Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951)

Strangers on a Train (1951) brought Alfred Hitchcock back to box office success after the lull that followed Notorious (1946), and today it remains a favorite with the auteur's fans. Hitchcock presents a deliciously twisted thriller in this tale of murder and blackmail, with Farley Granger returning after his performance in Rope (1948) for a second outing with the director, but it's the creepy appeal of Robert Walker that makes Strangers on a Train such a macabre delight. There's nary a blonde in sight, but Ruth Roman, Laura Elliott, and Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia, all give memorable performances as the younger women, while Marion Lorne and Norma Varden provide some delightful comic relief in their smaller roles.

Granger plays tennis star Guy Haines, who meets a fan named Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) while on a train. Bruno knows all about Guy and his personal problems, especially that Guy can't be with his new love, Anne (Ruth Roman), until his wife (Laura Elliott, aka Kasey Rogers) gives him a divorce. Bruno proposes to kill Guy's wife while Guy kills Bruno's hated father, but Guy doesn't take him seriously until it's too late. When Guy refuses to commit Bruno's murder in return, Bruno sets out to frame Guy for his wife's death, forcing Guy to dodge the police and resort to drastic measures.

Like a lot of Hitchcock's protagonists, Granger's Guy quickly finds himself deep in a situation beyond his control, and the stress pushes him outside the comfortable norms of polite behavior. He becomes secretive, driven, and tense, but we get hints of his inherent darkness early on, when he argues with his faithless wife and then tells his girlfriend that he could strangle the uncooperative woman. Guy never seems especially upset that his wife is dead, just unhappy that he's the most obvious suspect. Granger is solid in the role, but the real star of the picture is Walker, whose talkative, unstable Bruno drives the action throughout. He's a weirdly likable killer, devoted to his mother and rather desperate for Guy's approval, and he's shaken enough by the act of murder to develop a kind of PTSD in response to it. Bruno's scenes with his mother and Mrs. Cunningham, played by Marion Lorne and Norma Varden respectively, show his ability to endear himself to older women through his "naughty" sense of mischief; in some ways he's the opposite of Joseph Cotten's homicidal Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt (1942). The role ought to have been a comeback moment for Walker, who had struggled with alcoholism after being left by his wife, Jennifer Jones, but the actor died tragically just months after finishing the film.

Hitchcock engages in his usual visual tricks to crank up the suspense, and the amusement park setting of the murder gives him with plenty of striking images to use. Bruno pursues Miriam Haines through the Tunnel of Love in a boat named for Pluto, the god of the underworld; she constantly looks back at him as she romps through the carnival, never recognizing her seeming admirer as a figure of Death. We see Miriam strangled in the reflection of her own glasses, and afterward the glasses worn by Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock) cause Bruno to relive the murder, complete with echoing carnival music and a spinning sense of vertigo. A thoughtful viewer might pause a moment to wonder why Hitchcock would cast his own daughter as someone the antagonist wants to strangle every time he sees her, but the scenes are certainly provocative. The director also has fun with the tennis matches, where the spectators watch the back-and-forth between the players just as we watch the deadlier match being played by Bruno and Guy. The climax, back at the amusement park, delivers a hair-raising finale on a runaway carousel, as well as a wonderfully vicious little scene in which Bruno loses the cigarette lighter that he needs to frame Guy.

Strangers on a Train picked up only one Oscar nod, for Best Cinematography, but it's certainly a picture every Hitchcock fan should see. The director followed this film with I Confess (1953), Dial M for Murder (1954), and Rear Window (1954). You can see more of Robert Walker in Since You Went Away (1944), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), and The Clock (1945), while Farley Granger has memorable roles in They Live by Night (1948), Side Street (1949), and Senso (1954). Look for Ruth Roman in The Window (1949) and The Far Country (1954). Patricia Hitchcock, who is still living at this time, appears in two other Hitchcock films, Stage Fright (1950) and Psycho (1960), and she acted in numerous episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series.

PS - If you want to know more about Robert Walker, you can read a thorough discussion of his life and career at The Lady Eve's Reel Life.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Top 10 List: My Favorite Westerns

My Westerns lifetime learning class is wrapping up this week, and my students have asked me about a top ten list of classic Westerns. I imagine there are plenty of such lists naming the "best" Westerns, but I'd rather make mine a list of personal favorites. I do aim for some diversity in terms of decade, focus, director, and stars, but these are all Westerns that I enjoy tremendously every time I see them. I'm not including the comedy and parody films that prospered late in the day, although I do really love Cat Ballou (1965), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and, for reasons even I can't fully explain, Paint Your Wagon (1969). Here, then, are ten of of my all-time favorite Westerns, listed in chronological order.

1. STAGECOACH (1939)



4. HIGH NOON (1952)

5. SHANE (1953)




9. RIO BRAVO (1959)


What are your favorite classic Westerns?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Five Movies on an Island Blogathon: My Five Picks

This week the Classic Film & TV Cafe is hosting the Five Movies on an Island Blogathon, in which different bloggers pick five movies they'd want to take with them to a castaway life. Of course, we're assuming that our islands are hooked up for movie viewing! For me, the five chosen films are ones that would keep my spirits up in such lonely circumstances and also reward frequent repeat visits. They have to be fun (as much as I love film noir, I don't think fatalism will help me keep going in my isolation!), so I'm leaning heavily into comedies, musicals, and family fare for my choices. I'm also picking movies that I personally love because I want the comfort of favorite characters and images; I thought about trying to "catch up" on some three hour foreign language classics I have never gotten around to watching, but I'm sticking with pictures I know and adore. Taking these five along would be like taking old friends or even family members. Here, then, are my five picks.

1) THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) - This big, colorful adventure is one of my all-time favorite films, with a tremendous cast and glorious swashbuckling action. Errol Flynn never looked better, and every scene bursts with excitement, interest, and romance. The big cast, packed with greats, offers plenty to pay attention to even after dozens of viewings. We get heavies like Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains, character actors like Una O'Connor, Eugene Pallette, and Alan Hale, and the lovely Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian. It is, in every respect, basically a perfect movie (OK, so a few of Maid Marian's costumes are a bit odd, but that's nit-picking and you know it). It also reminds me of the rich tradition of Robin Hood legends, which will give me things to think about while I'm sitting around in the sand.

2) SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952) - Who doesn't love this movie? Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and the delightful Debbie Reynolds never fail to make me smile, and Jean Hagen has me in stitches with her irritating tones. The songs are winners, the dance numbers are energetic, and the story is full of Hollywood taking a loving poke at itself. As charismatic as Kelly is, for me this movie always comes down to Donald O'Connor's lovable Cosmo, who nails the "Make 'Em Laugh" and "Moses Supposes" numbers with brilliant comic flair. The title song might feel too accurate when monsoon season hits on my island, but at least I'll be able to wish on my lucky star when the nights are clear.

3) LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955) - I'm a huge Disney nut, and this is my absolute favorite Disney classic. It has laughs, it has adventure and romance, it even has tearjerker moments of tragedy, and it has some fabulous songs from Peggy Lee. I'd want at least one Disney film to remind me of the good times I have had at Disney parks and watching Disney movies, and for some reason this canine romance gets me every time. It features great vocal performances from Barbara Luddy, Peggy Lee, Verna Felton, and Stan Freberg. It's also a perfect Christmas movie, since it starts and ends at the holidays, so I can watch it to celebrate the season during my years of being marooned.

4) FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) - At least one of my picks needs to reflect my island situation, and this one also happens to have Shakespearean roots (it draws its inspiration from The Tempest, my favorite Shakespeare play). Sure, it starts a bit slow, but once it gets going it's a fabulous sci-fi adventure, with Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis falling in love while Walter Pidgeon battles his inner - and outer - demons are Dr. Morbius. Robby the Robot is an iconic figure with a dry humor, an Ariel of metal rather than air, while the invisible killer on the planet is a Freudian Caliban, a monster of the id unleashed. I used to show this film when I taught The Tempest, so watching it on the island will bring back fond memories of my university career, and I'll have lots of time to ponder its thornier psychological themes.

5) SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) - When I'm on the island I want something to laugh about, and this movie always makes me chuckle. Billy Wilder directs a delightfully screwy romantic comedy, with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis hysterical in drag, and Marilyn Monroe very sexy as Sugar Kane. Again there are lots of great performances in the supporting cast to make repeat viewings rewarding, from George Raft and Joe E. Brown to Pat O'Brien and Mike Mazurki. My daughter has proclaimed this "the funniest movie ever made," so watching it on the island will remind me of the times I have watched it with her while we laughed together.

There are lots of other movies I'd like to take along, too, but our blogathon limits me to five, and I think these five will keep me going with their energy, humor, and engaging plots. If I could have five more, I might add Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Women (1939), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and Rio Bravo (1959). For picks from other bloggers, check out the blogathon link post at the Classic Film & TV Cafe.

Monday, May 9, 2016

10 Great Westerns of the 1950s

The 1950s produced a bumper crop of A-level Westerns with some of Hollywood's biggest stars in the leading roles, including some we don't necessarily associate with the genre. Over the course of the decade, darker and more complex psychological Westerns appealed to adult viewers, even as the matinee cowboys continue to ride high with the Saturday morning crowd. Westerns and film noir provided fertile territory for directors and actors, with many jumping between the two genres and even blurring the line at times about which was which. Of course, John Wayne and John Ford were still on the scene, but a new generation of Western icons was also developing, with Lee Marvin making his presence known and director Delmer Daves venturing into the genre with Broken Arrow in 1950. You could spend a long time watching Westerns from the 1950s (check out 50 Westerns from the 50s for proof), but here are just ten great Westerns - one from each year of the decade - to get you started.

1) WINCHESTER '73 (1950) - Anthony Mann and James Stewart begin a fruitful collaboration in the genre with this picture, which focuses on the hands through which the coveted title rifle must travel. The cast also includes Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, and Stephen McNally, but viewers will also find early appearances by Rock Hudson (as a Native American) and Tony Curtis. Mann and Stewart would go on to make four more Westerns together: Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man from Laramie (1955), all of which are well worth watching.

Westward the Women

2) WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951) - Probably the least familiar picture on this list, this women's Western is truly unique in its focus on the suffering and determination of a group of women headed West by wagon train to marry settlers on the frontier. William A. Wellman directs an ensemble cast headed up by Robert Taylor as the women's guide, with Denise Darcel and Hope Emerson getting top billing among the many fine actresses. Renata Vanni gives an especially moving performance as one of the group's older members.

3) HIGH NOON (1952) - A four-time Oscar winner, this dramatic Western appears on almost any top ten list for the genre, and for good reason. Its real-time unfolding adds urgency to the story as we watch the clock tick down to Frank Miller's fateful arrival, while Gary Cooper's Oscar-winning performance is noble and moving, even if he is much too old to be marrying Grace Kelly. A terrific supporting cast helps seal the deal, including Thomas Mitchell, Lon Chaney Jr., Henry Morgan, Lloyd Bridges, and Katy Jurado. Tex Ritter, a singing cowboy from the matinee herd, provides the film's mournful title song, which inspired many later Westerns to have their own, similar themes.

4) SHANE (1953) - George Stevens directs this chivalric romance recast as frontier drama with Alan Ladd in the lead as the Wild West's version of a knight errant. Building their own rustic Camelot on the range are Van Heflin and Jean Arthur as the Starretts, with young Brandon De Wilde giving an Oscar-nominated performance as their son. Jack Palance, also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, is Shane's rival gunslinger. Other familiar faces in the cast include Ben Johnson, Elisa Cook Jr., and Ellen Corby.

5) JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) - Joan Crawford makes a rare genre appearance in this very unusual Western from Nicholas Ray, with Sterling Hayden as the title character. There's a lot of noir atmosphere seeping through, no surprise with Ray in the director's chair and Crawford and Hayden in the leads. The supporting cast is full of Western favorites, though, including Ward Bond, John Carradine, Royal Dano, Ernest Borgnine, and Paul Fix. Look out for a truly vicious performance by Mercedes McCambridge as Crawford's rival.

6) BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955) - Spencer Tracy stars in John Sturges' modern take on Western themes, once again with noir atmosphere turning everything a shade darker and dirtier. Tracy's one-armed WWII veteran comes to Black Rock on a mission of peace, but he finds out that Black Rock has a secret its residents will kill to hide. The landscape and the town speak to the lingering traces of the Old West, and the rest of the cast is packed with genre stalwarts, including Robert Ryan, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine, and Lee Marvin. Tracy earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance, while Sturges picked up a nod for Best Director, but every aspect of this film exudes excellence. It's just as hard-hitting today as it was in 1955.

7) THE SEARCHERS (1956) - John Ford and John Wayne deliver their most iconic collaboration with this epic tale of loss and obsession, with Wayne in the lead as ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards, who embarks on a years-long quest to find his niece (Natalie Wood) after she is kidnapped by the Comanche. This is a darker, more morally complicated character for Wayne, but he suits the role perfectly. Widely considered one of the greatest Westerns of all time, this picture is the go-to example of Ford and Wayne's work together, with a rich subtext and emotional supporting performances that reward multiple viewings.

8) 3:10 TO YUMA (1957) - Delmer Daves directs Van Heflin and Glenn Ford in this tense character study of two very different men brought together by fate. Ford plays the smooth-talking, opportunistic outlaw, while Heflin plays the upright rancher with the dangerous job of getting the captured bandit to the train that will take him to prison. From there the lines between good man and bad begin to blur, with the outlaw and the rancher each coming to understand the nature of the other. Frankie Laine sings the theme song, which harks back to the melancholy theme of High Noon.

9) THE BIG COUNTRY (1958) - At 165 minutes, this is an epic Western, indeed, with Gregory Peck leading an impressive cast under the direction of William Wyler. Peck plays a former sea captain who heads West to take up ranching with his fiancee but, predictably, finds drama and strife as he becomes embroiled in a bitter feud. Burl Ives won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, but other notable cast members include Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Chuck Connors, Carroll Baker, and Alfonso Bedoya.

10) RIO BRAVO (1959) - Howard Hawks and John Wayne strike back against the serious (and often left-leaning) tone of many 1950s Westerns with the rollicking Rio Bravo, which is more interested in action than psychological analysis. Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, who gets a very motley crew of assistants when the bad guys turn up to reclaim one of their own from Chance's jail. Dean Martin is the alcoholic Dude, trying to sober up enough to hold a gun, and Walter Brennan plays crusty old Stumpy. Dreamy Ricky Nelson sings and shoots as Colorado, while Angie Dickinson gives Wayne some romantic trouble as Feathers. The picture is usually seen as a rebuttal to High Noon, and it presages the kind of movie Wayne would continue to make from here until the end of his career. However, for the A Western as pure entertainment, this one is hard to beat.

For even more great Westerns from the 1950s, try The Gunfighter (1950), The Baron of Arizona (1950), The Furies (1950), Vera Cruz (1954), Seven Men from Now (1956), and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). You'll find full-length reviews for many of the Westerns listed here in my books, Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and Beyond Casablanca II. Both are available on Amazon Kindle.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Classic Movies for Cat Lovers

Cats have been on my mind a lot this month. In March, our family adopted two kittens, Ginger Peach and Earl Greyer, having mourned the deaths of our senior dog, Tess, in January, and our 20 year old cat, Grendel, back in October. Ginger has indeed been a peach, but little Earl quickly succumbed to a fatal disease that could not have been identified until the symptoms appeared (it's called FIP, or feline infectious peritonitis, and it's about the worst possible thing that can happen to a cat). The day Earl died I found myself thinking about that scene in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), where young Martha's kitten is killed by her vicious aunt (Judith Anderson). Martha then promptly murders her aunt, and the audience doesn't feel sorry for the old hag one bit. If I could push FIP down a flight of stairs I certainly would. Having held a dying kitten in my arms, that scene's emotional trauma now resonates for me in a very personal way.

Earl Greyer and Ginger Peach
Life, however, has to move on. Maybe Martha wouldn't have grown up to be such a rotten incarnation of Barbara Stanwyck if she could have just gotten a new kitten. Ginger sits in my lap as I type this post, purring and biting my arm, and next week we expect to welcome another kitten into our home. I'm still thinking about movies and cats, but brainstorming names for the new little guy makes me think more about movies with especially significant cat characters. Here are a few of those movies, in case you also find yourself thinking about naming a new kitty in the near future.


If I were getting a black female cat, I'd be seriously tempted to name her for Simone Simon or her character, Irena, in this iconic Jacques Tourneur horror made under the supervision of genre maestro Val Lewton. Simon plays an immigrant bride who fears that consummating her marriage with her American husband will cause her to transform into a huge, bloodthirsty cat. As it turns out, she's right to be worried. We don't really see much of Irena in panther form, but the movie just oozes feline atmosphere, and it's one of my very favorite Lewton films. Horror is eternally obsessed with cats, especially black ones, but they often skulk around the scenery without ever being named. This movie's existence offers two great names in its star and its protagonist, and really Simone and Irena would be perfect for a pair of kitten sisters.


It's not much help in the name department as far as the actual cat is concerned, but Carol Reed's brilliant film noir does have a very important cat character. In one of the movie's many iconic scenes, the presence of the presumably dead Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is revealed when his devoted cat comes up to his hiding place on a shadowy street. Given his disappearing Cheshire grin act, Harry Lime would actually make a great name for a cat, and Orson is pretty good, too, especially if the cat seems likely to get chunky as he ages! Cats on Film has a very interesting post about the cat in The Third Man, with some discussion of the cat's thematic and Freudian significance.

RHUBARB (1951)

This Ray Milland vehicle is the best place to appreciate cat actor Orangey, who appears in several memorable pictures but here takes the title role. While Orangey is not the most original name for a reddish orange cat, Rhubarb is definitely a good choice. This is a great movie for cat lovers, and it's packed with funny scenes. Unfortunately, Orangey doesn't get a name at all in his other most famous film, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), where he's just called Cat. My friend Terry at Shroud of Thoughts has a really excellent post about Orangey and his career, if you want to know more about him.


Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak star in this supernatural romance, made the same year as their most famous pairing in Vertigo. The cat in this instance is Pyewacket, a Siamese who acts as Novak's familiar. The name comes from an account in Matthew Hopkins' 1647 pamphlet, "The Discovery of Witches," which also contains gems like Elemanzer, Greedigut, and Peck in the Crown. If you subscribe to the T.S. Eliot theory of cat naming, Hopkins seems like your go-to source for unique feline monikers, and he's even a movie character himself, played by Vincent Price in the 1968 horror, The Conqueror Worm (aka Witchfinder General). Pyewacket is a good name for a Siamese or any cat who has that supernatural vibe, and it seems like it might work equally well for a boy or a girl. If you want to know more about this particular movie cat, Cinema Cats has a nice discussion of Pyewacket's history and the making of the film.


Here's another movie about black cats, this time from Japan. This is a strange, supernatural tale about two women who become murderous cat spirits after they are brutally raped and murdered by a group of samurai. It's also a tragic love story; the protagonist is the son of one victim and the husband of the other, and the women must struggle between their desire to be reunited with him and their sworn quest for vengeance. Obviously, Kuroneko is a name for a black cat only, since it means "black cat" in Japanese! If you need an additional Japanese cat name, you might go with Onibaba, which is also the title of a 1964 film by Kaneto Shindo, the director of Kuroneko. According to Wikipedia, Onibaba means "demon hag," which works pretty well for a cat.


Eventually all discussions of movie-inspired animal names turn to Disney, and The Aristocats is the richest single source for cat names in the studio's history thus far. We have white, fluffy Duchess (voiced by Eva Gabor), tough orange tomcat Thomas O'Malley (Phil Harris), and the kittens: Marie, Toulouse, and Berlioz. There's also a swinging cat band that includes Billy Bass (Thurl Ravenscroft) and Scat Cat (Scatman Crothers). For more Disney cat names, you could go with Thomasina of The Three Lives of Thomasina (1963), Bagheera of The Jungle Book (1967), or Oliver of Oliver & Company (1988). In general, Disney gives more love to dogs than cats, but they do provide some good names that would work for cats, especially in their villains. You could name your cat Maleficent, Ursula, or even Chernabog!

Of course, you could also name a cat after a classic movie star. Tallulah, Veronica, Bette, and Elsa Lanchester would all make great names for female cats; for boys you could go with Valentino, Bela, Boris, Basil, or Errol Flynn. Have any of you out there named a cat for a film character or star? Tell us about it in the comments!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE LITTLE FOXES (1941)

The Little Foxes (1941) reunites stars Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall with director William Wyler after their collaboration the previous year in The Letter (1940), in which Davis had also played a morally bankrupt wife who wrecks Marshall's life. The original stage version of the play by Lillian Hellman had starred Tallulah Bankhead, who hailed from Alabama, where the story takes place around the turn of the last century. The movie version pulled in a whopping nine Oscar nominations, with Teresa Wright and Patricia Collinge actually pitted against each other for Best Supporting Actress, but the lack of any wins is more a testament to the year's embarrassment of cinematic riches than a reflection on the merits of this picture. Smart, sharp, and ruthless in its depiction of a truly awful trio of ambitious siblings, The Little Foxes is a must for Davis and Marshall fans.

Davis leads as the heartless Regina Giddens, who hopes to rake in riches by convincing her husband, Horace (Herbert Marshall), to go in with her two brothers (Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid) on a cotton mill scheme. When Horace refuses, his shifty nephew, Leo (Dan Duryea), steals valuable railroad bonds from Horace's safety deposit box to get enough money to proceed with the plan. The brothers also hope to consolidate the family's wealth by marrying Leo to Regina's innocent daughter, Alexandra (Teresa Wright), a plot strenuously resisted by Horace and Alexandra's unhappy aunt, Birdie (Patricia Collinge).

The Hubbard brothers and their sister make most dysfunctional families look like the Brady Bunch. They share a Shakespearean hunger for importance and wealth, and destruction falls on anyone who stands in their way. Eldest brother Ben (Dingle) hides his grasping avarice beneath a veneer of Southern geniality, while second son Oscar (Reid) berates and belittles his alcoholic wife after marrying her for her family's name and property. Shut out from the Hubbard inheritance because of her sex, Regina competes with her brothers by manipulating her ailing husband and pushing relentlessly for the largest share in the cotton mill scheme. Davis, Dingle, and Reid are at their best when they get to be the worst; they really send chills up the spine with their cold eyes and their infinite greed. Davis in particular freezes the heart when Regina watches Horace succumb to a heart attack without lifting a finger to help him. It's murder by sitting still, but the look on Davis' face speaks volumes. Dan Duryea makes a perfect heir to the Hubbards' black nature as the corrupt but spineless Leo; if he lacks the grandeur of his elders, he is, at least, everything that they deserve.

The siblings behave so badly that the movie would be unbearable without the relief provided by the sympathetic characters, particularly Herbert Marshall's dying Horace and Teresa Wright as his devoted daughter. Wright's Alexandra is the dynamic character of the narrative; her elders have already made the decisions that dictate their fates, but she has the opportunity to reject their choices and strike out for a life of her own. She has several key figures to help her, including her father and her playful love interest, David (Richard Carlson), but the good women around her also show her the way. Her Aunt Birdie serves as a tragic object lesson in the dangers of letting the Hubbards control her, and Patricia Collinge plays the character beautifully, so that we see her failings but forgive them because of her sweet nature and her suffering. More importantly, Alexandra has a true mother figure in Addie, played by Jessie Grayson with quiet fortitude and unshakable poise. She might be a paid household servant, but Addie makes the single greatest difference in Alexandra's life, having obviously raised her to be a generous, sincere person in spite of her mother and uncles. The most moving scene in the film unites all of these good characters at a table outside the house, where they form a kind of quiet resistance to the devouring evil of Regina and her brothers. The elders might not be able to save themselves, but they support one another and do their best to protect Alexandra, who is the heir to their humanity just as Leo is the heir to the Hubbards' depravity. Worlds collide when Alexandra eventually stands up to Regina, especially in the movie's powerful final scenes.

Bette Davis already had two Oscars by the time she got her nomination for The Little Foxes. She would end her career with eleven nominations in all, including wins for Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938), both of which were also directed by William Wyler. Wyler won his own Oscars for Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Ben-Hur (1959). For more of Herbert Marshall, see Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Enchanted Cottage (1945), and Angel Face (1952). Don't miss Teresa Wright and Patricia Collinge playing daughter and mother in Shadow of a Doubt (1943); Wright, who also appears in The Best Years of Our Lives, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Mrs. Miniver. If you want to know how the Hubbards got to be such a rotten crowd, you might track down the prequel, Another Part of the Forest (1948), in which Dan Duryea plays the younger Oscar and Ann Blyth plays Regina. Other films adapted from Lillian Hellman's plays include Watch on the Rhine (1943) and The Children's Hour (1961).

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974)

The Beast Must Die (1974) is not a good horror movie, but it's an entertaining one, assuming that its odd collection of elements appeals to a certain kind of classic horror enthusiast. This Amicus production throws together plot threads from The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1945) as well as a gimmick straight out of a William Castle picture and performances from a couple of familiar players sure to lure in Hammer fans. Chief among the actors is Peter Cushing, playing a Van Helsing sort of lycanthrope expert, complete with accent, but The Beast Must Die also features Michael Gambon, Charles Gray, and the charismatic blaxploitation star Calvin Lockhart, here inhabiting a role very similar to the kind often played by Christopher Lee.

Lockhart opens the film as eccentric millionaire Tom Newcliffe, who brings an assortment of guests to his compound with the hope of revealing one of them to be a werewolf. Newcliffe intends to unmask and then kill the monster, but his unwilling house guests are understandably upset by his plans. Even his wife, Caroline (Marlene Clark), recoils from his obsession, but Newcliffe presses forward with his schemes, and inevitably his companions begin to die from werewolf attacks. With advice from the werewolf expert, Dr. Lundgren (Peter Cushing), Newcliffe devises tests to reveal the killer among them, but the flaws in his thinking make themselves tragically clear.

The movie is a mixed bag of the usual failings of its type and some surprisingly engaging performances from a capable cast. This is not a high-budget production, as the frequent day-for-night shots repeatedly prove, and there are plot holes big enough to drive a truck through. The clunky "werewolf break" gimmick invites the audience to guess the identity of the monster just before the big reveal near the end, but it's really no mystery to anyone who is paying attention. The werewolf, a large dog with some extra hair thrown on, is scarier for the aftermath of its attacks than the attacks themselves, and we never get a proper transformation scene; the werewolf reveals only a hairy hand before it changes into its fully canine form. None of these problems reflect on the actors' performances, which are generally quite good, and Lockhart's intensity as Newcliffe pushes the silly narrative forward in spite of itself. Gambon, Gray, and Cushing all pretend they're in a much better movie and help to give the picture its Agatha Christie atmosphere, although the weirdest of the lot is certainly Tom Chadbon as the fey, cannibalistic Paul Foote.

While it isn't by any means an essential example of the werewolf genre, The Beast Must Die does play with its conventions in some interesting ways. The werewolf might be a killer, but the real monster throughout the picture is Tom Newcliffe, whose obsession with hunting this supernatural prey surpasses any concern for the lives of others. The movie opens with Newcliffe, a black man, being chased through the forest by armed soldiers, but we then find that he's just testing his own surveillance and trapping systems for the impending werewolf hunt. Thus the picture creates and then thwarts expectations; it wants us to know that we're never on sure footing about what we're seeing or who is behind it. Newcliffe acts like his captive house guests deserve their fate for being potential monsters, but none of them is a terrible enough person to warrant such treatment; the real werewolf hasn't chosen to become a killer, and Newcliffe's persecution puts everyone else in danger of dismemberment, death, or infection from a scratch or bite. There's some poetic justice in the finale, at least as far as Newcliffe is concerned, but a lot of innocent blood gets spilled before he sees the error of his ways.

If you want to see the best of the werewolf genre, stick with Werewolf of London (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), and An American Werewolf in London (1981). Peter Cushing was a busy actor in 1974; his other films from that year include From Beyond the Grave, Madhouse, and Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. You'll find Calvin Lockhart in Halls of Anger (1970) and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), while Charles Gray is probably best remembered for his role as Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Michael Gambon is familiar to Harry Potter fans as the second actor to play Albus Dumbledore; he has enjoyed a long and varied career, but The Beast Must Die is an unusual entry even in his diverse filmography. He is still hard at work in 2016, with three pictures in post-production at the time of this post.