Sunday, February 25, 2024

Modern Movies: HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS (2022)

I often tell people that I love "weird movies," and Hundreds of Beavers (2022) is definitely one of the weirdest, wackiest, and most purely delightful movies I have seen in a long time. This festival darling from Mike Cheslik (writer and director) and Ryland Brickson Cole Tews (writer and star) puts silent comedy, Looney Tunes cartoons, and modern video games into a blender to create an absurdist masterpiece with gags flying by at a breakneck pace for the entire 108 minute run of the picture. If you have the opportunity to see Hundreds of Beavers in a theater, you should skip this review and hurry out the door, but for those who - like me - have to make elaborate travel plans to see indie festival flicks, here's my review to encourage you to book the hotel and gas up the car (or at least make sure you track this one down when it hits streaming or physical media release).

Ryland Brickson Cole Tews plays the hapless Jean Kayak, whose boozy good times making and selling applejack abruptly end when beavers destroy his business. Forced to survive in the relentlessly cold winter, Jean learns by painful trial and error to hunt the beavers and other local critters (all played by actors in cartoonish costumes). He's encouraged in his efforts by an old Master Trapper (Wes Tank) and the attractive furrier (Olivia Graves), but as it turns out the beavers have much more grandiose plans than general mischief against the local humans.

There's so much going on in addition to this basic narrative that it's hard to know where to start, but try to imagine Tex Avery directing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) with Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton in the starring role and you might begin to get the idea. The movie owes a lot to silent comedy, with many scenes evoking The Gold Rush (1925) thanks to the setting but also Modern Times (1936) and any of the Keystone Cops pictures. There are sight gags and stunts Keaton would love, especially the more meta examples like the holes that dot the landscape or the elaborate Rube Goldberg traps Jean builds. Watching the movie is often like watching someone play a puzzle game (I found myself especially thinking of the 1996 classic, The Neverhood), and the video game vibe is enhanced by action scenes that recall Frogger, Donkey Kong, and other iconic games as well as the intentionally flat and artificial backgrounds against which these scenes occur.

As funny as Cheslik and the other actors are in the human roles - and they are very funny, indeed - the "animals" in the movie are absolutely uproarious, and presenting the story this way is a brilliant stroke that effectively separates us from any expectation of a moral. I won't spoil the dozens of hilarious bits, but a few of my favorites include the two detective beavers, the melodramatic story of the rabbit family, the poker playing sled dogs, and the horse. There are also several delightful puppets to represent smaller animals, including a frog, some fish, and a very annoying woodpecker. Whenever you think the movie has surely reached peak absurdity, it raises the ante again, much to the whooping delight of the audience with whom I saw it. Because it's so maniacally silly, older children will almost certainly love it, but I should add that there's a brief pole dancing scene, a fair bit of sexual innuendo and imagery, and a lot of scatological humor, in addition to non-stop cartoon violence. It's all in service to the comedy, but it's important to consider your own tolerance or that of your children before taking anyone under 12 to see it. There was at least one kid who was about 10 in our small audience, and I could hear him laughing even louder than the adults throughout the movie.

If you want to learn more about Hundreds of Beavers or find the nearest theater screening, head over to the official website. A Blu-ray release is planned for Summer 2024, and the movie will stream on Fandor starting in the spring. I will definitely be buying a copy of the movie so that I can see it again and force all of my friends to watch it.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Classic Films in Focus: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945)

Director Joseph H. Lewis is best remembered today for his influential noir classic, Gun Crazy (1950), but he also brings great tension to My Name is Julia Ross (1945), an atmospheric thriller from Columbia Pictures that stars Nina Foch as the titular heroine. Despite its modern day setting, Julia's story revels in Gothic trappings, with an imprisoned and imperiled protagonist who endures extreme gaslighting at the hands of her kidnappers. Fans of Gaslight (either the 1940 or the 1944 version) and more traditional Gothic fare will find a lot to appreciate in this tight, well-acted production, including especially sinister performances from Dame May Whitty and a barely restrained George Macready.

Foch plays the penniless but determined Julia Ross, who lands a seemingly perfect job as the live-in secretary of wealthy Mrs. Hughes (May Whitty). Julia is too relieved to worry at questions about her being absolutely without friends or family, but she realizes the awful truth when she awakens from a drugged slumber to find herself transported to Cornwall and declared to be the mentally ill wife of Ralph Hughes (George Macready). Luckily, Julia's aspiring love interest, Dennis (Roland Varno), is searching for her while Julia repeatedly tries to escape before Ralph and his mother can carry out their nefarious plans.

The success of the whole picture depends on its heroine, and Nina Foch makes Julia active and appealing in spite of her damsel in distress situation. Foch's long career included a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role in Executive Suite (1954), but she never became a top star, which seems a shame considering her energetic performance here. Foch is beautiful in a wide-eyed but spirited way, definitely not the kind of girl to surrender meekly to villainous schemes, no matter how many times the Hughes family tries to convince Julia that she's Marion Hughes. Our heroine might be naive enough to jump at the sudden job offer, but she's never passive or resigned to her fate. Ironically, Julia's constant efforts to escape and tell someone about her situation only support the Hughes' claim that she's insane, but Julia manages to outsmart them enough to get a letter out to Dennis. Part of the fun of the movie lies in waiting to see what Julia will try next, whether she's hiding in cars, looking for secret passages, or pretending that she really believes she might be Marion Hughes.

Most of the other important characters present threats to Julia's well-being, and each is interesting in his or her own fashion. Julia's chief antagonist is the unflappable Mrs. Hughes, played with sly menace by Dame May Whitty. Whitty is a fun choice for the role because she doesn't seem like a villain even when she's blatantly plotting Julia's demise. The mother provides a stark contrast to the psychopath son, Ralph, who has already murdered the original Marion and clearly yearns to kill again. Only Mrs. Hughes can control him, and one wonders how long that can last, given the number of sharp objects she has to confiscate from Ralph over the course of the picture. The criminal pair have ample assistance from their most trusted servants, especially Sparkes (Anita Bolster), who poses as the employment agent and ensures that the newer servants spread gossip about "Marion Hughes" being insane. She's a great example of the sinister housekeeper so quintessential in the Gothic genre, and Bolster has a perfect face for the role.

My only real complaint about My Name is Julia Ross relates to the abrupt and overly tidy ending, which turns a blind eye to the extremity of Julia's ordeal. Compare that with the endings of Gaslight or Notorious (1946), in which the heroines are clearly going to need to work through some heavy post-traumatic stress. For more of the lovely Nina Foch, see The Return of the Vampire (1943), in which Roland Varno also plays her love interest, An American in Paris (1951), or Illegal (1955). She also appears in both The Ten Commandments (1956) and Spartacus (1960). Dame May Whitty earned Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations for Night Must Fall (1937) and Mrs. Miniver (1942), but she has memorable roles in The Lady Vanishes (1938), Suspicion (1941), and Gaslight (1944). Don't miss George Macready in Gilda (1946), which is probably his most important film.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

The Colors of Contagion in JEZEBEL (1938)

Bette Davis won her second Academy Award for Best Actress for the Civil War melodrama, Jezebel (1938), which took advantage of the cultural mania over Gone with the Wind by using many of the same plot elements and beating the 1939 blockbuster to theaters. Like Gone with the Wind, Jezebel tells the story of a spoiled, headstrong Southern belle who pines for the love of a married man, and the two pictures also share problematic visions of the antebellum South and slavery that perpetuate fantasies about happy plantations with graceful ladies in hoop skirts. The films even share the same composer, the great Max Steiner. Gone with the Wind, however, boasts one very important advantage over Jezebel because it had the time and budget to be a lavish Technicolor spectacle, while Jezebel unfolds in cheaper, faster black and white. The lack of color onscreen is particularly ironic for Jezebel as it's very much a story about color, specifically the sexually charged red of the scandalous dress Davis' heroine wears but also the deadly yellow of the fever outbreak that dominates the film's second half. In both cases, Jezebel connects color with contagion, something that spreads and infects the simple black and white world around it and thus should be avoided at all costs.

Davis plays Julie Marsden, a wealthy and temperamental young woman living in New Orleans before the start of the Civil War. Julie loves her prim suitor, Preston (Henry Fonda), but she also loves getting her own way, and she retaliates when Pres chooses business over pleasure by making a spectacle of herself at the Olympus Ball, which causes Pres to break off their engagement. One year later, Pres returns with his Northern bride, Amy (Margaret Lindsay), and Julie is once again torn between her love for Pres and her desire to stir up trouble for the sake of revenge. Julie is finally forced to reckon with her transgressions when Pres becomes one of the thousands suffering from yellow fever and in danger of being quarantined to a desolate leper colony.

The first, and most memorable, contagious color is red, the shade of the inappropriate dress Julie wears to the Olympus Ball, where all unmarried young ladies are expected to wear white. In the movie we can't actually see a red dress, only a dark one, but the characters discuss its vulgarity and shocking color at length. The dressmaker tells Julie and her Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter) that the gown was made for a local woman of ill repute, but this information only strengthens Julie's perverse desire to wear it to a ball intended to celebrate the virginal purity of young ladies of her station. Julie's plan to punish Pres backfires when he grimly insists on parading her around the ball, where everyone recoils from her in horror. The camera looks down from above to show us Pres and Julie dancing while girls in white dresses fly away from them, fearful of being associated with such disregard for convention and the sexual knowledge that the red dress strongly suggests. In this scene, it is Julie herself who is contagious, contaminating the reputation of everyone close to her. She has very literally made herself a scarlet woman, although she is thoughtless and perhaps naive enough not to realize the implications of her appearance. Pres, who understands the extent of her transgression, dares anyone to insult her because he still feels obligated by their social code to duel to the death in her defense, but after the ball he breaks with her and leaves town. Julie is so struck by his rejection and her own humiliation that she becomes something of a hermit for the next year, waiting at home with her white dress ready for the day Pres returns, but Julie doesn't realize how permanently she has contaminated their relationship. 

In the second half of the story, yellow replaces red as the contagious color, this time a color of fever and death. New Orleans and its surrounding areas succumb to a yellow fever outbreak, which people in the 19th century believed to be spread from person to person (as opposed to being spread by infected mosquitos). The film shows the audience that Pres is, indeed, bitten by an infected mosquito in a small but crucial moment at Julie's plantation outside the city, but the other characters only know that yellow fever is highly contagious and terrifying. Their fear is compounded by the city's decree that every known sufferer be exiled to an island normally used as a leper colony, where the chance of survival is almost nonexistent. Julie rushes to New Orleans to tend Pres, even though she might be shot for sneaking across the quarantine lines, but her desire to shake off her moral contamination is stronger than her fear of viral contagion. Julie argues with Amy for the right to accompany Pres to the fatal island; although Amy is Pres' wife, Julie needs the redemption her sacrifice can offer. She begs Amy, "Help me make myself clean again as you are clean. Let me prove myself worthy of the love I bear him." Ironically, one form of contagion counteracts the other; her willingness to embrace death by yellow fever serves to atone for Julie's moral contamination as embodied by the red dress. Julie wins the argument and is last seen in a wagon rolling away toward exile, suffering, and almost certain doom, very like Sidney Carton at the end of A Tale of Two Cities. In many ways it's a conventional ending for a woman who crosses the moral and sexual boundaries of her culture, whether she exists in the 19th century or under the tight control of the Hays Code. Julie, however, makes a triumph of her martyrdom because she believes that dying with Pres is better than living without him, and her sacrifice means that she will be remembered for her heroic final act rather than her many sins. 

While neither color actually appears on the screen, red and yellow dominate the imagination of the viewer as Jezebel unfolds, and both signal danger and contagion to the inhabitants of the film's world. Director William Wyler and cinematographer Ernest Haller skillfully evoke the effects of the red dress and yellow fever, but it would have been fascinating to see how those two fatal hues could have been used in a color production. One need only think of the iconic use of red in Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) or the way that color enhances every shot in Gone with the Wind. For more of Bette in black and white, watch Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), and Now, Voyager (1942). If you're interested in seeing period melodramas in lavish color, check out Blanche Fury (1948) or Raintree County (1955). According to an interview with Robert Osborne, Bette Davis herself preferred black and white to Technicolor, but you can see her in color in movies like The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The Virgin Queen (1955), and The Whales of August (1987).

 

* If you like my posts here, you can read more in my Silver Screen Standards column for Classic Movie Hub!

Monday, January 1, 2024

2023 Movie Log in Review

Happy New Year! Here's hoping that 2024 brings you good moments and many great movies. It's time again to look back at the last year of my movie viewing and make the final tally of films watched. My classic movie choices for 2023 were heavily affected by the many great collections on the Criterion Channel last year, and I'm looking forward to another year of old favorites and new discoveries there. Most of the other streaming services continue to be useless for classic films, but I watched quite a few new movies on them. Visits to the theater continue to be low compared to pre-pandemic numbers; we saw a few new releases on the big screen this year - including super hit Barbie - but in general it just wasn't worth the cost and hassle, especially after we were accosted by a drunk/high and very noisy audience member at Dungeons and Dragons. Much of my energy in 2023 went to work on a forthcoming anthology of feminist essays about Star Trek, so I spent a lot of time rewatching episodes and films from that iconic franchise (more about that later!). 

Here's the monthly breakdown for every movie I watched at home or elsewhere in 2023.

January

The Woman on the Beach (1947)

Francis (1950)

Forbidden Planet (1956)

The Nice Guys (2016)

Love is News (1937)

Honor Society (2023)

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Big Brown Eyes (1936)

The Pale Blue Eye (2023)

Dead of Night (1945)

Goldeneye (1995)


February

The Unknown (1927)

Pillow Talk (1959)

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

Harvey (1950)

The Suspect (1944)

The World is Not Enough (1999)

Rosaline (2022)

The Sound of 007 (2022)

Lover Come Back (1961)

Phantom Lady (1944)

A View to a Kill (1985)

Send Me No Flowers (1964)

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

The Queen of Spades (1949)


March

Dancing Lady (1933)

The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964)

The Princess Bride (1987)

42nd Street (1933)

The Heroic Trio (1993)

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)

Antman: Quantumania (2023)

Clue (1985)

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (2022)

Thunder on the Hill (1951)

Prom Pact (2023)


April

Sky High (2005)

The Importance of Being Earnest (1951)

A Woman's Face (1941)

Grease 2 (1982)

Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023)

Magic (1978)

 

May  (my kid graduated from college and we had a big family trip to the UK!)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The Damned Don't Cry (1950)

 

June

The Lost King (2023)

What's Love Go to Do With It? (2022)

For Me and My Gal (1942)

Monkey Business (1952)

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023)

 

July

Polite Society (2023)

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

On the Town (1949)

The Woman in Question (1950)

 

August

Haunted Mansion (2023)

Barbie (2023)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023)

Asteroid City (2023)

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Ladies in Retirement (1941)

Brigadoon (1954)

 

September 

Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980)

Mr. Vampire (1985)

Mr. Vampire II (1986)

Mr. Vampire III (1987)

Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Jane Eyre (1943)

Mr. Vampire IV (1988)

MST3K: Beyond Atlantis (1973) - live at the Center for Puppetry Arts

Ivy (1947)

Moss Rose (1947)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2023)

Blanche Fury (1948)

Elemental (2023)

3000 Years of Longing (2022)

 

October

Red, White and Royal Blue (2023)

So Long at the Fair (1950)

Murders in the Zoo (1933)

Doctor X (1932)

Haunted Mansion (2023) - second time this year

The Old Dark House (1933)

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Corridor of Mirrors (1948)

Gaslight (1944)

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Dial M for Murder (1954)

The Monster Squad (1987)

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

So Evil My Love (1947)

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Devotion (1946)

The Lost Boys (1987)

Dead Again (1991)

Freaks (1932)

Madeline (1950)

Hocus Pocus (1993)

Haunted Spooks (1920)

Bewitched (2005)

No Hard Feelings (2023)

Casper (1995)

 

November

The Lodger (1944)

The Quick and the Dead (1995)

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Rancho Notorious (1952)

A Haunting in Venice (2023)

My Best Friend's Wedding (1997)

The Marvels (2023)

The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)

High Anxiety (1977)

Dragnet (1987)

Werewolves Within (2021)

The Cheat (1931)

Three on a Match (1932)

 

December

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

Repeat Performance (1947)

Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

Die Hard (1988)

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Hudson Hawk (1991)

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023)

Scrooged (1987)

White Christmas (1955)

Chicken Run 2: Dawn of the Nugget (2023)

Love, Actually (2003)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

A Christmas Story (1983)

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Glass Onion (2022)

 

Total for 2023: 130

I watched 23 more movies in 2023 than in 2022, so that's an improvement! As usual, it's an eclectic mix of classics, new releases, family favorites, and weeknight compromises with the spouse.

 


 

Saturday, December 2, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: THE CHEAT (1931)

I decided to watch The Cheat (1931) knowing that other classic movie bloggers have found the picture merely mediocre, but with Huntsville native Tallulah Bankhead in the starring role I felt obligated to give it a try and see for myself. Sadly, this Pre-Code drama deserves the lukewarm reviews others have given it. Despite the shocking act that serves as its focal moment, The Cheat drags through its hour and 14 minutes and fails to make the most of its stars or themes. Despite its problematic use of Japanese culture, it's not so bad as to be unwatchable, but it isn't good enough to hold your full attention, either.

Bankhead stars as gambling addict Elsa Carlyle, whose husband, Jeffrey (Harvey Stephens), futilely asks his wife to rein in her expensive habits. When Elsa loses a huge sum of money on a frivolous bet, she steals from a charity fund to pay it off so that her husband doesn't find out about her debts, but she ends up in even worse shape because her investment of the pilfered cash crashes. Sensing an opportunity, the lecherous Hardy Livingstone (Irving Pichel) offers to give her the money in exchange for sexual submission, and the desperate Elsa agrees. A change of luck seems to offer an escape from her adulterous bargain, but Elsa discovers Hardy's deeply sadistic nature when she attempts to back out of their deal.

With its Faustian bargain, its climatic scenes of torture and public exposure, and Bankhead's tremendous presence, The Cheat ought to be a provocative Pre-Code shocker, but the end result falls sadly flat. Bankhead certainly has the persona to play a debauched gambler, but it's impossible to believe in her as an otherwise loving and faithful wife. Her husky, rich voice and world weary stare radiate carnal knowledge and experience, and as a giddy fool who doesn't realize her peril she's simply miscast. The happy ending, which insists on Elsa's reform and return to marital propriety, seems bizarre and out of joint with the events that have come before, especially the chaotic trial scene. Jeffrey himself is a bore, and Stephens has zero chemistry onscreen with Bankhead to make us believe these two people actually love each other. Irving Pichel provides moments of menace, but he's not equal to the lavish trappings of his character, which revel in a troublesome Orientialist vision of Japanese culture and people. 

Part of the problem with Pichel's villain reveals itself when we look back at Cecil B. DeMille's original 1915 version of The Cheat, which cast Japanese star Sessue Hayakawa as the vindictive seducer. In the 1931 remake, a white character replaces the Asian one but keeps all of his cultural context, which alters the racial stereotyping without dispelling it. Pichel's Hardy Livingstone is yellowface casting in disguise, but without the screen charisma of Fu Manchu stars Warner Oland, Boris Karloff, or Christopher Lee to make it interesting (although still offensive). I have yet to see the silent version, but I imagine that the smoldering good looks of Hayakawa at least make the villain's seduction more exciting, and, according to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's discussion of the picture, the role brought Hayakawa instant - and controversial - fame. If Pichel sits awkwardly in the role, that might not be entirely his fault, given the ways in which the altered character obscures racial stereotyping without actually erasing it.

The best place to see Tallulah Bankhead on film remains Alfred Hitchcock's excellent WWII story, Lifeboat (1944), so start there if you're looking for the scandalous Broadway star's Hollywood work. George Abbott is the credited director for The Cheat (with uncredited assistance from Berthold Viertel); Abbott also directed Bankhead in My Sin (1931), but his best known pictures are The Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees (1958). The Cheat marked the film debut of stage actor Harvey Stephens, who continued to appear in movies and television but in smaller supporting roles. Irving Pichel is probably better remembered as a director whose work includes The Most Dangerous Game (1932), The Man I Married (1940, and They Won't Believe Me (1947), as well as the charming romantic fantasy Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948) and the Technicolor sci-fi classic Destination Moon (1950).

See also: A Tallulah Tribute in CRUELLA (2021)


Sunday, October 15, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932)

On paper, Universal's 1932 Murders in the Rue Morgue sounds terrific; it adapts a chilling story from Edgar Allan Poe, stars Bela Lugosi, and offers Expressionist cinematography by Karl Freund, complete with all the lurid sensibility that Pre-Code horror can provide. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't work as well in practice, especially for viewers who know and appreciate Poe's original tale. While Lugosi is truly terrifying as the menacing Dr. Mirakle, the picture suffers from a weak leading man, creaky monster effects, and too much deviation from its source material that also leads it into some extremely thorny issues regarding racist tropes. Fans of Pre-Code horror and/or Edgar Allan Poe might be willing to forgive some of its failings for Lugosi's sake, but overall this is a far less successful picture than stand-out classics like The Black Cat (1934) and Roger Corman's Poe cycle.

Lugosi plays a character who doesn't exist in the original tale, a mad scientist obsessed with proving evolution by injecting the blood of his captive gorilla into beautiful young women. His experiments have inevitably proved fatal to the women, but Dr. Mirakle blames the failure on the women's "impure" blood instead of his own mad theory. When the gorilla takes a particular shine to lovely Camille L'Espanaye (Sidney Fox), Dr. Mirakle plans to kidnap her as his next test subject, but Camille's suitor, Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames), rightly suspects the doctor of having sinister motives.  

Deviations from the source create more problems than opportunities here. Poe's tale focuses on the murders of two women and the clever detective, C. Auguste Dupin, an important forerunner of and inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Weirdly, the Universal picture isn't a detective mystery at all, even though Poe's story is widely considered the original example of the genre. Instead, Leon Ames plays a medical student named Pierre Dupin, who already knows who did it when his sweetheart, Camille, disappears and her mother's corpse is found stuffed up a chimney. Ames is not particularly effective in this role, and the problems are all the more noticeable because Pierre is such a ho-hum hero compared to Poe's brilliant detective. The locked room mystery of the short story gives way to a bizarre mad scientist plot that draws on deeply racist imagery about gorillas as substitutes for Black men and their supposed desire for White women. Mirakle's experiment is a thinly veiled take on miscegenation that results in the deaths of the women whose blood has been "contaminated" by that of the gorilla. None of this comes from Poe's story, in which a pet orangutan gets loose from its owner and cannot really be held responsible for its actions. On a more practical level, the gorilla who replaces Poe's orangutan is very obviously a guy in a bad gorilla suit, except during closeups, when he transforms into an actual chimpanzee. It's a jarring and absurd switch every time it happens, but the movie does it repeatedly, even recycling the same shot of the chimp pressing against the bars of its cage.

All of these problems detract from a fine performance by Lugosi, who certainly knows how to leer menacingly at an audience and deliver a chilling monologue. His face is by far the scariest thing in the movie; its signature feature is an impressive monobrow that sprouts over his trademark burning gaze. The Expressionist influence reaches it high point during the experiment scene with Lugosi's only onscreen victim, a kidnapped streetwalker played by Arlene Francis. Tied to a huge wooden X like a martyr or a witch at the stake, Mirakle's victim exposes a lot of pretty flesh and casts a striking shadow on the laboratory wall. When she dies as a result of his injections, he seems surprised, even though he has her positioned over a convenient trapdoor that drops her body directly into the river. These effective scenes connect Murders in the Rue Morgue to German Expressionist classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) as well as better Universal horrors like Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932), reflecting the influence of cinematographer and occasional director Karl Freund after his relocation from Germany to Hollywood.

Robert Florey, who directed Murders in the Rue Morgue, eventually moved to television work, but before that he directed the 1946 horror, The Beast with Five Fingers, starring Peter Lorre. Karl Freund also directed Lorre in another Expressionist horror feature, Mad Love (1935), and I would recommend either Lorre picture over Murders in the Rue Morgue. Leon Ames is much more in his element in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), A Date with Judy (1948), and Little Women (1949); Murders in the Rue Morgue was one of his first screen appearances, and it's not really his fault that he's miscast. Poe adaptations and loose retellings abound, with the most recent being the 2023 Netflix miniseries, The Fall of the House of Usher. Roger Corman, however, still reigns as the king of Poe on film, with Vincent Price as his star of choice. Start with Corman's House of Usher (1960) and proceed to Tales of Terror (1962) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) for a sample of their best efforts.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: BLANCHE FURY (1948)

Of all the films I have watched so far in the Criterion Channel's Gaslight Noir collection, Blanche Fury (1948) is the darkest, even though it's also the brightest thanks to its use of gorgeous Technicolor. This adaptation of the 1939 novel by Marjorie Bowen (under the pseudonym Joseph Shearing) employs many of the familiar elements of Victorian Gothic fiction, including the governess heroine and the upper class's obsessions with legitimacy and inheritance, but it has more in common with Wuthering Heights than Jane Eyre in the romance department, with doomed lovers who are both far from innocent in their desires. Without spoiling the ending too much, let me at least warn you that Blanche Fury is true noir in Victorian dress, and no happy endings should be expected for any of the central characters. That said, it's a fascinating example of the overlap between traditional Gothic and noir, with a complex anti-heroine whose better angels are as dangerous to her as her demons.

Valerie Hobson takes the lead as the title character, a penniless young woman named Blanche Fuller who changes her surname to Fury when she joins her wealthy uncle (Walter Fitzgerald) and his household as a governess to the uncle's granddaughter, Lavinia (Suzanne Gibbs). Soon Blanche is married to her cousin, Lawrence (Michael Gough), but also engaged in a passionate affair with Philip Thorn (Stewart Granger), the illegitimate son of the estate's previous owners, who is now reduced to a servant in his own childhood home. The embittered Philip is obsessed with reclaiming the property for himself, even to the point of plotting to murder everyone who stands in his way. When Philip decides that Lavinia is just another obstacle to his plans, Blanche must choose between the man she loves and the innocent stepchild she longs to protect.

Hobson nimbly walks the fine line required for Blanche, who possesses both good and bad qualities that dominate her nature at different times. We first see her as a Becky Sharp type of adventuress, chafing under her subservient role as a paid companion and eager to improve her situation through marriage to the weak-willed but unfeeling Lawrence. At the Fury estate, her immediate kindness to Lavinia softens her, and her courage in retrieving stolen horses proves her fortitude. What seems at first like mere carnal lust for Philip develops into real love, which makes her choices in the third act all the more difficult, and she evokes our sympathy even as we recognize her complicity in the events that have brought her so much suffering. In addition, Hobson looks divine in the costumes and elaborate hairstyles worn by Blanche, with a finely made face that conveys hatred, love, and grief equally well in her many closeups. As the title suggests, this story belongs to Blanche and therefore to Hobson, but Stewart Granger has fantastic energy as Philip that evokes shades of Wuthering Heights' Heathcliff in his intensity and dark, brooding sex appeal. Their scenes together don't really need the confirmation of a closing door to tell us the nature of their relationship, while doors repeatedly closing against Gough's character symbolize the contrasting coldness of Blanche's marriage to Lawrence.

The real darkness and noir mood of Blanche Fury stem from the relentless sense of fate bearing down over the unfolding events, starting with the opening scene, which is actually the end of the story being told. The legend of the fierce ape who defends the Fury name and fortune serves to remind us constantly that the current family are interlopers who have usurped both the name and estate from the biological - if not legal - heir, Philip. Fate, as embodied by the figure of the ape, will not spare any of the usurpers as it works to restore the line of the rightful owners. Blanche's uncle and husband are too dim to sense the doom that hangs over them, but Blanche and the old Italian nurse (Sybilla Binder) both feel it. Fate wields a Shakespearean level of power here, so much so that neither Blanche nor even Philip can be considered free agents; they are pulled by forces they cannot fathom or resist. Blanche attempts to moderate the scorched earth tactics of Fate, but like many noir protagonists she suffers more for her good actions than she does for her evil ones, and Fate still wins in the end. 

The Gaslight Noir collection includes two other movies adapted from novels by Marjorie Bowen: Moss Rose (1947) and So Evil My Love (1948). Her 1943 novel, Airing in a Closed Carriage, was adapted as The Mark of Cain (1947). Valerie Hobson also stars in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Great Expectations (1946), and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). See more of Stewart Granger in Scaramouche (1952), The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), and Footsteps in the Fog (1955). If you enjoy melodramatic tales of governesses and forbidden love, try All This and Heaven Too (1940), Adam Had Four Sons (1941), and, of course, Jane Eyre (1943) or any of the other adaptations of the classic novel.