Categories
Foreign Language Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

The Hands of Orlac

The idea that a possession or even more creepily a body part of a dead person can take over the life of its living owner has appeared in fairy tales and ghost stories for centuries. In cinema, the touchstone story of this sort is Maurice Renard’s 1920 novel Les Mains d’Orlac, which has been adapted to the screen many times, including in both films I am recommending: The 1924 Austrian and 1935 US version of The Hands of Orlac (The latter is sometimes titled Mad Love).

The story concerns gifted pianist and composer Paul Orlac, whose hands are severely damaged in an accident. He survives his injuries, but the surgeon must replace his hands with those of a recently executed murderer. As Orlac and his devoted lady love Yvonne attempt to put their lives back together, the murders start again, and Orlac begins to suspect that his new hands are driving him to commit horrible crimes.

The 1924 version is a silent film directed by Robert Wiene and starring Conrad Veidt, who will be familiar as principals of the all-time cinema classic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which I recommended here. Like that famous film, the Hands of Orlac is skillfully made in the expressionist style and is anchored by striking visuals and Veidt’s uncanny ability to convey emotion without dialogue. The film was recently restored with a newly composed soundtrack and became deservedly popular on the classic film festival circuit.

The 1935 version is a talkie that changes the story substantially in an effective way. Here, the surgeon is the central character and is driven by his lust for Orlac’s wife rather than any desire to help the composer. This was Peter Lorre’s first American film and he’s magnetic as a villain who is loathsome in some ways and pitiable in others. I like this version even better than the original because of Lorre’s strong performance, director Karl Freund’s visual sensibilities and the tighter pacing.

Here is a short promotional film made for the US release of the 1935 version. It’s more than a traditional trailer because while Lorre was a big star in Germany, Hollywood had to introduce him to American audiences.

Categories
Mystery/Noir

Black Angel

duryea

Dan Duryea, sometimes called “the heel with sex appeal” was usually cast as a second lead or a one-dimensional villain (For example in the outstanding noir Too Late for Tears, recommended here). But in 1946, he landed a leading part that let him show that he could portray complex characters with competing motives: Black Angel.

Duryea plays Martin Blair, an alcoholic once-successful tunesmith/piano player who has been on the decline since he was dumped by his beautiful but thoroughly self-absorbed and evil wife Mavis (Constance Dowling). Still carrying a torch for his ex, Martin tries to visit her at her apartment on their wedding anniversary but is ejected by the doorman. Before walking away, he notices a suspicious looking character (Peter Lorre) being admitted to Mavis’ apartment. Later in the evening, yet another man, Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) enters Mavis’ apartment, also apparently looking for love. He finds her strangled body, leading the police, in the form of no nonsense Captain Flood (Broderick Crawford), to slap the cuffs on him. Bennett is sentenced to die, but his heroic and devoted wife Catherine (June Vincent) believes he is innocent (of murder, anyway). She rouses Blair from his latest bender and the two set off to find the real killer. Suspense, romance and some fantastic plot twists ensue.

As you might have guessed, this film is a bit overplotted, but every scene engages due to the quality of the acting and the fine work of Director/Producer Roy William Neill, who is best known for his masterful adaptations of Sherlock Holmes (I recommended one of them here). I consider Black Angel Duryea’s finest hour, because he has so much to do and does it all well. After his early scenes of drunken desperation he sobers up and does a tremendous job conveying his growing but frustrated love for Catherine even while he knows they are both working to save her husband.

Black Angel (1946) — The Movie Database (TMDb)

As for Peter Lorre, there’s something about him as an actor that whenever he walks into a movie with a long cigarette just barely hanging out of his mouth, the audience knows they are going to be entertained. If there exists a film that doesn’t benefit from his presence, I don’t know what it is. Last but not least, June Vincent is moving as the wife who will do anything to save her wayward husband, most memorably in her wordless, teary recognition that she is going to have to get between the sheets with Lorre’s character if she is ever to learn the truth.

Paul Ivano’s photography is generally workmanlike, with two notable exceptions. Both the opening tracking shot/dissolve from Duryea on the street to Mavis’ apartment building and the closing alcoholic memory sequence are creative and arresting. On a different note (pun intended), the well-executed musical sequences are smoothly integrated into the story and enhance the movie’s mood. It all adds up a highly satisfying night at the movies for noir films as well as for cinema goers more generally.

p.s. If you like this excellent film noir you might also enjoy another of my recommendations, The Chase, which like Black Angel is a loose 1946 adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich novel that features fine supporting work by Lorre, again with one of those cigarettes hanging on to his upper lip for dear life.

Categories
Horror/Suspense

Tales of Terror

Low budget whiz Roger Corman revered Edgar Allen Poe and brought his stories to a new generation through film. The best known is probably Masque of the Red Death (my recommendation here), but most of them are rewarding, including Tales of Terror.

This 1962 film is a trilogy of stories based on four different Poe stories: Morella, a pastiche of The Black Cat and The Cask of Amontillado, and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. The stories are well-employed in the script of the late, great Richard Matheson, whose ability to infuse new, um, blood, into hoary tales I have praised many times. Vincent Price anchors the film with three lead performances, which vary in tone from lugubrious to frothy to sepulchral.

Price is joined by two aging stars who still know how to deliver the goods. Peter Lorre makes a fine boozy bully in The Black Cat and Basil Rathbone lends gravitas to the role of Carmichael, the hypnotist who tries to hold Valdemar at the point of death in the final story. The roles of the women characters however are comparatively flat, with the female performers cast mainly for their looks.

Many horror films, including some of the most famous, include some element of camp, and Tales of Terror is very much in that tradition. Price and Lorre enjoy themselves enormously in The Black Cat, inviting the audience to laugh at them as much as be frightened by the murderous proceedings. As a viewer, you should bring eggs for this part of the film, because these guys are bringing the ham.

In addition to the tension and fear generated by the three stories, the film makes for good horror viewing because Corman, as always, was experimenting as he went along. Some novel special effects are on display, all of which work pretty well. On the small screen, some of the Cinemascope trickery at the screen edges will be lost, so see this one on the big screen or in letterbox format if you can.

In some people’s minds, Corman is nothing but a schlock merchant, but that’s not fair to him. Like Richard Rodriguez, he has a genius for improvising in a low-budget environment. He shot movies on the sets of other movies while they were being torn down, writing a script each night to take advantage of whichever set would be gone by the end of the next day. He told Peter Bogdanovich that “Boris Karloff owes me a few days of filming, let’s make something out of that”, which became the nail-biting Targets. And he also helped launch many future superstars, including Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, and Francis Ford Coppola. I was absolutely delighted when Hollywood finally woke up and gave the 83-year old Corman an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, because he’s long been the kind of disruptive, creative force that the film industry needs to maintain its vitality.

Categories
Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir

The Chase

The Chase is an obscure, strange, yet compelling 1946 film noir. Made through low budget studio Monogram but released by United Artists, this off-beat movie is not for all tastes, but has developed a cult following among fans of the genre.

Based on a Cornell Woolrich’s pulp crime novel, the film tells the story of Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), a down-on-his-luck ex-GI who finds a wallet full of lolly on the street. After enjoying a hearty, much-needed breakfast, he nobly returns the wallet to its owner, a psychopathic gangster named Eddie Roman (played with presence and menace by Steve Cochran). He is such a boy scout that he even confesses his use of some of the money to eat. Roman is impressed and amused, and hires “Scotty” to be his driver, over the reservations of his sinister right-hand man Gino (Peter Lorre). But nothing in noir is ever that simple, especially once Scotty meets Eddie’s glamorous, lonely and desperate wife Lorna (Michèle Morgan, in an alluring and elusive performance). In their extended drives together, she tells Scotty that she longs from escape from her brutish husband…if only some man would take her away from all this…

The key development of the story is a twist that has delighted some viewers over the years, and confused and disappointed others. I am in the former camp, as everything that happens is consistent with the central character’s personality and motivation, and because expressionism, darkness, forbidden fantasies and dream-like atmosphere are as noir as noir can be.

There is much to enjoy in this film, including some thrilling high-speed driving sequences in an unusual car that instantiates the sadomasochistic, dominating nature of Eddie Roman. Peter Lorre, in a role few people remember, steals every scene he is in as Roman’s aide-de-camp. Franz Planer’s tenebrous photography, particularly in Roman’s house (including a wine cellar you’d be well advised not to enter…) establishes the mood of doom in which the film revels. Also fun for film buffs: The Chase is a perfect film to analyze and argue about over unfiltered cigarettes and bourbon afterwards.

The Chase is in the public domain, so you can legally watch it for free right here.

p.s. Many people know that the train station gun battle in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables is an homage to the spectacular Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. It could well be that De Palma’s opening sequence with gangster Al Capone and the barber was inspired by a similar scene early in The Chase.

p.p.s. SPOILER ALERT: While the extended dream sequence is occurring, there is a tip-off, namely Cummings’ suit. Running through the streets of steamy Havana, battling bad guys and being chased by the cops, his white suit, shirt and tie are immaculate in every scene. No wrinkles, no perspiration, no dirt. You could think of this as the character’s fantasy of himself as a rescuing hero/angel, particularly when contrasted to the demeaning outfit the former solider wears as the chauffeur to a hoodlum.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Science Fiction / Fantasy

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Movie Eyeing a Fall Start

In my recommendation of Treasure Island, I described how and why Disney started making live-action family films after the war. One of the studio’s greatest films of this period is a dramatic, well-mounted adaptation of Jules Verne’s steampunk classic: 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The story opens with sailing vessels being destroyed in the South Seas by a mysterious underwater creature. Is it a kraken, a dragon or something else? At the behest of the U.S. government, a Parisian professor (Paul Lukas), his faithful assistant (Peter Lorre) and a free-spirited sailor (Kirk Douglas) join a military expedition to either find the monster or prove it doesn’t exist. In a fatal confrontation, their ship encounters disaster, which brings them face to face with Captain Nemo (James Mason), his devoted crew, and his extraordinary “submarine boat”.

James Mason as Capt. Nemo | Leagues under the sea, Movie stars ...

Mason, as the tortured, destructive yet also sympathetic Nemo is in top form, adding weight to proceedings that might otherwise have been comic bookish. Lukas, as the brilliant scientist who is both Nemo’s prisoner and his nagging conscience, is an effective foil for Mason. Lorre isn’t given a huge amount to do, but he makes the most of it by being more vulnerable and afraid that the other central players, thereby giving the audience someone with whom to identify.

The special effects were trend setting at the time and still hold up pretty well today, as does the knockout set design on the submarine. It’s particularly hard to forget Nemo playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on the organ as the Nautilus glides through the ocean deep. Also adding to the striking look of the film is Peter Ellenshaw, who as in Treasure Island does magnificent matte work (the crowded shipyard at the beginning and the Island of Volcania at the end are flawless).

The film has two weaknesses. The first is Kirk Douglas’ endless mugging and preening. I don’t know if Director Richard Fleischer couldn’t control his star’s legendary desire for attention or gave him bad direction, but it gets old pretty quickly. The second is that like many films of the period (e.g., King Solomon’s Mines), this one includes “nature photography” moments that would have dazzled audiences at the time but are pretty slow stuff for a generation that has the web, television and a thousand episodes of Jacques Costeau at its fingertips.

But neither of those flaws stops this from being outstanding family entertainment with exciting action scenes, a strong story, eye-catching visuals and moments of real emotion. It’s great fun for you and the kids on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

I close this recommendation with a must-view clips for film-buffs. The truly spectacular fight with the giant squid in the film version released to theaters was not the first one that was shot. Here is the inferior original, the “Sunset Squid Sequence”.