Friday, September 21, 2012

The Body Snatcher (1945) -- Robert Wise

Cadavers for medical research are hard to come by in 1831 in Edinburgh. For the price of ten pounds each Dr. MacFarlane, a teacher of anatomy, engages a local cabman and long-time acquaintance, creepy John Grey, to supply specimens for his students. Grey secures the dead bodies under cover of darkness with shovel and pick, raiding church cemeteries. A grisly practice, it is a common one, and one that the good doctor believes is necessary. When the doctor's young assistant, Fettes, turns to Grey to provide a fresh body for study to help a wheelchair-bound girl, Grey looks to expedite matters.

The name Boris Karloff surely brings to mind for most people his iconic role as Frankenstein's monster in director James Whale's 1931 classic horror film, but Karloff starred in plenty of memorable features in the genre. His John Grey is far different from the sympathetic creature concocted in Frankenstein's lab. Grey is a loathsome fellow, completely lacking in conscience. He delights in mentally torturing a former colleague who has risen in society, and is fully capable of murder.

Karloff gives a chilling performance, superb as he handles the despicable nature of the character, grinning conspiratorially as he holds MacFarlane's past over his head--the doctor calls him a malignant cancer--or when winking at the new assistant as he makes his first delivery. Watch his face change when later confronted by another of the doctor's assistants, Joseph, (Bela Lugosi in a throw-away part), who comes to Grey's apartment with blackmail in mind. Karloff conveys curiosity, seemingly amiable, but once he understands what the fellow is up to, his face takes on a sinister and serious look. You can see him planning the man's demise. And in a delightful precursor to a James Bond villain, SPECTER's Blofeld, Grey lovingly strokes a cat, an as out-of-character gesture as one can imagine from a ghoul.   

The film is based on an 1884 short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, which drew its inspiration from real events, the notorious Burke and Hare murders, serial murders that took place in Edinburgh in 1827. William Burke and William Hare sold corpses of their murder victims to Doctor Robert Knox for use as dissection material for his medical students. Eventually discovered and brought to trial, Hare turned on his partner. Protected by immunity, Hare's testimony sent Burke to the gallows. Knox and Hare went free. The film alludes to the case, and it is Grey and MacFarlane's unspecified involvement with the incident that ties the two together.

One of producer Val Lewton's psychological horror films, 1940s B-pictures made quickly and on a tight budget, The Body Snatcher is better than the best known of that lot, Cat People. Like that film, its effective score was written by Roy Webb, whose eerie music works wonderfully to set the mood.

It may come as a surprise to some viewers that Robert Wise served as director. Best known for his 1960s work on commercial big-budget films such as West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and The Sand Pebbles, Wise first found success as an editor in the 1940s, most notably with Citizen Kane. But he soon moved to the director's chair. Among his 1940s credits are two terrific noirs: Born to Kill and The Setup.

Wise's skill as an editor is on display here when he mixes alternating POV closeups in one of the film's best scenes--the first meeting in a tavern by MacFarlane and Grey. The doctor and Fettes come in for a drink. Grey, looking sinister sits alone at a corner table and summons them over. The doctor relents with reluctance, clearly repelled by the man. He and Grey exchange an odd conversation, and Fettes is left wondering what is the connection between these such different men.

Grey and MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) - a sordid partnership.

Cabman Grey: "I am a small man, a humble man. Being poor I have had to do much that I did not want to do. But so long as the great Dr McFarlane comes to my whistle, that long am I a man. If I have not that then I have nothing. Then I am only a cabman and a grave robber. You'll never get rid of me, Toddy."
Wise also makes good use of silhouettes and shadows during some of the scenes of violence to engage the viewer's imagination. Thankfully, one such moment includes Grey's nasty bludgeoning of a poor dog that loyally guards the grave of its master. Another involves Grey following a waif-like balladeer down a dark alley. Wise sets this up immediately prior with a terrific slow pull in of the camera to Karloff, watching the girl pass by his door. You hear the girl sing and the sound of the horse's hooves on the cobblestones, and watch her and Grey's cab disappear into the dark. Suddenly the girl's song is cut short.

Eventually, there is a fateful encounter between the two protagonists. Faithful to the source story, the film's climax is a spectacularly wild coach ride in a rainstorm, MacFarlane on one side of the seat, Fettes on the other. In between sits a bagged corpse of a recently deceased woman they dug up from a graveyard. MacFarlane begins to hear a strange but familiar voice. Stopping the vehicle, he calls for Fettes to step down and bring him a lantern. He uncovers a potion of the bag and gets the shock of his life. Madness has taken over.  

Grey makes a ghastly delivery. 
This is a perfect film to watch late at night, with a fire crackling in the fireplace. It will give you a better appreciation of the power of Karloff as an actor, and how skilled film-makers needn't employ blood and "got ya" moments to thrill an audience to tell a great tale.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Dark Passage (1947) -- Delmer Daves

Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) is an innocent man accused of murdering his wife. When he escapes from San Quentin prison, he is picked up on the road by Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), an attractive and sympathetic woman who seems to know all about him. She offers Vince temporary shelter; and as he goes to drastic measures to hide his identity in order to uncover the real killer before the police manhunt tracks him down, they begin to develop feelings for one other. But complicating his efforts is Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead), the witness whose testimony sealed his conviction. Before his marriage, she and Vince were once an item.     

If that sounds like the makings of a decent noir, you're in for a disappointment. The third of four Bogart/Bacall collaborations, Dark Passage doesn't measure up to the others. Despite a great cast, the script is flat, far too reliant on coincidence, and the real killer too obvious early on. Vince and Irene fall for one another too quickly, though in Irene's case it can be explained as a father fixation. Worse is the gimmick photography used in the first hour of the film -- the action unfolds from Parry's point of view. Bogart's face doesn't appear on scene during this period, but we hear his voice and occasionally see his hands doing something at the bottom of the frame. If director Daves used the technique for a short spell it might have been effective, but as it is, the novelty wears off quickly, making it distracting and just plain weird. I want to see Bogart.

Robert Montgomery employed the same gimmick five months earlier in his film, The Lady in the Lake. That two directors used an unconventional POV in such a short period is an odder coincidence than Bacall's character coming upon Bogart's shortly after his breakout. (He sneaks out of prison in a barrel on the back of a supply truck, the most interesting scene in the entire film.)

Vince's escape. Are those really Bogie's hands?

Irene reveals that she happened to be painting in the area and heard about Vince's escape on the radio. Having followed his trial and incarceration because his circumstance mirrored her father's, she felt compelled to look for him. Naturally he's suspicious, but has no choice but to accept her offer of help. He hides under a blanket in the backseat of her car as they make their way into San Francisco. At the Golden Gate Bridge, director Daves undoubtedly hoped to stage a suspenseful stop at a police roadblock. It's not. After a harmless conversation with a patrolmen and a cursory check, Irene is waved through and she drives across the bridge and into the city. It is interesting to see the then ten-year old span so empty. There's a shot of it in another Bogart film, The Maltese Falcon (1941), but this is one of the earliest films to feature the landmark.

Irene is the second person Vince meets outside the prison. First he hitch-hikes with a small-time hood who happens by. When an account of the escape runs on the radio, Vince's identity is compromised. He knocks the man cold -- the POV makes the fight appear silly and girlish -- and switches clothes. The hood will dog Vince for most of the rest of the film and ultimately give him the clue to identify his wife's killer.

D'Andrea and Stevenson discuss Vince's face before the operation.
The film's supporting characters almost save the story. Clift Young plays the hood as a somewhat weaselly man in over his head; he looks scared even when he's holding the gun. Tom D'Andrea is a talkative cabbie who leads Vince to a back-alley doc who specializes in plastic surgery. The surgeon is Houseley Stevenson. You wouldn't trust this guy to give your dog a shot, let alone allow him to carve up your face. He looks well-acquainted with a bottle.

Bogart finally makes his appearance. 
Vince emerges from the operation swathed in facial bandages, which he wears for a week or so, only able to communicate with pen and paper so as not to disturb the doctor's work. Give him sunglasses and he'd look like Claude Rains from The Invisible Man. Amazingly, when he takes the bandages off at Irene's there's no bruising, marks or stitches to deal with. That's one fine surgeon. In any case, we finally get Bogart's face. Perhaps Vince should have asked for a refund.

There are a couple of scenes where Bogart over-acts, once when interrogated by a suspicious cop in a diner and his hand shakes excessively and another when he staggers up a hill after the operation to Irene's place, looking more like a drunken sot than a man who is tired.

Madge, in the most amazing coincidence, happens to be friends of sort with Irene. She shows up at Irene's apartment having heard of Vince's escape and fearing he will seek revenge. Irene sends her away. Vince at this point has fallen in love with Irene and changes his plans, now more interested in leaving San Francisco than proving his innocence. The hood miraculously makes another appearance, coming out on the losing end of a confrontation with Vince, who manages to extract some information that leads him to the killer -- Madge.

Vince (Bogart) and Madge (Moorehead) have it out.

In the climatic scene Vince shows up at Madge's. With his new face she doesn't recognize him despite a voice that hasn't changed and knowing that Vince is somewhere in the city. Apparently this woman is over-sexed because she lets the stranger in. He flirts a few minutes before revealing his true identity and demanding she sign a confession. Really? She refuses, but either falls or jumps out the window to her death. (The obvious dummy drop caps the silly scene).

The "jump" scenario assumes that Madge is so obsessed with Vince that if she can't have him, she decides no-one will. Knowing Vince loves Irene, she opts for suicide to prevent his being declared innocent. Such a course is unnecessary so long as she doesn't confess, so I don't find this very plausible.                

Johnny Mercer's 1937 hit "Too Marvelous for Words" plays several times in the film, Jo Stafford  with the vocal on the phonograph in Irene's apartment, and just the melody at the end as Irene reunites with Vince in a cantina in Peru. It seems far too sophisticated for this story.

It's a stretch to call this a noir. There's no femme fatale, little characteristic shadowy images, and lacking in cynicism. More importantly, the good guy has a happy ending. Sounds like shady marketing to me.

The Bogart/Bacall Quartet:

  • To Have and Have Not (1944)
  • The Big Sleep (1946)
  • Dark Passage (1947)
  • Key Largo (1948)

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Passage to India (1984) -- David Lean

Cultures clash in this story set at the height of English colonialism when a repressed English woman comes to India to visit her potential fiance, Ronny, an ambitious bore who serves as a local magistrate in Chandrapore. Adela Quested (Judy Davis) is accompanied by her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft). Both women want to see the real India and meet indigenous people, and not restrict their activities to the stuffy British social club, where British authorities and their wives behave with priggishness and snobbery toward all Indians. Mrs. Moore strikes up a friendship with Dr. Aziz, who, wanting to impress, foolishly arranges for a visit to the Marabar caves, a sort of tourist attraction known for disaffecting echoes. Here, both women experience strange emotions that ignite an incident that brings to a dramatic head the simmering racial tension and prejudices existing between the two cultures.

The caravan to the Malabar Caves.

Harking back to earlier days in the director chair, David Lean draws on a superb novel as the source for his final film. He achieved near perfection with his take on Dickens' Great Expectations in 1946, (less successfully with 1965's Dr. Zhivago), and here taps E.M Forster's acclaimed A Passage to India, named one of the 20th Century's greatest English-language novels by scores of critics, including The Modern Library, NPR, Time, and Random House. His transfer from page to screen here is similarly faithful to the source, capturing Forster's complex and subtle themes.

Lean is always thinking visually, and here, like all his best films, he makes sure to include several magnificent wide-screen shots designed to pull the viewer into the setting: a gorgeous shot of a distant train moving under the moonlit landscape, the painted elephant trudging up the Marabar hills, the valley of the holy Ganges, majestic Himalayan peaks, and a dugout canoe being paddled through water lilies. Beautiful stuff. If Lean is at fault, it is not including a few more such vistas. The scenes of crowds in the city in particular are done in either closeup or mid-range, losing all sense of location and much of their impact. You have the feel that the crowd is not really all that big. Overall, there seems too much tight camerawork for such an exotic country.

Judy Davis as Adela Quested.

The acting is terrific throughout, especially James Fox as Mr. Fielding, the enlightened head of the college and the only Westerner who considers Indians as equals rather than mere subjects. While other transplanted British officials look down their long upturned noses at the natives, Fielding welcomes interaction and also befriends Dr. Aziz. Fielding aligns himself with Aziz after the doctor is accused of a crime, placing him at odds with his fellow countrymen, who naturally assume Aziz guilt, even with scant evidence. Fox does a great job as the conflicted Fielding. The educator believes Britain's presence is useful for India, helping bring needed order to the country, but he is keenly cognizant that its imperialistic attitude toward the people is doomed to fail, and at times, is disgraceful. A more humane, enlightened approach would better serve both parties. And his bemusement rather than scorn of the religious beliefs of Hindus and Muslims sets him apart.

Brave to support Aziz, the friendship between the two is as much a part of the story as Miss Quested's ordeal, as it represents a microcosm of the two country's relationship, and asks the question if the West and East can co-exist in harmony.

Davis is effective too as a young woman, confused about her future and unsure that marriage to Ronny would make her happy. Lean altered an important scene for her character from the novel, changing the setting from a car accident she experiences with Ronny. Instead, Lean has her finding an abandoned temple on her own. A good decision as it better hints at her state of mind and helps explain what may happen later. On a bike ride in the countryside and tall grass Adela suddenly comes upon some old ruins. The heat is oppressive, the air stagnant. Sexually suggestive statuary and images adorn the walls and lay on the ground. She stands somewhat dazed and experiences a brief inner crisis. It's a perfectly acted moment, without words, that gives us insight into the girl's thoughts. She's having a hard time keeping it together in this strange land. Davis plays it all with her face and eyes. It is wonderfully edited, the camera switching between the figures and Adela, with one slow pull in to her face.         

Miss Quested, Mrs. Moore, and Dr. Aziz about to enter a cave.
Going into detail about the alleged crime would spoil the film's most interesting sequence for those who haven't seen it. Suffice it to say it involves those mysterious Marabar caves. Some readers of the novel and viewers of the film claim some ambiguity about Aziz's guilt. But whatever may have been author Forster or Lean's intent, it is clear to me what did not happened, even if what did happen is not fully explained.

Dr. Aziz looks for Miss Quested in the cave.

In any case, Aziz is arrested and a trial takes place, setting up the story's climax. The parties take clear sides and we see how misunderstanding is fueled by parochial interests and narrow mindedness. It is all resolved far too quickly for my taste, both in the novel and film.

Forster's book is filled with beautiful writing, which conveys the underlying prejudices of both sides. Lean's second change is in altering one of the most famous passages, attributing a quip to the defense attorney rather than an anonymous person in the packed courtroom:

McBryde (police chief and prosecutor at the trial) "Before we begin, I'd like to state what I believe to be a universal truth: the darker races are attracted to the fairer, but not vice-versa."
Advocate Amrit Rao: "Even when the lady is LESS attractive than the gentleman? "
[court breaks out in laughter]

The exchange embarrasses the young woman, and seems much crueler here than the novel, coming from an accomplished Indian man, whose status as an attorney puts him nearly on par with the Britishers.  Lean seems intent on suggesting it is not just the British who could use an attitude adjustment. And indeed, fault lies on both sides. Later Aziz will jump to a conclusion about something regarding Fielding, showing we are all colored by preconceived notions of others' motives. In any case, Davis the actress is far more attractive than the character Adela depicted in the novel, making the quip less sensible.

Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested have tea at the club. No Indians are allowed.
Alex Guinness plays the equable Godbole, an odd Hindu teacher who talks in riddles and seemingly innocuous statements. Nothing fazes him. For those of us in the West, India will always be a perplexing place, or as Fielding suggests, a muddle. But Godbole doesn't see anything that way. When Fielding asks how he can help Aziz, Godbole, unconcerned, suggests the man's fate is already certain:

Professor Godbole: Nothing you will do will change the outcome. .
Fielding: So "Do nothing!" Is that your philosophy?
GodboleMy philosophy is you can do what you like... but the outcome will be the same.

Guinness' makeup is a slight distraction. It looks as if he has been coated with brown shoe polish. But surely he must have been pleased with the role. It marked his sixth collaboration with Lean and was a nice return to respectability following a film he reportedly felt foolish making, Star Wars.

Overall, the film garnered 11 Oscar nominations, including Davis for Best Actress, Lean for Best Director and Best Editing, and the film for Best Picture. It was up against stiff competition in several categories as it was the year of Amadeus, winner of eight. A Passage to India won just two: Ashcroft for Supporting Actress and Maurice Jarre for Best Score. Ashcroft did a fine job but Jarre's award seems unwarranted. The score is most present over the titles, at start and finish, and sounds more appropriate for an Agatha Christie film and one set in India. It does little to support the mood of the action.

One well-deserved nomination was for Best Costume Design, as evidenced by the authentic and colorful Indian saris throughout. And Davis' Edwardian outfits look terrific.  

The revered Mrs. Moore -- Peggy Ashcroft.

If not the masterpiece of Lawrence of Arabia, this is still a finely crafted and acted film. A splendid swan song for Director Lean. Want to more about author E.M. Forster? Click here.