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!

Essential: MAN IN THE ATTIC (1953)

Released by 20th Century Fox, this is a standard mystery thriller based on the Jack the Ripper tale. Fox had previously filmed Marie Lowndes’ novel in 1944 with the original title intact, THE LODGER (which we’ve already reviewed).

Key changes from the 1944 version– Daisy/Kitty is now called Lily. She is still the landlady’s niece and still a showgirl. The landlords’ last name is no longer Bonting; it is now Harley. The scriptwriters have added a dog that looks like Lassie. The dog’s scenes with Slade give us a new way to perceive him. Another important change is that the sets are smaller, conveying a sense of intimacy. The lodger’s rented room and the attic where he does his experiments are appropriately claustrophobic.

The greatest improvement is the casting of Jack Palance as Slade. In my opinion, he’s the real reason to watch this version. He exudes the right combination of masculinity and menace. We are drawn to him and frightened by him at the same time, which is how it should be for the story to work. That was not the case with Ivor Novello or Laird Cregar.

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Something about this version seems brutally honest to me. Maybe it seems honest because of 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.

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Palance also shows us the coldness of the character. There are suggestions he is a religious man, since he reads a bible left in his room. But in his mind, there is nothing holy about women who shamelessly flaunt themselves at men. They must be punished. We are told this stems from the fact that his mother had been a showgirl, and she chose her career over caring for him. He’s experiencing a Freudian complex and compares “sinful” women to his mother. I think this explanation makes a lot more sense for the killings than having Slade avenge a sister’s death or a brother’s demise.

Another way we see Slade’s coldness is when he stops being kind to the Harley family dog. Suddenly the animal is afraid of him– implying that off-screen Slade had abused it in a fit of rage. We are given a fascinating and honest performance of a man with demons.

Re: the landlords. Frances Bavier (who retains her American accent) and Rhys Williams (with his Welsh accent) play the couple who let a room to Slade. Initially, she is a doting landlady trying to make her new boarder feel at home; while 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; but the husband explains several coincidences and gives the man 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 Slade at all. Instead of flat representations, we have 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 Slade’s softer side playing the piano. But mostly, the action builds and the film doesn’t waste time.

The director wisely shoots the Fox back lot from different angles to make it seem like there are more streets and outdoor sets than there probably are. 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.

The finale in this 1953 production differs from the 1944 version. Instead of having Slade chased backstage, he takes off in a horse-driven carriage. There’s a nicely filmed action sequence where the police inspector (Byron Palmer) and his men pursue Slade down the city’s streets. It all reaches a dramatic conclusion at the canal. The ending doesn’t show Slade’s capture or even his death. It’s left open as to whether he has drowned in the canal; or if he is swimming underneath to some darker place within his soul.

MAN IN THE ATTIC was directed by Hugo Fregonese and may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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.

Essential: WOMAN WHO CAME BACK (1945)

Originally I was going to do a month of films about witches, but instead I decided to focus on psychological thrillers. This week’s selection fits both categories. It’s a 1945 gem that was made independently but distributed through Republic pictures. Nancy Kelly stars as the title character, a woman who comes back to a sleepy New England town and finds things quite unsettling.

First, I should provide a bit of background on the character she plays as well as the inhabitants of Eben Rock. She left the area when she was much younger and is heading back on a bus. Sitting next to her is an elderly woman who was also from the same town. They talk about the superstitious nature of the people in Eben Rock. The old hag seems to share those beliefs and might even be a supernatural manifestation of the evil that happened there in the past.

Their conversation is interrupted when the bus careens off the road during a storm and plunges into an icy river. The members of the local community rush to the site of the crash, and it is quickly learned there were no survivors, except Kelly. She has a sketchy memory of the crash and cannot provide any substantial details. She tells them about the old woman, but there was no such person listed as having been on the bus.

As the story continues, strange things occur in the young woman’s presence. Local townsfolk soon accuse her of being a witch, and she begins to wonder if it’s all connected to the woman she met on the bus. The writers are careful not to make it too hokey, but there are suggestions that either the hag has cast a spell on her, or that she is the old woman reincarnated and that she had seen a part of herself on the bus. It’s all rather thought-provoking and Nancy Kelly does a great job conveying the terror that increases inside her, when she starts to believe as others do that she’s really a witch.

Of course, there’s a love story too, when one of the men in town has fallen for her. He doesn’t believe she’s a danger to anyone, only to herself if she keeps behaving this way. The love interest is played by John Loder, and he turns in a subtle performance, wisely letting his costar drive the film’s narrative forward.

By the time it all ends, answers have been provided that explain the disappearance of the old woman. And our young heroine seems to regain her sanity. But this is no dream, and it’s not explained away as anyone’s fanciful imagination. She really does seem to have been possessed. But the new love she’s found with Loder gives us an idea of what was missing when she began to doubt her own basic goodness. It’s too bad there wasn’t a sequel with her giving birth to a daughter who dealt with the same issues. But at least it ends happily and she doesn’t self-destruct. Because how can you come back from that? I mean, it would be a real scream.

WOMAN WHO CAME BACK was directed by Walter Colmes and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

RKO superstars part 2

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Katharine Hepburn was one of RKO’s brightest stars in the 1930s. She had delightful turns in LITTLE WOMEN and MORNING GLORY; plus she gave heartbreaking performances as ALICE ADAMS and MARY OF SCOTLAND. She tried comedies, but when those vehicles didn’t connect with audiences, she was labeled box office poison. She soon bought out of her contract and returned to Broadway. She had another hit with the stage version of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and signed with MGM for the movie adaptation. But it’s those early films at RKO which show a younger and more vulnerable side of the actress.

Robert Ryan had bit parts in the early 1940s at other studios, before he caught on at RKO in 1943’s THE IRON MAJOR. He was quickly upgraded to better material with better directors. By the end of the decade, he was one of RKO’s busiest and most versatile actors. He could do tough guy roles as well as more sympathetic characters, like the one he played in THE SET UP. Long after his early costars at the studio had moved on, he was still working at RKO when he appeared in the remake BACK FROM ETERNITY as a heroic pilot. It didn’t take an eternity for people to realize Robert Ryan was a great performer.

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In the early to mid-1930s, Ann Harding was one of RKO’s top actresses. She was always given the best scripts at the studio, and when she was loaned out, it was usually for lavish productions at MGM or Paramount. There was a casual quality about her, and a calmness in her line deliveries, no matter how severe the circumstances might be which faced the characters she played. Probably her greatest film is DOUBLE HARNESS opposite William Powell. And her work with Leslie Howard and Herbert Marshall is not be missed either.

Wheeler & Woolsey began making films during the late 1920s. Initially, they supported other stars in musical comedies. But the bosses saw potential in these two clowns, and realized they should headline their own comedies. For most of the 30s, the duo’s unique brand of slapstick was very profitable for RKO. The formula had them dealing with hard-nosed busybodies like Edna May Oliver who tried to stop their shenanigans. They would inspire future comedians and gain new fans years after they had stopped performing.

When mogul Howard Hughes bought RKO, a main goal of his was to secure distribution for THE OUTLAW starring Jane Russell. The controversial production had encountered censorship troubles with the production code office. Eventually, the picture was released, and Hughes’ new star was cast in other films made at the studio. These included more westerns, some comedies, and noir with Robert Mitchum. Though she would go on to score hits at Fox and Universal, it was her younger days at RKO when Jane first caused a sensation.

RKO superstars part 1

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Ginger Rogers had already scored a hit on Broadway and in Warners’ GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, when she was signed to a long-term contract at RKO. There didn’t seem to be any type of material she couldn’t play– romantic trifles like IN PERSON; women’s stories like STAGE DOOR and TENDER COMRADE; and of course, those insanely successful musicals where she danced with Fred Astaire. The high point, though, was her turn in the romance drama KITTY FOYLE, for which she earned an Oscar. She would leave RKO in the mid-1940s, but she did return a decade later for one of the studio’s final films.

In Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s, bandleaders were everywhere. They were performing in nightclubs, on radio and on screen. RKO gave Kay Kyser and his band a chance to bring their musical comedy magic to movie audiences. A series of successful films were made that cast Kay and the boys with some rather memorable costars. They worked with Lucille Ball, Peter Lorre and John Barrymore. Kay made a few more pictures at other studios, but his best ones were at RKO.

During the early days of the studio, RKO had a few notable leading ladies under contract that were frequently cast in romantic tearjerkers. One of these pre-code beauties was Constance Bennett. She made films like ROCKABYE and BED OF ROSES, where she played women from the wrong side of the tracks who fell for men she couldn’t have. The formula clicked with moviegoers, and the actress did these parts with dramatic skill and style. After she left RKO, her roles changed, due to the production code and the kinds of material that was now being allowed on screen. But she remained popular for many years.

After paying his dues at poverty row studios for a few years, Robert Mitchum finally hit his stride with 1945’s THE STORY OF G.I. JOE. This led to a contract with RKO, and soon the handsome actor was a major movie star. At the studio, he excelled in gritty crime dramas like CROSSFIRE and OUT OF THE PAST. Occasionally, there were lighter assignments like HOLIDAY AFFAIR. In the early 1950s, he was paired twice with sultry Jane Russell, and the two remained lifelong friends.

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Dawn O’Day was a child actress who changed her stage name to the character she played in RKO’s adaptation of ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. Based on its overwhelming success with audiences, Anne Shirley was put in similarly themed coming-of-age dramas for the rest of the 1930s. But she eventually matured and graduated to more grown-up roles after 1940. Among these were her long-suffering wife in a version of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, as well as a Raymond Chandler mystery which would be her last motion picture, MURDER MY SWEET.