Sunday, July 6, 2014
Synopsis: Capt. Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) is the pilot of a C-47 transport plane that makes frequent runs to a scientific research station at the North Pole. He and his flight crew are at the Air Force base in Anchorage, waiting to be deployed again. While playing cards in the officer's club, Hendry is introduced to newspaperman Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer), who has just arrived at the Anchorage base. Scott is looking for a story, and is intrigued to hear that Hendry's crew frequently visits the remote station where the famous Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) and a gaggle of other scientists are working. Scott asks Hendry to consider bringing him along on their next run.
Scott doesn't have to wait long; almost immediately Hendry is summoned by his commanding officer, General Fogerty. Dr. Carrington's team has reported that a large aircraft has crashed in the vicinity, and Fogerty wants Hendry to investigate. Hendry asks permission to bring Scott. "I don't care if you maroon him up there," Fogerty says tartly, then adds, "Now, don't get me wrong about who gets marooned." He refers to an landing ski that was broken on a previous trip to the pole, which delayed Hendry's return. Hendry calls the broken ski "an unavoidable accident", but it's clear that Fogerty doesn't believe him.
Within hours Hendry's crew along with Scott are on their way up to the research station. Almost as soon as the plane has landed Hendry seeks out Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), an assistant to the scientists at the station. We learn that the two have not seen each other since Nikki's last visit to Anchorage; she had come down at Hendry's invitation, but the visit didn't go well. Hendry behaved like a drunken boor (he doesn't even remember the times that he spent "making like an octopus", as Nikki puts it). He is angry that she not only left without saying goodbye, but put a note on the passed-out Hendry's chest, listing his unattractive attributes, including his legs. "Now the whole Air Force is laughing at me," he complains.
He asks if it's possible to start over. She doesn't say no, but there isn't time to discuss the matter: it's time for Hendry to meet with Dr. Carrington, who turns out to be a frosty and condescending sort. Carrington tells Hendry that he wants to proceed directly to the crash site.
Carrington's urgency is driven by the fact that whatever crashed is too massive to be an airplane, and it isn't a meteor either. Once on the scene the scientists and military make an assessment, deciding that the object that crashed melted the ice surrounding it and sank before it re-froze.
Attempting to determine the shape of the dark object, the group discovers that it's round - the object is, they deduce, a flying saucer. Eager to uncover it, and spurred on by a winter storm headed their way, they set thermite charges, but instead of melting the ice as expected, the ship is destroyed. All that is salvaged is an alien body frozen in ice. They cut a block encasing it and transport it back to the base.
The scientists argue about the best way to thaw the creature so they can examine it, but Hendry tells them that they should do nothing until he gets further orders from Fogerty. But the winter storm has knocked out communications and they are on their own.
Hendry assigns Corporal Barnes (William Self) to guard the room where the frozen alien is lying. But Barnes, not wanting to see the alien's open eyes, carelessly tosses an electric blanket on top of the ice. Within a few hours, the ice has melted and the alien body is gone....
Comments: The Thing From Another World was one of the first films to combine the old genre of horror with the new genre of science fiction, and even today it's one of the best examples of that hybrid. It is an absolutely riveting film, still as tense and scary as it was upon its release in 1951.
For many years science fiction aficionados looked down their noses at this picture. Though it was based on the well-regarded short story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr., the plot was significantly changed for Hollywood. Instead of a monster that created cunning duplicates of its victims, leading to a situation where everyone in the camp suspected his neighbor of being an imposter, the movie offered a more prosaic monster-running-loose-through-the-research-station scenario. That -- and the fact that a woman was added to the cast to create some romantic interest -- led to the charge that The Thing was a profoundly dumbed-down interpretation of Campbell's story.
But judged on its own merits, this is really one of the best horror films ever made. It gets rolling quickly and never takes its foot off the accelerator. The screenplay by Charles Lederer (said to have been substantially reworked by Ben Hecht) absolutely crackles, without an ounce of fat on it. It smartly moves from one setpiece to another, keeping the viewer off balance. The brisk pace also keeps the viewer from thinking about the plot holes until later (for example, there's no real reason for everyone to be in such a hurry to dig out the spacecraft; a winter storm might dump a foot or two of snow onto it, but considering it's already encased in ice, that's trivial). The film also benefits from one of the greatest film scores of the decade, a nerve-jangling and theremin-infused work by Dmitri Tiomkin.
A minor though interesting subplot to the movie is the way in which Hendry redeems himself in Nikki's eyes. He is a distinctly unimpressive fellow in his early scenes. Even allowing for the boys-will-be-boys attitude of the 1950s, Hendry initially comes across as something of a lout. We learn he'd embarrassed himself by getting drunk and regaling Nikki with his sexual escapades in Hawaii, before "making like an octopus" and then passing out. He is all but accused by his C.O. of sabotaging his own aircraft in order to get more personal time with a pretty girl. The pretty girl in question, once she got an opportunity to see him up close and personal, decided there was less to him than meets the eye.
But as the crisis builds, Hendry's best self emerges: he is sensible, diplomatic, decisive; he is willing to listen to advice from those around him, regardless of their rank or status. He is scrupulous in following the orders of his superiors until he determines that the situation has changed enough that he can act on his own authority.
Hendry's leadership style is quite different from that of military men in other science fiction films of the era, which usually assume a good leader is someone who barks out a lot of orders. Nor is there the standard macho posturing and / or fistfight between romantic rivals as was standard in films of this era (e.g., Richard Carlson and Richard Denning in Creature From the Black Lagoon). It's a relief, frankly, to be spared the dreary, standard-issue romantic triangle.
The character of Nikki herself is surprisingly self-assured for a woman of this era, though as has been pointed out many times elsewhere, Nikki is very much in the mold of brassy Howard Hawks females. She is refreshingly smart and resourceful, and gets her share of one-liners ("If I start to burn up again, who's going to put out the fire?"). While she is never central to the action, she is far stronger and more sensible than women in films of this era.
One weak point in the film is the depiction of Dr. Carrington, who as the designated champion of science and reason repeatedly butts heads with Capt. Hendry. Everything about Carrington is designed to telegraph that he's not a "real" American, or even a real guy -- everything from his attire (furry Russian-style hat and expensive-looking but impractical cloth coat) to his effete-looking goatee and supercilious manner. Carrington's pedigree is further called into question by the fact that he seems not to notice the presence of his strikingly attractive secretary. In fact, he only has eyes for the monster.
Carrington is clearly enamored with the creature and its asexual method of reproduction, believing it to possess a cool, cerebral purity unsullied by base emotions and needs. There isn't really any reason for Carrington to believe this except that it's necessary to the plot that he do so; in fact the Thing behaves more like a snarling monster than the "intellectual carrot" that we keep hearing about. Nevertheless if the film can claim to be making any sort of social commentary it appears to be that xenophobia is the correct default response to anything coming from outside, and that intellectuals are dangerously lacking in common sense. When one of his colleagues refers to the Thing as an enemy, Carrington pushes back. "There are no enemies in science," he says sharply, "only phenomena to be studied". This notion would have seemed particularly dangerous at the height of the Cold War, and we are clearly supposed to regard Carrington as deeply misguided at best and a traitor at worst.
We can actually forgive this clumsy characterization for a number of reasons. First, from a screenwriting standpoint, there must be ongoing points of conflict between the human characters in order to maintain tension, and with the exception of Carrington, there really aren't any. Everyone gets along very well -- almost too well. Hendry's men work together smoothly and efficiently, and the scientists at the base are sober and helpful. Nikki effortlessly becomes a valued member of the team in spite of her early verbal sparring with Hendry, and despite his cynical wisecracking Scott is as much on board with Hendry's decisions as everyone else. It's a bit clumsy for Carrington to keep turning up as the sole enabler of the Thing's agenda, but somebody has to throw up obstacles for Hendry's team to overcome, and Carrington is a convenient fall guy.
Second, the presence of Carrington's colleagues helps to soften the anti-intellectual message. With the exception of the snooty Carrington himself, all the scientists are portrayed as friendly, patient, cooperative, and happy to explain difficult concepts to the layman. They quickly grasp the threat the Thing poses. When Dr. Stern sees the nursery that Dr. Carrington has arranged for the creature's progeny, he is fascinated, but he also recognizes that breeding them is a bad idea. "Imagine what a thousand of them could do," he says. Dr. Voorhees, an early Carrington ally asks, "What if this being came not to visit the Earth, but to conquer it?" These are reasonable people who don't let their passion for knowledge overwhelm them. The reassuring presence of the avuncular Dr. Stern and the level-headed Dr. Voorhees and Dr. Chapman prevent us from viewing scientists in general with contempt.
By the same token, the military gives Carrington the benefit of the doubt at every turn, always operating from the assumption that while the scientist might be mistaken or even misguided, he is not their enemy. Hendry in particular is patient with Carrington and goes out of his way to respect his point of view, even when Carrington's actions are dangerous. They treat him the way Nikki sees him -- as "a kid with a new toy" -- and chalk up his misdeeds to exhaustion and an excess of enthusiasm. At the end of the film, in Scott's radio report of the incident to Anchorage, he notes that Carrington is "recovering from injuries sustained in the battle" -- a technically true but deeply misleading statement. "Atta boy, Scotty," one of the men says behind him, and we must assume he speaks for everybody.
A lesser film would have been much less subtle with this relationship; we would no doubt have had had the military men complaining loudly about Carrington, shaking their heads and wondering whose side he was really on. It's to Lederer and Hecht's credit that the military men are as low-key as they are depicted here.
This film was enormously influential; a whole slew of filmmakers including Tobe Hooper, Joe Dante and John Carpenter cited The Thing as having a big impact on them as kids. Stephen King wrote extensively about it as well in his book of essays Danse Macabre. The film was commonly referred to simply as The Thing for decades, but it's now usually referred to as The Thing From Another World in order to distinguish it from Carpenter's own The Thing (1982) and Matthijs van Heijningen's prequel to the Carpenter version, confusingly also called The Thing (2011).
While there's much to admire about the Carpenter version, I found the characters to be rather sour and unlikable, and I never really cared what happened to any of them. The van Heijningen version offered a more interesting set of characters and some clever variations on how to prove one is a human instead of an imposter. But because it was a prequel, we knew how it was going to end, deflating a good deal of the suspense.
The original is deft and spectacular in its own way: not as cool or cynical as the later versions, but a taut and suspenseful picture that still packs a wallop. It's the kind of movie late-night creature features were made for.
The Face of Marble
Synopsis: Dr. Charles Randolph (John Carradine) lives comfortably in a large seaside house with his wife Elaine (Claudia Drake). Working in the basement with an array of high-voltage appliances, Randolph and his assistant David (Robert Shayne) are trying to find a method of bringing the dead back to life.
As the movie opens, Randolph and David are trying to restore to life a drowned sailor they found washed up on the shore. David is uneasy with this, fearing that they have crossed a moral line; but Randolph insists that they can't do any harm to a man who's already dead.
As they apply higher and higher voltages to the body, Randolph notes that the face of the sailor has taken on a stone-like appearance. As the two men watch, the sailor sits up, then stands, but suddenly collapses, dead. The experiment has failed, but Randolph feels they were very close to success. He notes that the electrical generator has burned out, and he goes into town to get a replacement.
The next day the local chief of police comes to visit Randolph, who had earlier alerted the authorities a body had washed up on the shore. The chief says the sailor Randolph found died under curious circumstances. -- an autopsy has revealed he was electrocuted. Furthermore, the sheriff notes that Randolph had gone into town to buy a replacement generator, and he wonders if there is a connection. Randolph tries to laugh it off, but it's clear that the police chief is suspicious.
Meanwhile, we learn that Elaine has fallen in love with David. Randolph is entirely unaware of this; and David's behavior is quite above-board, but the Randolph's maid Maria, who's very loyal to Elaine, practices voodoo, and plants a doll under David's pillow - one that she believes will make him fall in love with her mistress. Meanwhile, Dr. Randolph, noticing David's growing uneasiness around the house, arranges for David's girlfriend Linda (Maris Wrixon) to come and visit. This only increases the tension in the household, and before long Linda becomes troubled by the house's odd vibe and leaves.
Dr. Randolph decides to try the experiment again -- this time on Elaine's beloved Great Dane Brutus. He and David fail to revive the dog. But before long, they hear Brutus barking from another room. The dog is alive, but somehow changed: it has an odd, stony faced appearance, seems to have turned savage in the presence of humans, and has an odd ability to walk through walls.
Unexpectedly, Elaine dies, and Dr. Randolph can only think of one way to save her --by reviving her the same way he revived Brutus, and suffer the consequences, whatever they may be....
Comments: Hoo boy, another Monogram picture, and perhaps not coincidentally, another picture about scientists working on a way to bring the dead back to life. This no doubt seemed like a jolly good idea back when Frankenstein premiered. But really guys, enough already.
The problem with The Face of Marble isn't that it's bad (though it isn't good, exactly); it's that it never quite figures out what sort of movie it wants to be, and lurches from one disconnected plot point to another until time runs out. Using electricity to revive the dead and stealing corpses for the experiments is borrowed from countless movies that in turn borrowed from Frankenstein; the voodoo maid could have come from Night of Terror or I Walked With a Zombie or a dozen other movies. The small-town chief of police who keeps stopping by for friendly "chats" about sinister doings about town is equal parts The Devil Commands and Son of Frankenstein.
Only two plot points come across as even slightly original. The love triangle stands out because it's Elaine, not one of the men, who wants to change the romantic equation. In this era, women characters were distinctly lacking in agency, particularly involving matters of sexuality. By introducing Maria and her black magic, the movie cheats a bit, taking some of the onus off Elaine. But there's no way around the fact that Elaine hungers for something she doesn't have and which society says she shouldn't want. And this is made more interesting by the fact that the movie chooses not to stack the deck against her husband, Dr. Randolph. He is not depicted as a jerk or a boor. To the contrary, he is charming and generous to those around him, certainly more likable and lively a character than stuffed-shirt David.
The other point of interest is the mysterious transformation of Brutus. The dog's personality changes as a result of the experiment -- he becomes savage -- and he also gains the ability to move through solid objects, which even for a movie like this is an unexpected side effect. And so it's a bit novel to have the dog wandering around the house, walking through solid walls. And later, when Elaine inevitably undergoes the same treatment, she and the dog become a tag team, moving through solid objects like ghosts in a spooky seaside manor.
I've made no secret of the fact that I'm not a John Carradine fan but I have to admit that I liked him here. He plays a character not unlike the one he played in The Invisible Man's Revenge, which perhaps not coincidentally was the other Carradine performance I liked. I never find the man's evil characters interesting or compelling, but for some reason I find him more believable as a good-natured (but slightly naive) tinkerer.
Claudia Drake is perfectly acceptable as Elaine, and Robert Shayne gets all of his lines right as David.
Posted by Uncle Mike at 10:56 PM
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Synopsis: Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is the young protege of the wealthy Lord Mortimer (Billy House). Nell has a sharp tongue and an irrepressible spirit, and she is distinctly unimpressed by money and prestige. Lord Mortimer is alternately amused and offended by her impertinence.
One thing Nell doesn't approve of is Lord Mortimer's choice of friends. The sycophantic Master George Sims (Boris Karloff), overseer of the notorious Saint Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum - nicknamed "Bedlam", is eager to insinuate himself into Mortimer's company. To that end he provides entertainment to the nobleman's parties in the form of inmates of the asylum, dressed up to costumes and forced to engage in humiliating perfomances for the guests' amusement. One young man struggles to utter the dialogue Master Sims had forced him to memorize; he dies because his body has been thickly coated with paint. To Lord Mortimer and his Tory friends this is nothing to be concerned about, but Nell has come to pity the inmates who are so ill-used. She tries to convince Lord Mortimer that the inmates need better care, but any headway she makes with her benefactor is quickly undercut by the cruel Master Sims.
A Quaker stonemason (Richard Fraser) encourages her to act on her conscience, and Nell's protests about conditions at the asylum become more strident. This, along with Nell's increasingly public barbs directed toward Lord Mortimer himself, give Master Sims the opening he has been seeking. He convinces Lord Mortimer to allow an expert panel to examine Nell and assess her mental stability. With Master Sims serving as the chair of the panel, Nell's fate is sealed: she suddenly finds herself declared insane and made an inmate in Sims' ghastly asylum.
None of Nell's friends have any idea what has happened to her. The Stonemason learns she has been made an inmate, but when he tries to see her he is denied admittance to the facility. Going around to the back of the building, he makes contact with her at a barred window. A terrified Nell asks the Stonemason for a weapon with which she can defend herself from the other inmates. At first the Quaker balks at doing such a thing, but he takes pity on her and gives her the trowel he has with him. He tells Nell that he will do what he can to get her released.
At first, Nell is almost frozen with terror at the prospect of an extended stay in Bedlam, and her mood isn't helped by the fact that Master Sims enjoys coming in to gloat over her fate. But Nell is stronger and more resourceful than Sims believes; to his great consternation she overcomes her fear and begins ministering to the inmates, doing what she can to improve the conditions they are living under. She finds that many of the inmates respond positively to better treatment, and she earns the admiration and loyalty of those she has helped. But as the overseer of the asylum, Sims has many ways to make Bedlam more unpleasant -- and even deadly -- for the unfortunate Nell....
Comments: Bedlam was Val Lewton's final picture for RKO, as well as his last collaboration with Boris Karloff. The two men got on well together even though Karloff's presence had been imposed by the studio heads. Lewton initially regarded the Englishman as a ham and an oaf and took RKO's decision to sign him as an insult, reading into it an implicit demand that he begin churning out monster rallies like the ones being made at the time over at Universal.
Lewton was a sensitive man who tended to ascribe the worst possible motives to those he worked for. In fact the studio wasn't interested in monster rallies; it just liked the idea of a bankable horror star headlining Lewton's already profitable films. And Lewton had no way of knowing that Karloff himself had been desperately unhappy during his last years at Universal; he didn't want to make monster rallies either. It turned out to be a happy collaboration, and Karloff made three very good pictures with Lewton. For the first time in years, Karloff got to play something other than a monster or a mad scientist.
In Bedlam, he clearly relishes the role of Master George Sims, the sadistic, social-climbing proprietor of England's most infamous madhouse. Sims is detestable not only because he is a sadist and abuses those vulnerable unfortunates who have been placed in his care; he is also willing to abuse those same inmates for the amusement of his rich and powerful friends, just so that he can worm his way into their good graces. Karloff, that most physical of actors, plays Sims with an insincere grin plastered to his face, his posture telegraphing an oily, obsequious charm: he leans forward in a perpetual half-bow, lowering his head in mock deference to those he wishes to win over with his catalog of lies. Karloff uses his height to great advantage, curling himself like a question mark to wheedle to the porcine Lord Mortimer or gloat over the imprisoned Nell.
Anna Lee plays an unusually strong female lead in this film, effectively conveying first her haughtiness and the terror that results from it and then, after Nell overcomes her fear, her determination and her compassion. Lee was a prolific actress with a good range, appearing in more than 120 films over a very long career. Her Nell is far more interesting than most female characters of the time, a case of a good actress making the most from a well-written part.
The film misfires in a couple of places, first with the subplot involving the Stonemason, who is introduced as Nell's conscience early in the film and becomes her romantic interest at the very end, even though he isn't even given a name. The conflict between his Quaker convictions and Nell's desire to defend herself doesn't get very much play, and aside from his curious Society of Friends speech patterns (he uses the personal pronouns "thee" and "thou" when speaking to people, decidedly out of fashion in the 18th century) he has surprisingly little personality and not a great deal to do.
The film also falls flat in attempting to depict the nightmarish asylum in which Nell has been imprisoned, which after all is the centerpiece of the picture. The Bedlam we see here is quite sanitized, compared to what was commonly known about the place. No film of the time would have been able to show the true misery of such a place, of course, but the Bedlam we're shown here doesn't look nearly as frightful as its reputation would suggest (Universal, it should be noted, would never have passed up the exploitation potential of the asylum itself). Moreover, Nell's work with the inmates pays off so quickly and easily that it's difficult for us to accept.
But to be fair, this is a movie that clocks in at just under 80 minutes. There's something to be said for economical storytelling. And in the main this is a lively and well-made film, featuring one of Karloff's best performances.
Posted by Uncle Mike at 7:40 PM
Sunday, June 15, 2014
Synopsis: Jim Carter (Spencer Tracy) is a guy always looking to make a fast buck. He is working as a stoker on board a steamship, but but because his arm's in a sling he can't shovel coal; instead he takes bets on which of his able-bodied comrades can shovel coal the fastest. But it turns out he doesn't need the sling at all; he just wears it to get out of working. An officer on the ship sees that he's malingering. He tells Carter that he'll be docked a month's pay and put ashore at the next port. That's okay, Carter says - he's got a job waiting there anyway.
It turns out the job in question is at a carnival: he sticks his head out of a circle cut in a piece of canvas, and customers throw baseballs in hope of hitting him in the face. This isn't much of a job, even during the Depression, and he quits before the first day is out. Without a penny, Jim meets an older gentleman, Mr. McWade (Henry Walthall) , whom Jim immediately nicknames "Pop". Pop stakes him a meal, then shows Jim his concession at the carnival: a dusty and modest collection of artifacts meant to depict the Hell described by Dante in "The Inferno". The exhibit, Pop says, is designed to be a warning to carnival-goers to stick to the straight and narrow. Almost immediately Jim meets Pop's fetching daughter Betty (Claire Trevor) and the two hit it off.
Pop offers Jim a job, telling him that he needs someone to help clean up a bit. This is clearly charity, as the Dante exhibit is not much of a going concern. Seeing Pop struggle to draw a crowd to the booth, Jim sees a way to help. He tells Pop that he has had some luck barking at carnivals in the past; can he give it a try? Pop sees no reason why not, and Jim shouts to the crowd a fanciful -- but completely false -- story of what they'll find inside the exhibit. "Beautiful women and big strong men!" he yells. "And they're burning, they're burning, but still alive -- you can see them burn, crawling along on their bare bellies!" He pulls in a huge crowd, bigger than any Pop has ever had. Pop is a little uncomfortable that Jim's sales pitch isn't entirely honest, but Jim knows what all showmen know - that deep down people want to be fooled.
With Jim's help the Dante's Inferno booth becomes a success. Pop is happy with things as they are, but Jim sees a way to take things to the next level. He gathers a group of carnival booth operators together and asks them to invest in a new and spectacular "Dante's Inferno" attraction. When they point out that Pop's space isn't nearly big enough to accomodate Jim's ambitious plan, Jim tells them that he wants to swap spaces with Dean, the owner of a log flume ride. But Dean tells Jim that he has no interest in leaving his site. This seems to kill the idea in its tracks, but Jim knows that Dean is months behind on his rent. Jim buys the site out from under him, then ignores his pleas for more time to move the equipment out, even though he knows Dean will be ruined. Pop is surprised that they acquired the space so easily, but Jim assures him that it was all settled amicably.
In going over the plans for the new exhibit, Pop talks excitedly about the various stations were people will witness the punishments of the damned. Seeing the grotto reserved for treachery, Jim comments that people in the 14th century judged sins very harshly. Pop disagrees, saying "The sins of Dante's time are the sins of today."
The spectacular new exhibit opens with great fanfare and is a smash hit. The opening night is marred only by the reappearance of Dean, now a penniless widower, who commits suicide by throwing himself off a high balcony into the deepest part of the Inferno exhibit.
Soon Jim has built a huge network of carnivals, amusement parks, dance halls and gambling clubs. Annoyed that the local mob is trying to get him to pay more in protection money than he's been paying up until now, Jim buys a 500-foot steamship, the Paradise. He plans to use the ship as an ocean-going gambling club. On the high seas, he reasons, he won't need to deal with the police or the mob.
Carter's building inspector Harris reports that the Dante's Inferno exhibit is unsafe, but Jim persuades him to drop it -- first suggesting that he might lose his job, then giving him an envelope of cash. But when the building does collapse, Pop is injured and Jim must stand trial for criminal negligence. Recovering in the hospital, Pop shows Jim his copy of Dante's Inferno, telling him that what Dante wrote about wasn't simply a carnival exhibit, but a guide for living:
"Like you," Pop says, "Dante found himself on the wrong road. The spirit of Virgil came to him in a vision and guided him through the inferno. Let me show you the punishments that were revealed to Dante for the evils of Lust, Avarice, Blasphemy, Perjury, Murder and Suicide...."
Comments: The idea of Hell as a literal place where you might end up spending eternity has become an unfashionable one in the modern world, but for many centuries there was a certain grim utility about it. If the carrot of Heaven wasn't enough to make people behave (spoiler alert: it wasn't), at some point the stick of Hell had to be brandished. How effective it was as a deterrent to sin is debatable, but Dante Alighieri's 14th century work The Divine Comedy introduced a lurid conception of Hell that persists to this day. In fact, so vivid was Dante's description that the first canto of The Divine Comedy, titled Inferno, eclipsed the other two (Purgatorio and Paradiso) in the public mind.
There has always been a carnival side-show aspect to Inferno, as we are invited to be voyeurs peeking in on the torments of the damned, and so it's only natural that a movie dramatizing Dante's most famous work would prominently feature a carnival.
The core of this particular movie is a striking 11-minute sequence that depicts a stylized vision of divine punishment, in which the damned writhe and flail in lakes of fire, men and women turn into trees, and people drop off rocky cliffs into sulfurous pits and nightmarish grottoes.
Built around this sequence is the story of Jim Carter, who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps through grit and determination. We admire the way in which he's gone from penniless drifter to entertainment tycoon in a few short years, but at the same time we know his hands aren't entirely clean. He buys Dean's concession out from under him and doesn't give him enough time to move his equipment out; as a result, Dean is ruined financially. Jim is apparently cheating his early investors; when one of them comes asking what has become of the money he put into the operation, Jim tells them that it's tied up in stock and he can't pay out until the amusement park is sold (this is clearly a lie, and the "stock" the man purchased is apparently nonexistent). He then gives the investor (who now works in Carter's amusement park) a few dollars a week in order to send him on his way, acting as though this is an act of generosity. He pays off the mob for protection and when his building inspector warns of unsafe conditions in his exhibit, he first threatens to fire him and then pays him a bribe to keep him quiet.
To Jim, this dishonesty is no worse than the bait-and-switch of a carnival barker. It's the cost of doing business, the only way to get ahead in a dog-eat-dog world. When Pop begins to talk about sin and and the need to follow the straight-and-narrow path, Jim laughs it off. "Since the beginning of time there's only been one sin," he tells Pop, "and that's failure. People don't care how you win, so long as you win". Nevertheless he tries to hide the worst of his dealings from his family and from Pop. But eventually (to mix our theological metaphors) the karma train pulls into the station, and Jim must face up to what he has done.
The anchor of this movie is Spencer Tracy, in one of his last movies for Fox before moving on to MGM. Tracy had been working in film for five years but was not yet a star; he was lucky, as the Marx Brothers had been, to be courted by MGM's Irving Thalberg. Thalberg had a keen eye for talent and knew how to maximize a star's potential. Within a few years Tracy was a household name, having appeared in two hit movies, Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938).
It's widely assumed that Fox squandered Tracy's talent while he was signed to the studio, but that isn't quite right;. He is actually well-cast in Dante's Inferno, bringing the character of Jim Carter vividly to life. We get a sense of Carter as a boy who never quite grew up, with a mischievous streak, and determination to prove that he's the winner he always believed himself to be. It's a very American sort of character, and Tracy's open and honest demeanor works extremely well in selling the character to us.
Claire Trevor, who would play tough cookies in 1940s noirs, portrays a rather conventional supportive wife role here, but she does as well as the script demands.
Devil Bat's Daughter (1946)
Synopsis: A young woman (Rosemary LaPlanche) is found lying facedown on the highway late at night, and a passing good Samaritan stops and takes her to the Sheriff's office. She is conscious but in a catatonic state. A local cabbie identifies her as the fare he picked up earlier that evening. She'd wanted to go to the "old Carruthers place". When the cabbie told her the place has been deserted for years, she reacted with a shocked expression. Nevertheless it is at the Carruthers place that the cabbie leaves her.
Surmising that the woman's missing bag must still be at the house, the county Sheriff (Ed Cassidy) and local physician Dr. Eliot (Nolan Leary) go there in hopes of finding a clue to the woman's identity. In the woman's bag they discover papers that identify her as Nina MacCarron, the daughter of the late mad scientist Paul Carruthers, who had terrorized many people with his giant mutated bats some years earlier.
Believing that Nina is suffering from some sort of psychological shock, Dr. Eliot places Nina under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Clifton Morris (Michael Hale). Over a number of weeks, Dr. Morris helps Nina reconstruct her broken memory: she had been living in England for most of her life. Dr. Carruthers had left her family when Nina was only four years old. Traumatized by the recent death of her mother and by the stress of the London blitz, she travels to America to find her father, only to find that he had died under the accusation of terrible crimes.
During this intensive therapy Nina stays at the Morris household, and we get a view of the respected psychiatrist's home. There is growing friction between Morris and his wife, the wealthy Ellen Masters Morris. Ellen has a weak heart, and a son from a previous marriage, who is expected home soon from the war. For his part, Morris is keeping a mistress on the side named Myra (Monica Mars), who wants a commitment. Even though Morris explains that he would lose out financially if he divorced Ellen, Myra won't relent. Don't call me, Myra warns Morris, until you're ready to get Ellen out of your life.
Soon Ted Masters arrives home from the war; he and Nina quickly fall in love. But Nina is troubled by strange dreams -- of giant bats that are trying to control her. One night Nina awakens from one such dream to discover that she has killed the Morris family dog with a pair of scissors. Dr. Morris suggests she be moved to a sanitarium for the family's safety, but the kind-hearted Ellen disagrees, and Nina stays.
But a few nights later, after another disturbing dream, Nina awakens to find herself standing in the hallway holding a pair of bloody scissors. And nearby lies the body of Ellen Masters Morris....
Comments: This meager PRC offering was ostensibly a sequel to the 1940 Bela Lugosi vehicle The Devil Bat. That film was an archetypal Lugosi mad scientist picture, featuring a method of execution that has a zany greatness about it: the victim receives the gift of a special shaving lotion; when applied to the neck, the lotion attracts giant mutated bats that -- quite literally -- go for the jugular.
The Devil Bat was silly and lurid, but it made money, so it was only natural for PRC to greenlight a sequel. But it turned out to be a sequel in name only. What they really did was to make a low-budget knockoff of two popular films of the era, Cat People (1942) and Gaslight (1944). From Cat People comes the family curse and the conniving psychiatrist; from Gaslight comes the device of a powerful man convincing a vulnerable young woman that she's going mad.
As we previously noted, Cat People and Gaslight also clearly inspired She Wolf of London, a Universal thriller also released in 1946 -- and a movie with a very similar plot to this one.
So was Devil Bat's Daughter a rip-off of She-Wolf of London, which was a rip-off of Cat People and Gaslight? Or was She-Wolf of London a rip-off of Devil Bat's daughter, which was a rip-off of Cat People and Gaslight?
Well, we don't know. Devil Bat's Daughter and She-Wolf of London were released within a month of each other. It's possible that one was influenced by the other, perhaps by news that appeared in the trades. On the other hand, they both might independent rip-offs of other movies.
Oddly enough, the screenwriters felt it necessary to rehabilitate Dr. Carruthers' reputation at the end of this movie. We're told in the final minutes that Carruthers was actually a wonderful man whose important experiments with giant bats were misunderstood by a fearful and superstitious public. This seems extremely unlikely, since we all remember Lugosi chuckling with glee as he sent his devil bats off to rip innocent people's throats out in the first movie. Audiences had no doubt forgotten some of the plot points from The Devil Bat by the time the sequel arrived. But the presence of a homicidal bat-obsessed maniac probably wasn't one of them.
Posted by Uncle Mike at 10:49 PM
Thursday, May 22, 2014
Synopsis: Michael Ward is a young newspaper reporter who's the key witness in a sensational murder trial. Ward had walked into a coffee shop he frequents only to find proprietor Nick dead, his throat slashed. Standing over the body was a young man named Briggs (Elisha Cook, Jr) whom Ward had seen quarreling with Nick the previous day.
Being the key witness has been a stroke of good fortune for Ward. He's been given a promotion and a raise at the paper, and his writings about the case have landed him on the front page, above the fold, for days. He is making a name for himself, and his raise will allow him to move out of the dreary boarding house he's living in and marry his sweetheart Jane.
But Jane, who's been following the trial closely and has been in the courtroom during some of the testimony, has a nagging feeling that young Briggs is innocent. The entire case hinges on Ward's eyewitness testimony, and even that is circumstantial: he only saw the young man standing by the body, and didn't see the murder take place, nor did he see Briggs holding the murder weapon. But Briggs did flee the scene of the crime, and he did have a criminal record, including an armed robbery arrest when he was a teenager. To top it off, when the police apprehended Briggs he was packing a suitcase to leave town -- as guilty an action as you could ask for.
To no one's surprise the jury finds Briggs guilty, and the young man is dragged from the courtroom, screaming for all who will listen that he's innocent. A troubled Ward walks home from the courtroom, and encounters a strange man with a white scarf (Peter Lorre) sitting on the stoop of his boarding house.
Later Ward sees the odd man ducking behind a doorway inside the boarding house, and it is then he notices that his neighbor, the supercilious Mr. Meng, isn't snoring away through the thin walls as he is most nights. After a disturbing dream in which Meng has been murdered and Ward is convicted of the crime, Ward checks on Meng, only to find the man dead, his throat slashed. It occurs to Ward that he himself might be regarded as a prime suspect by the police. In a series of flashbacks, Ward recalls a number of unpleasant run-ins with Meng, including one occasion when he told a colleague he'd like to cut Meng's throat.
Returning to his room, Ward packs his bag, deciding to skip town before he's sentenced to the electric chair just as Briggs had been. But on an impulse he calls Jane and asks her to meet him in the park one more time before he leaves. Jane convinces him to call the police and tell the truth. Ward reluctantly does so, but because he's now all-too-conveniently the key witness in two separate murders with exactly the same m.o. he's booked on suspicion of murder. Jane realizes it's up to her to find the mysterious man in the white scarf and clear Ward's name....
Comments: This minor thriller from 1940 is one of several films that lays claim to being the first film noir. Though Stranger On the Third Floor has some noirish elements -- an urban nightscape, with violent crime as a backdrop and the seediness of the city on full display -- I don't think the noir category really fits it, even though two of its cast members (Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook, Jr.) would appear in The Maltese Falcon the following year. What disqualifies this one from being a true noir is that it lacks the hard-bitten amorality of the genre. Stranger On the Third Floor is, in fact, a full-blown morality play, as the cynical Ward learns to be a better man by being forced to walk a mile in Brigg's shoes.
At first Ward shrugs off Jane's concerns about the weak case against Briggs. It never occurs to him that he might have a vested interest in Brigg's conviction -- it is after all helping to make his career, and it's the meal ticket for the other reporters in the press room. The sensational trial is entertainment to the tens of thousands who buy the city newspapers each day. Had it been left here, at this cynical realization, the movie might an authentic noir. But Ward has a surreal nightmare in which he imagines himself charged with murdering Meng and pleading his case just as Briggs did, only to have the cynical reporters and prosecutors laugh off his protests of innocence. As Ward is being strapped to the electric chair, Meng enters the room, smiling, and no one listens when Ward frantically tries to point him out.
When he wakes up, Ward then decides to check on Meng (whose trademark snoring has been absent all evening) and finds that, just as he feared, the man is dead. It's a little odd, structurally, for a film to have a character's conscience awakened by a troubling dream, only to find that the circumstances of the dream have already happened. In fact, the dream (which is quite well-done) turns out to be unusually prescient even setting aside the murder, as no one believes Ward's story about the mysterious intruder in the boarding house -- no one, that is, except Jane, who scours the neighborhood looking for evidence that he really exists.
Once that task is accomplished, Ward and Jane rush off to get married, and the movie ends with them walking out of the courthouse only to find Briggs, who has found work as a taxi driver, waiting to drive them into their new life. He's happy that they have cleared his name and he's evidently resolved to follow the straight and narrow from now on. The movie ends on a sunny note - far sunnier than you'd expect from a noir.
John McGuire is a good choice for the part of Ward, coming across as a fairly scrappy and intense young man of the John Garfield variety. Margaret Tallichet is a pretty albeit unusually toothy leading lady and while she's not a great actress she carries the part off well, especially in the scenes where she's searching for the mysterious man who'd been seen around the neighborhood. Peter Lorre, in his last R.K.O. appearance, has a small but vital role -- no one could pull off the part of a vaguely unsettling man as well as he could. It should be mentioned that Lorre's teeth, which were in dreadful condition by this time, are clearly visible in many of his scenes, and I found myself empathizing with Tallichet, who had to endure some fairly close face-to-face encounters with him.
Return of the Vampire
Synopsis: October 1918 -- a werewolf named Andreas skulks through a British cemetery at dusk. He enters a crypt, where he awakens vampire Armand Tesla. Andreas tells Tesla that his latest victim is "still alive", and that despite the attentions of Dr. Jane Ainsley and an Oxford professor named Saunders, no progress is being made toward curing her. Andreas laughs at the notion that the scientists will find anything wrong with the girl that can be explained by science.
Meanwhile, Lady Jane Ainsley is working in the private sanatorium that adjoins her family estate. She has been examining a blood sample from the very same woman Andreas spoke of, a woman who was brought in suffering from shock. Ainsley notes that the woman's blood isn't anemic, as she had expected; it is in fact quite normal. Rather, it appears that the woman's blood had been drained from her body, which seems impossible. Aside from two tiny pinpricks on her throat, she has no wounds of any kind. Both she and Professor Saunders are baffled.
The patient becomes agitated, shouting fearfully to an unseen person in the room that she is loyal and hasn't told anyone about what happened. Moments later, she dies.
That night, Professor Saunders begins reading a strange treatise on vampirism, written a century ago by Dr. Armand Tesla. By morning, Saunders is convinced that their unfortunate patient's blood had been drained by a vampire. Dr. Ainsley is reluctant to believe such a wild theory, but when Saunders' granddaughter Nicki is revealed to have been bitten as well, Ainsley is convinced.
Ainsley and Saunders deduce that a vampire operating in the vicinity must have its coffin nearby, somewhere where it can be easily concealed. Searching the crypt at a nearby cemetery, they discover the vampire sleeping. They drive a railroad spike through its heart, killing it. At that moment, Andreas enters the crypt, and he falls to the ground, transforming from a werewolf to a man -- Tesla's power over him has been broken. They bury Tesla's body in an unmarked grave.
Twenty-three years later, we find Andreas working as a trusted assistant to Dr. Ainsley, and Nicki has grown up to become a beautiful young woman, engaged to Dr. Ainsley's son John. But Britain is again at war, and one night a stray German bomb falls inside the cemetery. Surveying the damage, a pair of workers find a man's body with a railroad spike driven through it. They remove the spike and re-inter the body.
Later, Dr. Ainsley sends Andreas on an important errand: a scientist named Dr. Hugo Bruckner has been spirited out of Nazi Germany and is arriving at the British coast. Andreas is to meet him and escort him to a temporary residence. But on the way, Andreas meets Armand Tesla. Tesla once again gains control of Andreas, and forces him to kill Bruckner. Taking the place of Dr. Bruckner, Tesla begins to plan his revenge on Dr. Ainsley and her family.....
Comments: Return of the Vampire is a movie we've seen a couple of times before on Horror Incorporated, but for me it never wears out its welcome. Bela Lugosi is in fine form as Armand Tesla aka the titular vampire, and Frieda Inescourt plays the strongest female character I can remember from a film of this era. Matt Willis brings a convincing pathos to the tormented Andreas, even though a werewolf wearing a suit and tie takes some getting used to.
Lugosi's performance is especially strong when you consider that Universal had effectively given him the boot, awarding the Dracula franchise -- such as it was by that point -- to John Carradine for monster rallies House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). Universal always seemed fairly cool toward Lugosi, seemingly reluctant to hand him the Dracula role despite Lugosi's success with it on Broadway. After the movie was a smash success Lugosi still wasn't getting any love from the studio; he was paid a handsome amount to appear in publicity stills for Dracula's Daughter while being kept out of the movie itself.
While he was getting over-the-title billing in a number of films, the roles were often glorified cameos in which he functioned as the red herring. As his stock declined he found himself hectoring producers and screenwriters for any kind of part. Nevertheless he must have imagined that the Dracula role at Universal would be his to turn down, if the studio ever decided to revive the franchise.
But as Lugosi was to learn, there's no such thing as loyalty in the film business.
Lugosi detractors often point out that he was an unbearably hammy presence on the screen, and that is true as far as it goes. But no one -- no one -- was hammier than John Carradine. And if you compare Lugosi's performance in Return of the Vampire with Carradine's in House of Frankenstein, the strengths of Lugosi and the weaknesses of Carradine as an actor become clear. Lugosi's vampire is ominous, imperious, sneering openly at the idea of Lady Ainsley blocking his plans By contrast, Carradine's dinner-theater Dracula seems to love nothing more than the sound of his own over-ripe delivery.
Credit for this strong Columbia outing belongs not just to the cast but also screenwriters Griffin Jay and Randall Faye, working from a story by Kurt Neumann, and a hat tip should go to director Lew Landers as well. This was an unusually strong effort by Landers, who didn't often work up to this level. He wasn't a hack by any means but typical of the film-factory model of the studios at that time, movies -- particularly B-pictures like this one -- were made on extremely rigid production schedules, and a heavy premium was put on directors who could deliver on time and on budget.
Without much room to put his own stamp on the production Landers nevertheless gives the film a dark, ominous feel, with plenty of shadows in the nighttime scenes, even in the lab and the Ainsley estate. Landers also uses dry ice with a wild abandon, another tactic that's useful in covering up meager sets, but the fog that spreads in Tesla's key scenes is symbolic of his own miasma of evil - we even see fog creeping across the floor in Nicki's room when Tesla appears there. This was a stronger horror film than anything Universal was doing at the time, and it made money. But instead of a Armand Tesla sequel (as had been rumored) the studio chose instead to tackle werewolf lore, leading to the vastly inferior Cry of the Werewolf later the same year.
Posted by Uncle Mike at 6:44 PM