Monday, February 13, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: EACH DAWN I DIE (1939)

As its grim title suggests, Each Dawn I Die (1939) is an explosive drama awash in death and violence, as only Warner Brothers' 1930s gangster and prison films could deliver them. William Keighley directs the parade of brutal injustice with James Cagney and George Raft as the chief victims of a horrifically corrupt system that destroys human beings without regard for their innocence or rehabilitation. Cagney's journalist hero has chosen the moral high ground as a crusader against graft and crime, but he ends up in the same place as Raft's sympathetic gangster, and in prison Cagney learns the extent of systemic cruelty. At once a riveting drama about loyalty and a scathing critique of inhumane American prisons, Each Dawn I Die gives Cagney and Raft terrific opportunities to showcase their dramatic talents.

Cagney plays hard-driving investigative reporter Frank Ross, whose efforts to uncover political corruption put him on a crooked governor's hit list. Kidnapped and set up for a drunken driving manslaughter charge, Frank gets sent to hard labor in prison, where he earns the respect of other inmates for his tough, principled behavior. He becomes especially close to gangster Hood Stacey (George Raft), who appreciates Frank's refusal to snitch. When Stacey asks Frank to help him escape, he promises to work to clear Frank's name on the outside, but Frank suffers horrifically for his loyalty while Stacey waffles about keeping his word.

Although it features a daring escape, numerous scenes of shocking cruelty, and a wildly violent gun battle finale, Each Dawn I Die is deeply invested in its story of an unlikely friendship forged in the most intolerable circumstances. Both Frank and Stacey appear as fully realized, complex characters, despite their tough talk and glaring eyes. We come to understand that they are not so different, that both men have reacted to a corrupt, unforgiving world in the way that seemed available to them. Frank fights, Stacey assimilates, but they suffer the same fate because the system devours both its enemies and its own. Cagney and Raft deliver performances that make these characters feel very real; each has a dynamic arc that allows the actors to demonstrate their range. Cagney is especially powerful in Frank's moments of anguish and rage, showing the darkness that even a good man can embrace when his humanity is denied. Raft shines as a dangerous tough guy early on, but his slow awakening to Frank's worth reminds us that he is still a human being, too, one who has become a criminal because he thought that was simply the way of the world.

The stories of the secondary characters add nuance to the central plot, with several supporting players giving very fine performances. Jane Bryan is lovely and determined as Frank's girlfriend, Joyce, who never stops trying to save him. The couple's brief moments together at the prison are tearjerker scenes of love and misery, especially when Joyce comes to see Frank after his long, agonizing months in the hole. Maxie Rosenbloom adds a hint of comic affability to the tragedy of his character, Fargo Red, an inmate who is just another everyman chewed up by the relentless system. Louis Jean Heydt plays a similar character, but purely for tragic effect; his Lassiter becomes a victim of the sadistic guard, Pete, performed with vicious brilliance by John Wray. It's a thankless task to play the kind of villain Wray takes on in Pete, since everything about him is deplorable, but he perfectly embodies the cruelty of the system as a whole. George Bancroft has a small but important role as Stacey's lawyer, and Victor Jory makes a brief but memorable appearance as Grayce, the corrupt head of the parole board who ensures that Frank's petition will be denied.

For more gangster drama from William Keighley, try 'G' Men (1935), Special Agent (1935), and Bullets or Ballots (1938). Catch Cagney as the gangster in The Public Enemy (1931), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and White Heat (1949). George Raft, who grew up in Hell's Kitchen, always looks at home in a tough guy role; he's best remembered for his role in Scarface (1932), but don't miss him in They Drive by Night (1940) and Some Like It Hot (1959). If classic prison movies appeal, return to the big house with I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Brute Force (1947), or Caged (1950).

Friday, January 27, 2017

Reel Resistance: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)

When it comes to movies that deliver on vicarious Nazi punching, it's hard to beat the original Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The third installment of the trilogy is good for that, too, but the 1981 picture features all the adventure of a classic serial and all the patriotic verve of WWII era Hollywood. It plays like a feel-good morale booster for a dark time, and that's what makes it such an excellent movie to revisit in 2017. These are the times that try men's - and women's - souls, and sometimes you just really want to watch the Ark of the Covenant melt off Nazi faces.

Of course, Harrison Ford's errant archeologist is a terrible example of an academic; imagine being his department head or an unfortunate student in one of his classes. You'd have to mount your own expedition into the heart of darkness just to get your graded midterm back. His research methods and cavalier attitude toward site preservation probably drive real archeologists to drink. It's clear that Steven Spielberg's movie really wants to differentiate its heroic tomb raider from the villainous ones, which is why Jones is an archeologist who steals things to put them in museums rather than sell them for his own gain.

Archeological ethics aside, Raiders holds up beautifully more than 35 years after its original release. It's still a delight even if you know every line of dialogue by heart. Every fight and action sequence retains its excitement, a testament to the film's pacing and score as well as the performers themselves. Ford is very much the swashbuckling star, but Karen Allen's Marion has tremendous appeal of her own, especially when she's out-drinking men twice her size. Characters in these films have become old friends to many fans, including Denholm Elliot's delightfully dotty Marcus Brody and John Rhys-Davies' genial Sallah. The bad guys are a memorable bunch, too; Ronald Lacey plays the sadistic and creepy Major Toht, while Paul Freeman is the greedy collaborationist Belloq, who enjoys taking relics away from Indy at every opportunity. Both get their glorious and much deserved comeuppance in the finale, when Raiders kicks over into full supernatural mode with the assertion that the power of the Ark is real and seriously hates the Third Reich.

The message of Raiders made a huge impact on Gen Xers, who grew up with similar themes in Star Trek and Star Wars movies, but in the Indiana Jones films the point is more overt because of the explicit depiction of fascism and the fragility of a more historically realistic world. It's hopeful in that we see Indiana and his friends triumph over the forces of evil, but it's also horrific because we know that these bad guys were - and are - real. In a world teetering on the brink of upheaval and awash in dangerous nationalist propaganda, Raiders of the Lost Ark feels both comforting and bracing at the same time. It captures the strange cyclical nature of history, this movie from the 1980s set in the 1930s but still speaking to viewers in 2017. Here we are again, folks. Better grab your whip and fedora.

More Reel Resistance:

75 Years in CASABLANCA (1942)
Classic Movies for Courage

My friend at Critica Retro is also posting about about #TheResistance at the Movies, so check out that blog, too!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973)


Lisa and the Devil (1973) is certainly one of the weirder Mario Bava films, and with Bava that's saying something, given that the Italian auteur made horror pictures like Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) and Baron Blood (1972). This darkly dreamy meditation on death struggled to find a distributor and ended up being hacked into The House of Exorcism (1975), a much panned attempt to cash in on the success of The Exorcist (1973), but fortunately the original version of the picture finally got released, and viewers can enjoy all its surreal, nightmarish charms. Most film fans will recognize Elke Sommer and the terribly droll Telly Savalas as the title characters, but classic movie buffs will especially appreciate an appearance by Alida Valli as a blind, secretive Countess living in seclusion in a strange Spanish villa.

Elke Sommer plays Lisa, a lovely young tourist who strays from her group into some empty corner of a Spanish city, where she first encounters the oddly menacing Leandro (Telly Savalas). From the beginning, Leandro reminds Lisa of a painting of the Devil she has just seen in the city; she fears him, but she cannot seem to escape him. Later she finds herself more or less trapped in the villa where he serves as butler to an aging Countess (Alida Valli) and her handsome but troubled son, Max (Alessio Orano). Other house guests turn up dead, while Max and a mysterious stranger keep calling Lisa by an unfamiliar name. They seem to know her even though she has no memory of them, and, worse, she keeps seeing versions of them as mannequins hauled about by Leandro. Lisa senses that Leandro and the others are a threat to her, but it slowly becomes apparent that her doom has long been sealed.

Some Bava films are more concrete than others, though they tend to share a strong sense of the surreal, and Lisa and the Devil reveals the director diving deeply into the realm of phantasmagoria, a term that evokes the Romantic sensibility of Bava's Gothic dreams. If Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Edgar Allan Poe had been Italian film directors, Lisa and the Devil is the kind of movie they might have made. For some viewers the slow pace and the almost somnambulant heroine will be off-putting, but those who get into the spirit of Bava's offering will know exactly where this story is going and be delighted with the funereal procession. There are, of course, periodic bursts of gory violence, as well as a very unnerving necrophiliac sex scene, but much of the strangest stuff involves the ever-present mannequins, who might or might not be actual people. Bava delights in switching between the dummies and the real actors during shot changes, creating confusion for both the viewer and the heroine. The relentless doubling also highlights Lisa's own mysterious twin, Elena, who seems to have a secret history with the inhabitants of the house.

Elke Sommer is beautiful but generally silent as Lisa; she spends most of the movie either running from uncertain danger or losing consciousness in front of it. She never asks the obvious questions a rational person would ponder in the midst of such a situation, but then we know that she is more a sleepwalker than anything else, a soul cut off from normalcy and perhaps even from life itself. All of the really fun scenes belong to Telly Savalas as the satanic Leandro; we find Savalas nursing his trademark lollipops and injecting Bava's bad dream with a sardonic sense of humor, especially where the mannequins are concerned. Of course he's the Devil; the title tells us as much, and so does his face in the Spanish painting, but part of the joke is that we know he is and the other characters do not. The rest of the cast pop in and out for jump scares, murders, and sexually fraught backstories; the Countess and Max are the most significant of these, although Carlo (Espartaco Santoni) also plays an important role. Alida Valli looks very different as the aged, sightless Countess than she had in earlier roles in The Third Man (1949) or even Eyes without a Face (1960), but she has a fabulous intensity, especially in the final act.


If Bava films fit your Euro-horror groove, seek out Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1963), and The Whip and the Body (1963). You'll find Elke Sommer in The Prize (1963), A Shot in the Dark (1964), and Bava's Baron Blood (1972). Catch Telly Savalas in more serious big screen roles in Cape Fear (1962), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), and The Dirty Dozen (1967); honestly, he worked so much in the 60s and 70s that he's hard to miss, although he does make a very amusing appearance in the Cushing and Lee picture, Horror Express (1972).

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (1949)

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Letter to Three Wives (1949) sets up its domestic drama with a perpetually absent antagonist who forces a trio of women to consider the central problems of their marriages. This approach makes the homewrecker as mysterious as she is troublesome, but it frees up the screen time for our three heroines, played by Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, and Ann Sothern. For husbands we have Kirk Douglas, Jeffrey Lynn, and Paul Douglas, while the supporting cast consists primarily of memorable character actresses like Florence Bates, Connie Gilchrist, and an uncredited - but excellent - Thelma Ritter. Although some of its marital conflicts seem dated and even sexist today, A Letter to Three Wives offers a serious and insightful exploration of the hard work of maintaining a marriage, and its performances reveal the many fears and grievances that can cause a relationship to crack.

The unseen Addie Ross leaves town with a farewell note to her "friends" announcing that she has run off with one of their husbands, but the women won't learn which one until they return from a day long outing with a group of schoolchildren. Former Navy WAVE Deborah (Jeanne Crain) suspects that her uneasiness in the upper class society of husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) might have caused him to abandon her, while radio soap writer Rita (Ann Sothern) thinks that her schoolteacher spouse, George (Kirk Douglas), might have grown tired of her higher salary and late nights at work. Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) pretends that she only married Porter (Paul Douglas) for his money and doesn't care if he's gone, but her memories of their relationship reveal that she feels more for him than she cares to admit.

Each wife has a different kind of relationship to her husband and a different problem. Deborah is the most naive of the three, a Cinderella who has married her prince but doesn't know how to handle her new social status or the passive routine of her role as a wealthy man's wife. The film underplays Deborah's frustration at losing her independent, active life in the Navy, but it pulses beneath the surface nonetheless. She seems to pine for a purpose to restore her pride in herself, something her husband can't really give her. Rita has that purpose as a writer of radio programs, but her higher salary wounds her husband's ego, and he bristles at the concessions she makes to her demanding boss. Oddly, Rita and George are the only couple presented as parents, but we never actually see their twins; the movie can't handle the idea of a dual income household actively raising children as part of their juggling act. Like Deborah, Lora Mae is a poor girl who has married into money, but Lora Mae has done so with eyes wide open about the importance of status and wealth. Her husband, Porter, doesn't seem like much of a catch without his fat wallet, but the movie tries to make up for that with a sudden, unselfish act at the end, meant to show that the boorish businessman has a good heart after all.

With its small scope and little action, A Letter to Three Wives depends entirely on its performances, particularly by the three leads. Darnell has the most complicated character to play, and she succeeds admirably, making us understand Lora Mae's pragmatism and prickly nature. She's a beautiful girl in a man's world, and she'll do what it takes to escape the rattling shack by the railroad tracks, even if that means selling herself for a wedding ring. Crain rises above the pathetic quality of her character toward the end, but Deborah can be a bit of a sob sister, and we don't really see enough of her relationship with Brad to understand their marriage. Ann Sothern and Kirk Douglas probably speak the most to modern viewers with their performances; Rita and George are the most like us, striving for a partnership but not always getting there. Douglas has the most to do of the three men; he's more physically present in the story and more compelling than either of the others, and that helps us be more involved in the story of Rita and George. It's worth noting that the film also provides us with three older women to act as foils to our three young ones; Sadie (Thelma Ritter) is a single working woman, Lora Mae's mother (Connie Gilchrist) is a working class widow, and Rita's boss (Florence Bates) is a domineering career woman with a milquetoast spouse. None of the older women seem like models that the younger ones want to imitate, but they show how women have to make do and live on long after youth and love are gone.

A Letter to Three Wives won Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay and picked up a nomination for Best Picture. For more from director Joseph L. Mankiewicz try The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), All About Eve (1950), and The Barefoot Contessa (1954). Jeanne Crain appears in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Pinky (1949), and People Will Talk (1951), and Linda Darnell has memorable roles in The Mark of Zorro (1940), Hangover Square (1945), and My Darling Clementine (1946). Ann Sothern, who started her screen career in 1927, went on to star in Maisie (1939) and its sequels, but don't miss her final, Oscar-nominated performance in The Whales of August (1987).


PS - Happy 100th Birthday this month to star Kirk Douglas, who celebrated a century of life on December 9! For more of his work from the 1940s see THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946) and OUT OF THE PAST (1947).




Monday, December 5, 2016

75 Years in CASABLANCA (1942)

It's December 1941 when Ilsa walks into Rick's Cafe Americain. "In all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world," he complains, "she walks into mine." It is not, however, simply chance, since Rick's Cafe occupies a border space between European chaos and American safety. Through that space Ilsa and her freedom fighter husband, Victor Laszlo, must journey if they are to continue the work of the resistance and survive. It's hard to believe that the story of Casablanca (1942) unfolds exactly 75 years ago this month, especially now, when we seem to be experiencing the history that the ignorant are doomed to repeat. Its message is suddenly seen not in the rearview mirror of nostalgia but up ahead of us, and terrifyingly close. There has never been a better time to visit this film again, but we have to look beyond the sentimental romance and consider the darker warnings that Casablanca sounds.

We generally celebrate Casablanca as a love story, albeit one with a triangular, adulterous twist. Even Lauren Bacall focused on that element in her recorded introduction to a video release of the picture; it's hard sometimes to get past the soft light on Ingrid Bergman's face and the wounded expression on Bogart's as they gaze at each other. There's "As Time Goes By" and that iconic scene with the plane. There are lines like "Here's looking at you, kid." These elements are an important part of the movie's appeal, but they're also the sweetness that helps us take our medicine. The film knows that. As Rick says, "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

Around and behind the romance, Casablanca sounds an alarm about the chaos threatening to overtake the world, about the danger of being complacent or refusing to stick your neck out for anyone. Rick and Louis both start the film as morally ambivalent characters; while they don't become perfect men, they do ultimately figure out what side they need to be on and how to commit to the fight. As in any time of crisis, there are men who look only to profit from the misery of others, and there are those, like the Nazis, who are eager to command and destroy. Parasites, profiteers, and strongmen thrive on the collapse of civilization, at least in the short term. Ugarte and Ferrari hope to make fortunes on the letters of transit. The pickpocket warns of vultures even as he makes off with the wallets of the unsuspecting. Major Strasser looks to impose Nazi order on a supposedly neutral space and crush Laszlo's resistance. Indifference, selfishness, and outright cruelty abound.

At the same time, we are presented with evidence of the decency and spirit of innocent people trapped in this dangerous situation. Even at his most jaded, Rick stocks his cafe with refugee employees, including Carl and Sascha. He helps the young Bulgarian couple after the girl comes to him for advice about surrendering to the sexual coercion of Louis. There are other moments of humanity in the bar; they seem like minor scenes, but they reinforce the message we are meant to understand. Carl speaks kindly to the elderly couple who practice their English and hope for a better life in America. Yvonne rediscovers her love of country. Of course, Victor Laszlo embodies the noblest, most courageous values of the force for good. He has been captured, imprisoned, tortured, pursued, and threatened with all the fury of the Reich, yet he prevails with dignity and determination. He does not compromise with evil. The scene in which he leads the cafe patrons in singing "La Marseillaise" remains powerful even after 75 years. It is a moment of protest, courage, and hope in the face of unfathomable horror. That, to me, is the very heart of Casablanca and what it means.

Although the film was made after the United States entered the war, the original play, Everybody Comes to Rick's, was written before that, when the country had retreated into an isolationist position and left critical allies like Great Britain and France to face the onslaught alone. One wonders what Americans thought would happen once the Nazis and Japanese finished their march across the rest of the world. The events of Casablanca unfold in the last days of Americans' collective slumber. As Rick laments, "I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America." They would be rudely awakened on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. They would be fully conscious by the time Casablanca arrived in theaters in late 1942 and early 1943. It went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 1944. By the time people saw Casablanca  they could really understand the message it had to share; they were in the thick of the war and fighting for real. They knew that they, like Rick and Louis, would have to make a stand. They hoped for leaders like Victor Laszlo to show them the way.

It's important to remember that many of the supporting players who helped make Casablanca had personal stakes in its story well before Pearl Harbor. There are very few Americans in the cast. Conrad Veidt and his Jewish wife had escaped Germany in the 1930s because his very public opposition to the Nazis made him a target. (Read this wonderful tribute to Veidt on Birth.Movies.Death for more about his life and devotion to the Allied cause.) He played Nazi villains in Hollywood to highlight the danger they posed. S.Z. Sakall was a Hungarian Jew who fled Hungary for Hollywood in 1940; all three of his sisters died in Nazi concentration camps. (Paula's Cinema Club offers this excellent post about Sakall's life and work.) The film's director, Michael Curtiz, was also a Hungarian, although he had left Europe in the 1920s. Paul Henreid, an Austro-Hungarian, strongly opposed the Nazis and became a US citizen in 1941, while fellow Austro-Hungarian Peter Lorre, who was Jewish, left his acting career in Germany after 1933 and fled to the United States. Even Madeleine Lebeau, who played Yvonne, fled her native France as the Germans invaded. (The last surviving member of the cast, she died in May of this year. You can read her New York Times obituary here.) They were immigrants and refugees who knew too well the nature of the threat the world was facing.

These are things we can ponder as we watch Casablanca in December 2016, with the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor also happening this month. In this late age we again find fascism and authoritarian rule on the rise. Around the world, desperate refugees seek to escape war and chaos while the vultures gather to pick over their bones. Disinformation and self-interest keep many blind to the dangers we face, especially in the United States, which once prided itself on being a beacon for democracy, a light in the dark of a troubled world. People are in danger. Freedom is in peril. The basic human rights of millions, both at home and abroad, are being denied. Already we find ourselves facing the same choice as Rick, whether to stick our necks out or look out only for ourselves. We must look to the real world's Victor Laszlos for inspiration. I hope that for you, and for all of us, it will be the beginning of beautiful friendships with like-minded souls. In the meantime, we'll always have Casablanca.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

Classic Movies for Courage

It's easy to think that art doesn't matter in the face of fear and oppression, but sometimes art can change the world, whether for better or for worse. Charles Dickens secured the future of Christmas with A Christmas Carol, while Leni Riefenstahl shored up Hitler's regime. Uncle Tom's Cabin helped to galvanize the North before the Civil War, and The Birth of a Nation (1915) helped to resurrect the KKK. Art can move the needle toward darkness or light. Mostly, though, I like to think that art works as a force for good in the world, especially over the long haul. In the last week I have seen Anne Frank's face and quotations from her diary all over social media, while Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is likely to stay stuck in my head for months to come. The power of art to console and inspire is more important than ever, and that means that films matter more than ever, too. We have to keep watching them and talking about what they mean, just as writers need to keep writing and painters need to keep painting and poets need to keep giving voice to the voiceless. We have to be consumers and supporters of art, and we have to be thoughtful critics of it, too, because what art says matters. Just watch The Monuments Men (2014) or Woman in Gold (2015) if you need a reminder of art's importance in times of global upheaval.

I'm thinking a lot about World War II right now (can't imagine why) and the great films that helped people in America and abroad through a dark time in global history. There were filmmakers who dared to challenge or even laugh at power when they knew the risk they ran. There were directors, writers, and actors who brought hope and resolution to the Allied cause, with stories about the soldiers in the field and the families left at home. There were even morale boosters, shot in Technicolor and filled with song, to give anxious people a respite from their fears. Sometimes people needed a shot of courage, and sometimes they needed an escape. Sometimes they needed to be reminded of what they were fighting to preserve.

If you need some classic films for courage right now, here are half a dozen I'd like to suggest. Feel free to add some of your own favorites in the comments section below.

1) THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) - I can think of no more powerful cinematic statement against hatred and war than Chaplin's daring comedy, which laughs at Hitler even as the outcome of the war is far from decided. Comedy is often an early target of authoritarian governments because power hates to be laughed at and mocked. Chaplin's final speech is a defining moment in film history and well worth hearing now:

"I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way."

2 ) TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) - I never tire of this Jack Benny and Carole Lombard comedy, which also dares to mock Hitler in the midst of the war. Director Ernst Lubitsch provides a brilliant mix of laughs and pathos, and you'll remember plenty of Benny's gags, but the rendition of Shylock's soliloquy will stick with you for the rest of your life. Lombard gave her life for the war effort, dying in a plane crash on a war bonds tour before the release of the film, but her performance here survived to inspire millions.

3) CASABLANCA (1942) - Sure, you've seen Humphrey Bogart make sad eyes at Ingrid Bergman a dozen times, but dig this Best Picture winner out of your DVD pile and watch it again. Some people become heroes by degrees, even if they thought they didn't care. There's even hope for Claude Rains' inscrutable Louis. 

4) MRS. MINIVER (1942) - This Best Picture winner focuses on a family in England during the Blitz, proving that daily life has to go on even during the worst of times. Audiences responded to it immediately; it won six Oscars in all and was nominated for another half dozen. Today we can watch it as an example of courage under fire, even for those who aren't holding a gun. Sure, it makes people weep, but sometimes tears can be cathartic, and it's good to cry for other people's suffering. Empathy is a powerful force for good.

5) THE GANG'S ALL HERE (1943) - Need a break from your anxiety, just for a little while? Servicemen and audiences at home loved Fox's morale boosting musicals, often starring adorable Alice Faye and the one and only Carmen Miranda. This one has everything, including Benny Goodman and his orchestra, but if you need more spiritual sunshine there's THAT NIGHT IN RIO (1941) and WEEKEND IN HAVANA (1941).

6) FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP (1944) - I'm not a fan of war movies in general, since they tend to be all boy affairs, but I like this patriotic depiction of USO entertainers doing their bit to keep up morale. Kaye Francis, Martha Raye, Carole Landis, and Mitzi Mayfair head to the front with Jimmy Dorsey and other stars. If this one makes you feel better go for seconds with HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN (1944).

Bonus: If you're up to handling the thorniest questions of social justice, prejudice, and bitter division, try Alfred Hitchcock's LIFEBOAT (1944). It might not make you feel better, but it will definitely give you a lot to consider. The ensemble cast is terrific, but Tallulah Bankhead gives the best performance of her film career.

Be well, friends, and keep courage alive wherever you find it.


Monday, November 14, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE TINGLER (1959)

The Tingler (1959) is one of William Castle's most famous horror gimmick pictures, partly because of its star, Vincent Price, and partly because of its wacky use of wired seats and paid plants to elicit screams from the theater audience. Sadly, the modern home viewer can't enjoy the weird thrills of Percepto, but The Tingler is still a lot of fun. In addition to Price, always a pleasure even in his campiest roles, the picture offers Castle himself doing an intro bit, some wonderfully meta moments of the Tingler in a movie theater, and a striking climax that mixes color and black-and-white cinematography to lurid effect. For fans of the fun house sci-fi horror that flourished in the late 1950s, The Tingler is a must-see film, and it's certainly at the top of Castle's strange canon.

Vincent Price plays Dr. Warren Chapin, a pathologist who performs autopsies on executed criminals in search of the force that causes people to scream when they experience fear. During one such autopsy, he meets Ollie (Philip Coolidge), whose brother-in-law is Warren's latest subject. Warren is fascinated to learn that Ollie's wife, Martha (Judith Evelyn), is a deaf-mute who cannot scream even when terrified. He wonders what would happen to her if she were subjected to intense fear, and then she is, in fact, frightened to death. Warren discovers the parasitic Tingler gripping Martha's spine, but it turns out to be a lot harder to control than he expected, and he soon repents of his taboo research into the unknown.

There's actually a lot more going in The Tingler than its central plot suggests, and at times it's hard to tell the good guys from the monsters. Warren has a cheating, evil wife (Patricia Cutts), who would murder him if she could, and perhaps he has the same plans for her. He's obsessed enough to consider experimenting on the defenseless Martha and to take large doses of LSD. At the same time, he seems fond of his assistant and his sister-in-law, the movie's obligatory young lovers. The ambiguity is part of the fun; is Warren going over the edge? Who scares Martha to death? It's not a mystery story, really, but there's enough uncertainty about the central characters to keep us guessing until the end.

The tricky plot sustains the picture when it isn't relying on its gimmicks, but the tricks are Castle's calling cards, and the buzzing seats must have generated plenty of screams in pitch-black theaters back in 1959. The home viewer will have to imagine the scene as the screen goes black and Price's voice calls out to the audience to "Scream! Scream for your lives!" It's corny, yes, but Castle's films are like spook house rides, and that's what makes them so much fun. Home viewers won't have to stretch their imaginations during the scene where Martha is literally scared to death by a series of freakish events. The segment has a terrific silent film quality, something Castle cultivates by having Ollie and Martha run a silent movie theater, but its pièce de résistance is the final moment, when Martha sees bright red blood in a black-and-white bathroom, complete with a bloody hand emerging from a tub of crimson ooze. Poor Martha doesn't stand a chance. The effects of the Tingler itself, hopping across the floor on visible strings, are more typical of the hokey stuff we expect from low-budget shockers of this era, but for many classic sci-fi horror fans it's an endearing flaw, as essential to the genre as the scientist's hubris or the crazy pseudo-scientific dialogue. The Tingler offers plenty of those elements, too.

For another William Castle collaboration with Vincent Price, try House on Haunted Hill (1959). Castle's other pictures include Macabre (1958), 13 Ghosts (1960), and Mr. Sardonicus (1961). Look for more of Price's great camp roles in The Raven (1963), The Comedy of Terrors (1963), and Theatre of Blood (1973). You'll find Judith Evelyn in Rear Window (1954), Hilda Crane (1956), and Giant (1956). Philip Coolidge turns up in North by Northwest (1959) and Inherit the Wind (1960). Be sure to note former child actor Darryl Hickman, who plays Warren's assistant; you might recognize him from Men of Boys Town (1941), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Hickman enjoyed a long career that jumped to television, and he ended up doing voice work for a number of cartoons, including Pac-Man, The Biskitts, and Pole Position.

THE TINGLER is currently streaming on Shudder!