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Month: August 2019

Conqueror Worm, The / Witchfinder General, The (1968)

Conqueror Worm, The / Witchfinder General, The (1968)

“Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do.”

Synopsis:
When a cavalry soldier (Ian Ogilvy) in 17th century England learns that infamous witchfinder Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and his sadistic assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) have descended upon the household of his fiancee (Hilary Dwyer) and her uncle (Rupert Davies), he vows revenge at any cost.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “brutal, visually and thematically fascinating cult film by the controversial Michael Reeves” — “his last work before his death at age twenty-five” — shows that “his talent as director and writer was indisputable and his condemnation of those who lust for and abuse power admirable”. He points out that the evil in this film “is all-encompassing, as is evident when Hopkins kills suspected heretics in fire, in water (by drowning), and in the air (by hanging)”. Price — playing an “angel of death” — “has never been better”, portraying “a menacing, brutal, shrewd, arrogant puritan on a black horse who conveys the scorn that a man of Hopkins’s breeding would have for a world that financially rewards him for committing monstrous acts”: he “debases… people by raping their women, taking their money, and executing those brave enough to protest.” Peary reminds us that this film is “not for the squeamish, but [nonetheless] a powerful, one-of-a-kind film”.

Peary’s GFTFF review is lifted directly from his lengthier Cult Movies essay, where he contrasts this horror film (based in name only on a poem by Poe) with “all those enjoyable Poe films starring Vincent Price, like The House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and The Masque of the Red Death (1965)”, which were “intentionally claustrophobic, with almost everything taking place within secluded castles”, and evil — as “personified by the mad, hermitlike Vincent Price characters” — “confined to the castles themselves, so that if the castles are destroyed the evil within their walls will be destroyed as well.” In The Conqueror Worm, on the other hand, we “are presented with an evil that is overwhelming, invulnerable, and that will emerge victorious” — it is “not confined to a single castle but runs rampant across all of England, contaminating the people, wiping out whatever goodness exists and replacing it with a contagious sickness characterized by each ‘victim’s’ desperate need to be cruel to his fellow human beings.”

Peary adds that two of Reeves’ greatest achievements with this film — his third and last after The She Beast (1961) and The Sorcerers (1967) — were managing “to keep Price from going into the ham actor routine that mars many of his performances”, and for keeping narrative tensions consistently high. He points out that the film starts with a “pre-credits sequence so powerful — a screaming woman being led to a scaffold where she is hanged — that the film must be kept at a high level of intensity in order to avoid a dramatic letdown”, but notes that Reeves is successful in maintaining “an extraordinary momentum throughout”. Viewers should be forewarned that “along the way there is much violence — executions, tortures, a nerve-wracking soldier-ambush sequence” — and “whenever there is a chance that the hectic pace might be slowing a bit, Reeves automatically has Marshall [Ogilvy] jump on his mighty steed and race it across the countryside”, thus never giving the audience “a chance to relax”. I agree with Peary’s closing statement that “by the end of the film it is as if you have just run the gauntlet”.

With that said, this film’s relentless violence has a (sadly relevant) purpose, showing how easily mankind can descend into joy of torture — or at least mindless acceptance of it as commonplace and necessary. Reeves includes plenty of tracking shots showing villagers calmly watching as “witches” are burnt to death; minor facial expressions demonstrate that they likely believe the heretics deserve their fate. Also of note is the film’s gorgeous cinematography, showcasing real-life horror taking place in an atmospheric landscape of Gothic forests, meadows, village squares, and dank interiors. With his expert directorial hand, Reeves makes powerful visual statements throughout: for instance, as Ogilvy comes back to Dwyer and listens to her “confession” about what she’s done to try to save her uncle, she is framed by the word “WITCH” scrawled on the wall of a church behind her — but when Ogilvy brings her down to her knees with him to pray and ask God to marry them, the term neatly disappears from our view. In another notable instance, crashing waves at the seashore (freedom) turn into the fiery flames that will put an innocent victim to death. Reeves’ film is both brutal and brilliant, a worthy culmination to his far-too-short career.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins (nominated as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
  • Johnny Coquillon’s cinematography

  • Strong direction throughout

Must See?
Yes, as a justifiable cult favorite.

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Strange Cargo (1940)

Strange Cargo (1940)

“There’s nothing a man can’t get through to be free!”

Synopsis:
A convict (Clark Gable) escapes from a French penal colony with a small group of fellow prisoners — including a calm, Christ-like figure (Ian Hunter) — accompanied by a prostitite (Joan Crawford) eager to get away from a weaselly informer (Peter Lorre).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary opens his review of this atmospheric outing by director Frank Borzage with the simple statement: “Strange film.” He notes that the “picture begins dynamically on [a] penal colony, with extremely good, hard-edged dialogue being exchanged by the sinful characters.” He adds that the “initial meetings between Gable and the hostile Crawford are gems”, and that “Gable and Crawford sizzle throughout”. However, he argues that “the religious mumbo-jumbo gets in [the] way of what might have been a fascinating escape film. Every time anybody wants to do something exciting, the calm and solemn Hunter stops them, tells them the possible consequences of their actions, and gives them second thoughts”, thus leading to “the characters’ toughness and the picture’s as well [being] diluted.”

I’m not quite in agreement with Peary’s assessment. While it’s certainly an interesting narrative choice to have a living conscience accompanying the crew of sinners, it’s done consistently enough (Hunter really is Christ-like) that we understand what the filmmakers are aiming for. I think it’s the point of this film for the characters to become less tough, and learn how to live a more introspective, charitable life (even if they’re near the end of it — as many are). I wish Lorre had some juicier moments, but Gable and Crawford bring solid star presence and credibility to their roles — and the overall cinematography and direction are stellar. This would make an interesting double-bill with Papillon (1973), also about an attempted escape from Devil’s Island.

Note: This was the eighth and final collaborative film between Crawford and Gable, who were on-and-off-again lovers, rivals, and lifelong friends.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Crawford as Julie
  • Clark Gable as Verne
  • Strong direction by Borzage
  • Robert Planck’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as an atmospheric, well-acted, unusual flick.

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Gunga Din (1939)

Gunga Din (1939)

“Come on, Din — the world is ours!”

Synopsis:
In 1890s colonial-era India, a treasure-seeking sergeant (Cary Grant) is sent with an aspiring water bearer named Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) to investigate a mysterious lack of communication from an outpost. When Grant is captured by the leader (Eduardo Cianelli) of a criminal sect known as the Thuggees, Jaffe travels back for help from Grant’s compatriots: the elephant-loving Sgt. MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) and a sergeant (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) about to leave the service to marry his fiancee (Joan Fontaine). Will the fearless team be able to warn the British army about an impending ambush by the Thuggees?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is unambiguously fond of this “all-time great Hollywood action-adventure” flick, “inspired by Kipling’s famous poem about an Indian water boy who won the hearts of the British soldiers he served.” Peary focuses his review on comparing the storyline to that of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, with Gunga Din (similar to D’Artagnan) “a fearless, poor outsider whose life’s dream is to be one of the French muskeeters”, portrayed in this film by Grant, McLaglen,and Fairbanks, Jr. as “three inseparable, cheerful, fight-loving British soldiers” who “are also reluctant to let the outsider into their select company, treating him like a mascot until he proves himself.” He points out that “the action scenes are great fun and, until the final battle, usually feature bits of slapstick and funny heroics by the three imperturbable leads”. He further notes that while the “film should have been in color”, it “still has great pictorial beauty”, and that the “super direction” by George Stevens leads to a film that’s “spirited, stirring, and, finally, sentimental.”

This is all true: Gunga Din is wonderfully mounted, featuring atmospheric cinematography, solid performances, and fine handling of action scenes. However, it’s impossible not to be disturbed by the film’s blatantly Orientalist view of colonized India. Kipling’s poem is more than casually racist, as the following quotes demonstrate:

Of all them blackfaced crew
The finest man I knew
Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din
. . .
An’ for all ’is dirty ’ide
’E was white, clear white, inside
When ’e went to tend the wounded under fire!

DVD Savant’s review begins to get at the more problematic aspects of this film, pointing out that “Din is the prime example of the child-like ‘native’ that lives for the doglike joy of pleasing his anglo superiors. Grant is a nice guy, and treats Din to the ‘honor’ of military compliments, with gestures halfway between sincerity and snickering patronizing.” Savant also reminds us how blatantly history is misrepresented in the film, given that “the 1870s-1880s battles in India were [actually] fought against rebel princes and Rajas resisting English rule” — though of course “it’s always convenient to characterize those resisting Western force-of-arms as fanatic cultists.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rousing performances by the three leads
  • Good use of location shooting in Lone Pine, California
  • Joseph August’s cinematography


Must See?
Yes, once, for its historical relevance and spirited storyline.

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Honeymoon Killers, The (1970)

Honeymoon Killers, The (1970)

“No woman’s going to support me!”

Synopsis:
An overweight nurse (Shirley Stoler) falls in love with a gigolo (Tony Lo Bianco) she meets through a Lonely Hearts club, and soon begins posing as his sister on trips to bilk lonely women — but how long can they get away with their scheme, especially when it turns murderous and Stoler’s jealousy is provoked?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “unusual, violent sleeper is [both] a chilling reenactment of the grisly ‘Lonely Hearts’ murders that drew national attention in the late forties”, and a “fascinating, semi-comical examination of the true-life delirious romance between an ill-tempered, sexually frustrated 200-pound nurse named Martha Beck (well played by Shirley Stoler, who resembles her) and her speciously charming and handsome but not-so-smart Spanish lover, gigolo Ray Fernandez (a marvelous performance by Tony Lo Bianco).” He notes that the “film is cleverly scripted; has several odd yet interesting characters; probes America’s pathetic ‘lonely hearts’ subculture; and is one of the few ‘criminal couple-on-the-run’ movies that neither romanticizes the crimes (the murders are extremely shocking) nor glamorizes the criminals.” He points out that “director-writer Leonard Kastle was more interested in the relationship between the jealous Beck (who pretended to be Fernandez’s sister) and her unfaithful lover than in their crimes, but while he believed their love for each other was their one redeeming quality, it was not enough to fully redeem them after their murders.”

Peary argues that while “the direction by newcomer Kastle… is amateurish at times”, it “is quite innovative when it counts”: he “uses the camera skillfully so that we are aware of settings and spatial relationships”, such as creating “a sense of claustrophobia by placing Lo Bianco, his new romantic conquest, and huge Stoler in a tiny space so that they drive each other crazy.” Kastle gives his actors “free reign to create broad characters”, resulting in “several strong performances” — and he “uses the music of Gustav Mahler effectively, at times to counterpoint the triviality of what is happening on the screen.” Peary elaborates on all aspects of his praise for (and analysis of) this film in his first Cult Movies book, making it clear that “one-hit-wonder” Kastle was quite the polymath talent. It’s too bad for film fanatics that he never made another movie — music (opera in particular) was his first love — but in the meantime, we can appreciate (while shuddering in horror) the gruesome real-life “opera” he puts on for us here.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Tony Lo Bianco as Ray
  • Shirley Stoler as Martha
  • Strong supporting performances

  • Oliver Wood’s cinematography


Must See?
Yes, as a true cult classic.

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Yentl (1983)

Yentl (1983)

“Why is it people who want the truth never believe it when they hear it?”

Synopsis:
In early 20th century Eastern Europe, a young woman named Yentl (Barbra Streisand) — whose father (Nehemiah Persoff) has secretly taught her to read sacred literature — disguises herself as a boy named ‘Anshel’ and leaves her village to study. She soon befriends (and falls in love with) a student named Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin) who is engaged to beautiful young Hadass (Amy Irving) — but when the couple’s ability to marry is threatened, Streisand finds herself in a uniquely challenging position.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that despite Hollywood’s snubbing of what they perceived to be Barbra Streisand’s “tremendous ego trip” in adapting Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” (which she ultimately had to “direct, produce, and co-write”, given lack of interest or financial support), he finds “the film quite enchanting, humorous, inspiring, and extremely ambitious”. He notes that “Streisand uses her unique character — who has lived as both woman and man — as a positive influence on both Avigdor and Hadass”, given that “it is through Yentl-‘Anshel’ that they become more enlightened in regard to how men and women should perceive and relate to one another”. Peary adds that the “12 Michel Legrand songs” — which are “all utilized as Yentl’s internal monologues” — won’t “appeal to everyone, but Streisand sings them with conviction and they show that this director really wanted to understand her character” (as opposed to “the typical male director” who “might have asked for a less introspective score”). Peary points out that “Streisand handles herself well as director, deftly moving from funny moments to tender scenes between ‘Anshel’ and Hadass to the jolting scene in which Yentl reveals herself to Avigdor (a masterly directed and acted bit)” — and he argues that “one shouldn’t so easily dismiss the fact that this first-time director managed to get excellent performances from her two co-stars as well as the touching, humorous, very warm performance she herself gives”.

I’m in agreement with Peary’s appreciative review of this film, which has held up well and does indeed show tremendous talent from Streisand on numerous fronts. While Streisand chooses not to explore the intriguing potential of gender bending sexual preferences — that is, none of the characters openly reflects on what it means that s/he may be sexually attracted to someone (seemingly) of the same gender — she does effectively highlight how restrictive laws for women once were (and still are for many across the globe). As painful as it is watching Streisand conceal and alter her identity simply to have a chance to study, it’s equally challenging seeing how servile and guileless Irving’s character has been raised to be. By the end of this film, we’re grateful for the disruption ‘Yentl’ has brought to one microcosm of her society, but sad that “once she makes [Avigdor and Hadass] an ideal mate, she must step aside” — and move to America in order to continue her own journey.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbra Streisand as Yentl/Anshel (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Mandy Patinkin as Avigdor
  • Amy Irving as Hadass
  • Fine direction and cinematography
  • Michel Legrand’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful film featuring fine performances.

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Lenny (1974)

Lenny (1974)

“The point — the point is the suppression of words. Now, dig.”

Synopsis:
The life of controversial comic Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman) is told in flashback by his ex-wife (Valerie Perrine), mother (Jan Miner), and agent (Stanley Beck).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that director “Bob Fosse’s seamy, sex-laced biography of controversial comic Lenny Bruce… centers on his difficult marriage to stripper Honey Harlowe (played with vulnerability by Valerie Perrine) and his troubles with policemen and judges for using supposedly obscene material in his nightclub act.” He notes that “Hoffman is very convincing in the title role, displaying Bruce’s quick mind, his obsessive nature…, and, ultimately, his utter helplessness and despair when he realizes he’ll never be able to express himself openly in his profession.” Peary argues that while Hoffman “is magnificent in those scenes where Bruce tries to talk sense to conservative judges”, becoming “like Don Quixote fighting windmills”, the “film fails because of Fosse’s self-conscious direction and because Julian Barry’s script, adapted from Barry’s play, forgets to include moments in which Bruce shows he has a real sense of humor.” He writes that while “one can understand Bruce’s seriousness in his later years”, “except for a scene with his relatives, he’s not funny in his early years — even on stage.” Peary asserts that the “film could use some laughter because it’s deadly long at 112 [minutes] and very depressing”, adding that “this would make an appropriate second feature to Raging Bull“.

I’m not quite in agreement with all of Peary’s points. While the film is indeed depressing, I don’t find it overlong, and wasn’t particularly struck by a dearth of funny routines. Bruce’s audience laughs plenty when they’re shocked by the language he uses, and that’s the primary focus of the film: Bruce’s controversial (!) belief that he should be allowed to use everyday profanity in his comedy. In fact, there’s ample humor as Bruce good-naturedly (albeit very pointedly) does his routine while cops line the walls, substituting “blah blah” for the actual swear words while still being completely understood by his audience; his point is extremely well taken. What I’m most disturbed by is Bruce’s treatment of Perrine, who’s simultaneously adored and demonized for her sexuality (what else is new?). With that said, Barry’s screenplay neatly shows how Bruce’s rightful indignation ultimately consumed his life; it’s sad seeing his obsession with his court cases taking over his routines (and, of course, seeing his drug-induced ramble in a final performance). There may have been many complicated reasons leading to Bruce’s premature death by overdose, but at least here we’re clearly shown how the mutually reinforcing demons of addiction and hopelessness played pivotal roles.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce
  • Valerie Perrine as Honey
  • Jan Miner as Lenny’s mom
  • Bruce Surtees’ cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful biopic.

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Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

“The gods want their entertainment.”

Synopsis:
In ancient Greece, Jason (Todd Armstrong) gathers together a group of strong and talented “argonauts” — including Hercules (Nigel Green) — to accompany him on a quest for a “golden fleece”, and eventually falls in love with the sorceress Medea (Nancy Kovack). Along the way he’s aided by Queen Hera (Honor Blackman), who quibbles with her husband, Zeus (Niall MacGinnis), up on Mount Olympus.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Ray Harryhausen’s spectacular special effects highlight this marvelous fantasy-adventure”, directed “by Don Chaffey with equal amounts of wit and excitement” and “beautifully filmed by Wilkie Cooper” with “the mysterious blue ocean, white sandy beaches, and strange rock formations found around Palinuro, Italy and the actual Greek temples found in Paestrum” giving “the picture historical authenticity” — and “Bernard Herrmann’s score giv[ing] grandeur to the production.” Peary writes that “Beverly Cross’s imaginative, literate script keeps the story on a high intellectual plane so that it will appeal to adults as well as kids”: this “film is about the decision by Man, as represented by Jason, to choose his own life’s course, to challenge the gods’ unfair laws, to no longer be frightened by the gods into blind obedience” — with some amusingly droll “marital squabbles between MacGinnis and Blackman” sprinkled throughout for levity.

However, at the front and center of this story — naturally — are Harryhausen’s special effects. Peary writes that “it’s just amazing how believable the movements of his creatures are”, and gives kudos to the excellent “composite photography”. He calls out his own favorite moments as “the ‘Clashing Rocks’ sequence when huge bearded Triton, his fishtail flopping in the ocean, emerges from the water, holds the mountains apart, and watches the Argo sail under his arm; and, of course, the truly stupendous climactic swordfighting-skeletons sequence — Harryhausen’s ultimate achievement.” I can’t disagree with either of these choices, though I would add in how thrilling it is to watch the giant statue of Talos coming to life, and to see the gruesome harpies relentlessly plaguing blind Phineus (Patrick Troughton) finally caught and caged.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The amusing quibbling and game-playing between Hera and Zeus
  • Many memorable special effects and stop-motion sequences


  • Bernard Herrmann’s score

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable Harryhausen outing with some truly impressive special effects.

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In Cold Blood (1967)

In Cold Blood (1967)

“If this can happen to a decent, God-fearing family, who’s safe anymore?”

Synopsis:
Two sociopathic ex-convicts (Robert Blake and Scott Wilson) planning to rob a safe in the home of a Kansas businessman (John McLiam) end up murdering McLiam and his wife (Ruth Storey) and two kids (Brenda Currin and Paul Hough), leaving no witnesses behind. Soon they’re on the run from the law, but they don’t have long before their cold-blooded crimes will catch up with them.

Genres:

Review:
Writer-producer-director Richard Brooks was purportedly obsessed with getting as many details correct as possible in his “new realism” adaptation of Truman Capote’s best-selling non-fiction novel about the senseless murder of the Clutter family in Kansas. This tale has now been told and retold numerous times, not only through Capote’s book and this cinematic version (which aired a year after the book was published), but through two biopics — Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006) — centered on Capote’s life during his lengthy investigation of the story. On its own merits, Brooks’ version has held up well, featuring natural performances by the two relatively unknown leads (an intentional decision on Brooks’ part); appropriately noir-ish cinematography by Conrad Hall; and an effective soundtrack by Quincy Jones. The narrative choice not to show the murders until near the end of the film is a smart one, instead treating the story as an investigation into how these clueless killers were caught and eventually made to confess. Thankfully, Brooks doesn’t exploit the grisly murders; there is an appropriate air of sobriety to the proceedings throughout, with just a touch of flashback exploration into Blake’s traumatic childhood.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Blake as Perry
  • Scott Wilson as Dick
  • Conrad Hall’s cinematography

  • Quincy Jones’ soundtrack

Must See?
Yes. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Hellcats of the Navy (1957)

Hellcats of the Navy (1957)

“It’s a question of your confidence in my judgment.”

Synopsis:
When a submarine commander (Ronald Reagan) makes a tough call in allowing an officer to die rather than subjecting his entire crew to danger, his colleague (Arthur Franz) believes Reagan was motivated by the officer’s dalliance with his fiancee (Nancy Davis).

Genres:

Review:
Peary cites this “curio’s selling point — Ronald Reagan romances Nancy Davis” — as a “major reason why it is so dull”, noting that if “Reagan weren’t president and Nancy his First Lady, [the] film would have been forgotten”. He argues that it’s a “terrible movie, but it is interesting because it stars Reagan and explores the nature of command.” He adds that “Nancy Reagan haters will enjoy the sailors passing around her 8-by-10 glossy (she looks sixty and shriveled) and getting all hot and bothered”. Clearly, Peary’s comments are biased by the era when GFTFF was published (smack dab in the middle of Reagan’s 8-year presidency); it’s a bit easier these days to separate the actor from the politician, and to that end, Reagan is actually quite credible (if unexceptional). The storyline is standard Hollywoodized fare, exploring leadership and trust issues in times of heightened tension and combat. It’s not by any means must-see, but might be of minor interest to fans of submarine warfare.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Irving Lippman’s cinematography

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one unless you’re curious.

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Mighty Joe Young (1949)

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

“Am I dreaming, or did I see a gorilla and a beautiful dame?”

Synopsis:
A nightclub owner (Robert Armstrong) convinces a young woman (Terry Moore) living in Africa to come to Hollywood with her giant ape, Joe, and perform in shows with a rodeo star (Ben Johnson) — but will Joe adjust to life on the stage rather than in the wild?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that while the “script wavers” for this “underrated fantasy gem about a friendly, incredibly strong 10-foot gorilla”, Joe remains “a fabulous, lovable (yet not completely domesticated) creature”, and “the special-effects and stop-motion work by King Kong‘s famous Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen are marvelous.” He praises the fact that “Joe actually seems real, so subtle are his movements and expressions” — which is indeed true; it’s easy to forget exactly how much work went into creating this pre-CGI film. Moore is sweet yet strong as Joe’s “owner”, and her dedication to ensuring he doesn’t remain stuck in a life of humiliation is endearing. The final sequence at the burning orphanage is genuinely harrowing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen’s deservedly Oscar-winning special effects and animation

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance as Harryhausen’s breakthrough debut.

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