Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Columbia Classics Cavalcade, PART II

The Albany Public Library may perform no greater service to movie buffs than to acquire rare movies from the Columbia Classics collection, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's burn-on-demand service. These obscure titles can be had for close to $20 a pop online -- or you can watch at least some of them for free, if your library is as enterprising as mine. The least I can do, as I've done once before, is to give readers an idea of what they're in for with some of these titles before they put their money down. As before, we proceed in chronological order, this time over a 20 year span from the early 1950s into the mid 1970s that includes a western, a noirish thriller, a Sixties gothic, a dark docudrama and a superficially blaxploitational crime drama. Shall we begin?

Before William Castle discovered his calling as a marketer of horror gimmicks, he toiled for Columbia as a director of B westerns. His CONQUEST OF COCHISE (1953) takes him a little ways into the territory of the adult western, following the stream that started with Delmer Daves's Broken Arrow (1950) toward the humanization of Native Americans. Jeff Chandler, otherwise one of the less explicable stars of the 1950s, stole Broken Arrow from James Stewart by playing the Apache chief Cochise as a noble, articulate warrior-statesman. For a time, Cochise became the archetypal good Indian, so it was natural to make him the hero of his own film. For the occasion, Castle reverses the Broken Arrow formula, so that instead of a doomed romance between a white man and an Apache maiden, Conquest features a doomed romance between a white woman and Cochise himself (John Hodiak). Robert Stack is on hand as a ladies' man of a cavalry officer, but he quickly recedes into the background as we follow Cochise on his wavering course between joining an alliance against the whites and opting against war and suffering torture for his trouble. It closes on a note of pathos as Cochise invokes an Apache law that forbids him to marry his white love, only to be reminded after she leaves of what he knows all too well -- there is no such law. It almost is moving despite a board-stiff performance by Hodiak, who makes Jeff Chandler look like Brando. Castle's direction, as always, is functional at best, but the story is active and the movie is colorful. Whether such a true B western, as opposed to Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott's budgetary Bs, can possibly be worth what Columbia Classics charges, is up to the really hardcore western fans to decide.

Just as the hard-boiled crime fiction of the 1930s and 1940s evolved into something else with the rise of the paperback originals of the 1950s, so film noir should be seen to have become something else, for the most part, by the time Gerd Oswald's SCREAMING MIMI appeared in 1958. This adaptation of a Frederic Brown thriller has the noir look thanks to Burnett Guffey's ace cinematography, but the sensibility is coarser and sleazier, befitting the film's burlesque milieu. Anita Ekberg is a young woman traumatized by an attempt on her life who starts over as an exotic dancer under the Svengalian influence of her psychologist. She dances at El Madhouse, where Gypsy Rose Lee presides as an implicitly lesbian mistress of ceremonies and the Red Norvo trio accompanies the dancers. There's a host of suspects available when a fresh attempt on Ekberg's life matches the m.o. of another dancer's killer, setting up the epic "Ripper vs. Stripper" confrontation announced in the trailer. The mystery unfolds awkwardly, however, as the unseen earlier murder looms larger as a decisive event, and even at a mere 79 minutes things develop too slowly to prevent you from anticipating at least some of the plot twists that arrive in due course. Ekberg herself is too passive to be compelling, while her sex appeal is literally a thing of the past. Her exotic dancing is more interesting in theory (especially the slave motif) than in practice, and the character doesn't really get more interesting the more we learn about her. Still, Oswald and Guffey sustain a visual, visceral mood of slightly gilded grunge that makes Mimi enjoyable to look at at least once.

Ten years later, Bernard Girard's THE MAD ROOM seems less sleazy, more retrograde than Screaming Mimi. In part that's because it's a remake of a 1940 play and a 1941 film called Ladies in Retirement. In this version, Stella Stevens's secretary to wealthy widow Shelley Winters brings her two disturbed younger siblings to live in the Winters household. The kids had been committed after being found by the butchered bodies of their parents in a room full of flowers finger-painted on walls in blood. It's a classic gothic set-up, and before you know it, someone dies violently and a dog runs off with a severed hand. Since no one was ever sure which of the two kids did the actual killing way back when, there's a whodunit element about the present murder, but the answer is inevitably more complicated than most characters realize. Some bits are hopelessly backward, like a black servant who remains oblivious to murder because she plays loud music in her room, while some progressively sexual or violent moments were reportedly left on the cutting-room floor by studio editors. I know that I couldn't help wondering while I watched it what a good Italian genre director could have done with this material; my only definite answer is "better." This picture never really goes over the top, except toward the end when Stevens goes after that dog with a sword. That's not much of a highlight if you think about it.

A classic Hitchcockian scenario that played out in real life, and one that Hitchcock himself wanted to make into a movie, the crimes of John Christie and his framing of Timothy Evans for the murder of Evans's wife are recounted in Richard Fleischer's 10 RILLINGTON PLACE (1971), filmed three doors from the murder scene on a desolate stretch of street. Christie (Richard Attenborough) was a serial killer who lured women into his miserable flat (when the wife was out), gassed them, raped them and killed them. Fleischer shows us one of Christie's early crimes so that there'll be no mystery about what he's up to when the Evanses (John Hurt and Judy Geeson) move in. The suspense of the story -- or the horror of it -- builds as Tim's stupidity slowly dooms him to hang for a crime he didn't commit. Evans is an illiterate boor and a self-pitying serial fabricator, a weakling on every level who still doesn't deserve what's coming. But his own untrustworthiness, as well as his pathetic trust in the self-proclaimed abortionist Christie, are the undoing not only of himself but his whole family. Hurt has specialized in pathetic characters throughout his career, but he arguably touches bottom here, while Attenborough is unprecedentedly loathsome as the soft-spoken real-life monster. Fleischer had dealt with this sort of evil previously in The Boston Strangler, but in 10 Rillington Place he puts aside the split-screen psycho-gimmickry of Strangler yet taps into a far more convincing horror. This film achieves a kind of grandeur in its unrelieved wretchedness, its cramped atmosphere of squalor that could itself breed evil and is nourished anew by fresh bodies. It's a triumph of evil that's unmitigated by Christie's inevitable comeuppance, and an underrated classic of moral horror.

The box copy builds up Robert Hartford-Davies's THE TAKE (1974) as a nihilistic spree of police corruption, but the PG rating should have warned me that the actual film would be pretty tepid stuff. Perhaps I should have been warned by Billy Dee Williams's star casting. In a part that begs for a Jim Brown or Fred Williamson despite not being written specifically for a black actor -- a San Francisco cop brought to a New Mexico town to clean up corruption who proves corrupt himself -- Williams brings nothing. He has neither style nor swagger, nor does he project any authority or charisma. His character apparently turned bad after being framed by The Syndicate years ago, and the assumed irony of the story is that while he may seem the sucker for being on the take, he's actually the predator, shaking down the crooks for all he can before taking them down. The fact that his estranged girlfriend lives in his new town, and the fact that he's investing his take money in some big real estate venture, don't really amount to anything. Actually, nothing really amounts to anything in this surprisingly inert production. It ends in the middle of things -- it just stops, actually, and the point seems to be that Williams is stuck in a miserable cycle that only breeds more corruption. I say "seems" because there may not be a point to any of it. The director seems unaware of any point; he leaves the actors utterly at sea to sink or swim, with none other than Frankie Avalon making the strongest impression as a small-time crook turned into an informant. The likes of Eddie Albert, Vic Morrow and Albert Salmi seem unsure of what's wanted from them, while Williams seems simply indifferent. Titles like these should make "Columbia Classics" liable to false-advertising charges.

But there's a definite winner in this pack in 10 Rillington Place, while Screaming Mimi earns at least a marginal recommendation. I suppose that's not a bad batting average for a random sample. I remain eager to see more Columbia Classics titles as the library acquires them just because of their rarity or obscurity. You never know what you might find -- until I tell you, that is. But for now, this is your guide to the cluttered landscape of the wild world of cinema signing out.


venoms5 said...

Great stuff, Sam. I would have thought 10 RILLINGTON PLACE would have been worthy enough for a "legit" DVD release. The Stevens/Winters thriller sounds interesting to me and I have a Billy Dee blax flick but I don't think it's this one. Not watched it yet.

Samuel Wilson said...

venom, I agree about 10 Rillington's neglect before this limited release; perhaps it was too unrelievedly grim in its lack of visual flair or charismatic characters to be embraced by the cult it arguably deserves. Winters is actually relatively subdued in Mad Room, putting the entertainment burden almost entirely on Stevens. If you have another BD Williams vehicle my hunch is that it's better than The Take. Thanks for writing.

Sam Juliano said...

"Evans is an illiterate boor and a self-pitying serial fabricator, a weakling on every level who still doesn't deserve what's coming. But his own untrustworthiness, as well as his pathetic trust in the self-proclaimed abortionist Christie, are the undoing not only of himself but his whole family."

Indeed Samuel. This is an astute observation that at least partially mitigates what happened to Hurt, but in another sense it also accentautes the tragedy.

Actually the film HAS had a legitimate DVD release for years now, albeit on Region 2.


Since then a follow-up special edition has been listed as well as the Columbia Buy on Demand which you broach here. But the point that it has been unavailable up until now for Region 1 owners is well posed.

Yes, this would appear to be the diamond in the ruff of this group (it's a goreless psychologivcal film, tightly scripted and directed, with properly stark and drab cinematography) and a towering creepy performance from Attenborough) but I am more than intrigued with all the others, especially the Castle, since I saw a festival last year dedicated to his work, but this early western was not included.