Tab Hunter (inevitably) bags the blighter with his rifle, we don't even get to see the body. Just some predictable cod-mystical pidgin English jibbering from Joe Sam (Carl Switzer), the ageless Injun who looks unfortunately like Keith Richards with a hangover. Come on guys, this is 1954, the golden age of B-movie schlock. Couldn't you at least have rented a stuffed one?


Track Of The Cat was experienced director William A. Wellman's second crack at a Walter Van Tillburg Clark novel, after shooting The Ox-Bow Incident with Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn in 1943. Wellman's adaptation of Clark's 1949 novel Track Of The Cat was scripted by A.L. Bezzerides and produced by actor John Wayne and Robert Fellows. I understand the novel has a good revenge-of-nature theme going for it, in which the cat represents Joe Sam's spirit guide taking vengeance on the Bridges for claiming land that isn't theirs, but the film completely fails to dramatise this. Or indeed Mitchum's realisation that his hunter has become the hunted. Or his death, in which he falls into a ravine while running away in a mad fit of panic and cowardice, which is way too abrupt and anticlimactic after the painful slowness of the ranch scenes. To be fair to the director, there are some interesting technical flourishes on show, like having Arthur's funeral shot from the perspective of a body lying within the hillside grave. Beulah Bondi is also very good, if somewhat repellent, in her role as the holier-than-thou matriarch (she usually played Jimmy Stewart's mother on screen), while Englishman Philip Tonge deserves a mention for trying to inject a touch of levity into proceedings as the dipso dad with half bottles of Scotch stashed all over the house. Peter Biskind once observed that, “Shaving scenes in Westerns are always an index of the degree to which civilisation has taken hold.” When Tonge picks up a razor in his first scene, this civilising ritual acts as a red herring to wrong-foot the audience and those around him – his retired miner is all wilderness and pain beneath the sozzled surface.

23/08/2010

The Vampire Bat (1933)

Bargain basement studio Majestic Pictures Inc. produced this cheapo horror to capitalise on the popular screen pairing of British thesp and noted swinger Lionell Atwill with Fay Wray, the “scream queen” the big ape would fall for in Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong (1933). Atwill and Wray had starred together at Warner Brothers in Doctor X (1932) and Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933) so while the latter film was in post-production Majestic moved quickly to knock out another vehicle for the duo, calling up Universal to rent out their German village set from James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) plus the interiors from that director's more humorous The Old Dark House (1932) with Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton and Melvyn Douglas. Douglas must have stowed away in one of the Universal delivery trucks as he appears here too as the sceptical hero in love with Wray.

The finished Vampire Bat, directed by Frank S. Strayer, concerns a series of mysterious deaths by blood letting in the German town of Kleinschloss. The superstitious locals suspect a plague of vampire bats to be responsible for the spate of pierced jugulars but rationalist Inspector Karl Brettschneider (Douglas) thinks otherwise, pointing out that vampire bats are native only to South America, an inconvenient truth rarely admitted in Gothic schlockers of this sort. An angry mob soon rounds on local simpleton Herman Gleib (Dwight Frye), a jabbering nitwit with a fascination for bats, but Brettschneider remains unconvinced. The doc called in to act as coroner, Otto von Neimann (Atwill), meanwhile continues to promote the vampirism theory and pins the blame on Herman. But what is this man of science really up to? What is that pulsating bath sponge thing he keeps in the bell jar? Why is he secretly trying to hypnotise people? And why does he insist on drinking strong coffee at 10pm every night? Only Karl and his girlfriend, von Neimann's lab assistant Ruth (Wray), can find the answers.


Hardly original but with plenty to enjoy, Strayer's film is a real “talkie” in the most literal sense. There's very little action to speak of beyond the scene in which Herman is hounded to his death by torch-wielding villagers (shot on location in the caves of Bronson Canyon, the same location as Phil Tucker's Robot Monster, 1953) and even then his staking occurs off camera. The Vampire Bat consists instead almost entirely of scenes in which the actors pace up and down the creaking old house exchanging theories - with varying degrees of subtlety. Atwill, Douglas and Wray all do their schtick nicely enough but Lionel Belmore as the bürgermeister serves his lines with more ham than a supermarket deli. Maude Eburne does provide a very welcome change of tone in the comic relief slot as Wray's hypochondriac maiden aunt Gussie. Dwight Frye meanwhile was a noted character actor of the period who specialised in horror and had appeared in Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) as Renfield opposite Bela Lugosi and also pitched up in both Whale's Frankenstein and Bride Of Frankenstein (1935). He died in 1943 aged just 44 after suffering a heart attack on an L.A. city bus but was later “immortalised” in 1971 as the misspelt subject of Alice Cooper's song 'The Ballad Of Dwight Fry'.

19/08/2010

Laughter In Paradise (1951)

Here's a great overseas poster for Italian Mario Zampi's British-made inheritance comedy Laughter In Paradise starring Alastair Sim, George Cole, Fay Compton and Guy Middleton. Alas, the poster's a good deal better than the finished film.

After aged practical joker Henry Russell (Hugh Griffith) croaks while setting his nurse's newspaper on fire, his heirs gather for the reading of the will. Each stands to inherit £50,000 on the condition that they complete a specific task tailored for their personal improvement. Miserly old maid Agnes (Compton) must spend a month working as a housekeeper, mild-mannered Deniston (Sim), an author of penny dreadfuls under various pseudonyms, must get himself arrested and spend 28 days behind bars, meek bank clerk Herbert (Cole) is instructed to execute a hold-up and despicable cad Simon (Middleton) has to marry the first woman he meets. Simple.

The trouble here is that the script by Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies is too elaborate and requires that the film be split into four separate story strands of varying degrees of interest. Agnes's Scrooge-like redemption from trout-faced harpy to reformed character is touching enough but seems to belong to another film entirely while Middleton is simply very unappealing as a society parasite and poser living beyond his means with the aid of an ever-resourceful Jeevesian butler. Terry-Thomas must have been otherwise engaged. A shame really as there's some wonderful dramatic acting on show from Sim, Eleanor Summerfield and Joyce Grenfell in a weird love triangle. Summerfield is the adoring secretary who dutifully taps out Deniston's cheapo novels with titles like Death & The F.A. Cup, The Bank Bandit and Blood Lust and believes in this compromised middle-aged fool (Sim had previously played a hack writer in Ealing's Hue & Cry, 1947), while Grenfell is the judge's daughter and army stalwart who is finally running out of patience with the man she has been engaged to for a decade without ever quite managing to drag to the altar. The almost wordless scenes in which a nervous Sim attempts to shoplift from a department store and toss a brick through a display window are masterclasses in expressive acting. The end of the film, however, in which all four characters admit how much they've learned from their experiences (urgh) and then laugh hysterically at the news that their never was any money in the first place because the deceased died flat broke, was very ill-advised. Hearing laughter after an hour and a half of this meandering mess just feels strange and unnerving.

Some points of interest in Laughter In Paradise include another early appearance by Audrey Hepburn (to go with her briefest of turns in The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951), a late one by actor Ernest Thesiger as Endicott, the reader of the will (a thesp whose career high point came in James Whale's Bride Of Frankenstein, 1935), and an all too brief one from Griffith. The Welshman, instantly recognisable from his prominent nose, bushy brows and bulbous eyes, famously played the Lord High Steward in Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949) and Professor Welch in the Boulting Brothers' Lucky Jim (1957) before going on to greater things in America with bit-parts in Ben-Hur (1959) and The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971). John Laurie as the wild-eyed Scots hypochondriac Gordon Webb was a late replacement for Stanley Holloway and his performance is an early variation on his Private Frazer character from Dad's Army (1968-77) while the lively soundtrack comes from Stanley Black, who also scored Zampi's The Naked Truth (1957) and Too Many Crooks (1959) and Charles Crichton's The Battle Of The Sexes (1959). Laughter In Paradise was remade by Duncan Wood in 1970 as Some Will, Some Won't with Ronnie Corbett, Dennis Price, Leslie Philips, Arthur Lowe, Wilfred Brambell and the eternally optimistic Summerfield again. Sim, Cole, Summerfield and Thesiger would find themselves reunited later in 1951 when all four appeared in Brian Desmond Hurst's definitive Dickens adaptation and Christmas favourite, Scrooge.

16/08/2010

The Green Man (1956)


Jill Adams, Terry-Thomas and George Cole causing havoc at the front desk of the Green Man hotel in Newcliff where they believe Alastair Sim's hitman Harry Hawkins has planted a bomb for the benefit of pompous, philandering MP Sir Gregory Upshott (Raymond Huntley). One of many enjoyable British Lion collaborations between the production team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder and star Sim, The Green Man was based on the film-makers' stage play Meet A Body (1955) and marked the directorial debut of cameraman Robert Day - the latter receiving uncredited assistance from the more experienced Basil Dearden, who had worked at Ealing on a string of old Will Hays comedies and, perhaps more notably, on The Captive Heart (1946) and The Blue Lamp (1950).

The Green Man opens with a wonderful voiceover from Sim and a flashback to his school days in which he explains how a prank involving an electrically-charged pen and ink well backfired on a cruel headmaster with fatal results and led to Hawkins beginning his career in professional assassination. We see him on various assignments from his glory days, apparently targeting only arrogant and deserving bigwigs ("those overblown balloons who just cry out to be popped"), including one in which he rubs out a Latin American dictator visiting a football stadium by placing a ticking explosive inside the match ball. Fabulous.

Now in semi-retirement, living the sedate life of a watchmaker in Turnham Green, Hawkins has nevertheless been buttering up Ms. Marigold (Avril Angers), secretary to Cabinet minister Upshott, in order to learn the politician's movements on a particular evening so that he can whack him on behalf of a shady Middle Eastern syndicate. His meticulous plans begin to unravel, however, when Marigold becomes suspicious and insists on seeing Hawkins in person for an explanation – a demand complicated by its coinciding with his regular Friday afternoon chess game with local policeman Sergeant Bassett (Cyril Chamberlain). Thinking quickly, Hawkins dispatches his assistant Angus McKechnie (John Chandos) to switch the name plaque on his house, “Windyridge”, with that of his neighbours, “Appleby”, so that Marigold will be diverted to the wrong residence where she can be disposed of by McKechnie. A farce ensues involving a body in a piano, a gauche vacuum cleaner salesman (Cole), the girl next door (Adams) and her stuffy radio announcer fiancé (Colin Gordon, who previously appeared with Sim, again as a BBC employee, in Folly To Be Wise, 1953). Can these muddled amateurs work out what's going on and get to the south coast in time to thwart Hawkins before he can blast Upshott? The clock is ticking...

On seeing The Green Man, Pauline Kael wrote of Sim that, "It is unlikely that anybody in the history of the cinema has ever matched his peculiar feat of flipping expressions from benign innocence to blood-curdling menace in one devastating instant.” A scene in which he flatters a trio of spinster musicians, pretending to be transported into throes of ecstasy by their playing in a bid to hurry them out of the hotel's drawing room so that he can execute his plan, is a great case in point. T-T, as always, provides some stiff competition in the scene stealing stakes, however, and said of his lugubrious co-star, "You never knew exactly what he was going to do and neither, I felt, did he!" Cole and Adams are also very charming as the panicky suburbanites out of their depth on the killer's trail - she in particular deserving credit for being so game, imitating Marilyn Monroe and being required at one point to strip to her underwear to provide an ill-justified dash of minor titillation. Something for the chaps, what what?! It's clumsily handled and very Fifties.


Harry Hawkins may find himself behind bars at the film's close, but Gilliat and Launder clearly expect us to side with this eccentric murderer rather than the preposterous posers on the right side of the law he makes a living doing away with. That might sound subversive but think of Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949) and given the choice between Hawkins and the impatient, authoritarian snob Sir Gregory, it seems only natural to favour the former. The nervous girl the Honourable Member is attempting to lead astray, incidentally, was played by Eileen Moore, Cole's then-wife, while Arthur Lowe also has a small but crucial cameo as a radio salesman.

13/08/2010

Horse Feathers (1932)


Director Norman Z. McLeod and actress Thelma Todd reunited with the Marx Brothers at Paramount after Monkey Business (1931) for Horse Feathers, their fourth feature, an inspired college football satire that would inspire all other university-set features to follow from A Chump At Oxford (1940) to Animal House (1978). Also returning were writers S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone (a New Yorker wit and a cartoonist respectively) plus song writing duo Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, the latter pair contributing perhaps my favourite song of all time from Groucho's inaugural speech, 'Whatever It Is, I'm Against It', an immortal anthem for contrarians everywhere.



As always, Groucho takes the lead, here playing Professor Quincey Adams Wagstaff, the new president of Huxley College, an institution that has failed to win its annual football game against hated rivals Darwin since 1888. On the advice of his student son (Zeppo), Wagstaff heads to the local speakeasy (password: “Swordfish”) to sign up two ringers. Instead, he recruits Baravelli (Chico), an iceman and bootlegger, and Pinky (Harpo), the local dog catcher, by mistake. Wild puns and chicanery ensue, during which the boys attempt to woo Zeppo's cougar beau (Todd), kidnap the real football stars (who are naturally much tougher than Chico and Harpo) and take to the field for one of the greatest sporting scenes in movie history. Harpo tosses banana skins around to slip up would-be tacklers, attaches the ball to his palm with elastic and romps to victory on a horse-drawn dustman's chariot to score the winning touchdown in the final minute. Grid iron has never looked so accessible to an Englishman. As writer Stefan Kanfer explained it, “Here college football is the Brothers' metaphor for American business - the incessant meetings, the hypocritical praise of sportsmanship, contrasted with the vicious attempts to win at any cost.” The match also serves as a parody of formulaic sports melodramas and is, in this respect, several decades ahead of its time.

The scene in which Groucho takes over an anatomy class taught by the bearded Robert Grieg, the butler from Animal Crackers (1930), was derived from an old vaudeville routine the Brothers used to do in the twenties called 'Fun In Hi Skool'. There's a wonderful line when a secretary interrupts Wagstaff's meeting with two academics by declaring, “The Dean is furious! He's waxing wroth!” to which comes the inevitable reply, “Oh, is Roth out there too? Tell Roth to wax the Dean for a while.” Groucho also gets to break the fourth wall and tell the audience during a musical interlude: "I've got to stay here. But there's no reason you folks shouldn't go out into the lobby till this thing blows over." Another fine moment comes when a hobo stops Harpo in the street and asks if he could help him out because he's desperate to get a cup of coffee. Harpo then proceeds to reach into his trouser pocket and produce said steaming cup complete with saucer, which he then hands to the astonished man without spilling a drop. A more problematic scene comes later when Harpo is seen shoveling a whole shelf full of books onto a fire like so much coal into a steam engine's furnace. Some critics have felt this to be an aggressive anti-intellectual statement that has since acquired an unfortunate association with the Nazi book-burnings that took place in Nuremburg four years after Horse Feathers was filmed. I'm not convinced this is really an issue myself as it's as much a part of the Brothers' uncompromising, anarchic brand of anti-authoritarianism as the scene in which Harpo cheeks a traffic cop, tears up his ticket book and then imprisons the bewildered officer inside his dog cart. Whatever it is, they're against it.


The shooting of Horse Feathers (the title an exclamatory phrase meaning “nonsense” or, not to put too fine a point on it, “bullshit”) was put on hiatus for ten weeks while Chico recovered from injury following a bad car wreck – he eventually had to use a stand-in for some of the more grueling stunts expected of him in the climactic football scenes. Groucho meanwhile fell-out repeatedly with Perelman, who didn't care for his improvising over cherished material and almost drowned Todd during the boating scene (a parody of Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy, 1925). He mistakenly believed her cries for help were a joke and so paddled off in pursuit of the duck humming 'Everyone Says I Love You' while his non-swimming co-star was being rescued by a team of heroic technicians. Oh and the final scene was supposed to have been the boys playing cards while Huxley College burned to the ground behind them but the Paramount bean-counters thought this would prove too expensive so instead we have the cheaper but more outrageous bigamy ending in which Chico, Groucho and Harpo ALL marry Todd. And for people who like spooky coincidences, Harpo wears the number 75 jersey while playing for Huxley in Horse Feathers - a detail that would prove prophetic when he died at exactly that age in 1964.

06/08/2010

Holiday (1938)


Katharine Hepburn, Doris Nolan, Cary Grant and Henry Kolker in George Cukor's inspired class comedy from 1938, the same year that Hepburn and Grant went wild in Bringing Up Baby. Unlike Hawks' rapid-fire screwball farce, however, Holiday is a less zany and more thoughtful, provocative work that dares question the merits of a life dedicated to the neverending pursuit of wealth and material possessions. Somebody far cleverer than me once suggested that all that distinguishes Shakespeare's comedies from his tragedies is a happy ending and that's certainly the case with Holiday.

As in The Philadelphia Story (1940), Holiday finds the Great Kate and old Archie Leach, “the Man from Dream City” (er, Bristol), tackling high society under the experienced eye of Cukor in a play by Philip Barry adapted for the screen by writer Donald Ogden Stewart (plus Sidney Buchman this time). The story concerns the proposed nuptials between New York banker's daughter Julia Seton (Nolan) and Johnny Case (Grant), an industrious young dreamer with good prospects but few influential friends. At 30 Case is already tired of the rat race, has no particular “reverence for riches” and wants to travel the world in search of adventure and the meaning of it all. This liberating idea hugely appeals to Julia's free-spirited and headstrong sister Linda (Hepburn) but not to the bride herself or their stern Wall Street titan of a father Edward (Kolker). Can Johnny reconcile himself to the life of monied responsibility laid out for him or will he have the courage to break free of social shackles and follow his heart?

Grant's classless misfit in Holiday has been called a “proto-dropout” - his disillusionment, itchy feet and desperation to find out what's on the other side of the hill prefiguring the rebellious instincts of the counter-culture. The painfully conservative Edward Seton feels threatened by Johnny Case's discontent and diagnoses, “a strange new spirit at work in the world today, a spirit of revolt. I don't understand it and I don't like it.” When Johnny tries again to explain his plans in detail to Mr Seton, the old patriarch is horrified and actually labels the young man's doubts and desires “unAmerican,” an early instance of that powerful accusatory word's use a generation before the stranglehold of McCarthyism gripped the States. However, Linda, Johnny and their playroom pals know how to fight fire with fire, gleefully racing around on tricycles, hanging from trapezes, banging on drum kits and greeting their obnoxious cousins the Crams (Binnie Barnes, Henry Daniell) with a fascist salute on New Year's Eve. The same war rages on to this day all over the world.


The presence of the amiable Edward Everett Horton among the cast (reprising his supporting role as Columbia Professor Nick Potter from an earlier filmed version of Barry's play from 1930, which starred Ann Harding, Mary Astor and Robert Ames), helps set the tone. Horton was of course a regular in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films for RKO in the thirties, a series in which the leading man delighted in gently exposing and ridiculing upper-crust pretensions, elitism and snobbery. In spite of his top hat, white tie and tails, Astaire was an Everyman figure with whom audiences could identify and that's very much the angle Grant goes for here. Performing some of the acrobatic tricks and flips with which he began his career in a travelling stage troupe, entering via the servant's quarters, wearing his hair in a messy style and mocking the sheer size of the Seton's palatial Fifth Avenue town house, Johnny Case is “a plain man of the people” who tries to bring a sense of fun into their stuffy lives (something apparently lacking since the death of the creative, supportive Mrs Seton some years before). However, despite its good humour neither film version of Holiday was a box office hit. The play had only just completed its debut run on Broadway when the stock market crashed in 1929 while the plot relies on Johnny's deft handling of stocks and shares. It's possible that Depression audiences felt little sympathy for a protagonist prepared to throw away his comfortable existence so impulsively.

Nevertheless, the cast are all magnificent, especially the vital, childlike Hepburn. Horton and Jean Dixon are lovely as the cheerily grounded Potters (or is that Porters?) and Lew Ayers is heartbreaking as Ned, the frustrated musician and lush younger brother of the family (the actor retaining the same haunted look he brought to Lewis Milestone's epic All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930). Grant said working with Hepburn was “a joy” while she praised his “wonderful laugh.” What a love-in. Without Grant ending up with the right sister though, Holiday might have been one of the saddest weepies ever made.

04/08/2010

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Here's another great pairing of two beloved screen horrors: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in a nice adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1884 short story 'The Body Snatcher' for RKO. The ghoulish duo actually appeared together eight times, this being the last, so they can't have been too unfriendly in spite of Martin Landau's line in Ed Wood (1994), when his Lugosi reacts angrily to being referred to as Karloff's sidekick: "Karloff? Sidekick? Fuck you! Karloff did not deserve to smell my shit! That limey cocksucker can rot in hell for all I care!" The real Lugosi would later claim that he'd scouted Karloff for his breakthrough role at Universal, playing the monster in Frankenstein (1931), but how true that is remains obscure. You can read an authoritive account of the two fiends' intertwined careers here.

Their final film together was directed by Robert Wise for producer Val Lewton and tells the story of an Edinburgh doctor, the pragmatic Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), who in 1831 employs a sinister local cab driver, John Gray (Karloff), to acquire cadavers for his medical students to dissect (before the Houses of Parliament passed the Anatomy Act in 1832, only the corpses of executed felons could legally be used for scientific experimentation). When MacFarlane's protégé Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) discovers that Gray has begun murdering people to order rather than simply exhuming old graves, they realise their £10 "ressurrection man" is out of control and must be stopped.

Karloff is on rollicking form as the smirking cabby who dogs the good doctor's every step, a sort of evil doppelgänger in the manner of Stevenson's Mr Hyde. My old university lecturer, a Scot, referred to this recurring literary device in the fiction of his nation as the "Caledonian antisyzygy", a fundamental schism at the core of the Scottish soul, a national schizophrenia derived from its people thinking Celtic thoughts but having to express them in English and from the nation's tumultuous ecclesiastical and political history - a long war of competing opposites. The battle between temptation and guilt, past and present, is there in the shadowing of Dr MacFarlane by Gray and in the split personality of Henry Jekyll and provides the core of James Hogg's novel The Private Memoirs & Confessions Of A Justified Sinner (1824). Stevenson became interested in this dichotomy theme, most perfectly expressed in The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1886), after hearing the tale of Deacon Brodie (1741-88), a respected Edinburgh cabinet-maker, trade guilds stalwart and city councillor who pursued a life of crime after dark, stalking the foggy sidestreets of the capital by night to rob and steal for the sheer thrill of it. Stevenson's own father even owned furniture made by the hand of William Brodie, whose trial and hanging scandalised the city.

The sickly author also made use of a true crime case in writing 'The Body Snatcher', that of the West Port murders of 1828, carried out by Irish labourers William Burke and William Hare, who began killing lodging-house tenants in order to supply bodies to Edinburgh Medical College lecturer Dr Robert Knox. When they were finally caught and arrested, Hare was persuaded to testify against Burke, who was hung and, ironically, ended up on the slab at one of Knox's anatomy classes. Hare was released from custody in February 1829 and later disappeared while the furore over the crimes increased pressure on Parliament to legalise the donation of corpses for academic study. The character of Dr MacFarlane in the story is said to have been a favourite pupil of Knox while Lewton and Philip MacDonald's script also makes use of another popular historical figure of the period, Greyfriars Bobby, a terrier so faithful that he is said to have kept vigil over his late master's grave for 14 years after the funeral. The dead man's name, incidentally, just so happened to be John Gray.

As for The Body Snatcher itself, it's a solid piece of work that recreates a gloomy Edinburgh well enough with limited resources and benefits from excellent performances by Karloff and Daniell, the latter dubbed by Time Out, "Hollywood's greatest sourpuss." Lugosi is sadly reduced to playing a Portugese servant who unwisely attempts to blackmail Gray and ends up being suffocated after a brawl. Wise later admitted that the role had been shoe-horned in to accommodate the fading star and would simply have been cut altogether had Lugosi not been available. Elsewhere, American actor Wade just gives up on a Scottish accent altogether after an early embarrassment when he completely mangles the pronounciation of "Edinborrow" but otherwise proves a fine hero. Highlights include the dramatic carriage chase through the rain, which makes for an exhilarating climax after the slow building of atmosphere beforehand and the snuffing out of the street singer mid-ballad, which is suitably abrupt.

03/08/2010

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962)


"Joan envied Bette's incredible talent, and Bette envied Joan's seductive glamour."
- George Cukor

Famed rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were finally paired together on screen in this camp, lurid psychodrama in which "Baby Jane" Hudson, a deluded former child star (Davis), imprisons and tortures her wheelchair-bound ex-movie actress sister Blanche (Crawford) in their mouldy mansion in suburban Los Angeles.

Davis is utterly terrifying, a violent, alcoholic crone dreaming of trumping her sibling one last time with an ill-advised comeback, refusing to acknowledge that tastes have changed. Caked in make-up, systematically depriving her charge of resources, stealing her fan mail and roasting canaries and rats, Davis's performance must surely have been an important touchstone for every actor playing the Joker since its release. The scenes in which she rolls her beady eyes and cruelly, childishly impersonates Blanche, usually to get what she wants over the telephone, are just chilling. Pure evil. Davis would continue in this vein thereafter, coming to London to shoot The Nanny, another psychological horror, for Hammer in 1965. Crawford meanwhile is more restrained as the perpetual victim, who equally fails to accept reality and see her troubled control freak of a sister for what she really is. Robert Aldrich's film has been called the meeting of Hollywood's top sadist with its leading masochist and perhaps that's what makes Baby Jane such an interesting grudge match. In an industry that too rarely finds meaty roles for mature women, its astonishing to see these two stars playing out such a troubling vision of stunted femininity and generously riffing on their own screen personae in the process.

Baby Jane also has two strong supporting turns of note: the hulking Victor Buono as Edwin Flagg, a chancer with oedipal issues of his own whom Jane hires to accompany her twee vaudeville songs and Maidie Norman as Blanche's no-nonsense nurse Elvira, who suspects what's really going on but meets a grizzly end before she can intervene, not unlike Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) in The Shining (1980).


Ultimately, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is (perhaps appropriately) a trashier, post-Psycho sister to Sunset Boulevard (1950). Some of source novelist Henry Farrell's sub-Tennessee Williams insights have dated badly and it is unquestionably a touch overlong. The ending in particular in which Jane drags the half-starved Blanche to the beach to die in the sun feels a little anti-climactic after the operatic nastiness that has gone before. Still, it's bold in its ugliness and remains a macabre, claustrophobic little creep show. This is real horror - Baby Jane is not about monsters skulking in Central European castles, alien invaders, giant bugs or masked serial killers stalking the suburbs - just one person being spiteful to another in their own home. Anyone with a fear of dolls or who has ever been part of a bickering, competitive family will find uncomfortable resonances here. The human reluctance to accept the tragedy of ageing and losing one's youthful looks, of growing old and frail without having realised our most deeply yearned-for fantasies, is also about as universal a theme as you could wish for. The abuse of a disabled dependent by their carer, meanwhile, is another fascinatingly sinister plot point, which would also be exploited to great affect in Misery (1990), another Stephen King parallel.

The California Gothic Baby Jane continues to find a cult following, stereotypically among gay audiences who are said to revel in Davis's savage diva act and the much-mythologised off-screen cat fighting (although biographer Shaun Considine insists that most of the legends are true - Davis really did kick Crawford in the head, for instance, an injury that required several stitches). Whatever, Baby Jane remains endlessly referenced and parodied.