Saturday, November 18, 2017

Conquest of Space (Paramount, 1954-55)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’ve screwed up my sleep schedule royally of later, this time staying up so I could record the 1955 movie Conquest of Space from the Sci-Fi Channel. It’s the fourth and last of George Pal’s cycle of science-fiction movies in the early 1950’s (following Destination Moon in 1950, When Worlds Collide in 1951 and The War of the Worlds in 1953) — and also by far the least of them in terms of quality. Based on a book by “astronomical artist” Chesley Bonestell and expatriate German rocket scientist Willy Ley (who had been one of the technical advisers on the very first major feature on space travel, Fritz Lang’s 1928 Woman in the Moon), Conquest of Space is gorgeous to look at — Paramount was still using three-strip Technicolor while other studios were abandoning it for cheaper but far inferior in-house processes, and Bonestell’s vivid matte paintings and designs (an art director is credited but it’s clear Bonestell was primarily responsible for the look of this film) give it a beautiful sheen even though there are some bizarre boners in his work (for example, it never occurred to him that a view from the Earth from outer space would show it mostly covered by clouds — which made the first actual photos of Earth from space highly disappointing to me when I saw them because they didn’t look like Bonestell’s paintings!). Alas, it’s really a terrible movie; without the work of a major novelist to draw on (as they’d had with Heinlein in Destination Moon, Wylie in When Worlds Collide and Wells in The War of the Worlds), Pal and his writers fell back on every tired old cliché from World War II movies, from the arrogant commanding officer who dragoons his son into his special operation to the ethnically mixed (all white[1] but from different Euro-American nationalities) crew, to animate this space opus. Add to that a no-name cast (the only actor whose name I recognized was Eric Fleming, who starred in the TV series Rawhide — his sidekick was the then-unknown Clint Eastwood) and what you ended up with was a movie that was technically impeccable and visually beautiful, but dramatically deserved to be on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. — 9/18/97

•••••

Last night’s Mars movie screening at Golden Hill (http://marsmovieguide.com/) featured a short about three astronauts who are sent on the first [hu]manned spaceflight to Mars but who crash-land and die from lack of oxygen; an episode of My Favorite Martian that was probably the funniest I’ve seen (it’s called “Rx for Martin” and deals with the Martian, played by Ray Walston, falling down stairs, spraining his ankle, ending up in the hospital and confounding the doctors since a Martian’s vital signs are so different from an Earthling’s); a rerun of a film shown on the proprietor’s “Vintage Sci-Fi” program two years earlier called World Without End which he wanted to re-screen because he’d previously shown it from an old VHS tape with washed-out color and no attempt to letterbox or pan-and-scan the image (instead the people doing the tape just put up what was in the middle of the screen, which led to a lot of half-people on either side) and now there’s a letterboxed DVD with a beautiful transfer that does justice to the rich, vibrant color scheme of the film (for my previous comments on World Without End see https://moviemagg.blogspot.com/2015/09/world-without-end-allied-artists-1956.html); and the co-feature, a film from George Pal’s sci-fi unit at Paramount called Conquest of Space. The Conquest of Space (the book uses the definite article; the film title does not) began life as a series of spectacular paintings of astronomical vistas by artist Chesley Bonestell, who in the 1940’s and 1950’s became known as the mainstream media’s go-to guy for what the rest of the solar system was likely to look like. My stepfather had a copy and I recall it as a large-format “coffee-table” book dominated by Bonestell’s glorious paintings with brief bits of explanatory non-fiction text by Willy Ley, who’d been one of the German rocket scientists under the Weimar Republic and later under the Nazis; he was an uncredited technical advisor on Fritz Lang’s 1928 film Woman on the Moon and, like credited technical advisor Dr. Hermann Oberth, was recruited by the U.S. after the war to work on our rocket program. 

George Pal was a Hungarian-born puppeteer who drifted into filmmaking after his original choice for a career, architecture, dried up during the Depression. In the early 1930’s he’d risen to be the head of the cartoon department at Berlin’s UFA Studios until the Nazi takeover forced him to flee, first to Prague and then to Eindhoven, The Netherlands, where he and his wife developed a series of stop-motion films using animated puppets. Paramount signed Pal to a producer’s contract and gave him a unit and the necessary equipment to produce what they called “Puppetoons,” one-reel shorts with animated puppets — the only one I’ve seen was The Perfume Suite from 1947, which featured Duke Ellington in live action interacting with a bunch of animated perfume bottles as Ellington and his orchestra played the first three movements of the suite that gave the film its title. In 1950 Pal wanted to branch out into features, so he bought the rights to several stories Robert A. Heinlein had written about humans’ first trip to the moon (which Heinlein, a Right-wing Libertarian politically, had envisioned being financed by private entrepreneurs because the government wouldn’t have the vision to fund it publicly) and developed them into a script, with Heinlein as one of the credited screenwriters as well, called Destination Moon. Paramount’s executives turned the project down because they didn’t think a film about travel to the moon would have an audience, so Pal took it to the independent Eagle-Lion company (formerly PRC) and made it there. It was an enormous hit, and by chance the theatre Eagle-Lion booked it into in New York was two blocks up from Paramount’s office building, so all the “suits” at Paramount got to watch the long lines of people waiting to pay to see the film they had turned down. 

They got the message and re-signed Pal to make more science-fiction films for them, and for his next project they gave him the rights to Philip Wylie’s 1932 novel When Worlds Collide, which they’d bought for Cecil B. DeMille but then canceled because they didn’t think there’d be enough of an audience for a science-fiction subject. When Worlds Collide was a hit and Pal’s next science-fiction film, a 1953 adaptation of H. G. Wells’ classic novel The War of the Worlds (ironically another project Paramount had bought decades earlier for DeMille!), was an even bigger hit. So in 1954 Pal and Byron Haskin, his director on The War of the Worlds, re-teamed for a film ostensibly based on the Bonestell-Ley book The Conquest of Space but actually a screen original by a writing committee. The film credits three writers with “adaptation” — Philip Yordan, Barré Lyndon and George Worthing Yates — and James O’Hanlon for the final script. What they did was basically shoehorn the multi-ethnic military unit that had been de rigueur in films made about and during World War II and stick them on a mission to space. The film begins on “The Wheel,” the giant space station designed and built by Col. Samuel T. Merritt (Walter Brooke) as a jumping-off point for a trip to the moon. A peculiar-looking spaceship is being built in space next to “The Wheel” by construction crews based there — like Arthur C. Clarke on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gene Roddenberry on the original Star Trek, the authors of Conquest of Space had posited that the spaceship would actually be built in space so it could fly to wherever it was going without having to contend with passing through earth’s atmosphere or escaping its gravity. The initial conflict of the film is set up between Col. Merritt and his son, Captain Barney Merritt (Eric Fleming, one of the great might-have-beens in cinema history; in the early 1960’s he did a TV series about cattle drives called Rawhide and got offered the lead in an early “spaghetti Western” called A Fistful of Dollars, only he turned it down and the producers instead went with the actor who’d played Fleming’s sidekick, “Pardner,” on Rawhide, a man named Clint Eastwood of whom you’ve no doubt heard since). 

Though participation in the space service was supposed to be strictly voluntary, Col. Merritt signed his son up for him without asking him first, and Capt. Merritt has asked for a transfer to Muroc Air Force Base (itself a legendary name in the early space program, as anyone who’s read Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff or seen the film based on it will know; it was out in the California desert and was later renamed Edwards, and it was where Frank Yeager first set off on the flight that would break the sound barrier and most of the other experimental X-plane flights took off from there as well) — only everything chances when the Merritts receive sealed orders that their spacecraft is not going to go to the moon after all, but to Mars. (There’s a neat bit of exposition before the “reveal” in which one of the Merritts asks why the ship has been equipped with wings, which wouldn’t be needed for flight over the airless moon but would be helpful if the ship went somewhere that has an atmosphere.) The Merritts assume command of a crew that includes Sgt. Imoto (Benson Fong — nearly a decade after World War II ended they were still casting Japanese characters with Chinese actors!), André Fodor (Ross Martin, in his first film) and Jackie “Brooklyn” Siegle (Phil Foster), along with Sgt. Mahoney (Mickey Shaughnessy), a long-time friend and aide to General Merritt (his promotion from Colonel was contained in those sealed orders) whose relationship to him is depicted in surprisingly homoerotic terms for a 1954 movie. (That’s the copyright date, though imdb.com dates it as 1955.) The trip to Mars goes reasonably well until an antenna on the spacecraft jams, cutting them off from radio contract with mission control on “The Wheel,” and during the extra-vehicular activity needed to repair it Fodor is lost in space and dies. This sends General Merritt bonkers; from a hard-nosed but relatively rational scientist he suddenly turns into a religious lunatic, raving about the Bible and how nothing in it gives man permission to explore space, and ultimately trying to sabotage the project by blowing up the ship once it reaches Mars. (The fact that the villain is motivated by religious fanaticism makes this unusual for a 1950’s sci-fi films; usually the religious people were the good guys and the scientists the bad guys, as in The Thing, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and all those other movies in which the scientists give up their lives in a desperate, foredoomed attempt to reason with the monster. This reflects the same institutional religiosity of the period that defined our Cold War enemy as not just “Communism” but “Godless Communism,” and in which the words “under God” were stuck into the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” was put on our money.) 

So Captain Merritt has to shoot and kill his own father to save the ship and the rest of the crew, and Sgt. Mahoney goes ballistic with anger and hurt, threatening to report the younger Merritt and get him court-martialed for killing the older one. But thanks to the older Merritt’s sabotage attempt, the crew has virtually no water to sustain them for the months they will have to remain on Mars until it and Earth are once again close enough in their orbits for the crew to return home — until they’re saved when an unexpected snowfall on Mars proves that the Red Planet has water after all. There are some weird bits in Conquest of Space — like the sudden cut from the science-fiction stuff to a big musical production number with an Arabian Nights theme, featuring Rosemary Clooney as a singing, dancing harem girl, that turns out to be a film screening on board the “Wheel” (the film is the 1953 Paramount production Here Comes the Girls) — but mostly it’s pretty straightforward 1950’s sci-fi. The character conflicts may be pretty simple, but just the fact that there are any makes this an unusual movie for the time. One odd and less positive aspect of Conquest of Space is that there are surprisingly few special-effects shots, and the ones there are don’t seem all that interesting: despite some quite illustrious names in the technical credits (the cinematographer is Lionel Lindon from the original King Kong and the head of the effects crew is John P. Fulton, the man who figured out how to make Claude Rains invisible), there are a few process shots with tell-tale black lines around the forward images, a sure sign of sloppy process work. Still, I was quite impressed by Conquest of Space: I’d seen it before on American Movie Classics back when that was still a movie channel, but this time around it came off considerably better, generally well produced and with a level of characterization in its people that, while not especially sophisticated, certainly set this above a lot of science-fiction films of its time. — 11/18/17


[1]  — Not so: see below.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Batman: The Movie (20th Century-Fox, William Dozier Productions, Greenlawn Productions, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Batman: The Movie, the 1966 film with the TV-show cast (and a thoroughly stupid plot involving a scheme to take over the world by turning the members of the U.N. Security Council into a glittery powder with the sinister “dehydration machine,” then rehydrating them). The campy conceits of this plot line were better done on the TV show, where you only had to watch them for half an hour at a time (at that length, they were funny!). Over feature-film length,the gags got a bit wearing after a while, and Adam West and Burt Ward looked merely tired through much of the film (West in particular seemed exhausted by the sheer effort involved in the attempt to pronounce this drivel as if it were meaningful dialogue), but on the whole, it was at least an entertaining movie, and the guys I screened it for seemed to like it. — 2/3/96

•••••


I went through the DVD backlog and brought out my copy of the 2001 DVD reissue of the 1966 film Batman: The Movie, thinking it would make an interesting comparison/contrast with the 1989 Batman I had screened us last Sunday. It certainly did: as the reviewer from imdb.com whose post came up with I downloaded their page on the film (with the oddly appropriate screen name “spikeopath”) said, “Remember when Batman was fun? Not a serious scene in sight, no tales of revenge or personal demons to burst from the screen in a day glow burst of thunder. For many of us who grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s this was the only Batman that mattered, pure unadulterated fun, all campy veneer and skin-tight Technicolor suits.” I’ve seen Batman: The Movie several times, first on TV in black-and-white (which is how I first saw the TV series as well, since I didn’t regularly have access to a color set until the early 1970’s), then on the VHS release (which, pack rat that I am, I still have) and now on this beautifully transferred, luminous DVD release. (It was put out when the DVD format itself was just three years old and it has a humorous promo at the beginning with the “suits” at 20th Century-Fox hailing the state-of-the-art excellence of the DVD format, which has since been displaced in the relentless pace of planned ultra-obsolescence of anything involving computer technology for consumers by Blu-Ray and now “4D UHD Blu-Ray”). The original plan of Batman: The Movie’s producer, William Dozier (who earlier had been the final studio head at RKO in its dog days in the mid-1950’s, during the three years between Howard Hughes’ sale of the company in 1955 and its going out of business in 1958, during which — as I’ve commented before — RKO seemed to be going through a sort of corporate post-traumatic stress disorder: maybe corporations are people after all!), was to release the property first as a feature film and then spin it off on TV. But the plans got changed when ABC, then the last and weakest of the three major TV networks, asked for the series to start as a mid-season replacement in January 1966. 

ABC, sucking hind tit with show producers and studios generally — so many shows on the network had such short runs the joke around Hollywood was, “You want to know how to end the Viet Nam War? Put it on ABC and it will be canceled in 13 weeks” — liked Dozier’s idea that each show would be run in two half-hour parts, with an old-style serial “cliffhanger” ending part one on Wednesday night and the second part shown the following Thursday. Batman debuted in January 1966 and became an immediate sensation; I remember watching the first episode with my mom, and about midway through episode one she suddenly declared, “It’s camp!” I’d never heard the term before — to me “camp” meant an outdoor facility to which parents sent their kids in the summer (not me, though; I never went to summer camp, just as I never joined the Boy Scouts) — but it was in the air: two years earlier Susan Sontag had published her famous essay, “Notes on Camp,” and while she’s been criticized for not acknowledging camp’s birth in the Queer community she did set the intellectual standard for defining and recognizing camp as something that at once exploited the cliché bank of a popular entertainment genre and spoofed it. Film historian William K. Everson argued that you couldn’t consciously create camp — he said the only real “camp” came from artifacts like “B” movies from studios like PRC and Monogram that were intended seriously but over the years acquired an unintended patina of humor through their ineptitude, both in physical production and the sheer manipulativeness with which their writers exploited the clichés — but that didn’t stop people from trying. 

Dozier actually hired competent people: to write the script for this movie and also for the TV show’s pilot he brought in Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (according to imdb.com, Semple wrote the first four episodes and also authored the “bible” given to the series’ later writers as a guide), a writer with previous credits on “serious” TV shows like Burke’s Law and The Rogues. As director he brought in Leslie Martinson, a serviceable hack who got the job done though without the élan Tim Burton would bring to his two Batmovies in 1989 and 1992. What made the 1960’s Batman TV show and this movie derived from it (which was made in 1966 after the first season of the TV show, released on June 30 and then put out in other countries ahead of the TV show so Dozier and his backers at Fox could sell other nations’ broadcasters on the concept) so much fun was precisely the element of ridicule: instead of looking for drama, social comment and even tragedy in superhero stories Dozier and Semple grabbed hold of the preposterousness of the whole concept of the masked, caped superhero and ran with it. Their camp approach extended to the villains as well — though the comic-book Batman fought conventional criminals as well as flamboyant super-villains, Dozier’s TV Batman went up against super-villains exclusively and became a prestigious guest opportunity for actors who wanted a chance to spoof their usual images on TV and reach a large audience doing so. Dozier perfectly cast Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as his sidekick Robin — in the comics Robin was originally a pre-pubescent boy (he was billed in his early appearances as “The Sensational New Character Find of 1940”!) who later grew up to be a teenager, but Ward played him as a young adult (he was depicted as a high-school student but was visibly in his early 20’s). 

I’ve blown hot and cold on who was the best movie Batman of all time — indeed I’ve made a case for Lewis Wilson, who played the Caped Crusader in the very first live-action Batmovie, the 1943 Columbia serial Batman (arguably the best serial ever made — the only serious competitors are 1934’s The Return of Chandu with Bela Lugosi in an unusually sympathetic role, and arguably the first Flash Gordon from 1936 — and directed by Lambert Hillyer, next to Burton the best director Batman’s ever had on screen), who looked more credible than anyone else has in the character’s alternate identity as millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and who also acted visibly weary after the big fight scenes, reminding the audience that Batman wasn’t a super-powered being but an ordinary human who had willed himself to be a superhero and had trained, both physically and intellectually, for the job. But Adam West was absolutely perfect casting for this version of Batman, bringing a stuffy self-righteousness to his portrayal — at one point he and Ward stop the action dead in its tracks to give a lecture on the need to support your local police, at a time when “Support Your Local Police” was one of the rallying cries of the ultra-Right John Birch Society, and in accordance with the series’ camp agenda you can read this either seriously or as a lampoon of the idea of supporting your local police whatever they do, including treating the Black community as if they were occupying hostile territory and thus sparking race riots. He and Ward have an infectious on-screen chemistry that makes up for the deficiencies in Dozier’s casting of the villains, on which he was batting .500. Burgess Meredith is unforgettable and absolutely brilliant as the Penguin, and Frank Gorshin (who’d previously been best known as a comic impressionist) surprisingly mobile and effective as the Riddler, but César Romero as the Joker is so offensively unfunny and stupid one wants to strangle him (in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns from 1992 Danny DeVito was similarly annoying as the Penguin and one of the great cultural tragedies of our time is that Meredith’s Penguin and Jack Nicholson’s definitive Joker never appeared in the same movie) and Lee Meriwether (whom, intriguingly, Adam West called “Lee Ann” in the interview he and Ward gave as a bonus item for the DVD) as the Catwoman is certainly good-looking enough for the role but doesn’t have the charisma of Dozier’s other two TV Catwomen, Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt. (West explains during the interview bonus that Newmar was off shooting the movie McKenna’s Gold and was thus unavailable for the Catwoman role in this film.) 

The plot of Batman: The Movie, in case you cared, was purely pretextual: Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny) of the Big Ben Distilleries in London has sailed his yacht across the Atlantic to offer a fearsome new invention to the authorities in Gotham City, only on his way over his yacht was waylaid and mysteriously made to disappear (Semple doesn’t stop the action long enough to tell us how) by the villains, who call themselves the “United Underworld” and plan to use the invention — a machine that sucks every bit of water out of the human body and leaves the person it’s used on a pile of colored sand — to take over the world. The Penguin has bought a submarine to stage this assault from, and there are quite a few action scenes as well as something out of a silent comedy, a famous sequence in which West as Batman tries to dispose of a bomb but can’t find a place to throw it without hitting innocent people — a Salvation Army band, a group of nuns, a family with kids and even a few ducks on the water. “Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb,” Batman says in a like Adam West claimed in his interview routinely got quoted back to him by fans; it seems like something Harold Lloyd would have done and is an oddly sophisticated moment in an otherwise pretty lowbrow movie. West agreed to do the role in the film as long as Semple rewrote the script to give him more screen time as Bruce Wayne rather than Batman — the plot features Catwoman disguised as a Russian journalist who attempts to seduce Bruce Wayne and then stage her own kidnapping so Batman will come to rescue her and the villains can capture him, and for some reason Our Hero never cottons to her impersonation even though she drops two big clues: she says the word “perfect” as “purr-fect” both as Russian journalist Kitka and as the Catwoman, and she pronounces the Russian word “steppes” as “steps” instead of the correct “styeppes,” a mistake a real Russian would not have made. Seen today, Batman: The Movie dazzles in its brilliant Technicolor (a reminder of the days when color films were actually colorful instead of shoehorning their color schemes into dank greens and browns the way they do today), unintentionally dated items like the then-high tech and now totally preposterous banks of computer equipment in the Batcave, and the overall insouciance of it all that does indeed bring us back to the days when superhero movies were fun and didn’t try to make their stories into deep, dark, depressing meditations on the human condition. — 11/15/17

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer (Thinkfactory Media/Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer, made in 2017 by a company called Thinkfactory Media and released on the Lifetime channel as part of their current, heavily promoted run of movies based on real-life stories. They kicked off this series October 28 with Flint, a superb portrayal of the sort of story Lifetime usually stays miles away from: the deliberate pollution of the water supply of Flint, Michigan by a state-appointed “emergency manager” who took over from the elected city government and, purely to save money, ordered Flint’s water source moved from the relatively clean Lake Huron to the heavily polluted Flint River — and the resulting deaths and poisonings of Flint residents, including children who suffered both physical illnesses and learning disabilities from the lead-tainted water. Though a bit hamstrung by its similarities to Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich — as if that’s the only way Hollywood knows how to depict ordinary women heroically mobilizing and standing up to some evil being perpetrated by the corporate-government complex — Flint was an amazing movie, vividly directed, stunningly acted and an intense condemnation of the whole calculus of capitalism that puts profit above people’s lives. Alas, after Flint Lifetime’s “true-life dramas” moved away from social comment and towards the kinds of sordid sex scandals Lifetime does best. Last week they ran The Lost Wife of Robert Durst (which I skipped because Charles was home that night and we ran the Blu-Ray of Wonder Woman instead), yet another Lifetime tale of a husband knocking off his wife out of jealousy, possessiveness, sheer spite or who knows why — a description that could apply to Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer as well. Oscar Pistorius (played in the Lifetime movie by Andreas Damm) was (is, actually) a white South African who lost both his legs when he was just 11 months old due to a genetic defect called fibular hemimelia (yet another one of the beautiful-sounding words the medical industry cooks up for utterly horrible conditions). 

Nonetheless, he became a student athlete and managed to work his way up to South Africa’s team for the Paralympics, the Olympic-style international competition for athletes with disabilities. After beginning as a rugby player and a wrestler, he took up competitive running in 2004 and, in addition to the prosthetic legs he used in normal life, he was fitted with a pair of blade-like metal legs for use in running competitions that earned him the nickname “The Blade Runner.” Then he challenged the international sporting-world bureaucracy for the right to compete against able-bodied athletes in the real Olympics — a case he won in 2008, though he didn’t actually make South Africa’s Olympics team until 2012. Though he didn’t medal, Pistorius did well enough that he became a South African superstar. The film covers the four months of his romantic relationship with Reeva Steenkamp (Toni Garrn, top-billed), an aspiring model whose career took her to Jamaica and other exotic locations well away from South Africa. Pistorius met her in October 2013 and within two months they were living together and planning to build their own house. Then on Valentine’s Day 2014 shots were heard from the home Pistorius and Steenkamp shared, and it turned out he had shot her. His defense was that he had thought he heard a prowler breaking into his home and had shot Reeva thinking she was the prowler. The script by Amber Benson is structured so that we see the crime both as Pistorius said it happened and as the police later became convinced it really went down: Pistorius, furious at Reeva because she had got tired of his neurotic possessiveness and was going to leave him that night, first fired a pellet from an air gun to warn her not to go, then put on his standard legs, grabbed a pistol and fired at her through a locked bathroom door. Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer was an O.K. movie, obviously treading traditional Lifetime tropes — nice young woman falls in love with a psycho madman who tries to control her life, spies on her through social media and a constant stream of texts, and ultimately kills her when she tries to exit the relationship — and even following the standard Lifetime cliché that the most attractive man in the cast list is the psycho killer. 

Though we’re left in suspense until close to the end as to whether we’re supposed to believe Pistorius deliberately killed Reeva or it was a terrible happenstance — the police finally decide it was premeditated based on the angle of the bullets from Pistorius’ gun, from which they deduce that he had put on his prosthetic legs before confronting the alleged “prowler” and therefore he had shown premeditation — Oscar Pistorius as depicted in Benson’s script and Norman Stone’s direction shows all the classic signs of the movie psycho, including not only buying himself a sports car but driving way too fast and terrorizing the two passengers we see him with (one of them Reeva, the other a journalist whom he gave a ride to while the journalist was there to interview him) that he’s going to lose control of the car and get them both killed. In one of the film’s nicest scenes from the beefcake point of view, he spots three shirtless men eyeing Reeva from across the swimming pool at the resort hotel where they’re staying and chews them out — indicating that he’s got a problem with jealousy even though he’s the one messing around, with his former girlfriend (whom we only hear about in the dialogue) as well as others who are texting or messaging him. About two-thirds of the way through the film cuts to the sequences of Pistorius’ trial — though we still get some flashbacks about the relationship he had with Reeva and the evidence that he was basically a human time bomb ready to go off at any moment — with Reeva’s mother June (Jean Alexander) sitting front and center in the courtroom and glaring at Oscar almost literally as if looks could kill. In some ways the Pistorius case was a sort of South African version of O. J. Simpson: another star athlete pathologically possessive of “his” woman, to the point of knocking her off rather than risking losing her to someone else. It was like the Simpson case also — at least, so this film strongly hints — in the relative leniency with which Pistorius was treated compared with others who might have committed a similar crime: though the prosecutors had charged him with murder, he was found guilty only of “culpable homicide” (which I presume is the South African equivalent of voluntary manslaughter) and sentenced to just five years in prison. (Incidentally the judge we see in the trial is a Black woman — proof that sometimes things do change for the better — though the actress playing the judge is sufficiently light-skinned, about former President Obama’s color, that it’s possible we were meant to read the judge as “colored,” i.e. mixed-race, and in the wacky world of apartheid the “colored” weren’t given the full status of whites but were more privileged and less oppressed than Blacks.) 

A series of post-film titles tells us that Pistorius’ prosecutors appealed the verdict, saying he should have been convicted of murder (a power American prosecutors don’t have), and the South African Supreme Court did indeed raise Pistorius’ conviction to murder but still gave him only a six-year sentence. What’s more, they allowed him to leave prison and serve his sentence under house arrest. The prosecutors have appealed again, but the final title tells us that if they lose the appeal Pistorius could be free as early as 2019. Had this been just another Lifetime movie without the added cachet of a real-life basis, Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer would have been pretty run-of-the-mill, well acted by the leads but with uninspired by-the-numbers direction and writing — though there’s a certain tragedy in the story (athlete who fights a battle with the authorities in his sport to be allowed to compete at all, thereby inspiring his country’s population and turning himself into a public hero, then loses it all over his temper and his psychotic possessiveness) that really pretty much falls through the cracks in the version we get here. Next week Lifetime is continuing the cycle of true-life movies with I Am Elizabeth Smart — the nice little mainstream Mormon girl who was kidnapped and held for nearly a year by a psycho who wanted, according to Joseph Smith’s original teachings, to make her his second wife — one which was already done by CBS as a TV-movie, The Elizabeth Smart Story, in 2013!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Batman (Warner Bros., Guber-Peters Company, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, 1989)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 1989 Batman movie holds up quite well, actually, though I still find the ending sequence weak; Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker has always seemed to me to be superb — an excellent example of an actor taking all the most offensive, insufferable characteristics of his style (the grin, the vulpine laugh and the general aura of in-your-face decadence that surrounds him and totally undoes his attempts to play heroes) and using them for a character for which they are totally appropriate (much the way James Mason did in playing a very different type of villain in North by Northwest). — 2/10/96

•••••

I had recently picked up a DVD at Best Buy in Mission Valley of what I still consider the greatest superhero movie ever made (at least the best of the ones I’ve seen, and I doubt the ones I haven’t seen would alter my opinion): the 1989 Tim Burton Batman, starring Jack Nicholson as the Joker and Michael Keaton as Batman. (I believe it’s the only Batman movie ever made in which the actor playing Batman does not get top billing.) I ran it last night because I thought it would be both interesting and fun after Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming to run the granddaddy of them all, the superhero blockbuster that more than any other film set the tone for the cycle of big-budget comic book-based films that we’ve been inundated with ever since, with ceaseless “reboots” of all the major franchises in a not always well-advised attempt to keep them “fresh.” (I still remember the umbrage I took when the producer of the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey, Jr. gave an interview in which he took credit for reviving an “outdated” character and making him relevant to today’s audiences; I like Sherlock Holmes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created him just fine, thank you, and I tend to judge modern Holmes adaptations largely by their fidelity to the spirit of Conan Doyle’s Holmes, even if they deviate from the letter.) Batman wasn’t the first big-budget superhero movie — that honor belongs to the 1978 Superman, first in the cycle of four featuring Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel (the last time Superman was properly cast: he was always drawn in the comics as taller and more robust than most people, and the original live-action Supermen, Kirk Alyn, George Reeves and Christopher Reeve, filled the bill, but ever since then the tendency has been to cast short, wiry actors as Superman: what a pity no one thought to make a Superman movie 20 years ago when Christopher Meloni would have been perfect for the role, both physically and in terms of characterization!) — but more than any other it set the model for the ones we’ve gotten since: a backdrop of severe urban decay against with the hero and his super-villain adversaries can shine. Though the Burton Batman was made in 1989, the Zeitgeist is that of the mid-1970’s, when New York City (the obvious model for the fictitious “Gotham City” in which the Batman comics took place, though given the penchant of Burton and production designer Anton Furst for dark, chiaroscuro backdrops, “Gothic City” would have been a better name for it!) was falling apart, the crime rate was sky-high, a rash of public employee strikes was breaking down the city government’s ability to provide services, and the bankers that held New York City’s debt responded essentially by taking over, forming what New York union leader Victor Gotbaum in 1975 called “a junta of bankers” which proceeded to run the place for the convenience of themselves and the inconvenience of everyone else, anticipating the results similar “emergency managers” would later impose on Flint, Michigan, Puerto Rico and Greece. There’s a story that when producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters (Barbra Streisand’s ex-lover, who had broken up with her right after they made the 1976 version of A Star Is Born together) brought Burton into the project, they told him, “We want it to be dark and gloomy. We don’t want to camp it up the way they did on the 1960’s Batman TV show” — and Burton protested, “But I liked the 1960’s Batman TV show!” 

What actually happened was that Burton and his writers, Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren (imagine! A superhero movie written by only two people! That would be unthinkable today; Spider-Man: Homecoming had no fewer than eight writers credited, and it looked it) managed to thread the needle, creating a dark, gloomy, Gothic cityscape but also supplying a lot of 1930’s-ish wisecracks for the characters (perhaps the best line is when Jack Nicholson as the Joker sees some of Batman’s tools in action, he says, “Just where does he get such wonderful toys?”) and intermingling images from the late 19th century, the 1920’s, the 1930’s, the 1950’s, the 1970’s and the 1980’s so thoroughly that during the robbery sequence at the Axis Chemical Company (a front for the crooks. led by Jack Palance’s Lee Grissom, that are secretly running Gotham City despite the best efforts of the mayor, the police commissioner and the district attorney to stop them — and naming the factory after the bad guys in World War II is just one of the many allusions that make this script unusually deep and rich for a superhero film) Charles proclaimed it a steampunk movie. A large part of this movie was clearly inspired by both the artistic and commercial sense of Ivan Reitman’s original 1984 Ghostbusters, which likewise took a bunch of comedians and set them loose over a dark, gloomy, Gothic cityscape — thereby making a film in which the comedy seemed even funnier from the contrast. Tim Burton had clearly been inspired big-time by Ghostbusters since his first major film was Beetlejuice, also with Michael Keaton, which flipped the central premise of Ghostbusters — instead of ghosts haunting people it was people haunting ghosts — and for Batman he managed to achieve a superb balance between the overall attitude of gloom and despair in the streets of Gotham City and the bizarre, sometimes campy doings of both Batman (Michael Keaton) and the Joker (Jack Nicholson, top-billed) in the foreground. Burton was helped by the cinematography of Roger Pratt and by the presence of two major rock musicians in his music department. 

One was Danny Elfman, former leader of Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (a mouthful of a band name later mercifully shortened just to “Oingo Boingo”), who’d already worked for Burton as an orchestral composer on Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice and here turned in a masterly score, combining sweeping Korngoldian action themes with deliberately sentimental music (like the romantic “waltz of death” to which the Joker forces Batman’s girlfriend Vicki Vale, played by Kim Basinger, to dance with him) — just about every composer who’s scored a big superhero film has had both Elfman’s work here and John Williams’ scores for the Christopher Reeve Superman movies as models. The other was Prince, who wrote an entire cycle of songs based on the Batman mythos and recorded them as an album, though only a few of them actually made it into the movie (the imdb.com “soundtrack credits” lists five but I only counted three, and one, “Scandalous,” is heard only over the closing credits) — one that isn’t used here, “Batdance,” became a surprising hit even though it was merely an instrumental reworking of Neal Hefti’s famous theme for the 1960’s Batman TV series. (As a result of meeting him on this film, Kim Basinger had a brief affair with Prince which she later said was one of the biggest mistakes of her life.) Another aspect of Batman that distinguishes it from more recent superhero films is that its plot is not only coherent but actually interesting; this is one superhero movie in which we don’t impatiently twiddle our thumbs waiting for the next big action scene. Gotham City is torn between its elected city government — the mayor (Lee Wallace), district attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams, yet another talented actor of color who was ill-used by Hollywood — two movies later in the cycle, in Batman Forever, the character would return but played by Tommy Lee Jones, and though the character was white in the comics it still seemed a retrograde step to take the role away from the excellent Black actor who played him here) and police commissioner James Gordon (Pat Hingle giving a more exasperated, less gentlemanly reading of the character than Neil Hamilton did in the 1960’s on TV), who promise to control the city’s criminal element in time for the scheduled festival commemorating Gotham City’s 200th anniversary; the criminal element, led by Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) until his crazy lieutenant, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), survives a setup — a robbery at a chemical plant that was supposed to knock him off by exposing him to lethal chemicals, only instead it turned his skin stark white, froze his face into a permanent grin Batman comics creator Bob Kane admitted he copped from Jack P. Pierce’s makeup for Conrad Veidt in the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs — and kills both Grissom and another gang member whom he literally fries to death with a specially rigged joy buzzer. (The image is a quite gross and grisly one, surprisingly so for a PG-13 movie.) 

Along the way to his final confrontation with Batman, the Joker manages to sneak contaminated beauty products onto the shelves of Gotham City’s supermarkets and chain drug stores (the mock commercial with which the Joker advertises these products is one of the most deliciously entertaining parts of this film); he vandalizes the “Flugelheim Museum of Art” and kidnaps Vicki Vale there and again at her home (where Keaton, who’s fallen in love with her in both his Bruce Wayne and Batman identities, tries to get up the courage to tell her he’s Batman in what Burton, Hamm and Skaaren made a pretty obvious parody of a coming-out scene); and at the end, after the city has canceled the official 200th anniversary celebration because with the Joker loose they can’t guarantee public safety at a major outdoor event, he stages his own celebration, floating jolly-looking balloons over a crowd (pretty obviously inspired by the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man at the end of Reitman’s 1984 Ghostbusters), throwing $20 million in cash and then releasing an asphyxiating gas which threatens to kill them until Batman comes flying in in his Batplane and severs the cables connecting the balloons to the Joker’s float so they rise and dispense their gas harmlessly in space. The final action sequence is a bit disappointing (it disappointed me in 1989, too, when John Gabrish and I saw the film theatrically and were especially impressed by the surround-sound effect in which the Batmobile seemed to be driving through the theatre in one scene) but even there it’s clear Burton is referencing other movies to good effect — this time the 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame and 1925 Phantom of the Opera, both starting Lon Chaney, Sr. (and Burton even inserts a direct quote from Phantom’s two-strip Technicolor “Red Death” sequence of Nicholson as the Joker hiding out next to the gargoyle statue outside a large building, the way Chaney did as the Phantom). It’s disappointing that Burton, Hamm and Skaaren staged the final confrontation in an abandoned, deserted cathedral — the script has gone so far out of its way to depict both Batman and the Joker as characters heavily in love with their own theatricality, consciously putting on shows for their audiences, one expected the final scene between them to take place with all Gotham City watching either live or on TV — but aside from that one mini-lapse the 1989 Batman is everything you’d want a superhero movie to be, deep and rich in its allusions without sacrificing the campy, joyous spirit of the whole comic-book superhero genre

It’s also flawlessly acted: Michael Keaton’s choice as Batman raised some eyebrows at the time it was announced (a lot of people expected someone taller, more robust, more like the comic-book image of Batman or the way Adam West played him in the 1960’s TV show) but he’s excellent in the role, a bit befuddled by the whole destiny he’s chosen for himself since he watched his parents gunned down by a robber while he was still a child, and interestingly equipped with glasses (and not the false frames Harold Lloyd wore) when he’s Bruce Wayne, which makes one wonders how he can see well enough to be Batman. (Maybe the hood of his mask was supposed to be equipped with special lenses that would provide him the correction he needed.) And Nicholson, who said at the time he looked forward to the part because it was a return to the psycho crooks he’d played in his early years as a contract actor at American International (where he’d made his first film, The Cry-Baby Killer, in 1958), is magnificent: I had never been a particularly big Nicholson fan, but the aspects of his acting that had put me off in his other films — the shark-like grin and the vulpine laugh — were absolutely perfect for the Joker. Nicholson seems to me to be the only actor of the three who’ve played the Joker in theatrical films to have understood the character: César Romero made him too campy; Heath Ledger made him too twisted and sick; Nicholson brought the two sides of the Joker together and made the character live as at once a figure of menace, evil and delight. As far as I’m concerned the 1989 Batman is “winner and still champ” among superhero movies — its only real competition, I think, is the 1943 Batman serial starring Lewis Wilson as the Caped Crusader and directed by the interesting Lambert Hillyer; in some ways Wilson was the best actor ever to play Batman — both he and Keaton never let us forget that Batman does not have superpowers: he’s a normal human being who willed himself to be a superhero and trained, both physically and intellectually, for the role; and Wilson looked wearier after the big fight scenes than anyone who’s played Batman since — but Keaton is surprisingly credible in the role, he gets to speak his lines as Batman in a relatively normal voice instead of the way Christian Bale had to in the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight cycle (in which poor Bale’s voice was run through a series of filters, equalizers and whatnots that made him sound like he was trying to gargle and bark at the same time), and he manages to convince us of his mastery as an urban fighter and his nervousness when he’s confronted with his emotions towards the heroine. — 11/11/17

Friday, November 10, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Columbia Pictures, Marvel Studio, Pascal Pictures, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Spider-Man: Homecoming, the sixth big-budget Spider-Man feature from Columbia since the first one in 2002 and the third “boot” of the franchise. The first cycle featured Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man and Sam Raimi as director, and lasted for three films; the second, called The Amazing Spider-Man (the official title of the comic magazine) featured Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man and Marc Webb as director, lasted for two. This version stars British actor Tom Holland as Spider-Man (he speaks credible American English in the film itself but his real-life British accent is very noticeable in the promotional clip that precedes the feature on Blu-Ray disc) — he’s 21 but he plays the character as 15, a couple of years younger than the previous Spider-Men at an age where those two years matter. The director is Jon Watts and the script is committee-written: Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley are credited with the original screen story and share credit with a plethora of other writers — Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers — for the actual script. Charles and I were somewhat back of scratch on this one because it’s actually a direct sequel to the last Marvel Avengers movie, and we haven’t been following the Avengers films; we’re told that the 15-year-old Spider-Man has just returned from an Avengers conference in Berlin and is sort of in Avengers pledge status and desperately pleading with the group’s chair, Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr., looking awfully tired of the role by now), to get admitted to full Avengers status. He returns home to New York City, where he lives with his aunt May Parker (Marisa Tomei) — for once drawn not as a wizened old woman but as someone still surprisingly sexy (there’s a hint that one of Peter Parker’s a.k.a. Spider-Man’s friends is attracted to her sexually, and I wish Watts and the writing committee had made a bit more of that!) — and attends the Midtown School of Science and Technology.

He’s also dropped most of his extracurricular activities because of the time demands of his internship with Tony Stark — the cover for his superhero training — though he’s still in the academic decathlon team and they’ve qualified for the national finals in Washington, D.C. The bad guys in this one get introduced before the good guys: they’re a bunch of proletarians who work for a salvage contractor, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, almost unrecognizable as the same actor who played Batman nearly 30 years ago — was it really that long? — and is therefore one of the few actors who’s had major roles in both DC and Marvel films), who in the opening scene is booted off a salvage site by a hard-edged middle-aged blonde woman who announces that she’s there representing the federal government, they’re taking over the site and the private contractors who thought they had a deal with the city to keep anything they salvaged from it are out of luck. Toomes pleads that he just bought a whole bunch of new trucks and hired a large crew, and he’ll have to fire them all and go bankrupt himself if he loses the contract. It’s hard not to feel for him, but his response is to take the alien technology he’s already salvaged from the site and go into business for himself, selling super-weapons based on it to criminals — including a gang of bank robbers who disguise themselves as The Avengers. Maybe any more conventionally structured superhero film would have been a disappointment after Wonder Woman, which wasn’t a great film but was certainly a work of quality within a pretty disreputable genre, but Spider-Man: Homecoming just seemed to me to lurch from crisis to crisis, with not particularly interesting action scenes and an awful lot of footage devoted to Peter Parker and his interactions with his high-school classmates. Though it didn’t go as far in that direction as the Raimi cycle did — in Spider-Man 2, in particular, Peter Parker’s non-hero life was depicted as such a succession of failures and traumas I joked that they could have called it It’s a Wonderful Life, Spider-ManSpider-Man: Homecoming seemed to devote way too much time to Peter Parker and not enough to Spider-Man.

The most interesting conflict the writing committee came up with — and one which could have given them a film that in its own way would have been as powerful and as different from the normal run of the superhero genre as Wonder Woman — was that between Peter Parker and his surrogate father, Tony Stark, who gives him all this cool electronic gear (including a super-version of the Spider-Man costume that has an auto-attendant, “Karen,” who speaks to him in the sort of patronizing female voice of the real Siri from Apple and Alexa from Amazon.com) but puts “training wheels” on it, deliberately limiting the capabilities Parker can use until Start thinks he’s ready for him. The love-hate relationship between the orphan Parker and his surrogate father Stark is considerably more interesting than the petty intrigues between Parker and his classmates, including the half-Black girl Michelle (Zendaya) who becomes his sort-of girlfriend — only he’s always running out on their dates to go after one criminal or another (can you say “Superman and Lois Lane”?), and at the end, in what the writing committee obviously intended as a shock, turns out to be the daughter of Andrew Toomes, the big villain Spider-Man has been after all movie since he’s used his access to alien technology to build himself a set of artificial wings (actually a turbo-powered aircraft) and become the flying super-villain “Vulture.” Oddly, Charles liked Spider-Man: Homecoming better than I did — not our usual reaction to a superhero movie — and I suspect because he responded more than I did to the clear modeling of the high-school sequences on John Hughes’ 1980’s films. This was deliberate: imdb.com’s “Trivia” contributors noted that director Watts showed Hughes’ films to his cast members to show them how he wanted them to play high-school students (and a clip from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off appears in the film), and Charles said Spider-Man: Homecoming was what would have resulted if John Hughes had ever written and directed a superhero movie.

The film as a whole disappointed me, though there’s a nice coming-from-behind ending in which Spider-Man has to take on Vulture and his crew in what looks like an old pair of red and blue pajamas (let’s face it, there are Spider-Man trick-or-treat costumes that look more convincing than this!), because Tony Stark has taken away his super-suit because, as he explains, “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it.” At the end Spider-Man: Homecoming takes on the air of a classic coming-of-age tale in which the boy hero has to prove he’s become worthy of adult tasks and acceptance into the inner circle — though it ends rather peculiarly with Parker putting his Avenger ambitions on hold and staying “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” (Gwyneth Paltrow makes a cameo appearance in the final scene as Pepper Potts, her usual part as Iron Man’s girlfriend in the sequence of Iron Man and Avengers movies.) Spider-Man: Homecoming is clever and engaging, though it also had the makings of a far finer and more complex film than it is — and I think part of the problem is that Columbia Pictures and Marvel Studios are too committed to keeping Spider-Man a teenager and putting him through all the tired paces of adolescent angst instead of letting him grow up. (I suspect that’s part of the reason they’ve done two reboots of the franchise: they keep having to bring in younger Spider-Men as the older ones “age out” of their conception of the character.) Among the promos at the front of the disc is an ad for a Spider-Man video game whose writers decided to make him 23 and already a veteran of the superhero biz for several years — and I wish the producers of the Spider-Man movies would use that conception of the character instead of keeping him in high school and, if anything, making him younger in each incarnation (in the Amazing Spider-Man cycle he was at least a high-school senior and one of the issues in his life was facing college; in this one he’s 15 and back to being a sophomore!).

Monday, November 6, 2017

Wonder Woman (Warner Bros., Atlas Entertainment, Cruel and Unusual Films, Tencent Pictures, Wanda Pictures, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Thursday I went to the Point Loma Target store to buy a couple of video discs — a Blu-Ray and 4K HDR combo pack of the 2017 film Wonder Woman and a Blu-Ray and DVD pack of Spider Man: Homecoming. I’d intended to screen both of them during the weekend when Charles and I both had days off, but in the end we only watched Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins (who for some reason hadn’t made a feature film since 2003, when she released Monster, a sort-of biopic of real-life Lesbian prostitute serial killer Aileen Wuornos — it was a good movie for what it was and it won an Academy Award for Charlize Theron as Wuornos, but I thought Jenkins, who wrote her own script, softened the story and in particular erred by changing Wuornos’s girlfriend from the hard-edged biker-dyke she was for real to a teenage “questioning” Lesbianette; it was a good movie but one of those frustrating fact-based films that would have actually been a better movie if it had stuck closer to the facts). Anyway, Jenkins ended up supporting herself with TV work until she got the nod for Wonder Woman — and according to the “Trivia” posters on imdb.com, though the people who originated the Wonder Woman project were all men (as was Dr. William Marston, a psychologist who created the Wonder Woman character in 1942 as a morale-booster for all the women who were either enlisting in the women’s branches of the armed forces or working at home in defense plants), they seem to have decided early on that they wanted a woman director and approached just about any woman with at least some rep, including Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight), before settling on Jenkins to direct the script by Zack Snyder (one of Warner Bros.’ go-to guys for turning DC comic books into films), Alan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs. Jenkins cast Israeli actress Gal Godot as Wonder Woman, a.k.a. Diana Prince, a.k.a. Princess Diana of Paradise Island, since the origin story of Wonder Woman was that she was the last surviving member of the ruling family of the Amazons, women warriors in Greek mythology who fought either alongside or against men and were as strong and effective in battle as the males. (Just how the Amazons reproduced themselves in a society with no men allowed is something of a mystery, though some of the ancient myths claim that the Amazons copulated with centaurs, the incredibly horny half-men, half-goats of Greek mythology.) In this version the Amazons seem not to have to worry about reproduction since they appear to be at least partially immortal — they can be killed in battle but don’t seem subject to the natural aging process: they stay alive and youthful-looking forever unless an enemy gets a sword, a spear, an arrow or — when they encounter modern civilization — a gun close enough to do them harm, and sometimes do them in, just like normal human beings. (This explains why in the epilogue, set in modern times about 100 years after the main body of the film — more on that later — Gal Godot as Wonder Woman looks every bit as young, hot and sexy as she does in the earlier scenes.)

Apparently the writers’ original plan was to have Wonder Woman take place during World War II, which was when the comic-book character originated, but for reasons that aren’t altogether clear they decided to do it one war earlier and have Paradise Island, where Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen, still hot in her own right and a credible action figure) has carefully been trying to shield her daughter Diana (Lilly Aspell) from the arts of war, which the Amazons have had to learn because while they don’t have any enemies yet, they have to worry about Ares, the Greek god of war, who fostered differences among humans and thereby created all the conflict and strife the human race has been heir to ever since, and who promised to return and finish the job he started of getting humanity to obliterate himself. Just how Diana was born remains something of a mystery until towards the end of the film; Hippolyta tells Diana that she was sculpted as a lump of clay and given life by Zeus, the king of the gods, though eventually she realizes that she was conceived by Zeus, the intergalactic horndog, having sex with her mom in the normal human (or godly) fashion. In any event, Hippolyta’s sister Antiope (Robin Wright) gives Diana a hard-ass training in the ways of the warrior, and it comes in handy when Diana grows up to be Gal Godot and, in 1918, is confronted with the reality of World War I (or “The Great War,” as the writers correctly refer to it — that’s what World War I was called before there was a World War II) when a young man named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) lands on Paradise Island. He’s flying a German plane but he’s really an American spy — a bit of information Hippolyta worms out of him by tying him up with the Lasso of Truth, a glowing bit of incandescent rope (in the comics it was gold but it didn’t glow) that not only has superhuman powers to restrain somebody but also makes them tell the truth about whatever they’re being interrogated about. Unfortunately the real Germans arrive at the island in hot pursuit, invade it and shoot Antiope. Steve and Diana make their way across the Atlantic to England by boat, and there are quite a lot of fish-out-of-water gags as Diana tries to make sense of how the 1918-era humans she’s suddenly found herself around live and fight. She keeps demanding that Steve take her to the front and can’t understand his insistence that he go through channels first, and when she gets to the front she’s even flummoxed at the whole stalemate along the front and how neither side is attacking because both would be subjected to heavy losses if they tried it.

Wonder Woman evokes just about every great movie ever made about World War I, including The Big Parade, All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory, and it turns into one of the weirdest and most comprehensive mash-ups of previous films I’ve ever seen. In the opening scenes it evokes Bogart comparisons — in her interviews to promote the film Patty Jenkins named Casablanca as one of her all-time favorites, and it shows both in how she instructed Danny Huston, playing German general Erich Ludendorff, to copy Conrad Veidt’s bad-Nazi performance in Casablanca but also in this bit of Bogartian dialogue the writers gave Steve Trevor: My father told me once, he said, ‘If you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do nothing, or you can do something.’ And I already tried nothing” — though Bogart usually got lines like that towards the ends of his films while Chris Pine in this one has to say it at the beginning. There’s one scene in a nearly deserted French village where the residents are fleeing and all of a sudden it looks like Shanghai Express, and towards the end, when Steve and Diana stumble on a plot Ludendorff and German mad scientist Dr. Manu (Elena Anaya), who wears a mask across the bottom of her face à la the later versions of The Phantom of the Opera and who’s invented a poison gas that, because it’s based on hydrogen, will dissolve all existing gas masks as well as all human life exposed to it. Ludendorff plots to use this stuff to allow Germany to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and when he’s opposed by the rest of the German General Staff he simply sneaks a bomb containing the gas into their staff room, seals the doors and knocks them off. (Here Ludendorff comes off more like a Nazi than one of the Kaiser’s generals, but the portrayal is appropriate because Ludendorff was an early supporter of Hitler and indeed agreed to serve as figurehead in Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, though he backed out at the last minute and double-crossed Hitler when he realized Hitler’s cause was lost.)

At least one other, much more recent, movie gets referenced in Wonder Woman when Steve assembles a band of unlikely commandos to attack Ludendorff’s installation — and the film suddenly turns into Inglourous Basterds, not only in the appearance of a commando squad attempting to infiltrate a major German gathering (Diana’s scene in which she kidnaps a woman invitee and disguises herself as her is one of the most delightful in the film) but also in its use of real historical figures like Ludendorff in creating an alternative history which didn’t turn out at all like the real one. Diana is at first convinced Ludendorff is the modern incarnation of the war god Ares, but eventually she realizes that Ares has come back to life not as Ludendorff, but as the British “peace” activist Sir Patrick — the whole business of having the ostensible pacifist turn out to be an enemy agent was originated, I think, by Alfred Hitchcock and his writers (including Charles Bennett, who worked on six of Hitchcock’s key films and was essentially to him what Robert Riskin was to Frank Capra and Dudley Nichols to John Ford) in the 1940 film Foreign Correspondent, though it eventually became an annoying affectation in Cold War-era movies, where it served the U.S. government’s propagandistic purpose to discredit all “peace” activists as either knowing or unknowing dupes of the Communists. Eventually Diana and Ares (who’s “outed” himself in Greek-mythological drag) have a fight to the finish, and Steve dies a tragic death (perhaps the biggest surprise of the film: in the comics he survived and became Diana’s permanent love interest), whereupon we return to the framing sequence where a chronologically but not visibly older Diana is shown working as an art expert at the Louvre, only she receives a glass-plate negative of the picture taken of her and Steve in that French village (with a camera that would have been considered already archaic in 1918) and which set her off on her recollections the way that madeleine did with Marcel Proust.

Charles and I had a mixed reaction to Wonder Woman; neither of us gave it the greatest-thing-since-sliced-bread response some of the original reviewers did when they not only hailed it as the greatest comic-book superhero movie ever made (an honor I’d still give to the first Tim Burton Batman from 1989) but suggested it might become the first such film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. (It might at that, for reasons that have little to do with its artistic quality; just as the Academy last year tried to answer the charges of racism against it by giving the Best Picture Oscar to Moonlight, a coming-of-age story about a young Black Gay man, they might give the nod to Wonder Woman and Patty Jenkins to try to neutralize the charges that Hollywood is one great big machine through which men sexually exploit women — and, in the case of Gay Hollywood, young men — without facing the consequences until now, when the fall of Harvey Weinstein is leading to a lot of summary dismissals of people on the basis of unconfirmed allegations in a manner that’s starting to look awfully similar to the blacklist of Left-wing talents in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.) But Wonder Woman is a quite estimable film, hardly a masterpiece but certainly a film of real quality and one which at least attempts some social significance without achieving the incredible pretentiousness of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and Zach Snyder’s Watchmen. Though it’s not really much fun — I can remember when fun used to be the raison d’être of a superhero movie before the genre started being used for more somber and sometimes even tragic purposes (Logan was actually an intensely moving tragedy — it just didn’t have much to do with the previous light-hearted agendas of superhero movies) — Wonder Woman is the sort of big-ticket blockbuster that a film buff whose tastes usually extend beyond such films doesn’t have to feel embarrassed for liking.

The H-Man (Toho, 1958; Columbia, 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyrigh © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was The H-Man, one of the six items on Mill Creek Entertainment’s compilation of late-1950’s science-fiction “B”’s from Columbia — one I bought because I’d seen the film The 27th Day at one of the Golden Hill Vintage Sci-Fi screenings that Charles hadn’t been able to attend because he was working that night, but I was so impressed by it I wanted to get the disc so I could show it to Charles. To my surprise, The H-Man turned out to be not a Columbia production at all but a Japanese movie, made at Toho Studios in 1958 and directed by the Godzilla man, Ishirô Honda (sometimes spelled “Inoshiro Honda” on U.S. releases of his films, including this one), and shot in color and wide-screen ’scope (Toho had their own variation of Cinemascope, “Tohoscope,” a dodge many studios resorted to once they realized that while 20th Century-Fox owned the name “Cinemascope” the actual anamorphic-lens technology was old enough it was in the public domain). The plot deals with a ghost ship that got irradiated by sailing too close to a U.S. hydrogen bomb test in the South Pacific and ends up drifting close enough to Tokyo that … well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It actually starts with a drug deal going down on the streets of Tokyo at night, only the dealer who’s supposed to bring the drugs screams out in pain and then literally melts away. 

The cops get several other reports of similar incidents happening — people’s bodies, including their bones, just melt away and only their clothes and whatever belongings they had on their persons are left behind — and they end up calling in Dr. Masada (Kenji Sahara) and his colleague Dr. Maki (Koreya Senda), who’s done an elaborate experiment involving irradiating a live frog and thereby turning it into a sentient green puddle of something-or-other, then exposing it to another frog and watching as the green puddle that used to be frog makes the living frog go all bubbly and then disintegrate completely. The doctors reason that a similar thing happened to the sailors on the ghost vessel — some of them became living green slime and dispatched the others (the flashback on the ghost ship narrated by the two sailors who discovered it and escaped being “slimed” is an intriguing mixture of the real-life Marie Celeste story — “the Maru Celeste,” Charles inevitably joked — and the Murnau Nosferatu) — and the film moves along at a surprisingly slow, leisurely pace before we actually get to see the green slime in action. Along the way there are two extended sequences set in a nightclub where the film’s female star, Yumi Shirakama, works: she plays a character called “Chickako Arai,” though the first name sounded in Columbia’s 1959 dubbed version like “Shiitako” and of course I inevitably joked that she was really a mushroom (perhaps a refugee from another Toho production that year, Attack of the Mushroom People), and of course Dr. Masada falls in love with her. According to imdb.com, her singing voice was doubled by Japanese “jazz starlet” Martha Miyake; I’d heard of a Japanese jazz singer named Miyoko Hoshino before (she made an album, inevitably called East Meets West, with Lionel Hampton for his own Glad-Hamp label in 1964) and wondered if those might be different transliterations of the same Japanese name, but no-o-o-o-o: Hoshino had a rather thin, shrill voice (sort of like what Yoko Ono might have sounded like if she’d made a swing album singing U.S. standards) while Miyake’s voice is considerably lower and more sultry, not particularly “Asian”-sounding and reminding me more than anyone else of Nina Simone. (Of course it’s also possible that the dubbed U.S. version we were watching used a different voice double than the Japanese version.) 

The cabaret scenes originally appear just to add some soft-core porn to the movie — the original Japanese release was about 15 minutes longer than the 73-minute version we were watching and Charles suggested some of the extra footage was of scantily clad females dancing in the club — but the second one is actually the most scary part of the movie: the green slime invades the club and there are some nicely Lewtonian shots of its oozing its way in the cracks under doors on its way to devour some of the patrons. In the end, of course, the scientists figure out a way to kill the stuff by burning it — the scenes of people walking through the Japanese sewers with flamethrowers have an odd appeal — though at the end Dr. Maki warns in voiceover, “If man perishes from the face of the Earth, due to the effects of hydrogen bombing, it is possible that the next ruler of our planet may be The H-Man.” According to an imdb.com “Trivia” poster, the scenes showing the H-Man’s victims dissolving were shot by making inflatable balloons of people, pouring chemicals on them that would get them to foam, and then simply deflating them. One imdb.com reviewer compared this film to The Blob but said it was a lot scarier — which it was; it didn’t have the camp elements that gave The Blob a lot of its appeal — and it’s a quite estimable piece of work from a unit at Toho that hadn’t yet descended to the level of endearingly bad hack-work that gave Japanese monster movies such a bad name in the 1960’s. It was also amusing to recognize one of the actors voice-dubbing a Japanese policeman as Paul Frees, who was Toshiro Mifune’s voice double in English-language films, was a “regular” on Rocky and Bullwinkle and also did the villain, Meowrice Percy Beaucoup, in the 1962 Judy Garland-Robert Goulet cartoon musical Gay Purr-Ee. Someone thought highly enough of The H-Man to do a DVD re-release of the Japanese original in 2009, with English subtitles, but even in dubbed form it’s an estimable movie and considerably above the normal run of Toho’s monster-fests.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Doctor Blake Mysteries: “King of the Lake” (December Media, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ITV, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I put on KPBS for the rerun of the Doctor Blake Mysteries episode “King of the Lake,” the first one shown in 2015 (the original air date was February 13, 2015) and yet another story by show creators George Adams and Tony Wright, and this show’s actual writer Michael Harvey, in which a local hero in Ballarat, Australia, where the show takes place, gets himself killed and the investigation proves he had the proverbial feet of clay. In this case the young man whose murder exposes his secrets is Dennis Goodman (Jordan Prainito), a star on a two-man rowing team who’s just won a race on Ballarat Lake when, according to tradition, he and his teammate are dunked in the lake at the end of the race — only his teammate comes up alive and he comes up dead, apparently drowned but after only 25 seconds in the water. Dr. Blake immediately suspects foul play but he can’t figure out either whodunit or howdunit — he considers a blow with a blunt object because of a crescent-shaped scar on the boy’s neck, but realizes that was just made by the toe of his teammate’s shoe as he was trying to rescue him. Blake also suspects Dennis’s girlfriend, who suspected that he was seeing someone else but didn’t know who — and in the script’s kinkiest scene, it turns out Dennis’s alternate lover was his girlfriend’s mother (reminding one that the film Room at the Top was released the year this episode was supposed to take place, 1959) — but neither woman killed Dennis. 

Then suspicion lights on Dennis’s father, Herbert Goodman (Jeremy Stanford), who apparently had a shot on the Australian rowing team in the 1936 Berlin Olympics but had to bow out at the last minute because of some health hazard — so he’s turned his ambitions towards not only Dennis but his younger son Lucas (Max Whitelaw), even though Lucas is a bookish young man who wants no part of athletics. It also turns out that Herbert’s wife, and therefore Dennis’s and Lucas’s mother, is Monika (Alyson Whyte), an old girlfriend of Dr. Blake’s whom he nearly proposed to years before, only he went off to London to train for the medical corps in the European theatre of World War II instead and she met Herbert during the war while Blake was away. Herbert is ferociously jealous of Blake for that reason and tries to keep him away from the investigation; he also gives the cops a deadline for giving him Dennis’s body, which Blake wants to keep because he’s still autopsying it in hopes of determining both a cause of death and a killer. Eventually Dennis’s real dark secret is that his dad had arranged for him to take testosterone and/or anabolic steroids, and that’s how he was winning all those races — only because the Goodmans had a predisposition towards heart disease, both Herbert and Dennis were also on heart medications made from foxglove, and in the end it turns out one of the rival rowers Dennis had beaten killed him by substituting aspirin for his heart meds, meaning that when he leaped into the water following the exertion of the race, his lungs opened wide and he drowned unusually fast. The reveal wasn’t quite as dynamic as the writers were expecting it to be because all those young, pretty actors playing rowers started to look alike after a while and I wasn’t quite sure whom Dr. Blake had fingered as the killer, but it was still an entertaining show and one of the better ones they’ve been showing on KPBS lately.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Cat and the Canary (Universal, 1927)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I ran Charles The Cat and the Canary and Nocturne. The main interest of The Cat and the Canary today is the incredibly stylish direction by Paul Leni, who was brought over from his native Germany by Universal and whose first American film this was. Basically, The Cat and the Canary was a tale (based on a well-known stage play) of a young heiress (Laura La Plante) whose relatives are trying to drive her insane so someone else will get the money instead — not exactly the freshest story line even then, but Leni’s direction and the nicely honed performances of La Plante and Tully Marshall (as the sinister attorney Roger Crosby, who ends up the first victim of the plot — did Marshall ever get to make a movie in which his character was alive and well at the fade-out?) make up for the triteness of the story. The opening sequence is magnificent — an unseen hand sweeps away cobwebs from a window to reveal the credits, and we’re told that the eccentric millionaire Cyrus West has built this home on the bank of the Hudson River in upstate New York. When we actually see the home it’s clear that the model he gave his architect must have been King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein — the exterior (a model shot) is hardly more than a series of spires, and the interior (some of whose sets may well have been recycled for Dracula and some of the later Universal horror films) is full of long hallways with billowing drapes (anticipating the great effect in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast 19 years later), secret passages and walls, bookcases and fireplaces that move aside to reveal them — we even get to see the innards of the walls, including the cobwebby gears that run these mechanisms. Then the spires dissolve into a stack of bottles, a title tells us that all Cyrus West’s relatives have gathered around him like cats around a canary — and around the bottles we see real cats, blown up to giant size, dwarfing the figure of Cyrus West in his rocking chair. After that opening just about anything would be a comedown — and there are parts of this film that are just plain silly, notably Creighton Hale’s “comic” performance as the scared romantic lead (one could readily see why Paramount had the idea this story could serve as a vehicle for Bob Hope — they bought the rights from Universal and remade it with Hope in 1939 — nine years after Universal’s own sound remake, retitled The Cat Creeps) — but Leni’s direction and the marvelous cinematography by Gilbert Warrenton (with the camera in almost constant motion, prowling through the hallways trying to keep up with the characters), along with some of the supporting players (the sinister housekeeper anticipates Judith Anderson’s role in Rebecca and the psychiatrist who’s supposed to decide whether the heroine is sane enough to inherit the West estate is so Caligari-esque I half-expected a plot twist would reveal that he is part of the plot to drive her insane!), make this a marvelous little gem of a movie and one of those you can look to as having set the clichés that were later run into the ground (but not before James Whale’s quirky sensibility could make fun of them in The Old Dark House at the same studio five years later!). I’d only seen The Cat and the Canary once before — in 1975, at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, on a triple bill with White Zombie and Supernatural.

•••••

Our “feature” last night was the 1927 version of The Cat and the Canary, which I had in the backlog on a 100-minute Alpha Video DVD in wretched shape in terms of picture quality (Alpha Video seems to have done a straight transfer of one of the surviving original release prints without any attempt at digital image cleanup) but surprisingly 20 minutes longer than the “official” Kino version (which Charles and I had watched years before, when we were just starting to date, through a VHS tape I’d taken off Turner Classic Movies back when you could still record shows for later viewing without having to pay your cable company yet more ransom money on top of their basic bill) — though as I pointed out in my recent comments on the 1939 remake from Paramount with Bob Hope, what I’d really like to see is a digital restoration of the 100-minute version witih a bonus feature containing the surviving excerpts of the intervening version, a 1930 Universal talkie called The Cat Creeps (a couple of minutes of footage Universal used in a 1932 short called Boo and four Vitaphone soundtrack discs, representing about half the original movie, held by the Fafners at the UCLA Film and Television Archive). I’d wanted to watch the 1927 The Cat and the Canary since Hallowe’en night, when I saw the 1939 version (a movie that had somehow eluded me until now) as part of the Turner Classic Movies haunted-house marathon. The basis of the story was a stage play by John Willard that had a three-month, 148-performance run on Broadway from February to May 1922 (oddly Universal advertised the 1927 film as “Direct from Broadway!” even though the Broadway play had been presented five years earlier!); in the tail end of the silent era Universal bought the rights, assigned Robert Hill and Alfred A. Cohn to do the adaptation and Cohn to write the script — ironically Cohn would go from his work on this film to writing the 1927 Warner Bros. production The Jazz Singer, the film that would start the two-year process of putting silent movies out of business — and, in a decision that ensured both the artistic and commercial success of this film and its continuing interest for film buffs, decided to assign the direction to Paul Leni, a German expatriate, as his first American film. Leni had achieved an international hit with the 1924 film Waxworks, which was not only the first horror film ever set in a wax museum but featured Germany’s biggest star, Emil Jannings, along with Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt (reunited from the cast of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari five years earlier) and, as the juvenile male lead, cast Wilhelm Dieterle, who would later become a director and have a long career in Hollywood, much of it at Warner Bros., with his name Anglicized to William Dieterle. Waxworks cast Dieterle as a barker who invents colorful backstories about the figures in the wax museum in order to attract customers, and this enables Leni to tell stories about some of history’s most famous real-life villains: Caliph Haroun al-Raschid (Emil Jannings), Czar Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt) and Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss). 

The worldwide box-office success of Waxworks attracted attention from Hollywood, and Universal’s founding president Carl Laemmle, whose German ancestry (most of the other early Hollywood moguls came from Poland or elsewhere in Eastern Europe) gave him a leg up in the competition for German talent. He landed Leni and, for his first Hollywood assignment, gave him this rather prosaic story about a plot by a bunch of greedy relatives of a long-deceased rich man to do his heir, an innocent young heroine, out of her inheritance by driving her crazy. Leni kicked out the jams big-time and threw all the stylized devices that had made Waxworks a hit at this story. The 1927 and 1939 versions of The Cat and the Canary actually track quite closely story-wise: the mysteriously reclusive multimillionaire Cyrus West (he’s not listed on imdb.com but he’s depicted in the film in a marvelous prologue — Walter Anthony’s titles say that he was now at the end of his life and medicine could do no more for him, so he’s shown seated in a big chair surrounded by giant medicine bottles that dwarf him; they look like the skyline of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, and it seems likely that the ripoff was deliberate, especially since the makers of The Wizard of Oz ripped off two famous gimmicks from Waxworks: the long entrance hall to Haroun al-Raschid’s office and the hourglass with which Ivan the Terrible signals his victims how long they have left to live before he has them executed) stipulates to his attorney, Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall, the marvelous corrupt villain of Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow and Queen Kelly as well as the mastermind of the murders Alan Ladd is hired to commit in This Gun for Hire), that the will he’s written naming his heir not be read until 20 years after his death (the writers of the 1939 version, Walter DeLeon and Lynn Starling, cut that to 10), and West’s ominous mansion is in upstate New York instead of the Louisiana bayous. Also the name of the dead man was changed to “Norman” in 1939 (the reasons are unclear, though one imdb.com “Trivia” poster suggests that was because Mae West was still making movies in 1939) and his heiress was “Annabella West” (Laura LaPlante) in the original and “Joyce Norman” in 1939. Some people commenting on the 1939 version have said that the comic character played by Bob Hope was added, but he wasn’t: Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), the male lead in the 1927 film, is also very clearly played for comic relief: he’s equipped with Harold Lloyd-style glasses and is shown as a doofus with neither the resourcefulness of the real Lloyd nor the witticisms of Hope. 

Aside from Tully Marshall, easily a match for George Zucco’s marvelous work as the lawyer in 1939 (though Zucco, unlike Marshall, wasn’t allowed to play a character with a first name!), and Martha Maddox as the housekeeper who’s supposedly been the only person, aside from the attorney, in the West house during the 20 years since Cyrus’s death (she’s just as powerful and intimidating a screen presence as Gale Sondergaard in the remake even though, despite the hints in both version that the character is supposed to be at least partly African-American, she doesn’t look any more Black than Sondergaard did), the acting is nowhere near as good as it was in 1939. Universal spent six years trying to build Laura La Plante into a major star (while they fired Bette Davis after just six months, clearing the way for Warner Bros. to pick her up on the cheap and make millions off her!), but here, as in so many of her films, there’s nothing wrong with her performance but nothing particularly right about it either. She pretty much walks through the scenes, and though admittedly it’s a nothing damsel-in-distress role one misses the nuances Paulette Goddard brought to it 12 years later. And Creighton Hale is simply annoying, while the other actors — Forrest Stanley as Charles Wilder, the [spoiler alert!] alternate heir who sneaked a peek at the alternative second will naming him as the next heir in case Annabella died or went crazy, so he rigged up the West house with various secret passages and other devices that would drive Annabella insane; Arthur Edmund Carewe (so good as the undercover cop disguised as a Persian in the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera) rather dull as Harry Blythe, the third rival for Annabella’s affections; Gertrude Astor as Cecily and Flora Finch as Aunt Susan — are good enough at being overbearing we believe Cyrus West’s lament that when he was on his deathbed they were circling him like cats around a canary, but they have little left to offer. The 1927 version also retains the escaped lunatic from a nearby mental asylum (whom Charles disguises himself as to menace and try to kill the heroine) and the guard (George Siegmann) sent from the asylum to recapture him — but fortunately the writers of this version avoided the fillip at the end of the 1939 film that the guard had gone crooked and stolen the heroine’s priceless necklace, a part of the West fortune he had hidden in plain sight in the house and given her a special envelope telling her where to find it (a straightforward message in this film, a puzzle hero and heroine have to solve in 1939). 

What makes this film is Leni’s direction, from that opening surrealistic scene of Cyrus West surrounded by oversized medicine bottles through the X-ray shots of various mechanisms (when the clock that stopped at midnight 20 years earlier when West died suddenly starts again, Leni gives us some sinister-looking shots of its mechanism; later on Leni also gives us close-ups of how all the secret doorways and panels of the house work) and the scenes of apparently disembodied hands reaching out of wall openings to clutch out at the heroine, The Cat and the Canary is a superb triumph of style over (lack of) substance. Even the opening credits — a disembodied hand wiping away a thick layer of cobwebs to reveal the film’s title underneath (the sort of thing imdb.com has taken to calling a “crazy credit”) — sets the mood and makes sure we know from the outset that we are in for a very special film. The Cat and the Canary was one of the three films, along with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), that established Universal as the go-to studio for horror movies, though it’s significant that none of them have supernatural or science-fictional premises: the title characters of Hunchback and Phantom are physically deformed but otherwise normal human beings (the sorts of roles their star, Lon Chaney, Sr., preferred to play) and The Cat and the Canary is a collection of physically possible incidents. Indeed, there’s a sort of metafictional aspect to it (though I doubt even as sophisticated a filmmaker as Leni intended it), in that the devices Charles Wilder has rigged up in the house to make Annabella West crazy (or at least to make her think she’s crazy and therefore act out as insane) are the same ones filmmakers would use to dramatize a supernatural haunted-house story. (Come to think of it, maybe Leni did intend it: after all, Waxworks was also a movie about storytelling and myth-making.) 

Though Alpha Video didn’t have access to a good print and didn’t do any real rehab on the source they did have, they equipped the film with a good musical score, an appropriately somber combination of piano, electronic organ and strings that got a bit monotonous towards the end but still “worked” a lot better than the random assemblage of public-domain recordings other cheap DVD companies have slapped onto silent classics. The Cat and the Canary is a great movie that makes one wish Leni had lived longer and done more — and also that more of the work he did do survives: his second Universal film, The Chinese Parrot, is lost completely (except for a few intriguing-looking stills), a real pity because it was based on Earl Derr Biggers’ second Charlie Chan novel and, like the also lost 1925 silent serial of the first Biggers Chan novel The House Without a Key, actually cast a real-life Asian (Japanese actor Sojin Kamiyama) as Chan. Leni’s third Universal film, The Man Who Laughs, was also long thought lost, though it eventually turned up (at least partial prints from the U.S. and Italy from which a complete version could be assembled did) and was a major production, with heroine Mary Philbin from Hunchback and Phantom as a blind girl who falls in love with Gywnplaine (Conrad Veidt), a British heir who was kidnapped by Gypsies and turned into a hideous monster with his mouth frozen in a permanent, hideous grin. (Batman creator Bob Kane based the character of the Joker on Jack P. Pierce’s makeup for Veidt in this film; it was Pierce’s first job at Universal and he’d go on to create all the famous Universal monsters: Frankenstein’s creation, Dracula, the Mummy and the Wolf-Man.) Then sound came in and Leni did a part-talkie called The Last Warning, which I understand is also at least partially lost, dealing with a series of murders in a supposedly jinxed theatre. Then Leni got blood poisoning and died at only 40 years old — one wonders if he’d lived if he’d have been assigned to direct the Universal Dracula and we could have had a better film than Tod Browning’s rather dull version worthwhile only for preserving the performances of Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye. — 11/4/17