Friday, January 30, 2009

La Vie en Rose (Légende, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” was La Vie en Rose — actually titled La Môme (“The Little One”) when it was released in France — since it’s a musical biopic of the great French singer Édith Piaf, who in her early years, when she was initially discovered by French cabaret owner Louis Leplée (played, almost inevitably, by Gérard Depardieu, reminiscent of those days in which he was so ubiquitous in French movies I wondered if the French legislature had passed a law mandating that he be in every film shot there), performed under the stage name “La Môme Piaf” — “The Little Sparrow” — and it was only later on that she reverted to her real first name (she was born Édith Giovanna Gassion) and became world-famous as Édith Piaf.

Written and directed by Olivier Dahan, La Vie en Rose won two Academy Awards, one for Marion Cotillard’s incandescent portrayal of Piaf and one for the makeup artists, Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald, who physically transformed her into Piaf. (A short film about the makeup job is included on the DVD as a bonus, and a bit of it was shown on the last Academy Award telecast — and it was quite impressive. According to, the makeup on Cotillard as Piaf in the scenes just before her death took five hours to apply — about what Boris Karloff went through to play the Frankenstein monster.) Most of the singing heard in the film is Piaf’s own — from her commercial records — and though Jil Aigrot is given credit as Cotillard’s voice double, like Charles McPherson in Bird she was used only to fill in where Piaf was performing in an amateur context, the song was presented incomplete (as in the re-creation of a famous fiasco at the Olympia Theatre in Paris in 1960, when Piaf went onstage against her doctor’s orders, collapsed, insisted on finishing the performance and collapsed again on her second song) or for some other reason the film couldn’t use an actual Piaf recording.

The biggest flaw of the film is the way it leaps around incessantly from time to time; we begin with Piaf on tour in the U.S. in 1960, flash back to her childhood (which makes this film look like Diary of a Lost Girl: The Musical), flash-forward again to the late 1950’s (with Piaf sitting on a couch in front of a wall decorated with two large pictures of Billie Holiday, whom she cites as a kindred spirit — she then asks if her copies of Billie’s records have been sent to her hotel room as she requested) and keep bouncing back and forth in time. I could have seen the wisdom of presenting the film as a long flashback, anchored either in Piaf’s own reminiscences of her life (in 1958 she wrote an autobiography called The Wheel of Fortune) or, Citizen Kane-style, in reminiscences of her after her death — indeed, one powerful opening that could have been used was the one the BBC used in a 1970’s documentary that played here on PBS, in which they began with reproductions of the huge headlines in the French papers — “PIAF EST MORT” — with the sort of coverage they would have used if French president Charles de Gaulle had died around that time. Some of the time changes are signaled by printed titles (in type that would have been perfectly legible in a theatre but is hard to read on a normal TV screen) but others aren’t.

Dahan, who co-wrote the script with Isabelle Sobelman, presents Piaf’s life as unrelieved grimness — her brief idyll with French boxer Marcel Cerdan (the true love of her life — even though he was married to someone else and had three kids — until his death in a plane crash, for which Piaf blamed herself because, unwilling to wait to see him, she had urged him to charter a private plane …) is just about the only time the movie Piaf is even remotely happy — though given that the film sticks close to the facts of her life, and Piaf’s childhood is presented as so relentlessly Dickensian that Marilyn Monroe’s looks like a model of family stability by comparison, that’s not terribly surprising. Édith Giovanna Gassion is born in 1918 to a mother who’s a street singer — and who gets lured to Istanbul with the promise of work in nightclubs — and a father who’s serving in the French army in World War I. Dad gets out at the end of the war and reclaims his daughter, only to stick her in the home of his parents — and they in turn give her away to a whorehouse where one of the prostitutes, Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner), is the only one who even comes close to giving her any love and support. Nonetheless, since this is the only remotely stable environment she’s ever known, she’s reluctant to leave when daddy comes back and announces that he’s taking her and joining a circus (he’s a contortionist) — only he has a fight with the circus owner and ends up doing his act on the streets, and when he can’t get anyone to give him money he enlists her in it and tells her, “Do something.”

Accordingly, she sings “La Marseillaise” and becomes a hit — though she’s restricted to busking, first with her dad and then with her friend Mômone (Sylvie Testud), until 1935 when Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu), owner of Gerny’s cabaret, discovers her on the street and offers her a job. She opens at Gerny’s and is pretty much an instant hit, making records and getting written about in the entertainment papers of Paris — until six months later when Leplée is murdered. Piaf becomes a prime suspect in the case — the police believe that she infiltrated his operation by posing as a singer to get a job in his café and her (male) gangster friends from the streets killed Leplée for his money — and though they ultimately drop the case against her for lack of evidence (and, indeed, Leplée’s killing was never solved). Piaf revives her career thanks to the support (and songwriting skills) of Marguerite Monnot (Marie-Armelle Deguy) and the relentless drill-instructor coaching of Raymond Asso (Marc Barbé), who teaches her to sing with feelings and project real stage presence.

From there the movie leaps around in Piaf’s life, ignoring whole chunks of it (like her activities in World War II, where she was accused of collaborationism because — like Maurice Chevalier — she went to prisoner-of-war camps and entertained French prisoners; later her publicity people put out stories that she’d actually helped prisoners escape, shielded Resistance members and otherwise aided the fight against the occupation, but Piaf’s biographers remain divided over how much of this was real and how much was P.R. so she could resume her career without the taint of collaborationist allegations that dogged Chevalier after the war, and Dahan and Sobelman decided to duck the issue by not showing Piaf in World War II at all) but getting most of the details right, though there are some odd lacunae. For example, when Piaf makes her U.S. debut in 1947 the film shows her being received coolly by audiences and blasted by most of the critics — and the next time she’s shown in the U.S. she’s a major star as popular here as at home. Piaf is shown as diva to the max, constantly demanding and bitchy to her entourage, and she’s also shown taking drug injections without mentioning that she didn’t start to use morphine recreationally; she was one of those (like Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi) who were prescribed it medicinally and then ended up hooked.

Despite the jumpy non-continuity of this film and the relentlessly past-is-brown cinematography by Tetsuo Nagata, La Vie en Rose works largely on the strength of Cotillard’s performance (superbly matched not only with the singing of Piaf and Aigrot but also in terms of appearance and mannerisms with the two girls who play Piaf as a child, Manon Chevallier at age 5 and Pauline Berlet at age 10) and Dahan’s visual sense; he re-creates the period excellently if not absolutely flawlessly, and he really plunges us into Piaf’s peculiar life, showing her harnessing her off-stage traumas into on-stage vocal acting and making us feel both for her and for the people around her made miserable by her diva behavior and sheer mercurialism.

It’s a film that compares to the wretched Lady Sings the Blues much the way La Bamba compares to The Buddy Holly Story (a work of real artistry about a doomed entertainer vs. a cliché-ridden hack job); though the script of La Vie en Rose doesn’t avoid the clichés entirely, for the most part it has the ring of truth instead of dramatic contrivance, and Piaf’s anguish comes through marvelously in Dahan’s direction and Cotillard’s performance — though, as some of the posters noted, she seems stronger as the older Piaf than the younger one (the scene of Piaf making her theatre debut, shot from behind in silhouette and with her wearing an unflattering hairdo that makes her look like a mushroom, is all too vivid a depiction of her embarrassment) and her performance reaches the height of pathos in the scenes at her country villa in October 1963 in which she’s doing little more than fending off her doctors, going through the motions of planning a comeback and waiting to die.

The DVD box copy blurbed the film as the greatest performance in history of a person playing a famous entertainer transforming herself into that person, and while I can think of at least two films that equal this one in that regard, one obscure (a 1970’s TV-movie biography of Marilyn Monroe with Catherine Hicks in the role) and one recent and quite well known (Ray, with Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, winning an Academy Award for his performance as Cotillard did for hers), that doesn’t take away from the intensely moving, highly worthwhile drama Cotillard, Dahan and Sobelman have given us here. Édith Piaf vive!

Ratatouille (Pixar/Disney, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was Ratatouille, the Pixar/Disney production from 2007 which turned out to be quite appealing — and, oddly, the first digitally animated feature film I’ve ever seen start-to-finish even though these have become a mainstay of modern moviemaking (I believe Pixar has yet to make a movie that lost money!). It occurred to me about a third of the way through that the film (directed by Brad Bird from a story by himself and “co-director” Jan Pinkava, with “additional story material” by Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg and Bob Peterson, adapted into a screenplay by Bird and Jim Capobianco) is an ingenious reworking of the late-1960’s Disney classic The Love Bug: the magical car is changed into a magical rat, Remy (Patton Oswalt), who somehow has developed an excellent palate while his friends and family members, including his brother Émile (Peter Sohn), are content to eat garbage.

The rat clan he and his family are part of assign him to be their official poison sniffer, but circumstances intervene and he ends up in Paris, where he crashes the kitchen of the world’s most famous restaurant, Gusteau’s, currently in decline following the sudden death of its owner (Brad Garrett). He meets a young man, Linguini (Lou Romano), who like the racing driver Dean Jones played in The Love Bug has ambitions for a major career — in his case, as a cook instead of a driver — but no talent for the same. When Linguini tries to make a soup for the Gusteau’s customers, he botches it but Remy saves it by throwing in additional ingredients. The soup is great, and the two form a partnership in which Remy will hide under Linguini’s big chef’s hat and pull one side of his hair or the other to indicate yes or no as to the ingredient Linguini is about to use in whatever he’s cooking.

There’s also a female cook in the Gusteau’s kitchen, Colette (Janeanne Garofalo),who hates him at first sight but naturally eventually becomes his love interest; and a villain, Skinner (Ian Holm), Gusteau’s sous chef, who knows that Gusteau left a will leaving the restaurant to the sous chef if a blood heir hasn’t been found within two years of Gusteau’s death — and what he knows, and we find out well before the other characters do, is that Linguini is actually Gusteau’s son, and if he rebuilds the restaurant’s reputation and his parentage is found out, Skinner will be out of both a fortune and a job.

Perhaps it was the context in which I was seeing this — at the Bears San Diego movie night, with a room full of Gay men — but there seemed to be a lot of quirky Gay references in the movie, from the whole conception of Linguini’s character (he may be shown as in love with a woman, but he also spends a lot of the film’s running time flouncing around the kitchen — Remy is signaling him by biting him on various parts of his body since they haven’t developed the hair-pulling system yet — he debates whether and how to “come out” to Colette and the rest of the restaurant staff that he really has no talent and a rat is doing the cooking for him) to a great bit of dialogue in which the world’s most famous and nastiest restaurant critic, Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O’Toole but given a cadaverous, almost Karloffian appearance), the one food writer in the world who hated Gusteau’s even when the master chef who founded it was alive, is asked by Colette how he can be the world’s most famous foodie and still stay so thin, and he answers, “Because if I don’t like the taste, I don’t swallow.”

Actually, the best gags in Ratatouille are almost incidental to the film’s plot; they’re the ones which play off the contrast between the lovability of the rodent characters (not a surprising concept for the studio whose fortune was built on Mickey Mouse!) and the fear and loathing they evoke in humans — including one in which a woman who catches Remy in her house goes after him with a shotgun, blasting holes in her walls as she does so, and ultimately tries to run him down in a scooter with her gun blazing away — and the final payoff in which, after it’s been revealed that the secret of their success is a genius-chef rat, the entire human staff of Gusteau’s except Linguine himself walks out (though Colette thinks better of it, turns around and returns) and Remy gets his entire rat clan to invade Gusteau’s kitchen and cook the big meal for Anton Ego on Remy’s direction, which makes the restaurant a success until the Paris health inspectors get wind that its kitchen is full of rats and shut it down … whereupon in the final scene Linguine, Colette and Remy are running an unassuming little bistro.

Ratatouille is a clever, charming movie — it’s nowhere near as good as Gay Purr-ee (to cite another animated movie set in Paris and playing off the city’s reputation for high culture and haute cuisine) and it certainly doesn’t have as good a voice actor as Judy Garland (though Peter O’Toole comes close, and I like the fact that Pixar — unlike its rivals — doesn’t feel the need to clog up the voice tracks of its films with major stars whether they’re suited to the roles or not) — and Brad Bird is a good enough director to side-step the overall repulsiveness of the film’s concept and make it reasonably entertaining. I can understand why so many people are such intense fans of Pixar’s work, and if this is a fair representation their films are clever and engaging and the animation is quite impressive (even though, given my druthers, I’d prefer to see a traditional hand-drawn animated film to one of these computer things) and I’d like to see more of them; certainly the most recent one, Wall-E, probably “grabs” me more than most of them because it’s a science-fiction dystopia based on a socially conscious concept and managed, despite the potentially off-putting nature of that concept to a mass audience, to be an enormous hit just like everything else they’ve ever made.

Nothing Sacred (Selznick International, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The feature I ran us was Nothing Sacred, which I’d ordered not long ago on a public-domain DVD (the current print showing on TCM is probably a good deal better but this one was eminently watchable) and which was produced by David O. Selznick in 1937 as a vehicle for Carole Lombard and Fredric March. At the time Selznick’s business partner and chief financial backer was John Hay Whitney, who was also the board chair and a major investor in Technicolor — indeed, one of the reasons he bankrolled Selznick was in hopes that Selznick would make great films using the Technicolor process and that would convince other producers that even their more mundane productions could be gussied up in color for more audience appeal. This was a time in which it cost twice as much to make a film in color as it did in black-and-white, and so other producers mostly reserved color for big-budget spectaculars and (occasionally) musicals — or films like The Wizard of Oz that were both. Louis B. Mayer was cooler towards color than just about anyone else in Hollywood — that’s why only two of the eight Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy musicals are in color, why he actually tried to talk Selznick out of making Gone With the Wind in color and why MGM cinematographer William Daniels said late in life that his one professional frustration was that he never got to shoot Greta Garbo’s blue eyes in color.

Selznick went so far to prove that color could be an attraction even for straightforward stories with a contemporary setting that in 1937 he filmed The Prisoner of Zenda — exactly the sort of big-budget costume picture that seemingly cried out for color — in black-and-white, while making A Star Is Born and Nothing Sacred (both of which were contemporary stories and featured Fredric March in the male lead) in Technicolor. Nothing Sacred was directed (as was A Star Is Born) by William A. Wellman, but the real auteur (Schreiber theorists take note!) was its sole credited writer, Ben Hecht.

The film opens with a printed foreword (a Hecht trademark; later Selznick would use Hecht to write the title cards for Gone With the Wind and Portrait of Jennie even though he had nothing to do with the dialogue for those films) establishing New York as a city of swindlers, con artists and fakers even before the story proper begins. The film opens at a big banquet being given by Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly), editor-in-chief of the New York Morning Star, whose star reporter, Wallace Cook (Fredric March), dug up the Sultan of Mazipan (Troy Brown) and extracted from him a promise to help fund a 27-building arts and entertainment complex by pledging to match every $1 contributed by New Yorkers with $10 of his own — only his wife (Hattie McDaniel) and their kids crash the banquet and reveal that the supposed “Sultan” is really a bootblack from Grand Central Station.

Stone demotes Cook to the obituary desk, but Cook sees a chance to redeem himself when he reads a short item about Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a young woman in Warsaw, Connecticut — a company town for a firm that makes radium-numbered watches — who’s been diagnosed with radium poisoning by town doctor Enoch Downer (Charles Winninger, surprisingly restrained) and has expressed a wish to see New York in the few weeks she has left to live. After dealing with typically suspicious New England townspeople — whose whole vocabulary seems to consist of “yep” or “nope” and who are so suspicious of outsiders, especially New Yorkers, newspapermen or both, that in one of the film’s funniest scenes a kid from one of the local houses charges out of his front yard and, like a dog, actually bites Cook on the leg.

Flagg gets her trip to New York courtesy of the Star, but not before Dr. Downer calls her back to his office and tells her he misdiagnosed her and she’s not dying at all. From then on the story turns on the suspense of when and how Hazel will be revealed as a fake, while in the meantime she’s being built up into an enormous human-interest story, she’s getting the key to the city and a tour of all its nightclubs as well as its more sedate tourist attractions — and, of course, she and Cook complicate the issue by falling in love with each other.

Nothing Sacred isn’t as relentlessly paced as some of the other screwball comedies of the period, and despite the dramatic difference in the class positions of their female leads the story’s debt to It Happened One Night is all too clear — but it’s still a great film, and the story’s basic premise is sturdy enough that it got remade in 1955 as Living It Up, a vehicle for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, with Lewis in the Lombard role, Janet Leigh in the March role and Martin in the Winninger role, while Sig Ruman repeated his role as “Dr. Egilhoffer” — the same name Hecht and Charles MacArthur used for their incompetent psychiatrist in The Front Page — the Viennese specialist in radiation sickness who finally “outs” Hazel as not terminally ill at all and precipitates the third act.

Afraid that the whole “Hazel Flagg” story will go the way of the “Sultan of Mazipan” and the other fakes the Morning Star has promoted and their competitors have gleefully exposed, Stone and Cook decide to worm their way out of it by faking Hazel Flagg’s death — and the final scene shows Cook, Hazel and Dr. Downer on a South Seas cruise (with the sort of brilliant-orange sunset that recurs again and again in Selznick’s color movies, including Gone With the Wind and Duel in the Sun), with Hazel upbraiding a fellow passenger who thinks she looks like Hazel Flagg — “I don’t want to be compared to that fake!” she says in an outraged tone of voice, to which the woman who approached her responds, “Don’t say anything bad about Hazel Flagg, young woman! She faced her death with great courage” — and Hazel then worries about being recognized when they get back to New York, while Cook assures her that by the time they return she’ll have been totally forgotten, which sends Hazel into one of those marvelously comic hissy-fits Carole Lombard played so well. It’s a nice movie to begin with and Hecht’s cynicism about the news business seems all too modern even though some of the story dates badly — newspapers may be dying but the manufactured “news event” lives and thrives all too well!

The Flying Serpent (PRC, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Flying Serpent — which I used as a sort of cinematic hors d’oeuvre since it only ran about an hour and is a film I’ve long been curious about — is a sub-“B” production from PRC in 1945 (released 1946) but one with a quirky appeal. It’s basically yet another reworking of The Devil Bat — this time with the reworking done by the Devil Bat’s screenwriter, John T. Neville — with George Zucco instead of Bela Lugosi as the principal villain and a flying reptile from Aztec Mexico replacing the artificially enlarged bat as the monster.

Zucco plays a mad anthropologist (an interesting off-take of the mad laboratory scientist who usually figured in these melodramas) named Andrew Forbes, who has moved to the small town of San Juan, New Mexico to be near the ancient village of Azteca — a quite good model (at least by PRC standards) of a village literally built into a hillside, integrated into the background with perfectly credible process work (not that surprising given that the inventor of the process screen, Eugen Schuftan, had worked “under the table” for PRC earlier in the 1940’s) —where he’s stumbled on the legendary lost treasure of Aztec emperor Montezuma, which was deposited in a temple the Aztecs had abandoned earlier when they moved into the Valley of Mexico but fled to after the Spaniards drove them out of their capital and destroyed it.

The posted Quetzalcoatl (a name the actors in this movie annoyingly pronounce “KET-zul-co-AAH-tul” instead of the correct “KET-zul-kwa-tul”), who in this rendition of the legend is a half-reptile, half-bird with strikingly beautiful feathers, to guard the treasure and keep robbers from scoring any of it — and the beast has somehow lived on to this day. Forbes discovered the hard way that Quetzalcoatl will kill anyone who handles one of its feathers when his wife was killed by the thing years before; now he’s using this knowledge to eliminate his enemies by planting Quetzalcoatl’s feathers on them the way Bela Lugosi’s character in The Devil Bat attracted his monster to his enemies by having them use a special aftershave. (These may be the only two movies in cinema history where the monster needs a co-factor.)

The plot swings into action when Forbes’ daughter — or is she only his stepdaughter? John Neville is clearly undecided on that point, though she has his last name — Mary (Hope Kramer) arrives in San Juan to visit him, and finds him put out that a family friend, John Lambert (James Metcalfe), has published an article in an obscure ornithological magazine suggesting that an Aztec winged creature might still survive in the local ruins. Forbes plants a Quetzalcoatl feather in Lambert’s home and Lambert, finding it, drives out to Azteca and thereby puts himself in harm’s way of the monster — who proves reasonably credible for a PRC creation; he’s obviously being moved on a wire and can’t move his neck or make any other motions that would make it credible as a living being, but his half-reptile, half-bird appearance is surprisingly believable — triggering an investigation by radio crime reporter Richard Thorpe (Ralph Lewis) who reports from the XOR network in New York City (though with its Mexican-style call letters it would have made more sense for XOR to be a cross-border station with its studio in San Juan and its transmitter across the border) and travels to San Juan to try to solve the crime.

Forbes uses Quetzalcoatl to kill the town sheriff (Henry Hall) and another ornithologist (Wheaton Chambers) whom Thorpe has recruited to be an expert commentator on his program; he tries to kill Thorpe, Thorpe’s sound man “Jonesy” (better-than-usual comic-relief character actor Eddie Acuff) and his assistant Bennett (Terry Frost), but, knowing what they’re up against, they hide behind a grating while the bird flaps helplessly trying to get to them. Eventually Forbes tries to kill his own daughter after she realizes he’s the killer and threatens to report him, but in the end of course it’s Forbes who is the bird’s final victim, idiotically clutching one of its feathers as he tries to flee — and Thorpe shoots the thing down after it’s killed Forbes and thus ends the monster.

It’s not much of a movie and you do get the feeling you’ve seen it all before, but the scenes of the monster in its cage — shown exclusively in shadow, with only a fleetingly glimpsed head and a sound of rattlesnake-type rattles on the soundtrack (had someone at PRC watched some of the Val Lewton movies?) — are genuinely sinister and Zucco’s performance, while hardly as appealingly florid as Lugosi would have been in the role, is appropriately bitchy and mean; he’s the sort of actor who can look scary as all get-out even when he’s doing something as mundane as driving his car between San Juan and Azteca (and his car is an appealing creamy white fastback Chevrolet even though Charles pointed out that no one who lived in the desert would buy a white car!), and though Forbes is a far lower-level schemer Zucco brings some of the quality to this role he’d displayed as Moriarty opposite Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes six years earlier.

Phantom Killer (Monogram, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I began the evening with Phantom Killer, an intriguing if rather predictable 1942 “B” from Monogram in which crusading associate district attorney Ed Clark (Dick Purcell) becomes convinced that well-known philanthropist John G. Harrison (John Hamilton) is a murderer because executives with finance companies have a way of turning up dead whenever he visits the city where they live to dedicate a new project he’s funded. Clark has two problems trying to prove this: Harrison is a deaf mute who communicates with his manservant in sign language (a relative novelty in a media depiction of a deaf person this early) and with everybody else by reading lips, whereas the witnesses who place him at the scenes of his various crimes always insist that they heard him speak; and whenever the killings are committed he’s always in front of a crowd of thousands doing the dedications.

It’s not hard to guess how he pulls this off — there are actually two lookalike Harrisons, identical twins except one can hear and speak and the other can’t, and the public Harrison (the deaf one) lives in a palatial mansion (at least as palatial as the Monogram production-design department could make it on the available budget) with a grand piano dominating its living room. The trick is that if you hit the topmost key of this piano (the key that most fascinated me when I was growing up because it’s the one white key that’s totally rectangular, without any cut-out to accommodate one or two black keys to its side), a secret door opens and reveals the room whereby one Harrison hides out when the other is running either mundane or deadly errands.

The best aspect of the film is the Nick-and-Nora-ish by-play between Clark and his fiancée, newspaper reporter Barbara “Babs” Mason (Joan Woodbury, who’s nowhere near as effective here as she was in Paper Bullets, a.k.a. Gangs, Inc. but still does spunky and plucky exceptionally well), who through much of the film is so convinced Harrison is innocent she’s even willing to meet him at his home repeatedly and interview him for a proposed biography. The film is a remake of a 1933 production of first-iteration Monogram, The Sphinx, with Lionel Atwill in the dual role of the villain(s), and that one would probably be better but Phantom Killer has its own quirky appeal even though the mystery itself is pretty irrelevant.

Oddly, though lists a running time of 61 minutes for this film, the DVD we were watching (a 3-films-on-1-disc set from Retromedia Entertainment with two other mystery/suspense films with “Phantom” in their titles, Phantom of Chinatown and Phantom on 42nd Street) ran only 54 minutes —and what’s more, it had the Monogram credit on the opening card crudely blacked out and replaced with a “Motion Pictures for Television, Inc. Presents” credit — leading me to believe that the film was cut down to 54 minutes for TV release so it could fit into a one-hour time slot and still leave room for commercials. The cut appears to have come from the very beginning of the movie, since there’s a jarring transition from the credits to the opening scene (at least the opening we have), in which members of the D.A.’s office are discussing the latest murder.

Also curious is how claustrophobic this movie is — it’s already 42 minutes old before we see any outdoor scenes (I couldn’t help wondering if the filmmakers, director William Beaudine and writer Karl Brown, had actually included a dramatization of the initial murder in the sequence that the Motion Pictures for Television, Inc. people cut, which would have got the film off to a much better start than the one we have!), and how Mantan Moreland is billed fifth even though he’s only in the picture for a couple of minutes — as Clark’s eyewitness to Harrison’s presence at the murder, in which he helps blow the prosecution’s case because under cross-examination he admits that the only reason why he wasn’t drunk on whiskey when he saw the murder was “that night I was only drinking gin!”

Strangler of the Swamp (PRC, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Later last night we watched a truly great movie — at least by the standards of ultra-low-budget production — Strangler of the Swamp, a 1945 PRC production written and directed by Frank Wisbar, a German expatriate who actually had a rather scanty résumé (nine films in Germany from 1932 to 1938, an early-TV short of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart in 1939, five independent features and some retakes on a film called The Mozart Story in the mid-1940’s, and eight features and four TV-movies after he returned to Germany in the mid-1950’s) but, on the basis of this film, had a real flair for Gothic atmosphere and making the best out of a low production budget.

Strangler of the Swamp was actually a remake of one of Wisbar’s German films, Fährmann Maria (1936), a doom-laden fable pitting the woman operator of a ferryboat against Death himself in a battle for the soul of a young wounded revolutionary she fell in love with while nursing him back to health and fending off Death’s efforts to claim him. For the U.S. audience the Death character became Douglas (Charles Middleton), a ferry operator who was framed for a murder he did not commit and hanged from a noose overlooking the swamp — and Joseph Hart (Frank Conlan — and yes, I was certainly flattered to be watching a movie featuring a namesake), a local power broker whose testimony was instrumental in Douglas’ conviction, insisted on leaving the noose hanging over the swamp to ward off evil omens. Naturally, this precaution is rendered totally inoperative; though he was hanged, Douglas has survived as a ghost and now haunts the swamp, periodically emerging from the mire and fog (PRC’s fog machines were working overtime on this one) to warn that he intends to keep killing members of the Hart and Sanders families, whom he blames for being set up and executed, until one of them sacrifices his or her own life and thereby liberates him from the curse and frees him to die.

Wisbar’s script — he both wrote and directed (though Leo McCarthy worked on the story with him and an uncredited Harold Erickson helped with the dialogue) — uses the word “sacrifice” so often it takes on a mythic significance (it helps to know that the German word for “sacrifice” is Opfer, with its cognate connotation of “offer,” and though I haven’t seen Fährmann Maria I presume that the word Opfer is equally prominent in its dialogue) and ties this film in to sources like the Flying Dutchman myth (especially as presented by Wagner in his opera) and the ending of Murnau’s vampire film Nosferatu, which grafted the obligation for a woman to sacrifice herself to rid the community of evil onto the basic plot of Dracula.

The woman is Maria Hart (Rosemary La Planche, granddaughter of Joseph Hart, who returns to the swamp country where she grew up and takes over granddad’s old job of running the ferry, which is actually a flatbed raft with no motive power of its own — not even oars or a boatpole. It’s moved along a rope suspended across the swamp, and the ferry driver has to pull along the rope to get the boat to travel — I found myself wondering what a long stint at this would do for Rosemary La Planche’s hands (we’re talking callus city here!) and thinking that, when the townspeople in the swamp community wonder audibly whether this job is really suitable for a woman, for once it comes across as genuine concern for her rather than the nervous-tic sexism common in movies of this period.

Strangler of the Swamp has a plot that doesn’t make much sense, even granting the supernatural assumption at its core, but rarely has that mattered less. Wisbar’s direction and James S. Brown’s cinematography are dark, atmospheric, maintaining a sinister aura even in purely expository daylight scenes involving the townspeople — who are drawn as a pretty rotten lot themselves, always sticking their noses in each other’s business and telling nasty stories about each other behind their backs. The Strangler is shown in dead-white makeup (the credit goes to Bud Westmore, who would later replace Jack P. Pierce at Universal and send Pierce to the salt mines of the “B”’s) and in some scenes strategically placed shadows blot him out altogether. There’s one chilling shot in which only his face looms up from an inky black mass, blacker than the night scene in which all this is taking place.

Art director Edward C. Jewell’s sets are one of the last gasps of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari style, Wisbar and Jewell having absorbed the lesson of Robert Wiene and Hermann Warm: if you don’t have the money to build genuinely realistic sets, turn that into an advantage and make your sets flamboyantly unreal. Tom Weaver, in his book Poverty Row Horrors!, does a surprising amount of sniping at the cult following Strangler has attracted — at one point he writes, “Note to budding film historians: When an American director makes a movie on cheap sets like these, they’re just cheap sets. When a foreign director does it, it’s stylization.” Yeah — and when one watches a film like The Mad Monster, made at PRC four years earlier and also a movie set in a cheaply reproduced swamp, an American director like Sam Newfield proves utterly unable to use the cheapness of his sets and the attempts at atmospherics of his cinematographer, Jack Greenhalgh, to anywhere near the effect Wisbar and Brown achieve in Strangler.

There’s enough wince-inducing dialogue to give any hardened “B”-movie watcher an unpleasant feeling of familiarity, but the visuals are so stunning — particularly the opening, in which the nude (at least it looks nude; the actor was probably wearing a body stocking but it’s still a surprising, to say the least, image for a 1940’s U.S. film) body of the Strangler’s latest victim is dragged out of the swamp; the aforementioned shot of the Strangler’s face; the mangled bit of metal that serves, when struck by a stick, as the bell with which local residents summon the ferry; and a heartbreakingly beautiful scene towards the end of the ferry, now sunken, listing halfway in and halfway out of the swamp water — that for once the clunky dialogue doesn’t matter. Brown’s camera moves quite a lot in the nighttime scenes in the swamp (less so in the daylight expository scenes, where it’s not so important) and the atmospherics draw us into the action and help us accept the unreal plot and even its final resolution — in which Maria Hart makes her Senta-like sacrifice, offering herself to the Strangler, and instead of having to have sex and/or die with him, she’s able by the mere offer to make him disappear (dead for real at long last) and to revive her dying boyfriend, Chris Sanders (Blake Edwards), son of the sheriff (Robert Barrat) who had built the case against Douglas and therefore was on his shit list along with Joseph Hart — who, a written confession he left to be opened after his death reveals, really committed the murder for which Douglas was hanged.

The acting of Strangler is less impressive than its visual stylistics, but Rosemary La Planche proves (as she did later in the atrocious Devil Bat’s Daughter) that she could have turned into a quality actress if she’d been given more lessons (her “normal” dialogue sounds like the work of someone just starting out in drama school) and a more careful buildup at a major studio instead of signing with PRC and being plunged into leads right away; her delivery of her final address to the Strangler — “Give up the fight! Leave vengeance to the Almighty! Make peace with Him!” — is genuinely impressive and certainly a lot more moving than Tom Conway’s clunky delivery of the Lord’s Prayer to put the Satanists in their place in Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (though Lewton’s film as a whole is far better than Strangler, benefiting from subtler direction and a major-studio infrastructure as well as an urban rather than a rural setting).

Charles Middleton, one of the most impressive character actors of the 1930’s and 1940’s (he’s best known as Emperor Ming in the Flash Gordon serials and the sadistic commandant in both of Laurel and Hardy’s French Foreign Legion spoofs, Beau Hunks and The Flying Deuces, though he’s also marvelous in a sympathetic role in the 1943 Batman serial), plays the Strangler as a gaunt figure of menace and mostly lets Wisbar’s and Brown’s visuals do his acting for him, though when he speaks (which Weaver thought was a mistake) he’s convincing in the nearly impossible task of convincing us he’s addressing the other characters from the Great Beyond. Blake Edwards is a competent leading man, though he offers nothing here that would lead us to question the wisdom of his subsequent career change to writing and, ultimately, direction (and his presence here puts Rosemary La Planche one degree of separation from Peter Sellers!), and frankly the bad guy who gets the hots for Maria and tries to rape her (Chris Drake) is at least marginally sexier than the good guy who loves her.

William K. Everson, whose rave about Strangler in his book Classics of the Horror Film was probably the start of this film’s cult reputation, was honest about its limits — “Make no mistake about it, Strangler of the Swamp is a Grade ‘B’ movie, and not an unsung masterpiece” — but within the limits of PRC production this is a fine movie, reaching to Old World mythologies and thereby getting far more of an intellectual and emotional basis than most of the Grade “B” horror films of the day, and proving Wisbar the equal of fellow European expats like Edgar G. Ulmer and Robert Florey in getting the most out of a “B” budget. One could readily imagine Strangler being even better if Wisbar had got to shoot it at a major studio, especially if he’d had a producer of Lewton’s sensitivity guiding him and making the film even more shadowy and atmospheric than it is, but as it is it’s a deeply felt personal project (he did write the script as well as direct, and it was based on a story idea he’d written and directed before) and surprisingly well done for a PRC film. Indeed, the biggest mystery was why and how, just a few months after finishing Strangler, the same studio, director and star went on to make something as dull and utterly useless as Devil Bat’s Daughter!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Salomé (Metropolitan Opera, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Metropolitan Opera’s October 11, 2008 performance of Richard Strauss’s Salomé was originally shown live in movie theatres (the Met’s latest gimmick to boost the audiences for opera in general and their company in particular) and then shown later on the national PBS network and still later on the San Diego outlet, KPBS, which as usual ghettoizes cultural programming either to the wee hours of the morning or (in this case) to Sunday at noon. I thought Charles would be interested in this because he’s a great devotée of Oscar Wilde, a British author of Irish descent who wrote the play Salomé in French (which I’ve read in Lord Alfred Douglas’s English translation), on which Hedwig Lachmann based her German-language libretto which Strauss set as an opera (got that? I know it’s confusing).

John Culshaw, who produced one of the most famous audio recordings of Salomé — the 1961 Vienna Philharmonic performance with Birgit Nilsson in the title role and Georg Solti conducting — wrote in his book Putting the Record Straight, “I have always believed that Salomé should be played for what it is — a piece of sensual grand Guignol. It has no catharsis. It would be even more depraved than it is had Strauss been able to make a noble figure out of John the Baptist, but he emerges as a rather tiresome creature, who does not even attempt to outwit his seductress.” There are a lot of aspects of this production about which I could nit-pick: designer Jürgen Flimm decided to do it in modern dress, the Herod of Kim Begley (a boy named Kim) comes off looking like a low-level bureaucrat in a cream-colored suit rather than a man who, though subject to the ultimate authority of Rome, is mostly an absolute dictator of his little kingdom, and the Salomé, Karita Mattila, looks appropriately depraved but is all too obviously well beyond her teen years and comes off more like a world-weary and all too experienced street hooker rather than the sick little prick-tease, fascinated with her own sexuality and just how far she can push it to get men to do what she wants, that Wilde wrote.

Also, I must say I’d imagined the famous Dance of the Seven Veils with Salomé performing solo, with just Herod, Herodias and a few of the courtiers looking on, whereas Flimm stages it as a Weimar-era cabaret number with Mattila beginning it in a Dietrichesque male-style suit and flirting with a retinue of chorus boys as Strauss’s music (which has been criticized as cheap and tawdry but which seems to me to reflect the cheap, tawdry situation perfectly; it’s Salomé’s cheapness and tawdriness, not Strauss’s) winds on, with Mattila ultimately doffing her jacket and shirt with her back to the audience but, when she turns around, strategically thrusting up her arms to conceal her breasts from public view. (I’ve long dreamed of a production in which the soprano will not only strip totally naked but, at the climax — in both senses of the word — of her final scene will stick the severed end of John the Baptist’s head against her crotch and masturbate with it. Of course, this would require a sufficiently good-looking soprano that you’d want to see her naked; as radiant as her audio-only recording of this opera was, Montserrat Caballé need not have applied!)

But whatever might have been wrong with his production — including the rather odd appearance of an almost-naked Black man who is the executioner of John the Baptist (and who is the only member of the dramatis personae clad in period costume — which in this modern-dress context only makes him look like he was on his way to a costume party and got lost) and who also approaches Salomé with sword raised at the end (he’s obviously carrying out Herod’s order to kill her but we don’t see him do so, even within the self-evident limits of stage fakery; both Charles and I noticed immediately that they weren’t having two members of Herod’s guard crush Salomé between their shields, the exit Wilde specified for her) — at least Flimm got the overall tone right. He’s aware that Salomé has no catharsis and he’s not going even to hint at one — and in Mattila he’s got a singer who delivers the vocal goods and plays Salomé as the bored psychopath Wilde wrote.

Ildikó Komlósi matches her as an implacable, politically ambitious Herodias, willing to suborn her husband’s lust for her daughter to achieve a political end (the execution of John the Baptist) she wants and he doesn’t. Juha Uusitalo is O.K. as John — it’s really a pretty nothing role — and though I wish opera producers would go for the extra cachet (and expense) of casting Herod as the real heldentenor part Strauss wrote, Begley is at least better than the character tenors we usually get — and Joseph Kaiser’s Narraboth (the young soldier who admires Salomé and kills himself for her, to which she responds by kicking his dead body) is as blank as he needs to be for the character’s naïveté to be credible.

It’s also amusing that despite all the cutting Lachmann had to do to get the play down to a tolerable length for an opera, and the awkwardness of having to translate from Wilde’s schoolboy French to singable German, some of Wilde’s witticisms still come through — and certainly his cynicism towards organized religion and all the Victorian virtues is evident, which is why John the Baptist (“Jokanaan,” as he’s called here, pronounced “yo-KAHN-uh-ahn”) comes off as a holy idiot instead of a righteous martyr. Charles noted Strauss’s debt to Wagner early on — in his early years Strauss was actually jokingly called “Richard the Second,” and during the rehearsals for his first opera Guntram, when he criticized the sloppy way the orchestra was playing a particular passage, one of the musicians told him, “Nothing personal, Herr Strauss. We don’t get that part right in Tristan either.”

It’s interesting that the music for Jokanaan is more “Wagnerian” than any other part of the score — Strauss apparently got the idea that Siegfried-like French horn calls and sonorous Wagner-tuba parts would convey that, if not exactly a sympathetic character, this guy is supposed to be at least a marginally better specimen of humanity than anyone else in the piece. The Met Salomé was a good example of a modern opera production that might have altered the original letter of the piece (though it was a bit silly when Herod lamented the heaviness of his crown — and he wasn’t wearing one) but was at least faithful to its spirit, even though its spirit is a very cynical view of human psychology, spirituality and sexuality (not that I mind that!).

Little Caesar (Warners/First National, 1930/31)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The more “serious” movie we ran was Little Caesar, which I hadn’t seen in years and which turned out to be pretty good in retrospect, even though some of it seems more like a beta version of the faster, flashier Warners gangster vehicles to come. The absence of a music score, though typical of a 1930 talkie, seems especially jarring given that later Warners would become famous for deploying its music more loudly and relentlessly than any other studio. Little Caesar is best known as the film that made Edward G. Robinson a star, though it was neither his first film for Warners (in “First National” drag) nor his first gangster role — both took place in his immediately preceding film, The Widow from Chicago, an Alice White vehicle in which he played a Prohibition-era beer baron.

Robinson would play variations on this part — the snarling, almost bestial psycho killer whose very blood-lust threatened his subtler, more restrained comrades in organized crime — for at least 18 years, until Key Largo, and after originally being offered a small supporting role, Otero (eventually played by George E. Stone), Robinson insisted on being cast as Rico. He saw the film as a rags-to-riches tale — and given that the Depression was in full swing when this movie was made, it’s interesting that the plot directly reflects the only two avenues of upward mobility Hollywood was willing to acknowledge: entertainment and crime. Rico rises from a small-time hood eating in cheap roadside diners to head of organized crime in a major city — only to fall again and end up in a flophouse, from which he emerges only to get shot to death — while his partner, Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), leaves the rackets to become a professional dancer, teaming with Olga Stassoff (Glenda Farrell in her film debut — and, curiously, her Russian accent comes and goes; I kept waiting for an explanation that she was really an American pretending to be Russian for publicity purposes, but none came) and ultimately rising from the nightclub circuit to co-star in a Broadway revue (Rico dies under a billboard advertising their show). Robinson saw a commonality between Rico’s struggle and his own, even though he worked his way up through entertainment instead of crime.

There is a weirdly monstrous quality about Rico that may reflect the screenwriter, Francis Edward Faragoh, who worked on Frankenstein the next year; though Rico isn’t a “man-made monster” in the literal spliced-together-from-corpses sense, he’s depicted much the way the Frankenstein monster is in the later film, as a menace of almost other-worldly malevolence, approaching the camera in series of ever-closer close-ups as he registers menace and virtually uncontainable rage. The other quirk about this film that struck me last night that I hadn’t noticed before about it is the homoerotic subtext between Rico and Joe; not only does Rico’s downfall come when he refuses to kill Joe and thereby proves himself “yellow” in the eyes of his fellow mobsters, but the confrontation scene between them before then is played as a battle between two lovers breaking up, with Rico coming off as intensely jealous and hurt that Joe is not only abandoning the rackets for such a “sissy” career as dancing, but he’s abandoning him for a female partner. It’s one of those weird little byways that in a modern movie either wouldn’t exist at all or would be hammered home with intense obviousness, but in a film this old is thrown in casually, readily ignorable by less sophisticated filmgoers but there to be picked up by a viewer with the subtlety and human understanding to appreciate it.

Bullets or Ballots (Warners/First National, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I got up and watched a movie on Turner Classic Movies, Bullets or Ballots, a 1936 vehicle for Edward G. Robinson (playing “Johnny Blake,” a New York police detective who went undercover to infiltrate the rackets and smash them — based on a real-life detective named Johnny Broderick who did the same thing), directed by William Keighley (whose last name I had no idea how to pronounce until I heard a broadcast recording of a Lux Radio Theatre he hosted and the announcer introduced him by pronouncing his last name “Keeley”) and co-starring Joan Blondell (as the white girl who, according to the version of history contained in this script by Seton Miller and Martin Mooney, actually invented the numbers racket — which she ran while performing as a singer in a cabaret; it looks like Miller and/or Mooney had been to see Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps) and Humphrey Bogart (as a trigger-happy thug who commits the only on-screen murders and is the one person in the gang who actually catches on to the fact that Robinson is really an undercover cop).

It’s a measure of what Warner Brothers thought of Bogart at the time that he’s billed fourth — after Robinson, Blondell and Barton MacLane as the CEO of the rackets (he takes his orders from the mysterious “big guys” above him — who turn out to be the directors of the Oceanic Bank, moonlighting in crime on the side!) — ironic to anyone who’s seen The Maltese Falcon, made five years later with Bogart top-billed and MacLane way down in the cast list as one of the two police officers who harass Sam Spade. Robinson remembers this one in his autobiography as the movie whose smashing success enabled him to negotiate a super-contract with Warners that gave him the money to pay for his burgeoning art collection — aside from that, it’s a tight-knit Warners melodrama (I’ve always admired the simplicity of the solution they came up with when the Robinson and Cagney gangster pictures were criticized by the Legion of Decency — keep using these actors in crime stories but just switch them to the right side of the law!) that illustrates the truth of the joke both Robinson and Bogart made about how in the 1930’s, when Robinson was a star and Bogart a supporting player, Bogart had to die in the next-to-last reel and Robinson died in the last reel; later, in the 1940’s, it was Robinson who had to die and Bogart got to live!— 4/2/98


The night before I’d run the film I recorded on the same disc as Little Caesar: Bullets or Ballots, a film Robinson made six years later, after the Legion of Decency and the Production Code crackdown and after Jack Warner and Hal Wallis responded to the criticisms of films like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy for allegedly “glorifying” crime by taking their stars, Robinson and James Cagney, and putting them in crime films where they played people on the right side of the law: Cagney as an FBI agent in G-Men and Robinson, in Bullets or Ballots, as New York police detective Johnny Blake (based on real-life cop Johnny Broderick), who ostensibly gets himself “fired” from the force and seemingly switches sides to hire on to the gang led by Al Kruger (Barton MacLane) and “Bugs” Fenner (Humphrey Bogart).

Only, as we suspect all along and the film soon tells us, it’s a ruse: by being cashiered out of the police force so spectacularly and publicly (after throwing a fake punch at the new police commissioner at a public cabaret owned by a gangland associate), he seeks to convince the gangsters that he’s burned his bridges with the police so he’ll be more believable when he claims he’s changed sides. (Warners used this plot gimmick quite a few times since, including at least two World War II melodramas: Across the Pacific, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart in his subsequent good-guy career; and Desperate Journey, with Errol Flynn.) Blake also has a quirky relationship with Lee Morgan (Joan Blondell) — and yes, it is jarring to see a white female character with the same name as a subsequently famous Black male jazz trumpeter — who owns the cabaret where he mock-punched out the police commissioner and who also took over the numbers racket from her Black maid, Nellie LaFleur (Louise Beavers) — where there seems to be some degree of mutual attraction (though, as in Little Caesar, none of the gangsters seem to have any romantic or sexual relationships) — only to have her control of it threatened in turn by Kruger and Fenner.

In any event, Bullets or Ballots is a surprisingly dull film, ineptly directed by William Keighley (a far cry from the rapid, energetic direction Mervyn LeRoy brought to Little Caesar, including some oblique camera angles and a few shots with ceilings over a decade before Orson Welles supposedly became the first director to show ceilings in Citizen Kane) and decently but not especially thrillingly scripted by Seton I. Miller from a story co-written by Miller and Martin Mooney, a Chicago crime reporter who once went to jail rather than identify his sources (as Richard Serrano and Judith Miller would later) and who achieved sufficient fame for that stand that the original trailer for Bullets or Ballots actually advertised the film as “Written by Martin Mooney — The Man Who Wouldn’t Talk!”

The best part of the film is its ending, a two-person shoot-out between Robinson and Bogart in which they mortally wound each other (thereby dispatching Johnny Blake more permanently than his real-life counterpart, Johnny Broderick, who lived long enough to write a book about his experiences) and a quite engaging death scene for Robinson on the floor of Morgan’s cabaret in which he and the police commissioner forgive each other — it’s nowhere near as powerful as the “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” line at the end of Little Caesar but it’s still well written and well acted by Robinson, who remembered Bullets or Ballots as the movie that was such an enormous hit that he was able to renegotiate his Warners contract for much more money and the right of story and script approval, as well as an “out” clause allowing him to make one film a year elsewhere. — 1/19/09

Pod People (Altura Films, 1983)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had the idea to play a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode first and then something more substantial later. The Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode I played was one from 1991 called Pod People, which from the title I was expecting would be a cheap ripoff of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It probably would have been a better movie if it had been! Instead it was a badly dubbed, ridiculously edited whiplash-inducing mess of a movie dealing with poachers in a forest, a pop-rock group with a ridiculously arrogant lead singer who is juggling affairs with at least two women, a former poacher turned forest ranger, his wife and their kids, including a typically obnoxious movie kid who befriends an extraterrestrial who looks like a cross between the one on the TV series ALF (a comparison which did not escape the MST3K gang, needless to say!) and the old two-legged elephant mascot of the San Francisco Zoo.

The gimmick is that the alien is running around killing people, and for some reason imprinting seven bright white dots on its victims’ foreheads that make them look like astronomical maps of the Big Dipper. The kid insists that the alien is nice and friendly, and that it’s another alien of the same species that arrived on the same spaceship that’s doing the killings — and it’s not at all clear from the way the picture is edited whether there are two aliens or just the one. What made this movie particularly risible is the sheer speed with which it intercuts between seemingly unrelated plot lines, and the absolute lack of anything remotely resembling continuity — it turned out to be a Franco-Spanish production from 1983 called The New Extraterrestrials (and it’s pretty obvious where they got the idea of a “cute” E.T. that befriends a child!) — which makes the film seems positively post-modern.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Devil Bat (PRC, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had just received the copy of Devil Bat’s Daughter (no definite article at the beginning of the title) I’d ordered from and decided to double-bill it with the original The Devil Bat (that movie begins with “The”!) and see how the two films worked together. There’s no doubt that the original The Devil Bat is far superior; it’s better written, better directed, has a plot that (within the admittedly loose conventions of science-fiction) actually makes sense, and above all it has Bela Lugosi in full cry as the star.

It begins with a quirky written foreword — “All Heathville loved Paul Carruthers, their kindly village doctor. No one suspected that in his home laboratory on a hillside overlooking the magnificent estate of Martin Heath, the doctor found time to conduct certain private experiments — weird, terrifying experiments” — and while it’s even harder to believe that any set of townspeople, even the usual dolts that inhabit small towns in “B” movies, could have ever thought of Bela Lugosi as “kindly” and lovable than it is to believe that a Lugosi character could have as blandly Anglo a name as “Paul Carruthers,” this movie (written by John Thomas Neville from an “original” story by George Bricker) manages for a low-budget Lugosi vehicle to work pretty well.

After the foreword it begins in medias res, with Lugosi in a secret laboratory (behind two secret doors!) applying electrical energy to a bat suspended upside-down in a wire rack hanging from his ceiling. He’s already blown up the bat to about twice its normal size and now he’s making it even bigger (an effect which PRC’s special-effects people seem to have achieved simply by making a balloon of a bat and filling it with air on camera) so he can turn it into a murder machine. The people he means to murder are his employers, Martin Heath (Edward Mortimer) and Henry Morton (Guy Usher), and all the members of their families, and his gripe with them is that years before they bought a formula for a cold cream from him, paid him $10,000 and used their profits to built a cosmetics company that has made them both millionaires. When he’s tried to complain about this in the normal fashion he’s received patronizing lectures — “You’re a dreamer, and too much money is bad for dreamers” — and token payments like the $5,000 bonus Heath and Morton offer him at the beginning of the film.

So he’s worked out a way to make his giant bat ultra-sensitive to a rare Tibetan scent he’s incorporated in a new shaving lotion he’s developed, and he gives experimental samples of this stuff to everyone he wants to off; once they’re outside, he lets out the devil bat (oddly, he opens the attic window of his lab and each time he does so a number of normal-sized bats — which we haven’t seen at any other point in the film — fly out and then the Devil Bat follows them) and the bat, attracted to the scent of the lotion on the soft, fleshy part of the neck, dive-bombs its prey and takes out whoever is next on Lugosi’s list of people who never will be missed. It’s an obvious attempt to tap into the Dracula iconography — Lugosi, the bat, the puncture wounds to the neck and the loss of the victim’s blood — even though the story is science-fiction and not fantasy.

PRC’s fabled cheapness is much in evidence — they shot the devil-bat in action once and then reused that footage throughout the film wherever it was needed — and there’s an interestingly ironic sequence in which the two Chicago Register reporters on the trail of the killer, Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien) and his photographer “One Shot” McGuire (Donald Kerr), rig up their own stuffed bat on wires to fake a picture of the “Devil Bat” in action: the joke being that their attempt is probably as sophisticated as the “real” work of the PRC effects crew behind the scenes staging the “real” bat attacks. (At the same time, as Charles and I joked to each other, in a modern movie the killer bats would be unconvincing digital creations instead of unconvincing models moved on wires.)

But director Jean Yarborough (a boy named Jean, a native of Marianna, Arkansas who started as a prop man in the silent days and worked up first to assistant director and then to director) keeps it moving quickly, O’Brien and Kerr are quite a bit more appealing than the usual “B” horror leads and comic-relief roles (Kerr actually sounds at times like he’s heard of dry wit, a foreign concept to most of the comic-relief players in Hollywood at the time), the reporters-feuding-with-their-irascible-editor bits (though hackneyed) add to the energy level, and above all it has Lugosi, playing a character with a more understandable motivation than usual (he may be a psycho killer, but at least he’s targeting people who genuinely wronged him rather than picking folks out of the blue, and he’s acting from recognizable human motives rather than a mad desire to rule the world), appearing in surprisingly few scenes (my guess is that “B” producers kept down Lugosi’s footage because they didn’t want to wait for him to learn too much dialogue phonetically — he never learned more than the simplest English and always memorized his scripts phonetically — though actor Gene O’Donnell told Tom Weaver that “the less [Lugosi] had to say, the happier he was,” so maybe he anticipated Steve McQueen in his insistence that he was a more powerful screen presence reacting than acting) but still dominating the picture.

The print we were watching — the one TCM showed on Hallowe’en as part of an unusually quirky horror marathon — was by far the best I’ve ever seen on this film: though there were a few white specks on some frames (probably the result of dust on the negative when the source print was struck), the movie was otherwise quite good photographically, doing full justice to Arthur Martinelli’s cinematography (rivaling George Robinson’s at Universal for atmosphere despite the cheapness of the sets he had to photograph — one really quirky trademark of PRC was that virtually all their interior sets had ornate and horribly ugly wallpaper), and the sound was also clear, bright and quite listenable — while the bits and pieces of stock music David Chudnow put together for a score generally work quite well except for one cue (the Devil Bat beating itself, Dracula-like, against the window of the heroine, Mary Heath, played by Suzanne Kaaren with a quiet dignity that should have marked her for biggers and betters), in which Chudnow uses an agitato action-horror theme instead of something slower and more suspenseful. All in all, The Devil Bat is a surprisingly good movie, not a world-beater (and not at the level of Murders in the Rue Morgue or White Zombie as a Lugosi vehicle) but made with real talent and flair, an enjoyable 68-minute time-filler even if it’s lost its power to scare.

Devil Bat’s Daughter (PRC, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Devil Bat was such a success for PRC (even though they let Lugosi get away to Monogram for a series of nine films that, save for the 1942 Bowery at Midnight, sank to a level of desperate wretchedness that would mark most of the rest of Lugosi’s career) that they recycled the plot twice — in 1942 for The Mad Monster (Glenn Strange as a werewolf created as a super-weapon by mad scientist George Zucco) and in 1945 for The Flying Serpent (Zucco as a mad archaeologist who unearths the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl while on a dig in Mexico and sets it out to kill his enemies by planting its feathers on them) — and also did a direct sequel, Devil Bat’s Daughter, in 1946.

My copy of this film was from a company called Image Entertainment, but after the physical glories of the print of The Devil Bat this one was quite disappointing: the picture was grainy and the sound was uncomfortably distorted, just like what we’re all too used to in public-domain material. What’s more, the film is terrible — and not terrible in a campy, unwittingly entertaining way (like the Ed Wood movies), but simply dull. Screenwriter Griffin Jay couldn’t have been bothered with maintaining continuity with the film he was supposedly writing a sequel to — the name of the town has changed from Heathville to “Wardsley,” its location has moved from the Midwest to upstate New York, and in the most audacious stroke of all he writes in a bit of dialogue claiming that Dr. Paul Carruthers was innocent of the murders in the original film (“one hopes that no theatre ever double-billed the two films,” Tom Weaver wrote in his book Poverty Row Horrors!) — but that’s the least of the problems with Devil Bat’s Daughter.

An unknown woman is found one night wandering the streets of Wardsley in an attempt to get to the home of the late Dr. Paul Carruthers — which hasn’t been lived in, or even cleaned, since Carruthers’ death at the end of The Devil Bat, though someone must have been there immediately afterwards since the place contains an old newspaper with the banner headline announcing Carruthers’ demise — and she turns out to be Nina MacCarron (Rosemary LaPlanche, Miss America for 1941), whose mother was Scottish and whose father was, you guessed it, Dr. Paul Carruthers — though they broke up shortly after she was born and she grew up in Scotland with her mom and used her mom’s rather than her dad’s name. Freaked out by the sight of the old headline announcing her dad’s death, she goes into shock and is cared for by Dr. Elliot (Nolan Leary), who seems to have been Dr. Carruthers’ replacement as the kindly village doctor of Wardsley, née Heathville. Thinking that the case is beyond him, Dr. Elliot enlists the assistance of New York psychiatrist Dr. Clifton Morris (Michael Hale), who moves Nina into his house.

The film then turns into a cheap and abysmally dull reworking of Gaslight, as Nina is subjected to various abuses — including being given a magically disappearing tonic (several times she’s presented a glass of this stuff and freaks out when she wakes and the glass is either empty or half-empty even though she has no memory of ever having drunk it) and also being slipped a dream-inducing drug that gives her the impression of turning into a bat and flying through the air at night with her father, also a bat, as her companion. (This is represented by clips from The Devil Bat distorted to look like they were filmed through a TV screen coated with Vaseline.) The idea behind all this is to convince Nina that her dad was a vampire and she’s inherited his blood-lust, but — as we begin to suspect long before the end — the real villain is Dr. Morris, who midway through the movie kills his wife Ellen (Molly Lamont) so he can be with his mistress Myra (Monica Mars) and sets Nina up to take the fall.

The good guy who unravels the truth is Ellen’s son (presumably by a previous marriage), Ted Masters (John James), who makes his first entrance in a military uniform (signaling to 1946 audiences that he just got back from serving in World War II and therefore must be a good guy) and falls in love with Nina; determined to prove her innocence and spare her the indignity of being hauled into court and charged with vampirism as well as murder, he figures out the whole thing and there’s a final confrontation that’s only moderately less boring than the rest of the movie, in which Morris is killed trying to flee and our two lovebirds end up together. Tom Weaver’s withering assessment of Devil Bat’s Daughter in Poverty Row Horrors! is decidedly unfair to Rosemary LaPlanche — whose “normal” scenes are a bit stiff but who’s utterly convincing as a woman being driven mad and unsure of her own sanity (she even tosses off lines like, “Bats! Bats! My father!” and “I used to dream of [my father] as a bat, and I would be flying beside him,” as if they made sense) — but he’s right-on about the rest of the movie, and in particular about the surprisingly dull direction of Frank Wisbar.

A German expatriate, Wisbar has acquired a cult reputation for the film he did at PRC immediately before this one, Strangler of the Swamp (a remake of a film he’d made in German called Führmann Maria), and he actually gets in a few shots with a sense of the noir-ish atmosphere pioneered by the top German filmmakers of the Weimar era, but for the most part the talky script, played out mostly in dialogue scenes and all too often with the heroine in bed (apparently no one thought to warn these people that a film which mostly shows its central character asleep would be likely to have the same effect on an audience), utterly defeats him — and after the relative appeal of Dave O’Brien in The Devil Bat, John James hews closer to the usual run of PRC leading men: homely, effeminate and possessed of little or nothing in the way of acting skills. In the previous four years PRC’s producers at least had the excuse that all the good actors were away fighting World War II (the real one, not the phony one they’d actually let a nerd like John James near!) — that’s how mini-talents like John Carroll and James Craig got plum roles at MGM as wanna-be Clark Gables — but now that the war was over they no longer had that pretext for casting an actor this lame, in what was admittedly a pretty lame vehicle anyway.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Big Gamble (RKO-Pathé, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I got home in time for me to run us an intriguing movie I’d recorded that morning on TCM: The Big Gamble, a 1932 film from the short-lived combination of RKO and Pathé (David O. Selznick combined the two studios into one during his year-long tenure as RKO production head, and later bought Pathé’s actual physical plant and made it Selznick International) made from a novel called The Iron Chalice by Octavus Roy Cohen (a white writer who usually wrote about Blacks, which makes me wonder if this story were originally about Blacks and RKO reworked it with a white cast) with one of the most provocative premises ever put forth for a movie.

Gambler Alan Beckwith (William Boyd, best known as Hopalong Cassidy and surprisingly good in a modern-dress role) reaches New Year’s Eve totally disillusioned with life — the fact that he’s broke and owes $7,500 to two people, $2,500 to a former servant and $5,000 to sinister fellow gambler Andrew North (Warner Oland) isn’t helping, but his world-weariness goes further than that — and so he confronts North at Markstein’s restaurant on the last night of the year and offers him a macabre proposition. Beckwith will take out a life-insurance policy, name North as his beneficiary, and then kill himself, thereby settling his debts and exiting a life he no longer wants. North insists that the policy be for $100,000 and informs Beckwith that the only way the insurance company will pay is if he lives for at least a year and a day after he takes it out and if he doesn’t actually commit suicide. North offers to support Beckwith for the required period, says he’ll hire a hit man to murder him at the end of it, and to preserve his own plausible deniability insists that Beckwith’s wife be the pro-forma beneficiary. When Beckwith protests that he doesn’t have a wife, North supplies him with one: Beverly Ames (Dorothy Sebastian), who’s forced to go along with North’s scheme because her brother Johnny (William Collier, Jr.) is also on the hook to North.

The opening scene promises a movie of real distinction, as director Fred Niblo and cinematographer Hal Mohr shoot some marvelous proto-noir atmosphere shots of Beckwith approaching and entering Markstein’s. Alas, despite some first-rate acting by the leads and also by James Gleason (more restrained than usual) and ZaSu Pitts (a first-rate dramatic actress, as she proved in an incandescent performance in Stroheim’s Greed, whom Hollywood wasted in one ditzy comic role after another) as a comic-relief couple — he’s North’s marvelously incompetent would-be hit man and she’s the newlyweds’ maid — The Big Gamble largely fails to live up to the potential of its wild story premise. Most of Niblo’s direction is surprisingly stodgy — if you ever wondered why someone who’d helmed such prestigious silents as the Douglas Fairbanks Three Musketeers, Valentino’s Blood and Sand and the 1926 Ben-Hur didn’t make it that far into the sound era, his disappointing work here, particularly the long pauses between the actors’ cue lines and their own (an annoying feature of many early talkies from 1928 and 1929 but one most directors had grown beyond by 1931), makes it clear — and those few proto-noir compositions aside, most of Mohr’s work is visually plain and far more straightforward than what this story needed.

Also, as finely honed as the leads are (Dorothy Sebastian in particular is an actress who should have had more of a career than she did — she was the female lead in Buster Keaton’s last silent film, Spite Marriage, and played a superb villainess in MGM’s early-talkie thriller The Unholy Night), some of the supporting performances are rather dubious. William Collier, Jr. is way too queeny as brother Johnny — when he falls in love, sort of, with hard-bitten blonde Mae Robbins (a marvelous performance by June MacCloy anticipating the style of Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell at Warners) it’s all too clear who’s going to be wearing the pants in that family — and, though he’s playing a character with an Anglo name, Warner Oland inexplicably not only wears his Charlie Chan makeup but even speaks in his Charlie Chan voice. In the opening scene at Markstein’s I joked that the waiter would be saying, “Good evening, Mr. Ch- — I mean, Mr. North.” The Big Gamble was apparently a remake of a 1926 silent called Red Dice, but it hasn’t been filmed since — which is something of a surprise since one would think the basic story (though with the tragic ending it demanded instead of the “happy” cop-out ending it actually got here) would have made a perfect film noir and an ideal vehicle for Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum as the male lead (and — who else? — Sydney Greenstreet as North).

Monday, January 12, 2009

Doctor Atomic (Metropolitan Opera, 11/8/08)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show I picked last night was Doctor Atomic, the latest opera by John Adams with libretto by Peter Sellars (with quite a lot of help from various poets: Charles Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser, John Donne and the authors of the Bhagavad-Gita, all of whom were particular favorites of the operas central characters, J. Robert Oppenheimer and his wife). The opera is set in Los Alamos, New Mexico during the last few days before the Trinity atomic bomb test of 1945, and it’s an intriguing if not altogether successful attempt to dramatize the internal conflicts within and between the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, particularly Oppenheimer (baritone Gerald Finley) and Edward Teller (bass Richard Paul Fink — actually quite an appropriate name for someone playing Teller, given what he did to Oppenheimer after the war!).

It’s a powerful theme for a drama and one that can’t help but make an effect, even though you’ll be somewhat at sea during this opera if you don’t know at least some of the basic trivia about the Manhattan Project and in particular about the physical and engineering problems involved in designing the world’s first atomic weapon — and it probably would have helped if you’d been familiar with the poems Sellars was drawing on for his text (virtually every piece in the work that even remotely resembles an aria was drawn from the Oppenheimers’ extensive reading list). Doctor Atomic was filmed in the Met’s production on November 8, 2008 and shown on PBS late last year — though the San Diego outlet pre-empted it from its Monday night time slot on the rest of the network and ghettoized it to Sunday, January 4 at noon (the shabby way they usually treat cultural programming!) — and it’s apparently a quite different mounting from the production Sellars did himself for the world premiere in San Francisco (and the review of the DVD of the Sellars production in the current American Record Guide suggests that the original might actually be more powerful).

The biggest problem with Doctor Atomic is that there’s simply no reason why these people need to be singing instead of speaking. Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes and Billy Budd remain my touchstones for opera-in-English (i.e., operas written by composers whose native language is English and therefore designed to be sung in it, rather than the God-awful disasters most attempts to do foreign-language operas in English translation end up being). John Adams’ music is “effective” — it sets the mood well and presents the words intelligibly (the Met supplied English subtitles but they really weren’t needed except during a few of the choral parts) — but it really isn’t all that operatic. One could imagine this score working just as well as instrumental background for a spoken play (or a film) based on this history and these characters. The music doesn’t really characterize the people involved the way Britten’s (or Mozart’s, or Verdi’s, or Wagner’s) did.

Much of what does work about the piece lies in the interrelationships of the characters, notably Oppenheimer and Teller — especially Teller, who’s presented as kind of a grand contrarian, audibly worked that the possible side effect of the bomb could be to ignite the atmosphere itself and wipe out either just New Mexico or the entire world (he comes off here as more liberal than Oppenheimer, especially in his concern over using the bomb on a civilian target, which is quite surprising for anyone who knows the sequel — which was that Teller reported Oppenheimer to the government for his reluctance to build a hydrogen bomb and lobbied to get Oppenheimer’s security clearance withdrawn, thereby shutting out the main inventor of the first nuclear weapon from any further work on U.S. nukes — which itself would make a fascinating basis for an opera in case Adams and Sellars want to do a sequel to Doctor Atomic!).

Penny Woolcock’s production was effective, stylized (as the piece would virtually require!) but not annoyingly so, with the scientists cooped up in cages at the back of the stage from which they emerge to comment on or participate in the action, and a front-curtain display before the opera begins of the periodic table of the elements — though one thing Sellars did in his production that Woolcock didn’t was begin with actual photos of the devastation of the first atomic attack on Hiroshima, which would have made the final theatrical coup — a woman speaking in Japanese (the first time we’ve heard any language other than English all night!) and asking where her husband is — less arbitrary and more effective.

Doctor Atomic works almost in spite of itself — the basic story is a strong one, the sense that one is witnessing the death of one world and the beginning of another at least as compelling as it is in Götterdämmerung (though for cosmic eloquence Adams’ music is several orders of magnitude down from Wagner’s!), and the suspense at the end as the various characters reflect while waiting for the Trinity test to detonate is palpable (and I quite liked the touch of having the test occur in a rainstorm, as if the scientists are thumbing their noses at nature and proclaiming themselves to be capable of unleashing at least as great a storm as nature can!), though the test itself is a disappointment: just a few strobe-like flashes of white light across an otherwise dark stage, It’s surprising that a production that otherwise made effective use of projected film footage did not use the actual atomic-bomb films here; the situation cried out for it!

Africa Screams (Nassour/United Artists, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Ironically, the night before last we had run a “B,” an Abbott and Costello comedy from 1949 called Africa Screams, which is actually quite an amusing movie, though it was made under truly independent auspices — the producer was Edward Nassour, shooting at his own studio (where he built pretty obvious but still relatively convincing African “exteriors” inside his soundstages); Huntington Hartford (the A&P heir who died early last year and ran through virtually his entire fortune as a philanthropist to various art projects, almost all of them more high-falutin’ than this!) was also an investor; and though the producers got Charles Barton to direct (he’d already handled several of the Abbott and Costello vehicles at their home studio, Universal), this still seems like a strangely unambitious project for them to do right after their big comeback film, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. (Actually, another Universal project — Mexican Hayride, a Cole Porter musical on Broadway inexplicably shorn of its songs in the film adaptation — came between the two films.)

The opening is utterly hilarious: Lou Costello, in full safari drag — pith helmet and all — and saddled with the delightfully ridiculous character name “Stanley Livington” (perhaps they removed the “s” from the last name so that none of Livingston’s real-life heirs would sue!), is cracking the whip in full lion-tamer style, only the beast he’s trying to “tame” gets away and we see it’s only a normal house cat. Livington and Buzz Johnson (Bud Abbott) work in the jungle-books section of a department store and the MacGuffin is an old, out-of-print book called Dark Safari which contained a map leading to a diamond field in central Africa which will make its discoverer fabulously rich. Livington claims to be able to draw the map from memory, and villainess Diana Emerson (Hillary Brooke, doing the same sinister, oily characterization she did in the Rathbone-Bruce Holmes film The Woman in Green and playing her part totally straight) wants to get it from him, first by sending two thugs (played by real-life brothers Max and Buddy Baer — and yes, there’s a joke about Max Baer’s former career as a boxer and heavyweight contender) to get it from him, while she’s simultaneously making him an offer directly. When Buzz keeps Livington from revealing the secret, Emerson recruits them for her safari — only Livington’s “map” was merely one he recalled drawing himself to show him the way to get to the department store where he worked.

Emerson has hired Clyde Beatty (playing himself) to guide her safari, telling him she’s looking for Orangutan gigantea, a 20-foot ape; he captures several wild animals, and there’s a great scene in which Livington gets Buzz to put on a lion costume so he can look like a lion tamer, but of course Buzz doesn’t get into the cage where this demonstration is supposed to happen and a real lion faces Livington instead. Also in the cast is Beatty’s rival real-life animal trainer, Frank Buck, whom Our Heroes run into running his own safari down the block from theirs; aside from their unique marquee value, one suspects Beatty and Buck were also engaged because the script called for a lot of tame animals to interact with the principals; though there are a few bits of stock footage, this is not one of those cheapie jungle movies that tried to suggest a safari with little or no newly shot live-animal footage at all.

Leonard Maltin’s book Movie Comedy Teams said that Africa Screams, “despite a good supporting cast, was strictly standard” — but that didn’t keep it from being quite amusing, even though some of the sequences (notably one in which Our Heroes are captured by cannibals and prepared to be that night’s main dish) were done better in the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies. The film is even a “doubles” movie in a really quirky way, since it includes Shemp Howard (as “Gunner,” a myopic hunter who’s supposed to protect Livington with his gun but in fact is incapable even of pointing the gun in the right direction!) and Joe Besser (in a surprisingly queeny characterization), who replaced Shemp in the Three Stooges on Shemp’s death in 1955. There’s also a quite nice worm-turning ending in which Costello ends up dominant over Abbott — not the way their films generally turned out, but Abbott tormented Costello so unmercifully throughout most of their career it’s nice that at least once it went the other way!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Troy (Warner Bros., 2004)

By Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided to run the DVD of Troy which we’d just bought because goodness knows when we’ll again have the time to run a 162-minute movie — and it turned out to be surprisingly good, flawed in a few particulars (notably in two key changes screenwriter David Benioff made in the original legend — more on that later) but overall a well-written, well-staged riff on Homer’s Iliad and other mythological sources (though director Wolfgang Petersen decided to eliminate the internal politics of Mount Olympus and how the shifting allegiances of the gods affected the outcome of the human war — mainly because he didn’t think modern audiences would buy this, and he was probably right even though it sacrifices a lot of the nuance in the story).

It’s certainly a far, far better movie than Helen of Troy, the 1956 “take” on the Trojan legends (also from Warner Bros.), even though the filmmakers seemed to be going out of their way to avoid the parallels to modern-day events the 1956 film made inadvertently: the way the Trojan War is depicted, it shows how even armies in this low-tech era anticipated modern advances in the ways of making war: both sides use artillery barrages to accomplish the purpose now served by machine-gun fire (pinning down the enemy and blocking a frontal attack by making the death toll from one unsustainable), and at one point Achilles (Brad Pitt) orders his private army, the Myrmidons (to whom he gives a pep talk which Benioff makes sound like a modern-day Marine commander similarly proclaiming the superiority of his service to the rest of his country’s forces) form their shields around each other and make an impenetrable phalanx with only an eye-slit for Achilles to see through and guide them: the Trojan War version of a tank.

But the parallels between the Trojan war and the U.S. invasion of Iraq — which came through purely by accident in the 1956 film (especially in the characterization of Nestor, the Greeks’ wise old advisor, as a prototype of Colin Powell, reluctantly but loyally going along with a war he personally — and rightly — considered stupid) — were deliberately muted in a film that started shooting about when the actual invasion of Iraq began and was released (to good but not spectacular box office) in the year of Bush’s re-election, 2004. Despite some modern aspects — like the all-too-typical past-is-brown cinematography of Roger Pratt and Paul Bond and the clear use of computer-generated imagery (“Is this the face that launched a thousand digital ships?” Charles inevitably joked at the sight of the CGI Greek armada sailing towards Troy), Troy has the look and feel of a 1950’s big-budget spectacular, including dialogue and situations (like the anachronistic belly dancers that entertain the Greek court) that tread on the thin edge of camp but somehow don’t go over.

It’s also surprisingly well acted and reasonably complex in its dramaturgy; instead of the Greeks-good, Trojans-bad parable I had expected, the script attempts to be fair to both sides. Benioff does particularly well with the character of Achilles, who’s drawn not as an unambiguous hero but as a prancing prima donna and a bit of a psychopath — certainly a reasonable reading from the original legends — and Petersen’s direction manages to suggest the horror of war, especially in an era in which most combat was still being done one-on-one at close range, without drowning the screen in blood and gore.

Where the film was somewhat disappointing was in the two major changes Benioff made from his legendary sources. Early on in the war (though the film claims inspiration from the Iliad, it’s 63 minutes into its 162-minute running time before we get to the situation — Achilles pouting in his tent and refusing to fight because his ego has been bruised — with which Homer opens, and the film still has 39 minutes to go after Achilles kills Hector, the incident that ended the Iliad) Paris challenges Menelaus to a personal duel to settle the affair between them over Helen and her affections. The duel starts, Menelaus wounds Paris and Paris runs away, literally clinging to the leg of his brother Hector, thereby dishonoring not only himself but the entire Trojan side — and Hector approaches Menelaus and stabs him with a dagger, killing him. In the legends, Menelaus survives the war and returns to Sparta with Helen.

And though the film avoids the mistake of Helen of Troy — which conflated Achilles killing Hector and Paris killing Achilles into the same battle — Benioff falls into another mistake when he keeps Achilles alive at the end, actually has him as one of the Greeks inside the Trojan Horse, and Paris shoots him with arrows not only in the heel but in the torso as well during the final confrontation once the Greeks have actually got inside Troy and are torching the city. (I suspect Petersen’s staging here was inspired by the final scene of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.)

I also found myself resentful that virtually all the strong roles for women in the original tale have been eliminated — the only significant female roles are Helen (Diane Kruger — director Petersen had originally not wanted to show Helen on-screen at all, rightly thinking no flesh-and-blood actress could possibly live up to audiences’ expectations for the face that launched a thousand ships, but his producers insisted that he cast the role and show her), Hector’s wife Andromache (Saffron Burrows) and Briseis (Rose Byrne), the virgin in the temple of Apollo who’s kidnapped when the Greeks raid the temple and who ends up as Achilles’ mistress. Troy’s king, Priam (Peter O’Toole, returning to war in the Middle East 42 years after Lawrence of Arabia), is a powerfully etched character, but his queen, Hecuba, is merely a silent extra sitting on the throne next to his; and the Trojan princesses, including Cassandra, aren’t depicted as characters at all: it is Paris who gets to deliver Cassandra’s warning to burn the Trojan Horse rather than to let it inside the city walls. I was also predictably upset that the Greeks were completely de-Gayed; Achilles still has hissy-fits over being torn away from his sexual escapades to go fight, but his sexual escapades here are exclusively with women (in the opening scene he’s pulled out of a tent after a night-long debauchery with two female partners); and while he’s still upset over the death of Patroclus in battle, in this reading Patroclus is his cousin and military protégé and nothing more.

Nonetheless, Troy is superbly staged — the action scenes, though occasionally betraying their computer-generated origins (notably when Achilles throws his spear much faster than anyone could in normal physical reality), are beautifully staged and legitimately exciting, and the acting is mostly first-rate (except for Diane Kruger, who’s nice-looking enough but utterly fails to create any air of mystery or fascination around her character; and Saffron Burrows, who can’t help but whine when Hector warns her that he may die in the war). Brad Pitt gets a few too many movie-star closeups in which he stares straight at the camera and flashes his baby-blue eyes the way Paul Newman used to, but aside from that he’s utterly convincing as the conflicted Achilles.

Eric Bana is properly tough and noble as Hector — who you get the impression would be a far more congenial dinner companion than the roughnecked Achilles — and Orlando Bloom as Paris looks enough like Bana that it’s believable that they are brothers and, without going to the queeny extremes of Jack Sernas in the same role in Helen of Troy, suggests that he’s weaker and softer but not altogether without the macho virtues. (After his humiliation at the hands of Menelaus, Paris practices with a bow and arrow — one commentator on this film noted that in the warfare of this period, archers were considered the weak sisters of the fighting force precisely because they didn’t have to come into direct physical contact with the enemy to kill them — but that isn’t made clear in the script itself and instead it comes across as if Paris is seeking to redeem himself by studying a form of combat in which he can excel.)

Indeed, the casting director, Lucinda Syson, deserves credit not only for Bana and Bloom but also for Brendan Gleeson as Menelaus and Brian Cox as his brother, Agamemnon; finding actors physically believable as siblings is hard enough and for this film Syson had to do it at least twice — and the Greek brothers are suitably tough and hard-bitten to be fully into their roles. There are no outright bad performances here; the actors manage the tough task of actually projecting themselves into a past period, instead of looking like they stopped at the movie location on their way to a costume party the way 1950’s actors like Robert Taylor and Tony Curtis tended to when they made similar films.

If you know the original story, Troy will occasionally frustrate but will mostly move; if you’re a “newbie” to the Trojan war it’ll come across as a tight-knit action film that will hook your attention and possibly lead you to the library to brush up on your Homer — but I still think Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel The Firebrand (a gynocentric, Trojan-“spun” take on the story in which Cassandra is the central character) would have made an even better basis for a Trojan War movie than the one we got here, and peculiarly Troy is weakest precisely where Helen of Troy was strongest: where the earlier film had a sweeping, expansive musical score by Max Steiner that was by far the best thing about this movie, this one has a serviceable but uninspired score by James Horner that replaced one by Gabriel Yared which the “suits” at Warners rejected as too “old-fashioned” (because it sounded too much like Steiner’s? We may never know!). — 1/9/09

And for comparison’s sake, here are my comments on the 1956 film Helen of Troy:

I made the mistake of running Charles the 1956 film Helen of Troy, produced at Warners and directed by Robert Wise — who reportedly tested hundreds of beautiful young actresses in both the U.S. and Europe looking for the one to play the title character, on the theory that this would do for whoever was cast what the similarly competitive search for Scarlett O’Hara had done for Vivien Leigh. It didn’t; the actress they finally cast as Helen, Rossana Podesta (an Italian already under contract to the Lux film studio, whom they had to borrow her from and credit with supplying her), went on to a respectable but undistinguished career; while Brigitte Bardot, whom Wise tested for Helen but ultimately gave the lesser part of Cassandra, would shortly become a major international star. (Not that she’s all that good here; it’s true the writing staff didn’t give her much of a chance but she comes off as shrill and whiny, and she’s so unattractively costumed and made up she really doesn’t look all that beautiful; this film didn’t hurt her career but it probably didn’t help it any either.)

The big problem with Helen of Troy is the utterly silly script by John Twist and Hugh Gray (from an “adaptation” by Gray and N. Richard Nash, the latter a respectable writer with such credits as The Rainmaker and the Goldwyn film of Porgy and Bess), complete with some of the most risible dialogue any cast of actors has ever suffered through. The writers seemed to be motivated by a desire to show that it didn’t take Cecil B. DeMille to make a Cecil B. DeMille movie — just enough historical willfulness, enough of an urge to plunder legendary (and public-domain!) source material, enough utter indifference to the normal laws of human behavior and, of course, the requisite super-scale production with a cast of thousands (back in the days when one literally had to recruit a cast of thousands — you couldn’t do your anonymous hordes of extras digitally the way director Wolfgang Petersen and the others involved in the currently playing remake could) and enormous sets to give moviegoers the sheer visceral pleasure of bigness to take the place of intellectual integrity or emotional identification with the characters.

The actors don’t help; Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays King Priam, and the old British pro simply makes mincemeat out of the competition (the way George Sanders did as the Philistine king in de Mille’s Samson and Delilah and, according to the reviews I’ve seen, Peter O’Toole does as Priam in the current Troy) despite being saddled with a curled beard that makes him look like a lion in all the wrong ways. Podesta is decent-looking enough but she neither has the body, the face, nor the personality to make us believe hers was the face that launched a thousand ships (Marlowe’s famous line is naturally appropriated by Twist and Gray, and not surprisingly it’s by far the best bit of dialogue in the film!).

Her Paris, Jack Sernas, is a pretty-boy type who looks utterly ridiculous pretending to be a warrior — the script and his queeny performance combine to give us the distinct impression that he set out to seduce the Queen of Sparta just to convince his cousin Aeneas that he wasn’t Gay — though his prettiness and the sheer audacity of his miscasting (as well as the fact that he’s bare-chested in virtually all his scenes and I had a lot of fun looking at his smooth, hairless torso and nice nipples) combine to make a far greater impression (at least on this Gay male viewer) than his co-star. In this heavily pro-Trojan-spun version of the old tale (more on that later), Achilles is played by the great British actor Stanley Baker as a pissy prima donna with a thirst for glory and an egomania rivaling Donald Trump’s — nobody watching this film would be able to guess that 48 years later Brad Pitt would play this part in the remake, but on its own terms Baker’s Achilles is just fine except for the unspeakable dialogue he and everybody else in the cast is saddled with.

Indeed, all the Greeks are singularly unattractive — Niall MacGinniss as Menelaus looks like a Goodyear blimp stood on end (making it all too easy to understand why Helen jilts him for pretty little Paris), Robert Douglas as Agamemnon doesn’t look at all like Menelaus’s brother (any more than the fine character actor Harry Andrews as Hector looks like he’s any biological relation at all to Jack Sernas!) and doesn’t get enough help from the script to make much of an impression; likewise Torin Thatcher as Ulysses (the Roman version of Odysseus’s name is used here), though in the scene in which he suggests the Trojan-horse stratagem his years of experience playing oily villains stands him in good stead.

With a surprisingly no-name cast for a film produced with such splendiferous spectacle (Warners shot it at Cinecittá in Rome — also the home of MGM’s 1950’s spectacles Quo Vadis? and Ben-Hur) — and with Warners willing to license the rights to the CinemaScope trademark (though our print was panned-and-scanned except in the opening and closing credits) but not willing to spend the extra bucks for Technicolor (the cinematographer was Harry Stradling, widely acclaimed as a master of color, but not even he could get much out of the refractory “WarnerColor” — actually Eastmancolor — process), the real star of this film was composer Max Steiner. He actually contributed one of his best scores — quite worthy of comparison with the more highly-regarded Miklos Rosza’s scores for the MGM films mentioned above — whose epic sweep and (generally, except for one particularly jarring succession of cues) carefully managed transitions give the film far more dignity than the rancid script deserves. As I joked to Charles — thinking of Il Trovatore as I said it — this wasn’t the first time a great score dressed up a really stupid libretto!

The other noteworthy aspect of the film is the strongly pro-Trojan orientation of the storyline — this is not one of those histories written by the winners — indeed, to some extent the script of Helen of Troy, silly as it is, works surprisingly well as a metaphor for the Bush administration and its antics in Iraq. The Greeks openly and proudly declare their intention to launch a pre-emptive war against Troy; they reject Troy’s peace feelers (which is what Paris is doing in Sparta in the first place) out of hand; the moment they see a bit of the wreckage of Paris’s ship emblazoned with the Trojan royal eagle (which looks more like a Navajo blanket than anything else) they assume it’s the vanguard of a Trojan attack — they’re spooked about Trojan intentions because in this version of the tale they’ve already sacked Troy once before — and Nestor, the old wise man who tries to talk them out of the attack, gets treated like Colin Powell: ignored, shut out of the decision-making loop and ultimately persuaded to be a “good soldier” and sign on to a policy he knows will be disastrous.

That’s about the only good thing about Helen of Troy’s script, however; not only is the dialogue ridiculous but the film is so dramatically imbalanced that it’s almost half over before the Greek armada sets sail, and the action is so compressed that Achilles receives his fatal heel wound in the same battle in which he’s just killed Hector and is driving his chariot with Hector’s body tied to it in a circle in front of the Trojan walls. (Whatever the sequence of events may have been historically, there’s a reason the Greek and Roman chroniclers separated those events into two different battles.) Kudos belong to second-unit director Yakima Canutt and his cinematographers, Sid Hickox and Amerigo Gengarelli (it’s interesting to note the American first, British second and Italian third hierarchy in the way the jobs on this film were assigned), who did a lot of chariot chases that no doubt warmed them up for Ben-Hur (which also used Canutt as second-unit director) — indeed Canutt acquits himself better than the main director, Robert Wise, who does his best with the script he was saddled with and occasionally actually gets a slightly creative visual effect, though for the most part this film is just dully directed and it’s clear Wise was doing it for the paycheck and nothing else. — 6/15/04