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Month: August 2008

Corpse Vanishes, The (1942)

Corpse Vanishes, The (1942)

“Another kidnapping of a dead bride’s corpse — what a story!”

Synopsis:
A spunky reporter (Luana Walters) investigates a rash of kidnappings involving brides who faint and die at the alter after receiving orchid corsages. When she learns about a mysterious madman (Bela Lugosi) who creates a serum from the brides’ corpses to keep his aging wife (Elizabeth Russell) looking youthful, Walters — with the help of a concerned doctor (Tristram Coffin) — concocts a plan to trap him.

Genres:

Review:
This run-of-the-mill horror flick by Monogram Pictures is, as noted by Richard Schreib at the SF, Horror, and Fantasy Film Review site, “marginally better” than most of the Poverty Row studios pictures produced at the time — but ultimately not good enough to merit inclusion in Peary’s book. Bela Lugosi’s performance is as limited as ever, and the plot — while mildly titillating — is full of holes (are the kidnapped brides really dead? why does Lugosi need so many? how long does his special serum last? is he looking for virgin blood?). While no great actress, Luana Walters — as the film’s feisty, no-nonsense protagonist — ultimately emerges as the most enjoyable aspect of the film; too bad she’s given such a dated and cliched final scene.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A refreshingly spunky female lead (Luana Walters)
    Corpse Vanishes Walters

Must See?
No, unless you’re a diehard Bela Lugosi fan.

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Loves of a Blonde (1965)

Loves of a Blonde (1965)

“And you — you look like a guitar, too, but one painted by Picasso.”

Loves Blonde Poster

Synopsis:
A young factory worker (Hana Brejchova) in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia sleeps with a sweet-talking musician (Vladimir Pucholt) at a company dance, then upsets his parents (Milada Jezkova and Josef Sebanek) the next weekend with a surprise visit.

Genres:

Review:
Milos Forman’s second feature film is, along with its companion piece (1967’s The Firemen’s Ball), proof of his uniquely satirical brand of Czechoslovakian humor. While we can’t help feeling sorry for the dull, overly supervised lives Brejchova and her co-workers lead, it’s impossible not to laugh as Forman sets up scene after scene of darkly comedic devastation. Indeed, Forman is able to mine unexpected humor from the bleakest of corners: even as we watch Brejchova being seduced by someone who clearly has no intention of following through on any of his passion-driven commitments, we know that Pucholt will somehow be made to pay for his womanizing ways. The meticulously edited and scored opening dance sequence — in which a trio of sorry soldiers make a bungled attempt to buy the attentions of Brejchova and her friends — is by far the funniest; from there, the situation becomes increasingly dire, with the denouement at Pucholt’s house particularly harsh. Yet while Loves of a Blonde is undeniably difficult to watch at times, it’s equally impossible to turn away from.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The hilarious opening dance sequence
    Loves Blonde Dance
  • Miroslav Ondracek’s black-and-white cinematography
    Loves Blonde Hands
  • Creative editing
  • Forman’s partly improvised script

Must See?
Yes, as a most satisfying and original film. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Menage (1986)

Menage (1986)

“Bob’s our only friend! He’s changed our lives with his magic wand…”

Menage Poster

Synopsis:
A bisexual thief (Gerard Depardieu) entices a down-and-out couple (Michel Blanc and Miou-Miou) into joining him as he robs wealthy homes — then reveals that he has a crush on Antoine (Blanc).

Genres:

Review:
Bertrand Blier’s darkly comedic sex caper moves in a series of entirely unexpected directions throughout its 84-minute running time. What at first appears to be a rather straightforward tale of a bickering couple turned on by the illicit thrills of thievery soon turns into a gay-themed exploration of desire and sexual identity, as Blanc’s ultra-reserved Antoine learns to appreciate and normalize the attention paid to him by the irresistibly forthright Bob (Depardieu); meanwhile, Miou-Miou’s sexually promiscuous Monique — the more obvious catalyst for marital destruction — is relegated to an increasingly degraded position in the trio’s crumbling “menage”. The first half hour of the film — during which Bob shows Antoine and Monique how to stroll into any mansion and discover its hidden riches — is so effectively satirical that one can’t help missing this narrative thread once it disappears completely; yet Blier’s willingness to explore his characters’ sexuality far beyond normal comfort levels is impressive, and makes Menage worth a look by viewers willing to let go of more traditional narrative expectations.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gerard Depardieu as Bob
    Menage Depardieu
  • Michel Blanc as Antoine
    Menage Blanc
  • Miou-Miou as Monique
    Menage Miou-Miou

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a look, and a must-see for any fans of Blier’s work. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the Appendix to Peary’s book.

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King of Kings, The (1927)

King of Kings, The (1927)

“Come unto me — rejoice, and be exceeding glad! I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

King of Kings 27 Poster

Synopsis:
After betrayal by his disciple, Judas Iscariot (Joseph Schildkraut), Jesus Christ (H.B. Warner) is crucified, but rises from his tomb three days later.

Genres:

Review:
Widely considered to be one of Cecil B. DeMille’s most successful epics, The King of Kings tells the familiar tale of Jesus’s final months — including his crucifixion and resurrection — with impressive flair and attention to detail. Despite a certain amount of creative interpretation (in the opening sequence, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a jewel-bedecked courtesan traveling in a zebra-drawn chariot to rescue her lover, Judas Iscariot), De Mille relies almost exclusively on quotes from Biblical scripture for his intertitles, and was notoriously concerned with maintaining an overall air of religious piety on his set. H.B. Warner was ultimately far too old to be playing the 33-year-old Jesus, but he manages to project an appropriate aura of serenity and strength, and quickly becomes acceptable in the role.

According to TCM’s article, “some 8 billion people” around the world have seen this classic silent film, “partly due to the Cinema Corporation’s policy of loaning the film to civic and religious groups for a small fee to help replace worn prints.” Indeed, “reportedly no week passes without The King of Kings playing in some corner of the world”, thus ensuring its permanent status in cinematic history.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Impressively grandiose set designs
    King of Kings 27 Sets
  • J. Peverell Marley’s luminous cinematography
    King of Kings 27 Cinematography
  • Mary Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan) fighting off the Seven Deadly Sins
  • Jesus indicating his knowledge of men’s personal sins by writing in the sand
  • The dramatic crucifixion scene — surely terrifying to audiences of the day

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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James Dean Story, The (1957)

James Dean Story, The (1957)

“Success was nothing more than the concealing leaf which covered the tree of his loneliness…”

James Dean Story Poster

Synopsis:
Directors Robert Altman and George W. George chronicle the tragically brief life of movie star James Dean.

Genres:

Review:
Released just two years after Dean’s death, this unusual documentary is notable as one of Robert Altman’s first feature films, and for its use of a new “photo motion” technique which allowed Altman and George to incorporate numerous still photographs of Dean into the film’s narrative arc. The result is an undeniably adulatory yet surprisingly affecting look at Dean’s brief Hollywood career, one which examines his mystique as a brooding, introspective “rebel” by exploring the influences of his humble background as a semi-orphan on an Indiana farm. Martin Gabel’s solemn narration is often laughably corny (see quote above), but somehow fits within the sensibility of this poetic ’50s homage — it may not offer a fully balanced view of Dean’s life, but does provide an informative reflection on his enduring resonance with disaffected youth, and will almost certainly be of interest to film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A truly heartfelt homage to Dean
    James Dean Closeup
  • Effective use of Louis Clyde Stoumen’s “photo motion” technique to incorporate archival photographs into a documentary film
    James Dean Photo Stop

Must See?
Yes, for its cinematic interest.

Categories

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Detour (1945)

Detour (1945)

“That’s life: whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”

Detour Poster

Synopsis:
While on his way to Los Angeles to meet his girlfriend (Claudia Drake), a pianist (Tom Neal) hitches a ride with a gambler (Edmund MacDonald) who drops dead during the middle of the night. Deciding that no one will believe him if he tells the truth, Al (Neal) adopts MacDonald’s persona — but a sullen hitchhiker (Ann Savage) calls Al’s bluff, and soon has him embroiled in more trouble than he could ever have imagined.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “near-legendary work” by Edgar G. Ulmer is “regarded by many critics as the greatest ‘B’ film ever made”, and is “truly an unusual film”. Featuring “one of the screen’s all-time great losers” (Neal) and noir‘s most unabashedly shrewish femme fatale (Savage), viewers can’t help but stay hooked even while wishing they could divert their eyes from the disaster unfolding in front of them. As a flashback film told exclusively from the perspective of an anti-hero (“a sourpuss, doom-sayer weakling”), the entire story smacks of self-indulgent pitying: one never knows whether Al’s version of events is truth or fantasy, and the film’s notoriously ultra low-budget (“it uses only six minimally furnished indoor sets”) simply adds to its overall air of nightmarish surreality.

Critics have long debated the role of Fate in “pessimistic Neal’s” downward spiral, with Peary pointing out that “in truth he does nothing to ward it off”, instead using “Fate as an alibi… when [it was] his own foolishness [which] caused him to dump MacDonald and steal his possessions… [and] to pick up Savage when he should have been keeping a low profile.” Regardless of Al’s personal culpability, however, few would wish a vulturous harridan like Savage on him or any man; as Peary notes, “she looks as if she wants to rip you apart with her teeth and devour you piece by piece”, but “even more terrifying than her face is her voice, which is loud, scratchy, vulgar, [and] intolerable” — a femme fatale, indeed!

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Tom Neal as Al
    Detour Neal
  • Ann Savage as Vera — as Peary notes, her no-holds-barred performance here is ultimately “what makes the film special”
    Detour Savage
  • Effective, stylish use of an extremely low budget
    Detour Noir
  • Martin Goldsmith’s pulpy script: “When this drunk gave me a ten spot, I couldn’t get very excited. What was it? A piece of paper crawling with germs.”

Must See?
Yes, as perhaps the most celebrated B-noir of all time. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies (1981).

Categories

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

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Naked Dawn, The (1955)

Naked Dawn, The (1955)

“I’m worth more — I work for my living! I take from no one!”

Naked Dawn Poster

Synopsis:
A bandit (Arthur Kennedy) visits the home of an impressionable newlywed couple (Eugene Iglesias and Betta St. John) and unwittingly changes their lives forever.

Genres:

Review:
Edgar Ulmer — best known for directing the B-level 1945 thriller Detour — made a handful of cult films throughout his career, including this effective little western set in Mexico. Taking place on oddly isolated terrain (likely a function of its low budget), the story focuses directly on the effects an “outsider” (Kennedy) has on the humble, seemingly happy marriage of two hardworking peasants, Manuel (Iglesias) and Maria (St. John). Manuel was previously content to simply work his land and plan for a family with his beautiful wife — but once Santiago (Kennedy) unwittingly involves him in a bout of theft and violence against a fence (Roy Engel), Manuel finds himself lusting after the money Santiago seems to obtain so easily. Meanwhile, Maria — who, it turns out, was essentially purchased by Manuel, along with the land they live on — is smitten by the idea of freedom with Santiago, and longs to leave with him.

Santiago (wonderfully played by Kennedy) is a most fascinating central character: a violent but even-handed bandit, his motivations stem from cynicism over failed revolutionary promises to provide land to all who fought for freedom. He shows genuine compassion when ministering to his dying partner (Tony Martinez) during the movie’s opening scene, and never intends to disrupt Manuel and Maria’s lives the way he ultimately does; indeed, Santiago is more of a catalyst than anything — an “innocent” spark who taps into both Manuel’s baser, greedy instincts, and Maria’s deeply rooted unhappiness. His reactions to their sudden revelations are refreshingly uncliched, and help to turn this modest little western into a most enjoyable “menage a trois”.

P.S. Truffaut famously noted that this film was an inspiration for his Jules and Jim (1962), but don’t look for literal similarities.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Arthur Kennedy as Santiago
    Naked Dawn Kennedy
  • An intriguing storyline
    Naked Dawn Trio

Must See?
Yes, as one of Ulmer’s most enjoyable B-movies. Listed as a Cult Movie and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Mad Genius, The (1931)

Mad Genius, The (1931)

“I will create my own being: that boy! That boy will be my counterpart, he shall be what I should have been…”

Synopsis:
A crippled puppeteer (John Barrymore) named Tsarakov channels his desire for fame as a dancer into an adopted young boy (Frankie Darro); but his unwillingness to allow grown Fedor (Donald Cook) a chance for love with a beautiful ballerina (Marian Marsh) leads to tragic consequences.

Genres:

Review:
Warner Brothers’ follow-up to the box office success of Svengali (1931) afforded John Barrymore another scenery-chewing role as a demented impresario who will stop at nothing to achieve his dreams of fame and fortune. While the story itself feels somewhat contrived — after all, what proof does Tsarakov have that Fedor’s “serious” relationship with Nana (Marsh) will ruin his chances for success? — Barrymore remains a pleasure to watch, and Barney McGill’s shadowy cinematography creates an appropriately stylized air of imminent doom. Cook, unfortunately, is instantly forgettable as Tsarakov’s young protegee (perhaps he was intentionally cast as someone without much personality?), but Marsh is at least beautiful to look at, and Luis Alberni as Tsarakov’s drug-addicted musical director is appropriately over-the-top. Film fanatics take note: Boris Karloff appears briefly in the beginning of the story as Fedor’s abusive father, though only his distinctive voice emerges as proof that he’s part of the proceedings.

P.S. It’s always enjoyable to look for evidence of “Pre-Code” sensibilities in early Hollywood films; the following comment — made by Nana’s new lover, Count Renaud (Andre Luguet), as they travel together on a train for the first time — is a good example:

Listen to this one, Nana: It was their wedding night. The timid bride knelt by their bedside, saying her prayers. The Groom waited patiently beside her. At last she said, “And now I lay me down to sleep,” and the groom said, “Oh, yeah?” Good, eh?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Barrymore as Tsarakov
    Mad Genius Barrymore
  • Barney McGill’s atmospheric cinematography
    Mad Genius Cinematography
  • A refreshingly risque pre-Code script
    Mad Genius Corruption

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a look.

Links:

Floradora Girl, The (1930)

Floradora Girl, The (1930)

“If he should mention matrimony, insist on a practical sign of affection — and remember: there’s nothing so practical as jewelry!”

Synopsis:
A chorus girl (Marion Davies) is wooed by a wealthy suitor (Lawrence Gray), who mistakenly believes she’s a gold-digger.

Genres:

Review:
Marion Davies is primarily remembered today as William Randolph Hearst’s long-time lover, and for being the inspiration behind talentless opera singer Susan Alexander in 1941’s Citizen Kane. As many have noted, however, these unfortunate associations are a shame, given that Davies was actually an accomplished comedic actress who deserved much more recognition for her considerable talents. Film fanatics hoping to catch a glimpse of Davies at her comedic best need look no farther than this innocuous tale of cross-class romance, which doesn’t break much new ground plot-wise (boy meets girl, loses girl, wins girl back, loses girl, then… well, take a guess), but affords Davies multiple chances to show off her winsome charms: besides having her priorities set straight, Davies’ “Daisy Dell” (a fictional member of the musical “Floradora girls”) seems like a hoot to hang out with, primarily because she’s so willing to clown around in public and act like “just one of the guys”. One can only imagine how much fun Davies herself was at Hearst’s well-publicized celebrity bashes…

P.S. The picnic scene in which Daisy “conducts” a group of singing men — and the ensuing scene in which she fakes being rescued while swimming — showcase Davies’ Lucille Ball-like talent with physical slapstick humor.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marion Davies as Daisy Dell
    Floradora Davies

Must See?
Yes, simply to see the sadly infamous Marion Davies in one of her best roles. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)

Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)

“If his life ain’t worth five hundred dollars, it ain’t worth nothin’!”

Synopsis:
A steamboat operator (Will Rogers) and a “swamp girl” named Fleety Belle (Anne Shirley) try to locate a key witness (Berton Churchill) before Rogers’ nephew (John McGuire) is unjustly hung for murder.

Genres:

Review:
Will Rogers’ final film (released after his tragic death in an airplane crash over Alaska) is similar in many ways to his previous two collaborations with director John Ford: once again, Rogers plays a down-to-earth, laid-back guy who is more than willing to go against social norms to do what’s “right”. His character isn’t quite as noble this time around — rather than a doctor (as in Doctor Bull) or a judge (as in Judge Priest), he’s initially a snake oil salesman (a fake “doctor”) hoping to transition into managing a steamboat — yet it’s impossible to find fault with him, particularly once he takes his nephew’s “swamp” girlfriend (a wonderfully wide-eyed Anne Shirley) under his wing, and puts his own dreams on hold to help save his nephew from the gallows of unjust death. Two dramatic highlights of this ultimately rather insubstantial film include Rogers demonstrating the educational merits of his newly acquired Wax Museum (!!!) to a group of small-minded Southerners, and the grand finale: a steamboat race down the Mississippi (guess who wins?). As with their previous two collaborations, Steamboat… ultimately doesn’t seem quite worthy of either Rogers’ or Ford’s talents, but it will likely be of minor interest to fans of either man.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Will Rogers as “Doctor John”
    Steamboat Rogers
  • Anne Shirley as Fleety Belle
    Steamboat Shirley

Must See?
No; check out Judge Priest (1934) instead to see Rogers in a (slightly) better Ford film.

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