Essential: VALLEY OF THE ZOMBIES (1946)

Screen Shot 2018-08-27 at 1.46.54 PM.jpg

Ironically there are no zombies in this film, but that shouldn’t keep audiences from enjoying it. VALLEY OF THE ZOMBIES is one of Republic’s more entertaining B-horror films. It starts when a man in a black cape climbs on top of a roof  where the office of Dr. Rufus Maynard (Charles Trowbridge) is located. He soon enters the doctor’s office and asks for blood, because he is desperately in need of some. We learn he’s a former mental patient named Ormand Murks (Ian Keith) who died in 1941.

Screen Shot 2018-09-12 at 1.16.21 PM.jpg

Murks had a brain disorder and while he was locked up he would request blood transfusions. Apparently his death has not curbed his appetite for such things. It is suggested that Murks is a zombie, but he’s probably a vampire. Since Dr. Maynard has no more blood in the refrigerator Murks gets it from the next available source– the doctor himself. The scene where he approaches Maynard in order to extract blood from him is quite horrifying. It isn’t shown how he takes the blood, just that he takes it. The weird “transfusion” results in Maynard’s death.

Screen Shot 2018-09-12 at 1.13.48 PM.jpg

Maynard’s handsome young assistant, Dr. Terry Evans (Robert Livingston) tries to figure out what happened. Evans is in love with an attractive nurse (Adrian Booth). Despite there being no discernible motive, a dimwitted police detective thinks they teamed up and killed Maynard. There’s a great interrogation scene when the nurse and young doctor are questioned at the local precinct. They’re released due to lack of evidence, but decide to solve the murder to clear themselves of any suspicion.

Screen Shot 2018-08-27 at 1.47.36 PM.jpg

Livingston, who normally starred in B westerns at Republic, is quite good as the innocent doctor in this suspenseful tale. Booth (sometimes billed as Lorna Gray) worked across genres and seems to enjoy playing a woman scared of her own shadow. Together, the leads are very appealing. Philip Ford’s direction gets the job done, and the story is aided immeasurably by Reggie Lanning’s chiaroscuro lighting. In fact Lanning’s skill as cinematographer reminded me of John Alton’s work from this period.

Screen Shot 2018-08-27 at 1.53.06 PM.jpg

There are haunting images and eerie music, along with plenty of ironic dialogue and jolts to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. The story’s running time is only 56 minutes so it all moves rather quickly and there are no dull moments. VALLEY OF THE ZOMBIES was made during a time when horror seemed more innocent but was just as deadly and gruesome as ever.

Screen Shot 2018-09-12 at 1.19.17 PM.jpg

Essential: ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969)

Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 3.58.48 PM.jpg

The theme is Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World.” But anyone who’s seen this film knows that Bond and his girl Tracy don’t really have much time together at all. There is a melancholy note that hovers over this sixth installment of the Bond series. In fact the tragic love story that plays out for 140 minutes has a far more lingering effect than the considerable suspense and requisite action scenes.

Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 4.00.06 PM.jpg

To be honest I didn’t know what to expect. It had been awhile since I reviewed the Bond films starring Roger Moore. I wasn’t sure if going backward would make me a bit more critical– especially if the early stuff seemed less sophisticated. But the opening sequence where Bond meets Tracy (Diana Rigg) had me hooked. And it wasn’t difficult at all to get a feel for George Lazenby as 007 in what would be his one and only turn playing the character.

Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 4.03.46 PM.jpg

Tracy bookends the drama. In the beginning Bond saves her when she nearly drowns. And in the end, she dies in his arms after being fatally shot. It is probably the most memorable final scene of any film in the series. Director Peter Hunt was going to save the death scene till the beginning of the next film. Good thing that didn’t happen. We really needed everything to come full circle. What makes it unusual is that so many Bond girls come and go, and there are several sexual conquests for the super agent in this picture, but Tracy gets the guy. It’s refreshing that Bond actually does pick one woman to settle down with and marry. Even if the union is short-lived.

Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 4.02.54 PM.jpg

This installment benefits from a smart performance by Telly Savalas as arch rival Blofeld. He’s up to some very bad things. A group of women staying at his Swiss hideout are brainwashed to sterilize the world’s food supply. Don’t ask me how they are supposed to do that. I guess we’re expected to be so enamored by them, like Bond is during one of the segments, that it doesn’t matter how they carry out Blofeld’s nefarious plans– only that they have been trained to do it.

Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 3.59.24 PM.jpg

Blofield has a German hench woman named Irma who’s just as lethal. At one point she and her men go chasing after Bond along the Swiss Alps. It’s a hair-raising sequence. While making his escape Bond crosses paths again with Tracy which leads into some of the film’s most romantic scenes. These moments play out when they become stranded in a blizzard.

Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 4.04.14 PM.jpg

While I think this is a great film and can see why it ranks as number one among many fans, I do feel its running time is too long. Probably 15 minutes could have been cut without harming the flow of the story. Some of the stuff in Blofeld’s hideout is a bit repetitive. I wanted to know more about Tracy’s background, especially her father, who had been in cahoots with Blofield. I think there was much more to these characters than we were able to see on screen, though from what I’ve read this production is more faithful to the original source material than a lot of the other pictures in the series.

Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 4.04.56 PM.jpg

There is not an over reliance on gadgets or getaways. It’s more about Bond the man and the meaningful relationships he develops on the job. And about this extraordinary love he experiences. His wife’s death is quite shocking. Part of me wishes that she’d lived but been spirited away by Blofeld. I didn’t want Bond and Tracy’s story to end…I wanted her to come back to him in a sequel.

Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 3.58.59 PM.jpg

ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE may currently be streamed on Starz.

Essential: LOVE IN THE TIME OF CIVIL WAR (2014)

The main character is a young guy named Alex who is a hustler and a drug addict in Montreal. The film starts kind of randomly, and in fact much of the film is just that (random). Alex is on the wintry streets of the city trying to pick up his next client. It doesn’t take long before he finds someone. He finds a few someones.
The goal is to have sex for cash that he can use to purchase heroin or whatever he feels like taking. There are a group of guys his age. Sometimes they share (clients and drugs). Early on we see Alex has a deep emotional attachment with one of the other hustlers he knows, but that connection weakens over time. They have sex and do drugs together in between clients. Did I tell you there’s a lot of sex and a lot of drug use in this film.
In a way, despite the randomness of events, the filmmaker does bring it somewhat full circle. Alex and the others keep canvassing the same general area repeating what they do with slight variations. I think what I love about Rodrigue Jean’s film is that there are no real judgments or condemning of anything the characters do. They’re almost like animals covering the same territory, with their little rituals and their moment-by-moment need for basic survival. The cinematography uses a lot of lengthy tracking shots.
It’s obvious these are actors in the main roles (and some of them are not so great) but the whole thing has a pseudo documentary feel to it. My guess is they improvised a lot and just went with whatever they were feeling in the moment.
The title is kind of interesting, because you’d almost expect a historical romance. And maybe on some level that’s what it is. They’re at war with the elements, in love with the idea of coming close to death as many times as they can, before they extract some sort of truth or meaning from a meager existence. It’s a film that stays with the viewer because of how candid it is.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF CIVIL WAR may currently be viewed on Hulu.

Essential: A HATFUL OF RAIN (1957)

The plot is almost razor-thin (a couple is haunted by his nightmarish drug addiction) and focuses more on the relationships that involve the main characters and those in their orbit. But Michael Gazzo’s story is very engagingly done, because although it feels slow in the first thirty minutes, you become gradually absorbed into their problems (which cover more than just the drug use).

What impressed me most was the casting of Lloyd Nolan as the ineffectual father. The casting works very nicely, because Nolan uses more of an ‘old-school’ style of Hollywood film acting; and this, juxtaposed against the hardline method turn by Don Murray and Anthony Franciosa who play his embittered sons makes the contrast and generational gap between them all the more noticeable.

Eva Marie Saint appears as the only female in this mêlée of simmering emotions, taking over from Shelley Winters who did the stage version (Winters was married to Franciosa). As much as I like Saint and can see how Fox would have considered her more glamorous movie star material, I think it might have been edgier with Winters who probably nailed the character’s working class origins.

I have not seen the stage version or read the play, but I think anyone seeing the film for the first time can guess where director Fred Zinnemann has taken a few cinematic liberties with the story. There are some brief moments where we cut away to Don Murray’s character wandering the street, struggling with the thought of robbing a kind old woman so he can afford a quick fix from his dope dealers. The way these exterior scenes are filmed at night provide a sense of foreboding and increase the film’s overall moodiness.

The best scenes occur at the end when Murray comes out of the closet about his addiction. There is a memorable dinner scene where he admits he’s a junkie to the father, and for the first time, dear old pop realizes that the brother (Franciosa) has been in on the secret the whole time. I don’t think the wife’s reactions are exactly right– she was supposed to have been in the dark about the root of her crumbling marriage, thinking there was another woman, but Saint plays it almost too reassuringly, as if it’s no big deal and would you please pass the stew.

The ending, where they do a group intervention is truly riveting drama. I can only imagine what it was like on stage, where the intimacy of the theatre brings the audience and performers that much closer together. It’s harrowing to say the least. But there is a sense of satisfaction (and relief) that Nolan’s deadbeat dad has finally taken some responsibility about the mess he has created. The film does not end with any easy answer, just the idea that the problem has now been addressed and they can all begin to move forward.

Essential: AN ACT OF MURDER (1948)

It is rather well made, with some extraordinary performances, but a few things do not work for me.

First, I want to discuss the scene where she experiences wincing pain and breaks the mirror in the bedroom while she is packing. We get this quick dramatic scene and then it is not mentioned again. Of course, the filmmakers are letting us know, by foreshadowing it, how fatal her prognosis is. But how did she explain to her husband the mirror getting broken? And even if she had it fixed without his knowledge, wouldn’t she know at that moment that there is something terribly wrong with her? People having good days do not go around smashing bedroom mirrors.

Second, and this plot point might seem minor, but why is it that when they pack to go on their trip he takes the note explaining her full medical condition? Obviously, the filmmakers have neatly included it in his suitcase so that she can find it and learn about her situation. But wouldn’t he have have left this information in his office or already sent it on to the local physician?

And third, now this is what bothers me most, because it is certainly not addressed– but when he gets behind the wheel during the raging storm with his wife in the passenger seat– how does he know that his plan to kill her will be successful? What if he kills himself in the process, too? Can we assume that he was not only homicidal but suicidal as well? Yet, did he ever take into account the possibility that he may not survive the wreck but his wife could? If so, what good would that accident have done? Obviously, in the very next scene we see that his plan apparently succeeded and the only visible evidence that he was even in a serious crash is the cane he walks with for the rest of the picture. He has no disabilities or scars (not even a bruise or scratch) while his wife conveniently (and mercifully?) experienced a much more final outcome.

Finally, another thing that didn’t make sense to me is: when did she figure out he was giving her something stronger than aspirin? And how was she to know how toxic it was? So was her overdose intentional or accidental? This is not really explained, even later at the trial. It seems a bit hard to believe that she would have put the drugs into her purse without him realizing that she had taken them.

What seems to be happening at one turn after another in this picture is that the filmmakers are trying to dramatize a philosophical thesis about mercy killing. But because they have fully worked out all the plot details, we are left to wonder if this could have been a better film than it is and if the points could have been made more smoothly and convincingly. As it is we are left with an artistic statement about a difficult decision regarding the quality or end of life, but we are given it in uneven terms and in a scope that is overshadowed by contrivance instead of the social realism they may have been striving to attain.

Essential: BRIGHT EYES (1934)

Shirley Temple believes in every line of dialogue they give her. She is supposed to believe in Santa (while arch-nemesis Jane Withers does not); and you can tell that Little Miss Moppet does believe in Santa the way she says her lines. This is ‘true’ acting.

And the scene where she kisses the old man in the wheelchair and says she likes him is brimming with truth, too. You can sense that this child performer does like adults who treat her kindly. And the moment when she puts her head on his lap is predictably sweet but no less effective– gently reminding adults how to properly treat children.

Yet despite all these charming aspects of David Butler’s script (he also directed the picture), we know we are being manipulated for some serious drama ahead. Shirley starts out fatherless (except for surrogate daddy figure James Dunn) and by the 37th or 38th minute of the story, she is completely orphaned when her mother is killed on the street one day.

Signal the tears. Lots and lots of tears. The scene where James Dunn learns about the mother’s death while Shirley waves from inside the plane is tough to watch. Then, there’s the sequence where he takes her up in the plane and while floating over some clouds, he tells her about heaven and her mother joining her father in heaven. She breaks down while he flies the aircraft and it is devastating. I can only imagine how audiences responded to this the first time it was seen in the 1930s. How can there be a dry eye left in the house after that tender, truthful display of emotion?

And this is where Mr. Butler and Fox pull out all the stops. Shirley has lost both her parents now, on Christmas Day of all days. And miraculously, she still believes in Santa. The old man in the wheelchair plays Santa for her, James Dunn and all his buddies play Santa for her. Even the cook (Jane Darwell) and the butler are up to the task of playing Santa for her and providing her with a home if necessary.

We are surrounded by a gift of love in this film. But the real gift– then and now– is always Shirley herself.

Essential: C.O.G. (2013)

Pluses: the editing is perfect– it knows when to cut to the next scene and when to slow down and let us linger a bit on the characters; and I’d say the performances are a plus– even the child actors stay in character and seem genuine. Minus: the scriptwriter keeps reminding us how smart the main character is to set him apart from the others, meaning the others are stereotyped as hicks.

Plus or minus: There’s no sex in it. A near rape scene but nothing is shown and it’s over quickly.

The relationships he has with the people he meets are very interesting. Quirky. Often sincere. Sometimes filled with anger. There’s definitely a touch of Steinbeck felt throughout the narrative. The Grapes of Wrath (the novel) is mentioned as the reason he went out west; and the first third of the movie which takes place on an apple farm is a bit like Of Mice and Men, with the men in the bunkhouse.

The movie has no real ending; it’s brilliant in that regard; since he’s left to journey on to the next place with the next set of situations. There should be a sequel, with more stories from the original source material. Jonathan Groff, the guy who plays David/Samuel the lead character is quite good.

The scene in the church where he becomes a Christian is beautifully and poignantly played. I like how the film shows the contradictions in Christianity and the contradictions in the gay subculture. On that level it’s remarkably authentic and bold.

Essential: CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 2.39.13 PM.jpg

There’s too much name dropping in CAFE SOCIETY. People in the 1930s didn’t talk the way Woody Allen has them talk in this movie. It becomes some weird kind of encyclopedia about classic film stars. And sometimes Allen has to explain who they are. He has a character mention Bill Powell, then has the character clarify this means William Powell. Everyone in Hollywood at that time would know who Bill Powell was and probably nobody called him William Powell, except fans reading his billing on screen.

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 2.38.51 PM.jpg

The name dropping is very obvious in the party scenes. An agent keeps saying Greta Garbo is somewhere, that Joan Blondell is floating around, but it’s just names, we never see them. And these are supposed to be high-powered parties, where everyone would be in attendance. It’s like Allen is afraid to bring them on screen and present them as real characters. Can you imagine if THE AVIATOR, a story about Howard Hughes, only mentioned Katharine Hepburn, Jean Harlow and Ava Gardner and never showed them? There are plenty of celebrity impersonators that could have been hired for these scenes.

Screen Shot 2018-11-24 at 11.37.28 AM.png

Steve Carrell plays one of the main roles, and for the most part he is okay. But he isn’t too believable in his love scenes. Bruce Willis was originally hired for this role and left the project, but even he wouldn’t have felt right. In one segment Carrell’s character has hired a girl who has a Masters Degree to be his secretary. Yes, that’s supposed to be funny; but she doesn’t seem at all educated which makes you wonder which school handed out her diploma.

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 2.36.01 PM.jpg

Jesse Eisenberg is cast as Carrell’s nephew. He’s fine as the young lovestruck protagonist, though I do think he’s forcing some Allenesque mannerisms. I like the irony that the young woman (Kristen Stewart) he dates in Hollywood and another woman (Blake Lively) he ends up marrying later on have the same first name: Veronica. But I don’t think Eisenberg has much chemistry with Stewart. It’s kind of like putting oil with water and expecting them to blend.

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 2.38.21 PM.jpg

The music is wonderful. Plus the costumes are fabulous, and so are the cars and hairstyles. But a clip of Barbara Stanwyck and Gene Raymond in a film glimpsed within the film (THE WOMAN IN RED) shows that women and men from that era actually dressed a bit differently. So basically CAFE SOCIETY is relying on stereotypes and manufactured memories of the 1930s, and that’s fine– unless you’re looking for a more authentic depiction of life back then.

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 2.35.37 PM.jpg

Essential: CALAMITY JANE (1953)

2dd

CALAMITY JANE was Doris’ favorite of all the movies she made, and it’s easy to see why. So many things going for it:

An Oscar nominated score, with one of the songs (‘Secret Love’) receiving the Oscar for song of the year– it was a hit song on the Billboard charts for Doris.

Perfect casting– Howard Keel as the main love interest, fresh off his success in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN; the handsome Phil Carey as the military man Calamity thinks she loves; Dick Wesson in a great comic relief supporting part; and Allyn Ann McLerie as the dance hall girl wannabe (why didn’t she have a greater career in movies?). Not to mention Doris herself who is having fun with the role of a lifetime.

And I want to speak for a moment about Doris’ acting. She is more focused in this film than in any other one I’ve seen her do (except maybe LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME). There is not one false note in her performance. Even when she has the most over-the-top dialogue (sputtering words or phrases like varmint, mangy groundhog and nekked heathens), she doesn’t step out of character and wink once at the audience– she knows Calamity’s mannerisms and speech is supposed to be animated, but she plays it straight and that helps us develop sympathy for the character. It also helps us get caught up in what will happen to Calamity, as far-fetched as the situations may be. And around the 65-minute mark (more than halfway into the story), her transformation from tomboy to a softer more feminine western gal is handled very nicely.

To sum it up, CALAMITY JANE is a solid piece of musical comedy entertainment. The preposterousness and historical inaccuracies the script conjures up can be forgiven. Any shortcomings are more than made up for by the abounding charm of the players and overall ambiance of the picture.

Essential: CANYON PASSAGE (1946)

Recently I came across a disc of westerns I had where Susan Hayward was the star. She didn’t make too many films in this genre, but the ones she did appear in were very sharply filmed. One such early picture was Universal’s CANYON PASSAGE, produced by Walter Wanger with whom Hayward was under contract at the time.

The story goes that several directors were suggested before European-born director Jacques Tourneur was selected. Tourneur began directing shorts back in his native France in the early 30s, and by the time 1946 rolled around, he had already been in Hollywood for several years. He built a name for himself in the industry directing low-budget horror films for Val Lewton at RKO earlier in the decade, and CANYON PASSAGE would be his first western. More significantly, it would be his first motion picture photographed in Technicolor.

During his apprenticeship at RKO, Tourneur learned the importance of morally ambiguous story lines that kept audiences guessing about the fate of a story’s main characters. The chance to explore these approaches in Technicolor was probably too good to pass up. He would also have a larger budget at Universal.

True to form, Tourneur did not disappoint. He made the most of a frontier tale filmed with exciting outdoor scenes on location in Oregon. He used the impressive lush backdrops of the forests, meadows and mountain ranges off in the distance, juxtaposed with shadowy figures, lurking within the landscape, waiting to ambush others with shocking violence at a moment’s notice.

In a way the use of vivid Technicolor lulls the audience into accepting the bucolic countryside as something pleasant, beautiful and peaceful. But there is a darker undercurrent in the settling of the west, and its real nature becomes apparent with the use of shadows and with morally ambiguous characterizations that choose not to paint things too stereotypically for the viewer.

Indeed, there are no traditional white hats (for the heroes) or black hats (for the villains). Instead, we get group shots, where all the men and women, of varying shades of goodness and corruption, populate the landscape side by side. The final result is a rather complex drama about the community’s survival existing across a landscape where men and women make mistakes and are not fully good or bad.

It might be said that Tourneur’s approach in the western genre paved the way for other morally ambiguous stories to follow. Notably, efforts by Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh.