Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Two for Christmas

Christmas is nigh, and in recognition of the holidays I list two favorite Christmas films: We're No Angels (Michael Curtiz, 1955) and Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen, 1940). Neither would likely come to mind first for most folks if asked their favorite holiday movie, but for me both capture the best spirit of the season beautifully well and feature great casts.

Humphrey Bogart escapes from Devils' Island in We're No Angels, accompanied by two friends and fellow cons: Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray. It's a silly, fairly unrealistic plot to be sure. But because the cast looks like it's having so much fun, and the characters are so charming, this is an easy film to enjoy. Ustinov is particularly good, looking ridiculous in a low cut shirt with tie and white collar. He delivers his lines with great facial expressions.

Three convicts eavesdrop on the Ducotets. 

Bogart is Joseph, an embezzler; Ustinov is Jules, a master safe-cracker; and Ray is Albert, a murderer, but despite their resumes they are completely harmless. A fourth companion, a poisonous viper named Adolph is carried around by Albert in a little box. We never see the reptile but his presence plays an important part in the story.

The criminals talk a tough game, and muscular Ray looks like someone who could easily turn menacing, but they have tender hearts. Intending to rob and perhaps throttle a local vendor and his family if needed, the trio alter their plans when they discover the family is financially challenged; and thanks to a greedy uncle, may be ousted from their post.

The cast is terrific and familiar. One of the film's best aspects is that some play against type. Leo G. Carroll, often professionally adept in his roles, is the benign but inept vendor, Felix Ducotel. Seeing how he operates his business, it's no wonder he's not making a profit. Too passive with customers and a terrible bookkeeper. Bogart and Ray didn't delve into comedy too often, but here both are funny. The exchanges between the three criminals is wonderful. French writer Albert Husson's stage play served as the basis for the witty screenplay. Here's a few samples:

Joseph: We came here to rob them and that's what we're gonna do - beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes. 

Joseph: I'm going to buy them their Christmas turkey.
Albert: "Buy"? Do you really mean "buy"?
Joseph: Yes, buy! In the Spirit of Christmas. The hard part's going to be stealing the money to pay for it. 
Jules: [on opening the petty cash box] You'll have to forgive me, it's been a while since I've done this [closes eyes]. And I'm used to doing it in the dark.
Basil Rathbone as the uncle is a despicably arrogant man and Scrooge figure, even down to his nightcap. He treats everyone with contempt.

What's in that box?

Christmas comes into play as the three cons interject themselves into the lives of the Ducotels, treating them like an adoptive family. Against their own best interests, they help the family through a few crisis, while taking it upon themselves to decorate the garden for the holiday and produce a delicious turkey dinner. Off screen they steal the bird, and some flowers and a tree from the grounds of the governor's residence. There's a funny scene where Bogart comes into the room with the turkey stuffed under his shirt, feathers flying.

Joan Bennett, 45 at time of shooting, looks lovely as Amelie Ducotel, the wife. Best known for two great Fritz Lange film noirs made tens years earlier (Scarlett Street and The Woman in the Window), Bennett also has a nice singing voice. Her rendition of Sentimental Moments is a highlight. Maybe the silliest aspect of the entire film is believing Amelie ended up with such a fuddy duddy as Felix.

In Remember the Night, Barbara Stanwyck is shoplifter Lee Leander. She gets a Christmas weekend reprieve from jail thanks to the kind intercession of a by-the-book New York City prosecutor, John Sargent (Fred MacMurray). Sargent reluctantly invites her on an across-the-country trip to visit his mother over the holiday. Naturally the two eventually strike up a romance, and the film follows their respective journeys: Lee's to finding a better life and understanding she has it within herself to be a good person; and John's to discovering there are better things in life than blind dedication to one's work.

This is a sweet film, sentimental and at times quite moving. It's fun to see what a cross country car trip looked like before freeways existed. Lots of unpaved roads and podunk towns where local lawmen display rubeness as clear as a badge. A humorous encounter with a county sheriff occurs and thanks to Lee's quick thinking, they manage to elude jail. Stanwyck's stop at her unloving mother's house is sad and crushing as her parent wants nothing to do with her. Sargent steps in for support and thus begins the mutual feelings between the two travelers. Intending to pick his prisoner up on the way back, John instead takes her along to his Indiana home.

Beulah Bondi (the homespun mom) and Elizabeth Patterson play elderly sisters, whose interaction is cute and affectionate. The son's annual visit is the highlight of their year. Both women are smitten by Lee, but once mother learns her background, she cautions Lee from getting involved with her upstanding son. Theirs is a delightful home, full of love and caring. The film portrays a different, more innocent time, certainly, where communities held barn dances, families gathered together to sing in parlors and small-town familiarity existed. The elderly sister lets Lee wear her wedding dress for the dance, helping fit into the corset as she reminisces about a long, lost love, and Stanwyck is touched by her kindness.

She's nearly overcome with emotion in another scene, the film's best. Sterling Holloway (the unmistakable voice of Disney's Winnie the Pooh and the snake Kaa from The Jungle Book) is handyman Willie Simms. His rendition of  A Perfect Day is sublime. Stanwyck plays the piano. She's happy for the first time in a long time and when she sees the love within this family, her empty life is all too clear.

A perfect day.
Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay, one of the last before he would move to the director's chair and find great success on his own. Like the scrips that followed, this one is funny and sweet. One year later Sturges would collaborate with Stanwyck for one of their best films: The Lady Eve.  

You have to like a cow scene, and this film has two, including a delightful milking attempt by the city-bound Stanwyck. The actress must have liked the doe-eyed animals because she shares the screen with another bovine five years later, in Christmas in Connecticut.

The film ends back in New York, Lee wanting to start anew by pleading guilty. She'll go to jail, but you know when she gets out, John will be waiting.

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) -- Martin Ritt

British agent Alex Leamus (Richard Burton) is head of the Berlin station at the height of the Cold War. When he witnesses the death of a fellow agent at Checkpoint Charlie (the border between West and East Berlin), London wonders if it isn't time for Leamus "to come in from the cold," believing he may be burnt out, in need of a less stressful desk job. Leamus insists he is fine and accepts another field assignment: uncover the mole in their operation who has been passing secrets to the enemy. (A now well-worn plot device, this story may be the first to use it.)

Leamus pretends that he has been retired. Seemingly adrift, he appears to turn to drink and becomes increasingly belligerent and desperate in a effort to fool the opposition, which begins to wonder if he is ripe for defection, or at least, pliable for information. They make contact and soon Leamus finds himself trapped, a pawn in someone else's scheme.

Soldiers patrol Checkpoint Charlie in the background.

This is a magnificent film. It perfectly captures the ugly side of the spy business and shows how agents are chewed up and dehumanized by the underlying political forces at work. Agents are mere cogs in the scheme of events, disposable and replaceable.

Strip away all the espionage stuff, it's also about a man's realization that his life's work has little purpose. It's all a stupid game. He is achingly alone, wondering and fatalistic. Burton gives the best performance of his career, using his real-life alcoholism to great effect. If anyone looks a burnt out case, it's Burton. He is entirely credible and sympathetic as he channels the audience's confusion as to what is actually happening. Near the end of the film he gives a brief soliloquy that wraps up his disgust nicely:

Leamus meets a contact from the other side.

Alec Leamus: What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?

Martin Ritt directed; and except for Hud, two years earlier, he never approached this quality of work. One of his best decisions here is to film in black and white, mirroring the bleak lives of his characters. This is a far cry from the suave and sexy films of James Bond. Ritt's opening scene is wonderful: a Dublin location served as Berlin. Wet streets reflect ominous searchlights and soldiers march on patrol, their breath visible in the cold. It is quite chilling and creepy.

Oskar Werner plays Fiedler, a dangerously ambitious Russian communist who wants to use Burton to discredit a superior, Mundt. Werner was in the middle of a three-film run for which he is best known to American audiences: Ship of Fools (1965), The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and Fahrenheit 451 (1966). His portrayal of a devoted but devious comrade gives the film an appropriate feel of quiet menace.

Werner as Fiedler.

Claire Bloom is a woman Leamus meets in a bookstore, and who accompanies him behind the Iron Curtain. To Leamus she is naive, but kind and attractive. If he doesn't love her by the end he sees in her a last chance for happiness.

As in the terrific book by John Le Carre, the film is bookended with scenes at the Berlin Wall. Leamus sits astride the top of the concrete barrier, escape to the West on one side, and freedom of another sort on the other. Le Carre would go on to become the most successful, and likely best, writer of British spy fiction. He knew the subject, having worked for British Intelligence during the 50s and 60s, and thus, has an unmatched ability to infuse his stories with authenticity.

Author Le Carre.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

High Noon (1952) -- Fred Zinnemann

Will Kane's wedding day is about to be interrupted. Outlaw Frank Miller is out of prison and looking for revenge against the marshal who put him away for five years. Miller's brother and two followers wait at the depot for the noon train; and despite desperate efforts, Kane can't convince anyone to help. Even his new wife appears ready to abandon him. Compelled by conscience, Kane rejects the advice of everyone to get out of town before it's too late. He'll stay and face Miller, even if it's alone.

There's good reason this seminal Western maintains its status as one of the best of its genre after sixty years. Director Zinnemann's superb direction, its tight story line, and wonderful acting by Gary Cooper as Kane demonstrate the best of film. It opens with a scene that immediately creates suspense, making the audience wonder what's in store: as a lone cowboy waits on a hill we watch another come over a rise. They are soon joined by a third. A rough looking lot we know they are up to no good. Lee Van Cleef and Robert Wilke play two of the outlaws. Both would soon become familiar heavies to movie audiences.

Miller's gang waits for the noon train.
Zinnemann does a terrific job cutting between characters throughout the film. Here his camera darts back and forth from the riders and the wedding party in town. Later, he uses it even more effectively, showing closeups of all major characters as the train whistle announces Miller is about to arrive. Zinnemann knew how to use a camera. To emphasize Kane's predicament he includes a famous high-crane shot of the marshal looking vulnerable and alone on the empty street.

Zinnemann makes a smart choice to not show the outlaws as particularly menacing, leaving the threat to our imagination. There is one subtle moment when one breaks a store window to steal a woman's hat, which he stuffs under his belt. You know he intends on harassing some girl after the gunfight. In any case, it's enough that it's four against one.

Wonderfully paced, the action is in near real time, with frequent shots of clocks to let you know how soon the train will arrive. And Kane's face progressively shows more strain and desperation. The film editing won a deserved Academy Award.

The town is populated with familiar faces and the script gives many their moment to shine. Thomas Mitchell, a dependable character actor, is the mayor. A long-time friend of Kane's, he gives a nice speech in the church, but wants the marshal to leave rather than fight, foolishly believing Miller is no danger without Kane's presence. This is perhaps the film's best scene; most clearly demonstrating how people talk big, but when it comes to required action, urge others to take the risk. Real courage is a scarce commodity. These are the most upstanding members of the community, seemingly most invested in keeping the town safe. But they shirk any responsibility. One man says that's what they pay the marshal for.

It happens throughout the film, but Cooper's understated and subtle style of acting is on great display here as his disappointment shows on his face and in his voice.

Lon Chaney Jr., the former marshal and Kane's mentor is beaten down, gripped with arthritis and full of cynicism. Kane tries to elicit his help, but is told that it's not worth it:

Martin:You risk your skin catching killers and the juries turn them loose so they can come back and shoot at you again. If you're honest you're poor your whole life and in the end you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothing. For a tin star.

Kane is the ultimate hero, a man alone who acts on principle. That he decides to stay and face Miller and his gang in the face of long odds is admirable, if not welcomed by the cowardly townspeople. The judge echoes the former marshal, telling Kane "This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important." 
Look for long-time Western TV character actor Jack Elam as the town drunk, sleeping it off in jail. He gets one line of dialog, which is more than bad guy Van Cleef gets. Harry Morgan plays a cowardly friend who commands his wife to lie when Kane comes looking for assistance. 

It's easy to see why Grace Kelly became a star. More than a pretty face, though she is certainly that, she does a fine job as the Quaker girl that Kane marries. Her character is conflicted, but spirited. Opposed to violence of any kind, she is finally the only one to come to her husband's aid.

Grace Kelly as Amy Kane. 
Properly seen as allegory for the Hollywood blacklist, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther understood the underlying significance: "High Noon is a stinging comprehension of courage and cowardice, done with directness and momentum in a familiar Western frame. It bears a close relation to things that are happening in the world today, where people are being terrorized by bullies and surrendering their freedoms out of senselessness and fear." Among those attacked by Washington D.C. right-wing fanatics led by Eugene McCarthy was the film's writer, Carl Foreman.

This film should have won Best Picture, but lost to The Greatest Show on Earth, in a vote that today is commonly thought one of the worst injustices in Oscar history. Cooper won his second Best Actor award (the first being for Sergeant York 11 years earlier). He was fifty but looked older. Some critics rejected the age difference between husband and wife (Kelly was just 23), but it does not seem that outlandish given the period.

Gary Cooper as Will Kane.
In his career Zinnemann would garner 7 nominations for Best Director, winning twice, including the next year for From Here to Eternity. As much as I love John Ford, the winner in 1952 for The Quiet Man, Zinnemann's High Noon seems more deserving from a technical standpoint.

Dimitri Tiomkin won an Oscar for the music. Along with lyricist Ned Washington they wrote the theme, Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'. Tex Ritter provides the vocal.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) -- Bryan Forbes

Myra Savage is a would-be medium with a clever scheme to increase business. She holds seances in her London home for desperate people looking to connect with lost loved ones. Attended to by her by dutiful and devoted husband, Billy, Myra regularly talks with her dead son. Billy humors his wife but knows that she is emotionally unstable. He soon learns how seriously.

One of the best acted films of the 1960s and superbly directed by Bryan Forbes, the black-and-white cinematography makes Seance wonderfully atmospheric and creepy. The streets seem permanently wet and the air damp and depressing, much like Myra's own mental state.

A long scene introduces the couple, middle-aged and looking about as weary as their furniture. They converse quietly in an upstairs room of the house. We soon understand that finances are tight; and while we can't quite figure out what they are talking about, something is afoot. Something ominous. A highlight of the film is its pacing and Director Forbes builds our curiosity as he takes his time revealing Myra's plan -- to kidnap the young girl of a wealthy family and demand a ransom. She doesn't want the money, but the opportunity to make a name for herself as a reliable psychic. After Billy has taken the girl and hidden her in the woods, Myra intends to offer her services to police to locate the victim.   

Kim Stanley as Myra.
Acclaimed stage actress Kim Stanley is Myra. Nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress, her performance is remarkable. The difficult role alternately requires tense restraint and emotional release -- clearly one significantly more challenging than that year's winner: Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins. Andrews as Poppins was delightful but the two performances are hardly comparable. At times seemingly normal, if not dominant in her relationship with her spouse, Myra can quite suddenly change, appearing fragile and on the verge of full-blown hysteria. Still, you aren't certain if she isn't just a highly effective manipulator.

Richard Attenborough is similarly terrific as Billy, easily the best performance of his career. Initially we see him as a milquetoast, completely subservient to his wife's wishes. As the plot unfolds, we get a clearer picture of this man's silent torture, and Attenborough handles it beautifully. Living with Myra obviously requires great sacrifice. He know his wife teeters on the edge. Though he considers her plan is dangerous, he loves her dearly and can't bring himself to object too strenuously.

Attenborough gets two choice scenes, the first the actual abduction as he waits in the trees for the girl to appear outside her school, his face etched with anxiety. He nabs her, steals the chauffeur's car, and quickly eludes pursuit, switching vehicles at an abandoned site. It is tense and scary. Later, he and Myra arrange for a money drop where he barely escapes capture by police waiting in the subway.

When the father of the girl rejects Myra's advances, suspecting her of nothing more than a opportunistic con woman. It is a devastating blow to Myra and the film's mood suddenly changes, along with her dark scheme. For the first time, the audience begins to fear for the girl's safety. Later, the grief-stricken mother shows up to take part in the weekly seance Myra holds for her small group of sad clients, a turn that exacerbates Billy's fear of detection and guilt.   

Attenborough as the beleaguered Billy Savage.
The film ends as it began, with Myra conducting a seance. The police have finally come, ostensibly seeking Myra's help in locating the girl. It is a dramatic scene, perfectly acted and lit, as Myra goes into a trance and speaks with her dead son. The fate of the stolen girl hangs in the balance, and Myra and Billy's relationship comes to a head.

John Barry's score, one of his earliest, enhances the uneasy mood of the film and demonstrates how vital music is to a story. It is particularly effective during the abduction and gives an appropriate feeling of suspense throughout. Barry had already worked on the first two Bond films and was about to make a big name for himself on the third, Goldfinger.

The similar theme of a lost child haunting a mother appeared more famously in Edward Albee's play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which opened in 1962. The child there, of course, never existed and was merely a "game" played between the two protagonists, George and Martha.   

Stanley's work here was recognized by the New York Film Critics. And her voice might sound familiar to those unfamiliar with her acting: she performed the opening and closing narration of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) as an adult Scout.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Film Villainesses

There's something about a woman as the antagonist in a film that packs a special punch and makes a story especially fun to see unfold. Being a bad girl must be great fun for an actress. It's also a good career move, as the Academy apparently loves a bitch.  Hopefully none of these girls were anything like their character in real life, though I suspect it wasn't such a stretch for some. In any case, their performances sure were convincing. Here is a group of ladies you'd want to avoid, or at least not accept an offered beverage from.  

Bette Davis, The Little Foxes (1941) -- William Wyler

Davis is Regina Giddens, a loveless shrew obsessed with money. She ruthlessly outwits her two scheming brothers and loathes her husband (Herbert Marshall) for refusing to share her lust for wealth. Lesson learned: don't expect her to retrieve your heart medicine. Nominated for Best Actress.   

Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) -- Milos Forman

Don't let the starched white outfit fool you. Authoritarian Nurse Ratched rules the nut ward with an iron fist and is more than a match for rebellious R. P. McMurphey (Jack Nicholson). Noncompliance is unacceptable. If drugs don't bring her patients into submission, there's always electro-shock therapy and lobotomies. Fletcher did Davis one better and won Best Actress.

Bette Davis, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) -- Robert Aldridge

Davis makes the list again as Jane Hudson, a former child star who's a little demented and a whole lot jealous. She makes her sister's life a living hell by the end of the film. Blanch (Joan Crawford),  confined to a wheelchair, is served rare delicacies for lunch. And a trip to the beach is no picnic. Davis secured another nomination for Best Actress.  
Ruth Chatterton, Dodsworth (1936) -- William Wyler
Self absorbed Fran Dodsworth convinces her good-natured husband, Sam (Walter Huston), to retire and take a European vacation. She thinks she can recapture her youth with an affair or two, and after betraying him tells Sam she wants a divorce. When the shallow woman is later rejected by a would-be suitor, she comes crawling back to guilt him into a reconciliation. Thankfully, Sam refuses to play the patsy and opts to remain in Italy with Edith (Mary Astor), a divorcee he now loves.
Mercedes McCambridge, Johnny Guitar (1954) -- Nicholas Ray
Emma Small tells Vienna (Joan Crawford) she's nothing but a railroad tramp. Is it jealousy or spurned love that drives her hate? Hard to tell in Nicholas Ray's unusual Western, but Emma has a mean violent streak. She gleefully burns down Vienna's gambling house and almost gets her enemy hung before confronting her in a gunfight in the film's climax.
Gene Tierney, Leave Her to Heaven (1945) -- John Stahl
Tierney is Ellen Harland, a cool psychopath who wants her husband all to herself. When little brother gets too much of Cornel Wilde's attention, Ellen takes Danny swimming in the lake. Should have brought a life preserver. Ellen deliberately tumbles down the stairs to induce a miscarriage, and later tries to frame her husband for murder, believing he now loves her sister. Tierney snagged her only nomination for Best Actress.
Leopoldine Konstanin, Notorious (1946) - Alfred Hitchcock

Mothers-in-law were given a bad name as Konstanin plays a cold-blooded Nazi who keeps her submissive son on a short leash. When she finds out his wife, Ingrid Bergman, is a spy, she tells her dutiful boy to kill her. Slow poison will mask the scheme from their Nazi collaborators.  No wonder that coffee tasted bitter.
Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity (1944) - Billy Wilder
Sexy in a trailer park way as Phyllis Dietrichson, Barbara Stanwyck pulled Fred MacMurray's strings as well as any femme fatale. She wanted someone to knock off her husband. One look at that ankle bracelet and Fred was hooked. Before he knew what was happening he had planned and executed the deed. As one of film's best connivers, Stanwych earned a nomination for Best Actress.    
Joan Crawford, Possessed (1947) - Curtis Bernhardt
Van Heflin forgets the old adage: "Don't mess with a woman scorned." Obsession leads Crawford to murder, not once but twice. As emotionally unstable Louise Howell she can't get over losing Heflin to another woman. It's not a pretty picture and it ends with Louise wondering aimlessly in downtown L.A., completely off her rocker. At least she got an Oscar nomination.  

Friday, October 12, 2012

Favorite Films of the 1970s

For me, the 1970s is the last decade of great film-making. No doubt this opinion reflects my age and a desire to hold on to that which I was introduced to in my formative years, but most classic film lovers will agree that production companies and directors since have shifted focus to younger audiences in the search for bigger box office. Yes, terrific films are still made, but there's seems to be fewer of them. Action is favored over character development and scripts, and CGI has replaced creative cinematography.

It's easy for me to identify plenty of great films through the decade of the 1970s. Picking just ten is tough. Here's my list for the decade.

The Last Picture Show (1971) - Peter Bogdanovich

Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman) consoles Sonny (Timothy Bottoms)

Maybe the best film of the decade. Beautifully shot by Robert Surtees it contains great supporting performances. Sam the Lion's (Ben Johnson) soliloquy at the pond and Ruth Popper's reunion with Sonny in the film's final scene are as poignant as it gets. Both won deserved Academy Awards.

The French Connection (1971) - William Friedkin

Smuggler Charnier (Fernando Rey) eludes Popeye on the subway.

A great adaptation of a dull novel by Robin Moore. The thrilling assassination attempt of Popeye and subsequent wild chase under the el never happened in real life, but Friedkin established a new bar for exciting action in crime films. A gritty game of cat and mouse between New York narcotic cops and drug smugglers.

The Godfather/The Godfather II (1972/1974) - Francis Ford Coppola

Two generations of Corleones.

In this story of a mafia family Brando came out of nowhere to produce one of the most iconic performances of the decade and win a second Best Actor Oscar. I like Pacino's work better as son Michael. The set decoration of early and mid-century New York is fabulous.

Summer of '42 (1971) - Robert Mulligan


Michel Legrand's haunting theme song seemed perfect for this story of loss, innocent first love, and friendship. Hermie, Oscy, and Benjie's adventures on Nantucket during the first summer of America's involvement in World War II are funny, ultimately sad, and timelessly universal and human. Age 15 at its initial release, it was easy to relate to Hermie and his feelings for the beautiful young woman down the beach. One look at Jennifer O'Neill explains it all.

Frenzy (1973) - Alfred Hitchcock

Another victim of the neck tie murderer. 

Hitchcock's best film since Psycho is filled with signature touches: a sensational camera shot down a stairs, the funny dinner scenes between husband and wife, an innocent man accused, and the harrowing ride in a potato truck. And there was something more as the old director tried to stay current with more sensational cinema of the decade--gruesome murder on screen. I love the London setting but miss Bernard Herrmann's score and George Tomasini's editing. Still, a worthy effort by a master.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) - Peter Yates

Mitchum as Coyle drinks a lot of coffee. 

Director Yates produces his second top crime drama (Bullett), this time with a wonderful performance by Robert Mitchum as a small-time hood in over his head. A gritty look at the violent, dangerous world of Boston thugs and low-lifes. Eddie contemplates turning stoolie to avoid prison time. His speech in a diner about having his knuckles smashed in a drawer is good stuff.   

Chinatown (1974) - Roman Polanski

Private eye J.J. Gittes needs to forget. It's Chinatown.

Nicholson's best film. A compelling mystery about water rights late 1930's L.A. is at the heart of this terrific story of incest and murder. John Huston makes an intimidating bad guy and director Polanski wields a nasty knife in a cameo. Robert Towne wrote the acclaimed Oscar-winning script.

The Conversation (1974) - Francis Ford Coppola

Hackman finds himself in odd places. 

Gene Hackman in his best performance is Harry Caul. Lonely and emotionally stifled, he is the best in the business, a paid surveillance expert who begins to suspect that his current employer is up to no good. Haunted by perceived past failures, Harry is soon on a slippery slope to full-blown paranoia. The final shot of him playing his saxophone is memorable.

The Shootist (1976) - Don Seigel

Books goes out like a man in a face off with three rotten 

John Wayne can't act? Hardly. Maybe the best swan song of any actor's career, Wayne is great as a dying gunman, looking to live his final days in peace. Director Seigel opens the film with a terrific montage of scenes from old Wayne films, followed by a fine confrontation between Wayne, as J. B. Books, and a would-be robber. The town set doesn't seem particularly impressive--reminiscent of an inexpensive TV production, and I could do with a better supporting actor than Opie Taylor, but Wayne is wonderful. Cancer would soon devastate his robust frame, but for one last time, we got to see a giant. I still miss him.  

Manhattan (1979)

My favorite Woody Allen film. It's got a lot going for it: beautiful black & white cinematography; Gershwin; New York; and a witty script by Allen and partner, Marshall Brickman. Woody is Isaac Davis, an unhappy TV writer whose life is in flux after a divorce. Mariel Hemingway secured an Oscar nomination as innocent Tracy, a 17 year-old high school student, inexplicably in love with Isaac. Their final scene is terrific, bittersweet and acted with understated perfection.

Links to other Favorite Lists:

Favorite Westerns
Great TV

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.