Friday, August 30, 2013

WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)

Victor Halperin, 1932
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn, John Harron

“I thought beauty alone would satisfy me – but the soul is gone.”

A young woman, Madeleine Short, arrives in Haiti to marry her fiancé, Neil Parker. They meet plantation owner Charles Beaumont, who quickly falls in love with Madeleine, and Murder Legendre, a mysterious voodoo master. Legendre employs a number of zombified slaves to operate a sugar mill and unnerves Madeleine. In his desperation to have Madeleine for himself, Beaumont asks Legendre for help and he gives him a drug to secretly administer to Madeleine. It doesn’t take effect until after she and Parker are married. She appears to have died and, wracked with grief, Parker is forced to bury her. He soon has visions of her and comes to find that her tomb is empty, because Legendre has revived her. 

Beaumont, meanwhile, is unhappy with Madeleine’s blank, unresponsive state and asks Legendre to change her back. Predictably, he refuses and turns Beaumont into a zombie. A missionary helps Parker confront Legendre at his foreboding mansion on a cliff. Legendre tries to make the zombies kill Parker and the missionary, but he is knocked out and they march over the edge of the cliff when the telepathic link is broken. Beaumont and Legendre fight and also fall of the cliff, and upon Legendre’s death, Madeleine returns to her normal state with Parker at her side. 

While White Zombie is a pre-Code film, it is less subversive than other horror films from the period, such as Freaks, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Island of Lost Souls. Though Madeline’s zombie-state has terrifying implications, it doesn’t go nearly as far as it could have and sort of glosses over the fact that, in this state, she is essentially little more than a sex slave. As with most early American horror, the primary romantic relationship is tedious and boring, though Parker’s desperation later in the film at least allows this rise above the bland relationships in Dracula and The Mummy. His despair and isolation is absolute in one particular scene where he sits drinking at a bar, alone, only surrounded by the shadows other people who don’t appear on screen. 

The blatant racism will likely bother a lot of modern viewers and it is frustrating that the film expects us to see the primary horror is Madeleine zombified state, simply because she is a white woman. Though Haiti is the setting, it completely ignores the Haitians and goes so far as to replace black extras with white people in black face. Repulsive stuff. Though the zombie make up is from the wonderful Jack Pierce (Frankenstein, among many other films), the mass of working zombies really only exist in the background of the film. 

This is the first zombie film, but is not about the flesh eating undead, rather it is inspired by Haitian voodoo. Unlike other horror films from the period, this doesn’t have a direct literary source, but was inspired by The Magic Island (1929), a non-fiction book from William Seabrooks about Haitian voodoo. Murder Legendre goes about the process of zombification with a drug, a ritual, and exerts his control via telepathy. There is a sadism inherent in his actions and personality, something the film fails to explore to the fullest degree, only truly showing it in the scene where Beaumont is slowly and painfully turned into a zombie.

Bela Lugosi puts in a great performance as Murder Legendre (what a name) and is almost able to carry the film on his own. Robert Frazer is largely unlikable as Beaumont, though that fits with his role. Lead Madge Bellamy is lovely, but she is unfortunately far more compelling as a zombie than a living woman. John Harron, who plays Madeleine’s fiancé Parker, is in the mold of most Universal romantic leads and is mostly forgettable. 

This is definitely a flawed film and doesn’t quite rise to the heights of the best horror movies of the period. The acting is pretty awful, which is no surprise considering it’s made up mostly of silent actors who had trouble getting work in the burgeoning field of sound cinema. The lack of nearly constant dialogue, as in Dracula, does give the film a more fantastical, nightmarish feel, and as with Island of Dr. Moreau, there are some wonderful sound effects and moments of silence. The excellent opening scene, a nighttime funeral where the Haitians chant hauntingly, is an example of some of the best this film has to offer. Though the acting and plot may fail, to a degree, cinematographer Arthur Martinelli nearly makes up for this with many impressive visuals. Though this was a low budget film, it looks excellent because of the use of many of Universal’s sets and the work of designer Ralph Berger. Allegedly pieces of the sets from Dracula, Frankenstein, The Cat and the Canary, and the oft-recycled Hunchback of Notre Dame were used.

White Zombie was financially successful on its release, but received negative reviews, though it is now regarded as a lesser cult classic. Its far inferior sequel, Revolt of the Zombies (1936), is largely ignored and forgotten. Though this isn’t as haunting or meditative as Val Lewton’s later I Walked With a Zombie, it is certainly a minor horror classic and comes recommended because of the excellent atmosphere and camera work. White Zombie is available on DVD and on Blu-ray from Kino, and though I hear the restoration work on the latter is not particularly impressive, Kino’s version comes recommended. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

FREAKS

Tod Browning, 1932
Starring: Olga Baclanova, Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Roscoe Ates

“One of us! One of us!”

Cleopatra, a beautiful trapeze artist, learns that one of the other sideshow performers, a midget named Hans, has come into a sizable inheritance. She decides to seduce and marry Hans, but Cleopatra is selfish and cruel and she and her lover, the strongman Hercules, plot to take Hans’s money for themselves. During their wedding, the other sideshow performers (aka “freaks”) accept Cleopatra, despite the fact that she is normal.  During a moment of drunken revelry, she is frightened and repulsed by them. She brutally mocks them, revealing her true feelings, though Hans stays with her anyway. Soon after this, she begins slowly poisoning him, so that he will die and she and Hercules can be together. The sideshow freaks learn about her plan and band together to save Hans and punish Cleopatra and Hans permanently. 

There is certainly no other film like Freaks. While much of Browning’s output, particularly his films with the wonderful Lon Chaney, dealt with human deformity and painful physical transformations, social outcasts, and outright criminals, this takes the cake by starring actual circus sideshow performers, the titular “freaks.” As a result, the film is still shocking, controversial, and often uncomfortable to watch. While Browning obviously wants us to sympathize with them, it’s hard to ignore the fact that, at the same time, he is exploiting their differences and deformities in the name of entertainment. More of a revenge-melodrama than a horror film, Freaks is certainly more horrifying than most of its genre brethren and has aged a lot better than Browning’s most famous film, Dracula.

Though this was a pre-Code film, MGM still had an absolute stroke over the finished product. They were allegedly sued by a woman who claimed to have a miscarriage, she was so horrified by the screening. I can’t imagine a film like this being made today by a major studio and MGM made the film very difficult to see for decades. Unsurprisingly, Freaks did not make it past the censors. Almost a third of the film was cut, including scenes where Cleopatra and Hercules are attacked by the vengeful freaks. Though we witness part of Cleopatra being turned into a deformed bird girl, in the original ending, the freaks castrated Hercules. A new, cheerier epilogue was added on, celebrating the happy lives of the remaining characters, though it does not distract from the film’s lurid tone. Despite these enforced changes, Freaks ruined Browning’s career and though he made a handful of films after this, he was essentially forced to retire.

Browning actually got his start in the circus and in vaudeville and performed as a magician, a clown, an escape artist, and much more. His most memorable role was the “living corpse,” where he would be buried alive for days at a time. (Read more about Browning here.) He got to know and love the world of circus sideshows, which he proves here by comfortably shooting a wide range of sideshow performers - the living torso, bearded, bird girl, limbless man, conjoined twins, pinheads, a sword swallower, etc. Though he is certainly exploiting them, the degree of ease and comfort he uses to portray these actors works in their favor. Browning’s behavior on the set, however, was often outright abusive, likely made worse by his alcoholism, which was another contributing factor in his early retirement. 

Freaks is a difficult film to recommend, but whether you are enthralled or horrified by the subject matter, it’s impossible to deny that this film offers some of the most powerful and impacting imagery of Browning’s career and of ‘30s cinema in general. Like a sort of modern day Duchess of Malfi, the revenge is absolute, physically transformative, and unforgettable. This is a complex work and one that is thoroughly a productive of its time - it was shot in the aftermath of WWI and during the Great Depression - despite feeling so modern. As with Dracula, the dialogue is often stilted and forced, probably because Browning got his start working in silent films. Unlike the more conservative and restrained Dracula, there are some wonderful moments in Freaks where sound is simply not necessary, such as the wedding banquet. 

Even if Freaks doesn’t really seem up your alley, it is a masterpiece and deserves to be seen at least once. Pick up the DVD from Warner, which has a making-of documentary and some additional scenes. Unfortunately most of the excised material is believed to be lost, so there will likely never be an unedited director’s cut. Here’s hoping. Goobble-gobble. 

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS

Erle C. Kenton, 1932
Starring: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Bela Lugosi, Leila Hyams, Kathleen Burke

Based on H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of  Dr. Moreau (1896), Erle C. Kenton’s adaptation for Paramount was the first and remains the finest due to its emphasis on the horror in Wells’ story and the scientific and philosophical implications he presents. A young man, Edward Parker, is shipwrecked and rescued by a freighter transporting animals to a small island.  The ship’s captain, who is drunk and surly, throws Parker off the ship at the island and he is forced to stay with the owner, scientist Dr. Moreau. Moreau is kind and hospitable and promises that he can stay the night and use one of their boats to leave the next morning. 

He meets the lovely, but shy Lota, the only woman on the island. Parker’s idyll is soon shattered as he learns about the “house of pain,” and hears horrible screams in the night. He learns that Moreau has created all the creatures on the island with some violent, sadistic vivisection experiments. Moreau secretly sabotages the boats and prevents him from leaving. He meets more of the island’s inhabitants, all half-animal, half-man hybrids. When Parker tries to leave, they almost tear him apart, but Moreau saves him and reminds the creatures of their rule against violence. Trying to win back Parker’s confidence, Moreau explains how he began experimenting and how he was banned from London and forced to move to the island. Moreau manipulates Parker with the hope that he will mate with Lota, who is part woman and part panther. She is attracted to him and though he returns her feelings, he is repulsed to learn about her animal origins. Meanwhile, Parker’s fiancee Ruth has convinced the surly ship captain to return to the island so that they can rescue Parker. Can Parker save himself and Ruth from the house of pain and escape Moreau’s breeding experiments?

Island of Lost Souls was one of a number of films from the early ‘30s that dealt with questions of humanity and the intersection between the human and bestial, such as Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Freaks, and later The Wolf Man, Cat People, and many more. As with all these films, the “monsters” are deeply humanized and we feel sorry for Moreau’s creations just as we are horrified at their existence. The horror in Island of Lost Souls is so powerful because it is complex and, to a certain extent, realistic. There is a visceral, very physical reaction to the half-human, half-animal creatures, the dark, dank jungle atmosphere, and the chilling screams that ring out constantly through the claustrophobic night. But there is also intellectual horror that, unlike Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, remains compelling for modern audiences. Only a few years after this film, Nazi and Japanese doctors would begin similarly appalling experiments and medical torture is one of the lasting horrors of WWII.

Charles Laughton is perfect as Moreau, charming, full of hospitality, and seemingly benign until we learn of his horrible experiments. Most mad scientists from the period were portrayed as outright mad (anything with Lionel Atwill, John Carradine, or George Zucco) or teetering on the verge (like Henry Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll), driven over the edge by their creations/experiments. But Moreau is a smiling sociopath, genial, pudgy, and unthreatening, content to sit back and manipulate the island to his own incomprehensible ends. Bela Lugosi has a brief, but nice side role as the Sayer of the Law, a beast-man who keeps a sort of order on the island and tries to convince the other creatures of their own humanity. Like many genre leading men of the period, the prolific Richard Arlen is bland as Parker, but it works in the film’s favor. It would hardly take a skilled actor to make the audience to empathize with Parker’s shock and horror, but Arlen does a decent job. Leila Hyams’s (Freaks, Tarzan) character Ruth, Parker’s fiancee, is an odd addition to the film, but is likable enough and surprisingly bold in her determination to rescue Parker. Kathleen Burke (The Last Outpost) is unforgettable as Lota and her brief screen time and limited dialogue only add to her mystery and inherent tragedy. 

Though there were occasional early horror films set in the jungle, many of these were concerned with voodoo. Island of Lost Souls is unique in the richness and of its oppressive jungle atmosphere, thick with foreboding plants, strange beasts hidden between the trees, and odd sounds in the night. The impressive visuals were provided by the great Karl Struss, whose work ranged from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Murnau’s Sunrise to Vincent Price vehicle The Fly. This is some of his best work in the horror genre and it is certainly the best film of Erle C. Kenton, mostly known for a number of Abbott and Costello films and some Universal horror sequels like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. Considering those, it is amazing that Island of Losts Souls is his creation and it’s a shame he didn’t have a chance to make anything else as powerful. 

I can only imagine how much this film terrified audiences, as this snuck in before the Hays Code was put in place and wasn’t torn to parts by censors. It deals quite frankly with interspecies attraction and sex, and the chilling and sadistic misuse of science. Though only a kiss is shared between Parker and Lota, he quickly figures out Moreau’s intentions and is horrified, not only at the implications, but at his own desire. The film was actually banned in several countries due to the subject matter and Moreau’s line “Do you know what it means to feels like God?” While Henry Frankenstein utters a similar line in Frankenstein just a year earlier, Colin Clive gives a completely different delivery, someone mad from the success of completing something he only faintly believed to be possible. Laughton delivers the line in a silky, pleased way, indicating he already thinks Parker is beneath him and is little more than a fitting subject for his new breeding program.

Island of the Lost Souls comes highly recommended and is one of the finest horror films from the early ‘30s. Unlike most of its brethren, it has aged particularly well and its horrors still offer fresh appeal. The film is on Blu-ray from Criterion and this restored version with a number of excellent special features is currently the best available. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

MURDER BY THE CLOCK

Edward Sloman, 1931
Starring: William Boyd, Lilyan Tashman, Irving Pichell

Since I first heard the rough plot premise for Murder By Clock, I was dying to see it. According to IMDB, “An elderly woman installs a horn in her crypt in case she’s buried alive.” I had never been able to find out much more than that, but it really is an excellent premise that could make a great mystery-horror film. Unfortunately the film itself is much better in theory than practice and feels like a much lesser version of James Whale’s Old Dark House. A selfish, greedy, and very rich old woman, Mrs. Endicott, is paranoid that she’s going to be buried alive and routinely checks her crypt, which is outfitted with a loud horn. She has a mentally deficient son, Philip, who is more interested in fantasizing about casually killing people than continuing the illustrious family line. The only other heir is Herbert, Mrs. Endicott’s alcoholic nephew with an absolute shrew of a wife. 

One night when her son is in a particularly murderous mood, Mrs. Endicott decides to change her will and leave everything to Herbert. Almost immediately afterwards, she is strangled to death. Though the police blame Philip and hold him in jail, the suspect list is fairly long. Herbert and his wife Laura move into the Endicott mansion, but more bodies pile up and Laura stirs up as much trouble as possible. 

While I don’t typically like to give away spoilers, everything in this film is fairly obvious and routine. Laura has persuaded a series of men to commit murder with the promise that they will one day be with her. She convinces all the men in her life to kill someone: Herbert, her husband, Tom, her boyfriend, and Philip, who she visits in jail. 

Thanks to Karl Struss (Island of Lost Souls) there is some lovely cinematography and spooky atmosphere with fog, secret passageways, and the Endicott family crypt. Sadly there is just not enough to keep this film interesting. Silent actress Lilyan Tashman (Pretty Ladies) is the only thing that propels the film forward, but even she is boxed into an unlikable, two dimensional role and it is thoroughly unbelievable that she could manipulate so many men into committing murder. Irving Pichel (Dracula’s Daughter, co-director of The Most Dangerous Game and She) is amusing as the inept Philip and he is clearly having a lot of fun with the role, but, again, the script prevents him from doing anything interesting. Though this is a Pre-Code film, the film abandons many instances where they could make Lilyan Tashman's seduction scenes a lot sexier and the murder scenes far more horrifying.

I can’t recommend Murder by Clock. I’ve heard that the novel by Rufus King is a lot more compelling and - I can’t believe I’m saying this - I think it would be interesting as a remake (with several re-writes, of course). If you want to see the original film, I don’t believe it is available on DVD, but it’s in the public domain and is on YouTube. Instead, I would recommend The Cat and the Canary, The Bat, or The Old Dark House. Even later films of a similar nature, like Vincent Price-vehicle House on Haunted Hill prove that this genre has way more to offer. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931)

Rouben Mamoulian, 1931
Starring: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart

“I’ll show you what horror means!”

Though this was not the first adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s excellent horror novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1886, it is the first sound version and remains the finest film adaptation to date. This is one of Paramount’s best horror films and certainly gave Universal a run for their money. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is devoid of the humor peppered through Universal’s horror films and benefits from strong leading performances, namely from Fredric March, who won an Academy Award for his performance. The two main female characters are more independent and dynamic than their Universal counterparts and provide a greater degree of complexity for the film. 

Dr. Henry Jekyll, who has a reputation for benevolence and brilliance around London, has been experimenting with a way to separate man’s bad and good natures, in order for the positive aspect to be set free. Meanwhile, he is anxiously awaiting marriage to his beloved Muriel, whose conservative father, General Carew, insists they wait almost a year. He rescues a lovely young woman, Ivy, from a man attacking her and she makes advances towards him. Carew takes Muriel away for a few months and in his agonized boredom, Jekyll experiments with a drug that splits his identity and transforms him into Mr. Hyde, a grotesque, violent man. Hyde seeks out Ivy and convinces her to agree to an arrangement: he will pay for a better quality of life if she agrees to a relationship with him. Ivy soon comes to regret this and sees the worst of Hyde’s violent, cruel nature. 

In desperation, Ivy’s begs Dr. Jekyll for help, remembering his kindness to her. He promises Hyde will never bother her again, but he doesn’t realize that he will now transform into Hyde without the aid of the drug. Muriel returns and they convince her father that their marriage should happen soon. Hyde, meanwhile, pays Ivy a final visit and murders her because she went to Jekyll for help, revealing that he is both Jekyll and Hyde. Now on the run from the police, Hyde is desperate to transform back into Jekyll, but needs the potion. He reaches out to a fellow doctor, his friend Lanyon, who refuses to give Hyde the potion without first seeing Jekyll. 

With little choice left, Hyde reveals himself to a horrified Lanyon, taking the potion and transforming back into Jekyll. Jekyll, now in a state of near madness, is unable to rid himself of Hyde. He has a tearful, almost frenzied reunion with Muriel, where he tells her he must break off their engagement even though he loves her, and she begs him to stay regardless of the consequences. Before he can leave, he turns into Hyde, who attempts to rape Muriel and murders her father when he interrupts the attack, beating the man to death with a cane. He flees back to the lab and transforms into Jekyll, but Lanyon leads the police there. An enraged Hyde emerges and is shot to death by the police before he can kill Lanyon. In death, he turns back into a peaceful looking Jekyll. 

Armenian-American director Rouben Mamoulian, one of the most innovative directors of the ‘20s and ‘30s, was known for his impressive work in theater, particularly with musicals, and film. He made one of the first sound films, Applause (1929), directed Greta Garbo in the famed Queen Christina (1933), and also made the first three-strip Technicolor film, Becky Sharp (1935). Though Technicolor was invented as early as 1916, “three-strip” refers to the fourth developmental phase the process went through. Though Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde doesn’t share many themes in common with Mamoulian’s more lighthearted musicals or adventure films, his innovative spirit remained. The transformation process that turns Jekyll into Hyde was kept secret for years until Mamoulian finally revealed it during an interview later in his life (it involves a blend of colored make up and camera filters). 

Mamoulian’s interpretation of Hyde, brought to life by make up artist Wally Westmore,  would go on to influence future filmmakers and artists, but his version is notably different than Stevenson’s Hyde. Mamoulian shows him as almost de-evolved or bestial, and he looks either Simian or wolfish with fangs, a heavy jaw, and a flat nose. There is certainly a connection between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the werewolf myth that Hollywood would help develop in the ‘40s, particularly in this version of the story. Hyde is more animalistic and impulse driven than he is outright evil, unlike the Hyde of the novel, which fits closely with Jekyll’s irrepressible, almost repulsive desire for Muriel. At its heart, this is a film about the disastrous, violent effects of sexual repression and Hyde is its personification. 

Oddly for a film of this time, the script makes very few moral judgements, particularly towards Ivy. She is a prostitute, works in a dance hall, and repeatedly attempts to seduce Jekyll, despite his engagement to Muriel, but the film portrays her as sympathetic and somewhat naive. Her abuse at Hyde’s hands must have been shocking at the time and still packs a punch (no pun intended). His treatment of her is brutal and cruel, including physical, sexual, and emotional tortures. She bears obvious marks of Hyde’s sexual sadism, such as numerous bruises and whip lashes and tells Jekyll that he has done other things that she can’t speak aloud. This is clearly a Pre-Code film and most of these scenes would undoubtedly have been censored or removed at a later date, namely Ivy’s violent murder, much of which is shown on screen. There is also the first scene between Ivy and Jekyll to consider, which is probably the most unabashedly sexual scene in ‘30s horror cinema. Ivy's sexuality is unrestrained and thoroughly unembarrassed. The script, again, does not judge Jekyll or Ivy for their enthusiastic interaction (it is really just a kiss, but Ivy is naked beneath a blanket), and makes fun of Hyde’s stuffy friend, Lanyon, when he interrupts them and admonishes Jekyll. 

I’ve written before about how men in ‘30s and ‘40s horror films are all complete creeps, but Jekyll tops nearly all of them (with the except of Bela Lugosi, creep extraordinaire). Jekyll’s love for Muriel is obviously fueled by unfulfilled lust and it is no wonder her father doesn’t want them to marry early. There is a particularly disturbing line where Lanyon asks Jekyll if he has forgotten about Muriel and Jekyll replies, “Can a man dying of thirst forget water? And do you know what would happen to that thirst if it were denied water?” 

Regardless of his almost pathological need to begin a sexual relationship with Muriel, Jekyll is likable despite being flawed. Fredric March makes the film and his switch between Jekyll and Hyde was certainly worthy of an award. Rose Hobart gives a good performance as Muriel, though she is not onscreen long and is only able to really shine towards the end of the film. Unlike Universal’s horror damsels in distress, Muriel is her own person. She follows the rules of her father, General Carew (Halliwell Hobbs, dripping with Victorian restraint and a love of propriety and order), but puts her foot down on occasion, and even gets carried away by passion towards the end of the film. She is absolutely blown out of the water by Miriam Hopkins. During Pre-Code cinema, Hopkins was able to make a name for herself as the token sexy bad girl in films like Design for Living, again with Fredric March, though she was known for being a drama queen on set. She is excellent here and her performance is only second to March’s. 

The film mostly takes place indoors, but we are occasionally treated to some lovely London set pieces soaked with fog and there is a nice visual divide between Jekyll’s aristocratic world and Hyde’s seedier London. Jekyll’s laboratory is simple, but is one of the best and most used sets. Though the laboratory would be a bit over-represented in American horror over the next 10 to 15 years, in 1931 it was a relatively new space for cinematic horror. 1931 would introduce audiences to the the laboratories of both Dr. Henry Jekyll and Dr. Henry Frankenstein. The laboratory was a place of genius, imagination, and creativity, but also a place of violence, death, and the destruction of conventional morality and traditional family values. 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not a perfect film and in some respects has not dated well. The middle of the film drags a bit and modern viewers may not be used to the slower pace, but if you can be patient, this is an excellent film. One of my only complaints is the tedious opening sequence, filmed in a single long take, where we see everything in first person from Jekyll’s perspective. As I’ve mentioned, one of Mamoulian’s greatest talents was his innovation, but here it feels showy and overly long. 

One of the script’s other flaws is that we don’t really know what Jekyll intends to happen with his experiments. Just as Henry Frankenstein wants to create life with no apparent end goal in mind, Jekyll wants to “split the soul.” He believes that this divide will allow man’s evil nature to briefly run its course and then disappear, but he doesn’t seem to have put much thought into this or realize what will happen when he sets his darker half free. “Free at last!”

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde comes highly recommended, but the slow pace and stiff dialogue may scare away younger viewers only accustomed to more recent styles of filmmaking. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is available as a double feature with the 1941 remake starring Spencer Tracy. I’m still disappointed that no one has put out a special edition of this film, but hopefully that will come sometime soon. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

M (1931)

Fritz Lang, 1931
Starring: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Gründgens

I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me! The fire, the voices, the torment!”

Children in Berlin begin falling prey to a child murderer and the community is in a state of panic. Parents anxiously watch their children and police roam the streets in increasing numbers. Hans Beckert, revealed to the audience to be the killer, kills another child and sends a letter to the media about his crimes. The police try desperately to find clues about him, led by Inspector Karl Lohmann. They begin searching psychiatric hospitals and start raiding areas frequented by Berlin’s criminal underworld. Frustrated by this, the city’s leading criminals plan to catch Beckert using the city’s many beggars and transients to assist them. Though the police successfully find Beckert’s apartment in a boarding house, he is out hunting down another child. He is spotted with a young girl and chased into an abandoned building. He is forced to face a large number of criminals, working class citizens, and the families of his victims so that they can try and sentence him for his crimes. Before they can execute him, the police arrive and arrest him, and he awaits his sentencing in a German court. 

Fritz Lang’s M kicks off my series of non-Universal classic horror of the ‘30s and ‘40s. While M is not strictly horror and doesn’t fit in with many of the other films on this list, which are mostly American, it is one of the most important films of the ‘30s and influenced many future crime and horror films. Though this is essentially a crime drama/suspense thriller, it is also a film about a serial killer and probes some of the more horrifying depths of the human mind. M was one of the first “horror” films to examine the monster as fundamentally human: dangerous and destructive, yet also flawed, broken, and sympathetic.

Peter Lorre, in his first starring role, gives an incredibly compelling, sympathetic performance as Beckert. He is at once pathetic, sick, mad, manipulative, and desperate. Though he doesn’t actually appear on screen very much, the film is seeped with his presence. We see him through frames, windows, and in mirror reflections, symbolic of his fragmented psyche and growing madness. Beckert also frequently whistles “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt (it was actually Lang whistling). This device is known as a leitmotif and is common in opera. Lang was the first to use it in cinema, but it has since become wildly popular. He does a number of fascinating things with sound in the film, particularly moments of agonizing silence where other directors from the period were filling up their films with dialogue, thanks to the advent of sound cinema. Considering that this is his first sound film, the achievement is somewhat staggering. 

Though there is certainly a lot to choose from (such as Metropolis, Dr. Mabuse, Scarlet Street, etc.), Lang considered this his best work. This is no doubt due in some part to Fritz Arno Wagner, who contributed the amazing cinematography. Grimy, prison-like, and claustrophobic, the film is beautifully shot and nearly every scene has some moment of wonder. It is definitely worth watching the film several times, at least once for the story and Lang’s complex themes, once for the cinematographic achievements, and once for Lang’s original and imaginative use of sound. 

Written by Lang and his second wife Thea von Harbou, he did extensive research for this film and met a number of child murderers, including the infamous Peter Kürten, known as the Vampire of Düsseldorf. Lang denied that the film was specifically based on Kürten and cited the many other serial killers active in Weimar and pre-Weimar Germany including Fritz Haarmann. (Ulli Lommel and Kurt Raab, collaborators of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, later made a film about Haarmann, The Tenderness of the Wolves (1973).) With a flavor of neorealism, Lang also allegedly used real criminal as extras. 

On the surface, this is a film about a community seeking vigilante justice against a child killer. But on closer reflection, the justice is selfish and corrupt. The criminals want Beckert off the street for the simple reason that they want the police off their backs. The police, for their part, have made little headway and throughout the film become indistinguishable from the criminals. Lang tellingly shows both groups making deals in dark, grimy rooms choked with cigar smoke. This blatant display of corruption made the film very unpopular with the Nazis, who were on the rise in 1931, though not yet fully in power. Lang’s themes in M and a Jewish ancestor made him unpopular with the Nazis, though Reich Minster of Propaganda Josef Goebbels recognized his talent enough to offer him the position of head filmmaker. Soon after he declined, he also fled from Germany and was given a lifelong exile.

M, like Michael Haneke’s much later The White Ribbon (2009), shows, in a certain sense, how fascism becomes possible with the gradual, yet terrifying development of mob mentality. Weimar Germany was known for its poverty, corruption, and social decadence. Lang’s film is a scathing indictment of the culture he was soon to flee from and a country that was on the verge of dramatic, unthinkable change. The men portrayed throughout the film are not likable, fleshed out characters, they are grotesque cut outs, as are many of the settings - seedy bars, decaying buildings, and poorly lit rooms full of cigar smoke and low lighting. 

Lang makes excellent use of conveying a thing by showing its absence. We never see the murders or corpses of any of the children, but his method of indicating little Elsie’s death is incredibly effective. He shows us a series of scenes that Elsie should be in, but is not: a dinner table full of food with no one sitting in the chairs, an empty room with hanging laundry, Elsie’s ball bouncing down the street on its own, and, worst of all, the person-shaped balloon Beckert bought her is alone, strangled in some wires before it blows out of the frame. 

M comes highly recommended and is known as one of the greatest films of the 20th century for many reasons. As I said, this is not strictly a horror film and is more of a complex, moral drama with thriller, crime, and horror elements. Though it is breathtaking and compelling, modern viewers may find it a little slow. My only complains is that though the chase scene is beautiful, it does feel a little overly long as the society of criminals drive Beckert deep into the bowels of a warehouse and the police desperately try to figure out why they are raiding that particular building.

Criterion has released excellent DVD and Blu-ray editions of M, the latter of which is what I’m reviewing. The Criterion edition is restored in high definition with a slew of special features: audio commentary from a number of writers and film scholars, the English language version of the film, a 50 minute film about Fritz Lang, a short film directed by Claude Chabrol that was inspired by M, interviews, a documentary, and more. I highly recommend picking up this restored edition, though anyway you can see the film, it is well worth it. 

Classic Horror From the 1930s and 1940s

Now that I’ve finished a complete series on just about every classic horror film made by Universal up through the Creature with the Black Lagoon series (minus any atomic creature features of the early ‘50s, which deserves its own series), it seemed like a good idea to go back and cover some classic and forgotten non-Universal horror films that I missed. Earlier this year I also did a complete Val Lewton horror series and I’ve already written about Carl Dreyer’s experimental and effective Vampyr (1932), so those will not be included.  

The 32 films below are mostly American, though there are some exceptions, namely movies that I thought were interesting or particularly influential. I tried to stick to classics, but rounded out the list with some bizarre, neglected little films that represent some of the odd sub-genres being explored during those two decades. While some of these are not strictly horror films - there are a few suspense films and crime movies - I included them because they were either influential or a key example of the growing popularity of cult/B films in general. And of course there is some absolute trash on the list, because why not.

Fritz Lang is indisputably one of the greatest directors of early German and American cinema. One of his classics, M (1930) is more of a drama or thriller than an outright horror film, but it concerns the fate of child murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) and his effect on the local community. The Hungarian born Lorre became a star of German cinema before fleeing the Nazis and relocating to the U.S. (along with Lang), where he appeared in a number of cult horror films, often alongside horror legends Vincent Price and Boris Karloff. 
Though Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) was preceded by 8 silent adaptations, this remains one of the finest versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s beloved horror novel. Directed by Armenian-American Rouben Mamoulian, known for his successful Broadway career and musical films, the transformation effects he used in this film were considered ground breaking. Lead Fredric Marsh won an Academy Award for his excellent dual portrayals of the troubled Dr. Jekyll and the monstrous Mr. Hyde. This film is also notable because it was made before the enforcement of the Hays Code and contains a surprising amount of sexuality for the time period. 

Murder by the Clock (1931) is a thoroughly bizarre, atmospheric early horror film from Paramount that concerns a wealthy old woman who has a horn installed in her crypt to make sure that she is not accidentally buried alive. When the future of the family fortune is up in the air, a femme fatal appears on the scene and bodies begin to pile up. The visuals were influenced by German expressionism, along with many early American horror films, and the plot is a weirder, darker version of “old dark house” horror-comedies from the period like The Cat and the Canary (1927). 
Erle C. Kenton, director of some of Universal’s more questionable horror sequels (House of Dracula, House of Frankenstein), was also responsible for Island of Lost Souls (1932). The first adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, this stars Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff in an eerie tale of human-animal experimentation and the trouble that ensues when an outsider is stranded on the island. This is an early example of the mad scientist/science gone wrong genre that would grow in popularity over the next two decades and nearly overtake horror in the ‘50s. 

Freaks (1932) is unique, unforgettable film from one of Hollywood’s most bizarre and independent directors, Tod Browning (Dracula). Freaks could surely have only been made in a Pre-Code environment. Though many of Browning’s films with silent legend Lon Chaney involved circus themes, there is absolutely nothing like Freaks. A beautiful trapeze artist marries a sideshow midget and plans to murder him so that she and the strongman can make off with his money. But the other circus freaks discover her plan and have something else in mind. 
Another Pre-Code horror classic, White Zombie (1932), features one of Bela Lugosi’s most memorable performances as Murder Legendre, a voodoo master. This is the first full-length American zombie film, though the zombies are a product of voodoo rather than any kind of unexplained reanimation. A plantation owner in Haiti becomes obsessed with Madeleine, who is there visiting her fiancé. Desperate to marry her himself, the plantation owner convinces Legendre to give her a potion with predictably disastrous results. 

Doctor X (1932) is another horror film from the period with elements of mystery and comedy, and is an example of the growing cinematic interest in serial murder. A reporter is investigating a series of linked murders that occur during the full moon and include elements of cannibalism. A local specialist, Dr. Xavier (Universal horror regular Lionel Atwill) is called in for his expert opinion, but is also considered a suspect. Due to its Pre-Code release, the film including a number of unpleasant elements like cannibalism, rape, and voyeurism. 
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) will no doubt be an example of somewhat appalling racism to modern viewers, but the villainous Chinese criminal mastermind, Fu Manchu, was a surprisingly popular character and a number of films were made throughout the ‘30s, and later when the series was revived by Hammer Studios. Boris Karloff stars as the titular Fu Manchu, in a race to reach the legendary tomb of Genghis Khan and retrieve a sword that will allow him to start a war between Asia and the West. He bribes, murders, kidnaps, brainwashes, and tortures his way there, desperate to find the sword at any cost. 

More of a creature feature/adventure film than an outright horror movie, Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong (1933) is one of the most enduring and popular films of the period. A desperate filmmaker convinces a down on her luck young actress to travel to a mysterious island to make a movie. They land on the previously uncharted island, unprepared for its inhabitants: dinosaurs, other prehistoric creatures, a tribe of natives, and Kong, a giant gorilla. He falls for Ann, the actress, and saves her from the other creatures on the island. Using her as bait, the director tricks Kong on board their boat and subdues him, determined to parade him through Manhattan as the “Eight Wonder of the World!” Kong rampages through the city and is tragically destroyed while trying to escape and protect Ann. King Kong remains one of the greatest giant monster films and is the first movie that ever made me cry. 
King Kong’s star, Fay Wray, was in another horror film the same year, Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), directed by Doctor X’s Michael Curtiz. A sculptor (Lionel Atwill) is badly injured when his business partner sets their wax museum on fire to collect the insurance money. Several years later the crippled sculptor reopens the museum, but pretty young women turn up dead and a reporter notices that the newest additions to the museum strangely resemble them. This was later remade with Vincent Price as House of Wax

Director of The Mummy (1932) and highly influential cinematographer Karl Freund directed Peter Lorre in Mad Love (1935), an adaptation of German expressionist classic The Hands of Orlac. Lorre plays the nefarious Dr. Gogol, who is obsessed with a young actress and is devastated to learn she is moving away with her pianist husband. After the husband’s hands are disfigured in a train crash, she pleas for Gogol to help him. He gets his revenge by grafting the hands of a murderer onto her husband and things take a horrific turn.
Mark of the Vampire (1935) was one of Tod Browning’s final films and stars Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, and Lionel Barrymore in Browning’s remake of his now lost silent film London After Midnight. When a local aristocrat is found dead with two marks on his neck, vampires are blamed. The mysterious Count Mora (Lugosi) and his daughter are suspected, but things are not as they seem. This somewhat satiric film represents a semi-popular trend in early horror — to explain away the supernatural by naming human perpetrators —  and also represents some of the limitations of the newly enforced Production Code. 
Lionel Barrymore returned for Browning’s odd final horror film, The Devil-Doll (1936), about a man wrongly accused of murder and robbery and imprisoned on the infamous Devil’s Island. He escapes with the help of a mad scientist who has been working on a formula to shrink people down to one-sixth their size. When the scientist dies, his widow and the escaped convict use the formula to get revenge on the people who have wronged them. 

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) is important, because I had to include at least one Tod Slaughter film on this list. Though the prolific film and theater actor is largely ignored today in favor of his contemporaries Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, he was known for portraying a number of over-the-top melodramatic and horror villains. Sweeney Todd was his career making role and he played Sweeney almost 2,000 times on stage. This is his most famous work with director George King, Tod’s regular collaborator.
The Return of Doctor X (1939) is a sequel to Doctor X in name only and surprisingly features Humphrey Bogart in the titular role. When bodies are found murdered and drained of their blood, a doctor and a reporter visit the doctor’s old mentor and discover a disturbing secret. He has brought the infamous Dr. Xavier back from the dead, but Xavier didn’t come back quite right... This sci-fi horror blend is an example of some of the ridiculous, low budget mad scientists films still being produced into the end of the decade. Bogart felt this was his worst film and tried to disassociate himself with it as much as possible. 

The Devil Bat (1940) is one of the better late period star vehicles for Bela Lugosi for Poverty Row, where he was given much more interesting work than Universal in the '40s. This film is all about Bela, his oversized bat, some mad science, and a dollop of revenge.
The star-studded, Oscar nominated version of Stevenson’s horror classic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) is a direct remake of the 1931 Fredric Marsh film. Spencer Tracy starred alongside Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, and Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind) surprisingly took the director’s chair. Though not as successful as Mamoulian’s 1931 film, it still performed decently at the box office.
The Face Behind the Mask (1941) is another collaboration between director Robert Florey and star Peter Lorre. This dark crime film is about an immigrant whose face is horribly scarred upon his arrival to New York. His new appearance forces him to turn to a life of crime, but he meets and falls in love with a blind woman. Believing he has betrayed them, his gang accidentally kills the woman instead of him, and he sets out for revenge. 

The neglected The Undying Monster (1942) is a horror-mystery blend, but is also one of the forgotten werewolf films made in the ‘40s. A family has been suffering from a curse since the medieval era, with its members dying off in suspicious ways through the centuries. Recently, it seems a strange creature has emerged to do the curse’s dirty work, but when a wolf hair is found on the body, a local man suspects the truth. 
The Corpse Vanishes (1942) is a creepy, if somewhat ineffective tale that is an example of one of many films where Bela Lugosi plays a mad scientist. He stars as a doctor and orchid expert who kidnaps young virgins and drains their fluids in order to inject them into his aging wife and restore her youth. A young reporter follows the clue of a rare orchid left with one of the bodies and it leads her right to the sinister doctor. 

Brahm, who directed The Undying Monster, was back for The Lodger (1944), an effective tale of serial murder and mystery in the foggy, shadowed streets of London. A cabaret singer attracts the eye of a killer when they live in the same boarding house and one night he decides to pay her a visit. Though this is inferior to Hitchcock’s silent version from 1926 and completely removes his “wrong man” plot, it is a much better film than 1953 remake with Jack Palance, Man in the Attic, and benefits greatly from the inclusion of George Sanders. 
Edgar G. Ulmer’s Bluebeard (1944) is the moody tale of a French strangler preying on the city’s women and is somewhat neglected but deserves to be remembered as a minor masterpiece. Starring John Carradine, this is not quite as gruesome or controversial as Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) with Lugosi and Karloff, but it is an excellent example of the emerging serial killer subgenre. This was followed by Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1948), a more faithful, though modernized version of the French fairytale. 

One of the finest haunted house films of the ‘40s, The Uninvited (1944) follows a composer and his sister, who rent a beautiful house on the English coast for an oddly low price. Their idyll is shattered after some drama with a local girl and they begin to hear strange cries in the house. After a number of unsettling events, it becomes clear that the house is haunted and they are trapped with a mysterious evil. 
Gaslight (1944), a psychological thriller starred Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten was directed by George Cukor, who typically helmed romantic comedies like The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib, and My Fair Lady. After the tragic death of her aunt, the young Paula trains to be an opera singer. She breaks off her training to marry Gregory, who insists they live in her aunt’s abandoned house. Gregory begins to isolate Paula and a number of strange things happen around the house. Is it haunted? Is she losing her mind? 

The Spiral Staircase (1945) is an excellent Hitchcockian thriller from director Robert Siodmak (The Killers) that takes another look into the growing fascination with serial killers. A local killer is victimizing disabled young women. It seems that a mute girl working in the neighborhood as a live-in nurse is his newest target. If she cannot get over her trauma and learn to speak - or to scream - in time, no one will save her. 
The noir-tinged Hangover Square (1945) borrows a lot from The Lodger and presents the disturbing tale of a musician who regularly blacks out and suffers from amnesia. Women around London turn up dead, strangled to death, and the police wonder if he is responsible. Though not one of the most popular serial killer thrillers from the period, this is an effective film with some wonderful set pieces. 

Dead of Night (1945), a British anthology film, is one of the forgotten horror gems of this period, though fans have likely seen or heard of it due to the famous segment involving Michael Redgrave and the creepiest ventriloquist dummy ever filmed (granted, I think they’re all pretty disturbing). Horror films were banned during WWII in Britain, so this is one of the few examples and it is certainly a high point for the decade. 
René Clair's And Then There Were None (1945) is not strictly a horror film and is based on a novel by Agatha Christie. It does bear a lot in common with the old dark house horror-mystery genre and is one of the most enjoyable films in that genre. Ten people are invited to a mysterious island and one by one, they are killed, supposedly because they are each guilty of a crime. Can the survivors find the murderer in time?

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) might seem more at home alongside other literary adaptations, but this horror-tinged drama is one of my favorite films from the ‘40s. I also believe this version of Oscar Wilde’s famous novel remains the finest adaptation to date. The young, lovely Dorian Gray has a friend paint his portrait and wishes on it that he could stay young forever. Meanwhile, he falls into a libertine life of callous depravity, but his appearance never changes.
More a moody, atmospheric drama/thriller than an outright horror film, Woman Who Came Back (1945) is an interesting and largely forgotten work that concerns a strange woman who believes she is possessed by a 300 year old witch after surviving a bus accident. She becomes so convinced of this that hysteria eventually breaks out in the small town that she has returned to. 

Robert Florey and Peter Lorre united again for The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), a delightful, delirious horror film about a famous pianist who dies and suddenly leaves his estate to his young, pretty nursemaid. His remaining family members arrive to dispute this and his assistant/librarian (Lorre) is only concerned with a number of valuable occult books. People begin to drop dead, but is the pianist’s disembodied hand responsible or is the culprit more human?
Based on a story by Alexander Pushkin, The Queen of Spades (1949) is a neglected, Faustian horror-fantasy film from Britain that concerns a Russian countess who always wins at gambling. A down on his luck soldier is desperate to discover her secret and will go to any lengths, including violence. But the truth is too horrible for him to imagine. 

I hope you follow along on this month that proves to be a little more exciting than the latter half of Universal horror. While I am mostly covering the classics, there are of course many, many more horror films from this period that I hope to write about at a later time. Paramount made hundreds of films before they were later sold to Universal, including many horror and mystery films. There are also dozens of Poverty Row horror films, where beloved actors like Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, and John Carradine fled to later in their careers. This month of classic horror is also meant to prepare me for my favorite time of year: Halloween and October, where I have a surprise series planned. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

SONG OF THE THIN MAN

Edward Buzzell, 1947
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy

The last of the Thin Man series is certainly better than the fifth entry, The Thin Man Goes Home, but isn’t really a fitting conclusion to the series - it simply feels like a random entry. Nick and Nora are partying at a charity event aboard the S.S. Fortune, a gambling ship owned by Phil Brant. The main entertainment is provided by a jazz band, but the band leader, Tommy Drake, soon informs Brant that he is leaving for a better job offer. Drake owes a gangster a lot of money and when he can’t get ahold of it, he tries to break into Brant’s safe, but is shot in the act. A number of people are suspects, but Brant is at the top of the list. He and his new wife, Janet, plead with Nick and Nora to take up the case and clear his name. Someone nearly kills Brant and Nick has no choice but to turn Brant into the police station to keep him safe. He is also now forced to take on Brant’s case or else he will be kept in prison permanently. 

Though there are some entertaining moments in each, the fifth and sixth films of the series just don’t measure up to the first four. This follows the traditional formula of red herrings, lots of suspects, and a conclusion where Nick gathers everyone together to reveal the real killer. Where in the first four films, Nora does little more than egg Nick on and encourage him to solve the case, in the latter two films she discovers an important clue: a painting in The Thin Man Goes Home and some jewelry in Song of the Thin Man

Powell and Loy are in better form here than in The Thin Man Goes Home, or at least the script treats them better. They are both still a joy to watch and make this a worthwhile rental. Gloria Grahame (In a Lonely Place) has an early appearance here as a singer and one of the key suspects. She is also one of three actors to get an early start with the Thin Man series before appearing in It’s a Wonderful Life, along with James Stewart, who appeared in the second film, and Donna Reed, who appeared in the fourth film. I was shocked to learn that Nicky Jr. is played by a very young Dean Stockwell (Blue Velvet, Quantum Leap). Though I saw his name on the credits, it took me a few days to process the fact that it was the same Dean Stockwell. The lovely Patricia Morison (Kiss Me Kate and Universal’s Inner Sanctum and Sherlock Holmes series) also makes a welcome appearance. 

The jazz background feels like filler and a lot of the dialogue really slows things down. While I think the Thin Man films as a whole have aged very well, the fifth and six entries are definitely an exception to this rule. There are simply too many characters and too many red herrings to maintain much of a serious interest about the murder mystery. It’s much the same with most of the other films, but those were bolstered by wit and snappy dialogue. Nick and Nora are the real draw and it is a shame that original screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich didn’t stay on to finish the series. Nick and Nora sadly feel like different characters in the hands of other writers. Song of the Thin Man is only recommended to Nick and Nora fans or anyone interested in early mystery-comedies, though it is a pleasant way to pass an hour or so. You can find the film in The Complete Thin Man Collection DVD box set

THE THIN MAN GOES HOME

Richard Thorpe, 1945
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy

This fifth entry in the Thin Man series is the first not directed by W.S. Van Dyke, who died in 1943. Richard Thorpe (Ivanhoe and Double Wedding with Powell and Loy) does a decent job taking up the directorial reins, but this is a completely different Nick and Nora and marks a major departure in the series. The film begins with Nick and Nora traveling on a very crowded train to visit Nick’s parents in a suburban town in New England. Though Nick has a strained relationship with his father, Nora is convinced that if Nick solves a crime, his father will be suitably impressed/proud. She starts some rumors around town that Nick is there on a case, which predictably brings a dead body to their door. An employee at a local aircraft factory came to reveal some information to Nick, but was shot before he could talk. There is also a painting making its way around town that everyone is dying to get their hands on. Sometimes literally. 

The Thin Man Goes Home is a bit disappointing and is only recommended for die hard fans of the series. There are a number of disturbing changes. First and foremost, no one drinks. The excuse is that Nick’s father doesn’t approve of alcohol, so Nick walks around drinking apple cider out of a flask. Really this is because of severe rationing during wartime, where it probably would have been inappropriate to show someone drinking heavily on screen. Secondly, there is a major emphasis on physical comedy. While some of these scenes are funny (a lawn chair Nora is sitting on collapses and she accidentally launches Nick out of a hammock and he lands on top of her, for all the neighbors to see), most of them are just ridiculous and don’t fit in the with tone of the series. Nick repeatedly falls chasing Asta in a train station, and he falls numerous times at his parents’ house, which is father chalks up to drinking. 

The third and most disappointing change is Nora’s character, which is completely different from the first four films. Gone is the delightful, witty banter between Nick and Nora. She’s become somewhat of a nosy, screeching shrew in this one and argues with Nick’s parents about how important he is. In a certain sense, it’s endearing, but it’s simply out of character for Nora. Insultingly, the film makes her the butt of several jokes, rather than a willing, intelligent participant in them. This film also substantially changes Nick’s background, which was established in the novel. Nora’s wealthy family looked down on him because he came from a family of working class Greek immigrants. Here he’s a doctor’s son from the suburbs of New England and his father disapproves of his lifestyle as much as Nora’s family. What? The suburban setting is also an odd change of pace, taking us far from Nick and Nora’s world of glamor, romance, drinking, and danger. This is also the only film to directly reference the war, as a major component of the plot are some stolen airplane plans. 

With that said, there are some positive moments. Lucile Watson and Harry Davenport give some good performances as Nick’s parents and Gloria DeHaven is quite funny as a young, dramatic actress caught up in the murder. There’s a great scene where Nora, thinking she has identified the murderer, a man who happens to be Nick’s friend, decides to tail him. Nick discretely tells him to give her a bit of exercise, which leads them all around town and into a shady pool hall (a place no proper lady was supposed to go). It turns out Nora is also being followed by a potential suspect, but she manages to slip away by starting a fight that spreads throughout the entire pool hall. She hides in a phone booth, calls the police, and then tells Nick about her adventure. He asks, “You did that without drinking?” There's another hilarious scene where he grabs Nora, bends her over his knee, and spanks her with a rolled up newspaper. 

Overall this is only recommended to Nick and Nora fans. It’s certainly the lowest point of the series, and though parts of it are still fun, it just doesn’t add up to the first and third films. The Thin Man Goes Home is available in The Complete Thin Man Collection DVD box set

Thursday, August 22, 2013

SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN

W.S. Van Dyke, 1941
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Donna Reed

Though it is not one of my favorite entries in the six film Thin Man series, the fourth is still a strong effort and marks the final involvement of director W.S. Van Dyke. Back home in San Francisco, Nick and Nora plan to take the afternoon off and visit the racetrack, where Nick enjoys gambling, but they soon find themselves caught up in a case when a jockey is murdered. The police ask him to assist in finding the murderer and he soon uncovers a gambling ring, a framed man, more murders, and all kinds of other nonsense. 

Their young son, Nick Jr. (Dickie Hall) is featured more prominently in this film and is involved in some comic scenes with Nick. He’s not too annoying (I generally dislike children in movies.) There’s a great opening scene where Nick pretends to read to his son in the park, but he really has a racing guide hidden inside the children’s book. He is also tricked by Nick Jr. into drinking a glass of milk, instead of his preferred alcohol. Though the drinking is still relatively toned down in this film, Nora summons Nick by waving a cocktail shaker and wins over 250 martinis from him while gambling (on a turtle race). Overall this is a very action packed entry in the series and some hilarity results from a crowded wrestling match (keep an eye peeled for Tor Johnston, an Ed Wood regular) and a very funny restaurant fight accidentally started by their terrier, Asta. 

Powell and Loy are just as charismatic, though the dialogue is not quite up the level of the first three films. Nora is not in this film as much as the first three, which is probably why it suffers, though there are some nice performances from the supporting actors. A very young Donna Reed appears as the girlfriend of a man who was framed and famed acting coach Stella Adler makes a scene-stealing appearance as a gangster’s sweetheart. 

This is the first film not written by married team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Instead, Harry Kurnitz and Irving Brecher took up writing duties. Kurnitz was responsible for classics like the Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy How the Steal a Million and Brecher penned Meet in St. Louis. While they do a decent job, this is certainly less witty than the previous three films and involves a lot more spectacle. Fortunately it manages to rise above the slapstick, physical comedy that nearly drowns the fifth film. The plot is needlessly complicated, more so than the earlier films, and ends with the traditional scene where Nick rounds up all the main characters and suspects to reveal the killer. 

After this film, Myrna Loy took a break for three years to volunteer with the Red Cross in New York during WWII, but Shadow of the Thin Man was followed by two more, sadly inferior films. Shadow of the Thin Man is recommended for fans of Nick and Nora or anyone who loves classics comedies from the ‘30s and ‘40s. You can find this film in The Complete Thin Man Collection DVD box set

ANOTHER THIN MAN

W.S. Van Dyke, 1939
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Skippy, Otto Kruger

The third entry in the Thin Man series is my favorite next to the original Thin Man, despite the fact that Nick and Nora now have a baby, little Nicky Jr. This sequel probably holds up so well because director W.S. Van Dyke returned, as did screenwriting husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Some of the filler scenes from the second film are removed, leaving us with more Nick and Nora, a better mystery, and more laughs. 

Nick, Nora, Asta, and Nicky Jr have returned to New York, but they are immediately summoned to the Long Island home of Nora’s family friend, Colonel MacFay. It seems the questionable Phil Church has been threatening the Colonel and even though the old man has dramatically increased security at his country estate, he wants Nick to get to the bottom of things. Despite Nick and Nora’s arrival, the Colonel is soon killed and Nick uncovers many more suspects than just Phil Church, including members of the Colonel’s own household. Can he and Nora discover the real murderer before someone else dies?

I was afraid that the addition of a baby would ruin a lot of the fun for this third film. Though Nora doesn't seem to drink at all and Nick drinks a lot less, the comedy keeps rolling. There’s a particularly funny scene where the Colonel has locked up his liquor cabinet to keep Nick focused and Nora embraces the old man in order to steal back the key. My only real complaint with the humor in the second film and this one are the constant jokes about Nick’s supposed infidelity, which is assumed a fact by many of the other characters. The first few times it was funny, but it has just become tedious by this point. Another Thin Man makes up for it a little more than the second film by including a funny scene at a night club where Nora attracts about a dozen men and is forced to dance with a particularly zealous admirer. 

There’s also a lot more action in this film and more murders than the previous efforts. The Colonel and the family dog both gruesomely have their throats slit, plus there’s the fact that someone murdered a dog at all (fortunately it’s not Asta). Another body goes missing, someone sets the Colonel’s swimming pool on fire, Nick is almost killed in the dark, and his life is repeatedly threatened. Though the film starts off as a parlor room mystery, it is soon awash with a number of characters ranging from questionable to unsavory. Nick’s usual ex-con friends show up and they are involved in what is probably the funniest scene in the film. Delighted that Nick and Nora have a baby, all of Nick’s old friends “borrow” babies and show up for a toddler birthday party. 

The acting is, as usual, wonderful and William Powell is as charming as ever, despite major life issues during this period. He took a break from filming Thin Man films to undergo several colon operations and was apparently quite weak during the filming of Another Thin Man. He was also mourning his fiancee, actress Jean Harlow, who died suddenly of renal failure in 1937. Loy, though now obviously creeping into middle age, is just as delightful as in the previous two films and the introduction of Nicky Jr lightens things up a bit. Otto Kruger (High Noon) makes an appearance as a suspicious D.A., Nat Pendelton returns as one of the detectives working with Nick, and C. Aubrey Smith steals a few early scenes as the stuffy, yet lovable Colonel. Tom Neal (Detour) is fittingly creepy as his secretary. 

Overall this comes highly recommended. If you only watch two films in the series, make it The Thin Man and this one. You can find Another Thin Man and the other five films in The Complete Thin Man Collection DVD box.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

AFTER THE THIN MAN

W.S. Van Dyke, 1936
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, James Stewart

Picking up right where The Thin Man left off, After the Thin Man follows Nick and Nora on their train ride from New York back to their home in San Francisco. It is New Year’s Eve and though they are hoping to spend a quiet holiday together, their house is full of people holding a surprise party for them, many of whom they don’t know. They are also summoned to dinner by Nora’s aristocratic family, namely her Aunt Katherine, who dislikes Nick, and her cousin Selma, who is in some kind of trouble. It seems that Selma’s philandering husband is missing and she’s desperate for Nick to find him. Her husband, Robert, was really just holed up in a nightclub with his mistress. Selma’s faithful old boyfriend, David, is paying him a sizable sum to leave Selma. Before that can happen, Robert is shot and Nick has to find the murderer, though all the evidence points to Selma. 

As with The Thin Man, the murder mystery here is somehow both basic and convoluted, meant to provide a background for the real draw: Nick and Nora. Their relationship is just as charming and hilarious as in the first film, though there are unfortunately more scenes away from the couple, including a few musical numbers. The movie reveals a little more about Nick and Nora, as the setting is their home in San Francisco and several of the characters are members of Nora’s stuffy, aristocratic, extended family. They clearly look down on Nick and his banter with them is excellent, particularly Nora’s insufferable Aunt Katherine (Jessie Ralph). 

We also meet more of Nick’s friends, many of whom are street-smart thieves and crooks with hearts of gold, or at least an unwavering loyalty to Nick. This film included a number of infidelity jokes, which would carry on throughout the rest of the series, intimating that Nick has or had a number of girlfriends. Nora seems amused with just a tinge of jealousy and has some nice exchanges with Nick’s friends.

The plot has the same skeletal structure as the first film, particularly where the beginning and ending are concerned. It opens with Nick and Nora drinking, later a distraught woman begs Nick to find a missing man. After a number of parties, more drinking, some sleuthing, and red herrings, Nick gathers all the suspects together to reveal the murderer in a dramatic and potentially violent conclusion. 

While many people seem to love this film as much as the first, I actually like the third entry, Another Thin Man, more than this one. Make no mistake, there are some wonderful scenes, but the film as a whole is bogged down by its increased length, filler scenes not involving Nick and Nora, and a gimmicky subplot about Asta, their beloved terrier, being cuckolded by Mrs. Asta. Probably my favorite segment is the opening, where Nick and Nora return home on a train. While they are packing, Nora asks Nick to “put away” the alcohol, which he does by drinking it. There is also another hilarious scene where they return home to find their house in the midst of a raucous “welcome home” party for Nick and Nora, though none of the guests seem to know who they are, and they dance through the crowd unnoticed. 

As for the other actors, Jessie Ralph is fittingly grating and often quite funny as stuffy Aunt Katherine. Sam Levene (The Killers) appears as the typical bumbling police lieutenant who can’t solve the case without Nick. Elissa Landi (The Count of Monte Cristo) is a bit over the top as the stock damsel in distress, Nora’s cousin Selma, and is first distressed that her husband is missing and later distressed that she is the main suspect in his murder. James Stewart (Vertigo) has a very early role as Selma’s friend and ex-boyfriend desperate to protect her. He’s a little annoying and clearly hasn't come into his own yet, but his performance does offer some surprises. There’s also a nice side role for Universal horror regular George Zucco as Selma’s psychiatrist.
Overall After the Thin Man comes recommended, though you will definitely want to watch The Thin Man first. Fans of classic romantic comedies and murder mysteries absolutely must check out this series, particularly the first three entries. All six of the films are available in The Complete Thin Man Collection DVD box set