Sunday, December 20, 2009

Underground Rustlers (1941), S Roy Luby.

Hell, yeah!  B-westerns are not something I would have thought I could stomach.  They were the cheapest, straw-stuffed, manure-flecked B's, meant for the same type of viewer.  But, wait!  This is pretty awesome!  It has groaner jokes about combs that grow hair, a cowboy that has serious in-depth conversations with a ventriloquist's dummy and, OF COURSE, yodeling.  Ray "Crash" Corrigan is kind of a looker too.  Hilarity and mirth!

Why is it that I speak my lines clearly, wondered Elmer the dummy, but the hand up my ass sounds like he's reading off a card?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Paying the Bills: Damaged Lives (1932) and Diagnostic Procedures in Tuberculosis (1940), Edgar G Ulmer.

Damaged Lives came about, according to director Edgar G Ulmer, because of jealousy amongst the Cohn brothers:

Jack Cohn got in a fight with his brother, Harry.  Jack was in charge of sales in New York and was very angry and very jealous that he couldn't produce like Harry...And Jack Cohn, who I knew very well, brought up the subject one night.  He had to make pictures himself.  He went back to New York and called me.  We met the Canadian Health Minister who needed a picture for Canada... I wrote a script, and the Canadian Health Minister was delighted.  He didn't know a thing about pictures.  I came back to the Coast and shot it.
                            - Kings of the B's, Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn

Made in eight days for the Cohns at Columbia, Damaged Lives is a morality tale about the dangers of syphilis and made big money once released.   Though an "educational picture," it clings to a traditional everyman narrative, and looks quite rich.  In the shot above, cinematographer Allen G Siegler frames a gorgeous apartment using an art deco statue.  And, whoa!  What a fireplace!  As the story goes, a naive young man has one wild night with an older platinum blond (early 30s shorthand for bad news), catches syphilis and later passes it to his wife Joan.  The first half of the film is kind of a gas, with an all night bender and trip to some kind of classy bordello; the second half dwells on the after-effects of it all and even includes a few gag-inducing shots of presumably real patients with open sores and deformations. (Interesting how it looks even more horrific in black and white).  Oddly, the Canadian description for this film, as it appears in the Library and Archives catalogue, states that the actress Diane Sinclair, who plays Joan "may have been black."  Source?

Ulmer, in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich (which is quoted from above), stated that though he became stuck in Producers Releasing Corporation and "couldn't get out," working for a Poverty Row studio did have certain benefits.  "I could use my crew, and I was running the studio from a technical end.  I wouldn't sign any contract with PRC, but this was my home and I could operate and bring any idea to the top echelon."  Though they are not for PRC, Ulmer's work on pictures such as Damaged Lives and Diagnostic Procedures in Tuberculosis are interesting examples of a craftsman working within given boundaries.  Diagnostic Procedures in Tuberculosis is another short film, this time the audience is the medical community; it documents how to perform particular tests for tuberculosis.  It's my bias, but lovely touches in a B or an education film made strictly for money warm my heart; we may all work, yet we are all not whores.  Ulmer's work also demonstrates that not all men working in B's were hacks.  Who else would shoot a scientific film in which a back-lit physician opening a lab kit looks like a magician about to perform a disappearing trick in an elegant nightclub?    

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Irish Luck (1939), Howard Bretherton.

Teenage bell boy "Buzzy" O'Brien teams up with a hotel porter named Jefferson to solve mysteries.  I'm sure there's a lot of mileage here for film studies graduates but what can I say other than it just comes off as tiresome seventy years later.
"Awww, I get a case all built up and I have to make tea."    

Friday, December 11, 2009

Beggars in Ermine (1934), Phil Rosen.

Beggars in Ermine is a strange film full of unsettling images and ideas.   The story is that the well-liked owner of a steel mill, John "Flint" Dawson, loses everything including his wife to his second-in command, an enemy named Marley.  Marley tries to have Dawson murdered on the job, but the attempt fails, leaving Dawson severely handicapped.  Marley then wrests control of the company using power of attorney.  Suddenly the once prosperous Dawson is legless and destitute, unable even to pay for his private hospital room.

The film then moves into the realm of social issues, making it much more of a historical artifact than other films I have seen from the same time period.  We see Dawson find companionship amongst other men in his position: mainly previously able-bodied men transformed into society's rejects due to work accidents, illness, and some by congenital handicaps.  Dawson and his new friend, a blind accordionist, wander the country seeking to connect with the massive but largely invisible body of licensed beggars, men scraping by selling pencils and other trinkets.   Dawson sees great potential in this invisible army and organizes the beggars into a private society.  He then collects a membership fee of sorts, invests this and eventually regains his lost wealth but also brings material comforts to the members who had previously been left to the streets.  Actor Lionel Atwill's performance gives Dawson an irrepressible nobility, despite having been reduced to beggary.

It's possible some might think this is a story about rehabilitating the image of the working man, bringing dignity to the handicapped and celebrating collectivism.   I would instead say this is a story that celebrates the capitalist.   Whether or not he is liked by either his workers or the members of his society, this is a story of a wealthy industrialist who regains his wealth off of the backs of many.  By the end of the film, Dawson has control of his steel mill once again, and has Marley trapped in one of the offices.  Having achieved his main goal, he turns into a bit of a cruel fascist.  The final scene shows Dawson wheeling himself onto a balcony to placate a crowd of angry factory workers, the very image of a monarch waving to his subjects.

Transforming this novel (credited to Esther Lynd Day, an author that I could find absolutely no information on) into film posed some challenges that Monogram was not fully equipped to overcome.  Key scenes were shot on the site of a steel processing facility (I assume).  Yet there was difficulty capturing sound in outdoor scenes and, as can be seen below, the cameraman is quite visibly casting a shadow in one panning shot!  Still, a complex story and ambitious project for Monogram.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Invisible Ghost (1941) Joseph H Lewis.

Karloff, in Edgar G Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934).

Ah, these men of the 30s and 40s B's, keeping up appearances in their suits and smoking jackets, pining away for their lost wives.  Lingering before her portrait or erm, well, lovingly studying her embalmed body in their unwavering dedication to the notion of eternal marriage.  How romantic, this love that never fades and drives them all slowly insane.

Invisible Ghost is a terrible movie, let's not kid ourselves.  It's full of B-movie chestnuts, including the nightmarish court scene convicting an innocent man, the older wealthy man living in his exquisitely furnished home with his dutiful and gorgeous adult daughter.  We even have twin brothers.  Much of Invisible Ghost makes no sense.  So... Bela Lugosi's house has been the scene of multiple murders, you say?  And nobody thinks it odd that the whole famdamily stays there without starting to point fingers at one another?  The story is that Lugosi's wife has absconded with a strange man, only to end up in a terrible car wreck that kills her lover and unhinges her mind.  Weirdness creeps into this somewhat stilted film:  Lugosi's gardener finds the runaway wife and keeps her in his basement until the best time to inform his boss that she's returned home, not wanting to expose the family to her temporary insanity.  Lugosi of course is not quite mens sana himself we discover;  he has a bit of a fissure in his own psyche.  Not particularly original but in some instances eerie...  a temporarily mad Lugosi is stricken with murderous intent, creeps into his daughter's bedroom where she is sleeping, slips off his housecoat and holds it out like a garrote...

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Death Kiss (1932), Edward L Marin.

Bela Lugosi in a nicely cut suit, just hanging in the background with the other B actors.

Cruddy.  I'm not sure what morons hired Bela Lugosi only to keep him out of the film for most scenes.   Get ready for a lot of wooden lines explaining what is going on, and a movie studio owner who runs around crying "Oy!  The money this is costing me!"  Filmed very cheaply on the Tiffany Studios lot.  And the title sounded SO intriguing!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Outer Gate (1937), Raymond Cannon.

This B is leavened with a little more creativity than usual for Monogram.  Young Bob Terry is convicted of embezzlement, and his future father-in-law John Borden decides to stick to the logical facts rather than trust in his personal knowledge of Terry's good character.  Terry's in the slammer for five years until the truth of his innocence is revealed and he is pardoned.  When he gets out, an opportunity arises for him to frame Borden for embezzlement in revenge!   Will he do it?  The scenarios are pretty far-fetched, but supporting actors are strong: Kay Linaker, playing Bob's girlfriend, brings dignity and the line, "Aww, come on, Bob.  You're young, white and twenty-one!" and endearing prison pal is played by B stalwart Eddie Acuff.  There's an unusual nightclub scene that has a very improvisational feel to it: a man performing animal impressions tries unsuccessfully to fend of an annoying drunk.  "One jackass at a time!" he begs, before launching into a harmonica performance.

This film does better than most Monograms which can be painfully tedious to watch, made up of nothing but stagnant medium shots.  There's greater variety of camera shots and angles, and, as can be seen in the screenshot above, some use of dramatic lighting.

From  the Alamo theatre in Washington, DC is plastered with ads for The Outer Gate (1937).   Photo by John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Howard Hawks: the Grey Fox of Hollywood (1997) Todd McCarthy.

It's kind of hilarious that the man who learned his craft making silents but became known for fast-talking flicks when sound came in was apparently the type of guy who said very little himself.  When he did talk, he spoke slooooowly.  His film Twentieth Century is credited with introducing a faster pace and naturalness to dialogue by having actors' lines overlap.  Previous attempts to crank the pace of human interaction in film are attributed to fast cutting or the specific style of actors like James Cagney.  McCarthy's examination of Hawks' deliberate rethinking of the art of conversation on film is wonderful.  "You're liable to interrupt me and I'm liable to interrupt you," Hawks said, "so you write in such a way that you overlap the dialogue but not lose anything.  It's just a trick.  It's also a trick getting people to do it- it takes them about two or three days to get accustomed to it and then they're off."  I would love to take  acting tips from Hawks, but then, I'm already pretty good at interrupting most people I talk to!

McCarthy's subject, who kept almost no papers and was prone to tall tales (McCarthy's skepticism of oral history done by folks like Bogdanovich is very interesting), must have been a challenge to pin down yet he draws a very detailed picture of the man.  "No one has ever claimed to have seen Howard Hawks lose his composure, his calm demeanor, or his sense of control, even when drunk, angry or under severe pressure," writes McCarthy.  "By the same token, no one saw him deliriously happy or celebratory." I questioned, while reading, McCarthy's reluctance to make strong statements on Hawks' political views; for much of the book it appears as though McCarthy found his subject to be completely objective about politics, more engrossed with his passion to tell a good yarn, with only the most subtle right-wing leanings.  Is there such a thing as a person without politics?  McCarthy leaves it to his sources to let the picture of Hawks' views emerge.  In describing an abandoned film idea about the Vietnam war late in Hawks' career, McCarthy writes, "One can only agree ... that, given Hawks' naive refusal to engage the inevitable political implications of such a project and his lack of firsthand knowledge about the war, 'It's good for him that he never made the film'." 

Hawks, friends with both William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, ruminated year after year about making The Sun Also Rises into a film.  It never came to be, but both the description of the relationships between Hawks and these authors, as well as the discussion of Hawks' approach towards filming written works is fascinating.  Unlike some, Hawks played loosely with original works yet transformed these premises into lasting films.  Despite his personal failings (McCarthy also makes interesting comments about Hawks' sexuality) Hawks emerges as a man committed above all to the craft of film-making, and one of its indisputable masters.

How unfair is it that some of these films are next to impossible to find.  No boxed set of Hawks silents, including the first definitive film of his career A Girl in Every Port?  Tiger Shark is not on DVD?  What is wrong with whoever owns the rights to these things?  How is it that von Sternberg's Underworld (1927) (McCarthy describes it as "one of the most important films to come out of the late silent period" and one of the first gangster pictures),  is basically forgotten?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Wild Style (1983), Charlie Ahearn.

So much fun!  Graffiti artist Lee Quinones basically plays himself, tagging up burned buildings in the South Bronx.  No plot, just the source of a bunch of good samples and culminates in a fantastic outdoor concert in an amphitheater with lots of popping and locking. 

Check out the girl in the background chuggin'.  In this scene, a stark contrast with the pseudo-documentary look of the rest of the film (this scene is starchy and stilted and filmed in your quintessential white-walled contemporary art gallery), Quinones talks with acquisitive Manhattan curators who want to commodify his talent.  I wonder what his pieces go for nowadays! 

Lee Quinones' more current work.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Star Reporter (1939), Howard Bretherton.

Sleazy criminal defense lawyer and crook go gut to gut.  Medium shots abound in this one.

A total misfire!  Titular young reporter is colossally clued out, leading to the greatest case of onscreen dramatic irony not counting any Three's Company episode.  How ironic, because the criminal whose case he is covering is in fact his long-lost father!  As they say in Mad Magazine: Blechh!  

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Serious Man (2009), Ethan and Joel Coen.

Is this about F-troop?

I couldn't pull my eyes away from the screen when I, along with about four other people, was watching it a couple weeks ago.  So much gaudy detail and fabulous colours. 

But not a perfect film.   Larry Gopnik, the central protagonist in search of the meaning of life, is too much of a cipher to compel us to sympathize with him.  He the inverse of Tarantino's The Bear Jew: he can't get mad.  He's a gawky physics teacher who writes formulas on the black board in herky jerky chicken scratch with his ass thrust out.  He takes us right back to the stereotype of male Jew as spineless schmo.  But worse in terms of storytelling, he's almost unreadable.  During the film, he doesn't have any real conversation with his kids or his alienated wife, or colleagues or anyone.  Who is this guy?  What the hell does he think of everything going on around him?  What we do know is that his life is falling apart and he is deeply driven to understand "why me"?  But if Job was a boring dipshit, would we care?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Phenix City Story (1955), Phil Karlson.

Surely taught in all the Film 101 classes.  Another one that steals its visual approach from the documentary still photography found in Life, Look and Time Magazine.  Tells the story of a lawless town located in Alabama, next to an army base, ruled by VICE:  girls, gambling, dope, violence.  Locals try to clean the town up, but face increasingly terrifying tactics from whoever is profiting (an interesting reference is made that implies the local toughs are only running the show for fatter, unseen cats).  Based on fact.  The leads are very strong and well-acted.  How unfortunate that the pristine heroes portrayed here in fiction later in reality advocated for segregation and resisted all progress in the civil rights movement. 

Director Karlson has a diploma from the world of B-movies, having worked on many Monogram pictures.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Body and Soul (1947), Robert Rossen.

Ugh.  Flashbacks, montages, cliches ...  John Garfield is a beloved movie lefty of mine but story-wise this one reeks.

But it's visually interesting.  Boxing scenes, both in the ring and in the locker room, have a contemporary photojournalistic quality: high contrast, stark lighting.  Looking like the flash bulbs just went off.  Above: a scene from the movie, and below: a pic by Ronny Jaques from a photostory that ran in Montreal-based newspaper Standard's 1945 coverage of up and coming boxer Gus Mell. 

Tales of Manhattan (1942), Julien Duvivier.

A beautifully tailored tailcoat, cursed by its maker to bring bad luck to any wearer, ties together several short stories in this film.   A lovely set of tales each very different in tone, from a kooky segment where WC Fields gets a lot of society folks loaded off "coconut milk" to a harrowing Cinderella story, in which a skid-row alcoholic, played by Edward G Robinson, gets one evening to don the tailcoat and one opportunity to pass himself off as a legitimate member of society to his successful university friends at a twenty-five year reunion.  Duvivier's gorgeous visions in black and white, shadow and smoke give this film a pictorial quality.  Followed a year later by Flesh and Fantasy, another Duvivier film that also takes the format of short stories tied together by a narrative device; it also uses some of the same actors.  It's a pity these films are difficult to locate because they are so lovely and unusual.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Doomed to Die (1940), William Nigh.

Two cliches: the "Chinese" detective and the spunky female reporter.

Let's just be glad that Boris Karloff didn't go with the Chinky Chinky China Man accent.  Dull B-mystery told through static, unimaginative shots from the Let's Just Stand Around and Someone Can Film This school of film-making.  The owner of a shipping company is found dead after one of his passenger ships goes down in a fire, and nobody knows if it's murder or suicide.  When the over enthusiastic chief of police hastily arrests a competitor's son, Mr Wong is hired to find the real killer.  A later entry in the Mr Wong series.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Little Giant (1933), Roy Del Ruth.

$45 a night?  Well, I'll show them $45 a night...  Bugsy uses the hotel towels to shine his shoes to get his money's worth out of his expensive suite.

Just clever as hell send-up of Edward G Robinson's gangster persona.  With Prohibition over, beer runner Bugsy Ahern decides to cash in, sell the machine guns to "some guys in Mexico," pay off his moll, take off to sunny California and retire.  In his attempt to shake off the "stench of the gutter," Ahern takes up with the horsey set (complete with horsey accents) and purchases anything and everything that may raise his social standing.  Great dialogue, with a few eyebrow-raising lines muttered under the breath, such as:  "How did you get to know that monkey speak?"  "Well, I used to own 10% of a French dame."  I have to say, I just about fell off my chair in disbelief when I heard the word "FAGS" spat out in one scene. Must have been before Joe Breen came to town.

Odd remark, but unusual to see Edward G Robinson in so many casual clothes, although I wanted to undo that top button on every polo shirt (the man looked like he was suffocating).  Mary Astor gets to wear some darn lovely lightweight knits.  Quite a fun romp - who doesn't want to imagine themselves on a spending spree in idyllic California in the 30s!  I'll take it! 

The boys from Chicago try their luck at polo.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Verdict (1946), Don Siegel.

This mediocre picture shudders along on a patchy script, but its strange twist ending is genuine and arresting.  Remakes be damned, but this one would be a good candidate.   A pretty ordinary whodunit, but Peter Lorre and Joan Lorring's scenes together add a little sparkle.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Black Angel (1946), Roy William Neil.

Solid thriller.   This film likely appealed to the women who were holding the fort back home during the war. When a shady two-timing husband is convicted of his girlfriend's murder, his wife (played by June Vincent) picks up where the overworked cops left off.   Vincent assumes a very male role, essentially playing the detective, in the very masculine genre of film noir.  She poses as a nightclub singer to keep an eye on suspects.  Her husband, played by John Bennett, is surprisingly a minor character and mostly unseen.  Peter Lorre appears as mystery man with the best office in LA.  What a view!

Monday, October 26, 2009

George Raft (1974), Lewis Yablonski.

Don Cherry and I have what I'd guess to be one thing in common:  we love the Hollywood biographies.  I am not a big drooler for George Raft, I only came to know him through a couple of recently viewed movies.  He seemed odd:  very taciturn, almost a ghost-like presence; all I knew is that he had a reputation for being mobbed up.

This book is bizarre - not only does Raft make Frank Sinatra look like a second-generation hanger-on, he's a full-on caricature of any "Ocean's Eleven" type guys.  So wounded by feelings of inadequacy, Raft makes bad decision after bad decision, building to a paralysis that prevents him from compromising the Raft image.  Unable to take on a role that he thinks will tarnish his image, countless opportunities go to Bogart, who turns them into iconic movie performances!  Unable to compromise on his flashy image by wearing slightly less expensive suits when the big roles stop coming, he fritters away the money he earned as one of the top stars of the 1930s. Yes, he's tightly involved in financial projects undertaken by guys like Bugsy Siegel.   No, he never seems to make a dime off any of it.

This is a genre I love:  a non-academic bio based on tons of interviews by a loving fan or friend.  Even though the author admits Raft was one of his childhood heroes, and backtracks a bit for him, the fact that Raft was deeply screwed up is not hidden.  I probably could have done without the description of the unending stream of hookers Raft went through, though.

Renfrew of the Royal Mounted (1937), Albert Herman.

Oh, man!  A mackinaw couch cushion!  It's like they skinned a hoser!

I was completely prepared to shut this off in two minutes, but... it's not bad.  It's a passable adventure story of Renfrew, an RCMP officer who stumbles on to a plot to kidnap an ex-forger and force him to create printing plates for ten dollar bills.  Oh, it's the cheese all right,  you can basically play Canada bingo:  we have an aboriginal guy in a canoe, campfires, the smell of venison, a vaguely British guy offering tea, the woods, and a she-wolf howling at the moon!  Renfrew happens to be the kind of Mountie that likes to break into song, with lots of tremolo.  I guess that's preferable to the kind we hear about these days that just want to tase everyone in the nads.  This is the first in the Sergeant Renfrew series; they made about eight in all.  

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Censored Hollywood: Sex, Sin & Violence on Screen (1994), Frank Miller.

If you ask me, the most shameful example of an embarrassing, tacked-on ending is that of The Blue Dahlia.  It's obvious even while you watch that some guy in Hollywood with a stick up his ass couldn't besmirch a war hero even if it makes a gripping, dreadful and totally believable story.  The twist ending that sidesteps a current social problem is dictionary definition willful ignorance.  As a viewer, from a very early age, I have been infuriated by false endings and the sanctimonious retribution forced on characters in classic movies.

Frank Miller's book is not new.  I had a copy when it was, fifteen years ago.  But it remains a solid entry on the mechanisms at work behind the censorship of film, both from within the industry and without.  Having forgotten much of the history and conflating everything in my mind to "the Hays Code," it was worth a re-look and it reminded me that there were many hands at work muddling messages from the script stage, to point the film went out of the camera and into theatres.  The industry's Production Code was presided over by many strong personalities (not just Hays), including Joe Breen.  His and his colleagues' Irish sensibilities, according to Jack Vizzard, were less concerned with the effects of violence than sex, an observation that may explain why to this day American films go lightly on blood but get queasy when anything sexual crops up.  Miller quotes Vizzard in saying, "to the Irish, violence was not necessarily connected with the debasement of human life.  It was frequently a sign of manliness...The Irish culture was infected with Jasenism, which dreaded sex as being identified with the darker forces, but which did not so fear brutality, since this was not as 'catching.'  It contained its own remedy in that it hurt." 

Miller presents many accounts of films that were presented to the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) for approval, then snipped and sliced into oblivion.  The littleness of the mentality behind the quibbles can be astonishing.  As Miller notes, it wasn't until well into the 1960s that censors considered a film and the ideas presented within it as an organic whole, rather than resorting to a checklist of forbidden actions.  The extent to which individuals such as Joe Breen would develop alternate ideas for a script so that it could avoid being censored, is equally astonishing.  Maybe Breen should have lobbied for a screenwriting credit, considering how many gay men he turned into Jews, how many abortions he aborted, and how many other sins he blotted from the sight of wholesome American families.  

It's worth remembering that most of this censorship was driven by the assumption that any of these products should be able to be viewed by children.  The notion that a film might have an adult-only audience was late in coming.  Cracks appeared in the Production Code when historic events (such as the Second World War) made audiences thirsty for realism.  The appearance of European films and their natural portrayal of human relationships also emphasized the exaggerated artificiality of American films under the Code.  As a non-American, it's interesting to observe how consistently this country's films have always been under attack by moralizing forces.   

I wouldn't have minded a few more photos, and had a bit of an issue with the statement Miller makes a number of times that "everyone in the audience knew what was really going on," (when, for example, a female character was a "dancer"  but in the original script a prostitute).  Miller's book's traces censorship of movies from its very beginnings right up to the mid-90s.  Having been a teen when it was published, I have to say that now as an adult I'm surprised that the efforts to edit and smother film was as busy in the 90s as it was in the 30s.  Yet I was one of those kids that got my hands on the video version of Louis Malle's Damage for the extra two minutes! 

The ultimate message I took away from this book is that there's always going to be someone out there who wants to squash your fun and call you a sinner. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Little Caesar (1931), Mervyn LeRoy.

I liked this one.  Edward G Robinson plays a wholly unlikeable psychopath, dead-set on rising in the world of crime.  He's trigger happy, making his low-end crook buddies nervous, and throws his angry glare like a knife.  Rather than playing on accents and other affectations, his ethnicity comes out in the setting:  the Palermo Social Club, the corner store selling Italian products, the church.  Rather than a stereotype, he's a character.  He's a strange teetotaler who rebuffs half a dozen offers to drink but succumbs to his vice at the film's end.  Interestingly, no woman plays any particular significance - Rico has no mother, no sister, no girlfriend.  He doesn't even seem particularly keen on his buddy's girl - he'd rather shoot her into hamburger! 

A sweaty, confused Rico - back on the sauce.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Smart Money (1931), Alfred E Green.

"I don't 'spose it's very easy for you girls..."

Interesting little flick.  In the first scene, a thin girl whispers a sob story into Edward G Robinson's ear; he caves and gives her a hundred bucks to "get her out of trouble."  By the last scene, he's gone through multiple lovely girls, just about all out to swindle him out of something.  I swear, I couldn't tell many of these quintessential 30s platinum blonds apart!  Robinson plays Nick the Barber, who starts out giving shaves in "Iron City," but whose gambling smarts lead him to "The City," where he's king, running illegal gambling joints and pulling in wads of dough from elite clients.  I thoroughly enjoyed the bald-faced pleasure Robinson gets out of a good poker game, one upping a crooked gambler, or running his hands along his manicurist's pretty legs.  What the hell!  Despite his slight turn towards the arrogant when he starts winning the big bets, he actually remains highly likable right up to the end of the film.  It's refreshing to watch an old film and not be hammered over the head with moralizing!

Jimmy Cagney appears as his right-hand man.

Scarface (1932), Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson.

Boris Karloff plays Gaffney, a big Harp who is about to get X'd, if you know what I mean.

This may take another look, but I felt like Muni's Scarface was a slightly moronic Italian caricature.   Having watched I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang this week as well, each scene of which was unbearably taut yet refreshingly natural, this one comes off as a little dated and unfocused.  Like everyone, I consider the big three of the initial flicks in the gangster genre to be  Scarface, Public Enemy and Little Caesar.  Cagney is so compelling and charismatic in Public Enemy but Muni by contrast (often a highly enjoyable and even sympathetic actor, like Cagney) is more of a puzzle and his characterization suffers from a lack of background detail.  Why does Muni trust the half-baked dope he's got as his right hand man, and not (criminally underused) George Raft? What did he do to his mother for her to resent her own son so badly?  C'mon!

Even the ending was operatic, in the grand Italian tradition:  shootings!  secret relationships!  brother sister action!  

Question: where were any of the 30s Jewish racketeers?  Was it because they were playing the parts and running the studio, that they didn't want to draw attention to that particular type of 30s gangster?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Manpower (1941), Raoul Walsh.

 MANPOWER!  A crew of fist-fightin' tough guy pals working on heavy duty power lines!  Edward G Robinson, poor schmuck, can't get a woman (can he ever, in any of these flicks?) until Marlene Dietrich sees him as someone who can at least pay the bills and relieve her of a crummy job dancing with strangers at a clip joint.  George Raft plays his sensitive pal, who doesn't believe Dietrich will ever be the kind of woman to settle into married life.  The supporting actors are quite well drawn (and include Alan Hale as "Jumbo"); good to see a cast of twenty or so people where each actor has enough to chew on to differentiate him from the person standing next to him.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bluebeard (1944), Edgar G Ulmer.

For some reason, I always thought Bluebeard was a pirate.  Wrong!  You know, when a prospective date tells you "you ask too many questions," and when he confesses he has "things to hide" he's probably not the man for you.  The Carradine family definitely has a cool gene.  But otherwise a sad, slapdash, badly told story with bad lighting.  

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Stolen Jools / The Slippery Pearls (William C McGann), 1931.

Strange little flick of about 20 minutes' duration which was apparently created to support National Vaudeville Artists, a union representing actors.  Nearly everyone who was anyone in 1931 is trotted out, playing themselves ("Why, look, it's Barbara Stanwyck!"), so it's more of a historic curiosity than anything.  As far as entertainment value goes, there's a couple of good gags, but for the most part I agree with this little chap, who promised to bury the reels in the backyard "before the department of health arrives." 

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The World Gone Mad (1933), Christy Cabanne.

Still relevant flick about a Ponzi scheme perpetuated by seemingly noble industrialists.  A smart story, neither moralizing nor naive, about newspaperman Andy Terrell's quest to sniff out the truth behind a District Attorney's murder.  So, are there any real newspapermen left anymore?  Ones that pay a kid $10 to tail suspects?  One that questions the official story and hunts out the truth?  Terrell's character, a realist or cynic depending on your mood, hands the murdered DA's replacement a gun for protection saying, "Smith and Wesson makes all men equal.  And equality is the basis of a true democracy."  The DA responds by promising to protect the public from "these leeches who have chiseled and gouged and swindled them out of their hard earned dollars"!  Sit on that, Wall Street! 

I think this flick works nicely as a B-movie: because there are no capital-S stars (at least recognizable to a modern audience), the dialogue and story are in the foreground.  I found this one on Internet Archive, a non-profit group that makes digital material (including awesome, out of copyright films) accessible to the public. 

My Dinner With Andre (1981), Louis Malle.

Sigh.  Disappointed with both this and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, two failed viewing efforts.  I felt like I was expected to write 2500 words on the concept of time afterwards.  I suppose some viewers enjoy a challenge, but I also wonder if they tend to be college aged guys that make you mix tapes on your first date.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

It (1927), Clarence G Badger.

Blech.  Everyone falls over Clara Bow, who has "it".  Until they realize she might have a kid.  Quite humourless.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Escape from Death Row/Dio, sei proprio un padreterno! (1973), Michele Lupo.

Aside from the bathtub electrocution and prison fight scenes, this one plays it mostly for laffs.  Lee Van Cleef is a seasoned assassin, who is idolized by a naive, small-time crook.   We'll call this young man Honda, because that is what his t-shirt said while he was in prison (I guess they let you keep your duds in poliziotteschi prison).  Anywhat, the guys escape and Van Cleef spends the rest of the film tracking down those jerks that double crossed him, ending up in a fish-processing plant in Marseilles.   This one wins for costume design, but the poignant trumpet track gets a bit annoying after a while.  There's about a half-dozen alternate titles, but I think my favourite might be Mean Frank and Crazy Tony!

Prisoner #439527 in the mesh shirt is SO not impressed.  Prisoner #95847 looks like he escaped from mime school.

A Kiss Before Dying (1956), Gerd Oswald.

Is this a teen-noir?  Lusciously filmed in sunny California, there's also many shots such as the one above, that show how drippingly gorgeous all those neon-lit nightclubs really were.  This film is also robustly a 50s teen flick, with a very young Robert Wagner as a self-motivated college kid who goes on a killing spree!  OK, so it said "spree" on the box.  Rather, he rids himself of a clingy girlfriend who is on the outs with her wealthy dad.  Then Joanne Woodward walks into the picture, and completely steals it away.  Somewhat predictable, and maybe a gaudier A Place in the Sun, but intriguing.  Cinematography is by Lucien Ballard, who was later associated with Sam Peckinpah.  I would argue the mise-en-scene and cinematography combine to lend dignity to the characters, and just make the actors that much more beautiful.

Soda Shop, complete with View Master rack! 

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Cynic, The Rat and The Fist / Il cinico, l'infame, il violento (1977), Umberto Lenzi.

So, the other day across the river I'm sitting at a red and in the next lane in a purple '95 neon is a dead-wringer for Bill Pullman in Ruthless People with a bleached blond 'do and dark roots (+ mustache) chomping on a wad of gum.  On the other end of the spectrum we have the hero of this movie, whose manages to pull off this same look but maintains a studly aura.  I mean, he's talking on a communal phone in a ratshit hotel and even I would let him buy me a drink.

The Cynic, the Rat and the Fist (don't ask me who is who - all I could figure is that our hero, ex-police inspector Tanzi, is probably the Fist) is a pretty tight poliziotteschi.  No languid scenes, no romance: just straight, gritty action.  In this one, Tanzi's life in danger when the sleazeball he testified against in court (inexplicably nicknamed The Chinaman - he's not Chinese) is released.  To get rid of him, Tanzi plays him off against a more powerful criminal organization, lead by an Italian-American mafioso, played by David Sawyer (who is one of those "hey, it's that guy" actors).  Dubbed, yeah, but the dialogue is excellent with lots of hilarious, well-translated lines. 

Being female, I always pity the women in these flicks.  They try weakly and unsuccessfully to outsmart the more powerful male characters and always lose out and are punished physically for it, typically by getting punched in the breasts or shot in the groin. 

 Yes, my dvd has Greek subtitles, you wanna make something of it? 

Monday, September 7, 2009

Mad Love (1935), Karl Freund.

No, he is not chewing his way out of some kind of orthodontic contraption.  As you can tell from the snapshot above, Peter Lorre's American film debut thrust him into a lifelong situation where he was typed as a psychopathic creep!  Lorre's character, a gifted surgeon, is besotted with a stage actress whose most famous role seems to be rather torture-pornish.  When she confesses she finds him  disgusting (as does the audience, most likely), Lorre cracks up and one Dr Wong has to take over all his surgery responsibilities.  Is Lorre an early Quincy?  Why does a bald man need a cap when performing surgery?  I kid, I kid-- quite a beautifully filmed little chiller by Freund, who is better known for The Mummy (which I found dreadfully boring - this one is a little better).