Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

The Night Stalker and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde **Double Feature**

The Night Stalker: A tribute to the 1972 TV movie that influenced The  X-Files

I’m a fan of the horror and science fiction work of writer Richard Matheson and Producer/Director Dan Curtis, including films on which they collaborated, like the electrifying Amelia segment of Trilogy of Terror (My recommendation here) Their admirers could argue forever about which of their films were the most entertaining, but purely in terms of enduring impact, the obvious choice is their 1972 TV movie The Night Stalker.

Working from an unpublished novel by Jeffrey Grant Rice, Matheson brilliantly met the two challenges of modern vampire movies, namely doing something new, and, having characters behave in sensible ways given that the characters would themselves have all seen vampire movies. The fresh angle to the story is provided by centering the narrative on a crusty yet charming journalist on a downward career slope: Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin, who’s damn near perfect). When bodies of young women drained of blood start littering the streets of Las Vegas, Kolchak and the cops (e.g., a gruff sheriff played by Claude Akins) initially make the assumption that works for modern audiences, namely that a mentally unstable killer thinks he is a vampire. But as the cynical Kolchak investigates the ghoulish crimes and follows the police manhunt, he finds himself believing the seemingly impossible.

There’s much to cherish in the movie, which drew a massive audience and launched a cult TV series whose descendants include The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. With seasoned television director John Llewellyn Moxley at the helm, the story unfolds with the right mix of suspense leavened with humor (black humor and horror are cousins, but it still takes artistry to mix them in a fashion that isn’t jarring). Although Kolchak is in a romantic relationship (with a prostitute played by Carol Lynley, because it’s a 1970s film set in Las Vegas) the most dynamic interaction comes between McGaven and Simon Oakland as editor Tony Vincenzo. Together they have the chemistry of an old married couple, with amusing bickering leavened with underlying respect. Film noir fans will also be glad to see Ralph Meeker and Elisha Cook Jr again in supporting parts as friends of Kolchak. And props to Barry Atwater, for being suitably unnerving in a part that gave him no lines.

Classic Movie Hub on Twitter: "Born Today, Aug 28, in 1915, Character Actor Simon  Oakland - 145+ roles; lots of TV; I Want to Live, Psycho, Bullitt, West  Side Story... https://t.co/tvpFsloqDl… https://t.co/OPrCcVBPWu"

You have probably heard of The Night Stalker, but you will probably not have heard of another Dan Curtis film which I suggested as a second feature on this double bill: his 1968 adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s oft-filmed tale, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde. Curtis produced this version for ABC television, which was directed by Charles Jarrott.

The plot is too familiar to be worth summarizing, so I will concentrate on the unique aspect, which is how the transformation of Jekyll to Hyde is handled. As with the 1973 Curtis/Matheson Dracula I have recommended, the star here is Jack Palance, and he carries the whole film (no disrespect to Denholm Elliott, who is sturdy as his friend, but that part just isn’t as intriguing). Only modest changes in the makeup of literature’s most famous split personality were employed, with the film relying instead on Palance’s acting talent to differentiate the shy, bookish, respectable Dr. Henry Jekyll from the lusty and violent Mr. Hyde. Palance is up to the challenge, including given the audience at least some sympathy with the generally awful Hyde; at least he’s a lot more fun than his stuffy alter ego. The other thing that Curtis fans will appreciate is that the style, settings, tone, and music come straight out of his long-running television series Dark Shadows.

March Hyde Madness: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968) |  Monster Movie Kid

The film has some weaknesses. The adapted screenplay was written by Ian McKellan Hunter, perhaps most famous for fronting Dalton Trumbo’s Oscar-winning script of Roman Holiday (If you want to know more about fronting, see my recommendation of, well, The Front). Hunter’s script is okay, but you have to imagine Matheson would have done a better job bringing Stevenson to the screen. Also, the television sized budget shows at times. It’s a bit too obvious that some scenes are shot with a single stationary camera and in the medical school scenes there’s also what looks like not entirely successful rear-screen projection, though it could be a not entirely successful matte work (either way, it’s distracting). All of that puts the film in the good category rather than the all time TV horror classic category in which The Night Stalker belongs.

If you want to learn more about how Dan Curtis made these films, including how his relationship with Matheson evolved, this interview is really worth watching.

Categories
Action/Adventure Musical Mystery/Noir

Peter Gunn

Peter Gunn Theme by Ray Anthony | Daily Doo Wop

I haven’t owned a television for a quarter century, and almost never recommend television shows because I don’t know enough to judge them. But I am happy to make an exception for a trendsetting, utterly fresh, and cool as all get out TV series that ran from 1958-1961: Peter Gunn.

Blake Edwards, prior to his fame for making the Pink Panther movies, 10, Victor Victoria, and other big screen fare, invented Peter Gunn whole cloth. Never before had a detective character been expressly invented for television versus adapted from books, pulp magazines, or radio. And unlike the hard bitten, rumpled PIs of yore, Peter Gunn (Craig Stevens) was stylish, smooth, and also a romantic, particularly in his flirtatious banter with chanteuse Edie Hart (Lola Albright), his gorgeous girlfriend. Edwards also broke new ground by infusing his love of jazz in every aspect of the show. Gunn works out of a jazz bar, and jazz musicians figure prominently in some of the scripts. It also serves as the default instrumental music, giving the whole series of a midnight to dawn vibe. This is all a credit to Henry Mancini, whose dynamic theme song became one of the most covered in television history.

As Gunn’s police detective friend, Herschel Bernardi gives the best performance of the series, in a part that adds some grit and gravity to what otherwise might have been overly light storytelling. Other recurring actors score with colorful parts reminiscent of Pick Up on South Street, including Billy Barty as a pool shark who knows the word on the street. The film noir look and camerawork of the series — more like what one would see in a movie that a 1950s television show — further accentuates the smoky allure of the proceedings. Also fun: An army of future stars have guest turns on the series, allowing the viewer to play “Hey, isn’t that….?”.

Peter Gunn | Linnet Moss

Yet what impresses me the most about this show is the economy of the scripts. In about 25 minutes, a new mystery is introduced, investigated, and resolved, despite the fact that almost every episode has stand alone jazz numbers or comic/romantic scenes that don’t advance the plot at all. Villains on this show don’t have lengthy trials, they either confess or shoot it out in the final minute, wrapping up each episode as a standalone adventure. On a few occasions, the storytelling is too telegraphic and thereby causes some confusion, but generally it works exceedingly well. I would recommend this show to anyone who aspires to be an screenwriter or editor because it shows how fat-free storytelling can be elevated to an art form with no loss of characterization or entertainment value.

Even though Peter Gunn has been off the air for decades, it’s fairly easy to find in DVD collections, streaming on various channels (e.g., Amazon Prime), or on YouTube. Rather than close this recommendation with a trailer, I instead embed the immortal music of a groundbreaking show. Fun trivia: The piano part on the album was played by “Little Johnny Love Williams” who went on to mega-fame as the composer of the scores of mega-hit movies.

Categories
British Drama Mystery/Noir Romance

It Always Rains on Sunday

There’s a special joy that comes when you watch an old movie with no preconceptions because you’ve never heard of it and come away loving it. That’s the lucky experience I had some years ago with It Always Rains on Sunday. A big hit for Ealing Studios in 1947, it was forgotten in the ensuing decades. But thanks mainly to restoration and promotion by the cinematic angels at BFI, many modern viewers have had the wonderful experience I did with a film that is both enthralling and culturally significant.

The movie’s plot is two-fold. On the one hand, It Always Rains on Sunday is a romantic drama somewhat like one of my other recommendations, Brief Encounter, but for the working classes. On the other hand, the movie is like a gazillion of my other recommendations in being a film noir. These two genres come together as follows:

In a cramped, dingy house in the East End, a once carefee ex-barmaid named Rosie Sandigate (Googie Withers) is chafing under dreary post-war British domesticity. Her husband George (Edward Chapman) is older, decent, and dull, and her step-daughters get on her nerves, particularly the free spirited Vi (Susan Shaw) who is stepping out with a flashy, married man (Sydney Tafler). Rosie’s drab world is upended one Sunday morning when she goes out to her Anderson shelter and is startled to discover a handsome criminal on the run: her former lover, Tommy Swann (John McCallum)! Tommy begs Rosie to help him, and amidst a tumble of emotions, she agrees, leading to a life changing Sunday indeed.

The Dark Time: “It Always Rains on Sunday” Kitchen Sink Noir

From this description, this film may sound like a misbegotten mish-mash but the potentially competing strands are expertly woven together courtesy of screenwriters Angus MacPhail and Henry Cornelius, and, co-writer and director Robert Hamer. When people think of Hamer and Ealing Studios, the peerless black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets and other funny films naturally springs to mind. But Ealing wasn’t yet a comedy powerhouse in 1947, and to the extent Hamer was known at all when he was signed to make It Always Rains on Sunday, it was for directing part of a classic horror film (Dead of Night). Hamer, who died tragically young from alcoholism, was no stranger to turbulent emotions and brings them out on screen here.

Googie Withers really makes the domestic side of this story hit home. She’s downright brilliant at portraying competing emotions: Disapproving of Vi but also envious of her youthful freedom and passion; Barely tolerating George yet also yielding to the virtues of stable commitment; and most of all, being intoxicated by, scared of, and scared for Tommy. Outside of the confines of the Sandigate home, the movie focus more on action than drama, with equally potent results. The thrilling pursuit of Tommy by the police ends with an epic train yard confrontation that was filmed with no stunt people (i.e. those are the real actors dodging and climbing on real trains).

It Always Rains on Sunday. 1947. Directed by Robert Hamer | MoMA

The look of this film is critical to its success. The Sandigate home is the apex of British drear (hat tip to Art Director Duncan Sutherland), from the faded wallpaper to the cracked plaster to the fractured windows to the piled bric-a-brac. Rosie’s frustration at how her life has turned out is accentuated by her surroundings in every cramped, overcrowded scene on that remarkable set. And for the shadowy scenes of action and intrigue, it’s always hard to beat Douglas Slocombe, whose noir camerawork I have praised many times (e.g., Taste of Fear, Robbery).

The film was influential in shaping an emerging genre (Brit Noir) but even moreso in prefiguring the kitchen sink dramas that would become popular a decade later. It Always Rains on Sunday contains the seeds of mega-hit working class soap operas like EastEnders and Coronation Street as well as to darker fare like Look Back in Anger. In an era when many British films were filled with Earls and people who dress for dinner, It Always Rains on Sunday gave working class people overdue attention.

Withers and McCallum began a 60+ year marriage shortly after making It Always Rains on Sunday. Rather than close with the movie trailer, I will instead share a lovely interview with their daughter, Joanna McCallum. An an actress herself, she offers insight into both the movie and the relationship of her remarkable parents.

Categories
Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir

Cotton Comes to Harlem

Cotton Comes to Harlem (novel & film) – www.detnovel.com

When you steal from white people, that’s your business. But when you steal from Black people, that’s my business!

So growls badass but ethical Police Detective Ed Coffin (Raymond St. Jacques), who along with his more laid back but equally badass partner Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) protects the Black community in the most successful effort to bring the work of legendary novelist Chester Himes to the big screen: Cotton Comes to Harlem.

The plot: A charismatic, slick, con artist/preacher (Calvin Lockhart) is bilking the good people of Harlem with a phony Back to Africa scheme when gun toting bandits steal the contents of the hefty collection plate. But the hiding place for the missing $87,000 remains unknown, requiring Coffin and Jones to track down the loot while battling with mobsters, Black nationalists, and a femme fatale for the ages (Judy Pace).

Though best known as an actor (see, e.g., my recommendation of The Hill) and civil rights advocate, Ossie Davis occasionally ventured into directing. This 1970 movie was his first effort (he also co-wrote the script with Arnold Perl) and it’s a worthy effort indeed. Davis does a fine job both as a storyteller and an extractor of good performances from the actors. What comes through most of all is his feeling for Himes’ work and even moreso for the raffish, complex, dynamic, down but never out place that is Harlem. Watching this movie feels like walking through a neighborhood that is alive, and that’s a credit to Davis.

Vudu - Cotton Comes to Harlem Ossie Davis, Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St  Jacques, Judy Pace, Watch Movies & TV Online

Himes, like Elmore Leonard, was a master of tough, thrilling, action scenes, and Davis nails that aspect of the books as well. Exciting car crashes, gun battles, and fist fights abound as Himes’ plot unfolds. Laurels also to costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone for the colorful, stylish, outfits, which jazz up the movie visually and also do right by Himes, who loved to describe in detail how his characters were decked out.

This film is sometimes categorized as a comedy as well as an action film. Himes’ books definitely have funny moments, but I think Ossie Davis’ only mistake was overdoing that aspect of the story. Some of the attempts at provoking mirth are so broad/slapsticky that they undermine the tone set by the hard-edged action scenes. Other comic elements work better: The scenes where the black characters outsmart white characters in symbolic triumphs over oppression, the protest at the police station which satirizes 1970s politics as well as Python did with the People’s Front of Judea, and, of course, every scene with Redd Foxx because he’s constitutionally incapable of being less than funny, even when he’s not speaking.

But mainly, I would classify this as an excellent action-filled crime melodrama. Hollywood has lately been virtue-signalling about wanting to film more stories about and starring Blacks. I wish they’d put their money where their mouth is and make a series of movies or a prestige television show about Chester Himes’ immortal recurring characters, Harlem detectives Ed Coffin and Gravedigger Jones.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir Science Fiction / Fantasy

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 Version)

BLACK HOLE REVIEWS: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) - creepy,  paranoid, body horror

When I recommend multiple adaptations of the same story, I typically package them as double or triple features. But in this case, the remake of a classic film I have recommended is so well-made and so distinctly its own work of art that I grant it an essay of its own: the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Like the 1956 classic original, Philip Kaufman’s remake is based on Jack Finney’s popular novel The Body Snatchers, in which seed pods from another planet drift to earth and begin replacing humanity with soulless replicas. But Kaufman added his own twist, which was to move the story from a California backwater to modern day San Francisco, a city he knows very well. In doing so, he preserved the suspense and chills of the original story while also getting to show off the gorgeous City by the Bay while also gently parodying some of its self-consciously hip and alternative residents.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) Movie Review on MHM

Our likable and believable heroes this time around are Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams as dedicated public health department employees (Back when such people could afford lovely homes in San Francisco). W.D. Richter’s screenplay wisely never explains if they once were lovers, but the actors convey the romantic undertone of their relationship, even though she is, awkwardly, living with a guy who doesn’t quite seem to be himself lately.

There’s always a character in paranoia films who explains to the anxious protagonist why nothing is really amiss, it’s all in your head, and why not lie down and get some rest? Here that part is a San Francisco archetype, a psychological growth-touting guru, played perfectly by Leonard Nimoy. If you are going to be typecast, Spock is a fabulous role to have, but Nimoy didn’t get as much chance as he deserved to try other things.

As for the extraterrestrial nasties, kudos to the special effects and makeup teams for creating some unnerving aliens with gut churning reproductive habits. One wonders if the makers of the Alien films were inspired by this movie’s parasitic menaces. Combined with terrific pacing (something lacking in some of Kaufman’s other movies), the heroes’ battle to resist the invaders is edge of your seat stuff.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Another thing I cherish about this movie is that while it’s mainly in the sci-fi/horror genre, it has noir elements and cinematographer Michael Chapman shot it as such. As has been shown in many classic noirs, San Francisco was made for shadowy lighting, unusual camera angles, and lonely compositions, all of which Chapman artfully employs here.

Last but certainly not least, this film breaks away from its classic predecessor in many respects, but at the same time stays reverent to it. Most notably, both the star (Kevin McCarthy) and director (Don Siegel) of the 1956 version have cameo roles that are both fun and scary. Put it all together and you have in my opinion both the best movie in Kaufman’s impressive ouevre and one of Hollywood’s freshest remakes ever.

p.s. Look fast in the opening scenes for a creepy looking priest on a swing played by Robert Duvall! As Kaufman tells it, he thought every horror movie should have priest in it so he asked his friend Duvall to do the wordless cameo.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Witness for the Prosecution

The Ace Black Blog: Movie Review: Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

Agatha Christie’s popular blend of mysterious murders, eccentric characters, droll humor, and surprise endings have translated smoothly into many entertaining movies, including some all time-classics. In that glittering club along with another of my recommendation (And Then There Were None) is Billy Wilder’s 1957 gem Witness for the Prosecution.

Plot: While recovering from a heart attack, the brilliant and caustic Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is presented a murder case that tempts him back to the Old Bailey, despite the risks to his health. A charming ne’er do well named Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) stands accused of murdering an older, well-heeled, widow named Emily Jane French (Norma Varden), who had fallen under his spell. Vole’s glamorous, enigmatic, German wife (Marlene Dietrich) at first seems willing and able to provide an alibi…but the audience shares Sir Wilfrid’s suspicion that the case will be nowhere near that simple.

Christie was comfortable with liberal adaptations of her work. Indeed, she herself changed the ending of her story Traitor’s Hands when turning into a play called Witness for the Prosecution. And she countenanced a number of further changes in the film version, as scripted by Wilder, Larry Marcus, and Harry Kurnitz. Their most brilliant innovations were enlarging the part of Sir Wilfred to give Laughton a showcase role and inventing outright the character of Miss Plimsoll, his long suffering nurse. Casting Laughton’s real-life wife, that shamelessly funny ham Elsa Lanchester, as Miss Plimsoll was another stroke of genius. The first quarter of the film could have stood on its feet just as a comedy, as Plimsoll mothers and badgers Sir Wilfrid to follow his health regime and he schemes and wheedles to obtain his treasured cigars and brandy.

Reviewing performances: Best Actress in a Supporting Role 1957 ...

But of course it’s not primarily a comedy, but a murder mystery and courtroom drama. It’s very strong on those terms, with articulate jousting in the courtroom and engrossing plot twists outside of it. The ending, which I will not ruin (and the post-credits ask audiences to abide by the same silence), is a bit contrived but still satisfying.

The smaller roles are also very well essayed, include Una O’Connor as the hilariously crotchety maid of the victim and Henry Daniell, whom I loved in multiple Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, as another lawyer. But even in this strong cast, Laughton towers over them all with one of signature performances of his stellar career. His Sir Wilfrid is a complete character: insufferable at times, dazzling at others, and always, at the core, honorable.

Tyrone Power was an intriguing choice as the accused. Entering middle age (and tragically, to die of a heart attack after this picture was released) , his handsomeness is still visible, but at a less godlike level that in the 1940s. He looks, appropriately, like a chancer who knows his looks will fade soon but are still impressive enough to spark fantasies in a lonely older woman. Marlene is as beguiling as ever, and it doesn’t really bother us that despite her penury, she wears a series of smashing outfits designed by Edith Head.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957) • Frame Rated

The movie is of course also another triumph for Billy Wilder, and one that at moments echoes some of his other movies. Leonard’s relationship with Mrs. French brings to mind Sunset Boulevard and a scene in post-war Germany with Dietrich and Power recalls A Foreign Affair. Resonant grace notes for fans of the legendary director.

Categories
Drama Featured Film Mystery/Noir

Nightmare Alley

Tyrone Power was one of most dashing leading men in Hollywood history and was a massive box office draw beginning in the mid-1930s. However, after many swashbuckling Saturday matinees, musicals, and romantic dramas, he longed to do something more weighty. He used his star power to convince a skeptical Daryl Zanuck to produce a film based on a dark, disturbing debut novel by a dark, disturbing guy named William Lindsay Gresham. The resulting film was a most atypical one both from the point of view of Power’s career and the film noir genre: 1947’s Nightmare Alley.

The plot is long and twisty, but Jules Furthman of The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not fame knew as well as screenwriter how to keep an audience from becoming lost. Stanton Carlisle (Power) works at a carnival, assisting a couple with their low rent mind-reading act. Zeena (Joan Blondell, whose performance stands out even in this strong cast) has become the brains of the outfit due to her husband Pete’s decline into alcoholism (A sympathetic Ian Keith). Once they were the toast of high society, due to a sophisticated code they developed to create the illusion of extra-sensory perception. Stanton turns his magnetic charm towards getting Zeena to teach him the code and simultaneously seducing a young beauty named Molly who also works at the carnival (Coleen Gray). He gets what he wants from both women, and he and Molly flee to the big city. They revive Zeena and Pete’s old act with tremendous success. But soon an alluring and devious psychiatrist (a delicious part deliciously played by Helen Walker) tempts Stanton into an even bigger con, which leads him to places many a film noir protagonist knows far too well.

Tyrone Power and Helen Walker in Nightmare Alley (1947)

Nightmare Alley is a punchy exploration of how ambition and greed translate into cruelty and deceit. Although not generally known as a noir director, Edmund Goulding has firm grasp of the material, and deserves credit for the uniformly strong acting. He and Power had just collaborated on the excellent The Razor’s Edge and they continue to thrive together here, making Stanton appealing and vulnerable enough that we keep caring about him even as his morality corrodes. The film also offers an unusually large array of complex, strong, women characters, all of which are well-played.

Nightmare Alley is unlike most noirs of the period, for two reasons. First, Power just doesn’t look the part of the noir protagonist: he’s too handsome, too smooth, and too poised. He looks out of place in the carny scenes, but at home in the swanky scenes where he wears a tuxedo in a plush hotel ballroom. And yet, it works, because this is perhaps the best performance of Power’s career, stretching his range unlike anything he’d been in before. The fall of his character is that much more devastating precisely because he starts out looking like he has success screaming out of every pore.

The other atypical aspect of the film is that it’s one of very few big budget noirs of the period (Leave Her To Heaven being a better known example) Noirs were usually cheaply made, and indeed many of their conventions (e.g., minimal lighting) emerged in part to hide their low budgets. In contrast, this is a gorgeous looking film shot by Lee Garmes and stuffed with authentic sets, varied locations, and perfect outfits for the characters.

Tyrone Power and Taylor Holmes in Nightmare Alley (1947)

The only thing that bothered me about the film is that the perfect, sock you in the gut final scene became the penultimate one when Zanuck saw the rushes. The film closes instead on a more hopeful (though still dark) scene that has less psychic weight. Studio-imposed, punch pulling, final scene are commercially understandable but artistically barren (I had the same complaint about 99 River Street), particularly here when “I was made for it” is an all time noir classic line that should have closed out the story. But that’s a small complaint to have about such an accomplished piece of cinema.

Nightmare Alley didn’t do good business at release because Zanuck didn’t believe in it and because it violated audience expectations for Power and for noir. But in the years since, it has been deservedly rediscovered as a classic of the genre and a high point of the tragically short career of Tyrone Power.

Categories
Documentaries and Books Drama Mystery/Noir

In a Lonely Place

To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget.

Dorothy Hughes’ bewitching and disturbing novel In a Lonely Place was thankfully re-issued by New York Review of Books in 2017. It very much recalls some of Jim Thompson’s darkest works, though she’s arguably an even better writer than he was. Hughes’ stylish evocation of a psychopathic psychology is like one of those sweetened Russian cocktails that tastes wonderful going down even though you know it’s burning out your insides and will leave you full of the blackest regret in the morning. I can’t recommend the book strongly enough, though not for the faint-hearted.

Once you have read it, consider watching the unforgettable film adaptation, which I review below.

I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.

Amazingly, there are people who consider themselves Humphrey Bogart fans who have never seen the brooding, powerful 1950 film In a Lonely Place. In one of his greatest roles, Bogart plays bitter, hard-drinking Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele, whose best days seem to be behind him. After being tasked with adapting a dreadful novel for the silver screen, he asks a ditzy hat check girl who loves the book to come to his apartment and tell him the plot. The next morning, the police inform Dix that the girl has been murdered and dumped by the side of the road. As the audience, we do not know what really happened. Steele is initially alibied by sultry neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame, all eyebrows, curves and nimbly masked emotional turmoil), who promptly yields to his romantic advances. They fall in love and Dix is able to regain his gifts as a writer. But as Laurel sees Dix continue to be volatile and aggressive, she begins to wonder, Suspicion-style, whether Dix is a murderer after all.

This movie is cynical about fame, Hollywood, and human relationships, but tantalizes us with the possibility that new love can redeem it all. The suspense emerges less from the murder mystery than from the warring internal emotions of the characters. Director Nicholas Ray knew life’s dark places and how to get actors to go there. His marriage to the volatile Grahame ended in the most sordid way imaginable while they were making this movie, and the anguish and anger on the set comes out in the electric performances of the cast. The film is also remarkable for its opening five minutes, which are a clinic in how a great director and actor can establish a character with ruthless economy (incidentally, the bar in the opening scene was modeled after Romanoff’s, Bogart’s favorite watering hole).

There are countless movies told from the man’s point of view in which a beautiful, younger woman falls in love with the protagonist (indeed, Bogart himself made a number of such films). The women in those movies are flat characters and we aren’t told why they go for the hero. He wants her, the story needs them to fall in love, so they do. What is truly remarkable about this movie’s structure is that it follows this formula about half-way through and then flips the perspective to the woman’s point of view.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Taste of Fear

London-based Hammer Films had a fertile and fiscally rewarding period in the 1950s and 1960s styling itself as the British second coming of the old Universal Studios Monster Movies. They gave Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy quite a workout, relying on generally solid and scary scripts, a stable of dependable stage-trained actors, not-bad special effects, atmospheric locations (e.g., Highgate Cemetery) and an abundance of aspiring starlets with daring décolletage. Many viewers remember Hammer monster movies in their nightmares, but few recall that the studio also turned out some high-quality psychological thrillers, most of them scripted by Jimmy Sangster. This week I recommend my favorite of these films: 1961’s Taste of Fear (aka Scream of Fear).

The story centers on a frequently-invoked but still effective thriller trope: The central character who has some physical limitation that makes them unusually vulnerable. In this case, it’s Penny Appleby, who has needed a wheelchair since suffering a tragic accident. She has traveled far to visit the wealthy father whom she has not seen since her parents’ divorce over a decade ago. Her father’s new wife and a family friend named Dr. Gerrard greet her warmly, but inform her that her father is away on business. Yet as the days go by, a series of peculiar and shocking events make her start to think her father has in fact been murdered! Has she come across the world’s wickedest stepmother, or is she losing her mind? Nerve-shredding suspense and some inventive plot twists follow.

Taste of Fear is often referred to as Hitchcockian, and while I can see why, it recalls for me much more the French classic Diabolique, which Sangster almost certainly must have seen. Both films create a sense of dread and continually lead the viewer to think “Ah, that’s what’s really going on” to be immediately followed by “I was wrong again – I have no idea what’s really going on”.

Hammer made the film in partnership with Columbia Pictures, which accounts for them landing American Susan Strasberg for the role of Penny. She brings across very well a young woman who is understandably fearful but at the same time determined and smart enough to keep pressing the question. The rest of the cast are British talents of the type that Hammer more typically favored, including Dracula himself, Christopher Lee, as an effectively creepy Dr. Gerrard.

The other undeniable strength of the film is Douglas Slocombe’s pristine, gorgeous black and white cinematography. Both he and director Seth Holt have refined visual instincts regarding the balance of light and shadow that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. They also create a stunningly horrifying shot underwater that I will not detail because it would spoil a plot point, but you’ll appreciate it when you see it. Credit former film editor Holt also for a tightly constructed movie – flabbiness is the enemy of suspense and everything in this movie is lean and tight.

Hammer devotees argue which of the studio’s films was the most creative and well-made, with Brian Clemens’ Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter at the top of many fans’ list. That’s a fun movie, but I find Taste of Fear more tightly constructed and better acted as well. This shamefully-forgotten thriller is available on Daily Motion, which I believe has the legal right to rebroadcast old movies on line, so you can enjoy it free of guilt right here.

Categories
Foreign Language Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Les Yeux Sans Visage

In the decades immediately following the war, French film makers didn’t produce many horror movies, but when they did they took more risks than studios in other countries who simply revived classic monsters or reworked hoary ghost stories. Among the most compelling and influential of such productions shocked audiences when it was released in 1960: Les Yeux Sans Visage.

The story opens with a shot of a lone woman, played by the elegant Euro-superstar Alida Valli, driving down a dark highway in fear. The audience worry for her: Is she being pursued? Can she please get away? But then the film roils our emotions for the first of many times by showing us that in fact “our vulnerable heroine” is on her way to dump a mutilated corpse into the river. As the bizarre story unfolds, we learn that Valli’s character is the slavishly devoted partner of the brilliant Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a surgeon who is guilt-wracked over a car accident that disfigured his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob, who impressively manages to convey rich emotion while wearing a smooth mask). But if Génessier can capture a similar enough looking woman and force her to undergo a radical surgery, could a face transplant restore Christiane’s beauty? Grade A+ shocks and chills follow.

French director Georges Franju made this one of a kind horror film with a talented group of artists who implemented his vision. The legendary Boileau-Narcejac writing team adapted Jean Redon’s novel, implementing substantial changes to make the story more cinematic, and, approvable by censors (no mean feat in those days). Maurice Jarre composed the score and the famously innovative Eugen Schüfftan contributed pristine cinematography. Various film critics have placed the stunning result in the tradition of fantastique, surrealism, poetic realism, and even German-style Expressionism (even though it’s nowhere near as experimental as Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). I don’t know enough about the history of French film to arbitrate that debate, so I will use the less cultured term Art House Horror to roughly categorize this movie.

Les Yeux Sans Visage recalls Suspiria in that the visuals rather than the plot largely drive the movie and command the viewer’s attention. Dr. Génessier’s lair, to which the kidnapped young women are taken, is one of cinema’s most terrifying “second locations”, with ferocious dogs in weirdly shaped cages, tortuous passageways, and an underground surgical suite where you would never want to be a patient (roses for production design and art direction to Marie and Auguste Capelier). The horrifying, deathly, beautiful, dreamlike, series of images of this film’s last five minutes may never leave your mind.

At the time of its release, Les Yeux Sans Visage was not universally appreciated, but its reputation has deservedly soared since. Among its artistic descendants are Halloween, Face/Off, and yes, that Billy Idol song.