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.

Categories
British Drama Mystery/Noir

The Charmer

The movies have been good to British novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962), who might otherwise not be remembered at all even though he produced some good work and claimed some significant admirers before depression and heavy drinking dissipated his gifts. Hitchcock’s Rope, two versions of Gaslight, and Hangover Square all remain eminently watchable today. But instead I am going to recommend what I believe is the most recent adaptation of Hamilton’s work, the six-part 1987 television mini-series The Charmer.

The plot: In 1930s Britain, Ralph Gorse is a suave chancer who desperately wants a life of ease, but has no interest in working honestly for it. Better to use his charm, wits, and ruthlessness to secure wealth and status. If some people — particularly women — are harmed or even killed along the way, so be it. Posing as a worldly ex-army officer with connections to high finance, he enchants and then mulcts Joan Plumleigh-Bruce (Rosemary Leach) an older, lonely, widow of means. This act enrages stolid businessman Donald Stimpson (Bernard Hepton) who had long been hoping for Joan to notice him. Even before Gorse has dumped Joan, he begins pursuing an upper class siren he actually cares about (Fiona Fullerton, at her pouty best) as well as some other women that he really doesn’t. As Gorse does increasingly horrible things to serve his sociopathic wants, Stimpson mercilessly follows his track, all the while frustrated that Gorse’s female victims continue to pine for him.

Women viewers swooned over the handsome Nigel Havers when this series was broadcast. Havers carries off Gorse’s aristocratic pretensions well, which is not surprising given that the actor is from a very posh background himself. The other elements of his performance are serviceable, but not in the league of the other leads. The late Rosemary Leach brings Plumleigh-Bruce alive as a woman caught between what her heart and head tell her about Gorse. She gives Joan an underlying strength such that even when she is conned and humiliated, she manages to retain some dignity. Bernard Hepton is just as good at slyly revealing Stimpson’s fundamental self-deception: He isn’t really a noble crusader, he’s just jealous as hell that Gorse gets all the things he himself yearns for but will never have.

The production mostly stays indoors, I presume out of need to recreate the period on a television mini-series budget. Those sets feel authentic, as do the clothes, cars, and music. I had not heard of Director Alan Gibson before, who sadly died young just after making this series, but his work here is solid. Finally, Alan Prior’s script is well-turned, even though he changed the ending in the source novel (Mr. Stimpson and Mr. Gorse). If you want to know what that change was, read on.

SPOILER ALERT STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE ENDING

In the book, rather than being spurned by Joan Plumleigh-Bruce at the end as in the television series, Stimpson dumps her and runs off with her housemaid. Because that fits with my read of Stimpson as a much worse person than he sees himself as being, I prefer the book ending. At the same time, Leach really nailed the ending in the series, so it has its own pleasures.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Hangover Square

Supplementing my recommendation of The Charmer, I offer another Patrick Hamilton adaptation, albeit one that departs more substantially from the original novel: 1945’s Hangover Square.

The plot: In Edwardian London, brilliant, troubled classical composer George Bone (Laird Cregar) suffers fugue states during which he commits violent acts which he cannot recall afterwards. As Bone attempts to hold his psyche together long enough to complete a concerto, a scheming, alluring dance hall tart named Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell) tempts him in every way to devote his talents instead towards producing popular songs that will catapult her to fame. When George finally realizes that Netta is manipulating him, his mind snaps once more, propelling forward this dark tale of suspense, crime, and emotional anguish.

I am going to start my analysis of this film by getting the unpleasant bit out straightaway. The middling script of Hangover Square was written by Alfred Edgar, under the pen name Barré Lyndon (Presumably he was a Thackeray fan). Edgar drained the trenchant political and psychological observations from Hamilton’s novel (which was set during Hitler’s rise to power), added some clunky expositional exchanges while leaving other important elements of the plot strangely unexplained, and concocted a character who makes little sense (Dr. Allan Middleton, played by George Sanders, who is a clinical psychiatrist but is also somehow a front-line police detective and also apparently a romantic rival of George Bone though this is dropped after a single needless scene). Edgar’s is by no means a terrible screenplay, but given the source material — Hangover Square is generally considered Hamilton’s best novel — it should have been better.

Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square and a slide into the abyss ...

Fortunately, other elements of Hangover Square are so remarkable that they overcome the script’s flaws. The film is anchored by scintillating performances by two sadly short-lived talents: Cregar and Darnell. The character of George Bone might easily have repelled the audience, but Cregar conveys such vulnerability and ingenuousness that the audience sympathizes with him anyway. A talented musician in his own right, Cregar is also completely believable in his composing and performance scenes. Darnell, only 22 years old at he time, is just as good at being bad. She keeps every man in the movie dancing on a string with her lovely face, artful conversational dodges, and sexual ruthlessness. One central aspect of the book that the film does maintain are the scenes of love struck George letting Netta hurt him, disregard him, and demean him; Cregar and Darnell play these just right.

The visuals of the movie are as rewarding as the performances. The sets are handsome, the costumes expertly done, and the editing is spot on. On top of all that, the brilliant Joseph LaShelle (whose film noir work I have praised before) contributes gorgeously shadowy cinematography and a particularly superb tracking shot at the climax.

The other undeniable pleasure of Hangover Square is Bernard Herrmann’s score, one of the best in his storied career. Herrmann had to write not just the usual movie theme music, but also the piece that Bone is striving to compose and plays in the arresting final scene. The result — Concerto Macabre — is a knockout.

Hangover Square (1945) - Overview - TCM.com

Hangover Square re-united much of the team that made another of my recommendations, The Lodger, the year before, but the second production was not a happy set. Stevens hated his closing line and got into a row about it with producer Robert Bassler that allegedly ended in fisticuffs. Cregar loved the novel and was angry about how it had been drastically changed in the script, and he and director John Brahm clashed throughout the production. Cregar was also struggling with health problems stemming from his attempts to dramatically reduce his weight, including through amphetamine use. He died two months before Hangover Square was released, but at least fate made his last scene on screen an unforgettable image that will stay with viewers of this film for many a moon.

Categories
Mystery/Noir

Act of Violence

Someone once defined the essentials of film noir as “a dame with a past and a guy with no future”. One could add to that another line , which is uttered by Burt Lancaster’s character in The Killers and captures the driving mood of a subset of these marvelous films: “I did something wrong once”. The sin that can’t be erased, the guilt that attaches to it, and the inevitable doom it will ultimately bring has driven many a fine noir, including Act of Violence.

This 1949 film centers on a seemingly happy, All-American, family composed of war veteran and respected citizen Frank Enley (Van Heflin), his loving wife Edith (Janet Leigh), and their adorable toddler. I describe them as the people the movie centers on rather than as the protagonists because one of the many strengths of Robert L. Richards’ crackerjack script is that it’s not clear for some time (and even perhaps after you have watched the whole thing) who the hero of this movie is, or even if it includes a hero at all. At first it seems there’s an obvious villain: a limping, gun-toting, former soldier (Robert Ryan, who could always bring the sinister) who remorselessly pursues Frank Enley for reasons that are mysterious. Frank refuses to disclose the truth to his increasingly terrified wife, even as he begins to disintegrate under the strain.

Fred Zinnemann was yet to be his Oscar-laden self when he directed this film, but his enormous emerging talent is impossible to miss. He draws excellent performances from the cast and revels in a tone of moral ambiguity as he would in many of his later, more famous, movies (e.g., High Noon). He had to be happy with the high talent level of the cast, including Heflin in one of his best roles, and, in a real pleasant surprise, Mary Astor as a shopworn prostitute (It’s amazing how deteriorated she looks only a short time after being on top of the world earlier in the 1940s, but the downslope of her personal life didn’t impair her work here– I half wonder if it helped, she’s outstanding.)

The other major league talent associated with this film is the magnificent cinematographer Robert Surtees. His shots of almost every famous L.A. noir location are gems of this genre that you could enjoy on their own merits with the sound off.

Act of Violence is a must-see for film noir fans, but its appeal is greater than that. It’s an expertly written, shot, directed, and acted movie with powerful emotional impact that anyone who loves a good story well told should appreciate.

Categories
Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir

Marlowe

Immediately after reading Raymond Chandler’s splendid The Little Sister, I decided to revisit a 1969 adaptation of the book I remembered liking many years ago. I am happy to report that having read the source material made me appreciate the movie version even more than I did the first time through. Therefore I give you this film recommendation: Marlowe.

The plot: Orfamay Quest, a woman from the sticks who is less innocent and prudish than she at first seems (Sharon Farrell, very good here) comes to Los Angeles and hires private investigator Phillip Marlowe (James Garner) to find her brother Orrin. Meanwhile, in an ostensibly distinct plot thread which you know will get woven in because it’s Raymond Chandler, someone has taken some compromising photos of a vicious gangster (H.M. Wyant) with an alluring starlet (Gayle Hunnicutt, who as ever is nothing if not alluring). Meanwhile, the starlet’s fellow actress and friend Dolores Gonzales (Rita Moreno) tries to help Marlowe while also liking the look of him. The famous PI is soon enmeshed in a net of murder and intrigue.

The prolific and talented Stirling Siliphant had the most important job in this film, namely converting Chandler’s long, complicated, novel into an hour and a half of cinema. Siliphant did many things right by the famous author. He ditched all the opening exposition involved with Marlowe and Orfamay meeting (I am a big fan of this in movies) and started the movie with the first of the many murders, gripping the audience right off the bat. He also preserved much of Chandler’s terrific dialogue and simplified the plot without making the story less compelling.

Siliphant also added two elements of his own, one of which works and one of which doesn’t. What works is introducing American audiences to his friend and martial arts teacher Bruce Lee. When Lee unleashes his Jeet Kune Do in Marlowe’s office the results are both amazing, and, with a droll assist from Garner, very funny. What doesn’t work is giving Marlowe a stable, bland, girlfriend. This fish-with-a-bicycle move eliminates the sexual tensions and possibilities that are central to Marlowe’s character and the novel.

James Garner is well-cast as Marlowe, which no Rockford Files fan will be surprised to hear. Indeed, as Garner blearily answers a knock at his front door while dressed in his bathrobe, that trailer on the beach will come to your mind’s eye. Matching his on screen presence, charm, and sex appeal is Rita Moreno, who gets to show off both her acting and dancing chops.

Chandler’s work really belongs in the 1940s, so I tend to like period adaptations such as Farewell My Lovely a bit more than films like Marlowe that move him out of his natural era. But I greatly enjoyed Marlowe because it’s well acted and exciting, and has a plot structure that is agreeably easier to grasp than that of novel.

p.s. Two trivia notes on the incomparable Rita Moreno. She is among very few performers in the EGOT club (Won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award). She was close friends with Garner, and appeared in three episodes of The Rockford Files.

p.p.s. Director Paul Bogart and James Garner would work together again two years later on another film I commend to you: Skin Game.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama Mystery/Noir

Across 110th Street

Blaxploitation films are often described as sloppily produced, overly violent, sexist, racist, and demeaning to their audiences. Those gibes definitely apply to many entries in the genre, but roses exist among the thorns, particularly when a film had a bit more budget than usual and drew on other genres in creative ways (e.g., Blacula, for which I have long had a soft spot). Accordingly, I am recommending a 1972 blaxpolitation-film noir blend which is usually remembered today only as a Bobby Womack song: Across 110th Street.

The plot: The long-entrenched Italian mob is struggling to maintain the upper hand over the rising African-American gangs who rule the underworld across 110th street (i.e., Harlem’s boundary). Some small-time black criminals execute — and I do mean execute — a bold robbery of both criminal organizations, netting a massive haul of cash. The big-time criminals set out for vengeance, led by an arrogant, racist, Mafioso (Anthony Franciosa). But the robbers’ leader (Paul Benjamin) is nobody’s fool, and also knows how to handle a machine gun. Meanwhile, an honest African-American police detective (Yaphet Kotto) and a much less honest old school Italian-American police captain (Anthony Quinn) spar with each other as they try to round up all three criminal gangs.

Probably the best thing about the blaxploitation genre is the opportunities it afforded African-American actors to strut their stuff. Paul Benjamin carries the emotional heart to what otherwise would have been a routine crime melodrama. He conveys the power of friendship in his scenes with his fellow thieves, and even moreso expresses quite movingly how the degrading life of being a black ex-con in America drove him to crime as his only apparent option. True to his character’s cynicism, Benjamin sadly never became a big star in white-controlled Hollywood despite his evident talent. Where Benjamin brings the passion, Yaphet Kotto radiates intelligence here, as he was always able to do even when cast in cardboard roles (e.g., the James Bond villain in Live and Let Die, for which he was recruited while making this movie). Quinn as usual gives a blowy performance trying to dominate the screen, but in those same scenes you can’t stop looking at Kotto quietly thinking about what the hell he’s going to do next to crack the case.

Although many of its plot elements are straight from noir (cops being as crooked as criminals, small time crooks robbing big-time mobsters), the film retains the action-packed, violent, sensibility of the blaxploitation genre. The sadism of Franciosa’s character is hard to watch, but it’s central to the plot rather than being gratuitous: He’s such a racist that he enjoys torturing black people even to the point that his murderous black criminal allies are repulsed by him.

Across 110th Street’s modest budget shows here and there. At a few points, the plot jumps forward as if an intervening scene were missing, and there are some visible goofs (including two howlers in the first 10 minutes that I won’t ruin for you). But for the most part the unadorned sets and Naked City veteran Jack Priestly’s unvarnished cinematography are assets for a grim, gripping, story set in the rotting big apple that was 1970s New York City.

p.s. After watching this film, you will laugh very hard seeing Antonia Fargas send up his character 16 years later in I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka.

p.p.s. I don’t have a lot of company on this recommendation. Wikipedia summarizes contemporary critical reaction thus: Roger Greenspun of  The New York Times wrote, “It manages at once to be unfair to blacks, vicious towards whites and insulting to anyone who feels that race relations might consist of something better than improvised genocide … By the time it is over virtually everybody has been killed—by various means, but mostly by a machine gun that makes lots of noise and splatters lots of blood and probably serves as the nearest substitute for an identifiable hero.” Variety wrote that “Those portions of it which aren’t bloody violent are filled in by the squalid location sites in New York’s Harlem or equally unappealing ghetto areas leaving no relief from depression and oppression. There’s not even a glamorous or romantic type character or angle for audiences to fantasy-empathize with.” Gary Arnold of The Washington Post slammed the film as “a crime melodrama at once so tacky and so brutal that one feels tempted to swear out a warrant for the arrest of the filmmakers.” Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film “self-destructs by consistently selling out to stomach-churning displays of unrelieved violence.” Yet I stand by my recommendation, because I’m a complicated man and no one understands me but my woman.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Hound of the Baskervilles has a special place in The Sherlock Holmes canon. Arthur Conan Doyle’s story is substantially longer than the typical Holmes outing, allowing him to weave two distinct mystery tales together. It’s also remarkable for putting Watson at center stage for a significant part of the book, allowing the sidekick a turn as the protagonist. And last but not least, it has been adapted as a movie more than any other Holmes tale, beginning with a silent version made in Germany in 1914. One of the better adaptations, and the first to be shot in color, is the 1959 Hammer Films version.

The plot of the book concerns Holmes’ investigation of the ancient, wealthy, Baskerville family, and the curse of a demonic hound which has allegedly brought ruin upon them for generations. Holmes and Watson must solve the mystery about how the latest Baskerville has died, protect the new heir (Sir Henry Baskerville), and also cope with a mentally ill mass murderer named Selden who has broken out of prison and roams the moors near Baskerville Hall. I won’t ruin it for you in case you haven’t read it, but it’s a compelling mystery with more suspense and horror elements than most of Doyle’s shorter Holmes stories.

The 1959 version, playing to the studio’s strengths, puts the accent on the horror elements of the novel. Who better than Hammer to give us fog-shrouded moors and ruined abbeys in the English countryside? And who at Hammer better than Terence Fisher to direct? As in another of my recommendations, The Devil Rides Out, Fisher deftly moves from realistic treatment of interpersonal relationships to the more fantastic elements of the story.

Hammer also wisely cast their most reliable stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, in the major roles of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville, respectively. Cushing’s interpretation of Holmes is true to the book, rendering the detective as eccentric, brilliant, and not particularly warm. Lee’s performance as well as Peter Bryan’s strong script make Sir Henry a more substantial and engaging character than he is in the book. As mentioned, this particular story also needs a strong Doctor Watson, and André Morell is well up to the task. He eschews the comic elements that Nigel Bruce injected into his portrayal of Watson and instead coveys gravitas, as he also did in some other good Hammer films (e.g., The Plague of the Zombies).

Being a Hammer film, the 1959 version also throws in some décolletage and sex in the person of Maria Landi. Bryan’s script also changes her character’s role from what it was in the book, which may be objectionable to Holmes purists. But I found it a refreshing take, and one that gives the film a more jaundiced take on the aristocracy than did the book and other film adaptations of it.

You can watch this worthy adaptation of a beloved novel for free and legally on Dailymotion.

Some other adaptations which are worth your time: The handsomely produced 1939 version with Basil Rathbone as the great detective; the Livanov/Solomin adaptation from the utterly brilliant Soviet cycle of Holmes films; the little known Sy Weintraub production starring Ian Richardson; and the justly respected Granada Television version starring Jeremy Brett.

And a few to avoid: The disappointing 2002 version with Richard Roxburgh as Holmes; the yet worse Stewart Granger/William Shatner 1972 television version; and the execrable 2000 version starring the guy who played Max Headroom.

Categories
British Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

The Innocents

The Innocents 1961, directed by Jack Clayton | Film review

Many an eerie film has been described as a “spine-tingling” experience, but few live up to that description literally for most cineastes. The movie that did that to me more than any other, giving me physical shivers like a bucket of ice down my back, is The Innocents.

Producer/Director Richard Clayton’s 1961 art house thriller demonstrates that a skilled director can jangle nerves without spattering the screen with blood. Clayton started with ideal source material: Henry James’ psychological horror masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw (Although the film’s title comes from William Archibald’s prior effort to adapt the novel to the stage). But Clayton was wise enough to bring in a modern master, Truman Capote, to write most of the script. Capote kept the best elements of the Victorian English novel and suffused them with Freudian overtones and a dose of American Southern Gothic, rotting blossoms and all.

The plot sounds deceptively unoriginal on the surface. A wealthy man uninterested in two child relations (Michael Redgrave) hires a sheltered, rather jejune woman (Deborah Kerr) to be their governess. She moves in to care for them in a Gothic mansion, and the children at first seem wonderful. But strange passions and mysterious events arise which plunge the woman into a terrifying experience. The film, like the novel, leaves the central question of the plot a matter of some ambiguity, making it almost as enjoyable to analyze and discuss as it is to watch.

I don’t know how the 40-year old Deborah Kerr was cast as the lead in this film (unless her governess role in The King and I typecast her), because James’ governess character was originally conceived as a naive woman barely into adulthood who had never been away from home before. Yet Kerr turns in one of the best performances of her storied career, steadily unraveling before our eyes. To the extent the film is interpreted as portraying the psychologically deleterious effects of loneliness and sexual frustration, a 40-year virgin gave Kerr lots of material with which to work her magic.

Astonishingly, the veteran Kerr is matched step for step by the riveting acting of a 12-year old, Martin Stephens. He was already a star in Britain, based in part on his similarly unnerving turn in Village of the Damned. His role here is even more challenging because not only does he need to mix childlike moments with menacing ones, he also has to convey sexual awareness well beyond his years. He manages it all brilliantly.

This is also an amazing looking film, with the gardens and house exteriors (Sheffield Park), and the custom built interior sets contributing to the atmosphere. Even more important is the camerawork of superstar cinematographer Freddie Francis. From the very first shot, he pulls off an impressive array of visual feats, including blackening the edges of many of his interior shots to create a claustrophobic effect, as well amping up the central lighting when needed to get depth of field shots in CinemaScope’s otherwise flat look. Without spoiling the movie, I will just offer that the images from the most frightening scenes of The Innocents have stayed with me forever.

This movie didn’t quite land with audiences or critics when it was released. It was too arty and reserved for fans of more typical horror films of the period, and too traditionally haunted house bound for the arty set. I’m not going to embed the trailer for this reason, because all it does is show that even a major studio with a big promotions department could not figure out how to effectively market The Innocents. Fortunately, as magnificent films sometimes can do, The Innocents gained a larger and larger following as the years went by, until today it deservedly wins a place on virtually every “best horror films of all time” list.