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Thursday, December 31, 2009

THE DEVIL-DOLL (1936)


Six years after his death, M-G-M was still keeping that Lon Chaney mojo going in this fantastical tale of revenge. Lionel Barrymore (in the putative Chaney role) makes an escape from Devil’s Island with a mad scientist who specializes in reducing animals who remain alive though no bigger than a toy. Hmm. Soon, back in Paris, he disguises himself as a kindly doll-making madame and is able to plant murderous ‘living dolls’ in the homes of the men who framed her (er . . . him) for embezzlement. Thanks to some remarkably fine trick camera work and the cleverly wound plot, the story manages to stay just this side of ridiculous, and some of it is seriously creepy. It’s helped by an unusually fine cast for this sort of film; Barrymore, Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Lawton & Rafaela Ottiano were fresh off the superb adaptation of DAVID COPPERFIELD/’35 and Robert Grieg, Arthur Hohl & Henry B Walthall, all expert scene stealers, provide tasty turns. Connecting the dots is Lon Chaney’s favorite helmer, Tod Browning, in his last major release, who finally makes a sound film that compares favorably with the best of his silent work. Check out THE UNKNOWN/’27 to see the Chaney-Browning team at its greatest . . . and sickest.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

DOV’E LA LIBERTA . . . ? / WHERE IS FREEDOM? (1952)

For a director with the intellectual rigor of Roberto Rossellini, only a comedy with serious undertones could be worthy of interest. Thus, DOV’E, the story of a paroled prisoner who finds life on the outside more confining, more dangerous, lonelier and more untenable then the certain comforts of life in the Big House. In fact, he's trying to break back in! There’s little wrong with this set up, and the great Italian comedian Totó brings his sad-faced resignation to the role. But Rossellini seems to think that this basic idea is all the work he need do. With an idea so deep, so original, so trenchant, why complicate things with inventive comic ideas? Could he possibly have been unaware of how shopworn the bare ideas were, that Chaplin was pulling variations on this theme as far back as the ‘teens, with particularly brilliant results in THE PILGRIM/‘23? You need only go back a single year to find Totó working much the same terrain to far greater effect in Mario Monicelli’s deliciously funny COPS AND ROBBERS/GUARDIE E LADRI/’51. There’s a scene in that film, where Totó & comic actor Fabrizi chase each other on foot to the point of slo-mo, middle-aged exhaustion that has more humor & wisdom then you’ll find in this entire film. Yet, there are dozens of monographs on Rossellini, while I have yet to read a serious appraisal or appreciation of GUARDIE & LADRI.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

MAD LOVE (1935)

Until the day he died, M-G-M’s legendary head-of-production Irving Thalberg never gave up his search for the next Lon Chaney. The horror racket was saving his old studio, Universal, from bankruptcy, but his stabs at the form since Chaney’s death in 1930, never clicked. This version of THE HANDS OF ORLAC (the one about the concert pianist whose wrecked hands are swapped for the malicious hands of a freshly executed murderer) is probably as close as he got to his goal. Peter Lorre, in a creepy Stateside debut, is the maniacal doctor who operates to win the favors of the pianist’s loyal wife, an actress at Le Grand Guignol he’s obsessed with. Frances Drake is exceptional as the actress/wife who’s repulsed by the mad doctor, and Colin Clive, who reprised his famous Dr. Frankenstein in THE BRIDE OF . . . this same year, is artistic & tormented as the pianist/husband. While Karl Freund’s remarkable career as D.P. took him from CALIGARI to THE LUCY SHOW, he also had a nice little run as helmer (this was his final directing credit) and another legend, Gregg Toland, does the expressionistic lensing. In fact, except for some stale comic relief via Ted Healy, the film surpasses many better known horror pics.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A MAN CALLED PETER (1955)


Close to plotless bio-pic about Peter Marshall, a maverick Presbyterian minister with a strong voice and a bum ticker. Hollywood prefers to have its Men-of-the-Cloth solve secular problems, Leo McCarey’s GOING MY WAY/’44 is the template, but rather than use Christ as seasoning for its main dramatic issues, PETER is structured to lead us thru a series of Christian specific sermons (boiled down into manageable five-minute units). It’s a tough nut to crack as dramatic fodder, but Richard Todd is so charming & inspired as Peter, you hardly feel the pew hitting you in the small of your back. If only the other film elements met him halfway this might have been something quite special. Jean Peters is no more than pleasant as his loyal wife (they ‘meet-cute’ through a sermon, which must be a Hollywood first, but her little speech is too Phyllis Schlafly for comfort, even for the 1910s) and the rest of the cast is second-drawer. Like many of the early CinemaScope pics, the stagebound interiors (by megger Henry Koster in non-interventionist mode) are bookended with postcard worthy vistas (Scotland, Georgia, Washington, D.C., Anapolis) handsomely lensed by Harold Lipstein. Without a large screen, you may feel you're watching a film that's playing in your neighbor's window.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960)

This forgotten film from Roberto Rossellini combines many of the themes & story elements of his best known Neo-Realist work in OPEN CITY/’45 and PAISAN/’46. It was made after his split with Ingrid Bergman, but before starting his unclassifiable ‘teaching’ films; one of a series of conventional narratives Rossellini tried to make in a style that never spoke to him. It’s the story of three WWII P.O.W.s (a Brit, a Yank & a Ruskie) hiding in an attic in Rome while they wait for the Allies to break the German occupation. The film feels uncomfortable in its own skin, unwilling (or unable) to meet the demands of commercial cinema, yet afraid of dropping the expected tropes of personal courage, tested loyalties and suspenseful raids. We’re kept off-balance by the slow-motion reactions of the soldiers and their protectors, only to then lunge ahead with an attempt at some heightened dramatic pay-off that Rossellini picks at like an unappetizing entree. It’s fascinating, but not exactly successful.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

DUPLICITY (2009)

Writer/director Tony Gilroy tries to revive some old-time glamour with a cat & mouse/romantic comedy-caper; think GAMBIT/’66, HOW TO STEAL A MILLION DOLLARS/’66 and especially THE THOMAS-CROWN AFFAIR/’68. (Is this going to be worth the effort?) The set up is solid enough: two international spooks fall for each other in the middle of an espionage job, but can’t be sure if this is the ‘real thing’ or merely part of a plan? Years later, they meet again (we think) as industrial spies for competing cosmetics firms. Some of the quick reverses in our perception of who is conning whom are fun and Gilroy jazzes up his backstory using some nifty time-shifts to lay out the exposition. But the only suspense generated comes from worrying about face-saving lighting and camera angles on our two glum looking stars, Julia Roberts & Clive Owen. (Hell, Walter Matthau & Glenda Jackson in middle-age had more sparkle doing this sort of thing in the mediocre HOPSCOTCH/’80.) But do check out the fight scene between Paul Giamatti & Tom Wilkinson that opens the film, they look like Francis Bacon portraits come to life.

Monday, December 21, 2009

THE KILLER ELITE (1975)


Sam Peckinpah never quite recovered from the critical & commercial dismissal of his masterful BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA/’74. But if he could no longer take his work seriously, he could still whip up a heady brew of gleeful nihilism. This whopper follows James Caan & Robert Duvall as two lethal operatives who partner for a company that subcontracts stuff that’s too dirty for the C.I.A. to handle. But Duvall goes rogue, leaving Caan crippled and bent on revenge. When that opportunity arises, Caan discovers that he and his ex-pal may still be working for the same side. The tricky plot doesn’t really add up or dovetail with the sidebar characters in Stirling Silliphant’s choppy script and Peckinpah can’t (or won’t) rouse himself to properly stage the big martial arts climax; the absurdist ending is very John Huston. An intriguing path not taken by Peckinpah or merely a sign of fatigue? Along the way, there’s great support from a cadre of cool customers like Arthur Hill, Gig Young, Bo Hopkins, Burt Young and Mako. Think of it as Peckinpah lite.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

GESCHLECHT IN FESSELN / SEX IN CHAINS (1928)

In this late silent German film, the story line lives up to the provocative title, but the director, Wilhelm Dieterle early in his career, isn’t able to integrate the stylistic flourishes he attempts. There’s enthusiasm, but not much control. Even so, the subject matter is so surprising for 1928, that you can’t help but be drawn in. Dieterle, who would go to Hollywood and become an Oscar winning William, stars as an over-protective husband who punches a drunk who is flirting with his wife at a nightclub. The man dies of his fall and during a three-year manslaughter sentence, the couple each succumb to their pent-up sexual needs. She gives in to her insistent boss while Dieterle finds not just sex, but a deep, affectionate love with a prison-mate. The film is largely a cri de coeur advocating conjugal visits, but it’s still pretty unexpected material, even for Weimar Germany. The restored print is in good shape, but you can significantly reduce ‘blasting’ on the faces if you dial down your brightness & contrast levels. Improving the sub-par piano score is not so easily resolved.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1935)


The best adaptation of Charles Dickens’ French Revolution story was David O Selznick’s final M-G-M production before he started up his own company. Big & handsome, it moves along with unimaginative efficiency under Jack Conway’s hand (Val Lewton & Jacques Tourneur did imposing work on the big action sequences), but there’s little of the special Dickensian flavor that Selznick & George Cukor got out of DAVID COPPERFIELD earlier that year.* But 23 minutes in, Ronald Colman shows up as Sydney Carton, and any shortcomings pale next to his inspired characterization. The wistful, fading vocal cadence; the ruined sense of purpose reflected in his ‘sadder-but-wiser’ eyes; the glamor of a failed romantic who finds redemption in one glorious gesture; all realized without physical strain or overstatement. Colman seems timeless and intriguingly modern, especially amid the trappings of mid-30s studio formulae. Yet, how can even adventurous filmgoers get to know the man? Silent beauties like STELLA DALLAS/’25 and BEAU GESTE/’26 may have limited takers, but what’s holding back mainstream releases like IF I WERE KING/’38 and THE LIGHT THAT FAILED/’39?


*Selznick’s three other films from 1935 starred Helen Hayes, Jean Harlow & Greta Garbo!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

HAMMETT (1983)


You only get fleeting glimpses of the pastiche detective film Wim Wenders was attempting here since exec producer Francis Coppola put the film on hold and (apparently) reshot much of it after the colossal failure of ONE FROM THE HEART/’82 threatened to sink his dream project, Zoetrope Studios. (It sunk, anyway.) The resulting film is a mess, but not an unpleasant one. The nifty idea pulls Dashiell Hammett (author of THE MALTESE FALCON & THE THIN MAN) back from his writing desk and into a San Francisco-Chinatown mystery with enough bodies, crooked cops & capitalists, sexy dames, noir atmosphere and double-dealing partners to confound any gumshoe. Marilu Henner is pretty awful as Hammett’s sexy gal-pal/neighbor, but everyone else gets into the spirit of the thing. Stick with it and you will, too. Look sharp for cult director Sam Fuller. Maybe that’s who should have helmed this one.

36 HOURS (1964)


After his atypically stylish work on THE COUNTERFEIT TRAITOR/’62, writer/director George Seaton returned to WWII with this jerry-built espionage tale. Unfortunately, it also returned Seaton to his typically flat dramatic & visual style. (No doubt, shooting TRAITOR in Europe with lenser Jean Bourgoin shook Seaton out of his usual form.) James Garner is awfully subdued as a kidnapped American spy who is tricked into believing that he’s got a bad case of amnesia & the war is long over. Why not chat with his doctor (Rod Taylor) and tell him everything he knows about D-Day and the Normandy invasion? The idea is too goofy to take seriously, but under Seaton’s tired hand, there’s not much tension and not much fun to be had. Patient viewers can relish a lively turn from the great Sig Rumann who shows up as a delightfully venal border patrolman toward the end, and also scratch their collective heads when composer Dmitri Tiomkin rolls out a faux-Rachmaninoff piano concerto as background score.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

DECEPTION (1946)


Bette Davis effectively ended her run as Hollywood’s greatest leading lady on this pic, reunited with Paul Henreid, Claude Rains & Irving Rapper, the co-stars & helmer of NOW, VOYAGER/’42. And if DECEPTION is hardly great drama (or even great melodrama, with its goofy OTT theatrics and shopworn manner), it does make for a smash-up finale. In the magnificently realized opening (Anton Grot’s set design & Ernest Haller’s lensing are spectacular thru-out), Henreid shows up in NYC after the war, alive, if not particularly well. That’s where Davis, his old flame, catches him mid-cadenza in the Haydn concerto. (Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote that cadenza as well as the bravura cello piece featured in the climax.*) These two soon wed, much to the annoyance of Claude Rains, the brilliant, if caustically arrogant composer who has ‘kept’ Davis (in no small way) during the war years. Rains is amusing, willfully cruel & eccentric as the vain composer, but he never feels threatening in a role that calls for the sexual attraction & sadism of a James Mason. While Henreid, who now & then looks like the young Herbert von Karajan, lacks the weakened constitution & mental imbalance of a neurasthenic wreck. Gérard Philipe would have been perfect, or perhaps Jean-Pierre Aumont who was working in Hollywood at the time. Then again, with proper casting, the whole improbable scenario might well have collapsed. This way, with Eleanor Aller dubbing the cello for Henreid and Shura Cherkassky doing Beethoven’s Appassionata under Davis’s fingers, we believe just as much are we need to . . . no more. Davis would take a year off before finishing her Warners contract and then make a spectacular comeback in ALL ABOUT EVE/’50. But that’s another story.

*Sadly, the concerto is heavily abridged in the film, but there must be half a dozen modern recordings of it currently available.

Friday, December 11, 2009

THE GOOD SHEPHERD (2006)

For most of its 3-hr running time, you can’t be sure if CIA operations or Robert De Niro’s megging will end up looking more inept. (The story is presumably a fictionalized version of James Jesus Angleton’s disastrous pilgrim’s progress inside the walls of the agency.) Why did De Niro, who could barely handle the rigors of a modest family drama on his last directing gig (A BRONX TALE/’93) think he’d be able to handle this epic tale? His idea of pacing stumbles from one quietly somber, under-lit scene to the next, never quite making contact with the plot element needn’t to vivify Eric Roth’s ultra-suave script. Compared to this, John Le Carré plots like Agatha Christie. De Niro must have really called in the favors to land so many fine actors in roles so ill-suited or under-written. Joe Pesci, Tim Hutton, Keir Dullea are window dressing, while poor Billy Crudup embarrasses himself with a Looney Tunes British accent. ‘Pip, pip, cheerio, my good man.’ Oy! Only the great Michael Gambon, playing a professor with a yen for poesy, spying & handsome juniors, earns points (the man is indestructible). As for the leads, Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, John Turturro & Alec Baldwin have rarely been less effective while William Hurt has. De Niro gives himself a plum little part so he can dress himself up as . . . Marty Scorsese! How this vanity project received decent reviews is something of a mystery. Maybe the CIA should look into it?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

GREENWICH VILLAGE (1944)


Brazilian Bombshell Carmen Miranda was top-billed in this Fox musical, but she’s still peripheral to the plot. It’s the old wheeze about a classical composer whose music is mangled into pop tunes for a big revue featuring the girl he’s just fallen in love with. But nobody’s told him they’re using his music!. It sounds pretty grim, but it’s neither as dumb, nor as dreary as expected as the cast (Don Ameche, William Bendix, Vivian Blaine) show more sense & sass than you expect, and there are some tasty specialty acts along the way. Watch for a great all-Black number featuring ‘The Step Brothers,’ and look sharp to catch a glimpse ‘The Revuers’ (Betty Comden, Adolph Green & Judy Holliday). Walter Lang moves things along in a garish NeverLand version of 1922 Greenwich Village, but it’s dance director Seymore Felix who deserves kudos for staging a phenomenal final numbo for Miranda.

Monday, December 7, 2009

WHERE DANGER LIVES (1950)


Tight RKO film noir is helmed by John Farrow who brings out an abstract detachment that nicely serves the film’s remarkably unsympathetic leading characters and its logic-defying twists. It doesn’t plumb the existential depths like Edgar Ulmer’s Grade Z classic DETOUR/’45, but it’s pretty far out there. Particularly the lensing from Nicholas Musuraca which all but drowns us in oblique angles, severe contrast lighting & daringly long takes. Robert Mitchum plays the chump doctor who falls hard for his suicidal patient (Faith Domergue), unaware that she’s the wife and not the daughter of rich, old Claude Rains. Before you can blink, there’s a murder and the lovers are on the lam. Mitchum (typically superb) is wounded & weak, but that’s the least of his problems. Domergue is little remembered & wasn’t much of an actress, but she was Howard Hughes’ latest, so she got the showcase part. Well, she looks alright holding a gun which is half the battle in these things.


CONTEST: Scripter Charles Bennett did a lot of writing for Alfred Hitchcock and this film contains two striking prefigurations of story elements later found in PSYCHO/’60. Name them and win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

TENSION (1949)


With his small frame & fine features, Richard Basehart is just right as a Milquetoast husband who plots a ‘perfect murder’ for the burly lover who’s taken his wife. Then again, since the wife is Audrey Totter, the supreme sultry slattern of Grade B noirs, you might think he’d be grateful. Sure enough, just when he’s about to kill the guy, he sees the light. But this is film noir, so the guy turns up dead anyway and now Basehart’s clever plan leads the cops right back to him. It’s a neat set-up for classic noir, but M-G-M was the wrong studio for such nasty doings so we get corny narrative hints from the investigating cop (Barry Sullivan) and even Cyd Charisse, in a rare non-musical role, loyal & loving as the good girl. At least, megger John Berry moves things along and there’s a jazzy score from a 20 yr old Andre Previn, but you can make a better noir in your head as you watch this one. (How ‘bout we start the film when the cops arrest Basehart and then go to flashback. Hey, what’s a noir without a flashback?) Try CRIME WAVE/’54 to see how much more you can get out of this sort of thing.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

CHARLIE CHAN IN SHANGHAI (1936)


This entry in the long-running series gets bonus points for getting Warner Oland’s Charlie Chan to sing a traditional diatonic Chinese tune (w/ English lyrics) and even to speak a bit of Mandarin. Add in a murder mystery that’s twistier than usual (diplomats, opium smuggling, crooked cops) and some physical action for Lee Chan (the endearing & spirited Key Luke as Chan’s #1 Son) and you should have the makings for top-tier Chan. Alas, under the inert megging of James Tinling who’s also responsible for the sole weak link in the superior MR. MOTO series, the story never kicks into gear. Even solid supporting players like Halliwell Hobbes & Russell Hicks just walk thru their parts as if they were still rehearsing. But check out a true oddity on the DVD’s Extras: A handsome print of a recast Spanish language version of the long lost CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON/’31; Spanish title-ERAN TRECE. Chan shows up very late in this one, so you may want to zoom ahead just to see how the great detective fares in Spanish.