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Month: December 2007

Prowler, The (1951)

Prowler, The (1951)

“If you were just a dame, Susan, it’d be different. But you’re special.”

Synopsis:
A cynical cop (Van Heflin) falls for a wealthy woman (Evelyn Keyes) he meets on a house call, and concocts a plan to “accidentally” shoot her husband so they can get married. After Heflin is declared innocent in court, he and Keyes are married, with nobody suspecting that they previously had an affair — but things become more complicated when Keyes reveals that she’s four months pregnant, and clearly not with her first husband’s child…

Genres:

Review:
This punchy thriller by director Joseph Losey offers an enjoyable twist on the traditional noir storyline, with Heflin perfectly cast as a deviously womanizing scoundrel (an “homme fatale”) who nonetheless isn’t all bad inside, and Evelyn Keyes equally effective as a lonely wife who allows herself to be taken in (against her better judgment) by Heflin’s advances. The plot takes several satisfying twists, with Keyes’ “predicament” particularly unexpected and shocking — the fact that this “sin” is named out loud in an early-’50s film tells us that someone will be paying for their transgression against society — though it’s not clear who, or how.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Van Heflin as Webb Garwood
    Prowler Heflin
  • Evelyn Keyes as Susan Gilvray
    Prowler Keyes
  • Arthur Miller’s cinematography
    Prowler Cinematography
  • A satisfying “homme fatale” storyline
    Prowler Tale

Must See?
Yes, as an all-around good show by Losey.

Categories

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Brute Force (1947)

Brute Force (1947)

“Those gates only open three times: when you come in, when you’ve served your time, or when you’re dead.”

brute-force-poster

Synopsis:
A group of prisoners — led by Burt Lancaster — rebel against a sadistic prison captain (Hume Cronyn) who is hell-bent on making their lives miserable.

Genres:

Review:
Prison breaks have been a cinematic mainstay for decades, and this relatively early outing by French director Jules Dassin is regarded by many as one of the best. However, other than featuring hunky-yet-stoic Burt Lancaster in a star-making role, and Hume Cronyn in an atypically sadistic performance, it doesn’t offer anything new to an overly familiar narrative trope. In order to successfully convince audiences to root for Lancaster and his cellmates, the prisoners are all presented as sympathetic and/or wrongly accused, while Cronyn himself is simply a power-tripping Hitler-stand-in (clearly meant to appeal to post-war audiences). The film’s primary redeeming feature is William Daniels’ atmospheric cinematography, which successfully positions this as a prime example of prison-drama-as-noir.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The powerful early scene in which a stoolie (James O’Rear) is crushed to death in a prison workroom
    Brute Force Hazing
  • William Daniels’ noir-ish cinematography
    Brute Force Cinematography

Must See?
No. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Mind of Mr. Soames, The (1970)

Mind of Mr. Soames, The (1970)

“We are witnessing an operation that may bring to life a man who — for all normal intents and purposes — has been dead for thirty years.”

Synopsis:
30-year-old John Soames (Terence Stamp) is awakened from a lifelong coma by Doctors Bergen (Robert Vaughn) and Maitland (Nigel Davenport), who quickly teach him to move and speak. While Dr. Bergen believes John should experience the outside world, Dr. Maitland refuses, and soon the childlike John runs away, putting his life in grave danger.

Genres:

Review:
This cult sleeper is based on an undeniably intriguing premise — what if a lifelong coma victim were miraculously awoken and given a chance at life? — but, unfortunately, falls flat on every count. To begin with, it’s more of a fantasy than strict sci-fi, given that the developmental stages Soames whizzes through upon his “awakening” would be neurologically impossible (mind and body work together to grow and develop; trying to impose learning onto a physically “mature” brain simply couldn’t work). The primary prurient interest of the film lies in watching a grown man act like an infant (much like David Manzy would do to more humorous effect in the twisted black comedy The Baby three years later), then a toddler, then a young child, then a petulant adolescent, with Soames finally “breaking free” from the restraints of his overbearing guardian and attempting — in typical ’60s/’70s fashion — to “find himself”. The redeeming qualities of Mr. Soames remain the performances by Stamp and Vaughn, and a couple of unexpectedly amusing moments (see below).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Terence Stamp as John Soames
    MOMS Stamp
  • Robert Vaughn as Dr. Bergen
    MOMS Vaughn
  • Soames running around the streets in a furry pink onesie
    MOMS Onesie
  • Soames scaring a young girl half to death on a train: “There are many trees at the institute… I do not like the institute.”
    MOMS Train

Must See?
No; despite its intriguing premise, this one isn’t worth seeking out. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Oh, God! (1977)

Oh, God! (1977)

“I took this form because if I showed myself to you as I am, you wouldn’t be able to comprehend me.”

Synopsis:
A humble supermarket manager (John Denver) is visited by God (George Burns) in the form of an older man, and told to spread the word about His hopes for mankind.

Genres:

Review:
This immensely popular ’70s comedy — which sparked two sequels and a current remake — is, unfortunately, a tedious bore. The central casting decision, considered a “coup” by many, is one problem (Burns-as-God simply doesn’t work), but the primary issue is the decidedly unfunny script, which is littered with throw-away lines like God in a courtroom stating, “So help me Me,” or God insisting that he doesn’t normally work miracles (“The last miracle I did was the 1969 Mets; before that, I think you have to go back to the Red Sea.”) Ha ha. Denver is, fortunately, both appealing and believable in the lead role, and Teri Garr turns in yet another compassionate performance as the wife of a man going slowly around the bend (a la Richard Dreyfuss in the same year’s Close Encounters) — but even their performances can’t save this clunker from sinking, and fast.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Denver as Jerry
    Oh God Denver
  • Teri Garr as Jerry’s compassionate wife
    Oh God Garr
  • Jerry on the Dinah Shore show explaining to a police sketch artist what God looks like
    Oh God Sketch Artist

Must See?
No; this well-meaning but strained comedy is only for certain tastes.

Links:

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The (1920)

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The (1920)

“I must know everything. I must penetrate the heart of his secret. I must become Caligari!”

Synopsis:
A high-strung youth (Friedrich Feher) relates the story of mad Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his sideshow act, a gaunt somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) named Cesare who commits murders while sleepwalking. But is Dr. Caligari really who Feher says he is?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his analysis of this indisputable “masterpiece of the silent cinema”, Peary notes that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the first film to advance “the theory that what goes on in the mind, psychological horror, can be as frightening as physical shocks” — and that “one could express the emotional and/or mental states of characters through the design of the sets they walk through.” To that end, nothing looks real here; the “backgrounds are obviously painted” and “everything… zigzags at odd angles so that the frame looks out of whack”, giving one the impression of watching an Expressionistic play rather than a film.

Apart from its truly unique sets, what’s most distinctive about Caligari is its twisted narrative structure, in which our comprehension of what we’re seeing is continually shaken; a quick glance at the genres listed above indicates that this short film goes in many different directions throughout its scant hour-plus running time. There’s essentially a story within a story within a story here; to that end, Caligari is a film which nearly demands multiple viewings in order to “get” what exactly is happening. Indeed, Peary notes that Caligari was likely “the first ‘cult’ movie”, given that it played “in one French theater for seven consecutive years” — for this reason alone, no film fanatic can afford to miss it.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Surreal Expressionist set designs
    CODC Visuals
  • Conrad Veidt as Cesare the Somnambulist
    CODC Veidt
  • The classic kidnapping sequence
    CODC Kidnapping
  • A groundbreaking script (by Hans Janowitz), which posits that what’s seen on-screen isn’t necessarily “real”
    CODC Script
  • The shocking twist-upon-twist ending
    CODC Ending

Must See?
Yes, most definitely. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 3 (1988).

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Sudden Fear (1952)

Sudden Fear (1952)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

“I was just wondering what I’d done to deserve you.”

Sudden Fear Poster

Synopsis:
A wealthy playwright (Joan Crawford) marries an actor (Jack Palance) who she recently fired from her play, not realizing that his love for her is a sham, and that, together with an old girlfriend (Gloria Grahame), he plans to murder her for her money.

Genres:

  • Gloria Grahame Films
  • Homicidal Spouses
  • Jack Palance Films
  • Joan Crawford Films
  • Plot to Murder
  • Writers

Review:
In the long list of Joan Crawford titles inexplicably missing from Peary’s book, Sudden Fear is perhaps the oddest omission, given its status as both an Oscar nominee and one of Crawford’s signature flicks. It’s a taut, well-crafted thriller with atmospheric b&w cinematography, excellent use of San Francisco locales, a jazzy score by the inimitable Elmer Bernstein, several lengthy visual sequences that would do Hitchcock proud, and fine performances by the entire cast — particularly Crawford, who’s in nearly every scene. At the time of the film’s release, Crawford’s performance wasn’t very well received, with Bosley Crowther of the NY Times complaining that “a viewer not entirely a slave to Miss Crawford’s brand of histrionics might argue that an excessive amount of footage is given to close-ups of the lady in the throes of mental traumas and other emotional disturbances.” Today, however, it’s clear that Crawford is actually giving one of the best performances of her career: other than her later turn in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, she’s never appeared so genuinely frightened or emotionally vulnerable (the sweat and tears she produces are copious).

The infamous sequence during which Myra (Crawford) accidentally overhears Palance and Grahame’s plans to murder her is particularly wrenching; Myra’s not only afraid for her life, but heartbroken and stunned to learn that her beloved husband is nothing close to what he appears. It’s a hell of a thing to learn in one fell swoop that your husband is not just deceitful but a homicidal psychopath as well. Once this “plot twist” occurs, the remainder of the film plays out with remarkable tension and suspense: while we know that Myra’s concocted a plan, and that it will likely be a good one (Myra is, after all, a renowned playwright), we have no idea exactly how the machinations of her elaborate scheme will work. To her credit, even once she learns of her husband’s untold treachery, Crawford’s Myra is rarely bitter or cynical; she dreams of revenge, but only as a means of personal survival — and we can’t help rooting for her until the film’s exciting climax.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Crawford as Myra (Hudson) Blaine
    Sudden Fear Crawford
  • Jack Palance as Myra’s homicidal husband
    Sudden Fear Palance
  • Gloria Grahame as Irene
    Sudden Fear Grahame
  • The infamous Dictaphone revelation sequence
    Sudden Fear Dictaphone
  • Charles Lang’s noirish cinematography
    Sudden Fear Cinematography
  • Fine direction by David Miller
    Sudden Fear Direction
  • The exciting final chase sequence
    Sudden Fear Running
  • Excellent use of hilly San Francisco locales
    Sudden Fear San Francisco
  • A remarkably frightening depiction of spousal deception
    Sudden Fear Fear
  • Elmer Bernstein’s distinctive score

Must See?
Yes, as one of Crawford’s best flicks.

Categories

Links:

While the City Sleeps (1956)

While the City Sleeps (1956)

“The man who gets the killer lands the job.”

Synopsis:
When media magnate Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick) dies, his spoiled son and heir (Vincent Price) offers to promote whichever one of three ambitious newspaper men — George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, or James Craig — can break a story about a recent rash of murders sweeping the city. Meanwhile, tippling journalist Ed Mobley (Dana Andrews) helps his friend Griffith (Mitchell) try to solve the case, while simultaneously trying to convince his no-nonsense girlfriend (Sally Forrest) to marry him; Kritzer (Craig) is having an affair with Price’s leggy wife (Rhonda Fleming); Loving (Sanders) asks his co-worker and paramour Mildred (Ida Lupino) to help him rise to the top; and the psychotic murderer (John Barrymore, Jr.) keeps killing young women in their apartments.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this all-star melodrama — Fritz Lang’s final American film, and purportedly a personal favorite — as “silly but diverting”, which just about sums it up. There isn’t much substance to the tale — which is essentially a trussed up sex soaper with a serial-killer search as a backdrop — but it’s enjoyable watching cinematic favorites Vincent Price, Ida Lupino, Dana Andrews (constantly drinking, as in real life), Thomas Mitchell, and others working together in one flick. Also of interest is John Barrymore, Jr. (Drew’s troubled dad) in what was perhaps his best-known minor role, playing a whacked-out Mama’s-boy killer in black leather gloves — he’s no great actor, but very convincing in the part.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The all-star ensemble cast
    WTCS Cast
  • John Barrymore, Jr. (Drew’s father!) as the Lipstick Killer
    WTCS Barrymore

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for one-time viewing.

Links:

Trog (1970)

Trog (1970)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

“I have to see it — Malcolm, I must go into that cave before the police!”

Trog Poster2

Synopsis:
An anthropologist (Joan Crawford) discovers a “missing link” troglodyte (Joe Cornelius) living deep inside a cave, and tries her best to humanize him. Meanwhile, her efforts are sabotaged by an evil land developer (Michael Gough) who wants nothing more than to obliterate Trog.

Genres:

  • Joan Crawford Films
  • Primates
  • Science Fiction
  • Scientists

Review:
While Peary lists 1967’s Berserk! — Joan Crawford’s tepid next-to-last picture — in the back of his book as “must see”, for some reason he fails to include its infinitely more notorious counterpart, Trog: a film so hideous it purportedly sent Joan herself scurrying away from Hollywood for good (“If I weren’t a Christian Scientist, and I saw Trog advertised on a marquee across the street, I think I’d contemplate suicide”, she declared). Indeed, Trog is one of the ultimate “bad movies” — a film so bad it’s campily good, with a nonsensical “scientific” basis, awful low-budget effects, and a cliched storyline. It’s Joan’s game participation which makes it worth a look; as always, she’s a consummately earnest and classy actress, voicing her lines like she’s in a high-brow melodrama rather than a Z-grade primate flick; seeing her interact with Trog is priceless, and makes up for the rest of this truly lousy pic.

P.S. Joan’s performance in Trog is so beloved that San Francisco’s LGBT Theatre Rhino produced a theatrical parody of the film last year…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • It’s all about Joan, giving it her damndest
    Trog Joan Gun
    Trog Joan Doll
    Trog Joan Mask
  • Laughably awful special effects and make-up
    Trog Joan Makeup
  • Hilariously cliched dialogue (especially as voiced by Joan): “Malcolm, get me my hypo-gun — quickly!”

Must See?
Yes, simply to see Joan Crawford in her final flick.

Categories

Links:

Ballad of Cable Hogue, The (1970)

Ballad of Cable Hogue, The (1970)

“In all the long, wrought out, back-breakin’, kidney-shakin’, bladder-bustin’ miles from here to Lizard, there’s not one spot of wet relief for man or beast.”

Synopsis:
When robbed and left to die in the desert, an illiterate wanderer (Jason Robards) stumbles upon a spring which he proceeds to turn into a profitable way-station. Meanwhile, he falls for a feisty prostitute (Stella Stevens), receives assistance from a con-artist “preacher” (David Warner), and hopes to seek revenge on the men who abandoned him.

Genres:

  • Comedy
  • David Warner Films
  • Get Rich Quick
  • Jason Robards Films
  • Prostitutes
  • Sam Peckinpah Films
  • Settlers
  • Stella Stevens Films
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “simple, bawdy, lyrical film is one of [Sam] Peckinpah’s best” — but I disagree. While Robards is indeed “wonderful” (he alone makes the film worth watching), the story itself leaves much to be desired: after an inspired first half-hour or so — in which Hogue stakes his claim in town, and eyes a busty wench (Stevens) with hilariously unmitigated lust — the narrative devolves into slapstick, and it’s all downhill from there. Warner’s participation in Hogue’s venture is never clearly explained (his smooth-talking attempts to bed married women are irritating, not funny), and Stevens — while undeniably sexy (it’s easy to see why men would go gaga over her) — quickly loses sympathy the first time she throws a conniption fit; this is NOT how a slick business woman would react. Peckinpah’s use of both dated cinematic techniques (including sped-up running) and cloying flower-children songs throughout the soundtrack make matters worse. Jason Robards is really the only reason to sit through this disappointing sleeper.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jason Robards as Cable Hogue
    BOCH Robards
  • Lucien Ballard’s fine cinematography
    BOCH Premise

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look simply for Robards’ winning performance.

Links:

Auntie Mame (1958)

Auntie Mame (1958)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Guide for the Film Fanatic title; click here to read more.]

“Life is a banquet — and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

AM Poster

Synopsis:
When a young orphan named Patrick (Jan Handzlik) goes to live with his eccentric Aunt Mame (Rosalind Russell) in New York, the executor (Fred Clark) of his deceased father’s estate worries that Patrick will be subjected to “unhealthy” influences — but Patrick grows into an upstanding young man (Roger Smith) with a mind of his own, eventually deciding to marry a stuffy socialite (Joanna Barnes) who’s radically different from free-spirited Mame.

Genres:

  • Character Studies
  • Comedy
  • Non-Conformists
  • Orphans
  • Play Adaptation
  • Raising Children
  • Rosalind Russell Films

Review:
This Oscar-nominated adaptation of Jerome Lawrence’s play (based on Patrick Dennis’ bestselling novel) is conspicuously missing from Peary’s book. Despite its flaws — it was nowhere close to being one of the best films of the year — it nonetheless holds a special place in film fanatic history, given that Rosalind Russell (who originated the title role on Broadway) is the definitive Mame. While Oscar-nominated Peggy Cass as Agnes Gooch is (to me) less impressive, and Yuki Shimoda’s turn as Ito the butler is painful to watch, others — including Coral Browne as Mame’s lifelong acting friend, Jan Handzlik as young Patrick, and Forrest Tucker as a wealthy southerner who falls head over heels for Mame during the Depression — do a fine job bringing the heart-warming story to life. Some portions of the 2-hour-plus episodic narrative are, inevitably, better than others (the entire Deep South sequence, for instance, could easily have been omitted), but the structure is perfectly suited to Mame’s live-each-day-as-it-comes philosophy, and there are countless laugh-out-loud moments. Indeed, it’s hard not to be amused by Mame’s reactions to the inexplicable stuffiness of most folks — we could all use a bit of her world-view.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rosalind Russell as Mame
    AM Mame
  • Mame enduring a visit with Patrick’s obnoxious in-laws-to-be
    AM Enduring
  • The cool kaleidoscopic opening titles
    AM Opening Titles

Must See?
Yes, simply for Russell’s noteworthy, historically relevant performance as Mame.

Categories

Links: