Coming up in November

It’s a month of special columns with members of the TCM message board community:

TCM fan programming…in this two-part interview, YanceyCravat describes what it was like to be an on-air programmer during TCM’s 20th anniversary.

Programmer MarshaKatz…Marsha discusses her favorite directors, Billy Wilder and Woody Allen.

Programmer Gipper…Gipper talks about some of Ronald Reagan’s films at Warner Brothers.

Programmer Tisher Price…Tish mentions a few Clara Bow classics.

Programmer Natalie Webb…Natalie shines the spotlight on some of her favorite actresses of the 1940s.

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Join me in November!

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Essential: MAN IN THE ATTIC (1953)

MAN IN THE ATTIC was released by 20th Century Fox. It’s a standard mystery thriller based on Jack the Ripper. I’m sure there are better films about the famed Victoria era serial killer. I haven’t seen them all, but this version has always been a particular favorite of mine. Something about it seems brutally honest to me.

Maybe it seems honest because of Jack Palance’s performance. Other actors might chew the scenery, and in fact Palance does chew the scenery in some of his films. But not here. He brings us into the world of a demented man in a very sympathetic sort of way. We see the intense struggle he is having within himself.

At one point when he convulses after a killing and is comforted by dance hall girl Lily (Constance Smith), he appears quite broken and pitiable. He’s a man who knows what he is doing but cannot stop himself. In fact, Palance is so effective in these scenes, we want to believe he could change if someone just reached into his soul and saved him.

Palance also shows us the coldness of the character. There are suggestions he is a religious man, reading a bible left in his room– but how in his mind, there is no forgiveness when it comes to punishing women who shamelessly flaunt themselves at men. Or when Palance goes from being a caring companion to the family’s dog, and then suddenly the animal is afraid of him– implying that off-screen he had abused it in a fit of rage. It’s a fascinating and honest performance of a man with demons.

Another reason the film works is the casting of the landlords. Frances Bavier and Rhys Williams play the couple who let a room to Palance. We see them change as the story progresses. Initially, she is a doting landlady trying to make her new boarder feel at home; and the husband is put-off about bringing a stranger into their home. But half an hour into the film, they’ve reversed themselves. She is suspicious that the guy is Jack the Ripper; while the husband explains the coincidences and gives the man staying in the attic the benefit of the doubt. It’s interesting how these characters change their perspective on someone they think they know, when they do not know much about him at all. Instead of flat representations, we get fully dimensional characters whose own fears and beliefs add to the complex layers of the story.

Since it’s a modestly budgeted programmer, the producers do not drag things out. The story runs around 73 minutes, and the scenes are concise with forward momentum. Occasionally, the plot slows down for a brief musical interlude at the dance hall, or when we see Palance’s softer side playing the piano. But mostly, the action builds and the film doesn’t waste time going about its business. The director wisely shoots the back lot from different angles to make it seem like there are more streets and outdoor sets than there probably are. And the period detail inside the main set, the couple’s house, is attended with care but not great opulence. Ironically, it’s a very cozy looking picture, despite its very unsettling theme. And the ending doesn’t show the capture of the killer; it’s left open as to whether he has drowned in a canal; or if he is swimming underneath to some darker place within his soul.

MAN IN THE ATTIC was directed by Hugo Fregonese and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

Agee’s horror reviews

Film critic James Agee was an admirer of Val Lewton’s films:

THE LODGER (1944)

“It is years since a horror picture has given me my money’s worth, and I feel that today only Val Lewton, who makes such B pictures as THE SEVENTH VICTIM, has occasional promising ideas how to go about it. For me the main troubles with THE LODGER were that everyone was trying for gentlemanly, intelligent horror, sustained only by tricks of secondary suspense (you know from the start who the Ripper is). As a result the beautiful interiors, the sometimes beautiful streets, and the too beautiful lighting and photography drew too much attention to their own sumptuous but very passive vitality. The good performances of Laird Cregar, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Sara Allgood and Merle Oberon also remained a purely visual pleasure. Doris Lloyd, however, does project a moment of solid, old-fashioned fright.”

*****

ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) and THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)

“ISLE OF THE DEAD is at moments arty, yet in many ways to be respected, up to its last half hour or so; then it becomes as brutally frightening and gratifying a horror movie as I can remember. More self-contained and pleasingly toned and told, is Lewton’s recent BODY SNATCHER with Karloff, Lugosi, Henry Daniell. It too, for all its charm and talent, is a little dull and bookish; but it explodes into an even finer, and a far more poetic, horror-climax.”

*****

BEDLAM (1946)

“BEDLAM is an elaborate improvisation. Boris Karloff has charge of a madhouse, prior to its reform. A Quaker and a spirited young woman are also involved. This is a Val Lewton production. I hear I have been accused of favoring Mr. Lewton, for reasons presumed to be underhand. The actual reason is underhandedness epitomized: I think that few people in Hollywood show in their work that they know or care half as much about movies or human beings as he does. Lewton and his friends would have to make much less sincere and pleasing films than this before I would review them disrespectfully.”

Essential: THE AMAZING MR. X (1948)

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First known as THE SPIRITUALIST, this film was renamed THE AMAZING MR. X when the producers reissued it. The story seems like it would be fairly routine– a grieving widow (Lynn Bari) thinks she hears the voice of her late husband along the beach one night. Fearing she might be losing her mind, she tells her sister. The sister believes it is because she’s conflicted about an upcoming marriage to another man. But the voice continues to call out to Bari, and this causes her to seek the guidance of a spiritualist.

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The title character considers himself a psychic counselor, and many wealthy widows go to him. He is played with flair by Austrian actor Turhan Bey. Just a few years earlier, Bey had been named one of Hollywood’s most promising newcomers. Universal used him a series of escapist films with Maria Montez, but by this point of his career he was taking on roles with Eagle-Lion in the hopes of demonstrating his versatility as a performer. And what we have here is a carefully modulated performance that stops short of scenery chewing, where he essays a phony medium with certain vulnerabilities.

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When Bari visits him to contact the spirit of her dead husband, she is not only at risk of being used by Bey, but since he is being manipulated by a blackmailer who has evidence of his tricks to defraud people– they’re both in considerable danger. While the convoluted aspects of the story play out, we are drawn into how these representations of good and evil are depicted with carefully composed visuals. For it is quite clear that Cinematographer John Alton has his own tricks when it comes to photographing scenes that convey the eerie qualities of a corrupted spirit world. The use of lighting to indicate the trance-like state of Bari’s existence makes it seem as if the whole thing is taking place inside a dream. Or perhaps more accurately, inside a nightmare.

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Lynn Bari was not the producers’ first choice for the role of Christine. Originally, they had signed Carole Landis to play the part of the long-suffering heroine. But unfortunately, Landis committed suicide, so freelancer Bari stepped in. Landis might have been better in this film, given a chance to exorcise her own personal demons; though Bari brings it a type of sophistication and post-war fatigue that seems most appropriate.

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As for Turhan Bey, his Hollywood career would come to a standstill five years later when a scandal abruptly forced him to leave the country. He went back to Europe, but returned to American screens a few decades later for several final acting roles. When we look at this particular film, we see skilled acting; outstanding visuals; and a story that has a point to make about a phony trying to go legit. We don’t need a crystal ball to tell us we’re going to be mesmerized the minute we start watching.

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THE AMAZING MR. X was directed by Bernard Vorhaus and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

Biker films part 2

By the late 1960s, biker films would become increasingly popular with moviegoers. But some believed these pictures were more than harmless rebellion and anti-establishment sentiment. They thought the films were a type of fascist propaganda encouraging violence, murders and mob rule.

After Corman’s THE WILD ANGELS, there was a proliferation of biker films. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, these stories would be mass produced and exhibited in drive-in theaters. Made quickly and cheaply, mostly by American International Pictures, they had a certain visual style.

The names of the films were usually as colorful as the stories depicted on screen. And there were some actors who appeared quite frequently in them. People like Tom Laughlin, known as the character Billy Jack in THE BORN LOSERS; he would return with THE VIOLENT ANGELS. And Dennis Hopper turned up in THE GLORY STOMPERS, while Jack Nicholson appeared in HELL’S ANGELS 69. Soon afterward, Hopper and Nicholson would team with Peter Fonda to make EASY RIDER– one of the most important biker films of all time.

EASY RIDER won a directing award for Fonda at the Cannes Film Festival. For a picture basically made on a shoestring budget, it proved how enormously profitable biker flicks could be with audiences. Its huge success only led to more such films– including ones made at major studios. For example, Robert Redford starred in Paramount’s LITTLE FAUSS AND BIG HALSY. And Joe Namath transitioned from football to the movies in C.C. AND COMPANY for Embassy Pictures.

These films echoed the feelings that began in THE WILD ONE with Marlon Brando. They were about youth’s search for identity on bikes. In the 1980s, the genre evolved considerably. But even a futuristic movie like MAD MAX is a nod to the biker legends and shows warriors on the road grappling with issues that oppress a generation.

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TCM message board poster CaveGirl contributed to this write-up.

Biker films part 1

Any discussion about biker films has to start with THE WILD ONE. It’s based on an actual event which occurred in the late 1940’s. Marlon Brando plays the leader of a gang that stops off a California highway and goes on a rampage against the authority figures of a small town. At the same time, he is charmed by one of the local girls.

During the ruckus, he acts out his generation’s views of society. He’s tortured emotionally and exists in a culture that drifts from place to place. The desired mode of transportation– a motorbike– provides fast escape when there’s trouble. Though usually, violence and more societal conflict are waiting at the next place.

Not every film is as potent as THE WILD ONE. Some are tamer and less explosive. But Brando and his bike still linger in the public consciousness. A decade later, Roger Corman produced a low-budget update called THE WILD ANGELS. It continued the main idea and took it in newer directions. In the 60s, there was a revolution in the wind, along with the sound of motorcycles.

Often such movies are written off by critics, but upon re-evaluation, they can be deemed quite significant. They contain sensational images and editing that give them a unique energy. And they represent how we all feel sometimes, when we just want to get away from everything.

Coming up: bikers in the 70s & 80s…

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TCM message board poster CaveGirl contributed to this write-up.

“Forgive me for I have sinned”

Having been raised Catholic, I can remember at a very young age making the sacrament we called ‘First Confession.’ Later, it was referred to as the sacrament of ‘Reconciliation.’ After going into the confessional, we would be given our penance, in which we were usually asked not to repeat the same mistakes. To atone for our wrong-doing, we would recite prayers, including one known as the ‘Act of Contrition.’

Over the years, my views of Catholicism have changed, but my feeling that confession is good for the soul has not changed. I think that’s why I like the following films so much, and right now, it does my soul good to mention them:

I CONFESS (1953). Alfred Hitchcock was a devout Catholic, so it was inevitable he would make a film where a man of the cloth was the main character. While the director could easily have gone for shock value in some of the story’s most revealing scenes, he keeps it thoughtful and, well, spiritual. Montgomery Clift is cast as an inner-city priest caught up in a murder investigation. As he withholds key information that was confessed to him by a guilty party, we see the toll it takes on him and his faith.

CONFESSIONS OF TOM HARRIS (1969). This film is based on the life of Hollywood stuntman Tom Harris, an emotionally troubled guy that raped a girl then married her. Don Murray stars as Harris and gives a very intense performance; Linda Evans plays the victim, and is appropriately vulnerable. The story goes in an unexpected direction when we meet her father– a tough but compassionate Christian minister (David Brian) who finds decency in his volatile son-in-law. It’s a very powerful motion picture which has a lot to say about forgiveness.

ABSOLUTION (1978). Richard Burton is a head priest and overseer of teenage boys at a private Catholic school. The boys are evil, and Burton is desperate to save them from themselves. Soon he gets involved in a diabolical plot that leads to murder– lured into it, because of the things he is told in the confessional. The plot is a bit far-fetched in spots, but it works, thanks to Burton’s fine acting and the movie’s many atmospheric touches. You never know if Burton’s character is being manipulated because he’s an unfortunate victim, or if it his own sinful nature that is being controlled by demons.

MASS APPEAL (1984). In this one, Jack Lemmon is cast as an older priest at a parish that is undergoing great changes. The story seems like an 80s update of GOING MY WAY, where Lemmon is paired with a new priest. The drama hinges on the spiritual dilemmas faced by the younger clergyman, who is relieved of his weekly duties when he confides his sins to the older priest. From this point on, he must go his own way.