Monday, January 28, 2008

THE BIG BARRICADE. So, I spent the weekend barricaded inside against all the people around me who are sick with the plague. This means that it was a solid movie marathon wherein I never stepped foot outside (except when I had to work a half day Saturday). Once I came home from work Saturday afternoon (clutching a nice takeout order of Shredded Pork with Garlic Sauce to sustain me), I began watching films of a mostly noirish flavour. . . some more than others.
I began with THE BIG CLOCK, a 1948 bonafide film noir starring Ray Milland as a guy desperately trying to prove his innocence in a murder case. The corpse is a blonde; she was despatched with a metal sundial with a green ribbon tied on it (don't ask -- just go watch the film). The eponymous "big clock" is the big clock in the office building of Janoth Publications; Milland's character works on the magazine "Crimeways" and the big boss is clock-obsessed Charles Laughton. There's a nice dotty cameo from Elsa Lanchester as a dizzy artist while Maureen Sullivan is adequate if nothing more as Milland's patient wife. If you look closely you'll see Margaret Field (Sally Field's mom and star of the sci-fi classic "The Man From Planet X") as a secretary and Noel Neill (Lois Lane herself) as an elevator operator. A terrific little noir that I've always liked quite a lot. Beautiful chiaroscuro photography. Tautly directed by John Farrow (that's right; Mia's dad).
Next came a little sleeper hit from 1945: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS starring Nina Foch in the best role of her career. Journeyman director Joseph H. Lewis surprised everybody (including probably himself) by making this picture; it began life as the forgettable bottom of a double bill but got such a buzz from audiences and critics at the time that it leapt to "A" status. Foch is the title character who takes a job as a live-in secretary to an old lady and her odd son (played by Dame May Whitty and George Macready respectively). She wakes up (after having been drugged) in a seaside manor in Cornwall with everyone insisting she is Mrs. Hughes; Macready's mentally ill wife. She naturally insists she's not Macready's batty wife but they insist she is -- and that her memory of being "Julia Ross" is just another of her delusions. She tries many times to escape the house and fails. Naturally the Hughes (mother and son) are up to something diabolical. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it's because this basic setup was remade in 1986 for the Mary Steenbergen thriller "DEAD OF WINTER" co-starring Roddy MacDowell. For some reason, this film saw something of a mini-marathon of George Macready movies because the Big Clock and the next movie both feature this wonderfully slimy character actor.
The third film on my hit parade was the 1946 noir classic "GILDA" starring Rita Hayworth in her star-making role. Glenn Ford plays her old love and George Macready plays her new husband. Who knows exactly what the plot to this one is; it doesn't matter. It's the three stars who are riveting and the reason to watch the film. There's some ho-hah about Tungsten monopolies in Argentina and former Nazis. But we just roll with it. Hayworth displays some real acting chops while Ford and Macready are no slouches either. No one can ever hear the song "Put the Blame on Mame" without thinking of Gilda. And yes, Gilda Radner's mom named her after this movie.
Fourth outta the (DVD) box was another noir classic from 1947: OUT OF THE PAST starring Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and a surprising Jane Greer. This one was directed by Jacques Tourneur and is in the running as possibly his best film. Mitchum is at his best as a former private eye who is hiding from his former employer (Kirk Douglas) for double-crossing him. Daniel Mainwaring's screenplay was adapted from his own novel and is sheer noir poetry; possibly because he was helped (uncredited) by James M. Cain. The entire cast is flawless and Jane Greer has the role of her career as a woman whom you're never quite sure where she stands. One of the quintessential films noir ever made.
The fifth film went backwards a little in time since THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS" was, in fact, Kirk Douglas' first movie. Here we have another classic (if little known) film noir starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas and Lizabeth Scott (in my favourite role for the actress) as well as a small role for Dame Judith Anderson as Stanwyck's rotten aunt (perfect casting since the two actresses LOOK like they could be related). The plot to this one is too extensive to go into here; let's just say it's another noir where someone's past catches up with them (in fact, almost the entire cast). Stanwyck is perfect as the cold-hearted, manipulative wife of twitchy Kirk Douglas (who does a remarkable job in his first film role up against these acting heavyweights). Lizabeth Scott pouts like no other and Van Heflin is the quintessential rough and tumble gambling man with a heart of gold. Wonderful little film!
Sixth is possibly Edgar G. Ulmer's best film: 1945's DETOUR (only the Universal Boris Karloff - Bela Lugosi vehicle THE BLACK CAT rivals it). This film illustrates the classic noir idea that, no matter what you do you cannot escape what fate has in store for you. This is Tom Neal's most famous role (in fact, his ONLY famous role) as a pianist hitchhiking to California to meet his girlfriend. Along the way, he is picked up by a man named Haskell who died during the trip. Unfortunately, Tom Neal opens the car door and the dead or sleeping (it's never clear which) Haskell falls out and cracks his head on a rock. Believing the cops would never believe he didn't kill the man, Tom Neal buries the guy in the desert, takes his car, I.D., money and clothes and continues on to California. When he finally reaches California, Tom Neal has the even MORE unfortunate luck to meet Vera (played savagely by the aptly named Ann Savage) and things REALLY begin to heat up. There's absolutely nothing Tom Neal can do to get out from under the vicious joke fate is playing on him -- and that's the heart of film noir. Strangely, Tom Neal's real life would follow much the same path as his character in this film. His real-life on again/off again romance with actress Barbara Payton (Four Sided Triangle) resulted in his almost beating actor Franchot Tone to death. Later, Neal was jailed for murdering his wife. Even more bizarrely, DETOUR was remade in 1992 starring Tom Neal's real life son in the same part. This movie is an unforgettable experience in ultra-low budget filmmaking. Oh yeah. . .and the song of the movie? "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me". Can't never hear that song without thinking of this movie. No how.
The seventh film is Alfred Hitchcock's favourite of all his films: 1943's SHADOW OF A DOUBT starring Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie and Teresa Wright as niece Charlie. Evil comes to small town America . . . and Hitchcock loved it! Not really noir but it's what I felt like watching next. While my opinion of the film is not quite as high as Hitchcock's (my favourite of his films has got to be REAR WINDOW), this is indeed a fascinating study of suspicion and trust. There's a killer on the loose who offs wealthy widows by strangling them. The law isn't sure who the fiend is but they've got it narrowed down to two men . . . and one of them is Uncle Charlie; the favourite uncle of Charlie (Teresa Wright). The young girl finds life in typical middle America deadly dull and wishes her Uncle Charlie would visit and liven things up. Coincidentally, Uncle Charlie is coming to visit on his own. While she is initially thrilled to have her uncle visit, young Charlie soon begins to suspect something isn't quite right with her uncle. The appearance of two government investigators (Macdonald Carey and perennial character actor Wallace Ford in probably the most subdued and understated role of his career) serve to further freak young Charlie out. In the meantime, Uncle Charlie is beginning to suspect that his niece suspects HIM. Let the suspense begin. I always thought that SHADOW OF A DOUBT would make an interesting double feature with the B-grade little Francis Lederer horror film THE RETURN OF DRACULA which always seemed to me to be something of a cross (pun intended) between SHADOW OF A DOUBT and DRACULA. Watch 'em both and see.
The eighth film brings us into the downbeat 70's with Robert Altman's 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler's "THE LONG GOODBYE" starring Elliott Gould as detective Philip Marlowe. This is a perfectly odd adaptation which some people don't like at all. It's true that this is unlike any other Raymond Chandler/Philip Marlowe movie made before. I in fact didn't particularly like it the first time I saw it -- I didn't dislike it either. However, it's grown on me since then and I can appreciate the new take Gould brings to the character. It's also got a great ending. There is also an amazing performance from Sterling Hayden as a kind of drunken surly (and more than slightly unhinged) writer in the Ernest Hemingway mold. There is also Henry Gibson (sans giant flower) as a bizarre mental doctor. Definitely worth a look.
Ninth out of the gate is the late Bob Clark's 1979 film MURDER BY DECREE which brings us the hoary pairing of Sherlock Holmes with Jack the Ripper. Once again we have the (pretty much disproven) theory that the royal family had something to do with the Ripper murders -- more precisely the Duke of Clarence Prince Eddy secretly married Annie Crook and had a child with her. Then the royal physician and another man went about murdering all the prostitute friends of Annie Crook who knew about the baby. The freemasons are also added to the mix. Regardless of the unlikeliness of this theory bearing any semblance to fact, this Ripper film is classy and fairly well-made (until the rather weak final confrontation). The black contact lenses worn by the Ripper(s) is genuinely unsettling in shots. Christopher Plummer as Holmes is very serviceable while James Mason's Dr. Watson is rather the same doddering cliche that appears in many movies. Genevieve Bujold's one scene as Annie Crook is genuinely affecting. The appearance of Sir John Gielgud as "The Prime Minister" provides a face to face meeting of two Sherlocks: Gielgud played Holmes in a rather good radio series during the 1950's with Sir Ralph Richardson as Dr. Watson. There is also a small role for Donald Sutherland who is fairly wasted as a psychic. All in all a solid if unspectacular Holmes/Ripper film.
The tenth and last film in my weekend barricade movie marathon is an installment of the Brian Clemens' 70's horror anthology show THRILLER entitled "FILE IT UNDER FEAR". This 1973 made-for-tv movie is not my favourite of the series (that would be my oft-discussed fave SOMEONE AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS) but it's got a really nice atmosphere of the early 70's that I quite like to revisit again and again. The mise en scene is a public library around which someone is murdering . . . shall we say. . . "loose" women. It's like the Ripper all over again only this time someone's strangling them. The cast is lead by Maureen Lipman as head librarian Miss Morris -- I kept thinking "I know this actress from somewhere but where the hell is it?" Well, not only was she in the bizarre little filmed Christmas play "Absurd Person Singular" but she also appeared in the new Doctor Who series episode "The Idiot's Lantern" in which she sucks people into television sets in the 1950's. Also in the cast is veteran British character actor John LeMesurier. This is a nice and creepy way to end my little (LITTLE?!?!) big barricade movie marathon. I wonder what the NEXT marathon theme will be???


Unknown said...

Looks like a great marathon session you had there. "Gilda" is great for the sexual dynamic between all three main characters and Hayworth's sensuality. I watched "Out of the Past" not long ago and Mitchum was as good as ever he's been. He had that intelligent working-class credibility that made this kind of role perfect for him. I think that Jane Greer is less so, but that doesn't diminish the film.

"Detour" is a classic and sells around here in Melbourne for $3 a copy. Every time I look at cheap public domain DVDs it's there.

"The Long Goodbye" has one of the great violent moments of mainstream cinema - the one with the coke bottle. Watching the film, it still shocks me. "Murder By Decree" is pretty good but it can be a tad talky.

All fine choices. Keep the blog coming.

Cerpts said...

Thanks very much for the kind words and encouragement; coming from the proprietor of Paleo-Cinema that's QUITE encouraging. Having such kind comments from Paleo-Cinema AND Fleapit of the Mind on my blog at once is like winning the Lion D'or!

You spent $3 for "DETOUR"?!?!?! I had to pay $5 for mine!

ANd however many times I see THE LONG GOODBYE that coke bottle STILL shocks me!