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Capsule Reviews (March 2006)

Friday Foster (1975) Arthur Marks

The credits provide a who's who of blaxploitation. There's stars Pam Grier and Yaphet Kotto, then a few people with bizarre names like Thalmus Rasulala, then guest stars Eartha Kitt and Jim Backus, then support like Scatman Crothers and Carl Weathers. Wow. And it's an American International Picture so it can't be that bad. Is it as good as personal faves like Coffy and Foxy Brown? Well no, but it's still fun, even with the most depressed looking models I've ever seen and some slow scenes that do nothing except give the filmmakers an opportunity to play some funky music. I much prefer Pam Grier when she got to kick butt but it's certainly no real hardship to watch her in a thriller based on a comic strip.

As for the actors: Carl Weathers is a baby in his motion picture debut; Eartha Kitt is still playing Catwoman, even without the costume; and Godfrey Cambridge is a hilarious big black fairy. And of course there's Pam Grier who was always the hottest blaxploitation chick of all and still is today at whatever age she is now. Even the people whose names I didn't know had recognisable faces: Jason Bernard was the black doctor in V; Julius Harris was in Darkman and Live and Let Die; and, my wife tells me, there's even Isaac from The Love Boat.

Crawlspace (1986) David Schmoeller

There's just no way you can go wrong with a Klaus Kinski performance. The man was seriously out of his brain and there is simply no one, not even Brad Dourif, who can give a more intense performance. Put a gun in his hand to play Russian Roulette with and there's just no way that we're not going to be rivetted. This is a freaky movie and who better to put in a freaky movie than the freakiest freaky actor of them all? He could sleepwalk through a movie, as he does for much of this one, and still be more intense than anyone else on the planet. That's just who he is.

This is also a Charles Band movie, which means that very clever things are going to be done with no money whatsoever. Sure enough Kinski turns out to be a twisted serial killer doctor who rents his house out to beautiful young ladies only to spy on them from the crawlspace of the air conditioning tunnels and eventually kill them in inventive ways. He even keeps a woman in a cage who has no tongue.

Most of the crew seem to be Italian though the cast aren't. The lead lady is Talia Balsam, who I know nearly twenty years later as Jack Malone's ex-wife in Without a Trace. She reminds me of Helen Hunt in Trancers, a good actress obviously working above the level of her cohorts. The lady in red who looks like a porn actress is Tane, later Tahnee Cain, the wife of Journey keyboard player Jonathan Cain and the daughter of Doug McClure. She gets to sing a song here but did more for The Terminator soundtrack, as part of her band Tryanglz.

Director David Schmoeller also made Puppet Master, which was fun but inconsequential, and later underrated gems like Netherworld. He also later made a short film called Please Shoot Mr Kinski, that documented the troubles he had with his star. Maybe that tortured relationship explains why this isn't the film it should have been. There's potential all over the place but most of it goes nowhere.

Walk the Line (2005) James Mangold

At first thoughts, there's not much point watching something like this: it's a musical biopic of someone as unique as Johnny Cash, as performed by someone who had to learn to sing and play guitar just to take the part. It can work. I remember the success of Gary Busey as Buddy Holly for a start, but it doesn't happen often and usually the results are pretty painful. But then Cash himself apparently chose Joaquin Phoenix to play him and June Carter Cash herself chose Reese Witherspoon to play her. Being the choice of the man in black himself lends him serious credence for a start, and then the slew of nominations and wins that have flown his way tend to back it up. I'm also watching three hours before the Oscar ceremonies begin, so the quality of his performance is very much in mind. So how good is he?

Well, by the time he auditioned Folsom Prison Blues for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, I was sold. It wasn't just the voice and the way he got trained for the role, it was the feel of it. Five minutes earlier Sam Phillips couldn't believe him singing gospel, but now he and I and I'm sure everyone else watching could believe him singing out his pain. And that's precisely why he'll be up for an Oscar in two and a bit hours time. And he certainly did enough to deserve it.

The movie as a whole doesn't hold up to his performance, but there are some seriously good scenes. There's magic here and not a small amount of it either, but it doesn't hold up all the way through. I was really impressed by the actors playing Mother Maybelle and Johnny Cash's dad, but many of those playing stars disappointed. The film jumps around quite a bit early on which is a little disconcerting, but it focuses well later, even though I felt some of the deleted scenes played better than their replacements.

And the music is incredible. I don't just mean Phoenix as Cash, but the background soundtrack music courtesy of T Bone Burnett who did a similar stunning job on O Brother Where Art Thou? He isn't just one of the foremost experts on this era of music but he makes it work exactly as it should in a film like this. He puts us in a point in time like nobody else I've ever come across. It's a shame he rarely got to do his job after about a third of the way through.

Desert Nights (1929) William Nigh

John Gilbert's last silent movie and one of anyone's last silent movies. I've always been a little surprised at how quickly the movie audiences of the time threw over their idols for the new concept of sound. People like John Gilbert and Ramon Novarro were massively appealing leading men in silent films, but when the talkies came along they were discarded almost overnight. The classic reason was that they had squeaky voices but I don't buy that. Needless to say I wasn't a moviegoer in 1929 but I've enjoyed both Gilbert or Novarro in talkies and never once did I find their voices inappropriate.

Here John Gilbert plays the romantic lead for the last time without sound, two years after The Jazz Singer. His mine manager is wowing Mary Nolan's diamond thief but not as much as she's wowing him, even when her band of crooks kidnaps him. She's certainly a pleasing sight under the desert sun. She can't act as well as Gilbert but she doesn't grin as much and she shows plenty of cleavage. With a beard John Gilbert looks far too much like Russell Crowe. Director William Nigh worked his way steadily down the ranks to the low budget Monogram pictures of the forties, but he was always capable and was even highly regarded back in the silent era.

The Last Picture Show (1971) Peter Bogdanovich

Last night Larry McMurtry finally won an Oscar for screenwriting, for his work on the screenplay of Brokeback Mountain. I haven't seen this yet but I've heard both good and bad things about it; the bad being that it's long and boring. The Last Picture Show was his first nomination, a full 25 years before his second, and it's a long and very potentially boring movie. It's two hours and ten minutes long; it's shot in black and white; and it has no real start and finish, no real defined lead characters and certainly no real focus on any one thing in particular. Therefore it should be a popular candidate for Most Boring Film of the Year, but it isn't. I was tired and yet couldn't take my eyes off it. All this non-rivetting non-action had me rivetted.

I was surprised too. I wasn't expecting to see quite so much of Cybill Shepherd for one thing. I wasn't expecting much of the movie to be about sex, almost entirely dispassionate and disfunctional. I wasn't expecting to see full frontal nudity in a film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1971. Then again, maybe that's why it's in Premiere's list of the 100 Most Daring Films.

It won two Oscars in the end and lost a whole slew more. Those two went to Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman for their supporting roles and I'm not going to argue with them. Both were superb, but they were hardly alone in that: I thought that Eileen Brennan in particular was just as good, and Ellen Burstyn not far behind. Now I want to see the sequel, Texasville, but it's surely going to be a disappointment now.

House of the Dead (2003) Uwe Boll

I'd been prepared for how truly awful this film is by family members, but now I finally get to experience it for myself. And yes, it's painful even before the credits finish. When actors of the calibre of Jurgen Prochnow can't improve the situation then there's not really much hope. Then again he is playing someone called Captain Kirk (no kidding) and there's a U-boat joke in there, thrown out by a slumming Clint Howard who, alone of the entire cast, seems to know that he's appearing in a steaming pile of crap and so at least decides to have fun with it.

Now I've seen a bunch of zombie flicks but I don't remember any where the zombies run, leap, swim, mount stealth attacks, team up with each other, scream in pain or any of the other activities they get up to here. Not that any of them are consistent. These swimming zombies have been stuck on an island for 300 years but somehow they can't swim off. They tear people to pieces but clean up the body parts afterwards. They sneak up on people in utter silence but then roar at them for the heck of it. They run really fast to attack their victims but then stumble around slowly to get shot.

There's also a perfectly politically correct ethnic mix of survivors of the initial zombie attacks: the token blonde brainless bimbo, the token black chick, the token Asian girl in a stars and stripes outfit just to ensure her allegiance. And Uwe Boll must have had a list of camera effects that he had to fit in somewhere. This whole thing feels like Boll has watched a lot of movies with a lot of cool bits in them and couldn't resist throwing all of them at his screen with a relished total lack of constraint. Every single one of the team fighting zombies in the cemetery gets their own Matrix-style revolving shot. Every one. Slowly. And there are even clips from the game at wonderfully inappropriate moments just to add to the incoherence.

Of course now I'm eagerly awaiting Uwe Boll's last two films, the ones that followed this turkey, both of which also feature in the Bottom 100 at IMDb. In fact they are in the bottom 21, making him one in seven at the very bottom. After those two I may well believe that there is finally a modern competitor to the directors who thrived in the heyday of bad drive in filmmaking in the fifties.

Proces de Jeanne d'Arc (1962) Robert Bresson

The ultimate realist, Robert Bresson, takes on the trial of Joan of Arc. Now having seen and been thoroughly stunned on more than one occasion by a previous French version of the same story, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, made by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer in 1928, I can't imagine a better version or even a version that comes close to that masterpiece. Renee Falconetti's performance in the lead role is surely the greatest I've ever seen, not just as Joan of Arc but as anyone, and the powerful presence of Florence Carrez here is unfortunately lessened by the comparison.

Rather than coming up with a new approach, this film works from the same mentality as the 1928 version. Both directors preferred to avoid professional actors in a striving for realism; both films are based closely on the transcripts of the trial of Joan of Arc; both are minimalistic in approach. But as much as this is a powerful film, it is not a patch on the 1928 version in any way. Bresson's realism works by stripping his actors of emotion: they are far more matter of fact than Dreyer's and over the length of the film help to bring out the stubbornness of Joan's words. In fact it is the trial transcript that is the real star here: everyone else merely helps to highlight that by not interfering with it. In Dreyer's version they instead help to flavour it and bring out its depth. The emotion that is so absent in this film is very present in Dreyer's.

Bed of Roses (1933) Gregory LaCava

As befits a precode, Bed of Roses kicks off with a couple of smart talking, sassy, shopworn and weary hookers about to be released from prison. Constance Bennett is one of them, starring in capital letters above Joel McCrea, and Pert Kelton (which is a name not a description) is the other. To get to New Orleans and go golddigging they're willing to use eevery trick in the book and they get plenty of opportunity.

I've enjoyed Constance Bennett roles before and being a precode this one has a lot of meat to it so she can get her teeth into it and she doesn't disappoint. Pert Kelton I've not seen before but she's capable in a solid impersonation of Mae West. Joel McCrea is always the good guy and it still seems strange to see him not on a horse, but he was always reliable if not spectacular before the western years.

At the end of the day, every precode I see makes me more sad that the production code ever had to exist.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959) Otto Preminger

The biggest surprise here is Ben Gazzara. He's supposed to be playing a 28 year old and I can believe it, yet I know him as an old man from things like Road House almost thirty years later. The star is Jimmy Stewart, who is totally on top of his game as a sharp lawyer who spends most of his time fishing, but there's also Lee Remick as a rape victim and Gazzara as her husband who killed the rapist and is therefore up for murder.

I'm quickly discovering that great films happen when great scriptwriters write great stories and great actors and directors and cinematographers elevate them to the level of cinematic art. All these individuals can be great on their own but the film doesn't follow suit unless the story was right to begin with. Here it's sharp and involving, long and slow but always building and we really want to know how it's all going to turn out. With that solid footing provided by the scriptwriters, everyone else did their elevating. It isn't just the main three either, but Eve Arden as Stewart's very capable assistant, Arthur O'Connell as a jolly drunken Irish lawyer, Joseph Welch as a judge with a sense of humour, George C Scott as a prosecuting attorney, even jazz legend Duke Ellington in a cameo (he also composed the score). At the end of the day though, did the superb cast outdo their script?

What surprised me most is that I'm so not a legal fan. I know the States thrives on legal antics and films and TV shows cover this sort of territory with a vengeance, but I'm generally bored with the whole thing. Yet here I loved the court scenes with their sharp banter. This banter is both hilarious and incisive and that strange mix works like a charm.

The Fortune Cookie (1966) Billy Wilder

My quest to catch as many Billy Wilder movies as possible turns up another winner. Can this man do no wrong? Walter Matthau is the real star of the show, even though he only won the Best Supporting Oscar and it's really supposed to be a Jack Lemmon movie. Lemmon is a cameraman who gets hurt filming an American football game and Matthau is his crooked lawyer brother-in-law who sues everyone he can.

It's a comedy and it's actually consistently funny, which two qualities don't always coexist. The script is very sharp indeed and Matthau and Lemmon make the most of it. Matthau in particular is like a force of nature sweeping through the film. How this could become the beginning of the end for Wilder as a director I really don't know because it's just another classic in his portfolio of classics.

Incidentally, it was cool to see Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H (the series) as a young doctor. My wife noticed Floyd the barber again (he was also in Anatomy of a Murder that we watched last night).

The Half-Naked Truth (1932) Gregory La Cava

It's hardly surprising that we start off watching Lee Tracy bringing in the customers as a carnival barker. He played agents and journalists and conmen because he's a living dynamo. His mouth is so fast and unstoppable that it's entirely impossible for him to do much different. The moment one scam fails he's off on a new one and the job is on for us to keep up. Sometimes it's hard to remember what he started off talking about because we're so lost in the words that he ended up with. Sometimes it's hard to even notice anyone else in the picture, but there's also Eugene Pallette and Frank Morgan and Lupe Velez and Franklin Pangborn and a whole host of recognisable faces. They can't keep up with him either, but it's fun watching them try.

Like Lee Tracy himself and his character in this film, the movie is a rough gem. Sit back and analyse it and I'm sure there are enough holes for a couple of whole Swiss cheeses, but it's pretty hard to beat it as a ride. You'll be breathless when it's finished.

Orphans of the Storm (1921) D W Griffith

This is a restored, tinted and scored version of Orphans of the Storm, and it doesn't look bad for a 1921 production.

It comes with a serious pedigree. The play upon which it was based was a major production for a start, and here's no less a director than D W Griffith, the first great director, to film it. He also produced it, becoming one of the first directors to take on both tasks at once. He was also the first man to really bring drama and length and many standard ways of doing things to the cinema. In 1921 many people had caught up, meaning that he needed to do much to keep his place at the top.

Casting the two most important leading ladies of the era, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, in the title roles (the storm being a very quickly staged French Revolution) was one way he could do this. He had cast them often before and together they monopolise the really great American films of the teens. This was the last of their collaborations as Griffith couldn't afford to hire Lillian Gish any more. I've seen Lillian before and she has never been less than oustanding, whether in silent films like The Scarlet Letter or in much later sound productions like The Night of the Hunter. Dorothy gets the part of the blind twin here, but Lillian gets to do plenty of work on her own. She really is stunning, both in looks and in talent, and she runs through the whole gamut of emotion here, all entirely believably.

The film is certainly great but it has many faults. There's a very preachy tone set by a few introductory title cards and kept alive throughout. Also it may be a melodrama but there's some serious overacting. Lucille La Verne looks like Oliver Hardy in drag and Leslie King is halfway between John Barrymore's Mr Hyde and Klaus Kinski's Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The Gish sisters make up for it though, especially Lillian who is fast becoming one of my favourite actresses of all time. She's widely regarded as the greatest silent actress of them all, but I think restricting her to merely the silent era does her a great injustice.

Hang 'Em High (1968) Ted Post

I've seen this one before, but so long ago I remember almost nothing about it. What I do remember is that Clint Eastwood, besides being a consistent star all the way through to today, was simply unbeatable in the sixties and this one was no exception. This was apparently the first film he made in the States, after becoming a legend in the early spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. He's an honest man caught up by a posse just like the honest men in The Ox-Bow Incident, and they hang him in the first scenes of the movie.

My wife recognises more of the men who hang him than I do, but I recognise a few. There's Bruce Dern for a start who I know well, but also Alan Hale Jr and Ed Begley. We soon get to meet Ben Johnson and a brief appearance by a wild eyed Dennis Hopper.

What I recognised most was just how much Mel Brooks took from this film for Blazing Saddles.

Man-Proof (1938) Richard Thorpe

Myrna Loy may have been known as the perfect wife and here she really wants to be, but she only gets to be the bridesmaid, which is pretty cruel when it comes down to it. The husband would have been Walter Pidgeon and the wife turned out to be Rosalind Russell. Into the mix comes Franchot Tone, which all means that there's a serious cast directed by Richard Thorpe, who also made one of my favourite Myrna Loys, Double Wedding, with William Powell and a superb John Beal. He also made one of the Thin Man series, but Myrna gets drunker here than she ever did as Nora Charles. In fact there's a lot of drinking going on, so much that the title should have been 100-Proof.

Loy is the star of the show here, showing more emotion than she usually does in a half dozen of her more typically restrained movies. Russell and Pidgeon get a couple of good scenes each and Franchot Tone does an excellent job propping up Myrna. Great acting all round and some great wit too but not a lot else. It's a great fun piece of fluff.

The Naughty Flirt (1931) Edward Cline

You can tell it's 1931 when we start the film in a police truck carrying the heroine and her friends away from a party to celebrate her annual expulsion from a ladies academy. You can also tell it's 1931 when Myrna Loy is only third on the bill. You can even tell it's 1931 when the judge has no clue how to read on the screen. Naturally it must be 1931 when I haven't even heard of the sole star, Alice White, even though it looks like I've already seen her twice in a couple of old Jimmy Cagney movies.

It's nonsense, of course, all 56 minutes of it, but it looks like at least some of the cast were having fun. Alice White is fluffy and inconsequential but great fun, and presumably is playing her persona far more than her character. She's supposed to be the Warner Brothers version of Clara Bow, but I got the impression that in the ways I described she's not far from a female equivalent of Joe E Brown. She is certainly the best thing about this movie, probably because there isn't much there outside of her character anyway.

42nd Street (1933) Lloyd Bacon

Another notch off the Home Theater Forum 1930s list, this one's a musical and therefore not something I'm especially looking forward to. This one fits my personal choice for musicals, at least, as the whole plot revolves around a company putting on a show and thus all the numbers make sense. In fact there I'm amazed at how few there really are, as a good chunk of the film is dedicated to rehearsals and subplots.

The cast is incredible: Warner Baxter and Bebe Daniels leading the way; George Brent, Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers; personal favourites like Una Merkel and Allen Jenkins; Ruby Keeler in her debut; there's even Louise Beavers cropping up uncredited. The crew is just as good: Lloyd Bacon directing and Busby Berkeley making his name by innovating choreography like nobody had ever done before. I'm actually looking forward to The Gang's All Here, which apparently contains the most out there work he ever did. Certainly there's some incredible stuff here for 1933 when everything else was very stagebound indeed. It even makes up for Ruby Keeler's singing: she's here because she can dance not because she can sing. Then again with someone like Ginger Rogers in the supporting cast, one can only wonder which casting director she slept with.

Berkeley also makes up for the stunning lack of musical sequences for much of the film by going entirely nuts in the final title song number. Yes, those are midgets and giants and spanking dolls and that's a dancing cigar store indian and that's even an attempted rape scene. An attempted rape scene?! And gunfire and a murder? OK. Why not? Hell, if I can enjoy a musical number on repeated viewings, Berkeley must have been doing something really really right.

Invisible Stripes (1939) Lloyd Bacon

So Humphrey Bogart's back in prison again. He must have really liked San Quentin and Sing Sing because he couldn't keep away. Here he's back with George Raft again and there's William Holden too, both of which trumped him in the titles. In fact I entirely forgot that Holden was in it and got promptly surprised by the end credits! He's very young indeed and not particularly recognisable eleven years before anything else I've seen him in. There's also Moroni Olsen and even Leo Gorcey from the East Side Kids in a very small part.

I enjoyed the movie but I felt strongly that it would have worked better had Bogart and Raft swapped roles. Then again they probably played against type deliberately to see how things would go. I think it was also very cool (though I didn't notice it until afterwards) that the only one of the seven films Bogie made in 1939 that I haven't yet seen is the one he goes to see himself in this movie: You Can't Get Away with Murder.

12 Angry Men (1957) Sidney Lumet

See my forthcoming review in the IMDb Project. I will say though that this was my second time through and I'm still as stunned as I was first time round. There are many great films in the Top 250 but there are very few that stand out above all the other great films as true masterpieces. This is undeniably one of them.

The Fraidy Cat (1924) James L Parrott

This is my first experience of Charley Chase, who was a major star in the comedy shorts of the 1920s. It didn't start too promsising, with Chase as Jimmy Jump, a unmitigated coward who runs away from little boys and anything else that might look at him. But it improves solidly, hinged around the gag that he mistakes being told to diet a week for being told that he'll die in a week. So naturally if he's going to die he's going to die a man, and so gets his revenge on all his persecutors.

Bad Boy (1925) Leo McCarey

Charley Chase again, here in a Leo McCarey picture. McCarey became a major director going on to such famed pictures as Duck Soup and The Awful Truth, but this silent short shows where he served his apprenticeship. Chase is a rich kid trying to earn a living in a man's world and he goes through the traditional mishaps trying to win his girl. Chase was obviously a talent, as evidenced by the wonderful timing of the dance sequence, but he's just not particularly noticeable. Chaplin as the little tramp is still one of the most recognised images in the world; Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd had their immediately recognisable trademarks. Chase doesn't seem to have anything to distinguish him from the rest. He's fun but I'll stick with Larry Semon as my obscure silent comic of choice.

What Price Goofy (1925) Leo McCarey

It looks like Leo McCarey was a busy man working at Hal Roach studios on Charley Chase movies. Here's one that officially stars Chase but really stars a dog called Buddy, who we first see sitting happily in the midst of traffic. As far as Chase goes, there's still no definition in his screen persona. He's gone from a coward to a tough guy to a henpecked husband. The mechanics of the script and the sheer timing of this comedy of errors are joyous, but I stil think it would be fair to say that I'll forget what Charley Chase looks like in a couple of weeks time. I hadn't realised it until TCM's Robert Osborne pointed it out afterwards, but there's an uncredited Fay Wray in this one.

Dog Shy (1926) Leo McCarey

Chase, McCarey and Buddy the dog again. As always it's a comedy of errors based around Charley Chase's quest to find a girl he accidentally talked to on the phone. This time he's a coward again but only when it comes to dogs. Otherwise he's a lech. I'm not sure what sort of hero he's aiming at here, but while Keaton and Lloyd were playing everyman and Chaplin had become the lovable tramp, Chase seems to be either a gung ho tough guy or a coward. And I even recognise some of the sets here from my last Chase, What Price Goofy. There's a lot of twists and turns but I just lost interest.

Mum's the Word (1926) Leo McCarey

I know these old shorts worked strictly to formula, but just watching half a dozen Charley Chase films gets repetitious. Here he's chasing a girl again, playing a butler again, getting up to hi jinx in the same bathroom as the last two films. The gag is that he's gone home to see his mother, but she's remarried and not told her new husband about him. Therefore she pretends to hire him as the butler so that he can impress before being identified.

Be Your Age (1926) Leo McCarey

This time Charley Chase has got talked into marrying a rich widow so that he can screw $10,000 out of her. Yet again he's supposed to be the hero. I know full well from my explorations of pulp literature of the era that mores were very different but I still don't get this. Once again there's plenty of shining moments, but most of them have to do with the writing rather than the acting. Oliver Hardy looks scarily young, given that I've seen him at least five years earlier than this elsewhere. I guess I'm just not much of a Charley Chase fan.

The Ex-Mrs Bradford (1936) Stephen Roberts

Here's William Powell in another late thirties mystery movie, but this is no Thin Man film. In fact Powell isn't the detective, he's a surgeon who ends up detecting. The real detective isn't even a detective either: she's Powell's ex-wife who writes mystery novels. I recognise many of the faces if not many names yet, though a few are clear. In a stunning case of typecasting Powell's butler is played by Eric Blore, who I think I've only ever seen as a butler. There's also James Gleason, Mr Jordan's trainer in Here Comes Mr Jordan; and Robert Armstrong, of King Kong fame, as a moustachioed bookie. Most stunning is Jean Arthur, who later shone in Shane, in the Myrna Loy role. She's definitely an outspoken young lady, uncommon in the late thirties after the imposition of the Production Code. Everyone does their job here well enough, but there isn't the spark of the Thin Man movies and there are points of sheer silliness that detract from the whole thing.

The Phantom of Paris (1931) John S Robertson

Here's an interesting little film. I was expecting a horror film, based on the title and the fact that the director also made the John Barrymore version of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde eleven years earlier and the fact that it's based on a story by Gaston Leroux, who also wrote The Phantom of the Opera. I guess he had a Phantom thing going on. As it turns out the film is more of a vehicle for John Gilbert, the huge silent star who became the most notable failure of the sound era.

There are certainly horror elements as Gilbert, a professional magician and escapologist, is falsely sentenced to death for a murder he didn't commit. To make it worse, his beloved (whose father was the victim), marries the real murderer. Naturally Gilbert escapes and turns up a few years later on this guy's deathbed to force him into a confession before it's too late. Unfortunately it's too late anyway, so he absconds with the body, concocts a fanciful story and returns pretending to be the dead man. It's a really dubious storyline that stretches credence's every boundary, but it's still great fun. There's also a serious cast. Quite apart from John Gilbert, one of the greatest names of the silent era, there's Lewis Stone, C Aubrey Smith, Leila Hyams and Jean Hersholt, all names I've seen a few times now and always enjoyed.

Most importantly it's more evidence that John Gilbert did not have a squeaky voice or even an inappropriate one, and that he would have continued to give good (if not great) performances if only he hadn't have upset Louis B Mayer, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. I've wondered about all this after enjoying his performance opposite Garbo in Queen Christina, and I still haven't come to any solid conclusions about it. I merely realise that the standard arguments don't hold water. Maybe Mayer's influence was the key, or maybe it was just that Gilbert's voice, while fine, just wasn't what his legions of fans expected. Whatever it was I'm sad that I'm not going to get the opportunity to see many more of his sound films, and the ones that I have left are apparently really poor productions that Mayer hoped would kill his career. Sigh.

The Old Dark House (1932) James Whale

Here's the granddaddy of all spooky mansion stories and it's one that I've never managed to see in all my years of devouring every classic horror film I could find. It's 1932 and it's James Whale directing, so it's going to be a campy classic. Everyone involved is obviously having a great time chewing up every piece of scenery they can find, from Boris Karloff's quiet menace to Charles Laughton's raucous laughter to Ernest Thesiger's flagrant queening to Eva Moore's preaching. It's all quite joyous and Whale makes the most of it.

This is the sort of film that would fall flat without a script to keep it very much alive (especially one with a soundtrack that consists entirely of howling wind) and this one does. It's a peach, a really bitchy backstabbing peach. The cast is incredible, also including Raymond Massey (later to take Karloff's place in Arsenic and Old Lace) and Melvyn Douglas who did that last Garbo comedy. They all do a wonderful job, if you accept that the job is not supposed to be based on any level of subtlety you can think of.

I Love You Again (1940) W S Van Dyke II

Here's something that can't fail: a 1940 romantic comedy from One Take Woody Van Dyke starring William Powell and Myrna Loy with Frank McHugh in prominent support. McHugh falls off a boat and Powell saves him, only to get clonked on the head by an oar and lose his memory. He discovers that he's married to Loy but about be divorced. He falls in love with her and tries to win her back.

And it's as good as it promises. It's no classic but it doesn't fall far short. The sheer quality of the material that Powell and Loy made together is stunning, especially considering that they made so many films together. Mere percentages suggest that at least one ought to be bad, but I've worked through most of them now and I haven't found a dud yet. Adding Frank McHugh into the mix is a sure thing too. I've rated thirteen of his films now from 1932 to 1949 and he's never less than a gem.

Videodrome (1983) David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg has consistently pushed the envelope for the last thirty years and Videodrome is another great example of his talent at work. I've seen this one before but it was so long ago that I don't remember much about it but I enjoyed it just as much as I did first time round.

The cast is superb. James Woods is a sleazy owner of a TV station, always looking for something more extreme. He finds it in Videodrome, some sort of torture or snuff show apparently broadcast out of south Asia that scrambles itself so quickly that it's hard for Woods's pet pirate to keep on it. However when he discovers that it's really being broadcast out of Philadelphia, he starts spending most of his time investigating. The rest he spends with Debbie Harry, who doesn't just get her kicks watching Videodrome, she wants to get her kicks appearing on it.

As always, it isn't this simple. The question becomes whether the story is real or whether it's a figment of the main character's imagination. In the hands of a lesser director this would become standard fare but in the hands of the master it's rivetting.

The Red Lily (1924) Fred Niblo

I'm really enjoying rediscovering these old silent movies and the stars that shone in them. Here the main stars are a couple I'm getting to know and a new one on me, there's Fred Niblo, who wrote and directed the thing; his Australian wife to be, Enid Bennett; and one of the great romantic actors, Ramon Novarro. There's even the omnipresent Wallace Beery in a minor role.

Jean (Novarro) and Marise (Bennett) are lovers but their lives are supposed in different directions. After all, Novarro is the son of the mayor and Bennett the daughter of a cobbler who dies less than five minutes in. But they stick at it and head out to get married in Paris. Unfortunately Jean gets promptly arrested and brought back home to his father, leaving Marise stuck in a train station on her own with her luggage stolen. Of course the two try to find each other but things don't usually work out that happily in twenties movies.

Bennett isn't bad in the downtrodden waif sort of role that Lillian Gish did so well, though she's too tall to compare. Novarro is more inconsequential here than in other parts I've seen him play, because it's an unsure youth role and he was meant to be the dashing hero. Beery is excellent, as a sleazy but somehow decent thief who comes across as half Oliver Hardy and half Dom de Luise. Niblo's direction is solid and he imports some humour into the gloom but there's not much to pay attention to, let alone rave about, until we hit the last ten minutes at which point everyone shows exactly what they can do.

In fact while most of the film is stunningly average, the last five minutes especially are truly stunning and contain some of the best expressionistic imagery I've ever seen, easily comparable to the best of Lang and Welles. In fact it would be interesting to know if Welles in particular saw this film, as the chase in the sewer, while short, is very reminiscent of The Third Man which of course of course came much later.


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