Thursday, May 30, 2013

Now Playing: MAY 30, 1933

This week's highlight is a snappy twin bill at the Warner.

Here's what I thought of William Wellman's Lilly Turner and Archie Mayo's Life of Jimmy Dolan -- the name is spelled Jimmie in some markets.

Elsewhere in Milwaukee, the Riverside offers audiences a trade-off: no vaudeville, but free candy.

The Wisconsin presents an interstudio crossover.

Gary Cooper was loaned to M-G-M by Paramount for Howard Hawks's film of a story by his buddy William Faulkner, the author himself contributing to the screenplay. While the publicity boasted of Cooper's compatibility with Crawford, the actress actually fell in love with fourth-billed (in the credits) Franchot Tone, whom she married. The film flopped, and so, eventually, did the marriage.

Also from M-G-M this week:

The advertising boasts of the American context, but the title is pure political exploitation. Clarence Brown's Looking Forward is actually set in England, and the description on Wikipedia makes the story sound like a tamer, tweedier version of Employees' Entrance.  And no, Barrymore and Stone are not a romantic team in this picture.

Finally, the Garden's attraction starts in London but ends up in Africa. If you can believe the advertising, we're looking at prime Pre-Code material here.

From the synopsis available at, I get the impression that none of the questions asked in the ad are answered by this Equitable Pictures production. The site also says that the film wasn't as risque as advertised, but at least it gives us Alan Hale Sr. wielding a whip, and having it wielded on him. That has to count for something.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

DVR Diary: LE JOUR SE LEVE (1939)

The team behind Port of Shadows -- writer Jacques Prevert, director Marcel Carne and star Jean Gabin -- came back with another exercise in "poetic realism," the tragic fatalism in an urban lowlife milieu that had parallels in the second Warner Bros. gangster cycle and echoes in postwar American film noir. Le Jour Se Leve (usually translated as "Daybreak") will feel more like a noir to some observers because most of it is told in flashbacks. Gabin is Francois, remembering the events that led to his shooting Valentin the music-hall dog trainer (Jules Berry) at the start of the picture and the flics besieging his apartment overnight. By law they can't storm it until the next morning (hence the title), so Francois has time to dwell on his misfortune. He was Valentin's rival for the affections of Clara (Arletty), Valentin's disaffected assistant for the dog act, and Francoise (Jacqueline Laurent), whom Valentin tries to keep to himself by telling Francois that she's his daughter. What makes it realism, I suppose, is the sordid subject matter and the director's strong sense of place. What makes it poetic is the atmospheric visualization of the story by Carne and four cinematographers. Francois's building and neighborhood look real when they need to, but also look like artifacts of art direction. Enhancing the poetic side of it further is an outstanding score by Maurice Jaubert. Gabin anchors it all with a characteristic charismatic performance. Francois is a big dope and a working-class loser -- he works as a sandblaster in a foundry -- who differs from his theoretical film-noir analogues by not merely accepting a grim fate but also succumbing to despair. That underscores and compounds the tragedy; it takes so little to ruin his life or, worse, to convince him that his life is irreversibly ruined. Yet everyone wants him to live, or so it seems. This isn't a posse of snipers picking Roy Earle off the mountain. Below him, Francois's friends and neighbors urge him to surrender. The cops want to take him alive by hitting his flat with tear gas. All too late as far as Francois is concerned, rendering the title grimly (if not poetically) ironic. The filmmakers may overdo it just a little by introducing a teddy bear as an symbol for the hero, but they don't hide their intention to make you feel sad. After France fell a year later, some denounced this crew for demoralizing the public, though that didn't stop Carne from working through the Occupation and making what many consider his very best film, Children of Paradise.   This one will do for anyone sympathetic with the filmmakers' tragic sense of life, or at least anyone sensitive to exceptional cinematic storytelling.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: HELL BELOW (1933)

Buster Keaton wasn't the only filmmaker to suffer from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's fanatic belief in the stardom of Jimmy (Schnozzle) Durante. Not only did the studio insert Durante into Keaton's films to make them funnier; M-G-M also felt that their dramatic pictures needed to be funnier as well. That's why, in the middle of a rather grim drama of submarine warfare in the Mediterranean, Schnozzle boxes a kangaroo. The kangaroo's winning before Durante breaks up the bout by attacking a toothy British spectator he's dubbed "the Elk." Jimmy fancies himself a dentist and has wanted a sample of this man's dentures since early in the picture. There are many opportunities to kill Durante in the film, but he makes it through intact. Sterling Holloway they can kill. The future Winnie the Pooh gets his leg crushed by a stray torpedo, then finds himself locked in a room filling rapidly with chlorine gas. With limited oxygen in their damaged sub, his crewmates have to watch him die rather than flood their own compartment with the stuff. Robert Young they can kill. He's sent to inspect a torpedoed and abandoned German warship but is himself abandoned when the sub has to submerge to escape aerial bombardment. He's strafed by fighters rather than bombed, however. Robert Montgomery they can kill -- and he's the star of the movie! The future real-life naval officer has to atone twice over to Walter Huston as his commanding officer: once for an insubordinately rash attempt to avenge Young or rescue a man who is certainly dead that results in the crisis that gets poor Holloway killed; then for trying to make time with Huston's daughter (Madge Evans), who happens to be married to a wounded officer. For such presumption, our hero turns a dangerous operation into a personal suicide mission. Hell Below is, in fact, an exceptionally grim war movie, and that only makes Durante's survival more galling. Schnozzle actually shares comedy-relief chores with Eugene Pallette, but the latter, playing an engineer, actually contributes practically to the dramatic moments, while Jimmy, playing a cook nicknamed Ptomaine, only coughs a little while keeping up with the wisecracks. For those who want to see Durante get his, I refer you to The Wet Parade, where his character actually dies, or Meet the Baron, where the Three Stooges beat him up.

If you can overlook Durante, Hell Below boasts some impressive action at sea, under water and on board an actual submarine. There's indisputable vitality in scenes shot through a periscope on the deck of a just-surfaced sub, and there's plenty of stuff blowing up to keep war fans entertained. There's also a bombardment of an Italian city that appears to borrow destruction footage from the future-war prophecy picture Men Must Fight, which premiered just a few months earlier. Hell Below as we see it now seems to have been edited for Code-Enforcement re-release. I don't know if entire scenes were eliminated -- there's still a lot of shore-leave comedy left, not to mention the kangaroo fight -- but some lines of dialogue have been obviously muted. You'd think I might be grateful for a moment when Durante moves his lips but no noise is heard, but I can't help wondering what he might have said that had to be silenced when they let him talk the rest of the time. Not even counting Durante, the movie must have struck audiences as something of a bummer, given Montgomery's fate. When a character screws up as his does, and has a romantic interest, the idea usually is to let him redeem himself and earn the girl's love. Here, instead, the pathos of renunciation kicks in. Hell Below is no chick flick in which Evans's hubby will conveniently expire to clear the way for our hero. Rather, hubby's going in for surgery that will restore him to full health and manhood, leaving Montgomery with no hope of making it with Evans. His course is one of atonement rather than redemption, and to that extent the picture may have impressed some viewers as more hard-boiled than the common wartime romance. But if our hero's sacrifice was meant to be stirring, Metro may have misjudged the time and the audience. Hell Below was made at a time of deep cynicism about the Great War and war in general, and in such an environment Montgomery's demise may have seemed less like a patriotic apotheosis and more like a pointless waste of life. The abruptness of the ending, with no one to mourn or honor our hero, is like a slap in the face, regardless of the message the slap is meant to convey. Had Hollywood been more committed to war at the time, the movie might not have ended quite the same way. Maybe that's why Durante's character survives. Had he been killed, people might get the idea that war is a good thing.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: HIDE-OUT (1934)

1934 was the year of Code Enforcement and, probably not coincidentally, the advent of screwball comedy. There were plenty of genre milestones that year -- Frank Capra's It Happened One Night and Howard Hawks's Twentieth Century come to mind immediately -- but W.S. Van Dyke might have thought it was his job to invent screwball singlehandedly. He directed three comedies that year out of four credited features. The Thin Man is the best known of these and the first of the three. Released in May, it has a Pre-Code edge thanks to the Charleses' notorious binge drinking. By year's end Van Dyke had just about perfected screwball with Forsaking All Others, a weightless picture in which almost every line from every character is a whimsical wisecrack. Hide-Out came out in August, and as our newspaper ad indicates, publicists already recognized it as part of a comic trend. It'd be too neat to say it stands halfway between Thin Man and Forsaking in Van Dyke's comedic experimentation. Instead, Hide-Out looks further ahead, poised somewhere between Thin Man, in its initial urban-crime setting, and the goofier, more conservative comedies of the classic era. It shares Robert Montgomery with Forsaking and makes more interesting use of him. He plays Lucky Wilson, a New York gangster who specializes in shaking down nightclubs. The film opens with Lucky in his element, casually lording over one club in arrogant yet charming fashion. The floor show he visits is so overproduced that you'd think the numbers were actually taken from some aborted musical until you see Montgomery interact with the performers. The actor is at his best while flirting with a torch singer, propositioning her all through her song as if daring her to forget the lyrics or simply crack up with laughter. Lucky's a blatant crook but for the moment the film could be accused of glorifying gangsters. Van Dyke makes Lucky amiably menacing without making him mean. As a comedy, Hide-Out takes an almost nonjudgmental stance on Lucky's activities until the story gives him a chance to reflect on the consequences of his actions, or at least those of his peers.

Lucky's is stalked by a police detective (Edward Arnold) and eventually caught in a shoot-out in which he's slightly wounded. His boss (C. Henry Gordon) advises him to lie low while he's recovering, and has him sent to a Connecticut dairy farm. From this point the material becomes less interesting than the way it's filmed and performed. Lucky goes through some of the city slicker's rites of rural passage, struggling through such chores as milking a cow. He truly befriends his host family and truly falls for their pretty daughter (Maureen O'Sullivan, Van Dyke's Jane in Tarzan the Ape Man). He also strikes up a pal-ship with her younger brother Willie (Mickey Rooney). As he recuperates, he learns that the family once sold milk on the market but quit the trade after getting hassled by racketeers. It's never made clear whether Lucky's own mob was responsible, but his own reaction to this news indicates the long-delayed awakening of a conscience within him. When he gets the all-clear to return to New York, he insists on staying longer. The obvious reason is to stay close to the girl, but Lucky also comes to prefer farm life to city life. But can he stay on the farm and close to the girl without telling the truth about his past, or without the past catching up to him?

Hide-Out ends up being the least screwball of Van Dyke's 1934 comedies because it finally repudiates urban sophistication in favor of the happy simplicity of rural family life. It doesn't carry a Code seal, but it could easily symbolize the triumph of the hicks and the bourgeois moralists against the smart guys and sophisticates. What keeps it from insulting the intelligence is the snappiness of Van Dyke's direction and the breezy charm of Robert Montgomery. He often seems to pale in comparison with such M-G-M stablemates as Clark Gable (his co-star in Forsaking) and Spencer Tracy, but he truly makes a star impression here as a crook who reforms without ever getting sappy about it. Behind the camera, "One-Take Woody" literally keeps things moving with masterly tracking shots that sell both the corrupt sophistication of the nightclubs and the comforts of rural life. The director earned his one-take nickname (as opposed, say, to William "One-Shot" Beaudine) because he really knew what he was doing. If screwball was comedy's irreverent resistance to the domestication Code Enforcement seemed to demand, Van Dyke proved with Hide-Out that he could do domestication as well as screwball. It may be the closest he came to getting them both in one movie.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Bruce Chatwin's historically-inspired novel The Viceroy of Ouidah has a story worthy of a swashbuckling adventure from the golden age of Hollywood. It tells of a poor farmer who became a bandit only to be exiled to a foreign land where he overthrew a mad tyrant. Chatwin published his novel in 1980, long after the golden age. By then, it was a subject worthy of Werner Herzog, and a different kind of film resulted. Herzog predictably cast Klaus Kinski as the hero, which signalled that the character, the Brazilian bandit Francisco Manoel de Silva aka "Cobra Verde," would hardly be a hero. Whether Herzog's script and Kinski's performance reflects Chatwin's text, I can't say. I can say that, were that Chatwin's character, Hollywood would have whitewashed him into a more romantic, swashbuckling figure. Herzog presents him warts and all as an amoral rather than romantic figure.

Silva is no "social bandit" or revolutionary, no rallying point for the poor. Rather, Herzog shows him witnessing a mass whipping of prisoners in a public square with indifference. When one of the prisoners breaks loose, Silva stops the man in his tracks, basically telling him to go back and take his medicine. He impresses a wealthy plantation owner who doesn't know Silva's bandit identity. He hires Silva as his foreman, only to grow furious when the new man impregnates his half-caste daughters. Only then does Silva reveal himself as Cobra Verde. Rather than have him killed outright, the planter and his cronies give him a new job. They send him across the Atlantic to Africa to purchase slaves from the Kingdom of Dahomey. The trade has lapsed for many years and the king is rumored to be mad. No one really expects Silva to make good or even return alive. Once again they have underestimated their man.

Against the odds, Silva revives the trade, exchanging men for rifles and taking residence in an abandoned fort. The Brazilians weren't kidding about the king, however, and Herzog warms to the challenge of having someone on screen crazier than Kinski. The king demands to see Silva, but the trader demurs, insisting that he must always have one foot in the ocean -- he must stay on the coast. The king's men simply kidnap him; respecting his obligations, they fill a jar with sea water and stick his foot in it. At court, the king asks after the health of his peers, the crowned heads of Europe, then asks why Silva has gathered a fleet of several hundred thousand ships to invade his country, and why Silva has poisoned his pet.

Silva has a lucky escape and joins a conspiracy to replace the king with a bug-eyed, perhaps equally mad yet more compliant relative. Now at last Silva is the kind of rebel you would expect to see in a swashbuckler. He is tasked with training an army of topless women, the men of the land having proved unreliable. He shows them how to fight with spears and ferocity. This is where most people will put in a screencap of Kinski grimacing and brandishing a spear. Thanks to them, I don't have to; google it if you like.

An army of bare-breasted Amazons is a natural Herzog subject, and as in all his pictures there are plenty of sidewise glances at small details that make scenes more real (animals) or more weird (crippled people). He manages an impressive level of human spectacle in the Amazon scenes and the scenes at the king's court, where skulls are the popular design motif. He might be accused of objectifying the Africans as savages had he not established Silva as no more than a savage himself. If anything, Herzog objectifies humanity as savage or, at best, pitifully grotesque. There's something uncomfortably exploitative in his having Kinski attended in the film's final scenes by a handicapped man who walks more like an ape than a man, propelling himself with strong arms while withered legs drag behind, but by now you also understand that the grotesque is a reality principle for Herzog. Addressing slavery, Cobra Verde slightly resembles Jacopetti & Prosperi's Goodbye Uncle Tom in its gruesome pretensions of objectivity. To many it will seem cold if not hateful. Kinski's character has no arc of development, learning or enlightenment. Like many a movie gangster, Silva simply rises until he falls, without really enjoying his rise in the ways that endeared gangsters to guilty moviegoers. Silva does remarkable things but barely counts as an interesting person. Instead of rebelling against injustice, he embraces it at the first opportunity and arguably embodies it. This is Herzog at perhaps his most misanthropic. It's a legitimate worldview, but few will like it.

As for Kinski, he may finally have been getting too old for this shit. He gives a mostly sullen performance, albeit one appropriate for the character, and this is probably just what Herzog wanted from his longtime collaborator and "best fiend." You feel for him, however -- the actor, not the character -- as Herzog has him struggle to drag a boat off a beach while the tides punish him and the human quadruped watches. Sympathy isn't what Herzog wants, however. If you can sit through a picture without needing to sympathize with anyone -- I'm such a person myself so don't take this as a rebuke -- you may well be impressed with the epic rigor of Herzog's historical vision. It is quite a show and I was duly impressed, but if you finish the film with a shrug or a scowl, I can't really blame you -- and Herzog might not, either.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Now Playing: MAY 20, 1933

To bring readers up to date following an unintended hiatus -- I got caught up writing reviews and simply neglected to cover last week's releases -- King Kong surprisingly lasted only one week at the Warner in Milwaukee, which replaced the ape picture with a modern-dress George Arliss vehicle, The Working Man. So far in 1933, 42nd Street is the only major-studio release to be held over in Milwaukee for a second week in first run. That means Working Man is out, too, replaced by the star probably at the other end of Warner Bros.' prestige spectrum.


Joe E. Brown did a number of baseball pictures that are unusual for slapstick comedies in that Brown usually plays a super-talented rather than incompetent player, with character flaws rather than physical ones. This apparently reflects Brown's real-life skills In this particular fantasy, he leads the Chicago Cubs to a World Series championship but has to be cajoled into joining the Big Show because he enjoys being the spoiled idol of his family and small town, the big fish in a small pond. This Mervyn LeRoy picture is nothing special but I suppose it does count as something different.

Over at the Alhambra, Katharine Hepburn is a hot young star getting a big studio push.

Hepburn's the star but Colin (Frankenstein) Clive is the title character, a married M.P. in love with Hepburn's aviatrix. This is the one where Kate kills herself and an unborn baby by crashing her plane in order to save Christopher Strong's honor. I guess that's why his name comes first.

The big movie event of the week is at the Wisconsin.

Contrary to what anyone who's seen Svengali or Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde might expect, John does not play Rasputin, leaving that juicy slice of ham to brother Lionel. His is the most American Rasputin you'll ever see -- hear, really, and Lionel's voice gives the villain a kind of hayseed flavor that isn't exactly inappropriate for the Mad Monk from the countryside. John plays a fictionalized version of Rasputin's still-living killer, who sued the studio anyway for implying (in a subsequently-deleted scene) that his wife had been raped by the monk. Ethel is the Empress, of course.

Friday, May 17, 2013

On the Big Screen: TO THE WONDER (2013)

Terrence Malick's sixth feature film in a 40-year career is the nearest thing to a sequel he's done to date. To the Wonder strikes me as in many ways a thematic follow-up to Malick's 2005 film The New World. The earlier film is about a European's discovery of America, but one of its highlights is an American's discovery of Europe. In portraying Pocahontas's visit to England, Malick steered clear of any temptation to contrast an American paradise with a European dystopia. Pocahontas seems as fascinated by the Old World as John Smith was by the New -- and why not, since the English treat her much like the princess she is? To the Wonder starts with an American's visit to Europe approximately 400 years later. In a reversal of New World, the American brings a bride back with him to a World that's still New in some demoralizing ways. This world seems determined to stay new; much of it has a just-built feeling to it that contrasts starkly, particularly when framed by Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, with the historic splendor of France. Malick has a knack for making the seemingly ordinary look new or strange; his camera eye doesn't take a lot for granted. His virtue as a director is that we seem to see everything as through a human eye, not as designed on a storyboard. We see things in his films the way we've seen them simply by walking around, when we don't take our surroundings for granted. Malick's impulse to see novelty in these details, to not take them for granted, may reflect a restlessness he seems to criticize in some of his characters. The American in To the Wonder is Neil, an environmental investigator of some sort (Ben Affleck). His restlessness isn't expressed in any wanderlust or reckless action, but in an inability to fully settle anywhere. He seems never to have fully unpacked his possessions in his own home. The place seems incomplete much as the Kansas countryside does, despite the splendors of wheat fields Malick captures with predictable ease. That incompleteness signals a fundamental incompatibility with his Ukranian-French bride, Marina (Olga Kurylenko). She has a hard time fitting in, Malick suggests visually, because there isn't really anything here for her to fit into. Something spiritual is missing, she supposes, and that absence also demoralizes the transplanted Hispanic priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). Malick invites us to see Quintana and Neil as parallel characters, both ministering in their particular ways to a benighted community, neither with any apparent result. Both, then, may be seen as victims of an absence to which Neil, as an authentic 21st century American, contributes, though his are sins of omission rather than commission. Neil seems to have inherited that primal restlessness Malick portrayed in The New World's John Smith, that kept Smith seeking rather than settling and cost him Pocahontas. Neil's no seeker, as far as we can tell, but he can't settle either. In Marina and Quintana's terms, he seems incapable of that transcendent love that creates and sustains a real community, that exists at least symbolically in France in that country's ancient cathedrals. In a reversal of conventional readings of The New World, To the Wonder appears to idealize Europe at America's expense. In their apparent rootedness in history and faith -- seen by Malick, it must be said, through the eyes of an idealistic tourist -- Europeans now seem more like "naturals" than today's Americans do.

In some ways To the Wonder is a more anti-American film than The New World was anti-imperialist, which may have something to do with why the U.S. moviegoing public has utterly rejected it compared to the more nostalgic Tree of Life. As I write, the film has left Albany after only one week at the local arthouse. I saw it on a weeknight with about a dozen other people, some of whom scoffed openly as the film ended. But that was less due to what Malick said than with how he said it, or what he wouldn't say. While the new film actually has more plot than Tree of Life, Malick seems to have moved further away than ever from conventional cinematic storytelling. He remains the least theatrical of film directors, the most skeptical toward the significance of dialogue. He doesn't believe in decisive moments that can be dramatized and acted out. The most glaring proof of this comes late in the picture. To force a final break between herself and Neil, Marina, who has returned to Kansas after initially going back to France, has a casual sexual tryst with another man. She, at least, intends the moment of her confession to be decisive, and audiences would certainly expect a theatrical showdown between Kurylenko and Affleck. But here's how Malick handles it. They've pulled up at a fast-food drive-thru window. Marina says, "Forgive me." Then Malick turns on the mute button. We don't hear her confession, Malick apparently believing that it's enough that we know what she's going to say. Almost perversely, he turns the sound back on so we can hear the restaurant person ask Neil if he's ready to order. We also hear Neil haltingly explain that he'll need a couple minutes more. But whatever he says to Maina -- we don't need to hear that. Spoken words hardly matter to Malick. The most sustained episodes of speech we get are when Neil or Quintana visit a miserable polluted neighborhood and hear residents' complaints about conditions or health. These scenes have a documentary air to them that Malick is either unable or unwilling to bring to intimate conversation. He's notorious for his reliance on voiceover narration, trusting himself to imitate individuals' interior consciousness more than their ability to reveal themselves in dialogue with others. I suspect that Malick may believe that the spiritual wholeness he (or some of his characters) long for depends less on conversation than on communion -- however you define that -- and that absent that communion his characters really live only inside their own heads. Hence the voiceover, which gains a new alienating effect when Marina or Quintana narrate in their native languages, leaving monolingual Americans to read subtitles to know what they're thinking. You might think that Malick would try to universalize thought in a way by having everyone think in English. His refusal to do that might be self-defeating literal-mindedness or it may be a conscious alienating device, underscoring how difficult he assumes it must be for us Americans to comprehend the two non-Americans' longings and frustrations. For all I know, Malick may take this film's failure as proof that he's on the right track aesthetically.

If To the Wonder is a failure, however, it's not because of Malick's narrative eccentricities, which can be seen, as I've tried to suggest, to have some philosophical integrity. Malick's real problem here is a certain hollowness right at the bleeding heart of the film. Olga Kurylenko has been a deer in the critical headlights (or gunsights) for playing what's now become the stereotypical Terrence Malick heroine. Some critics have seen nothing like this since the days of D. W. Griffith, when Lillian Gish and her sisters, professional and biological, illustrated their innocence and purity with childish frolicking and playacting. Tree of Life burned an image of Jessica Chastain twirling in casual ecstasy into people's minds as the definitive Malick figure, but Kurylenko's Marina makes Chastain look as rooted as a tree. She seems happy only when she's able to run, spin, gambol, etc. Her own daughter seems more levelheaded. Marina is femina ludens, an alarming hint that Malick may believe women's natural state is play. Her narration notwithstanding, she seems to have no inner life in terms of calling or vocation. We learn that she'd sought work unsuccessfully back in France after her first break-up with Neil, but we never see her try to get a job in the U.S. While Malick gives us glimpses of two other women -- horse-farmer Jane (Rachel McAdams), with whom Neil has a fling while Marina's away, and Anna (Romina Mondello), a strange woman who tries to goad Marina (in Italian!) into going wild after throwing Marina's purse into some shrubbery -- Marina remains our principle point-of-view character, and with that comes the disturbing implication that she is Malick's ideal female. If so, that suggests that a female's ideal role in Malick's world -- as opposed to the faltering Jane and the crazed ("Do you think I'm a witch?") Anna -- is that of a spiritual helpmeet, just about what might have been imagined several centuries ago, before this whole New World thing began. If To the Wonder seems leftist in its identification of industrial pollution with Something Wrong With America, its ultimate insistence on Divine Love as the basis of healthy society and its limited yet always sympathetic conception of Marina make it seem deeply reactionary by the end. I don't know if Malick's ideas can stand deeper scrutiny, but I'm willing to suggest that they don't deserve scrutiny if he can't actually imagine a plausible modern woman. That'd be a shame, because in pure cinematic terms his experimentation deserves applause. That he sees things differently from the way moviegoers are used to having them shown is a point in Malick's favor. There's enough good going on in To the Wonder that I'll break ranks and say that I liked it better than Tree of Life. But if it's new proof of Malick's artistic skills Wonder also exposes limits in his worldview that may limit how much further he can go despite his newfound efficiency in production. Malick turns 70 this year and has cut the time between films steadily ever since returning from a 20 year hiatus. Wonder comes only two years after Tree, and three more pictures are already listed in post-production by IMDB. Maybe Malick needs to make more movies to clarify his ideas to himself. If so, keep 'em coming.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

THE BRAIN (Le cerveau, 1969)

In the 1960s there were two superpowers of slapstick: the U.S. and France. The Americans boasted Jerry Lewis, Blake Edwards, and the collective phenomenon of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The French had Jacquest Tati, Pierre Etaix and, among possible others unknown to me, Gerard Oury. In 1966, Oury's World War 2 comedy La Grande Vadrouille became the most popular film in French history. Three years later came The Brain, an all-star caper comedy on a colossal scale. The international production (Dino de Laurentis and Paramount Pictures were involved) teamed Vadrouille's Andre Bourvil with superstar Jean-Paul Belmondo, David Niven in Pink Panther mode as a master thief, and Eli Wallach (huge in Europe after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) as a Sicilian gangster. From the first notes of its would-be pop-hit theme song (sung in English), The Brain aspires to epic pop-art and quite nearly gets there.

Its early cartoonishness doesn't inspire confidence, however. We're introduced to Niven as he, with a crowd of Londoners, watches a TV in a store window announcing a clue to the identity of the mysterious master criminal, "The Brain." His brain is so big and heavy, we're told, that in moments of anxiety he can't hold it upright. Niven's distressed head promptly flops to one side -- but so do those of several other people. While he makes a quick escape to the continent, we discover Arthur (Belmondo) in prison setting up a guard to slip on a bar of soap. Naturally, the guard sails across the room and crashes into a wall. Arthur is sentenced to solitary, which is where he wanted to go. Sent there repeatedly, he's been working on a tunnel. Tonight, his accomplice Anatol (Bourvil) will dig under the prison to meet him halfway and make good his escape. In a cutaway shot, we see the two tunnelers approach each other as they dig with their absurd tools -- Belmondo's is a conveyor belt of metal coffee cups -- except that Belmondo's about three feet above Bourvil, who goes straight to someone else's cell while Belmondo emerges outside. Once they coordinate themselves, Arthur sacks out in a bedroom that's actually the back of Anatol truck. His bed careens back and forth as Anatol brakes or accelerates, climbs or descends. Finally, the bed bursts out the back door, leaving Arthur on the street to start a new day.

The Brain, aka Colonel Matthews, is in Europe to plan a major heist. In a reflection of current events, France's withdrawal from NATO (General de Gaulle wanted France to be a real superpower in its own right) compels the organization to relocate from Paris to Brussels, taking millions in funds along by train. Backed by the Mafia, Matthews draws up an elaborate plan to isolate the car carrying the money, disable the guards, and leave with the loot. Merely planning it is elaborate and expensive; Matthews has apparently sprung for a fully animated short subject illustrating what he intends to do. Meanwhile, Don Scannapieco (Wallach) plans to double-cross Matthews, resenting the Englishman's attraction to his sister (Silvia Monti). Arthur has managed to spy on some of the planning, escaping Matthews's pet tiger in the process, and convinces Anatol that they can horn in on the heist.

Some of the slapstick up to this point might seem stupid or merely silly, but the caper part of the picture actually plays out quite ingeniously. Matthews doesn't know about the two Frenchmen, and they don't know the full extent of his plan. They think they're taking the loot under the Brain's nose, but they end up actually facilitating his scheme, without his knowing it. The payoff is his moment of confusion when he triumphantly enters the captured car ("Now you'll see why they call me the Brain!") only to find it thoroughly looted. Arthur and Anatol feel the same when the sacks of money they thought they'd tossed to a safe place vanish. They've actually put them right into the hands of Matthews's assistants, who shock Matthews himself by informing him that they've got all the money he thought was gone. There are more twists to come, but all bets are off while the Frenchmen's ingenious stupidity makes them wild cards in the three-way game involving Matthews, Scannapieco and the police.

Oury is perhaps too obviously trying to top the scale of Mad Mad ... World in his big finale, which finds Belmondo trapped in a scale-model Statue of Liberty being hauled on board a ship bound for the U.S. as an American style marching band marks the occasion and a huge crowd sees the ship off. You can see symbolism in the Statue as both a womb of money (the bottom drops out with Arthur and the loot inside) and a force for destruction (the torch arm smashes its way into a store when the truck carrying the statue gets embroiled in a car chase), but the absurdity of the imagery transcends any potential political analysis. The Brain doesn't really have anything to say about NATO or international affairs. Oury and his game cast are simply out for laughs. To my ears, Niven performs his own French dialogue; I'm less sure about Wallach, but if it isn't him it's a plausible impersonation. Belmondo is in pure clown mode here, giving the sort of performance George Clooney gives in Coen Bros. movies. To my surprise, not even in the longer French version is there any hint that matinee-idol Belmondo might rival Niven, more than 20 years his senior, for the affections of the sultry Monti. It's all about the money for Arthur, as it is at the end for the mob scrambling for the bills falling from Lady Liberty's bottom. Once The Brain showed that it had a brain I found that I could tolerate its cruder comedy quite well. It may strike others as simply dumb, but it offers enough dumb fun and colorful spectacle for me to recommend it to international comedy fans and slapstick enthusiasts.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

11 SAMURAI (1966)

More isn't necessarily better, but Eiichi Kudo has plenty to offer in this picture along with four more warriors than sufficed for Akira Kurosawa. To be correct, Kudo's team of heroes includes one ronin, with a grudge against aristocrats, and one woman, valiantly determined to make up for the loss of her brother to tuberculosis. Like many such pictures, 11 Samurai is concerned with the honor of a clan and the sacrifices its retainers will make to preserve it, usually by taking revenge on a villain. In this case the villain is particularly obnoxious. The spoiled relative of a retired shogun, and thus a privileged noble, Lord Nariatsu (Kantaro Suga) blunders across the border into the neighboring fiefdom while hunting rabbits and slaughters the first peasant who gets in his way. He isn't supposed to cross into another fief without permission, and the murder only exacerbates the offense in the eyes of the local clan leader, who presumes to reprimand Nariatsu and catches an arrow in the eye for his trouble. Nariatsu's family is so privileged that the government decides to blame the murdered man's clan for the incident and strip them of their lucrative fief, which the envious Nariatsu has coveted for some time. The most Hayato (Isao Natsuyagi) gets by appealing to the government is a one-month delay in the announcement of the penalty. But that gives him time to formulate a plan to change the game by killing Nariatsu. He suspects that the government would cover up a revenge killing that would embarrass the state and write Nariatsu off as a victim of illness, and with Nariatsu out of the picture the government might rethink the confiscation.

Nariatsu (above) offends, and members of the Abe clan defend their honor.

Hayato has two priorities: keeping his subordinates from jumping the gun and attacking Nariatsu on their own, and outwitting the crafty chamberlain Gyobu (Ryutaro Otomo) responsible for protecting Nariatsu. He suppresses one premature attempt by his men (and the woman Nui [Keiko Okawa], subbing for her brother) and sentences them (except for the woman) to seppuku. Their readiness to die only proves their worth to him; they (and the woman) become key to his plan. Nui's role is more actress than warrior; she absconds with Hayato as he attempts to convince everyone that he's given up on the fief and abandoned his wife Orie (Junko Miyazono) to live with the other woman. Orie proves more understanding about this than her brother, who decides to show up Hayato by attacking Nariatsu singlehandedly, with predictably disastrous consequences. With her brother dead and her husband not likely to survive, Orie kills herself, to Hayato's horror. He envisioned a revenge scenario with minimal damage to his clan, but it's not turning out as he'd planned.

With Orie dead, Hayato has even less to live for than before,
apart from waiting for his chance for revenge.

Pressing on, Hayato contrives the perfect ambush to take out Nariatsu -- Kudo shows us how perfectly it would have worked were our hero not a sucker willing to trust authority. At practically the last moment, word reaches him that the government is going to reconsider the confiscation, and he aborts the clan's best chance to nail their enemy. Soon enough, he learns he's been lied to, with no alternative left to him but a direct assault on Nariatsu's entourage.

Justice is on Hayato's side, but Kudo sees little glory in his hero's vengeance. The film climaxes with a running battle in the rain that might remind viewers of Seven Samurai but comes closer in spirit to the muddy combat of Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight. The bad guys lose, but there's little sense of triumph in their downfall. A defining shot of a survivor sitting in the mud, slashing at a puddle with his sword, underscores the pointlessness of it all perhaps too blatantly. Kudo has it both ways, however, since the final fight is excitingly staged and punctuated with crowd-pleasing violence, most notably when one of our heroes becomes a suicide bomber by jumping on a bonfire with a pack of gunpowder. Samurai cinema in general was good at having it both ways, many films from the Sixties forward strongly criticizing feudal injustice without disappointing action fans. Kudo's are more cerebral samurai films, often focusing on a strategic battle of wits between leaders as with Hayato and Gyobu here, and 11 Samurai features strong performances from Natsuyagi and a diverse ensemble. He impresses as an action director as well, and 11 Samurai can certainly be enjoyed by action fans (though patience is advised) regardless of whatever message Kudo had in mind.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Here's a Columbia picture that seems like it should have been one of studio ace director Frank Capra's films. Capra might have thought so himself, since some of the ideas in James Cruze's picture reappear in Capra's later classics. Cruze directed a screenplay by frequent Capra collaborator Jo Swerling, who worked from a story by playwright Maxwell Anderson, who was inspired by an initially anonymous expose of shady politics in Washington D.C. that evolved into the newspaper column begun by Drew Pearson and continued by Jack Anderson. In many ways the final product looks and feels like a rough draft for a Capra film, but Washington Merry-Go-Round has one of the most stunning moments in Pre-Code cinema, without bare flesh or bullets fired. Freshman congressman Button Gwinett Brown (Lee Tracy) is making his first tour of the nation's capital and taking in a parade of the Bonus Army, the gathering of World War I veterans who demanded an early payment (out of Depression necessity) of the bonuses the government had promised to pay them in 1945, and who were eventually driven out of Washington by tanks at the command of General Douglas MacArthur. Brown, a direct descendant of the Button Gwinett who signed the Declaration of Independence, recognizes an army buddy among the marchers who takes him to see "Bonusville," the veterans' encampment. It's a sad sight and drives Brown to drink a little. His buddy urges him to see some more veterans but Brown tries to beg off. Finally, he makes a little speech -- and turns on them viciously. He reveals his own plan to double-cross his political sponsors by exposing their corruption, then denounces the Bonus Army for being no more than a bunch of panhandlers, more concerned with getting theirs than with helping save the country from the "invisible government" that Brown blames for the nation's plight. More than eighty years later, we've been taught to see the bonus marchers as heroes and victims, and some of them will play a more positive role -- sort of -- later in the picture. But according to Brown -- hence according to Cruze, Swerling, Anderson et al? -- they're part of the problem. In another setting, he complains: everyone comes to Washington to get something, but no one comes to give anything. In Bonusville, he's mobbed out of the camp.

What are we supposed to make of Button Gwinett Brown? Embodied by Lee Tracy, he might look like a con man in his own right at first glance. His first scenes are purely comical. His prized possession is an autographed letter from his ancestor, whose signature is the rarest and hence most valuable of all the Declaration's signers. His servant Clarence (Muse, of course) has been allowed to show the letter, valued at $50,000, to a skeptical Pullman porter. In that moment of vindication, a gust of wind on board their train blows the letter out of Clarence's hands. He, Brown and the porter chase after it until it slips under the door into the compartment of Alice Wylie (Constance Cummings), a U.S. Senator's daughter. She mistakes it for trash and tears it up. Informed of her error by Brown, she joins him on the floor gathering up the fragments, both their heads under her bed when her mother enters the compartment. Scandal! We might think we've been introduced to a buffoon, and for much of the picture there's a certain uncertainty about Brown's self-righteousness. He believes in what he's doing, but tends to waste his energy in oratory, including an outburst at the Library of Congress, while regarding the originals of the Declaration and Constitution, that earns unexpected applause from tourists. He wastes his rhetorical firepower on small-time issues, making a laughingstock of himself by taking an epic stand against a $2,000,000 memorial to a Indian-robbing villain of a general. He needs to learn how to advance his agenda pragmatically, find allies, etc. -- but he never gets the chance. Too quick to declare war on the film's villain, a lobbyist-bootlegger who envisions himself a peer of Mussolini and Stalin (Hitler hasn't yet taken power), Brown soon loses his job when the villain arranges for a recount in Brown's district (after his inauguration!) and arranges for Brown to lose. The power of the system is proven again, but it only means that Brown has nothing left to lose, yet plenty to do....

In its final act Washington Merry-Go-Round morphs from often-effective satire to one of the first films in the brief cycle of vigilantism that some viewers ever since have seen as vaguely fascistic. After the villain proves himself irredeemably evil by having old Senator Wylie, Alice's father (Walter Connolly) poisoned, Brown takes decisive action. He's returned to Bonusville, where his buddy has rallied a cohort of dependable men who've seen the justice of Brown's views. They now form Brown's army, taking jobs to spy on the villain and his minions before joining him to stop the villain's car on a lonely road. Brown confronts him with incontestable evidence of his evildoing, but offers him suicide as an easy way out. The film ends with a gunshot in a tent and Brown consoling Alice, his own future uncertain. It's the last of the movie's wild shifts in tone -- it becomes less comical once Muse disappears from the story for no apparent reason, and if the intent was to be critical of Brown's overbearing manner, the ending seems to endorse his uncompromising, ultimately ruthless approach. From satire the film veers into outright fantasy without ever truly cohering due to the chaos at its center. Swerling and Tracy's conception of B. G. Brown might have served Capra as a textbook of what not to do with his own heroes. Capra may have gone too far in making his heroes naive, but it worked better dramatically for his Cinderella-Man heroes to suffer potentially demoralizing learning experiences and grow wiser through endurance than for Brown to arrive in Washington with a master plan in place, already convinced that he's more clever than anyone. That only left me wishing we had seen his campaign and how he must have swallowed his pride while spouting the party line in order to get his big chance in Washington. There's no real learning experience for Brown; adversity only prods him into doubling down and trading constitutionalism for virtual lynch law. The most that can be said for him is that he seems to have been an authentic expression of the confusion and anger of his moment in history.

Washington Merry-Go-Round is an authentically angry and confused film with a few brilliant moments. One of those is Brown and Clarence's arrival in Washington, a busily choreographed sequence involving a convention of Prohibition supporters (the availability of "embassy stuff," i.e. diplomatic liquor, is a running gag), a bunch of Boy Scouts ("Are we gonna see the President?"), a camera-hog fellow congressman, and a lobbyist hired in advance as Brown's secretary but fired by Brown on the spot. The movie may be at its best in such moments of observational humor, but Tracy's vocal firepower is a force not to be denied. Overall it's too inconsistent in tone to be a classic, but it's exactly that anger and confusion that make it an indispensable cinematic document of the era.

Monday, May 13, 2013

DVR Diary: HAVE I THE RIGHT TO KILL? (L'insoumis, 1964)

By 1964 Alain Delon was in his Hollywood period. His first English-language performance, in Rene Clement's Joy House, had just come out, and he would work primarily in English, or at least in English-language films, for the next two years. Hollywood showed its commitment to making Delon a star by dubbing Alain Cavalier's L'Insoumis into English. It appeared in some markets as The Unvanquished and in others with the cumbersome, irrelevant title under which Turner Classic Movies broadcast it last week. Have I the Right to Kill suggests a moral dilemma that never really arises, as Delon's character kills readily when he needs to. More often, the film seems to ask whether he has the right not to kill. He plays Thomas, a Foreign Legionnaire fighting to preserve French rule in Algeria in 1961. More than Vietnam itself, Algeria was France's Vietnam, and Delon's deserter stands in well for the troubled 'Nam vet of American movies from a decade later. After a brief bit of combat, with Thomas mainly concerned with rescuing a wounded buddy, he leaves the struggle against Algeria only to fall into the struggle of France against itself. The prospect of France giving up Algeria provoked a reactionary movement, the "Secret Army," that sought to overthrow the government of General de Gaulle. "Algerie Francaise!" was their rallying cry. Thomas witnesses one of their rallies indifferently, but soon falls in with another deserter involved in a plot to kidnap Dominique Servet, a French civil-liberties lawyer (Lea Massari) who defends Algerian nationalists. Thomas ends up feeling sorry for his pretty victim. He starts by sneaking her sips of soda through a straw stuck through a keyhole, and ends by shooting his partner and freeing Dominique and another prisoner, getting shot himself in the process. Thomas gets hastily patched up and sends Dominique on her way back to France.

Thomas returns to France on his way home to Luxembourg, but despite his need to get out of the country quickly, since the Secret Army carries a grudge, and complications from his mistreated wound he can't pass up an opportunity to look up Dominique. To no moviegoer's surprise they end up lovers. Few would be surprised to see Secret Army goons show up the next day, but Cavalier has set the scene so we know that Thomas has a gun nearby to shoot his way out. The shootings make him even more of a fugitive from the law, and now he's encumbered by an infatuated Dominique, but aided by her understanding husband. Too much has gone wrong, however, and the film winds down to a finish highly reminiscent of The Asphalt Jungle as Dominique and an increasingly feverish Thomas drive through the countryside to his family farm and an ultimate homecoming.

L'Insoumis feels like a mishmash of American noir and French crime motifs, and the English dubbing, however well-intended, underscores the generic nature of the proceedings. The Algerian context gives the story an initial immediacy that ebbs rapidly once the politics become irrelevant to the romance and the chase. Delon has some of the detachment that would be perfected in Le Samourai and subsequent films, but here it just seems like Thomas is in over his head. For Cavalier L'Insoumis is a follow-up to his first feature, the Algeria-oriented Le Combat dans L'Isle, and in neither case does he really animate the melodrama with political relevance as he clearly hoped to do. At most, these films may have had a relevant kick in their own time, but it's the kind of relevance that only dates an unsuccessful film.

Here's how M-G-M tried to sell it to American audiences. The trailer comes from

Saturday, May 11, 2013


Like the U.S., Germany had a "pre-Code" period of film production. They call it the Weimar Republic, and the repression that followed was considerably more sweeping than what befell America. During Weimar Germany was part of the global vanguard of cinema, and plenty of envelopes were pushed. One of the last milestones of the Weimar era was history's reputed first-ever "lesbian" film, Leontine Sagan and Carl Froelich's Mädchen in Uniform. For screenwriter Christa Winsloe, this was just the latest of many titles for her play, which started life as "Yesterday and Today" and morphed into "Sickness of Love" before acquiring its more familiar fetishistic label. The 1931 film survived Nazi suppression and its name endured enough in memories that there was probably no alternative to using the same title when Geza von Radvanyi remade the story in 1958. The uniforms are school uniforms, of course, but on first hearing the title you might expect something more military, and that impression wouldn't be entirely accidental. We first see the students of the film's girls' school marching in formation, and the faculty emphasizes repeatedly that the girls are being trained to be the wives and mothers of soldiers. That doesn't exactly make them Spartan women but it does impose a perhaps-unnatural discipline on the girls. Whether or not the definitive title implies that the militaristic discipline, not to mention the all-female environment, has something to do with Manuela von Meinhardis's dangerous attraction to her teacher Fraulein von Bernburg is open to question, but the story definitely looks like a critique of Prussian culture in general.

I've never seen the original film, and I can't say whether the remake is toned down the way a 1958 Hollywood film might be toned down from a Pre-Code original. But whatever your expectations might be for a "lesbian" film, the Radvanyi version comes across as little more than an adolescent crush. Manuela (Romy Schneider) is sent to boarding school after the death of her beloved mother. She's looking for another mother figure, and perhaps more, when she encounters von Bernburg (Lilli Palmer). She's not alone in her idolization of the stylish schoolmarm, who endears herself to the students by kissing each one of them on the forehead at bedtime. She feels she's getting special attention, however, when the teacher lends her a shift; Manuela sleeps with her head on top of the thing, while a slightly older student seethes with jealousy.

I've just taken a look at the 1931 movie and in the equivalent scene there Bernburg kisses Manuela on the lips. Not so here. Score one for Pre-Code German cinema.

Whatever Manuela's feeling is channeled in an alarming direction when she's cast as Romeo in the class production of the Shakespeare play. From what we see, the play's not only translated but bowdlerized, since it ends with Romeo and Juliet wed. It's a triumph for Manuela that turns to disaster as, intoxicated by both artistic success and spiked punch, she avows her love for von Bernberg in front of a scandalized faculty before passing out.

The remake creates a sentimental tragic mood from the beginning with Manuela's visit to her mother's grave, while a heartbreaking hymn plays constantly on the school's carillon. The very architecture of the school foreshadow's Manuela's fate. The main hall is dominated by a central staircase that winds up at least four floors. From the moment Manuela first looks over the railing to the floor far below, you anticipate someone taking the short way down. The payoff comes after Manuela is disciplined for her outburst and von Bernburg prepares to leave the school. Radvanyi milks the moment for every drop of suspense. Manuela sits dejected near the bottom of the stairs and looks upward to the top railing. The camera follows her all the way up the stairs as the soundtrack adds a sinister undertone to the carillon theme. Then what?

Not for this film the lethal catharsis of Hollywood's near-contemporary contemplation of lesbian attraction in The Children's Hour. While Manuela apparently takes the dive in Winsloe's original play, the Radvanyi film has a thuddingly anticlimactic wrap-up. Von Bernburg holds Manuela's attention long enough for her classmates to pull her off the railing. As she recovers in hospital, the stern headmistress softens and urges Von Bernburg to stay on, but the teacher refuses, arguing that she would only be an obstacle to Manuela's maturation. She leaves and that's the end. It leaves you wondering what the moral was, or if there is one. Palmer gives a necessarily enigmatic performance, while the 20 year old Schneider, already a star thanks to a series of films about Empress Elizabeth of Austria, is convincingly adolescent and earnest. You believe in her attraction to Palmer, and you could buy the attraction being mutual without that necessarily being the case. As time makes the story seem less daring, this version should at least endure as a colorful, sentimental, twofold period piece -- a reflection of the attitudes of 1910, when the story's set, and 1958, when the film was made.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Now Playing: MAY 9, 1933

What could possibly compete against King Kong in Milwaukee? One theater tries fighting fire with fire, sort of -- programming Fay Wray against Fay Wray.

I've seen this one: a crisp Columbia programmer with a few special effects of its own and Ralph Bellamy as a gruff, tough hero before he became "Ralph Bellamy," an archetype for a sort of loser male.

Here's one more people today may have seen.

From here, it gets more obscure, but Universal clearly felt they had something.

Who or what is "Kiepura?" I wasn't sure if it was male or female from the advertising, but Jan Kiepura was a Polish tenor who'd become an international star. He filmed German and French language versions of this English production picked up by Universal in the U.S. The copy makes big claims that the picture couldn't back up, or else more of us would know about it now.

And the also-rans...


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

We can't all escape death...

From Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Uploaded to YouTube by jasonargomov.

In memory of Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013)

Monday, May 6, 2013

THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS (La mano de un hombre muerto, 1962)

Once you become a horror man -- an actor typecast as a menace in scary movies, there are certain roles that come your way inevitably. One of those is the red herring. It didn't take Howard Vernon long to get there; he played Max von Klaus for the late Jess Franco in the same year that Franco had directed him in the title role of The Awful Dr. Orloff. It's as if Franco knew he would type the man with the burning gaze. Klaus hinges on the expectation that we'll be spooked by the mere sight of Vernon and suspect him of the worst. Franco uses a nice gimmick to distance the audience from the actor and the character he plays. We first see him as a static image: a snapshot at police headquarters or a painted portrait on the wall of his home. Franco confronts us with the image of Howard Vernon the newly-minted horror star before showing us the man Max Von Klaus. Later, a girl staying at the house is spooked in the middle of the night. She runs through the halls only to stop short, startled, at the site of the painting. Only then does Max himself appear to ask what's the matter.

What's the matter in town is that murder has revived the legend of the accursed Baron von Klaus of 500 years ago, a sadist before the word was coined to describe him. An angry father cursed this Baron for torturing his daughter, and the townsfolk tell that the villain disappeared in the swamps but did not die. Suspicion alights on Max inevitably, although Franco is careful to give us several other suspicious characters.

The problem for Max is that his alibi for the time of one of the murders stinks. As he protests, he'd probably come up with a better alibi had he actually done the crime, but his real problem, we learn, is that he actually does have a secret to keep. Only one person, the one for whose sake he's keeping the secret, can reveal it to free him, perhaps not without cost. All of this makes Max more than a red herring. He actually becomes a sympathetic character, if not quite the hero of the picture. Franco's compassionate handling of the material seems atypical; even his fans might concede that this is a rare Franco film with a heart.

Filmed in a wider aspect ration than Orloff, Klaus is a more classically composed if perhaps slightly less personal film from Franco. There's actually less sadism to it than the English language title suggests, though there is one scene with a topless victim, filmed almost tastefully, chained to the ceiling of a dungeon. Cinematographer Godofredo Pacheco gives the old-time urban and forest locations plenty of expansive, expressionist atmosphere. The story is simple stuff, but the visuals make it worth looking at, and if not one of his best, it may be one of Franco's most likable films.