Sea Wolf, The (1941)

“I’m obeying the law, Mr. Van Weyden — the law of the sea!”

Sea Wolf Poster

Synopsis:
When a writer (Alexander Knox) and two fugitives (Ida Lupino and John Garfield) find themselves aboard a ship run by a tyrannical captain (Edward G. Robinson) known as ‘Wolf’ Larsen, they hatch up a plan for escape.

Genres:

Review:
Michael Curtiz’s adaptation of Jack London’s 1906 novel (his follow-up to Call of the Wild) remains an atmospheric if at times overly literary tale of sociopathic power run amok. After a brief introduction to some key characters on land, the majority of the film takes place on board “The Ghost”, a hulking ship most sailors know well enough to stay away from, given that its captain, ‘Wolf’ Larsen (Robinson), rules with an iron fist, using both physical and verbal intimidation. He hits, kicks, and slaps at will, but also uses his shipmates’ weaknesses again them psychologically: he appears to be supportive, then sucker-punches them either literally or metaphorically, as occurs with both a tippling chef named Cooky (Barry Fitzgerald in particularly vile form) and alcoholic Dr. Prescott (Gene Lockhart). Even the protagonist — soft-spoken but resolute writer Humphrey Van Weyden (Knox) — gets caught in Wolf’s snare. Less susceptible are a pair of perennially-suspicious fugitives (Garfield and Lupino) who will clearly do anything to escape and remain independent; they’re not swayed by Wolf’s snake-like charisma. Ironically, the split focus between the four central characters, while likely faithful to the source material, diffuses the film’s impact somewhat. We know who to hiss at, but we’re torn between paying attention to Knox (appropriately subdued in his role) or Garfield (whose character is somewhat undeveloped). Meanwhile, Lupino’s character — the only female — is so intriguing we wish we could learn more about her. Regardless, The Sea Wolf remains a strongly directed drama featuring fine performances, and is well worth a one-time look by film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances from the entire cast
    Sea Wolf Robinson2
    Sea Wolf Lupino
    Sea Wolf Fitzgerald
    Sea Wolf Knox
  • Atmospheric cinematography
    Sea Wolf Cinematography2
    Sea Wolf Cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly recommended. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Star is Born, A (1937)

“The tense is wrong. You’re not slipping: you’ve slipped.”

Star is Born Poster

Synopsis:
An aspiring actress (Janet Gaynor) falls in love with a famous but alcoholic actor (Fredric March), and soon their fates begin to shift.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “William Wellman classic” — an earlier version of George Cukor’s celebrated 1954 musical starring James Mason and Judy Garland — is a “rare case” when the original “stands up to the remake”. It’s been well-noted that both versions ironically feature a reversal of stances, with Gaynor and Garland actually near the end of their real-life careers, and March and Mason near the peak of theirs. To that end, Peary writes that this film “appropriately capped Gaynor’s brief but impressive career”, and that “because Gaynor’s playing her, we can believe the sweetness, selflessness, and inner strength that characterize Esther/Vicki”. He adds that “March is surprisingly and effectively subdued in a role in which other actors (i.e., John Barrymore) might have chewed up the scenery”.

I’m in agreement with Peary’s review. While the remake is undeniably more masterful on every level — with Mason and Garland giving Oscar-worthy, gut-wrenching performances — this earlier version is enjoyable, well-acted, and affecting. In his Alternate Oscars, Peary writes that while “we are told Janet Gaynor’s Esther-Vicki has talent in the 1937 film, Garland proves her star talent”. Yes, it’s less obvious that Gaynor’s Esther/Vicki “deserves” the fame she wins through her lucky break — but this is essentially a melodramatic fable, so the reversal of fame experienced by March and Gaynor comes across as almost archetypal in its swiftness and simplicity. The star-crossed lovers’ romance feels both genuine and doomed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fredric March as Norman Maine
    Star is Born 1937 March
  • Janet Gaynor as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester (nominated as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
    Star is Born 1937 Gaynor
  • Fine Technicolor cinematography
    Star is Born 1937 Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a classic melodrama, and for its status as an Oscar winner (for original story, with script written in part by Dorothy Parker). Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year by Peary in his Alternate Oscars.

Categories

Links:

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

“I’m not guilty — the stranger killed him!”

Stranger on the Third Floor Poster

Synopsis:
When a reporter (John McGuire) testifies against a man (Elisha Cook, Jr.) seen leaving a diner after its owner (Charles Judels) is killed, McGuire’s girlfriend (Margaret Tallichet) is distressed that his testimony may be responsible for sending an innocent man to jail. Soon McGuire realizes a mysterious scarf-wearing man (Peter Lorre) likely killed both the diner owner and McGuire’s annoying neighbor (Charles Halton) — but as someone present at both crime scenes, will the murders be tagged on McGuire instead?

Genres:

Review:
This obscure B-level horror-drama by unknown Latvian director Boris Ingster presents a Kafka-esque living nightmare of sexual repression, moral condemnation, shadowy strangers, and rampant corruption; it runs in some truly surreal directions while building a storyline predicated on noir-esque voiceovers and explanatory flashbacks-within-flashbacks. McGuire is an “everyman” who simply wants to marry his girl, but needs money to get out of his claustrophic boarding house, where his shrewish landlady (Ethel Griffies) and self-righteous neighbor (Charles Halton) won’t give him a break — even the sound of his typing annoys them; his conscience is torn when his testimony against a cabbie (Cook, Jr.) is pivotal in a laughably inept court case while also conveniently providing enough sensational news to afford him financial freedom as a reporter. Lorre’s rat-like character (check out those teeth) lurks in the corners, and — naturally — turns out to play a pivotal role in the proceedings, though not without plenty of suspense in the meantime. (Does McGuire’s righteous anger at his neighbors represent thinly-veiled hostility that may be “outing” itself unconsciously?) The film’s memorable highlight is McGuire’s Expressionist nightmare, with all elements of his recent existence showing up in stylized fashion to literally haunt his dreams and spur him to “do the right thing”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nick Musuraca’s cinematography
    Stranger Third Floor Cinematography2
    Stranger Third Floor Cinematography
  • Creative direction
    Stranger Third Floor Direction2
    Stranger Third Floor Direction3
  • The truly surreal Expressionist dream sequence
    Stranger Third Floor Cinematography3
    Stranger Third Floor Dream

Must See?
Yes, for its visual ingenuity and narrative creativity. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Dead End (1937)

“Never go back; always go forward!”

Dead End Poster

Synopsis:
In the New York tenements, a woman (Sylvia Sidney) secretly in love with her childhood friend (Joel McCrea) — who in turn pines for the beautiful mistress (Wendy Barrie) of a rich man — tries to protect her brother Tommy (Billy Halop) from being arrested after he cuts the father (Minor Watson) of a snobby rich kid (Charles Peck). But the arrival of on-the-lam gangster Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart) — in town to visit his mother (Marjorie Main) and former-girlfriend-turned-prostitute (Claire Trevor) — causes Halop and his friends Dippy (Huntz Hall), Angel (Bobby Jordan), Spit (Leo Gorcey), T.B. (Gabriel Dell), and Milty (Bernard Punsly) to view a life of crime as a lucrative ticket out of poverty.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary points out that this “successful adaptation of Sidney Kingsley’s play” — featuring a “tough script by Lillian Hellman and strong yet sympathetic direction by William Wyler” — led “to a wave of juvenile-delinquent dramas”; indeed, it’s perhaps best known for kicking off a series of films featuring “The Dead End Kids”. Because producer “Sam Goldwyn wouldn’t let Wyler film on location”, we “don’t get a sense of the grit, grime, claustrophobia, and heat of the slums” — but Peary argues that “the clean studio sets with their painted backdrops act much like a Brechtian alienation device that forces us to realize that this story isn’t self-contained but rather is representative of many tragic real-life stories of the urban poor”.

These days, Dead End comes across as an undeniably stage-bound but still compelling drama featuring fine cinematography and potent direction: each scene is expertly crafted, with dramatic black-and-white shadows metaphorically highlighting the abject distance between the river-bound slum and the wealthy tenants who literally look down on its residents. Bogart is well-cast in a role he first inhabited on Broadway, and Sidney is appropriately doe-eyed yet stoic — but the best performance is by Oscar-nominated Claire Trevor, who only appears onscreen for about five minutes yet packs a quietly devastating wallop.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • William Wyler’s direction
    Dead End Direction
    Dead End Direction2
  • Gregg Toland’s cinematography
    Dead End Cinematography4
    Dead End Cinematography
    Dead End Cinematography3
  • Claire Trevor as Francie
    Dead End Trevor

Must See?
Yes, as a strong outing by a master filmmaker and for its historical relevance in introducing the “Dead End Kids” to the silver screen.

Categories

Links:

Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)

“Someone keeps calling — with a message for my father.”

Silent Night Bloody Night Poster

Synopsis:
A woman (Mary Woronov) whose father (Walter Abel) is mayor of a small town reflects on the gruesome history of a house inherited by a man (James Patterson) who sends his lawyer (Patrick O’Neal) and O’Neal’s wife (Astrid Heeren) to try to sell it, with bloody results.

Genres:

Review:
This wintertime slasher flick — once a drive-in film, then a staple of late-night-TV — is primarily known for featuring a cast of Andy Warhol’s “superstars” (including Mary Woronov, Ondine, and Candy Darling), and for offering a gory alternative to the sanitized cheer of holiday films like White Christmas (1954). The storyline is somewhat convoluted, but that’s beside the point: what’s really on display here is plenty of atmospheric mystery and suspense in the midst of bloody murders, all as snow falls gently outside in a small east coast town with a heavy history (it was filmed in Oyster Bay, Long Island). For those who are interested, a sequel is apparently in the works — this one actually featuring Santa himself.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some effective imagery
    Silent Night Bloody Night Imagery

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for its cult followers.

Links:

Five Million Years to Earth / Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

“You realize what you’re implying? That we owe our human condition here to the intervention of insects?”

Quatermass and the Pit Poster

Synopsis:
When a team of anthropologists led by Dr. Mathew Roney (James Donald) and his assistant (Barbara Shelley) discover a cylindrical object and primate bones in an underground construction site, rocket scientist Dr. Quatermass (Andrew Keir) is brought to the scene. He eventually determines the object is a spaceship rather than a bomb, and that the bones are evidence of an ancient Martian race that landed on Earth five million years ago.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “exceptional, extremely intelligent, thematically controversial science-fiction film” — the third of screenwriter Nigel Kneale’s “BBC-TV serials to be filmed” — “still hasn’t received due recognition in America”. He notes that while the “film is complicated”, it’s “always fascinating and exciting”, and is “skillfully directed by Roy Ward Baker”. While I agree with Peary that Five Million Years… is provocative and well-made, I disagree with his assertion that it’s “Hammer Studios’ best film”, and will actually admit to preferring its less colorful and less flashy predecessor, The Quatermass Experiment (1956). Five Million Years… is often compared to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), given that both explore “the intriguing theme of ‘race memory'”, with the distinction that “whereas Kubrick’s humans retain memories of ‘God’ from their ape ancestors who had contact with extra-terrestrials”, the “Martian insect-creatures” in this film apparently had contact “with the devil” — thus lending it a different type of horror vibe than Dave’s interactions with H.A.L. This finely produced cult flick is certainly worth a look by all film fanatics, but I’m going to go against the grain in not considering it must-see.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography
    Quatermass Cinematography1
    Quatermass Cinematography2
    Quatermass Cinematography3

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a look as a cult favorite.

Links:

Hideous Sun Demon, The (1959)

“You mean a human being could evolve backwards in time to become some sort of prehistoric creature?”

Hideous Sun Demon Poster

Synopsis:
After exposure to a radioactive isotope, a scientist (Robert Clarke) turns into a scaly creature in the presence of the sun; can his colleagues (Patricia Manning and Patrick Whyte) do anything to help him, or will he turn into a murderous, rampaging monster?

Genres:

Review:
This low-budget sci-fi horror flick — written, directed, produced by, and starring Robert Clarke — was filmed in 12 consecutive weekends with rented equipment on a budget of $50,000. The result is a film only Z-grade aficionados will appreciate, though Clarke certainly deserves points for trying. It’s not nearly as inept as other first-time directorial efforts, but the acting and pacing are terrible, and the central premise is laughably simplistic. Clues that we’re watching a sub-par production first emerge when we hear characters discussing how Clarke became exposed to radiation; their description is quite vivid, and we wish we could actually see all this taking place! Reasonably memorable elements include Clarke dallying on the beach with a Marilyn Monroe look-alike (Nan Peterson), and interacting with a young girl (Xandra Conkling — how’s that for a name?) whose mother allows her to slip outside to play after a warning has just been announced on the radio; it’s yet another homage to the famous scene in Frankenstein (1931), also referenced in The Creeping Unknown (1955). Check out Wikipedia’s entry for more information about this flick’s production, reception, and comedic re-dubbing in 1983.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some reasonably effective direction
    Hideous Sun Demon Direction

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see by true low-budget SF aficianados. Listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Creeping Unknown, The / Quatermass Xperiment, The (1955)

“It’s almost beyond human understanding: some fantastic invisible force converted two men into… jelly?”

Creeping Unknown Poster

Synopsis:
When a rocket crash-lands in the British countryside, Dr. Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) and Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner) are summoned to investigate, and find that its sole survivor (Richard Wordsworth) is gaunt and catatonic. Wordsworth’s wife (Margia Dean) enlists the help of a private detective (Harold Lang) in rescuing him from supervision, but this quickly proves disastrous as Wordsworth mutates into a monster and begins absorbing the organisms he touches.

Genres:

Review:
Based on the popular six-part BBC TV serial, The Quatermass Experiment (renamed The Creeping Unknown in the United States) was the first in a cluster of films featuring Dr. Bernard Quatermass, a fictional space scientist whose primary task in life is protecting the Earth from alien forces. This early outing remains an exciting entry in the series, with a quickly paced script and a highly empathetic accidental “villain” (Wordsworth). Wordsworth’s expressions are genuinely haunting: he’s traumatized by what happened on board the spaceship, terrified of (yet unable to control) his own actions, and devastatingly incapable of expressing himself. His character is reminiscent of the monster in Frankenstein (1931); indeed, a scene in which Wordsworth emerges out of hiding in a boat and attempts to interact with a sincere little girl (Jane Asher) is clearly an explicit homage to this earlier classic.

Also driving the film is a true sense of urgency and mystery: what exactly happened to the astronauts, and how much of a danger does Wordsworth now pose? The ultimate findings are reminiscent of modern-day fears over widespread biological contagion (viz. Soderbergh’s Contagion, 2011), as well as ongoing concerns with full-scale invasion by “alien” forces on multiple fronts. Fans have quibbled over the casting of American Brian Donlevy as Quatermass, who comes across as entirely no-nonsense from beginning to end (in one scene, he brusquely contradicts his own orders just a few minutes after realizing he was wrong); but personally, I find him refreshing and well-cast. If the final scene feels a tad rushed, this actually fits with the story’s overall sense of continuous doom, and sequels were nigh on the horizon.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Richard Wordsworth as Victor Carroon
    Creeping Unknown Wordsworth
  • Atmospheric cinematography
    Creeping Unknown Cinematography
  • Many effectively eerie scenes
    Creeping Unknown Window
    Creeping Unknown Girl

Must See?
Yes, as an early classic of the genre.

Categories

Links:

Design for Living (1933)

“Delicacy is the banana peel underneath the feet of truth.”

Design for Living Poster

Synopsis:
An advertising employee (Miriam Hopkins) becomes enamored with two friends — an aspiring painter (Gary Cooper) and playwright (Fredric March) — and moves in with them to become their platonic muse. When March goes to London to oversee his successful new play, Cooper and Hopkins begin an affair, bringing their friendship with March to an end; but when March comes to visit and Hopkins can’t resist intimacy with him, either, she eventually decides to save the men’s friendship by marrying her boring boss (Edward Everett Horton).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “much acclaimed comedy” by Ernst Lubitsch — liberally adapted by Ben Hecht from Noel Coward’s play — is “still risque”, given that we’re “not used to seeing a sexually available free spirit like Hopkins’s Gilda (who in some ways anticipated Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine in Jules and Jim).” However, he accurately asserts that other than Hopkins’ “delicious, vibrant, witty performance”, the “film lacks energy” and simply plods along — which is especially surprising given the inherently provocative nature of the storyline and some clever turns-of-phrase:

“It’s true we had a gentleman’s agreement, but unfortunately, I am no gentleman.”
“I’m sick of being a trademark married to a slogan.”

This one’s worth a one-time look for its risque themes, but ultimately not an enduring classic.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Miriam Hopkins as Gilda
    Design for Living Hopkins
  • Evidence of “Lubitsch’s touch”
    Design for Living Touch
  • An enjoyably risque pre-Code sensibility
    Design for Living PreCode

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for its historical relevance.

Links:

Blonde Venus (1932)

“I’m no good, you understand? No good at all.”

Blonde Venus Poster

Synopsis:
A German-born nightclub singer (Marlene Dietrich) takes money from a wealthy admirer (Cary Grant) so her husband (Herbert Marshall) can receive a life-saving cure from radiation poisoning — but when Marshall finds out that she had an affair with Grant, she goes on the run with her son (Dickie Moore), trying to eke out a shadowy existence while eluding capture.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this pre-Code melodrama as “the most underrated of the seven Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich collaborations” (all of which are included in his GFTFF). He focuses his review on Dietrich’s performance, noting that she’s “one of the sexiest mothers in the history of the cinema” and “gives one of her finest stiff-upper-lip performances” (he nominates her as one of the best actresses of the year in his Alternate Oscars). Dietrich’s unusual character — a “strong, selfless woman who is willing to sacrifice herself for others’ happiness (even if it means giving her body) and to face the consequences for her sins” — “sees no need to apologize or defend herself to Marshall for what she did on his behalf,” yet also doesn’t “expect him to understand or forgive her”. She’s a highly complex woman, and yet a bit of a feminist cipher: we’re not sure why she falls in love with Marshall and comes with him to America, nor why she so easily commits infidelity while her husband may be on his deathbed. Ultimately, the storyline itself — including a “descent into hell” as Dietrich “winds up sleeping in some bizarre dives, including one place in which hens and chickens run free” — simply emerges as pure melodrama peppered by two highly memorable nightclub performances: one in which Dietrich dons a blonde frizzy wig as “Blonde Venus” while emerging out of a gorilla suit, and a later scene in which she famously wears a white top hat and tails while ogling chorus girls. It’s no wonder this film is a favorite with gay and camp-loving audiences!

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Memorable direction and imagery
    Blonde Venus Imagery
    Blonde Venus Imagery3
    Blonde Venus Imagery5
    Blonde Venus Imagery2
  • Bert Glennon’s cinematography
    Blonde Venus Cinematography
    Blonde Venus Imagery4

Must See?
Yes, simply for its cult status.

Categories

Links: