Friday, August 22, 2008

I Am the Law (Columbia, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie Charles and I watched last night was one I hadn’t seen before but it came from Turner Classic Movies’ recent “Summer Under the Stars” day-long tribute to Edward G. Robinson — I Am the Law, made at Columbia in 1938 and inspired, like Warners’ Marked Woman and quite a lot of other films back then, by Thomas E. Dewey’s more or less successful crusades against gangsters and racketeers in New York City. This isn’t set in New York, but in a small university town in Hollywood’s generic version of the Midwest, in which Robinson’s character, John Lindsay — an ironic character name! — is a law professor who’s understandably proud of the caliber of students he’s graduated over the years, and in particular of newly minted young lawyer Paul Ferguson (John Beal, looking even more like James Stewart than usual). Lindsay has been forced into taking a sabbatical year and his wife Jerry (Barbara O’Neil) has booked them on a round-the-world cruise, but when Lindsay goes to a movie theatre to relax one afternoon and arrives just as the place has been smoke-bombed and the patrons are fleeing in panicked disgust, he realizes that the city is infested with racketeers and nobody being victimized will testify against them for fear of retaliation. Paul Ferguson’s father Eugene (Otto Kruger) wangles an appointment for him as special prosecutor with authority to go after the rackets in the city, and Lindsay eagerly accepts.

What he doesn’t know — but we’re told almost immediately — is that Eugene Ferguson is actually the rackets boss of the entire city and has engineered Lindsay’s appointment to keep the state governor from calling in a militia or doing any sort of stronger response to the crime problem. The elder Ferguson is counting on Lindsay’s naïveté to make sure he doesn’t actually prosecute anything, but just to make sure he’s also infiltrated spies into Lindsay’s staff, particularly one especially creepy stool pigeon who’d been a career D.A. staff member for six years and who’s on the phone to Ferguson when Lindsay is about to do anything that might jeopardize the interests of the gangs — of which, though Ferguson is in overall control, there are basically two, led by rival gangsters Eddie Girard (Marc Lawrence) and Kom Cronin (Joe Downing), both of whom are hitting up the same restaurateurs, merchants, soda fountain owners, milkmen and other small fry for “protection” money and essentially fighting out their gang war on neutral turf and creating quite a lot of collateral damage. Between them, they’ve got the townspeople so intimidated that nobody will testify against them.

Lindsay hooks up with Frankie Ballou (Wendy Barrie in an intriguing good-bad girl performance) and makes her a sort of Baedeker’s to the local rackets, unaware that she, a former reporter, is also the mistress of Eugene Ferguson (and their rather kinky scenes together prefigure the ones between Louis Calhern and Marilyn Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle 12 years later). He finds out about their connection when he goes through a file of old newspaper clippings and finds that she did an interview with him during her days as a reporter, and he’s concerned to keep from Paul Ferguson, who’s now his number one assistant on the investigation, that his dad is a crook. Meanwhile, Lindsay’s wife Jerry seeks out the wife (Fay Helm) of dairyman J. W. Butler (Louis Jean Heydt, a striking-looking, charismatic and talented actor who should have become much bigger than he was) and convinces her to get him to testify — only when Paul Ferguson goes to the Butlers’ home to fetch him, a member of the gang beats him to it, kidnaps Butler and kills him.

This leads the city government to cut off funding for Lindsay’s investigation — only he decides to continue independently, firing his spy-ridden staff and using his former law students instead, getting the money from loan sharks (figuring he’ll never have to pay them back since he’s going to be putting them out of business) and swearing that he’ll use whatever methods he has to, including gangland’s own, to stop them. (This makes I Am the Law a sort of semi-remake of The Beast of the City — though without that film’s almost hallucinatory power — and, surprisingly given Robinson’s real-life politics, this movie takes a Right-wing position that the war on crime is too important to maintain constitutional liberties and due-process guarantees.) It all ends in a confrontation in which Lindsay invites the witnesses to his home, has all the gangsters arrested on shaky grounds, and gives the witnesses the now-or-never pitch that it’s time for them to identify the gangsters who’ve been terrorizing and extorting from them. Eugene Ferguson commits suicide in a roundabout way — he accepts the loan of Lindsay’s car, aware that his gang members have wired it to explode as soon as it’s started — after Lindsay has extracted a will from him deeding most of his ill-gotten fortune to a crime victims’ fund, so Paul can continue his illustrious career without the burden of a crooked father holding him back.

I Am the Law was made at Columbia under a clause in Robinson’s Warners contract that allowed him to do one film a year elsewhere, though why he should have used that to make so conventional a movie — and one so much in the Warners’ vein — while he was simultaneously pressuring Jack Warner to green-light his personal project, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, is a mystery. It’s basically your standard-issue Edward G. Robinson as good guy fighting the gangsters (instead of playing one) movie, and it suffers from uncertainty of tone and a miscast screenwriter. Jo Swerling was best known as a comedy writer — and a damned good one, too — but he’s the wrong scribe for a tough gangster picture; throughout the movie he tries to inject quirky humor into the story and it falls flat. The director, Alexander Hall, was also known mostly for comedies, and though his 1949 Bob Hope vehicle The Great Lover is surprisingly dark for a Hope film, it’s clear he’s more at home in lighter fare than I Am the Law is clearly supposed to be.

Aside from those weird streaks of comedy, some of which work (like the kinky scenes between Otto Kruger and Wendy Barrie, and the scene William K. Everson recalled in his book The Detective in Film in which Robinson seems to intuit via ESP that Byron Foulger was the mole in his office who fingered the dairyman who was about to turn state’s evidence and gives him a thorough tongue-lashing about his “shifty eyes and weak chin”) and more of which don’t (like the almost slapsticky fight between rival gangsters at a posh nightclub where Mrs. Lindsay runs into Mr. Lindsay with Frankie and, of course, leaps to the wrong impression), I Am the Law is a Warners-type movie that isn’t as good as it would have been back at Robinson’s home studio, though it’s still reliably entertaining and there are some clichés Swerling (adapting a news story called “Tracking New York’s Crime Barons” by Fred Allhoff in the October 31, 1936 issue of Liberty — you know, the one that just about then predicted that Alf Landon would beat Franklin D. Roosevelt in that year’s Presidential election) wisely avoided. He didn’t have Frankie seduce Paul Ferguson into betraying the investigation, nor did he have her turn good at the end and/or fall genuinely in love with Paul — all of which I was anticipating, and dreading.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

It (Paramount, 1927)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday I ran out of time to write about the movie that was shown at the Organ Pavilion Monday night. Though mistakenly billed in the program as The “It” Girl — actually the sobriquet Paramount’s publicity department tagged on its star, Clara Bow, after its success -— it was really called It and was more or less based on Elinor Glyn’s best-selling novel of that title. I say “more or less” because Glyn wrote two separate stories, one for the novel and one for the movie; the one for the novel was a sort of apolitical prototype of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in which the central character was a super-industrialist named John Gaunt with an infatuation for his secretary and complications involving her brother, an opium addict.

The movie is also a story of an employee — a shopgirl at the huge Waltham’s Department Store in New York — falling in love with the son of her boss, though it’s considerably lighter in tone and, despite all the pretensions around the concept of “It,” is really a prototype of a screwball comedy with a hard right turn into domestic melodrama midway through. In the preface to her novel, Glyn explained, “This is not the story of the moving picture entitled It, but a character study of the story which the people in the picture read and discuss.” (Dorothy Parker, whose review of the book is my only source for all this since I’ve never read, or even seen a copy of, Glyn’s novel, predictably lampooned the whole idea that she was expected to review “a character study of a story,” though that simply may mean that the version of It shown in the book was published in Cosmopolitan magazine and the novel may simply be a longer and more detailed version of the same plot.)

Glyn gave a series of different and sometimes contradictory definitions of what she meant by “It” — indeed, in the movie Glyn herself makes a cameo appearance when the leading characters are dining at the Ritz Hotel’s restaurant and having an animated discussion about just what “It” means, and naturally they recognize the author and decide to query the source directly — but she did say that “It” didn’t just mean “sex appeal” and that anyone who said it did was vulgarizing her concept. Well, she might as well have saved her breath, for it was as a euphemism for “sex appeal” that “It” entered popular language in the 1920’s — and it’s clearly so meant in this film. It the movie was scripted by Hope Loring and future producer Louis M. Lighton from Glyn’s story, with George Marion, Jr. writing the titles (wittier than usual, with some genuinely funny wisecracks — notably when Bow’s character is being accused of having given birth to an illegitimate child and, asked if the effeminate comic-relief type is the father, she says, “Him? He couldn’t even give birth to a suspicion!” — that make this one silent movie in which one misses sound more than usual) and an uncredited assist from one Frederica Sagor.

The plot of It concerns the unrequited love of Waltham’s shopgirl Betty Lou Spence (Clara Bow) for Cyrus Waltham, Jr. (the singularly uncharismatic, un-“It” Antonio Moreno), son of the owner of Waltham’s department store; and her rivalry for him with his childhood friend Adela Van Norman (Jacqueline Gadsdon). With Adela he has staid dates at dull places like the Ritz; with Betty Lou he goes to Coney Island and has laid-back proletarian fun — only after their date he tries to kiss her and she reacts by slapping him, issuing forth with one of Marion’s wisecracking titles: “So you’re one of those Minute Men — the minute you meet a girl you think you can kiss her!”

The plot gets complicated by the fact that Betty Lou is rooming with another girl from Waltham’s sales force, Molly (Priscilla Bonner), who’s had a baby — the exact circumstances by which the kid was conceived and born are discreetly unmentioned — and the two are visited by two middle-aged social workers (whom Betty Lou tells off with the line, reminiscent of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, that instead of messing around with other people’s children they should find men, get married and have some of their own) who threaten to take the child away because her father is unknown and her mother has no job (she had to quit the store when she became ill as the baby was being born) and therefore no means of supporting it. Betty Lou declares that she is actually the baby’s mom and she still has a job, and the commotion is overheard by all the neighbors as well as an enterprising young reporter for the News-Dispatch, who in a stroke of (bad) luck for Our Heroine happens to have its offices on the same block. (The reporter is played by the young Gary Cooper in a bit part that helped make him a star; after seeing him in the rushes Bow decided she wanted him as her leading man for her next film, Children of Divorce.)

As a result of the newspaper article and the resulting scandal, Betty Lou loses her job and she decides to get even. With the help of the effeminate comic-relief guy, Monty Montgomery (William Austin), she wangles an invitation to a cruise on Waltham’s yacht and Waltham, of course, is initially appalled to see her there but ultimately comes around and — after Monty, steering the boat, gets it involved in a mid-sea collision that puts most of the principals overboard — they end up together. It is actually quite creatively directed by Clarence Badger — the opening shot uses both a track and a crane to steer us into the action instead of just starting it — and Bow, though stuck with one of those excessively unattractive hairdos that were all the rage in the 1920’s, does come off as a genuinely charismatic, “It”-bearing star.

Bow’s star fell partly because she got a reputation of being difficult — Dennis James (who mistakenly named this as Gary Cooper’s first film — that was actually The Winning of Barbara Worth, made two years earlier) said she had a nasal Brooklyn accent which recorded badly, and other sources say she was just too hyperactive to be contained in the early sound era (though that’s belied by her first talkie, The Wild Party, in which she’s a co-ed who sets her sights for anthropology professor Fredric March, making his film debut; it’s a quite good film and, once director Dorothy Arzner invented the mike boom — with the sound department stumped by Bow’s willingness to stand in one place and deliver her lines, she brought a fishing pole to the studio, had the microphone tied to one end of it and had a grip hold it by the other end, instructing him to hold it above Bow’s head just out of camera range so her voice would record no matter where she went — Bow’s performance was just fine).

More likely the fall in Bow’s career had more to do with the scandals that surrounded her in the early 1930’s — notably when her former secretary, Daisy DeVoe, leaked a diary to the media that purported to record Bow’s sexual conquests but was probably largely, if not totally, made up — and the sense that with the 1920’s over she was simply no longer fashionable. It is a film rather oddly perched between two eras, the heavy-breathing romanticism of Elinor Glyn’s tale and the screwball machinations that surround it, and one can readily imagine a 1930’s remake with, say, Joan Blondell and Cary Grant.

The Locked Door (United Artists, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Among the films TCM showed on its August 19 day-long salute to Barbara Stanwyck was her 1929 talkie debut ( lists her as playing a fan dancer in a 1927 silent, Broadway Nights), The Locked Door, which if nothing else indicates that Stanwyck got to make her (sound) debut squarely on the “A”-list: second-billed to silent heartthrob Rod LaRocque in a major production for a major studio (United Artists), with a major director (George Fitzmaurice, whose best-known credit is probably The Son of the Sheik, Rudolph Valentino’s last film) and other major talents both before and behind the cameras: William “Stage” Boyd and Betty Bronson are the second leads, Ray June the cinematographer, Hal Kern the editor and William Cameron Menzies the art director.

After watching It it was interesting to see another movie that starts with a woman being romanced by the son of her boss, though in this context it’s totally different: the film starts out with a long shot of a large boat (which frankly looks like it was shot with a toy in someone’s bathtub). The camera approaches and we find out this is a pleasure ship (a “rumboat,” it’s referred to in the dialogue) in which a lot of people with more money than good sense are drinking because the boat is (presumably) outside the 12-mile limit and therefore Prohibition doesn’t apply. Ann Carter (Barbara Stanwyck) is a secretary who’s there on a date with her boss’s son, Frank Devereaux (Rod LaRocque), only she doesn’t know until it’s (almost) too late that he’s a no-good rotter: he takes her to a private room on the boat and locks her in, pocketing the doorknob so she can’t get out, and her virtue is only saved by a gang of cops in a flotilla of speedboats, who raid the rumboat and take in all the customers. A papparazo takes a photo of Frank and Ann being led off the boat but Frank slips him $100 and buys the negative.

Then there’s a title reading, “Eighteen months later,” and it turns out that six months after the incident on the boat Ann got married to a rich but decent man, Lawrence Reagan (William “Stage” Boyd) — incidentally his last name is pronounced “REE-gun,” the way Ronald Reagan did when he was still an actor, instead of the “RAY-gun” pronunciation Ronnie adopted once he got into politics — only the two of them are worried about the man Lawrence’s sister Helen (Betty Bronson) is seeing. Helen duly shows up at her brother’s and sister-in-law’s house with said boyfriend — and of course it’s that dirty, no-good Frank Devereaux, who aside from his personal connection with Ann has aroused Lawrence’s ire by seducing a Mrs. Cohen and getting Mr. Cohen so mad at him Lawrence is desperately trying to talk Mr. Cohen out of murdering him.

Determined to do whatever it takes to keep her nice, sweet, innocent sister-in-law (who did play Peter Pan, after all!) out of the clutches of her almost-despoiler, Ann overhears Frank and Helen plotting to run away together and she goes to Frank’s apartment to try to stop her. Lawrence also shows up there, with the same purpose in mind, and after confronting Frank and learning that he printed the photo of them taken on the rumboat and stashed both the prints and the negative for potential blackmail if necessary, Ann hides in Frank’s bedroom (not the most sensible place for her to go!) when Lawrence shows up, Frank pulls a gun on him, they both reach for it (if Chicago author Maurine Dallas Watkins could have made a nickel every time that plot gimmick was used she’d have been a billionaire!) and eventually Frank is shot and left for dead.

In a bizarre but visually effective scene, Ann maneuvers around the room in semi-darkness and it’s not at all clear what she’s doing, but eventually she picks up the gun and she shoots Frank a couple more times, trying to make it look as if she and not her husband killed him. Then Helen shows up, but only after the police, alerted by the hotel’s switchboard operator (played by ZaSu Pitts, whose first name is spelled “Zazu” on the opening credits), have come and are jumping to all the obvious (wrong) conclusions as usual. Finally one of the cops, who had been working undercover on the raid on the rumboat in reel one (ya remember the raid? Ya remember the rumboat?), absolves Ann of any guilt in her association with Frank, and in a really over-the-top finale Frank himself turns out to be not quite dead, having still enough life left in him to issue a dying declaration that Lawrence was indeed acting in self-defense when he shot him.

Though the showing of this quirky movie on TCM was preceded by Robert Osborne warning us that it was an early talkie and a lot of actors really didn’t have a clue how to handle acting for sound film (which required not only an ability to handle dialogue that silent film hadn’t, but an ability to talk softly and intimately that threw a lot of actors whose experience with dialogue was performing stage plays in big theatres where they needed to PROJECT to the farthest balconies), The Locked Door actually turned out to be an unusually good early sound film from the technical point of view. George Fitzmaurice keeps the camera in motion — it even moves while people are talking, a rare and difficult effect in the early days — and gets some marvelous traveling shots of the rumboat in reel one.

The film betrays its origins as a stage play (The Sign on the Door by Channing Pollock, the playwright who screwed up Metropolis — Paramount assigned him to re-edit Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece for American audiences and he slashed the film so badly that much of the plot made no sense, and reviewers understandably but wrongly blamed the original writer, Thea von Harbou, for inconsistencies that hadn’t existed in her script and for which Pollock was responsible) and was adapted by C. Gardner Sullivan, with George Scarborough and Earle Browne writing the dialogue (a frequent division of labor in early sound films, recalling the distinction between script writing and title writing in the silent days), and once it gets into the titular locked room at the end it gets creaky and stage-bound, but even so much of the acting is relatively naturalistic and Stanwyck, though a bit more chipper than she’d be in her later films (and not flattered by the bobbed hair still fashionable in 1929), delivers quite a good performance, especially in the later reels when her character is desperate to retain her husband’s affections even as she’s lying her way into a murder rap to protect him. Indeed, she out-acts the rest of the cast — especially Rod LaRocque, whose career in the sound era didn’t do the spectacular crash-and-burn of John Gilbert’s but didn’t reach the heights it had in the silent days, either, and I suspect for the same reason. He has a perfectly presentable voice that makes sense for the character, but he hasn’t a clue how to act with his voice, how to vary his inflection and tone to convey the emotion of a scene.

Monday, August 18, 2008

On the Town (MGM, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On the Town started life as a ballet called Fancy Free, composed by Leonard Bernstein for the Ballet Theatre and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. It dealt with three sailors with a one-day pass to visit New York City and their efforts to find female companionship for the 24 hours they have before they have to report back to their ship. The ballet premiered in 1943, and the next year Bernstein, Robbins and writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green expanded it into a stage musical called On the Town, with Bernstein songs (oddly, they didn’t tap any of the themes of Fancy Free for the musical — Bernstein wrote all new music with Comden and Green supplying the lyrics), and MGM put up $250,000 for the stage production in exchange for the movie rights. When Louis B. Mayer and his assistants, Eddie Mannix and Sam Katz, saw the show in New York they were put off by it and regretted having had anything to do with it, so the property lay fallow for five years until Freed revived it as a vehicle for Gene Kelly and his two co-stars from Take Me Out to the Ball Game — the period baseball musical he’d done just before — Frank Sinatra and comedian Jules Munshin.

Unfortunately, Freed and the MGM “suits” decided that Bernstein’s music wasn’t commercial, so they threw out all but two of his songs — the famous opening, “New York, New York,” and “Come Up to My Place” — and had Comden and Green write new ones with Roger Edens. Though Edens was an excellent arranger and vocal coach (in both those capacities he’d been instrumental in making Judy Garland a star), he was a mediocre songwriter and the ditties he came up with for the film are either ideas other people did better (when Ann Miller’s character latches on to Munshin because he resembles a statue in an anthropological museum of Pithecanthropus erectus, she sings “Prehistoric Man,” a pretty obvious — and inferior — ripoff of Cole Porter’s “Find Me a Primitive Man”) or simply forgettable (like the title song he wrote for all six principals).

They did, fortunately, tap Bernstein to compose two wordless ballets, one showcasing the various aspects of Vera-Ellen’s “Miss Turnstiles” character and a long one called “A Day in New York” in which Kelly, frustrated in love, dreams his way into a sequence that showcases his dancing skills and his imagination — essentially it’s a paper sketch for the magnificent final ballet of An American in Paris and Turner Classic Movies did his memory no favors by scheduling the two movies in reverse chronological order, since it made On the Town look like an inferior workout on the ideas of An American in Paris and made it harder to appreciate its own unique qualities. The great virtues of this film are its sheer exuberance and the brilliant opening number, which was actually shot on location in New York City, on the famous landmarks referenced in the Comden-Green lyric (which was regrettably bowdlerized because of the Production Code — in the movie New York had to be “a wonderful town” instead of “a hell of a town”). It was the first time anyone had tried to shoot a musical number on New York streets, especially in midday with the usual traffic — dramatic films, including The Lost Weekend, had shot on location in New York but there it was easier to control and “loop” dialogue in post-production if a traffic noise drowned out a line. Hugh Fordin’s biography of Arthur Freed, The World of Entertainment!, summed up the problems:

“There must be a playback machine [to reproduce the pre-recorded song] always in earshot of the director and the performers. This is not much of a problem in stationary shots; but in moving shots, in confined spaces or in long shots, it becomes quite a problem. To hear the record for synchronization, the performer has to be relatively close by, but if the loudspeaker is in earshot it often gets within camera range. In each individual shot the trio [Kelly, Sinatra and Munshin] not only had to synchronize to their pre-recorded voices, but had to walk in strict tempo to the music, even in the instrumental portions of the number.”

They had another, non-technical problem shooting the sequence: though Frank Sinatra was coming down from his early career peak in 1949 and starting on the four-year decline that would only end with his Academy Award-winning performance in From Here to Eternity, he was still enough of a teen idol that whenever he was seen in the street, he would be mobbed — and so the filmmakers had to keep one of their stars literally under wraps, hiding him in the bottom of cars and only letting him out when they were actually ready to shoot. Sinatra had been reluctant to do the movie — he had no desire to make another film as a singing sailor just four years after Anchors Aweigh — and hearing the songs he was assigned, two novelties and one mediocre ballad duet with Betty Garrett, one can readily understand why: there’s nothing here that does justice to his voice. (This is probably why, as Will Friedwald pointed out in his Sinatra bio The Song Is You, Sinatra recorded nothing from the film and only one song from its predecessor, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, which also cast him mostly as a novelty singer.)

The other thing that makes On the Town an unusually interesting musical for the period is the plot, which is essentially three interlocking stories involving each of the sailors and the girl he meets. Gabey (Gene Kelly) sees a poster of Ivy Smith on the subway — she’s been picked as that month’s “Miss Turnstiles,” representative of the city’s subway riders, and Gabey thinks that makes her far more of a celebrity than she really is (she’s working as a cooch dancer on Coney Island but she’s also studying classical ballet with a dragon-lady teacher named Madame Dilyovska, played by Florence Bates much the way Maria Ouspenskaya played a similar role in Dance, Girl, Dance). Chip (Frank Sinatra) gets cruised by the butch female cab driver with the improbable moniker Brünnhilde “Hildy” Esterhazy (Betty Garrett), who literally drags him home with her (they’re the only one of the three couples who get to be alone together long enough that they could conceivably have had sex). Ozzie (Jules Munshin) gets attention from anthropology student Claire Huddesen (Ann Miller) who’s attracted to him as a throwback to primitive man, and they symbolize their attraction by accidentally collapsing the anthropology museum’s dinosaur skeleton (much the way Howard Hawks and his writers, Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde, had symbolized Cary Grant yielding to Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby by similarly collapsing the dinosaur he had been reconstructing for years). This means that in two of the three couples, it’s the woman who’s the sexual aggressor — unusual even in a comedy context in a 1949 film.

Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen directed jointly, their first such credit (they’d do two more, Singin’ in the Rain — a great movie and a major hit — and It’s Always Fair Weather, an almost-as-great movie and a major flop), and they do a marvelous job of keeping the show on the go even though the final chase scene through the MGM backlot looks even more fake than it would have if we hadn’t seen the real locations in the big number at the beginning (directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen wanted to shoot the whole film in New York, but the studio vetoed that idea). Twelve years later, a different film crew would make a movie of Bernstein’s other hit musical, West Side Story, and though at least they’d keep all his songs, they likewise made the dumb decision to shoot the opening number in New York City — in a neighborhood of old tenements that were about to be torn down to make room for Lincoln Center — and the rest on a soundstage, again making the non-location parts look that much more phony by comparison.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Manos: The Hands of Fate (Independent, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Later Charles and I ran one of his Mystery Science Theatre 3000 downloads, a 1966 “Z” film called Manos: The Hands of Fate (one commentator noted that the title is redundant since “manos” means “hands” in Spanish, so the title is really Hands: The Hands of Fate) that may not be the absolute worst movie ever made (I’d still reserve that title for Shriek of the Mutilated, which I saw in the early 1980’s on a pre-MST3K show in the San Diego area called Schlock Theatre, which differed only in that the snarky comments on the movie were delivered as subtitles instead of being spoken over the film’s dialogue) but is certainly dull and cheap enough to rate a good place on a ten-worst list.

Manos: The Hands of Fate was the handiwork (pardon the pun) of Harold P. Warren, who produced, directed, wrote and starred (though he took his acting credit as “Hal Warren”) and was filmed entirely in El Paso, Texas — which got a thank-you credit at the end (I can just see the city fathers of El Paso going, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and I’m surprised the MST3K crew didn’t do the obvious riff on Marty Robbins’ famous song: “Down in the west Texas town of El Paso/They made a movie called Manos: The Hands of Fate/It really sucked, big-time”). Its plot, if you can call it that, deals with a vacationing couple, Michael (Hal Warren) and Margaret (Diane Mahree), and their daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman) and their dog, who spend most of the opening reel driving their convertible along the open countryside around El Paso in footage of such mind-numbing dullness one wonders if Warren had cribbed stock footage from the Texas Department of Highway Safety.

The movie gets worse when Michael is tricked into taking a side road by a sign advertising the “Valley Lodge” — only, after yet more boring footage of the principals driving around, they finally arrive not at the “Valley Lodge” (it doesn’t really exist) but at a house inhabited by a Satanic death cult led by “The Master” (Tom Neyman, presumably Jackie’s real-life father), whose manservant Torgo (John Reynolds) — who walks throughout with a curiously variable limp as if they couldn’t decide precisely what disability they wanted this character to have — takes their baggage even as he’s warning them that “The Master" probably won't want them to stay. Before we meet "The Master" we see a painting of him (he's not half-bad looking!) with his black dog from hell, and the live dog we’ve seen escapes and is recovered in petrified form, presumably killed magically by the “Master”’s dog from hell.

Then the child disappears (lucky her!) and the parents are tricked into joining “The Master” in his latest ritual, which consists of all the “Master”’s previous wives being chained to white posts as he dances around them in a black robe with red silhouettes of hands on it — which seems to be the only explanation for the film’s two-handed title. (The funniest part of the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of this film is Joel Hodgson’s emergence during one of the interstital sketches in a similar robe, onlyinstead of hands his is emblazoned with feet, presumably setting up a sequel called Pedos: The Feet of Fate.)

It’s one of those annoying horror movies in which the bad guys win — the “Master” adds Margaret to his white-clad brides’ collection and Michael takes Torgo’s place as his manservant and greeter, and “The End” on the final title is succeeded by a question mark — but that’s not the least of its problems. Manos: The Hands of Fate was filmed with a silent, hand-held camera that could only run for 32 seconds at a time — leading to such intriguing effects as a sequence that dissolves from one landscape shot to another of the same location from (almost) the same angle! — and all the dialogue was dubbed in later by just three actors (an adult man, an adult woman and a child). Reportedly Jackey Neyman burst into tears when the final film was screened and she heard the horrible kid’s voice they’d assigned to dub for her.

The MST3K crew had a lot of fun with the film’s florid title and the sameness of the voices — when they joked about how each conversation scene between two or more male characters sounded like the voices were all coming from the same person, it was because they were! As I joked later to Charles, Manos: The Hands of Fate is the sort of movie that makes you look at your life totally differently, if only because it makes you wonder, “Why are we wasting our time watching crap like this?”

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Mask of Dimitrios (Warners, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran us one of the movies I’d recorded to DVD from the Peter Lorre tribute on TCM the day before: The Mask of Dimitrios, a 1944 Warners melodrama based on the novel A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, directed by Jean Negulesco from a script by Frank Gruber — though according to Negulesco’s interview with Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg in the book The Celluloid Muse he and the film’s producer, Henry Blanke, pieced together the script on their own by cutting and pasting from two copies of Ambler’s novel — much the way John Huston had written the script for The Maltese Falcon (also a Blanke production).

Negulesco describes the film as a consolation prize because he didn’t get to do The Maltese Falcon himself; “I started work, and after two months they called me saying, ‘It’s too bad, but someone else wants to do The Maltese Falcon and you’ll have to go back to doing shorts.’” He was a bit less upset when he found that the “someone else” was John Huston, whom he liked — “He did a beautiful job, too, following the book closely; my handling of the film would not have differed significantly from his” — but he was still piqued until Anatole Litvak offered him Dimitrios as a sort of consolation prize (and later Negulesco got to direct Three Strangers, based on a story by John Huston, which according to Robert Osborne was originally intended as a sequel to The Maltese Falcon and remodeled when the Warners legal department found out that though they owned the rights to the novel The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett had retained ownership of Sam Spade and the novel’s other characters).

Negulesco’s interview identified Dimitrios as his first film even though he has one previous directorial credit, Singapore Woman — Warners’ 1941 “B” remake of Dangerous — which Negulesco said he wasn’t allowed to finish even though he’s the only director credited on screen. Ambler was a British novelist who specialized in stories of international intrigue and whose books quickly became formulaic and dull, though Dimitrios was written early enough in his career that that hadn’t happened yet; its central characters are Cornelius Latimer Leyden (Peter Lorre), an economics professor (the idea of Peter Lorre giving a lecture on, say, the money supply is pretty bizarre in itself) turned mystery writer who stumbles on the real-life mystery of Dimitrios Makropoulos when a body with identification bearing that name washes up on the beach at Istanbul; Dimitrios himself (Zachary Scott, in his film debut),who’s first seen only in flashbacks detailing his life of unscrupulous crime (he has a habit of committing robberies in which he murders the person he’s robbing and rigs it so someone else takes the fall; later he gets involved in international espionage); and Peters, t/n Eric Petersen (Sydney Greenstreet), a former confederate of Dimitrios’s in an international smuggling ring that collapsed when Dimitrios turned all the others in to save his own skin.

Leyden decides to use Dimitrios’s life and (presumed) death as the basis of a true-crime book, and so he goes around Europe investigating Dimitrios’s life, whereupon we get a series of flashbacks showing what he’s discovered. Peters follows him on his travels and the two ultimately hook up and learn something we’ve suspected for several reels: that Dimitrios isn’t dead at all: he killed a confederate who was trying to blackmail him and planted fake I.D. on him so that when the corpse washed up to sea (too bloated and decayed to be identified in the pre-DNA 1930’s) it would appear to be Dimitrios who was dead. Notwithstanding what happened to the last person who attempted to blackmail Dimitrios, Peters hatches a plot to blackmail him again and enlists Leyden’s help; in the final confrontation Dimitrios and Peters kill each other and Leyden barely escapes.

The Mask of Dimitrios has its problems. It seems to be pieced together from gimmicks that were done better in movies made either just a few years earlier (like the multiple-narrator flashbacks of Citizen Kane and the overall atmosphere — and two of the same cast members — of The Maltese Falcon) or a few years later (like the master-criminal-who’s-thought-to-be-dead-but-isn’t of The Third Man), and it suffers from the lack of a central female character (the closest we get is a Dietrich-esque nightclub singer played by Faye Emerson, who turns up in the present as one of Dimitrios’s victims and narrates one of the flashbacks) or a romance.

There’s nothing here to grip the emotions as there is in the central intrigues of The Maltese Falcon or The Third Man, where the romantic subplots added depth to the overall suspense. (Probably that’s just a sign that Ambler, though a more-than-competent thriller writer, was hardly in the same league as either Dashiell Hammett or Graham Greene.) It’s an arbitrarily plotted movie, moving its characters around to just about any location on the globe that Warners’ collection of standing sets could conceivably reproduce with some degree of credibility, and it hits the emotion only once — in the tale of Bulic (Steven Geray), a Yugoslav government clerk who’s lured by Dimitrios into a scheme first to sell access to government contracts, then to lose his windfall and then some at the roulette table, and finally to get blackmailed into stealing a government secret to pay off his gambling debt; we’re appalled by his naïveté but we’re also moved by his plight in ways we’re not by much of anything that happens in the rest of the film.

The Mask of Dimitrios also suffers by comparison with Journey Into Fear, a much better Ambler-based movie made the year before by Orson Welles’ Mercury unit at RKO, with Welles as producer (and uncredited co-director with Norman Foster) and playing the role of Col. Haki, head of the Turkish secret police, a recurring character in various Ambler novels — including Dimitrios, in which he’s played by Kurt Katch, whose performance completely lacks the authority of Welles’s and gets awfully annoying for someone who’s supposed to be (mostly) on the side of good. (Ironically, in Confidential Report Welles would later make a film quite similarly plotted to The Mask of Dimitrios — and it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good.)

The best aspects of Dimitrios are the noir atmospherics, including a set for the final shootout that looks like something out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — “I established a somber, low-key mood that I followed in a number of subsequent films,” Negulesco said; “I learned that the public loves to share the actor’s situation, to be a vicarious part of the action. It’s curious that when you see actors moving and talking in semi-darkness it’s always more exciting than seeing them plainly, because you identify with them more” — and the marvelous anti-type casting of Peter Lorre. Negulesco recalled that during the tests for the film Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet cut up and joked a lot — and that Blanke saw the tests and almost fired him from the film — and while Negulesco kept his job by explaining to Blanke that he had let them get away with that in the test just to find out what he shouldn’t let them do in the film, it’s clear that some of Lorre’s weirdly comic schtick did end up in the final product — to good effect.

The idea of Lorre as someone too squeamish to be in the same room with a corpse challenges our expectations of him (after all, his first film success was in M, in which he played a serial killer of children!), and his skittering out of the way in the finale not only saves his life but ironically reflects what we’ve been told of his character. “They don’t make ’em like that anymore!” Charles exclaimed when the movie was over. They don’t (though, ironically, the relative emotional detachment of Dimitrios makes it look more “modern” than The Maltese Falcon or The Third Man), and more’s the pity … — 8/15/08

Night of the Blood Beast (American International, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

We eventually ran the rest of the special Thanksigiving Mystery Science Theatre 3000 from 1995 that included the short Once Upon a Honeymoon (and must have been shown shortly after they ran the movie Mr. B Natural, since they had a character in the sketch scenes dressed up as the androgynous “Spirit of Music” from that film and speaking in that irritatingly chirpy voice used in the film) and the feature Night of the Blood Beast, an American International non-epic from 1958 directed by Bernard Kowalski (I couldn’t help but wondering whether he called his actors using the “STELL-UH!” voice of Marlon Brando from A Streetcar Named Desire, and I was a bit surprised the MST3K crew didn’t do a riff on his name) from a script by Martin Varno based on a story by Gene Corman, Roger Corman’s younger (by a year and a half) brother, who actually got into the movie business before Roger did as an apprentice agent at MCA. (Roger took the other traditional starting-out job as a studio mailroom clerk.)

Roger was named as executive producer on this one while Gene was listed as line producer as well as writer, and Night of the Blood Beast actually had the potential to be reasonably good. America’s first astronaut gets shot up into space in the usual cigar-tube rocket, only to lose control on re-entry and get himself killed when his spacecraft crashes into earth. Only he’s not really dead; he’s being kept alive by an interplanetary invader that has impregnated him with a litter of seahorse-shaped embryos. The plan is for these creatures to be born on earth and form the basis for a new population of extra-terrestrial whatsits that will eventually conquer our planet, though the astronaut — once he revives sufficiently to be able to talk and move — is actually quite thrilled by the idea; much like the scientist in the 1951 The Thing, he’s in open awe of the alien and regards it as superior to us — until at the very end when he realizes what the alien really has in mind and turns against it, helping the other earthlings in the movie to destroy it with Molotov cocktails (since earlier scenes have established that it’s impervious to bullets but can be harmed by fire — obviously someone in the movie, or one of the writers, had seen Zombies of Mora Tau).

The central premise of a manned expedition to outer space bringing back with it some alien life form that poses a threat to earth wasn’t exactly fresh (it had already been done in The Quatermass Experiment and several other movies) but it wasn’t a bad idea, either; what did in Night of the Blood Beast, aside from its ridiculous title (which would have led 1958 audiences to expect something far more horrific than they got), was its incredible cheapness — the MST3K crew couldn’t resist the obvious joke that according to this movie, the entire infrastructure of NASA consisted of one desert base camp, one Jeep and one truck — and Kowalski’s deadly-dull direction.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the more 1950’s sci-fi movies we see in the MST3K context and the harder it gets to stay awake during them, the better Edward D. Wood, Jr. looks: for all his incompetence, his films at least were well-paced and fast-moving — as were Roger Corman’s, which suggests that Gene would have been much better advised to let his brother direct this one than to entrust it to a director who, as Polish-descended directors go, was clearly at the opposite pole on the quality spectrum from Roman Polanski. It also didn’t help that not only did they show the monster — impersonated by actor Ross Sturlin with a particularly nasty-looking carpet sample over his head to make him look properly alien — but they gave him a voice; we were told that once he murdered kindly old Dr. Alex Wyman (Tyler McVey), severed his head and ate it (I’m not making this up, you know!) he acquired Dr. Wyman’s voice — and, presumably, his full command of English. This is a lot sillier than the flaw in this movie pointed out by the “Goofs” commentators: that when the astronaut crashes to earth he has no heartbeat, but subsequently the nurse taking care of him (who bears the character name “Julie Benson,” also the alias Evelyn Keyes’ Ruby Keeler-based character had in The Jolson Story, and is played by Angela Greene) notices he has a blood pressure: the contributors ridiculed the idea that someone who didn’t have a functioning heart could have a blood pressure, but the alien could have restarted the man’s heart in the two or three reels in between those plot points. — 8/14/08

Mystery Science Theatre 3000 "Oddities"

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a couple of my husband Charles' Mystery Science Theatre 3000 downloads with him. These were from a disc called “Oddities” and the two segments we watched were an appearance by Joel Hodgson on an HBO comedy special (he was funny — I especially loved his invention of the first Braille bumper sticker, which of course said, “If you can read this, you’re too close” — but a good deal less funny than he was on the show with its elaborate supporting cast) and a rather crudely filmed interview with Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy (who turned out to be a heavy-set bear type and not at all the body you’d expect to find behind the voice of Tom Servo) on the origins of MST3K and how some of the effects were done — with a lot of gaffer’s tape and wood screws and other ultra-cheapo technology. The famous tracking shot of the camera bursting through the six gates between the space on the Satellite of Love where the sketch routines were done and the theatre where they screened the movies was done by mounting a camera on a 12-foot long 2 x 4 and shoving it through as just about everyone connected with the show worked the doors on their cheap sets.

The show started as a local show on the worst-rated UHF station in Minneapolis, Channel 23, which went bankrupt just as they cut a deal with the Comedy Central channel to put it on nationwide cable. (It was sold to a Christian broadcaster and Nelson and Murphy joked about how they couldn’t have tweaked the show to fit their format.) At the time they went on Comedy Central, there were two “comedy” cable channels — that one and the short-lived Ha! — and both were showing the lamest sitcoms of all time just to fill out their schedules, and what made MST3K appealing to Comedy Central was that it was two hours long and therefore there was that much less time they had to fill. Mike Nelson was working as a waiter at T.G.I. Friday’s when he was hired to type up the scripts for the shows, and since in the great Mack Sennett tradition the writing sessions were open-ended gagfests in which anyone there was allowed to chime in with their two-cents’ worth, Mike started throwing out lines of his own and they were so good he eventually became the head writer.

Their weekly schedule was to do the gags about the movies on Mondays, write the sketch routines on Tuesday, return to the movie on Wednesday and hone the gags (they had time breakdowns on the movie, like those on modern editing equipment, to time their lines exactly to specific frames in the film), shoot the sketches on Thursday and the movie comments on Friday. Mike mentioned his wife Bridget, who got used to his almost random schedule — at times he’d call her at 5:30 and say, “I’m going to be working late, don’t expect me home for a while,” and then there’d be a change of plans and he’d show up at 6:15! (If his life really were a bad movie, he’d have come home early and caught her with the iceman — now.) — 8/8/08


Charles and I ended up watching some more of an unusual Mystery Science Theatre 3000 disc called “MST3K Oddities,” which we’d started watching a few days before. It consisted of an HBO comedy special clip by Joel Hodgson, a rather crude interview segment with Kevin Murphy (the large, bear-ish man who sounds a bit jarring as the source of the voice for Tom Servo), a long file containing several shorts the MST3K crew riffed on to have something to stick into a show when the movie itself was too short to fill the time slot, and at least one full-length program from the Mike Nelson years, a Thanksgiving show based on a movie called Night of the Blood Beast (one of those titles that seems to guarantee a bad movie).

We skipped that one (it was late and Charles had a fairly early work call — early enough that he set the alarm) but did watch the short that preceded it, Once Upon a Honeymoon, that seems to have been produced by RKO in the dog days of its existence (it’s billed as being in SuperScope, RKO’s name for CinemaScope — remember that the CinemaScope name was trademarked and couldn’t be used without paying royalties, but the anamorphic lens technology itself was in the public domain and so anyone could make a CinemaScope movie as long as they didn’t call it that — and as long as they made or contracted out the production of their own lenses, which turned out to be a good deal trickier than a lot of people in the business thought it would be) and actually had some reasonably prestigious people involved on both ends of the camera: the director is Gower Champion and Alan Mowbray stars as an unscrupulous Broadway producer who tries to get songwriter Ward Ellis to crank out a new song for his latest show, “The Wishing Song,” even though Ellis and his wife (Virginia Gibson) were just about to leave on the honeymoon they’ve already delayed for over a year due to Mowbray’s machinations.

A guardian angel intervenes to save Ward Ellis’s failing savings-and-loan and show him that he really has fr- — oops, wrong movie. Instead the guardian angel sits on the couple’s rooftop and sprinkles “angel dust” all over everything (which the MST3K crew had a lot of fun with: “Honey, you left your coke all over the living room again!”), which inspires the wife to improvise a “Wishing Song” of her own in which all her wishes are for new appliances and wallpaper. (The existing wallpaper is bad enough but the “new” wallpaper it’s magically replaced with is even worse.) Needless to say, her song is so great that her husband picks it up (though there’s never any sign that either he or anybody else bothers to write it down or record it) and plays it over a speakerphone for the producer and his temperamental star, and he and his wife get to go on their honeymoon as scheduled. It’s a dippy short but a not altogether incompetent one and certainly better than anything on the “Mr. B.’s Lost Shorts” file we’d seen previously, which included:

Mr. B Natural: A color promotion short for the Conn band instruments company, featuring a woman in (male) drag performing Peter Pan-style as the “Spirit of Music,” who gets into the pants (figuratively, not literally!) of a seven-year-old boy (or was he 12? Actually, come to think of it, I believe he was supposed to be in junior high school and just acted as stupid and naïve as a seven-year-old) and gets him to take up the trumpet. The makers of this movie fortunately didn’t have him become Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis overnight — in the final sequences he plays as wretchedly as you’d expect from someone who’s just starting out — but the rest of the conception was so lame it didn’t matter much that they got that one point right, and for me the delight was the gender ambiguity of the actress playing the (male) “Spirit of Music” and the MST3K crew’s logical assumption that a woman who looked like that (even pretending to be a man) would more likely evoke sexual than musical thoughts in a boy just hitting puberty. (“Spirit of Music, you’re hot!” one of the robots had the kid say to her/him.) The idiotic effect of the “Spirit of Music” descending from a grandstand-like arrangement that’s supposed to be a musical staff was unintentionally entertaining, too.

X Marks the Spot: A thoroughly gruesome (in both senses: bloody and awful) short produced sometime during World War II (you can tell because gas rationing coupons are mentioned), produced by the New Jersey Office of Traffic Safety and introduced in a positively sepulchral style of narration by that office’s commissioner, Arthur W. Magee. His appearance was obviously inspired by MGM’s Crime Does Not Pay series, though at least MGM got either character actors or people with some charismatic on-camera appeal to introduce their films: this guy looked like they just thawed him out on the autopsy table and managed to get him a jolt of lightning to bring him back to the barest semblance of life.

The central character is one “Joe Doakes,” who’s killed in an auto accident (so ineptly staged we have a hard time believing it could even have hurt him, much less killed him) and ends up in that Big Traffic Court in the Sky, going through an experience much like the one of the recently deceased person in that comic-book tract who ends up before God and is condemned to hell for every dirty joke he ever told in life. This one was so stupid and so grim — it even ends with the actor playing the celestial judge turning to the audience (i.e., the camera) and asking us to be the jurors in Joe’s case, and also solemnly warning us that we need to make sure we ourselves are “qualified” to be good drivers and good pedestrians (maybe that’s going to be the next step for this cash-strapped state: we won’t restore the car tax but we will slap a tax on pedestrians!) — there was little the MST3K crew could do to (or for) it.

Hired!: I’m not sure what they were thinking to spot this one right after a grim movie about traffic safety and how badly most people drive, but they did it: it was a promotional short made by the Chevrolet people in the early 1950’s (judging from the look of the cars involved) and detailed the life of a young man who’s just been hired as a Chevrolet salesman only to find that he’s unable to sell a single car. He’s shown going door-to-door — did car salesmen go door-to-door to get orders in those days? I have a hard time believing it — and at the end an old-codger character who’s either the father or the grandfather of the boss laments that “young people today just don’t work the way we did.” (Back when he was this film’s protagonist’s age they probably didn’t have cars!) MST3K showed this one as part of the episode in which they did Bride of the Monster and actually got more mileage (pardon the pun — or not) out of it in creating their sketch material than they did out of Ed Wood’s legendary messterpiece, including an hilarious musical adaptation of Hired! that was the funniest thing on the show.

Design for Dreaming: Also produced by General Motors, this was a Technicolor vision of the future that included huge freeways on which slot cars ran (the fact that they were using slot cars in their model work was way too obvious!) complete with a singing, dancing heroine whose exploits seemed to be aiming towards Metropolis: The Musical. For sheer entertainment value — inherent and otherwise — this was the best film on the tape, especially during the dippy sequence towards the end that was a combination auto show (featuring what the mid-1950’s thought would be “futuristic” cars, none of which look even remotely like anything on the road today) and fashion show.

Johnny at the Fair: A promotion for a Canadian world’s fair in the late 1930’s, this is a grim tale about an unspeakably cute seven-year-old (I think) kid named Johnny who gets separated from his parents at a world’s fair when they want to take him to the art museum, and he runs off and spends the day elsewhere on the fair’s grounds. The film advertised special guests Joe Louis (then the world’s champion boxer), Barbara Ann Scott (then the world’s champion figure skater) and the comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chick Johnson, who at their best were considerably funnier than you’d think by the jokes the MST3K crew made about them. Most of their gags were centered around how differently this film “reads” now than it did then; what undoubtedly came across to contemporary audiences as a hymn to the irrepressible independent spirit of a child now seemed like a monumental put-down of parental irresponsibility.

Are You Ready for Marriage? One of those infamous Coronet Instructional Films to which high-school children of the 1950’s were routinely subjected, this one features a young man who’s a sophomore in college (where he’s studying engineering) and a young woman who’s just finishing high school and planning (at her parents’ behest) to go to community college. They’ve fallen in love — or at least got a bad case of the hots for each other — and now they plan to get married as soon as their school years are over. Only her parents object, and so they end up seeing a counselor, Reuben Hill, Ph.D. (playing himself), research professor in family life at the University of North Carolina.

Coming off like a gene-splicing experiment that sought to combine Fred MacMurray and Ronald Reagan, Dr. Hill interrogates the young couple and subjects them to “Cupid’s Checklist,” a list of three conditions they should think of before they get married — similar backgrounds, real friends (i.e., are they that with each other) and whether they truly understand marriage and how it takes two people and turns them into one family unit. He also subjects their relationship to a contraption he calls his “Marriage Development” board in which they’re represented by wedding-cake figures with strings tied to them, and the object is to pull the strings closer together as soon as their original sexual attraction (diplomatically referred to here as the “boing!,” after an experiment in which Dr. Hill represents their physical interest with a rubber band that snaps and flies through the air, and where it lands nobody knows … nobody in this film, that is) fades, ending up with the strings making a bell curve-like shape as they get older and leading one of the MST3K group to joke, “Their marriage looks like the Eiger Sanction!”

There’s also a rainbow graph called “Chance for Happiness” which is supposed to prove that they’ve got a better chance of making their marriage work if they wait a few years (and, this being a 1950’s film, of course they’re not allowed to have sex while they’re waiting!) and, instead of being engaged, just agree to “get engaged to be engaged,” whatever that means. At the end, her dad starts spouting off Dr. Hill’s pseudo-psychobabble and offers to send her to college where he goes, marked by a harp glissando that suggests that the Spirit of Music has visited them and decreed she should study harp, even though I don’t think the Conn music company ever made harps … — 8/13/08

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Pre-"War on Terror" Terror Film: "Swordfish" (Warners, 2001)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I were able to get in a movie: Swordfish, a flawed but interesting thriller from 2001 that anticipated much of the “war on terror” and probably flopped because it was released three months before the 9/11 attacks; before 9/11 terrorism wasn’t an interesting topic to moviegoers and afterwards this film was suddenly so politically incorrect that Warners pulled it from theatres. Swordfish stars John Travolta as “Gabriel,” a mysterious super-rich crook who masterminds a digital heist of $9 billion in money stashed away inside the Drug Enforcement Administration; Hugh Jackman as paroled hacker Stanley Jobson, whom he enlists to help him; Halle Berry as Ginger Knowles, whom Gabriel enlists to help him lure Stanley (and who turns out to be an undercover DEA agent who’s stupid enough to try to wear a wire under a bikini, which Stanley spots ridiculously easily); Don Cheadle as J. T. Roberts, FBI agent who’s trying to get to the bottom of all this; and Sam Shepard as a U.S. Senator who’s Gabriel’s contact in high places until Gabriel assassinates him midway through the movie.

Swordfish is an entertaining film but also a frustrating one because at times it seems like a genuinely exciting and powerful thriller while at other times it seems like appropriate fodder for Mystery Science Theatre 3000 — and Charles and I couldn’t resist the temptation to make MST3K-style jokes during the film: when a minor character, Axl Torvalds (Rudolf Martin), says of Gabriel early on, “He exists in a world beyond your world,” I said, “Of course he does! He’s a Scientologist!” Director Dominic Sena and writer Skip Woods — who’d previously collaborated on Gone in 60 Seconds, a hit film about auto theft — decided that they’d solve the problem of all people who’ve made movies about white-collar crime, from Money and the Woman to The Firm (namely, that white-collar crime is very boring to look at: someone writing entries in a ledger book, running a copier or typing at a computer keyboard is intrinsically uninteresting visually and requires reams of exposition to explain why what he’s doing is illegal and why we should care), by filling this full of thriller-type action: the film begins in the middle of a bank robbery masterminded by Travolta’s character and contains innumerable chase scenes of people fleeing each other down mountains, shooting each other from cars, and a final action scene in which Travolta’s character orders a helicopter to lift up a bus containing his hostages from the bank job and fly it over the police who are chasing it — as well as a morbid ending indicating that he got away with it after all.

I was hoping Swordfish would be a modern-day version of The Asphalt Jungle with computers, and indeed there are those elements, but the film has the emotional coldness all too common in modern movies and the characters are portrayed almost anthropologically rather than as flesh-and-blood people with identifiable emotions that would make us care about them. This film also suffers from a common flaw in thriller plotting these days: on the one hand we’re supposed to believe that Gabriel has kept a low profile in the world and that’s why he’s evaded capture for so long, while on the other hand he drives around in a cool sports car (a British-made TVR Tuscan, which can’t legally be sold in the U.S. because of its emissions levels) and machine-guns eight people in a hot killing spree that’s just a blind for his main plot.

What made Swordfish a political liability after 9/11 is not only that it featured a shot of a building blowing up but the entire political conceit behind the plot: we’re supposed to believe that Travolta’s character is the current head of a “Black” office within the FBI founded by J. Edgar Hoover in the 1950’s and somehow kept alive and in business under his successors, aimed at maintaining the American way of life by murdering anyone in the world who’s perceived as posing a threat to it.

The credo of this office, as Travolta’s character expresses it in the film, is not only chilling enough in itself but in 2008 sounds an awful lot like Dick Cheney’s rhetoric: when Stanley asks him why he’s described America as being “at war” and who the war is against, he replies, “Anyone who impinges on America’s freedom. Terrorist states, Stanley. Someone must bring their war to them. They bomb a church, we bomb 10. They hijack a plane, we take out an airport. They execute American tourist, we tactically nuke an entire city. Our job is to make terrorism so horrific that is becomes unthinkable to attack Americans.” At the end of the movie, after he’s faked his own death (with a corpse of a similar-looking Israeli intelligence agent whom he captured and killed just for this purpose, and who supplied him the alias “Gabriel”), Travolta’s character blows up a yacht on which an Arab terrorist is vacationing off the coast of Monaco — so that guy bites the big one instead of presumably planning 9/11, leading at least some moviegoers to think that having a guy like this around wouldn’t have been such a bad deal despite all the people he kills as “collateral damage.”

In a season where the top hit movies are things like The Dark Knight and WALL-E that are being described by critics as relentlessly dark, Swordfish seems about seven years ahead of its time — as in its at least ostensible disgust at the you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us mentality on which the Bush “war on terror” has been based (though, as I noted above, it’s conceivable to read this film as an endorsement of an any-means-necessary “war on terror” as well as an attack on it) — though I doubt Sena and Woods had any political axes to grind in the making of this film: they just thought it would be an entertaining premise for a thriller, and if they deliberately attacked anybody it’s other filmmakers, since Travolta’s character is constantly prattling on and on and on about the inaccuracies and distortions in other films in the genre.

Swordfish is also a movie full of “in” jokes: the title comes from the speakeasy scene in the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers, the name of Stanley Jobson seems to have been picked because of its similarity to Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple (which makes it ironic indeed that the DVD carries a warning that its special extended features won’t work on Macintosh computers!), one character is named “Bill Joy” after the founder and former chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, and “Axl Torvalds” is clearly christened after Linus Torvalds, author of the Linux operating system. Warners also sought permission from the publishers of the hacker magazine 2600 (which Charles regularly buys at Paras News) to include their magazine in the film — and 2600’s publishers told them to screw off, given that at the same time Warners was suing them for having put up on their Web site a link to another site that contained the anti-copying code used in standard DVD’s. Swordfish is yet another modern movie that manages to work on its own terms as “thrill ride” entertainment but could have been considerably deeper and richer than it turned out — though its biggest fascination is that it’s at once an artifact of the pre-9/11 era and an unwittingly close harbinger of how the U.S. government would behave post-9/11.

MST3K Does Ed Wood: "Bride of the Monster"

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The video I brought over was the copy of Ed Wood’s 1955 horror/sci-fi epic, Bride of the Monster, starring Bela Lugosi in his last speaking role. (He completed a film for producer Howard Koch, The Black Sleep, afterwards, and started Plan Nine for Wood — in which, according to the book Nightmare of Ecstasy, he was supposed to have played Mona McKinnon’s grandfather; “I had to kill him off earlier than I planned because he actually died,” Wood told Lugosi biographer Robert Cremer in an interview Cremer gave to Rudolph Grey to use in his Wood bio — but in both of those films he was mute.) I’d originally seen this one in a drive-in in the early 1970’s, on a triple bill with two Japanese monster movies, War of the Gargantuas and Monster Zero (Gargantuas was lousy, but Monster Zero was kind of trippy; the title character was a pterodactyl with three heads, done with better-than-usual special effects, and two of Toho’s other monsters, Godzilla and Rodan, appeared in this one on the side of good); it wasn’t announced on the marquee, and as it ran people began honking their horns as a demand to the projectionist that he take it off. (He didn’t.)

Bride is full of the usual Ed Wood trademarks — bizarrely cut-in stock footage, a profound uncertainty as to whether the scenes we are watching take place in day or night, jarringly inappropriate dialogue and quirky performances — though it’s somewhat better acted than usual in his films. In Nightmare of Ecstasy, Dolores Fuller said that Loretta King took the part of Janet Lawton, the female lead, away from her by putting money in the film; while King herself said that was a lie because she didn’t have any money at the time — and the screenwriters for the Ed Wood movie put those two stories together and came up with the idea that King had got the part because Wood thought she had money to invest in the film, when she really didn’t. Based on the actual film, it’s evident that Loretta King was a much better actress than Dolores Fuller and deserved the part on her own merits; within the limits of her part and Wood’s almost unspeakable (literally and figuratively) dialogue, she actually tried to give her hard-boiled reporter character the kind of 1930’s screwball sauciness it needed.

And Tony McCoy, even if he did get his part only because his father put up the completion money, isn’t bad either — he’s certainly at least as credible a leading man as Gregory Walcott, a much more experienced actor, was in Plan Nine (and we get to see him with his shirt off in the climactic scene). There’s also a charming vignette by actor Harvey B. Dunn, who plays a police captain who holds a pair of glasses in his hand so his pet bird, who otherwise flies free throughout his office, can perch on them (he’s never seen wearing the glasses, and there’s no indication he actually needs them to see, so we get the impression he has them only to give his bird a place to perch other than the glass on top of the water fountain). In fact, the worst performance in the entire movie was given by George Becwar as Strowski, the government official from the unnamed home country of Dr. Eric Vornoff (Lugosi — Wood told Robert Cremer he wanted to suggest it was Russia without actually coming out and saying so), who is not only unbearably hammy but also hopeless in his foredoomed attempt at an accent to convince us that he and Lugosi’s character are from the same country.

The biggest problem with Bride of the Monster is that it’s basically your standard generic Bela-Lugosi-as-mad-scientist-determined-to-conquer-the-world movie, and aside from the laughably low-budget production (including the most outrageously false wallpapering job in movie history — we’re actually supposed to believe that those hideous splotches on the wall of Lugosi’s lab represent cobblestones) it’s really no different from the performances Lugosi had already given in this part in film after film after film (with a few admixtures of Dracula and Wood’s favorite of Lugosi’s previous films, White Zombie, in giving him the power to hypnotize people even when they’re in a different room). In fact, Charles said he actually thought Plan Nine from Outer Space was a better film than Bride of the Monster — even though its physical production was, if anything, even tackier — and we came to the conclusion that at least in Plan Nine, the film Ed Wood was ripping off his plot from, The Day the Earth Stood Still, was better than all the tacky Lugosi mad-scientist melodramas Wood pastiched into his script for Bride of the Monster. — 6/28/96


I dug out a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 disc Charles had just brought over and played their version of Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s camp classic Bride of the Monster. Surprisingly, Charles and I both liked the movie itself better this time around — yes, it has the usual Woodian sloppiness, with stock footage scenes (mostly of real-life menaces like crocodiles and octopi) that don’t even begin to match the new scenes, shots intended as day-for-night scenes that are arbitrarily spliced in with night-for-night scenes since Wood couldn’t afford the optical work needed to make them properly nocturnal, and hilarious lapses of continuity, including one the MST3K crew pointed out where county clerk Tillie (Ann Wilner) is questioned by police captain Tom Robbins (Harvey B. Dunn) and reporter Janet Lawton (Loretta King), and in the close-ups of her interrogators with her shoulder and the back of her head in the foreground she’s wearing a pencil in her right ear, while in her own closeups the pencil is gone.

But it also has an energy and vitality that most ultra-low-budget productions in the 1950’s didn’t have; for all his limitations as a filmmaker, Wood simply didn’t have it in him to make a movie as dull as Fire Maidens from Outer Space. (No, I never in a million years thought I’d ever write that a movie Ed Wood didn’t direct would have been better if he had — though, come to think of it, I probably said that about The Violent Years and Orgy of the Dead, both deadly-dull movies based on scripts by Wood but directed by others.) Bride of the Monster also has Bela Lugosi in his second-to-last film (counting Plan Nine from Outer Space as his last and The Black Sleep, his last completed film, as the one between) but his final speaking role, and he does the big speech at the end — “Home? I have no home. Hunted, despised, living like an animal! The jungle is my home. But I will show the world that I can be its master!” — the one that was highlighted (and brilliantly delivered by Martin Landau) in the Ed Wood biopic — so movingly that for once I actually resented the MST3K crew talking through it and wanted to tell them to shut up.

They had a lot of fun with this movie overall, including the continuity problems (I joked myself that this movie didn’t have a continuity person, it had a discontinuity person) and Wood’s fabled reputation as a heterosexual cross-dresser, as well as such non-Wood issues as the enormous size of the cars people drove then (little did they know that these tank-like vehicles would recur in the 1990’s as SUV’s and hasten the end of cheap gas!), but along with the obvious ridicule Bride of the Monster also deserves a degree of love and respect. No, Wood wasn’t a great director by any means — not even one of those genuinely great directors like Robert Florey and Edgar G. Ulmer who spent most or all of their careers trapped in the “B”’s — but he was a damned sight better than a lot of his contemporaries in the micro-budget salt mines and he certainly doesn’t deserve the “Worst Director of All Time” opprobrium; and, as I noted the last time Charles and I watched Bride of the Monster au naturel, Loretta King actually acts: she turns in a genuine performance obviously modeled on the spunkiness of Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell in similar girl-reporter roles in Warners movies in the 1930’s (though she’s dark-haired and Blondell and Farrell were blonde) and is a cut above the usual damsel-in-distress portrayal one would expect from the actress playing the title role in a film called Bride of the Monster. — 8/12/08

Fire Maidens from Outer Space (Cy Roth, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 disc — in which John P. recognized the voice of Anthony Dexter. The movie was Fire Maidens from Outer Space, a thoroughly boring film made in Britain in 1956 and following roughly the same plot as such American non-masterpieces as Cat Women of the Moon and Queen of Outer Space. Anthony Dexter had made a biopic of Rudolph Valentino in 1951 and, while nowhere nearly as good looking as the man he’d played then, was certainly easy enough on the eyes in the lead role of Luther Blair, commander of a spaceship (represented by the usual obvious toy model common then) sent to explore a hitherto unknown 13th moon of Jupiter that turns out to house the remaining descendants of Atlantis, who used their advanced technology to escape the disaster that sank their continent and relocate on the 13th moon, which against all the astronomical (in both senses) odds actually has the right atmosphere and temperature (despite its far greater distance from the sun!) to support human and other earthling life.

Alas, by the time this story takes place all the male Atlanteans have died except one, the old ruler Prasus (Owen Berry) — the character name is pronounced “process” and Berry plays him like Polonius in Hamlet, which was probably what he wished he were doing; the dialogue is worlds better and he dies midway through — and the female Atlanteans, led by Princess Hestia (Susan Shaw), want to use all the male astronauts as studs to get them pregnant and keep the Atlantean race going. Only about midway through the movie, for reasons producer, director and writer Cy Roth never bothers to explain, the women turn against the astronauts and decide they want to kill them instead. Meanwhile, there’s a kind of burnt-umber monster roaming around outside and howling incoherently without doing much to advance the plot.

Ironically, the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 interjections drowned out one of the most famous aspects of this movie — not only did they rip off a good deal of the soundtrack from a Russian recording of the Polovestian Dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor, but at one point on the soundtrack the sound of the needle entering the record groove could be heard before the music started — but the crew had a lot of fun ridiculing the incredibly slow pace of this film (Cy Roth directs it so monumentally s-l-o-w-l-y that after a while Cat Women on the Moon starts to seem like a masterpiece by comparison!) as well as the mind-numbing repetition of the Polovestian Dance No. 2 theme that was already far more famous as the pop song “Stranger in Paradise” from the musical Kismet (by Bob Wright and Chet Forrest, who made a specialty of creating musicals by ripping off themes from a classical composer; they also did Song of Norway, which not only stole its songs from Grieg but even purported to be a biomusical about him!) — towards the end one of the MST3K crew does a perfect imitation of that infamous commercial for a recording of snippets of the classics that had an adenoidal announcer say, “Did you know that that was actually the ‘Polovestian Dance No. 2’ by Borodin?” (When I was growing up, my brother like to say that Wright and Forrest had Borrowdined the song.) Other than that it’s an excessively dull movie, handsomely produced (the central set of the Atlantean palace is impressive enough it was almost certainly built for another, bigger-budgeted movie and recycled for this one) but so soporific it could easily be recommended as a non-toxic alternative to Sominex.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Two IMAX Productions: "Wolves" and "Mummies"

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I salvaged the evening by heading for the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and going to two of the IMAX format movies there, Wolves and Mummies: Secrets of the Pharoahs. Interestingly, neither was produced by the MacGillivray-Freeman company that seems for a long time to have had a monopoly on filmmaking in the format — though MacGillivray-Freeman still makes the best IMAX films, the ones that most thrillingly exploit the you’re-in-the-middle-of-the-action appeal of the format and what’s become the signature IMAX shot, an airborne traveling shot through some great expanse of natural scenery (a waterfall, a glacier or, as in one film we saw a trailer for last night, the Grand Canyon) that delivers a marvelously vertiginous effect.

Wolves was actually produced by the National Wildlife Foundation, and it was made in 1999; it was a pretty typical Nature Channel-style show dividing its attention between the Nez Perce Native Americans, who were wiped out of the Northern plains but whose surviving remnants are returning to the area and attempting to restore something of the original ecological balance by re-introducing both buffalo and wolves; the wolves themselves, and particularly how they form and organize their packs and how they raise their young (they go from mother’s milk to already chewed meat regurgitated by mom so they get the idea that this is what they’re supposed to eat, to joining the packs and following along on the kills); and towards the end a story of a (straight) couple in the middle of Idaho who keep two wolves as companion animals (the animal-rights euphemism for “pets” is appropriate here because, pace Jack London, you can’t really tame a wolf — yes, it may be of the same genus as the dog — the Linnean name for the dog is Canis familiaris and for the wolf is Canis lupus — but it hasn’t had the centuries of breeding and reprogramming dogs have had to be nice to people and live in contemporary urban environments without resorting to its hunting instincts!) and actually take them around to schools and show them off to get schoolchildren over their prejudices against wolves, which date from the Middle Ages and the fairy tales about them that originated them. (A few illustrations of the story of Little Red Riding Hood and one shot of a full moon with a wolf baying under it are all we get of these legends.)

It was a pretty one-sided movie, though there was an interview with an Idaho cattleman who’s less than thrilled about the re-introduction of wolves anywhere near his ranches; when I looked it up on the commentary that came up was from a person who said it “Should be called ‘Hating the White Man,’” obviously objecting to the very strong pro-Indian slant taken by the movie — including a chilling still photo of a huge (about 100 feet high) pile of buffalo skulls and bones from the days in which the U.S. government was actually paying bounties to buffalo hunters to clear the plains of the great beasts to make room for white settlers and farmers.

Wolves was something of a mixed bag, and the IMAX format didn’t add much to it, but it was fun and at its best moments gave us a you-are-there sense of running with the wolf packs — and one rather humorous aspect was that it showed that, contrary to popular belief, the wolf really isn’t that efficient a predator and its chosen prey, musk oxen and buffalo, can evade it simply by gathering around each other in circles (and with their own horns and hooves these animals are not without defenses themselves!); it’s only when one of the prey animals breaks off from their fellows and can be attacked individually that the wolves have a chance. Maybe there’s a political/social/economic moral lesson in that … Wolves was directed by David Douglas from a script by him and Marc Strange, and wisely they picked former Band member Robbie Robertson as the narrator — and the background music, though credited to Michel Cusson, sounds a lot like the stuff Robertson composed and arranged for his CD The Native Americans (and was more appealing as background music than it had been on its own).

Mummies: Secrets of the Pharoahs was a more recent production (2007), directed by Keith Melton from a script by Arabella Cecil, and it was a more fascinating movie even though it too didn’t really exploit the IMAX format except for some vertiginous traveling shots through the actual Egyptian ruins at Abu Simbel, Karnak and Luxor. (I remember thinking it’s probably just as well that Melton’s film crew captured these sites while Hosni Mubarak is still alive, since once he croaks his most likely replacement will be a bunch of Taliban-style Islamic fundamentalists who will blow up all historic reminders of Egypt’s pre-Muslim past. Already Islamist goon squads in Egypt have successfully targeted tourists visiting Luxor for assassination.) It was one of those reconstructions you see on the History Channel, with footage of the actual historic sites intercut with reconstructions featuring actors playing Egyptian royalty, including Rameses II, the Pharoah of the Exodus — his mummy still exists, at least according to the film, and narrator Christopher Lee (probably picked because he played the murderous mummy in a cycle of films for Hammer!) said this is probably the only chance we’ll ever have to see the actual body of a Biblical character — as well as his queen Nefertari and their son (and his successor), Rameses III. (There are so many actors involved in the historical re-creations that, not counting narrator Lee, lists 19 performers in the cast.)

It was an appealing movie whose most interesting sequence was a digital re-creation of what Abu Simbel looked like when originally built, then as it was worn down and partially buried over the years, and finally as it looks today (the obvious template on which they built the digital imagery). Other than that it was the usual mixture of historical footage, documentary material and scientific scenes in which a group of modern researchers (“using a body donated to science,” the narration rather politely told us) actually duplicated, for the first time in over 2,500 years, the mummification process used in Egypt to get a clue as to where to go inside a mummy for recoverable DNA. Why they want to tap mummies for their DNA is never quite clearly explained here — it had something to do with attempting to trace the evolution of the malaria parasite (malaria having been a common cause of death in ancient Egypt, as it is through much of the Third World today) in hopes of getting a clue that will lead to more effective drugs for it. In any event, they found that mummification destroyed the DNA in the flesh and muscles, and if you wanted samples you had to go into the bones. (Interestingly, there’s a short item in this morning’s Los Angeles Times that says they’re doing DNA testing on two fetuses found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb to see if they were genetically related to him.)

Mummies essentially did what it set out to do, and if the film has a hero it was 1880’s American researcher Charles Wilbour (played by William Hope as the sort of guy who had a full beard and wore black suits and dress shoes even while spelunking in the Egyptian desert looking for the tombs of the Pharoahs), who saw authentic ancient artifacts in the Cairo bazaars, contacted the tomb robbers who were selling them there, tried to get them to show him where the big group tomb in the Valley of the Kings was where they were getting all this stuff, and when they didn’t cooperate turned them in to the authorities (which, given that Egypt was a quasi-colony then, meant going to an office with the name “Society of Antiquities” written on its door … in French) and had them forced to divulge the location of the tomb — thereby uncovering and recovering about 12 royal mummies, including all three Rameseses (just in time, too, because shortly afterwards the tomb’s ceiling collapsed and the bodies would have been unrecoverable if they hadn’t already been retrieved).

The fact that mummies had been recovered from a tomb 41 years before Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen was a surprise to me! This film did have its few glitches — like mentioning that the Rosetta Stone provided the clue to enable modern researchers to read hieroglyphics without explaining how it did that (it contained the same inscription in three languages: Egyptian hieroglyphics, a later and simpler form of Egyptian writing called hieratics, and classical Greek — and since classical Greek was still a known language, it provided the clues as to how to read the other two) — and some of the scenes with actors were a bit tacky, but overall it was fascinating and a lot of fun.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Golden Compass (New Line, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I pulled out The Golden Compass and ran that for my husband Charles, who had checked out the source books for this film, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (published under different titles in Pullman’s native U.K. than here; his title for book one was Northern Lights but The Golden Compass was the name it went under in the U.S.), from the local library. We'd both read them and I’d been quite impressed except for the depressing ending of book three. Later I read a New Yorker profile of Pullman in which he openly discussed his atheism (which was fairly apparent in the book’s depiction of the “Magisterium,” the head office of a resurgent Roman Catholic church, as among the principal villains), his conscious attempt to write His Dark Materials as an anti-religious (and specifically anti-Christian) answer to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia cycle, and how he thought that depressing ending was crucial to the meaning of the entire cycle and he would not allow it to be changed in a film adaptation. (Indeed, he seems to judge the people who meet him as likable or otherwise depending on how they responded to the ending.)

The film rights to His Dark Materials were bought by New Line Cinema in its glory days following the success of the three films based on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and the bosses at New Line and its parent company, Warners, were obviously hoping for a similar success — though they weren’t so optimistic as to film all three books consecutively before the first film in the cycle was released, the way they allowed Peter Jackson to do with Rings. Instead they filmed book one, The Golden Compass, and released it last December — whereupon it sank almost immediately into box-office oblivion. Outside the U.S. it did pretty well — apparently well enough to break even — but New Line kept the sequel projects in limbo, never announcing that they wouldn’t be made but never scheduling start dates for them either — and Pullman himself reported that they were in constant touch with him during the preparation for The Golden Compass but they haven’t been in contact with him since, a good indication that plans for future films in the series aren’t going forward. (Perhaps this will end up like Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first novel in Tolkien’s trilogy; it disappeared into movie limbo and wasn’t seen for over two decades, and then Peter Jackson stepped up to the plate and shot the whole trilogy and had one of the biggest hits in movie history.) It probably didn’t help that Entertainment Weekly voted The Golden Compass the worst adaptation of a novel into a movie made during 2007 (the next four were The Da Vinci Code, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, Memoirs of a Geisha and Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder).

Actually The Golden Compass is quite a good movie, though hampered by a relatively short running time (113 minutes, 30 to 40 minutes under what Jackson got for the first two Tolkien movies) that forced writer-director Chris Weitz to butcher the books for their film versions even more than usual and leave out quite a lot of detail — the back story of the Panzerbjörne Iorek Byrnison and his battle to regain his self-respect and the kingdom he was unfairly done out of is incredibly poignant in the book and not so in the film because his regeneration and victory in single combat against his usurper happen way too fast to get us to care — and it also suffers from Weitz’s decision (much the way Bob Evans and Francis Ford Coppola caved to Mafia-dominated “Italian-American Defense Associations” and left the M-word out of the script of the first Godfather) to get coy about what the “Magisterium” really was and carefully avoiding it with the Roman Catholic church or any other real-word religion. (Needless to say, this didn’t stop the real-world Magisterium — the one in the Vatican — from launching a campaign urging people not to see the movie and urging New Line to forgo any plans to film the other two books in Pullman’s trilogy.)

The film’s greatest strength is the sheer panoply of digital visual effects needed and expertly deployed to bring Pullman’s fantasy world to life — particularly the “daimons,” the animal companions to all human beings in Pullman’s universe (at least the one depicted in book one; in books two and three his characters discover the “Door” that allows them to move from one universe to another), which in children can change shape but in adults “settle” into one shape as a symbol of the process of growing up. Though when I read Pullman’s novel I’d imagined much more physical contact between the people and their daimons (which I’d envisioned being pronounced “DY-mons” but which Weitz has his actors read as “DEE-mons,” giving them a “hellish” connotation Pullman carefully avoided in his books) — I’d thought that for the most part the daimons had to be in physical contact with their people and could only break contact for short periods, while in the movie the daimons roam around pretty freely and at one point even mass as part of the Samoyeds, one of the armies on the side of evil.

The heavy-duty digitalism at the root of this movie is a problem as well as an opportunity; though it would have been unimaginable to try to make this story in the film world before CGI, the effects do look rather “fake” at times; the fight between the two bears has the ineffable aroma of digital animation about it (for a while it looks like we’re watching a misplaced reel from a Pixar production) and I couldn’t help but think that Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen could have trotted out some of their trusty stop-motion models and made this scene more convincing.

Still, there’s much about The Golden Compass to like besides the virtuoso display of digital special effects: the movie is essentially faithful to Pullman’s vision (it’s not as deep and rich as the book, but show me a movie — aside from the now-lost director’s cut of Greed or maybe Huston’s The Maltese Falcon — that is as deep and rich as its source novel!) and Weitz’s direction achieves a real sense of wonder which we hardly get in big-budget fantasies anymore, a real sense of being in a world different from our own and yet with enough similarities to make it interesting and emotionally compelling. Weitz also lucked out in the casting of Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra Bell’acqua, the central character; she is Pullman’s Lyra to the nines — tough, spunky, vulnerable, overwhelmed — and I only wish she could have played the scene in which she correctly intuits how to read the Alethiometer, the titular “golden compass” that’s presented in the movie much more as a straightforward oracle than its somewhat more ambiguous function in the book. It’s one of the best performances by a child I’ve seen (the only recent one that matches it is Kirsten Dunst’s turn in Interview with the Vampire, after which I correctly predicted adult stardom for her), refreshingly unsentimental and utterly convincing.

She actually puts a quite capable cast of adult actors in the shade — including Nicole Kidman, who got first billing as Mrs. Coulter, Lyra’s mother and agent of the Magisterium, who’s organized a scheme to kidnap street children (including two boys who were Lyra’s friends before they were snatched) and subject them to “intercision,” which means severing them from their daimons and is alluded to in the dialogue as “just a little cut” — the rhetoric here is so close to the current propaganda campaign advocating circumcision of Third World adult men as an alleged anti-HIV “prevention” measure the parallels are quite chilling — and Weitz also dramatizes, far better than the book did, the fact that a person and his or her daimon are linked so tightly that when the daimon feels pain, its owner does too: a quirk of this fantasy universe unscrupulously exploited by the villains as a means of torture. The Golden Compass is a quite good film and I can only hope the other two parts of Pullman’s trilogy do get made sometime — and that Weitz or whoever else directs them can use the lessons from the parts of this film that didn’t quite work to make them even better than the first entry — though Charles and I both wondered (as we had with The Da Vinci Code as well) whether anybody who hadn’t read the book could make heads or tails of the often confusing and sometimes wrenching plot twists and elaborate mix of situations and characters.

Monday, August 4, 2008

MST3K Takes On Miles O'Keeffe: "Cave Dwellers"

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie from one of Charles’ Mystery Science Theatre 3000 downloads, Cave Dwellers, a truly bizarre production that seems to have taken various script elements and thrown them into a blender. It was actually a sequel to an action-adventure movie called Ator the Invincible starring Miles O’Keeffe, an actor whose entire talent seems to have lodged in his pectorals (a lot of women stars have made it big on their breasts but O’Keeffe is one of the few males who’s pulled that off), though from the title Charles and I were expecting a One Million, B.C.-style caveman epic (or non-epic). Instead, after a few establishing shots of the titular cave dwellers having at pieces of raw meat and generally looking like they need someone to hurry up and invent the razor, pronto, the scene suddenly shifts to what looks like a Middle Ages alchemical lab where Akronas (Charles Borromel) has invented nuclear energy in the form of a crystal that looks oddly like a People’s Choice Award.

Barbarians — not the cave dwellers but a different set, led by Zor (David Brandon) in a makeup that oddly anticipates Johnny Depp’s appearance in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies — come to take Akronas prisoner and get the secret of the nuclear crystal; they get him but he manages to give the crystal to his daughter Mila (Lisa Foster) so she can flee with it to the Ends of the Earth, where she will find Ator (Miles O’Keeffe) and his Asian sidekick Thong (no, I’m not making that name up!) (Kiro Wehara, billed as Chen Wong), who will help her defeat the barbarians and get her father back — of course her dad sacrifices his life for her eventually, but Ator wins partly because of his marvelous screenwriter-decreed knack for winning fights even when he’s outnumbered googol-to-one (or at least that’s what it looks like) and partly because just in the knick of time he invents the hang glider and stages an aerial assault on Zor’s castle with explosive bombs (apparently also his invention). There’s also an ineptly done scene — too ineptly done to be either gross or genuinely frightening — in which one of the baddies slices out the heart of their latest human sacrifice victim, and gives it to another baddie who then eats it.

By any normal standards this is a perfectly awful movie, yet the MST3K crew actually had a great deal of fun with it, satirizing everything from the anachronisms in the movie (the extra wearing sunglasses in one of the big battle scenes, the modern town Ator flies over in his hang glider at the end, the four-wheel tracks on one of the locations) to Charles Borromel’s early-talkie style delivery of his lines, very s-l-o-w-l-y, as if by speaking them portentously and at a pace a snail would complain about as too slow he can make them sound far more profound than writer/director Joe D’Amato (billed as “David Hills”) was able to create them. According to, this film was shot in two weeks to fulfill D’Amato’s contract with his distributor for a certain number of films in which O’Keeffe would star, and most of it was improvised — also it was a sequel (the original Italian title was "Ator the Invincible 2"), which explains not only why it seems to be concocted of three different films (including Where Eagles Dare, some of whose airborne footage was used as stock during Miles O’Keeffe’s hang-glide) but why at the beginning Borromel delivers so tangled a thicket of exposition that one of the MST3K robots joked, “Tolkien couldn’t make sense of this plot!”