Thursday, July 23, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1958)

Atomic age hysteria fuels the British low-budget shocker, Fiend without a Face (1958), in which invisible vampire brain monsters rampage through a Canadian village near a U.S. Air Force base. The title of this picture seriously understates the glorious weirdness of its killer creatures, who lack limbs, heads, and bodies as well as faces, even after they stop being invisible. The best known human associated with the movie is American actor Marshall Thompson, who takes the lead as the heroic major fighting to stop the bizarre beings, but the chief attractions in Fiend without a Face are definitely its monsters and the mayhem they inflict. If you're a fan of 1950s creature features like The Blob (1958) or even Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), then Fiend without a Face is just the sort of guilty pleasure you'll love to indulge.

Thompson plays Major Jeff Cummings, who works at the U.S. Air Force base just outside the bucolic Canadian town of Winthrop, where the locals are none too happy about the constant noise of planes and potential radiation generated by the military's atomic reactors. When villagers start dying under strange circumstances, the Canadians immediately blame the Americans, and Jeff tries to make peace with Barbara (Kim Parker), the attractive but understandably angry sister of the first victim. Jeff soon becomes convinced that Barbara's employer, Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves), is somehow connected to the deaths, but he's not prepared for the truth about the deadly creatures that Walgate's research has unleashed.

The acting in Fiend without a Face is better than that found in most pictures of its era and genre, although a lot of characters are only introduced in order to be killed off by the invisible monsters. The character types represented are familiar, including the practical soldier hero, the smart but feminine love interest, and the overreaching scientist, blinded to the consequences of his actions by his own ambition. Marshall Thompson and Kim Parker play their parts seriously but not woodenly, and they have a nice little romance brewing with moments of humor and humanity. Kynaston Reeves has some good scenes, too, as the aged professor slowly realizes his responsibility for the disaster and struggles to make things right. If the plot is frankly outrageous, and the monsters utterly impossible, the actors are at least good enough to keep the audience invested in the story and not overly conscious of the supremely nutty premise that drives the action forward.

Monster movies live and die, however, on the strength of their real protagonists, the creatures themselves, and Fiend without a Face offers some of the weirdest, most disturbing freaks of psychic science one could possibly imagine. For the first half of the movie they remain invisible, leaving us to deduce their natures from the clues they leave behind after each new attack. Special effects and some energetic acting from the victims offer hints about what the creatures are like and how they kill their prey; a farm couple is strangled, and an autopsy reveals that their brains and spinal cords have been sucked out through small holes in their heads. Later incidents provide new evidence, until the creatures get enough power to make themselves visible and horrify us with the full extent of their monstrosity. Thanks to Professor Walgate's imagination, they look like giant brains with spinal cords attached, and they move like sentient slugs, using tentacles to propel themselves and locate their targets. They ooze grotesquely when shot, and the finale turns into a brain slug bloodbath, with the surviving humans holed up in a house and surrounded by the persistent fiends. Their attack on the house prefigures the violent determination of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968), but the vampire brains know how to cut the phone lines, which makes them even scarier. The brain slugs combine the grossest and most disturbing aspects of several different horror movie creatures, but it's hard to think of anything else quite like them in the genre's history. Where else are you going to get invisible atomic vampire brain slugs that leap on their victims to suck out their spinal cords?

Arthur Crabtree, who directed Fiend without a Face, started as a cinematographer; his other directorial efforts include Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) and a dozen episodes of the 1950s Ivanhoe TV series starring Roger Moore. Marshall Thompson starred on the TV series, Daktari, and also appeared in films like Battleground (1949), To Hell and Back (1955), and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958). Look for character actor Kynaston Reeves in Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) and School for Scoundrels (1960). For more atomic monsters, try The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Them! (1954), and Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster (1955).

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: WHERE DANGER LIVES (1950)

Robert Mitchum takes another dive into darkness in Where Danger Lives (1950), and once again he plays an easy mark for a dangerous dame, this time embodied by the sultry Faith Domergue. An icon of film noir, Mitchum made more celebrated forays into the genre both before and after this outing, but Where Danger Lives has much to offer in its 82 minutes of twisted flight, thanks to expert direction from John Farrow and gripping performances from Mitchum, Domergue, and the perpetually brilliant Claude Rains. Like many noir films, Where Danger Lives depicts people's lives crashing into ruin in spectacular fashion, but the peculiarly bent nature of Domergue's femme fatale gives this story an extra shot of the strange and perverse.

Mitchum plays a young doctor named Jeff Cameron, who unexpectedly meets trouble when the seductive Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue) tries to commit suicide and is placed under his care. Almost immediately, Margo and Jeff begin a steamy romance, and Jeff decides to dump his steady girlfriend, Julie (Maureen O'Sullivan), in order to marry Margo. Jeff finds out too late that Margo is already married, and her husband (Claude Rains) ends up dead after an altercation with Jeff. Dizzy and disoriented from a concussion sustained in the fight, Jeff accompanies Margo on a run for the Mexican border, but her mental instability and the pair's bad luck get worse with every passing hour.

Jeff is one of Mitchum's most straight-laced and passive noir protagonists, just a normal young professional until Margo tempts him into the depths. Admittedly, his resistance is pretty weak, especially when he already has a good match in Julie, who lacks Margo's glamor but shares Jeff's professional world and is grade A wife material. Once he's in over his head, Jeff lets Margo take the lead, largely because he keeps passing out thanks to a poker blow from Margo's husband, but also because Margo constantly manipulates the situation to her own ends. Mitchum's best scenes are the woozy ones, where he doesn't really know what's going on and has to plunge ahead in spite of it, always getting himself deeper and deeper into Margo's crazy scheme. Faith Domergue, perfectly cast as the unstable siren, has her finest moments when Margo is at her worst; the wildest, most maniacal actions light a strange fire in her dark eyes, and we believe that she's capable of anything. Her scenes with Rains are electric; he has just a hint of madness about him, too, so that we understand their attraction to each other as well as their mutual hatred. Sadly, Rains' character gets killed off early in the picture, but his warnings haunt Jeff until the end. "If you take her," Lannington tells Jeff, "it's a long road. There's no turning back!" Like Edward G. Robinson's trolley car speech in Double Indemnity (1944), the admonition proves prophetic.

From the moment Jeff and Lannington have their fatal encounter, the action of the picture never lets up, but the protagonists are driven forward more by cruel quirks of fate than their own intentions. Jeff and Margo think the police are after them long before Lannington's body is actually found, which forces them to abandon their plan to fly to Mexico in favor of a more dangerous journey by car. They make rookie mistakes; neither is an experienced criminal, so they get into more jams and become more desperate with each new error. For Jeff, drifting in and out of consciousness, the trip has a nightmarish quality, reflected in the desolate landscapes and strange characters they encounter. All around them are opportunists, eager to take advantage of their obvious problems, like the car dealer who profits by swapping an antiquated clunker for their car and even gets Margo's forgotten fur coat into the bargain. There's a darkly comical element to many of their misadventures, especially the town that forces them to stop and get married because of some goofy local festival going on. In a screwball comedy it would be the start of marital bliss, but in this setting it's a perverse punishment, giving Jeff exactly what he thought he wanted at a point where he no longer wants it. When he finally realizes the extent of Margo's madness, it's too late to walk away; Jeff and Margo can only be separated by the same kind of violence that first brought them together, and the finale is an explosive confrontation on the Mexican border, a symbolic line that mirrors the film's juxtapositions of good and evil, sanity and madness, and life and death.

For more of Mitchum's noir films, see Out of the Past (1947), The Racket (1951), and Angel Face (1952); he also worked with John Farrow on His Kind of Woman (1951). Faith Domergue's career never quite came together, but you can find her in The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), Santa Fe Passage (1955), and This Island Earth (1955). Catch Claude Rains making other noir turns in Moontide (1942), Notorious (1946), and The Unsuspected (1947). John Farrow also directed Wake Island (1941), for which he won an Oscar for Best Director, Alias Nick Beal (1949), and Hondo (1953). Maureen O'Sullivan, best remembered as Jane to Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan, was married to John Farrow; the two worked together on The Big Clock (1948) as well as Where Danger Lives, but their most famous collaboration would be their actress daughter, Mia Farrow, the third of their seven children.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is a different kind of war story, but its focus on the domestic aftermath of World War II is still powerful today, nearly seventy years after its original release. It certainly spoke to the cultural moment in 1946, winning seven Academy Awards out of eight nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor. Moving, thoughtful, and packed with great performances from first-rate stars, The Best Years of Our Lives is one of those classic pictures that everyone should see, especially those interested in the toll of the war on the men who fought it and the families who were left behind.

Fredric March plays former banker Al Stephenson, who returns from years of service in World War II and struggles to resume his civilian life. His wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), has waited faithfully, but his children have grown up in his absence, and his perspective has been permanently altered by his wartime experiences. His companions on the return trip face problems of their own. Fred (Dana Andrews) suffers from traumatic memories of his time as a combat pilot and finds himself unable to land a decent job, while his materialistic wife (Virginia Mayo) resents their poverty and his intrusion on her independence. Homer (Harold Russell), a young sailor, struggles the most; having lost both of his hands in the war, he angrily rejects his family's pity and questions whether his devoted high school sweetheart (Cathy O'Donnell) really wants him for a husband.

Although March won Best Actor for his performance, the strength of the picture really relies on the combined efforts of the ensemble cast, with each character adding a distinct personality and perspective. Director William Wyler weaves the stories together so that each narrative thread gets the attention it merits, and each actor gets a chance to shine. Dana Andrews offers a compelling look at the loss of importance a returning war hero might experience as well as the effects of PTSD, and Fred's crumbling marriage provides a stark contrast to the gentler romantic experiences of Al and Homer. Not every girl waited for her guy to come home, and not every couple could pick up where they left off when the war was over. The film, however, wants to reassure audiences still piecing their own lives back together, so Fred discovers a better love interest in Al's daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright), who reacts very differently than Fred's wife to his financial problems and his frequent nightmares. Harold Russell, a non-actor who had lost his hands in a military training accident, gives viewers a moving and utterly realistic picture of the wounded veteran's post-war life as Homer, who uses metal hooks strapped to his stumps in place of his lost limbs. Russell might not have the Hollywood looks of his costars, but that only strengthens our sense of his role as an everyman, a regular, all-American guy who might be anyone's brother, son, or sweetheart. The Academy gave Russell an Honorary Oscar for inspiring veterans, never guessing that he might actually win Best Supporting Actor for his role, so Russell ultimately made Oscar history by winning two awards for a single performance.

Unlike war movies that rallied American commitment to the effort during the war or glorified its battles afterward, The Best Years of Our Lives never shows a single combat scene, even in Fred's flashback moments in the cockpit of a decommissioned plane. It does not aim to depict the adrenaline fueled, masculine world of the war itself, but rather the workaday world of jobs and wives and quiet nights at home that follow when the battlefields are left behind, when men must figure out how to be ordinary citizens again and women must learn to love them in spite of how they have changed. Al drinks too much, Fred wakes up screaming, and Homer pushes away the people who care about him most. Each has been irrevocably altered by his experiences, but each works hard to find a way forward. Milly and Homer's girl, Wilma, face their own problems in trying to build futures with these new versions of once familiar men, while Fred's wife, Marie, is unwilling or unable to accept the struggling, humbled civilian after the conveniently absent hero. She's the only person who seems genuinely sorry that the war is over. For her, perhaps, the best years of her life were those when Fred's paycheck arrived without Fred to tell her how to spend it, but for the others, we hope, the years alluded to in the film's title lie ahead. In 1946 it was still an open question, but in the film that hope glimmers like a fervent, quiet prayer. Hadn't these men and women, who had sacrificed so much, earned it with their blood and tears?

Take the time to appreciate Hoagy Carmichael and Gladys George in small supporting roles as the pianist, Butch, and Fred's stepmother, Hortense. William Wyler won two additional Best Director Oscars for Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Ben-Hur (1959), with a total of twelve Best Director nominations over the course of his impressive career. For more of Fredric March, see Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), and I Married a Witch (1942). Myrna Loy is best remembered as William Powell's witty costar in The Thin Man movies, but check out Pre-Code roles in Thirteen Women (1932) and The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) for a contrast to her later, more maternal persona. Don't miss Dana Andrews in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Laura (1944), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). If you like Virginia Mayo's bad girl act, be sure to catch her in White Heat (1949).

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: CROSSFIRE (1947)

Shadowy cinematography and a twisted murder plot make Crossfire (1947) seem like standard noir fare, but this movie also has a serious message for its audience about the dangers of prejudice and bigotry. Anti-Semitism is the particular concern, with the murder of a Jewish man setting the action in motion, but the film encourages us to recognize the connections between this type of hatred and many others. Moral purpose does not, however, lessen the entertainment value of the picture as a whole; director Edward Dmytryk has a top-notch cast to work with, including Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, and Robert Ryan, with Gloria Grahame also putting in a memorable appearance. Five Oscar nominations, including a nod for Best Picture, prove that Crossfire struck a chord in Hollywood in the late 1940s, and it still has a lot to say to viewers today.

Robert Young plays police detective Finlay, the man in charge of figuring out who killed Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene). Evidence seems to incriminate Corporal Mitchell (George Cooper), one of three soldiers known to have been drinking with Samuels at a bar that night. Mitchell's friend, Keeley (Robert Mitchum), believes that Mitchell is innocent and tries to protect him from the police until the truth can be revealed, but even Mitchell isn't quite clear about what happened. The only people who seem to know what really took place are Mitchell's companions, Montgomery (Robert Ryan) and Floyd (Steve Brodie), and they have their own reasons for letting Mitchell take the blame.

Robert Ryan earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, which drives the picture forward and increases in intensity as the investigation proceeds. Early on, Ryan's character tries to pass himself off as an average guy and upstanding citizen, but Robert Mitchum's Keeley quickly casts doubt on his motives, and Montgomery gives himself away as a bigot with his cracks to Finlay about non-soldiers and people with "funnier names" than Samuels. Ryan plays Montgomery as a stick of dynamite always ready to explode; he shifts from false friendliness into dangerous rage at the barest provocation, making even his unit mates afraid of him. Next to Montgomery, George Cooper's Mitchell looks like a lamb led to the slaughter, and he's actually one of the film's most passive characters, drifting through a mental haze and completely led by the smarter and more active Keeley. During Mitchell's night of confused rambling, he encounters a jaded but ultimately sympathetic working girl, Ginny, played to great effect by Gloria Grahame, who also picked up an Oscar nomination for her performance.

Although anti-Semitism serves as the picture's specific focus, Crossfire invites the viewer to see this kind of prejudice as just one instance of a larger problem. Finlay draws a pointed comparison between the way Jews are mistreated in the 20th century and the way Irish Catholics were abused in the 19th, and he also observes that a minor character, Leroy (William Phipps), is subjected to similar treatment by Montgomery simply for being from Tennessee. Anti-Semitism stands in for all kinds of prejudice, even within the context of the story's production history; in The Brick Foxhole, the original novel by Richard Brooks, the subject was homophobia, but RKO knew that kind of story would never get past the Breen Office, and the screenplay changed the identity of the victim. Crossfire was not the only 1947 picture to deal with the topic of anti-Semitism; the Best Picture winner for that year was Gentleman's Agreement, in which Gregory Peck plays a reporter who pretends to be Jewish in order to find out about bigotry and prejudice for himself. Gentleman's Agreement went home with eight nominations and three wins, while Crossfire struck out with all five of its nominations, but the two movies still make for a provocative double feature.

Edward Dmytryk earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director for Crossfire; his other films include Murder, My Sweet (1944), The Caine Mutiny (1954), and Warlock (1959). See more of Robert Ryan's noir work in The Set-Up (1949), On Dangerous Ground (1951), and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). Don't miss Robert Mitchum taking the villain's role in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962); you'll find both Mitchum and Ryan in the 1951 noir film, The Racket. Robert Young transitioned to television and lasting fame as Marcus Welby later in his career, but for more of his work from the 1940s see Lady Be Good (1941), The Canterville Ghost (1944), and The Enchanted Cottage (1945). Gloria Grahame later won her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952); she's best remembered today for roles in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Big Heat (1953), and Oklahoma! (1955).

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Harper Lee Talk at the Smyrna Public Library

I had the great pleasure of being the guest speaker at a celebration of Harper Lee held at the Smyrna Public Library on Monday, July 13, 2015, and it was just about the nicest event a person could possibly imagine. We had a wonderful crowd of fifty people - four of whom actually bought copies of Beyond Casablanca! - and a fabulous spread of Southern treats made by the library staff. My talk was called "Maycomb, Past and Present: Reading Harper Lee in 2015." In it I discussed the ways in which To Kill a Mockingbird addresses tough issues that are still very much with us today, including racial prejudice, a biased legal system, class divisions, and mental illness. I had a lively audience with lots of good questions and comments, so I was glad that I had planned the talk as a conversation rather than a prepared lecture. Of course, we talked some about the 1962 film, Gregory Peck's performance as Atticus Finch, and how we think a film adaptation of Go Set a Watchman might approach the major characters in the new story. We also speculated about Go Set A Watchman and how it might change readers' feelings about the original novel, although most of the people in attendance were eager to read the new book for themselves. I'm sure the next few weeks will see a flood of reviews and commentaries as people digest the new novel's content.

Huge thanks to my friend, Mary Wallace Moore, for inviting me to speak and spend some time with her excellent staff and delightful library patrons. If you happen to be in the neighborhood of Smyrna, GA, do check out the lovely library facility and the nearby shopping village, especially The Corner Taqueria, where I had a very tasty lunch. You can read more about the Harper Lee event in this article from the Marietta Daily Journal.