Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) -- James Whale

The villagers think that they have killed the monster that was terrorizing the countryside, having trapped it and his creator, Victor Frankenstein, in a grain mill, which was burnt to the ground. However, both monster and creator survived the inferno. While recovering from the incident, Dr. Frankenstein receives an unwelcome visitor in the strange Dr. Pretorios. He comes with a ghastly proposition for Frankenstein and will force his cooperation through blackmail -- create a female version of the monster.

The Bride of Frankenstein is justly considered one of the best sequels in the history of film. Coming just four years after the sensational Frankenstein, producer Carl Laemmle Jr. was able to gather the most important principals from the earlier hit: director James Whale and actors Colin Clive and Boris Karloff. Dwight Frye is along as the dwarf assistant, though in this one his name is Karl instead of Fritz. And because Whale used even better craftsmen for some of the other crew members for the production, the result surpasses the original.

Elsa Lanchester as the Bride.

While the first film is loosely based on Mary Shelley's 19th Century horror novel, Bride is an entirely original story. Director Whale cleverly starts it in the Shelley drawing room. A storm rages outside. Shelley friend, Lord Byron, is talking with Mary and Percey about her book. Scenes from the first film play over their conversation to remind viewers what took place. Mary explains that her book was a moral lesson: punishment for mortal man who attempts to act like God. Prompted, she tells the two that there is more to the story. From there, the film is the visual representation of her tale.

Picking up where the first film left off, the exultant crowd of villages, complete with pitch forks and rakes, disperses from the wreckage of the torched mill. One man and woman stay behind, the parents of the girl the monster threw in the lake in the first film. It's a poor decision as the monster is alive. It soon dispatches both. The woman's death is particularly effective. She reaches to grab a hand she thinks is her husband's, who has fallen through the weakened floorboards to where the monster has gone into hiding. After drowning the husband, the monster is climbing out. It's quite a surprise.

Among the new elements are a terrifically eerie score by Franz Waxman, and highly effective performances by Una O'Conner as a nervous villager, and Ernest Thesiger as the disturbingly unhinged Pretorious. O'Conner has a memorable cackle when she believes the monster is dead, and a signature scream when she first sees him alive. 

Thesiger as Pretorius, the mad scientist. 
Thesiger looks and acts the part. His introduction is a creepy one, and reminiscent of how Director William Friedken introduced Max von Sydow in 1973's The Exorcist. The door opens to reveal a somewhat emaciated figure, clouded in mist. In one scene he sits in a crypt eating his dinner, talking to a skull he has propped on a coffin. Pretorius is an old acquaintance of Frankenstein's from the university. We don't know their whole background together, but apparently they were once colleagues of some sort. Pretorius reveals that he was kicked out of the university so we know there is something wrong with him. He has been conducting some weird experiments of his own and wants Frankenstein's help to create a woman. Crazy enough to think the two creations might procreate, he raises a glass of wine and offers a toast: "To a new world of gods and monsters!" Frankenstein is appalled, but intrigued.

Later, when Frankenstein tries to back out of the deal, Pretorius secures his help by having the monster steal the wife.

The set direction and sound in the scientists' laboratories might be the aspect that lingers most from watching both films. Bride's is the superior of the two, however, with its elaborate winch sequence and giant kites. Electricity pulsates and hums along large electrodes and diffusers. Smoke and sparks explode and snap. Whale interjects the action with some wonderful closeups of the actors. Rarely has black and white cinematography played such an important part in setting the mood of a scene.    

The director makes sure we sympathize with the monster. Karloff as the monster cries when he sees his ugly reflection and is made a Christ-like figure when captured by the villagers. And at the end of the film, we'll see him make the supreme sacrifice.

The faux crucifixion scene.

Before the big laboratory scene we see the monster wandering in the woods. He meets and befriends a blind man, the first person to show him any compassion. The message here, if obvious, is still essential: real beauty is under the surface. The monster only wants peace. He's violent because that's the only way he knows how to react. To emphasize the point that the monster is more human than some of his pursuers, Whale has a tear role down his cheek as he listens to the blind man's violin. (The scene was later famously parodied by Mel Brooks in his comedy Young Frankenstein.)

A good action sequence follows the monster's capture. He's been hauled into jail like an animal trophy, and secured with heavy chains. He yanks the heavy chains out of the concrete and breaks down a door, sending the villagers running for their lives. The jail, as well as Frankenstein's castle, and the cemetery are wonderful Gothic settings. And pre-dating Film Noir, shadows and sharp angles fill the frame.

Karl is a dutiful assistant, a thankless role if ever there was one considering his scant screen time. He helps steal a corpse for the scientists' experiment and gets to kill a girl to secure a fresh heart. His best line comes at the height of the lightning storm: "The kites! The kites! Get 'em ready! He wants the kites!" The actor Dwight Frey was a staple of Universal's 1930 horror classics, his most famous role as the loony Renfield in the 1931 classic, Dracula. One wishes he had a larger role here.
A trusty assisant. 

The Bride (Elsa Lanchester) doesn't make her memorable appearance until almost the last scene. The buildup has been nicely paced and the payoff is one of film's great introductions, a biological abomination wapped tight as a mummy and held together by large safety pins. Pretorius removes some gauze from her face to reveal her eyes, open and alert, (Waxman overscores it with a marvelously screaming note), and Dr. Frankenstein again gets to marvel, "She's Alive! Alive!" She bears the same facial scars as her predecessor. Many viewers will remember the Bride's crazy hair, piled ridiculously high with a zig zag running up one side, but it's the bird-like movements of her head that most fascinate.

What follows is the most poignant scene in any of the early Universal horror classics. When the monster first sees the Bride his face looks on in happy wonderment. He tries to hold her hand, and for a moment the two might be any couple sitting on a park bench. Alas it is not to be. She hisses in disgust and screams at the sight of her intended mate. She too finds him hideous. Not only are the creators punished (here, Pretorius), but the created as well. Once rejected by one as repulsive as he, the monster knows he can never find happiness. He says he would rather be dead.

Yet inexplicably, he somehow finds pity on Dr. Frankenstein and allows him to escape before destroying himself and the rest by bringing the castle down on their heads. In this final act, he shows far greater compassion than any of the humans in the film. 

One woman's reaction to a blind date.

Clive is wonderful as the tortured Dr. Frankenstein. Racked with guilt over his earlier creation, he has blood on his hands. I suspect his escape was a conscious decision by the studio to keep the character alive in case there was another sequel. There would be, but Clive wouldn't be available. The actor suffered from tuberculosis and drank himself to death in 1937.

If the film has a flaw, it is Whale's decision to have the monster speak, something it did not do in the original. Frankenstein says little but utter "Gooood," "Baaaad," and "Friendddd," to convey his feelings. Perhaps it is because the effect has been so parodied over the years, but the words sound cartoonish today. Karloff was a good enough actor that his emotions were evident without speech.

Here's a trailer for the film:

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) - John Ford

Ransom Stoddard's introduction to the Wild West. 
This scene never appeared in the final cut.  
Colorado is on the cusp of statehood, a place where a man with ambition can make something of himself. Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart) is such a man. He has come west with his law books and idealism, hoping to help bring law and order to the territory. But it is still the Wild West, and Stoddard's stagecoach is waylaid by three outlaws, one the infamous Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). When Stoddard protests, Valance whips him savagely, leaving him on the trail to die. He is rescued by Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a local rancher, and his reliable servant, Pompey (Woody Strode ), who take him into Shinbone where he is nursed back to health by Hallie (Vera Miles), the girl Doniphon hopes to marry.

Stoddard befriends Dutton Peabody (Edmund O'Brien), the publisher/editor of the local newspaper, the Shinbone Star. Peabody is one of Shinbone's leading citizens and a vocal proponent for statehood. He writes a harsh editorial decrying Valance and his ilk, men who continue to terrorize the town and are an impetus to progress. Valance seeks revenge by ransacking the newspaper office and lashing the newspaperman with his whip. Stoddard, though no hand with a gun, challenges the drunken outlaw to a fight. The outcome will change the lives of each character, and create a legend.

This is John Ford's last great Western, and in some ways his most resonating. It contains the most memorable line of any of his films: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." It is an acute and accurate statement on how history comes into being. Over time, facts blur, or are intentionally hidden, and what we think happened may be only partially correct, or totally wrong for that matter.

Ford cleverly tells the story as a flashback. It begins with Stoddard, now a state senator, returning to Shinbone decades after the events of the story. He has come with his wife, Hallie, to attend the funeral of an old friend, Tom Doniphon. When asked by a reporter who Doniphon was, Stoddard tells the tale.

A poignant scene takes place as Hallie visits Doniphon's ranch outside of town where she digs up a cactus rose. The ranch house is a burnt out shell. We will later learn why. On retuning to town she and her husband go to the undertaker. In a nice touch, Ford has Hallie stop abruptly and take a set back on seeing the plain wooden coffin. When Rance looks inside, he admonishes the undertaker for stealing the boots. It's an intriguing beginning, one that compels the viewer to wonder who Doniphon was and what his death has to do with the senator.

Lee Marvin as the dangerous Liberty Valance.

Wayne is the commanding presence in the film. In his familiar cadence, he tells Stoddard that Valance "is the toughest man south of the Picketwire ... next to me."  Marvin is truly menacing as the villain. The two have a tense confrontation in a restaurant when Valance trips Stoddard, working as a waiter and dishwasher. A plate of steak and potatoes crashes to the floor. Like all bullies, Valance backs down when challenged. Doniphon is the only one in town with courage to stand up to the outlaw, and it's clear Valance fears him.

Valance: You lookin' for trouble, Doniphon?
Doniphon: You aim to help me find some?

Edmund O'Brien has fun as the dour editor, who's too smart and reckless for his own good. He drinks too much and sets himself up for a beating from Valance. O'Brien more or less recreated the character six years later in Sam Peckinpah's brilliant The Wild Bunch.

There are no silly fistfights here similar to that Ford injected into The Searchers, but he does not altogether neglect his usual dose of humor, putting into the script.

Peabody: [during voting for the territorial convention] I'll have the usual, Jack.
Barman: The bar is closed, Mister Editor, during voting.
Peabody: Bar's closed?
Doniphon: You can blame your lawyer friend. He says that's one of the "Fundamental laws of democracy." No exception.
Peabody: No exceptions for the working press? Why, that's carrying democracy much too far!

Like all Ford films, the supporting cast is terrific and familiar. John Quinlan as a Scandinavian, craggy-faced John Pennich as a bartender, John Carradine, and Andy Devine as the timid sheriff are from Ford's often-used stock company. Marvin's henchmen are Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin.

Valance and his gang.

Vera Miles is lovely as Hallie. She pines for Tom, but he has trouble adequately expressing his love. The best he can do is give her a cactus flower, but it clear by his mannerisms and long looks that he loves her. Ranse's arrival and demeanor presents a clear contrast. Tom represents the past, a West still violent and unrefined. Ranse, intelligent and considerably more cultured, represents the future. As Ranse's star begins to rise, Hallie latches on. The relationship between these three characters is a sad one. Ranse knows of Tom's feelings for the girl. Moreover, he is indebted to the man for saving his life, not once, but as it will turn out, twice. It is hard to like this character. Were it not for the fact he's finally the one to challenge Valance, he borders on contemptible, both for not stepping aside when it comes to Hallie, and for living a lie. Whether by intent or happenstance (probably the latter), it's easy to interpret the Ranse character as a statement by Ford that politicians can't be trusted; they put career advancement ahead of integrity.

Ranse finds out that Hallie placed a cactus rose on Tom's coffin, returning the gift Tom had given her many years earlier, shown in the flashback. Perhaps Tom was her true love after all and you and Ranse wonder if Hallie doesn't think she made the wrong choice. The ticket-taker then compliments the senator, saying: "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance." A hint of shame passes over Ranse's face. We never find out if Hallie knows the truth.          

Director Ford always had a fine human touch. It's one aspect of his films that make them so enjoyable and touching: Ward Bond's drink of coffee in The Searchers; Dick Foran's serenade and the noncoms' dance sequence in Fort Apache, the gift of a watch in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the barn-raising and dance in My Darling Clementine. Ford loved the romance and tradition of the Old West. The cactus rose appearing on Tom's coffin is another such subtle moment. We never see Hallie place it there.  

A second flashback is embedded in Stoddard's story, which reveals what really happened the night Valance was gunned down.

Doniphon cues Stoddard in on who really shot Liberty Valance

The story here is so good, both visually and in the performances, that you don't notice, or at least don't mind so much, that most of it was shot on a Hollywood sound stage rather than on location. Ford nearly single-handily is responsible for elevating the Western film to its iconic status, in large part by setting his action in majestic, panoramic vistas. Nine of his westerns feature the beautiful Monument Valley as a backdrop. (He would spectacularly return to the location once more after this film with 1964's Cheyenne Autumn.) Still, one or two outdoor moments would have enhanced the film, perhaps just a brief shot of Valance and his men crossing the river at dusk, on their way into Shinbone.

Besides the unexciting set, the only flaw in the film is Stewart; 52 at the time of filming, he is about 25 years too old for his character. It's particularly glaring since he's supposed to be a recent law graduate, with no legal experience. Of course, the same might be said of Wayne, but there's considerably more leeway with his character; a strong rancher would have needed to live in the Wild West a while before gaining his level of confidence and reputation. The 32-year difference between Wayne and Miles then doesn't seem quite so disturbing.

Ford rarely did much movement with the camera, letting the scene and characters tell the story. But in one instance here he employs a closeup. As Valance prepares to whip the prone Stoddard, the camera pulls in tight. Stoddard drops from the frame. We see Valance from the waist up inflict several strikes. Only later do we see the bloody effects. Another director might have been more gratuitous. Ford lets the viewer's imagination paint the scene. Ford understood the value of understatement.

And the decision to film in black and white was a wise one, even if forced on the director for financial reasons or to create a younger look for the leads. It gives the film an appropriate feel and mood. Edith Head designed the costumes, something you rarely notice in a Western. She was nominated for an Oscar, and the Duke does look terrific in spats and a ten-gallon hat.

Director John Ford with his two stars.

William Clothier handled the cinematography. A skilled cameraman, particularly with the Western genre, he was a long-time collaborator with Wayne, having been nominated for an Oscar for The Alamo. He'd work with Ford again on Cheyenne Autumn and earn a second nomination.

Ford was 68 when he made this film, an age when most successful directors had already hung up their megaphone. It was an extraordinary effort.

Pop singer Gene Pitney released a catchy song in 1962 based on the film. You can listen to it below. The film was named to the National Registry in 2007.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Night and the City (1950) - Jules Dassin

Most people think of New York or Los Angeles when it comes to film noir, but director Jules Dassin set his dramatic story in the east end of London. It is populated with a sorry group of conniving characters. With the exception of an old wrestler who considers his sport art, the men and women here have little concern with morality and ethics. Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is the doomed protagonist, a reprehensible, small-time hustler whose plans never pan out. With no conscience to speak of, Fabian only cares about becoming "somebody." He is headed for trouble. In an early scene we see him rifling through his girlfriend's purse. It's clearly not the first time.

A man on the run. 

Fabian works for Philip Nosseross (Francis Sullivan) as a club tout, luring innocent customers to the Silver Fox night club. Nosseross is a bigger fish in the London underworld. He desperately loves his wife, Helen, but because she finds him repulsive, he is forlorn and gripped by frustration. He tries to buy her affections with the gift of a fur, but she rejects him, leaving him caressing the fur instead, taking in the scent of her perfume.

Fabian's luck looks to take a sudden turn for the better when he meets Gregorius, a one-time world champion Greco-Roman wrestler who's mentoring a promising young athlete. Gregorius hates freestyle wrestling. Though it packs in blood-thirsty customers, he views it as mere entertainment and fake. He says it is for clowns. His son, Kristo, is kingpin of the London wrestling business, but he promotes only freestyle. Fabian cons Gregorius into letting him promote a match between his young charge and a well-known local bruiser, The Strangler. To bankroll the contest, he comes to Nosseross, who agrees, provided Fabian can match his investment. Helen and Fabian then strike a backroom deal. She gives him his share of the money--by selling the fur stole--in exchange for Fabian securing her a liquor license so she can leave her husband to open her own club. Nosseross discovers the scheme, and may even suspect Fabian is carrying on an affair with his wife. He begins to engineer the fall of the ambitious employee.

Director Jules Dassin already had a solid Hollywood resume of winning film noir to his credit (Thieves' Highway, 1949; The Naked City, 1948; and Brute Force, 1947), when he went to London to film Night and the City. Like those earlier noirs, the cinematography here is wonderful, highly effective in creating a mood of despair and impending tragedy. The film opens with a great high-angle shot of Fabian running through dark London streets. Shadows play against the buildings and the wet pavement, and a hectic score accompanies the fast-paced action. Someone is after him. Fabian loses his carnation but stops in flight to retrieve it and stick it back in his lapel. An act of vanity, it gives you a key to the man's personality. He just manages a narrow escape from danger, slipping unseen into the stairwell of his girlfriend's apartment, Mary, played by Gene Tierney. Fabian is always running, either from honest work or a pursuer. A second, even more frenzied chase, will bookend the film's action. All in all, this opening is a brilliant example of the noir style.

Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney. 

Throughout the film, Dassin and cameraman Max Greene, make good use of selective closeups, creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia and fear, reminiscent of Orson Welles' technique in Touch of Evil. The lighting is particularly effective for Sullivan as Nosseross. He appears as a hulking menace, with heavy jowls and gone to fat, similar to Welles' Hank Quinlan. His office is crisscrossed with windows, suggesting he lives in a cage. His is a terrific performance, and a surprising one if you're only familiar with the actor from David Lean's late 1940's Dickens' films Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.

And this is Widmark's best career performance. Oozing with nervous energy throughout, he perfectly captures the complicated emotions of his deeply flawed character, a selfish bastard with no allegiance to anyone. Alternately infantile and boisterous, he mopes like a scolded child when Mary catches him in the act of stealing, and crows like a rooster when he thinks he's finally hit the big time. Watch his face in the scene where Gregorius scolds his son, Kristo, warning him not to threaten his new partner. Fabian stands protected, looking over Gregorius' shoulder, leering at the son. In two different scenes, Widmark undergoes wild mood swings, going from joy to panic in the span of a few moments. When euphoric, Widmark's signature, slightly crazed, chortle can be heard, and when desperate, his brow beads wet with perspiration, his eyes grow wild and glassy. The best sequence occurs when Nosseross retracts his support, explaining earlier that he would give Fabian "the sharp edge of the knife." Widmark had arrived jubilant at the Silver Fox, almost dancing, beside himself with glee. He taps some snare drums and cymbals while he informs Nosseross that he's ready to stage the fight. Nosseross places a call to Kristo, and tells Fabian that no one will give him an arena. "You have it all Harry Fabian," he says with sarcasm, "but you're a dead man." Fabian, shocked by the betrayal, hurries out, fearing he's now a marked man. Nosseross strikes the same cymbal for emphasis.

It seems a complicated plot, with double-crosses aplenty, but Dassin has filmed it so the audience understands what's going on, and what motivates each character.

Fabian arrives at his gym where The Strangler and his manager await to sign a contract. Gregorius and his pupil practice in the ring. The Strangler has been drinking. He baits Gregorious into a fight. It's a brutal contest. The Strangler is a dirty fighter. His tactics run to face-gouging and vicious, closed-fist punches. Gregorius uses a crushing bear hug. It is one of best shot athletic sequences ever filmed. Much of the credit here must go to Nick DeMaggio, the film editor. His resume includes Dassin's Thieves' Highway and another Widmark hit, Pickup on South Street. Mike Mazurki plays The Strangler. A familiar face, he excelled at playing thugs and "muscle" in gangster films and crime dramas. At 6'5'', with a craggy face and furrowed brow, it's perfect casting. Stanislaus Zbyszko plays Gregorious. A one-time world-class wrestler, it is his only film appearance. (Dassin plucked him from a New Jersey chicken farm for the role.) A giant round battle-scarred bulk of muscle, he stood 5'8' and was 71 at filming. Mazurki was just 43.

Two brutes in the ring.

SPOILERS AHEAD: The outcome of the match sends Fabian into hiding. Kristo orders his henchmen to find him.  Another feverish chase ensues and Fabian meets a grim ending at the hands of The Strangler, who lives up to his moniker and tosses his victim into the river. Krisco watches from a bridge, and flicks his cigarette butt on the body as it floats like garbage beneath him.

Phillip Nosseross ends no better off. When Helen leaves him for Fabian, he tells her she doesn't know what she's walking into. She sneers with contempt and replies, "I know what I'm walking out of." The cuckolded husband is devastated and takes his own life. Helen later learns that her license is a forgery. She returns to the Silver Fox to find her husband has cut her from his will. Destined for disappointment, she's the closest thing we have to a femme fatale in the film.

Jules Dassin.

Dassin was a victim of the Communist witch-hunt in America following World War. He fled the States with the help of Darrel Zanuck to make this film and would continue his work in the genre from France with Rififi in 1955, a seminal heist move. He was among the many wrongly persecuted artists by the HUAC. It's a shame, because he lost a few good years, and his already strong canon of films would have been even more impressive.