Thursday, October 31, 2013

DVR Diary: BLUEBEARD (1944)

John Carradine spent nearly a decade making a name for himself as character actor in A pictures, mainly as a contract player for Twentieth Century-Fox, but threw his reputation away to pursue a dream of classical showmanship. To raise money for a touring acting company, Carradine made himself available to Poverty Row, where he might at least get the satisfaction of occasional top billing. One early foray into this territory, Hitler's Madman, even got picked up for distribution by a major, M-G-M. Ultimately, Carradine didn't seem to care what roles he took, hitting an early career low as Bela Lugosi's stooge in Voodoo Man. Still, his name probably gave some prestige to these cheap pictures, and Edgar G. Ulmer's Bluebeard was clearly PRC's idea of a prestige picture. PRC was a company best known for Buster Crabbe westerns. Its best known films today are Ulmer's. The German-born director had a knack of making the most of very little, as Bluebeard illustrates.

Ulmer's picture aims for the psychological-horror niche established by the Spencer Tracy version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1941) and occupied by contemporary pictures like The Lodger and The Picture of Dorian Gray. The title character isn't one of the historical recipients of the "Bluebeard" title but a fictional character, the painter/puppeteer Gaston Morrell. With Carradine's identity as a serial killer, established early, the film quickly becomes a cat-and-mouse game as the French authorities try to lure the suspect into compromising himself. The early hints of a procedural format and the killer's resort to sewers as an escape route seem to anticipate He Walked By Night, but Bluebeard is eventually as much interested in the why of the killings as it is in the how of stopping them. The analysis isn't exactly sophisticated: Morrell idealized and fell in love with an early model, strangled her when he learned her true nature, then saw every future model as the first returned to torment him. The idea is nothing special, but its illustration in a flashback sequence is Ulmer's stylistic highlight, allowing him to resort to odd camera angles and other tricks both to establish the scene as not-the-present and to suggest the off-kilter perspective of the mad narrator. Apart from that, Ulmer's team works overtime as usual to make the cramped sets (now obscured by muddy prints) look as well-dressed and atmospheric as possible. The really interesting thing about the story to me wasn't the killer's psychology -- Carradine and others have done basically the same thing many times over -- but the idea that Morrell is exploited and enabled by another man, an art dealer (Ludwig Stossel) who knows of the killings and their cause but insists that Morrell paint because the murderous impulse allegedly results in fine art. While the movie may write off Morrell as a sick man, the art dealer looms as a genuinely evil figure, playing both sides (killer and police) against the middle to get one more painting out of his protege, even if it means one more victim for the killer. The type Carradine plays may still have been a novelty in 1944, but it's so commonplace now that Stossel nearly steals the picture from the star. But in the end there's no way Stossel can compete with Carradine's extraordinary presence, amplified by period costume and makeup, and his arguable empathy with the ruthlessness of art and its costs.

Monday, October 28, 2013


I could understand someone wanting to make a movie in the style or spirit of Ed Wood in our time, after his posthumous canonization as a cinematic outsider artist and long after he made the films that made his name. What's harder to fathom is someone wanting to make a film in the style or spirit of Ed Wood back in 1956, when Wood himself was toiling thanklessly behind the camera. Of course, I'm sure that comparisons with the likes of Wood were the last thing the producers of The Black Sleep wanted at the time. Posterity makes its own judgments, however, and comparisons between Reginald Le Borg's all-star poverty row horror film and the Wood canon are not necessarily flattering to Le Borg. To be fair, the resemblances between Black Sleep and a Wood film are a matter of common influences, not of any conscious or unconscious imitation by Le Borg, producer Howard W. Koch or writer John C. Higgins. The common reference point is the poverty row horror cycle of the 1940s, the films of Monogram and PRC, though Black Sleep is ambitious enough to beg comparisons with Val Lewton's more upscale B productions, and Le Borg himself directed for Universal toward the bitter end of that studio's great horror cycle. While Wood looks forward, adding more sci-fi elements to the poverty-row formula, Black Sleep looks backwards. It's a period piece in the manner of House of Wax and The Mad Magician, not to mention Lewton's Body Snatcher and Bedlam. But at heart it's a monster rally in the late Universal style, only with has-been horror stars as the real attractions, rather than the monsters they play.

A young doctor (Herbert Rudley) is condemned to death for a murder he did not commit, but is saved from the gallows by a fellow physician, Sir Joel Cadman (Basil Rathbone). Dr. Ramsay doesn't know that he will live; Cadman only promises him a narcotic so he won't disgrace himself. Soon, however, he awakens in his coffin to find Cadman and Udu the gypsy (Akim Tamiroff) leering at him. Cadman had administered nind andhera, the "black sleep" drug that simulates death, and then claimed Ramsay's body. He has done this because Ramsay, a promising surgeon, has skills Cadman needs for his own experiments on the human brain. Like many a mad doctor of the 1940s, Cadman has a sick wife and wants to cure her. He must try different brain surgery techniques on live human subjects before choosing a procedure. The earlier experiments, as Ramsay discovers to his mounting horror, have not gone well.

The Black Sleep is probably best known as the last film Bela Lugosi completed before his death. It was Lugosi's comeback after his highly-publicized drying-out from drug addiction, but he was clearly cast for name value, as a matter of exploitation. His role as a mute servant -- a victim of one of Cadman's experimental surgeries -- wasn't exactly a vote of confidence in Bela by the producers. Lugosi himself admitted in an interview that even without lines it was a struggle to get through the picture due to his age and ailments. He shuffles sadly through the picture, sometimes vacantly, though there are occasional reminders that he's actually giving a performance. He uses pantomime to relay information to Rathbone, and in a few shots the indulgent director invites him to steal scenes. Here's an example:

This is supposed to be Tamiroff's scene, as you can tell from the setup, but note how Le Borg keeps the upper right corner of the screen open over Tamiroff's shoulder so we can see Bela respond to the tale the gypsy's spinning. Lugosi doesn't do much, scratching his chin every so often, but moving at all while Tamiroff talks is scene-stealing -- and the theft is more blatant now when, with no offense intended to a great character actor, no one is interested in Tamiroff when the moribund Lugosi's on the screen.

By comparison, Lon Chaney Jr. is sadly docile as another mute, though he most likely does exactly what the director asked of him. Creighton gets a weird backstory explaining how Mongo, one of the insane inmates, was once Dr. Monroe, a colleague of Cadmon's who ends up one of his experimental subjects after suffering a stroke. Cadmon actually cured Monroe's paralysis but destroyed his reason. Monroe's daughter lives at Cadmon's house and works as an assistant nurse, despite her dad's newfound urge to kill her. For some reason, only Daphne (Phyllis Stanley), Cadmon's head nurse, can control Mongo. Her voice reduces him from mania to a crestfallen sulk that probably came easily to Chaney. He'd gone mostly without dialogue in The Indestructible Man, released in the same year, arguably a career trough for the actor. Both better and worse were in the future for him.

Mongo's troubles are more described than demonstrated, and The Black Sleep works as if the producers thought it sufficient to show the old horror stars to jolt the audience or tickle their nostalgia bones. Once it becomes clear that Lugosi and Chaney -- not to mention Rathbone, who may have modeled his cold, stiff performance on The Body Snatcher's Henry Daniell -- are rather boring, Le Borg takes us into Dr. Cadmon's dungeon, where our hero discovers more failed experiments. One is the very man the good doctor was accused of killing; instead, Cadmon has turned him into Tor Johnson -- I really should have screencapped the ID photo of a toupeed Tor as this character's former civilized self, as it's one of the funniest sights in the picture. Johnson can hardly make an impression, however, once Le Borg unleashes John Carradine, who has been vivisected into believing that he is the Crusader king Bohemund, awaiting news of the fall of Jerusalem. Long John was fresh from the set of The Ten Commandments and has prophetic fury to spare here, though contemporary viewers would most likely have been reminded of the old man who'd been guarding Jack Benny's vault since the Civil War. You see, the further back in time you think you're in, the scarier rather than funnier it is. Current viewers who don't know Jack Benny will more likely believe that Le Borg sent Carradine onto the set and told him to wing it.

Everything breaks down once our hero accidentally leaves a key to the dungeon where Tor, though blind, can reach it. While Tor takes the initiative, Carradine naturally assumes leadership of the breakout; he's a king, after all! These two, along with a laughing lady covered with random tufts of hair and a disfigured dude whose makeup figured prominently in the advertising, run amok on the upper level, Carradine bopping first Daphne, then Mongo on the head in regal rage. It takes three lunatics to drag the mighty Mongo down, sans any payoff his backstory may have made you expect, while Cadmon, carrying his sick wife, takes a dive off a railing-less stairwell. Scotland Yard takes over soon afterward, and while Tamiroff and Lugosi are taken alive, the fate of the more dangerous lunatics is left unclear. Maybe someone had a sequel in mind, since Tamiroff reminds the detectives that like his feline namesake he may have nine lives. Carradine and Tor Johnson rampaging through the Victorian countryside: who wouldn't pay to see that???

While The Black Sleep has superficial resemblances to an Ed Wood film -- Bela, Tor, cheap sets -- it lacks any of Wood's naive authenticity. Wood's films are dramatic in their incompetence and by virtue of that incompetence bear an unmistakable auteurial stamp. They are as much about the struggle behind the camera to render his vision on film or speak through his actors as they are about their stories. There's no such struggle in The Black Sleep, and thus no drama worth seeing, not to mention no horror worth remembering. Koch, Higgins and Le Borg seem to have believed that their film could make itself if they assembled all the pieces on screen that had worked in the past. They depended on our thrill of recognition of the old stars, the old situations -- as if they thought the audience would make the film work.  Technically they outclass Wood easily, but unlike him, they made a completely soulless horror film. That may sound horrific in its own right, but not in any entertaining way.

Saturday, October 26, 2013


It took a while for Vincent Price to become a full-fledged horror man. He appeared in two Universal horror films from the classic cycle -- Tower of London and The Invisible Man Returns -- but didn't get identified with the genre until the 1950s. Andre de Toth's House of Wax was a milestone in 1953, making Price a real movie star for the first time. Publicity for his follow-up horror picture noted that he had suddenly begun receiving fan letters from children. Price reportedly speculated that House of Wax had made him nearly as popular as Roy Rogers or Lassie. Yet a hiatus, or reprieve, followed the release of John Brahm's black-and-white 3-D picture for Columbia. Price didn't make another horror picture until 1958's The Fly, after which came the deluge. So what happened? What was it about The Mad Magician, if anything, that stalled Price's transformation?

The late Mary Murphy's most famous cinematic utterance was the question, "What are you rebelling against?" Marlon Brando's answer in The Wild One was "Whadaya got?" Had Murphy's character in The Mad Magician asked the same question of her co-star, Price might have answered, "Exploitation by the man!" Price plays Don Gallico, a turn-of-the-century technical wizard who designs illusions and magic tricks for Ross Ormond, a theatrical producer whose star attraction is the magician Rinaldi the Great. Realizing that he's the real illusionist, Gallico gets the performing bug and decides to try his luck as a stage magician. Rather than let Rinaldi and Ormond benefit from his latest masterwork, an illusion of someone getting decapitated by a buzzsaw, Gallico shoots for stardom, mocking Rinaldi in the process with a note-perfect impersonation aided by an ingenious latex mask. What's interesting about this opening from the perspective of Price's career and reputation is how he doesn't play Gallico as an egomaniac but proves convincing as a nervous novice entertainer. Without his signature moustache, Price is still unmistakably himself but less like a trademark of himself, if you get my drift. In any event, Gallico's dream is dashed when Ormond sics lawyers on the theater with an injunction forbidding the use of illusions designed by his employee, all of which are Ormond's intellectual property by contract. Understandably, Gallico is one mad magician. At first he's just angry but when Ormond rubs it in a little too much our hero escalates from angry to homicidal crazy. A convenient bonfire celebrating a college football victory gives him an opportunity to dispose of the offending body, while Gallico's mask-making genius allows him to go incognito wearing Ormond's face, though he uses another name.

Right there you may notice the plot getting more convoluted than it ought to be. It gets more so when the former Mrs. Gallico, who is also the estranged Mrs. Ormond (Eva Gabor) turns up hunting for her current husband. Her appeal to the press catches the attention of the mystery-writing wife of the boarding-house owner who now recognizes her tenant as "Ormond." Mrs. O knows better; having been intimate with both Ormond and Gallico, she sees through the disguise -- so she has to die. Now our mad magician's decision to wear Ormond's face makes sense, since Ormond is now accused of his wife's murder. Rinaldi is skeptical, however, assuming for reasons of his own that a fugitive Ormond would have sought him out. He's more suspicious about Gallico designing new illusions that he feels are rightfully his. He spies on Gallico demonstrating his latest device, a crematorium illusion, but ends up getting a personal demonstration. So we end up with what had been hinted at early: the "Great Rinaldi" will debut the crematorium trick, if the mystery writer, the once-loyal assistant (Murphy) or her boyfriend the police detective don't track down Gallico first....

The Mad Magician is only 72 minutes long but manages to meander for much of that time while Price wastes time wearing masks or make-up for his impersonations. It's as if House of Wax producer Bryan Foy wanted to make Price a modern Lon Chaney of many faces. As mentioned, Price is quite good when he doesn't have to impersonate other people, and has one really good mad scene while killing Ormond, daring his tormentor to laugh at him now. But the film's eccentric or merely pointless digressions -- among the latter is a bit of business in which Price and Murphy accidentally switch bags, the former's containing Ormond's head -- dissipate the intensity of the star turn. Director John Brahm was Twentieth Century-Fox's horror specialist in the 1940s; if past his prime here, he still manages to give the picture an appropriate period atmosphere. The picture may sabotage itself in some ways, but is that enough to explain Price's five-year exile from horror? I suspect not. It's more likely that Price became identified with a kind of period horror film that was rendered obsolete by the sudden advent of sci-fi inflected horrors like Them!, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and so on. While Price may be most revered by horror fans for the period horrors Roger Corman later adapted from Edgar Allan Poe, he had already reestablished himself as a horror man by then thanks to the modern-dress horrors he made for William Castle, as well as The Fly. Something else may have happened. Note how House of Wax had reportedly captivated small children. That film, and maybe Mad Magician as well, may have planted a seed in impressionable minds that germinated while Price went back to more conventional character acting. Once those captivated kiddies became old enough to go to drive-ins, Price was set for life.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS (L'ultimo treno della notte, 1975)

Aldo Lado's horror film is notorious for being a virtual remake of Wes Craven's seminal Last House on the Left. Then again, Craven has acknowledged the influence on his film of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, so Lado's chronicle of death and cruelty is just part of the great circle of life. Certain details are constant: depraved people kill a young woman whose father avenges her. What do Lado and his writers add to the formula? The train, for one thing. Our characters actually switch trains along the way, but it may be significant that theirs is an international route, starting in West Germany and going to Italy by way of Austria. The two girls are paying passengers and the two boys are on the bum, but both groups are being carried to a destiny none can control. That the train symbolizes something may be suggested by the presence on the first train of what looks like a professional Winston Churchill impersonator, down to the cigar. There's also a fat old priest and his retinue on board. Maybe the train represents old Europe and all the horrors of its past.


One passenger in particular, an unnamed woman (Macha Meril), seems to represent a decadent aristocracy preying on youth -- an issue Lado addressed in his giallo Short Night of Glass Dolls. Bored and contemptuous initially, her interest rises when she recognizes some minor celebrity or newsmaker on board. She raises her veil as if to signal that it's now playtime for her. The play gets more serious when she encounters one of the rough boys, but arousal overwhelms outrage. This mystery woman is the most significant departure from the Bergman-Craven formula, taking the story out of the realm of blind fate and turning it, against the odds, into something more evil. She goads the boys into raping the girls, who are on their way home for Christmas, the parents of one eagerly waiting for their loved one's return. Their merry waltz is intercut with one of the girls getting deflowered with a knife and dying from a hemorrhage. Her girlfriend flees and leaps to her death out a restroom window. The boys are doomed -- that's the formula -- but the woman isn't. She may well walk away from it all at the end, after all the young folks are dead. In any event, she lowers her veil as she prepares to leave. The woman may symbolize cruel wealth, but she may also stand in for the audience whose desire for horror and cruelty presumably called this film into being.

There's something else that's less a personal touch of Aldo Lado than a quirk of Italian horror. Ennio Morricone wrote the score for Night Train Murders, and as the film takes place at Christmastime the maestro throws in a festive holiday song. The song plays as our rough boys mug a Munich Santa Claus. It's a pardigmatic juxtaposition. How often in Italian horror are the worst horrors scored to festive, sentimental or simply beautiful music from Morricone and others? The music often seems inappropriate to novice viewers used to horror movie music that's meant to scare you. But if the Italians dare you to see how cruel and vicious people can be, they use their "inappropriate" music as a point of reference. It defines an ideal of beauty and harmony to be smashed, gutted, violated. The music is the world you want to believe in, while the violence claims to be the reality. The appeal of the violence in Italian horror -- and in horrific non-genre films with beautiful music -- is that it asserts some sort of truth that the audience is brave enough to witness in defiance of the ersatz idealism of the music. When it works the music can seem crushingly sad rather than silly, and Night Train Murders is a particularly crushing film. Sometimes crude in its crosscutting and utterly predictable to anyone familiar with Last House on the Left, its dark formula still works disturbingly well.

Monday, October 21, 2013

DVR Diary: VERBOTEN! (1959)

Samuel Fuller is sometimes described as a cinematic primitive. What that means is that he is often unsubtle in his writing or direction, but also willing to try anything for an effect. Another way of looking at it is that Fuller could wallow in camp nearly as often as he achieved heights of insight. Verboten! is camp Fuller. Like proper camp it's written and filmed -- and in this case produced -- in earnest. Fuller simply knows no other way to address his subject than with rhetorical howitzers. The subject is the occupation of Germany by the Americans at the end of World War II. It opens with Fuller on safe ground: gritty war action on a budget with touches of authenticity based on Fuller's own experiences. Then the opening credits roll and we get the Love Theme from Verboten! Town Without Pity this isn't.

We have a love theme from Verboten! because Verboten! is a love story. G.I. David Brent (James Best) is wounded while fighting to take a German town but is rescued by Helga (Susan Cummings), one of the local frauleins, despite the hostility of her younger brother, a Hitler Youth who has already lost an arm in the war. After the surrender, David marries Helga and takes a job as a civilian administrator for the occupation. That puts Helga in a lucky position and however sincere her feelings for David may be, she can't help but be a little smug and cynical about her luck when a family friend, Bruno (Tom Pittman, who died in a car wreck before the film's release), returns from demobilization. She persuades David to vouch for Bruno so the German can get a job as a policeman. Part of his job is to ferret out Nazis, but Bruno has a secret agenda. He's part of the Werwolf, the vaunted resistance organization that the Nazis predicted would rise from their ashes. Now he's in a position to recruit Werwolves, steal supplies and arms, and build forces for an uprising against the Americans. Fuller apparently took the Werwolf more seriously than history justifies; Verboten! would have been a comfort to those who wanted to argue a decade ago that there was so resistance to the Allied occupation, so that the resistance in Iraq didn't look so damning by comparison.

The main problem with Verboten! is that the romantic plot and the Werwolf plot don't fit so well together. As Bruno stirs things up behind the scenes while continuing to play the loyal stooge of the occupiers, David's marriage threatens to fall apart when the American loses his job for provoking a riot. Bruno has informed David of Helga's cynical comments about David being a "goldmine" to her, and now the American sees her urging him to find work back in the U.S. as a way to dump him. Meanwhile, Helga's brother has joined the Werwolf but has second thoughts once the group starts hijacking medical shipments. He has third thoughts after seeing Bruno execute a man for criticizing the hijackings. He has fourth thoughts after he and Helga take a day trip to the Nuremberg trial. Large parts of Verboten! are filmed in glorious StockFootageScope, so we see the celebrity Nazis take their seats in the dock of the historic courtroom before we see Helga and her brother take their seats in what looks like a separate, more spartanly furnished venue, where they get to see a digest version of the evidence against the Nazis as narrated by Fuller. How coincidental that this presentation of the evidence quotes Nazi leaders using some of the exact phrases Bruno does in his pep-talks to the Werwolf. That, and the films from the death camps, turns the brother against the Nazis for good. Repentant, he rushes to rat Bruno out to a still-sulky David, but it's up to the one-armed kid himself to fight Bruno to a finish in a burning railroad car before David finally comes to the rescue and the film basically comes to a stop.

James Best, who continues to work in his eighties, will have the dubious honor of going to his grave remembered most (if not best) as Roscoe P. Coltrane, the hapless sheriff on The Dukes of Hazzard. For a generation before that show, Best had built himself up into a dependable character actor and a welcome presence in western films and TV shows. He's the best thing (sorry!) about Verboten!, and his best moment (sorry again!!) comes when David has to face down a small mob protesting food shortages. This scene boasts Fuller's liveliest writing, expressing the auteur's own ambivalence about Germany. When a protester mocks America's claim to have liberated Germany, David blows his top. You're damn right we're not liberators, he roars; "We're conquerors and don't you forget it!" At moments like this Verboten! becomes an authentic document of a moment when Americans were torn between the imperative to reconcile (a Cold War context is only hinted at) and lingering outrage over Germany's crimes against humanity. The postwar international family can only be restored when the Germans recognize and repudiate their country's crimes; then they can be forgiven in time for the happy ending. That's a historic burden Fuller's plot can't quite bear, given the flimsiness of the soapbox it stands on. His heart was in the right place but his skills mostly eluded him this time.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

DVR Diary: RAWHIDE (1951)

The first awesome thing about this Henry Hathaway western from Twentieth-Century Fox is that it's a remake of a 1935 modern-dress crime picture called Show Them No Mercy. I've never seen that picture, but the mere existence in that year of a film with that title is kind of awesome. It sounds more like something you'd see on a Times Square marquee around 1980, and it's definitely a better title than Rawhide, which only reminds you of the unrelated TV series on which Clint Eastwood served his apprenticeship. It's worlds better than the alternate title, Desperate Siege, the studio came up with later to avoid confusion with the Eastwood show. Hathaway's film is worthy of the better title. It's an intense, tightly shot thriller about good and bad people trapped in a situation rapidly deteriorating out of anyone's control.

The next awesome thing about Rawhide is the way it ruthlessly stomps on our expectations of genre heroism. In the star role, Tyrone Power is steadfastly, stubbornly helpless throughout. He's a greenhorn with the Overland Mail -- the "Jackass Mail," as an obnoxious prologue narrator is happy to remind us -- who ends up taken hostage by four escaped convicts who intend to use him in their scheme to hijack a gold shipment. His fellow hostages are Susan Hayward and her baby girl -- for Code purposes, the child is her niece. Their every attempt to thwart the criminals and escape their predicament fails. Hathaway builds up quite a bit of suspense as hero and heroine chop away at some adobe brickwork under a bunk in the room they're trapped in, with the toddling about and babbling of the infant as wild counterpoint, only to have everything possible go wrong. In the end the characters owe their survival to the inherent instability of the convict gang and the random intervention of the baby, who manages to crawl through the little hole that had been made in the wall and provoke a final round of madness. Hathaway is unafraid to show the toddler in peril, whether she wanders between the legs of skittish horses or stands like a sitting duck in the wide-open as a gunman fires warning shots to force Power out of cover. The poor tyke clearly isn't acting when Hathaway has squibs set off in the dirt on either side of her; how could she realize what the hell is going on? But it fits the insanity of the last reel, which climaxes with the Power character as grimly helpless as ever and the Hayward character actually saving the day and her little girl.

"Insanity" is my cue to mention the most awesome thing about Hathaway's Rawhide, which is Jack Elam, here almost at the start of a long, grizzled career as a western character actor. After his appearance as the villain in Alan LeMay's indy western High Lonesome, Rawhide was Elam's first prominent appearance in a Hollywood western, and boy, does he make the most of it. Gaunt and ghastly, like a devolved John Carradine, he plays one of the lieutenants of Hugh Marlowe's brusquely thuggish mastermind, one increasingly resentful of Marlowe's dominance. I'd call it a slow burn performance except that it starts at about the two-alarm level as Elam shoots Edgar Buchanan in the back and builds to a human holocaust. He looks ready to snap, and not for the first time, when Marlowe slaps a glass of liquor out of his hand. Hathaway keeps the camera on him for what seems a longer time than it actually is as Elam trembles with shock, fear and rage before calming down. Later, when Hayward realizes that the baby is out in the open and screams for her to come back, Elam goes berserk -- I ought to say to the next level of berserk -- his desire to shut her up turning quickly into a desire to rape her. When Marlowe intervenes Elam is reduced to begging for his life, but just when you think the situation has stabilized to set up the conventional finish, Elam destabilizes it from out of nowhere. He really destabilizes the entire picture, giving Rawhide an all-bets-are-off quality uncommon in Hollywood pictures of the period, even the more hard-boiled "adult" westerns. That quality makes Rawhide very effective as a western thriller while arguably subverting genre conventions by thwarting a conventional resolution. I don't know if it was Hathaway's idea or a producer's to bracket the story with those trite narratives about the Jackass Mail. Someone at Fox may have thought to pass Rawhide off as one of the studio's patriotic pioneer epics, but if you sense a note of mockery when the narrator returns at the end to rave about the Jackass Mail, I suspect that Hathaway and company intended you to do so.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

DVR Diary: R.P.M.* (*Revolutions Per Minute, 1970)

During the 1960s Stanley Kramer was one of the most popular and most despised directors in Hollywood. His films were Oscar bait, except when he made the epic-length slapstick comedy It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Projects like Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner were more typical. Many found his films preachy or pretentious, without any saving stylistic graces. I'll give him this much: his post-nuke film On the Beach was one of the most forceful warnings against nuclear war, to me, because it concluded, unlike better regarded films that show some people muddling through, however dismal the circumstances, with everyone dead -- or at least with a montage of empty streets that evoked the end of humanity. But this was "preaching" as much as any of his films. Whatever critics thought of it, Kramer had an audience -- but by the end of the Sixties he was losing it. Not realizing that he was doomed, Kramer thought to ride the tide of youth unrest by making a film about a college uprising. Initial publicity promised a screenplay by Rod Serling, but R.P.M. ended up written by Love Story author Erich Segal. Presumed insightful on current collegiate life, Segal came up with a quasi-Capraesque situation: when a college president resigns under pressure from students occupying an office building (housing the school's $2,000,000 supercomputer), the trustees accede to one of the protesters' demands. The kids (led by Gary Lockwood, representing the whites, and Paul Winfield, representing the blacks) had included on their otherwise fanciful list of preferred presidents (Che Guevara, already dead, led the field) a faculty member: sociology professor "Paco" Perez (Anthony Quinn), a man of some radical ideas and an affinity for youth demonstrated by his romance with a former student (Ann-Margaret). Kramer and Segal doubtless thought themselves cutting edge to have one of the trustees, informed of Quinn's affection for undergraduates, ask for clarification: girls or boys?

The newspaper ads tried to sell the picture as a sex comedy (see above). This was a desperate gesture; little is sexy or funny about the film. Now that we've established the situation, here's the plot: Perez, the intellectual cinderella man, negotiates with the protesters; the negotiations fail. R.P.M. is a succession of ineffectual negotiations, not just between Perez and the protesters, but between him and his girlfriend as the relationship deteriorates under the strain of Paco's new job. Once Lockwood openly threatens to destroy the $2,000,000 computer, Perez has no choice but to allow the cops to storm the building. For the climax Kramer seems to have been aiming at something hallucinogenic. As cops and students brawl -- a co-ed kicks a pig in the nards in slow motion -- the screen grows blurry, the camera bleary-eyed when not looking into huge close-ups of Anthony Quinn's sensitive gaze. I half expected him to go all Iron Eyes Cody with the tears as he watched, but that would have been too funny for this picture. This lame excuse for a climax exposes Kramer's inability to go over the top, as if he'd spent what little frenzy he ever had on Mad, Mad, Mad, etc. In the year of Kent State this mild mayhem must have provoked yawns from those few who went to see it. A better film from Kramer probably would have fared little better at the box office. He was the great explicator of social or cultural or historical problems to a general audience that suddenly stopped going to movies so much after around 1967. His intent, certainly, was to explicate youth rebellion to that bourgeois audience. His challenge, however, was to represent youth to youth, and for that purpose R.P.M. is hopeless. It lacks the empathetic immediacy the newly-regnant youth audience found in Easy Rider and similar pictures. Looking at it from another angle, Kramer, so often indicted for self-righteous sanctimony, lacked sufficient sympathy with the self-righteous sanctimony of a new generation to make a cinematic connection. By mid-decade he was reduced to directing a half-hour pilot for a TV series based on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? He had hoped to chronicle a revolution on the campus but failed to reckon with a revolution in his own business.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Now Playing: OCT. 14, 1933

Raoul Walsh's The Bowery was the box-office champ in Milwaukee last week. At the least, it's the only one of that week's releases to be held over for another week. It most likely won't be this week's champ, and here's why:

That's some ballyhoo. Mae West has never lived up to it whenever I've tried to watch one of her movies. She's nobody's standard of beauty, but her sexuality was a matter more of attitude than looks. The ad copy here ("sexotic ... scorch singin', diamond chasin'...") conveys that same attitude, albeit in the manner of a carnival barker. As West grew older, that attitude turned to camp, but to describe what it was in its own time, in her prime, the best word is Pre-Code.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

DVR Diary: HORROR CASTLE (La vergine di Norimberga, 1963)

The "virgin of Nuremberg" in the Italian title of Antonio "Anthony M. Dawson" Margheriti's Eastmancolor gothic is an iron maiden, an ancient torture device preserved in the title edifice of the American edition. We're introduced to the "virgin" as new bride Mary Hunter (Rosanna Podesta) inspects the creepier corners of her new home. She has quite a fright when she sees a dead body inside, but her husband Max (Georges Riviere) is all calm reassurance. He has the era's reliable remedy for female hysteria: pills -- but Mary quickly has grown suspicious enough not to take them. The torture paraphernalia commemorates an earlier occupant of the castle: "the Punisher." But don't get the wrong idea; the title of this picture is Horror Castle, not Frank Castle. And in the end, our menace -- for the Punisher is not merely a relic, but a real living threat -- is less a Punisher than a Red Skull. I'd split the difference and call him a Crimson Executioner, but that name is taken -- though it wasn't when Margheriti/Dawson made this picture about a madman identifying with an infamous torturer. A tragic backstory elevates the material: Max Hunter has good reason to cover up the goings on in the torture chambers, while an FBI man makes an ironic yet understandable mistake in his belief that the castle harbors a Nazi war criminal. Add Christopher Lee (mostly dubbed in the American edition, though I think it's his own voice when he speaks German) as a scarred servant and there's enough going on to keep a viewer guessing for a while. All told, this is an atmospheric scare-show in the Mario Bava manner, distinguished by its locations and the cinematography Riccardo Pallotini. Margheriti pulls off one impressively Bava-esque bit of business when a panicked Podesta runs out of the castle into the night. Long takes of the leading lady running and running are intercut with expressionistic shots of tree branches looming into the camera like clawed hands grasping at the heroine. Riz Ortolani contributes an often-jazzy score, a musical commentary on the juxtaposition of the past and present in 20th century gothic. Overall, Horror Castle is a pretty standard Italian horror film from the pre-giallo era, not too demanding but just efficient and imaginative enough for 90 minutes entertainment when October puts you in the mood for mild and comfortable chills.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

In Brief: WORLD WAR Z (2013)

Did you ever see one of the old time movie serials? The story builds to a climax every fifteen minutes or so and after an implausible escape the story moves on. Now, have you ever seen one of those feature films made by compressing a serial into 90 minutes or less? Usually they have all the cliffhangers while jettisoning much of the exposition and most of what little character development there was in the original. That's what World War Z is like. To be fair, Brad Pitt and Marc Foster have closer to two hours to work with and manage to fit more exposition in. But there's the same sort of perfunctory sensationalism to their production, notoriously troubled but eventually modestly triumphant at the box office. Action scenes -- for this is an action rather than a horror film -- arrive with a telegraphed inevitability that smothers any suspense the filmmakers hoped to generate. Much like the film's "zekes," the film itself is energetically lifeless, taking for granted that our empathy for "family" or our adoration of Pitt will keep us emotionally involved without director, writers or actors really doing anything to engage us. The irony of the project is that the zombie at its heart is Brad Pitt. Repeatedly, Pitt has proven his versatility and charisma as an actor, from the subtle villainy of his Jesse James to his sublime idiocy in Burn After Reading, but his ambition as an actor seems inversely proportional to his ambition, as a producer, to make money. He seems to think that, to be a hero, or at least an action hero, he doesn't have to develop an interesting personality. His protagonist is an automaton, though he looks like a professional wrestler (it's the hair, mainly) bereft of the gift of gab, barely personalized by the era's prevalent reluctant-hero cliches -- yet perversely, this character, if it can be called that, dominates the story in a way that no one, or so I understand, dominates Max Brooks's source novel. As Pitt trots the globe, abortive characters threaten to form around him, only to be abandoned, with the exception of a female Israeli soldier whose infected hand he helpfully amputates during the great bug-out from Jerusalem. You get none of the abrasive interaction of personalities in distress that defines the zombie movie as much as the zombies do. Everyone involved with the project seemed more interested in the novel ways they make the zekes move, but it is all too often rendered from too great a distance and too much in the manner of video games to seem as strange as it's supposed to, let alone frightening. Foster proves incapable of generating real thrills, and his commitment to a PG-13 rating denies viewers even the simplest pleasures (gore, that is) of zombie films. Sure, the fate of the world's at stake, but when isn't it in movies? The real question is, when have you cared less?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Now Playing: OCTOBER 8, 1933

A competitive field in Milwaukee this week. Here's the prestige release of the lot:

This all-star M-G-M picture was held up in litigation with the author's estate for generations, so that it only had its Turner Classic Movies premiere last year. It doesn't quite live up to its cast, and the struggles of aviation in South America were dramatized better in Only Angels Have Wings.

Paramount's offering is a single-star vehicle and Claudette Colbert makes the most of it.

Here's my review -- and here's my opinion of the next one.

Recent revivals suggest that people are getting over the obvious political incorrectness of Raoul Walsh's film in order to appreciate its irreverent vitality. For some, it may stand as a paradigm of Pre-Code, for good or ill.

Meanwhile, will a star be born this week?

I've sort of seen this film. That is, I've seen the German-language, Rod LaRoque-less version of this international co-production but haven't got around to the American edition, which is an extra on the Kino DVD.  It has some pretty spectacular stunt and location work, but Riefenstahl doesn't make that big an impression. Her mind may have been on her own directorial debut, The Blue Light. Think how history may have changed had Iceberg been a hit here. We might not remember Leni Riefenstahl at all ... because I doubt Hollywood would let that last name stand.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

On the Big Screen: GRAVITY (2013)

This will be brief, because you can't really describe what happens in Alfonso Cuaron's film in any detail without spoiling the experience. We all know the setup by now: a terrible accident leaves spacewalking astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney stranded in orbit. I'll add only that the circumstances of the accident add a ticking clock element to an already dire situation: the same debris that caused the trouble is due back periodically, growing more dangerous as the destructive wave generates more debris each time.  The plot is a race for survival against some of the biggest odds imaginable. The film itself is one part 2001: A Space Odyssey, one part The General, one part Alien. The Alien part is the actress stripping down to her space skivvies. Sandra Bullock now is old enough to be the mother of Sigourney Weaver then, and that the comparison doesn't embarrass Bullock makes her one of Cuaron's most impressive special effects. Launching herself gravity-free through the corridors of an abandoned space station, she's like a superhero or maybe a goddess. Her ordeal is an evolutionary experience (hence 2001) at least on a personal level if not as a vanguard for humanity. She has to solve problems of mechanics and translation that are complex in theory but plain enough on film, and she has to reclaim the will to survive. The astronauts' constant improvisation with gigantic dangerous machinery is where The General comes in, and Cuaron directs the thrills with Keaton's impeccable clarity. His first film in seven years (Children of Men was the last) lives up to the hype about its effects and the illusion of weightless action: it was great in 3-D and probably is awesome in IMAX. The only thing that keeps Gravity out of the august company I've invoked is the screenplay's (by Cuaron and son) insistence on a banal backstory for Bullock. To assume that a backstory of any sort is necessary given the peril her character is in is itself banal, as if the Cuarons lacked full confidence in the suspense of the situation. Are people not going to care whether Bullock or Clooney make it back because they know nothing about the characters' pasts? If they weren't interested in the first place they wouldn't be in the theater, so in my view the sentimentality is unnecessary and unworthy of something I've compared to Keaton and Kubrick. But you'll get over it. The corny moments count for little against the concentrated spectacle of this 90-minute two-person epic -- not counting the voice of Ed Harris (in a nod to Apollo 13), the still-obligatory doomed ethnic (heard but never really seen until there's nothing to see) and some floating corpses. It's the best adventure story I've seen on film in some time, and for now -- there's a lot of formidable competition arriving this same month -- the best film of 2013.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Carlo Lizzani (1922-2013)

My plan for today was to review Gravity, but I'm going to postpone that for a day to devote this space to more sad news from Italian cinema. Carlo Lizzani, one of the country's elder cinematic statesmen, passed away today at the age of 91. In a grim echo of the death of fellow nonagenarian Mario Monicelli a few years ago, Lizzani killed himself by jumping off a building. He was perhaps the last of the neorealist generation that put Italian cinema back on the map after World War II, working as a writer and assistant director on Roberto Rosselini's Germany Year Zero (1948). He was an Italian counterpart to Michael Apted, as much a documentarian as a director of fiction films. Many of the latter had ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter that Lizzani invested with an energetic immediacy. He won Italy's equivalent of the Oscar for directing one such picture, the crime film Bandits in Milan, which boasts one of cinema's great extended car chase scenes. Dino De Laurentis brought Lizzani to the U.S. to apply his talents to an American crime subject, and the result was the vastly underrated Crazy Joe, which gives a New York mob war an almost revolutionary inflection. Lizzani was apparently at his best as a crime director, but his spaghetti westerns The Hills Run Red and especially Requiescant (aka Kill and Pray) are well regarded by some genre fans. He remained active into his tenth decade, his last directing credit on IMDB coming from 2011. His last credit of any kind is from this very year, for co-writing a documentary on neo-realism; his last word on the subject may be the last word from his generation. Take a look at my reviews of Bandits, Crazy Joe and Hills to see what Lizzani was capable of and appreciate what the wild world of cinema has lost.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

SLAVES (1969)

For the second straight year, one of the fall movie season's Oscar contenders will be a film dealing with slavery. Steve McQueen's fact-based Twelve Years a Slave promises to be a more serious if not more popular treatment of the subject than Quentin Tarantino's somewhat-unlikely crowd-pleaser Django Unchained, and it comes out of the film-festival circuit highly touted as one of 2013's best American films. In anticipation of the McQueen film's general release, let's return to the world of slavesploitation. Ken Norton's death last month put us in mind of his iconic performances in Mandingo and Drum, and exploitative films like those had an obvious influence on Tarantino, though probably not on McQueen. Herbert J. Biberman's Slaves will probably come closer to the McQueen film in spirit, but you can see the family resemblance to Django Unchained as well. No more than a thin, dimly discerned line separates slavesploitation from films and filmmakers that would shun the label. The subject matter touches too many nerves that, if not raw, are still tender. Part of the problem is that films about slavery tend to be about the corruption of masters as much as the they're about the oppression of slaves. The two threads are arguably inseparable, but combine them and you risk compromising a dignity on the part of the victims that some audiences (or critics) insist upon. The subject threatens to shift to the corruption of slaves as an inevitable consequence of the intimacy of plantation slavery. Any slavery film is a tightrope act and some people will never be satisfied, perhaps believing that American slavery is a subject, like the Holocaust, that can only be trivialized by fiction film.

Herbert J. Biberman was a relatively minor figure in Hollywood who looms larger now as one of the legendary Hollywood Ten, the writers and directors who went to prison for refusing to testify on their involvement with Communism to the House Un-American Activities Committee. As a creator, Biberman is best known now, if known at all, for directing the 1954 film Salt of the Earth, a union-financed drama made with talent (including the actor Will "Grandpa Walton" Geer) that had been blacklisted by Hollywood. Slaves was Biberman's first picture since then, and his last; the director and co-writer would die in 1971. Co-written by Biberman with two other scribes, the film riffs on some of the tropes long associated with Uncle Tom's Cabin while doing without the more cloying elements (Little Eva, etc.) of the Stowe novel. Biberman's Uncle Tom surrogate is Luke (Ossie Davis), a trusted horse trainer and horse trader on a Kentucky plantation. We meet him returning from a trip to Ohio -- free soil -- where he conducted business for his benevolent owner. The master's trust is rewarded, while Luke's fellow chattels are astounded, by his refusal to take advantage of the opportunity to run away. Luke is a good Christian who respects the scriptural injunction on slaves to obey their masters. More practically, he's slowly earning money to buy his freedom, with an eye on making good money in the North to buy freedom for his wife and children. Luke's master supports this aspiration, but has proved fiscally irresponsible. Unable to pay his debt to a slave trader (David Huddleston), the master is forced to give up several slaves to the trader, including Luke and the more mischievous Jericho (Robert Kya-Hill). This is the first of several disillusioning moments for Luke, but there is worse to come.

Luke and Jericho are put on the market and made to prove their health by jumping up and down (see above) before being purchased by this film's Simon Legree, Nathan MacKay (Stephen "Messala" Boyd). Hailing from New England Puritan stock, Nathan has been captain of a slave ship, dealing with African chiefs who readily sold their own people to him. He collects African art along with Africans, and commissions African inspired fashions for his slave mistress Cassie (Dionne Warwick). MacKay is a satanic or Sadean villain, self-consciously evil, fascinated by the process of breaking people's wills and testing the limits of what people will endure. He seems to be testing his own will to power constantly, reminding the tempestuous Cassie that "I'm even more stubborn than you are. I have to be. I'm master." One gets the sense that his embrace of evil is an act of surrender, that he has seen things that so darkened his view of humanity (no pun intended!!!) that there was nothing to do but become a villain. Despite his love-hate relationship with Cassie and his interest in nubile newcomers, MacKay seems more interested in power than sex, and that keeps Slaves just sort of all-out slavesploitation -- though fans of "Mandingo fighting" should note that a drunken MacKay does compel two slaves to beat each other to the death with chairs at one point.

The Look of Love?

MacKay recognizes Luke's qualities and admits that he didn't pay what he did just to use him as a field hand, but his first priority is to break Luke's will -- while Cassie thinks of him initially as a pawn in her own personal power game with MacKay. Luke himself is more concerned with taking charge of a newborn girl whose mother died in childbirth, and with rescuing a teenaged girl from MacKay's depredations. Eventually the film restages the archetypal climax of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Luke risking a fatal whipping by refusing to divulge the hiding place of the girls (and Cassie), buying them time to escape with help from MacKay's estranged wife and one of her northern relations.

Biberman is not a very good director, and Slaves feels stagy and stodgy until it acquires some pace late. Once Luke and Jericho plan a mass escape requiring a schedule of distractions and misdirections the film's final act manages to maintain some honest suspense, but the tension dissipates once Mrs. MacKay takes on the role of dea ex machina. If the ultimate escape proves anticlimactic, you can argue that the real climax is Luke's confrontation with MacKay, but the moral of Luke's storyline is unclear. The script hints at a critique of Luke's Christianity, with a message that people should achieve their own salvation rather than depend on God, but Luke's sacrifice hardly seems like a vindication of anything he may have stood for. It may be significant that in his final moments he physically resists MacKay, attempting to seize the master's whip -- in an echo of Ben-Hur? -- but to some extent he still seems like a futile character. It's not so simple when the filmmaker denies himself the gratification of a revenge fantasy like Django Unchained. Biberman acknowledges the persistence of injustice as MacKay shrugs off both the burning of his cotton barn and the loss of human property ("There will always be more n*ggers in the world.") while Jericho, joining the ladies on the road to freedom, cautions that freedom "better be worth it."

Throughout, the actors strive to redeem the stiffness of the dialogue. Davis and the actress playing his wife manage to make their final night together moving despite the prevalence of talk over action, and Davis is an authoritative presence throughout, regardless of the film's view of his faith. Boyd is perfectly cast, while Warwick is an appropriately strange figure as Cassie, at once idolized (or fetishized) and despised by MacKay and on her terms at once arrogant, opportunistic and self-loathing. Both Boyd and Warwick have been accused of bad acting but are playing such unconventional or unfathomable figures that normal standards hardly apply. They don't manage to make Slaves a genuinely good movie, but they help keep it interesting. It would be hard for any film on this subject to fail to be interesting, since each is part of the ongoing drama of Americans addressing one of their nation's founding sins. We can debate whether some films are better on the subject than Slaves, but most of them are definitely more entertaining -- for good or ill.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Giuliano Gemma (1938-2013)

After Franco Nero, Gemma (who died yesterday in a car accident) was probably the most successful Italian star of Italian westerns -- Gianni (Sartana) Garko being his closest rival for runner-up . He rose from stuntman to supporting player in peplum films to starring roles in spaghetti westerns, making his first hit under the pseudonym Montgomery Wood in A Pistol For Ringo and its sequel, The Return of Ringo. His best (or most interesting) spaghettis include Giulio Petroni's A Sky Full of Stars for a Roof  (top) and Tonino Valerii's JFK allegory The Price of Power (below).

He stuck with the genre as long as anyone, appearing in Michele Lupo's California in 1977, but also worked in other genres or outside genre bounds entirely, starring in Pasquale Squaltieri's period cop picture I Am the Law (above) and acquitting himself honorably amid a prestigious international cast in Valerio Zurlini's Desert of the Tartars.  Woody Allen cast him in a small role in last year's To Rome With Love, while Gemma continued to work in Italian television well into the 21st century. Gemma's athleticism sometimes led to more jumping about than might seem appropriate for a western, but his stunting didn't descend into clownishness, at least in the films I've seen. He was a dependable hero type and one of the real faces of the genre for those who bother looking below the Leone-Eastwood surface. His passing, however much before his time, is another reminder that the Spaghetti West is now the Old West too; it belongs to the ages.