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Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Cary Grant

It’s that time again to profile a classic Hollywood star by briefly looking at 4 of their films. Today’s centerpiece is Archibald Leach more commonly remembered as Cary Grant, the suave, debonair, screwball extraordinaire who groomed himself into one of Hollywood’s preeminent leading men.

Philadelphia Story (1940)

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He’s rude and obnoxious and yet something about him makes it hard for Katharine Hepburn to say no to her old beau even as he tries to scandalize her latest marriage. The dynamics between Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart are what you dream for with such a pairing. While you’re at it, Bringing Up Baby is a must.

His Girl Friday (1940)

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This is a true Cary Grant tour de force as he whizzes through the newsroom sparring with his old matrimonial partner in crime Rosalind Russell. Their verbal jousts are truly frenetic poetry, and the turbulence they churn up is some of the best conflict any screwball comedy was ever blessed with. The Awful Truth and The Favorite Wife with Irene Dunne are swell as well.

Notorious (1946)

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He’s always a bit of a debonair or lovable cad. In this one there’s no pretense. As the callous government agent Devlin, he makes Ingrid Bergman cry. This total revision of his persona is powerful, and it would lay the groundwork for one of the great Hitchcock movies. Not only that, their amorous kiss fest would slyly obliterate Hollywood convention.

North By Northwest (1959)

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What makes him so great in North By Northwest is how ordinary and amicable his Roger Thornhill is only to be thrown pell-mell into a cross-country murder plot. The advertising exec finds himself fleeing from the authorities and the perpetrators in this delightful man-on-the-run pulse-pounder.

Worth Watching:

Holiday, Only Angels Have Wings, Gunga Din, Suspicion, Talk of The Town, The Bishop’s Wife, People Will Talk, To Catch a Thief, An Affair to Remember, Indiscreet, Charade, and many more!

4 Living Legends Part 6

Here is another entry in our ongoing series of Classic Hollywood Stars who are still with us. Please enjoy their many talents!

Peggy Dow (1928-)

Peggy Dow is most well-remembered for her enchanting turn as a nurse opposite Jimmy Stewart’s disarming Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey. In later life, she’s been a prominent philanthropist. She also appeared in a few lesser-known pictures including Woman in Hiding (1950), I Want You (1951), and Bright Victory (1951) worth it for classic film aficionados.

Nancy Olson (1928-)

If you’re like me, Nancy Olson stands out for two landmark films from two completely opposite ends of the spectrum. The first one is the incomparable Sunset Blvd (1950) where she played opposite William Holden. The other is that preeminent childhood classic, The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) with Fred MacMurray. I also really enjoyed her in Union Station (1950).

Ann Blyth (1928-)

Ann Blyth was in a wide variety of pictures running the gamut of musical and drama, but if she’s remembered for one film, it’s certainly her sweltering turn as the vindictive Veda in Mildred Pierce (1945). When Joan Crawford slaps her across the face, it’s the climactic moment in one of the most terrifying mother-daughter relationships ever. I’m sure she’s lovely in real life!

Jane Powell (1929-)

What a lovely performer Jane Powell is and she brightens up the frames of many a musical with her multi-talented effervescence. Some personal highlights in her career include Royal Wedding (1951) with Fred Astaire and, of course, the wonderful Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).

The Curse of The Cat People (1944): The Oddest of Horror Sequels

800px-Curse_of_the_Cat_People_lobby_card.jpgThe Curse of the Cat People feels like entering a storybook only to find ourselves in Tarry Town near Sleepy Hollow. Fittingly, we are placed with a group of kindergarteners who have come with their teacher to frolic and enjoy a field trip to the place brought to life in the tall tales of Washington Irving.

Immediately, this latest Val Lewton production plays to its greatest strengths by melding folk tale, supernatural sensibilities with bits and pieces of our world. The medium through which the picture chooses to work is a little girl named Amy (Ann Carter). She’s a serial daydreamer with her big doe eyes constantly glowing with light. One moment she’s infatuated with a butterfly and an overeager boy obliterates it in his attempts to catch it for her. She proceeds to rear back and slap him across the face.

It’s only her way but the other kids see her as odd and aloof. She’s not like them. With its opening premise in place, it’s safe to say The Curse of the Cat People is one of the strangest sequels for the very fact it has a decent amount to do with its predecessor and yet feels as if we have literally been transposed to a different cinematic world. Also, the name is an utter misnomer.

We have an offshoot taking the basic characters and settings from its predecessor while foregoing normal horror beats for a stranger set of psychological and adolescent themes. It might as well be an entirely standalone film with the urban working environment being replaced with a rural suburbia.

Now our hero from Cat People (1942), Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), has settled down with his wife Alice (Jane Randolph) and his little girl, but parenthood has made him a bit testy. Given the powers previously wreaking havoc on his life, perhaps it’s warranted. He wants to shield Amy from his deceased wife’s fate at any cost. 

But if we look at their current domestic life, it’s fairly sterilized in a way that might quickly become sickening to watch. They go by their three names: “Daddy,” “Mommy,” and “Darling” while their able-bodied, eloquent servant Edward (Sir Lancelot) keeps house. However, this very veneer is set in sharp juxtaposition with forces far more volatile and unnerving — at least at first.

Amy begins to have arcane experiences with the old Farren House where a cantankerous matron resides with her brooding, spectral-like daughter. So if we want to get technical, the movie is really about two families: One seemingly perfect, the other accursed.

On one such visit, Mrs. Farren grips the little girl with the local myths. The recounting of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow all but sweeps us up in a moment of pulse-pounding vigor, in spite of taking place entirely in a single drawing-room. Something about it is so alive and deeply unsettling.

As a defense mechanism, Amy calls out to a phantom who comforts her. We’ve all had invisible companions at one time or another so it’s not a strange request. However, her friend feels far more tangible than any of ours.

Of course, it’s Irena (Simone Simon) the woman her father has never dared tell her about. Besides, Irena is dead. As her parents worry about her mental stability, Amy is comforted by having Irena as a confidante. 

Life continues cheerfully enough. On Christmas, all the most important people in her life get a present. Carolers come by and begin an impromptu chorus of, “Shepherds Shake Off Your Drowsy Sleep.” Mommy reminisces about her memories putting on “mummers plays.”

We expect something darkly twisted to invade this holiday conviviality and yet it never comes. What was initially exploited is childish fancy intertwining with this supernatural entity. But everything gives way to a heart-aching sincerity. We come in expecting one twist, and we get an almost anti-twist in its place. Instead of being haunted by demons and cursed things, a young girl makes friends and finds a way to heal wounds through a firm embrace. It turns out this could be an offbeat Christmas classic in some circles. 

The picture strikes this curious tone between obvious markers. Though it makes it maddening to try and categorize — especially for contemporary advertisers — now it plays more like a blessing than a curse. Because we expect something mundane and one dimensional, only to get a surprisingly inventive exploration of childhood and imagination. While we never quite forget we have a minor production on our hands, this Val Lewton-produced effort continues his run of beguiling material.

Taken as a body of work, Lewton’s pictures are bewitching to the very last frame. A young up-and-comer, Robert Wise, would also be called upon to complete the picture. It’s probably an understatement to say it was a humble beginning to an auspicious career. 

3.5/5 Stars

The Irishman (2019): Painting Houses Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The_Irishman_poster.jpgNOTE: I’m never too concerned about spoilers but just be warned I’m talking about The Irishman, which will come out in November. If you want to be surprised maybe wait to read this…

The opening moments caused an almost immediate smile of recognition to come over my face. There it is. An intricate tracking shot taking us down the hallway to the tune of “In The Still of The Night.” We know this world well.

Martin Scorsese does too. Because it’s an instant tie to Goodfellas. In some sense, we are being brought back into that world. Except you might say that The Irishman picked up where the other film left off, filling up its own space, coming to terms with different themes. This is no repeat.

A day ago if badgered about the film I would have said it’s about a hitman named Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who had ties with the Buffalino crime family (Joe Pesci) and worked alongside Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The famed union teamster disappeared without a trace, only to become one of the most mythical unsolved cases of all time.

And yes, I had to take a few moments to get used to a de-aged Robert De Niro, although I think it might have been the blue “Irish” eyes, so I quickly accepted it and fell into the story. On a surface level, these are the initially apparent attributes. However, it’s a joy to acknowledge it’s so much more. Because all the greatest films offer something very unique unto themselves — and to their creators — in this case the world of organized crime.

We’re so used to having Scorsese and De Niro together; it’s staggering to believe their last collaboration was Casino (1995). Meanwhile, Joe Pesci came out of his near-decade of retirement to join with De Niro again and continue their own substantial screen partnership together. Some might be equally surprised to stretch their memories and realize Pacino and Scorsese have never worked together. Both have such deep ties to the American New Wave and the crime genre. The pedigree is well-deserved on all accounts.

But there’s something ranging even deeper and more elemental, resonating with us as an audience. This is not Sunday school truth but a type of hazy mythology with flawed titans going at it in a manner that feels almost bizarre. There are no pretenses here. If you are familiar with Scorsese’s work from Mean Streets to Goodfellas, this is an equally violent and profane work. And yet how is it we begin to care about characters so much that their relationships begin to carry weight? Especially over 3 and a half hours.

It is a monumental epic and that opening tracking shot I mentioned leads us to a white-haired, wheelchair-bound man who has seen so much over the course of his lifetime. Voiceover has a hallowed place in the picture akin to Goodfellas, but again, the man at the center of it all has such a different place in the story.

What’s more, The Irishman really is a full-bodied meditation on this lifestyle of organized crime. Yes, it’s placed in a historical context, but Sheeran is a man we can look at and analyze. He is a sort of case study to try and untangle the complexities of such an environment.

Steven Zaillian’s script lithely jumps all over a lifetime woven through the fabric of popular history, aided further by the music selections of Robbie Robertson (of The Band acclaim) and real-life touchstones ranging from the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy Assassination, Nixon, and Watergate.

Thelma Schoonmaker makes the action accessible and smooth with ample artistic flourishes to grapple with the societal tensions and cold, harsh realities. Still, the majority of the picture is all about relationships. Everything else converges on them.

Sheeran didn’t know it then, but the day he met Russell Bulfino (Pesci) on his meat trucking route, would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Because he’s a man with clout and connections. Everyone comes to him, he expects other people to pay deference to him, and he looks kindly on those who carry out his favors.

In his company, Sheeran has a formidable ally, and he starts rising up the ranks even running in the same circles of the acclaimed Jimmy Hoffa. Being “brothers” as it were, it’s as if Sheeran and Hoffa understand one another intuitively and in a cutthroat world, they have a deep-seated, inalienable trust in one another.  Who is the man Hoffa comes to have in his room to be his friend, confidant, and bodyguard if not Frank? You can’t help but get close to someone in that context.

Al Pacino just about steals the show blowing through the film with a phenomenally rich characterization of the famed teamster, because he willfully gives a tableau of charm, charisma, warmth, humor, mingled with a ruthless streak and utter obstinacy. His loyalists are many as are his enemies. It’s facile to be a mover and a shaker when you’re an immovable force of nature.

Even as Sheeran is busy, mainly on the road, his first wife and his kids (and then his second wife) are always present and yet somehow they never get much of a mention, rarely a line of dialogue, always in the periphery. This in itself is a statement about his family life.

One recalls The Godfather mentality. Where family is important but so is the family business and never the twain shall meet. Womenfolk and children are protected, shielded even, and the dichotomy is so severe it’s alarming.

In that film, the cafe moment is where Michael (a younger Pacino) makes a life-altering decision. For Frank, that mentality somehow comes easily for him. Michael was the war hero and thus stayed out of the family business for a time. Frank’s involvement in “painting houses,” as the euphemism goes, is just an obvious extension of the killing he undertook in Europe.

It’s curious how everyone mentions his military experience, the fact that he knows what it’s like, and how that somehow makes what he’s called to do second-nature. Again, it’s business. It’s following orders. If you do a good job, if you do the “right thing,” you get rewarded.

There are some many blow-ups and hits and what-have-yous, it wears on you to the point of desensitization, especially when you’re forced to laugh it off uneasily. This is very dangerous but again, it’s anti-Godfather, which was a film where these were the moments of true climax and meaning and import for the psychology of the characters. Where Michael evolves and takes over the territory. Where his older brother Sonny is killed and his other brother Fredo gets killed. There’s meaning in every one of them.

In the Irishman, it could care less. Everything of true importance seems to happen around conversations, in dialogue, between people. To a degree that is. Because dynamics are set up in such a way and the culture and the unyielding ways of men make it inevitable, opposing forces will rub up against one another.

The complicated realms of masculinity, pride, and respect make minor tiffs and bruised egos the basis of future gang wars and vendettas. Phone calls are testy and people are pulled aside to get straightened out before more serious action is taken. It’s a social hierarchy where go-betweens come to mediate everything.

As time goes on, we come to realize Sheeran is the wedge bewteen two of these unyielding forces, and he’s caught between a rock and a hard place. Between his “Rabbi” Russell, as Hoffa calls him, and the man he’s been through the trenches with — the man he asks to present his lifetime achievement award to him. He’s deeply loyal and beholden to both.

Is this his hamartia — his fatal flaw — that will become his undoing? We never quite know if he was able to make peace with any of it. All we know is something has to give…But I will leave it at that.

The unsung surprise of the film is the load of humor it manages end to end. Everyone is funny. The exchanges get outrageous to fit the larger-than-life characters and situations. It’s the kind of stuff you couldn’t make up if you tried. But the jokes play as a fine counterpoint to the grim reality of these men and their lifestyles.

In the later stages of life, as he prepares himself for death, Sheeran meets with a priest, which prove to be some of the most enlightening moments in the film. When asked if he has remorse, he matter-of-factly admits, not really, but even his choice to seek absolution is his attempt at something.

Scorsese continues in the stripe of Silence with some deeply spiritual and philosophical intercessions in what might otherwise seem a temporal and antithetical affair.  The truth is you cannot come to terms with such a life — or any life — without grappling with the questions of the great unknown after death.

In another scene, Sheeran seeks out a casket and a resting place for his body muttering to himself just how final death is. That it’s just the end. It’s curious coming from a man who knocked off so many people, but somehow he’s just coming to terms with it himself. Perhaps it’s what old age does to one.

This is not meant to be any sort of hint or indication (we want more films), but if this were to be the last film this group of luminary talents ever made, I would be all but content. The film taps into content and themes that have been integral aspects of Martin Scorsese’s career since the beginning. Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and even Harvey Keitel are all synonymous with the crime film — they share a common thread — a communal cinematic context and language.

My final thought is only this. The Irishman feels like Martin Scorsese’s Citizen Kane. I don’t mean it in the sense it’s his greatest film or the greatest film all time. Rather, in a thematic sense, they are kindred. Although Scorsese’s version includes crime and violence, the ends results are very much the same.

You have a man with a life crammed full of power and money and recognition, whatever, but at the end of the day, what did it get him? He clings to dog-eared photos of his kids whom he probably hasn’t seen in years.

When the priest tells him he’ll be back after Christmas, Sheeran looks up at him pitifully, acknowledging he’ll be around. He’s not going anywhere. He has no family. He has no one to care about him. All his buddies are gone, and he’s the last of them holding onto secrets that do him no good. It’s all meaningless.

It’s a striking final image. All I could think was, “Oh how the mighty have fallen.” Whether or not any of it was true or not (as the film seems to validate), what’s leftover is a paltry life. It’s a testament to everything we’ve witnessed thus far that we feel sorry for him.

4.5/5 Stars

The Ghost Ship (1943): Creaky Yet Atmospheric

Ghostship.jpg“What a hobby to pick: authority.” 

The Ghost Ship is yet another serving of shadows and sound courtesy of legendary cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and former editor-turned-director Mark Robson. However, the film is punctuated by few dramatic notes and instead settles in to develop a world of continual foreboding. It begins with the near-ESP of a blind street peddler who warns a youthful 3rd officer (Russell Wade) about the new ship he is about to board.

Though our lead actors are fairly bland types — the kind of people who could easily be slotted into any number of similar projects — I still found myself interested in them. Because with both Richard Dix and Wade I hardly have any history with them; it’s a tabula rasa. They remain as a reminder of how many actors and actresses are all but lost to time just waiting to be discovered anew. Some give a more lasting impression than others.

But Ghost Ship‘s most intriguing characters are certainly the shipmates because each man has an element to his performance. Sparks (Edmund Glover) is probably the most affable and the closest thing to a friend the new 3rd officer has onboard. Beyond this, the radioman sprinkles in some Latin with his normal vernacular.

Our next person of interest is an all-seeing mute who is nevertheless given the courtesy of a voiceover. He is the first among seafaring hands aboard, including Boats (Dewey Robinson, a Preston Sturges regular), the calypso-singer (Sir Lancelot), and the Greek who needs his appendix taken out mid-voyage. This is a whole ordeal in its own right.

But none of this gets at the reason the Altair just might be one of the most perturbing seas vessels in the annals of maritime movies. It should be noted the previous third officer died under unusual circumstances and rather dubiously, Mr. Merriam is occupying the same room the deceased man passed away in. Another old mate is found dead on the deck without much fanfare.

There were flying coffins during WWII, but this is a floating coffin if there ever was one. Its all very curious because The Skipper seems a good, honest seaman. His new mate likes him and the men — though at times disgruntled — listen to him, for the good of the outfit.

One particularly perilous event involves a loose hook on the bridge all but ready to decapitate a mate. Still, as time progresses, the captain’s words get more and more troubling. Without blinking an eye, he says, “I have rights over their lives – I have the right to do anything for the crew – because their lives depend on me.”

He is drunk on authority. It remains his only concern, and he will do anything to maintain his image, even fabricating events involving the aforementioned appendix operation. He can raise people from the brink of death while a cascading stack of clinking chains quickly means the demise of another man. No one can prove it outright, but the captain literally holds everyone’s life in his hands.

The third officer wants no part of this scenario. However, it seems fate brings him back into the clutches of this dictatorial madman, and the net is slowly contracting around him. Only time will tell if he is stopped in his tracks before knocking off another defenseless victim.

Obviously, given the time period, we can have a guess at the allegorical references toward the crazed power hunger of Hitler. It’s not difficult to see the parallels, but I don’t think we need much of a reminder such slavish devotion is detrimental. In this regard, such a pronouncement seems altogether superfluous.

The plot is also a bit stagnant and our leads admittedly bland. We are reminded of not only wartime shortages but that these are far from A-list talents on hand. In spite of these admissions, it’s all the more astounding to consider the impression this Lewton production still manages to provide.

The bottom line is that the ideas and the visuals are still worth remembering. Because Ghost Ship is not completely derailed by its shortcomings, still casting a fine vision lingering ominously over every frame.

3/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Audrey Hepburn

I wanted to continue with my series of classic movie beginner’s guides. The idea is to make learning about old movies more manageable by providing bite-sized chunks to watch. In other words, 4 films to begin with.

Here’s our latest list on Audrey Hepburn, one of the most beloved and widely-photographed figures of all time.

Roman Holiday (1953)

She came onto the scene as a radiant princess. Literally. Her Cinderella-like romance with Gregory Peck through the streets of Rome is one of the great cinematic fairy tales of all-time. Understandably, it netted her acclaim and made her an instant Hollywood star. She’s just too adorable not to love.

Sabrina (1954)

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Not a bad follow up to land a movie with director Billy Wilder and two big stars in William Holden and Humphrey Bogart. Audrey more than holds her own with her waifish elegance and fitted with a wardrobe newly-acquired from Givenchy.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

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Parts of this movie certainly haven’t aged well (Mickey Rooney ahem!), but there’s also so much that’s enheartening about this classic romantic comedy. It’s one of Audrey’s finest and most vulnerable performances stretching her innumerable talents. Those opening shots are magic. Moon River is for the ages.

Charade (1963)

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I could have picked a handful of other movies that you should also watch, but this one is just too fun not to mention. Audrey and Cary Grant together are obviously delightful. It’s also in the public domain too so no excuses for not getting around to watching it someday.

Worth Watching:

Funny Face, A Nun’s Story, My Fair Lady, How to Steal a Million, Two For The Road, Wait Until Dark, They All Laughed (and everything else if you love Audrey)

The Seventh Victim (1943): Lewton’s Economy Rules

Seventh-victim-poster_one_sheet.jpgWhat a picture for Kim Hunter to have come into her own (and Mark Robson for that matter). The 7th Victim is a chilling gem, and the motor to move the story forward is an audacious girl, Mary Gibson (Hunter), who makes a decision to leave her boarding school of stain glass and angelic choirs, to search after her missing big sister.

Upon arriving in New York, Mary finds out Jacqueline, in an uncharacteristic fashion, sold her profitable cosmetic company eight months prior. Something must be up. Our kiddy noir hits its paces as Mary’s intrepid investigations lead her to Dante’s Italian Restaurant. She checks in on her sister’s rented room only to find a chair and an ominous hangman’s noose.

Next, she files a claim with the missing person’s bureau and looks to hire a private eye to give her help in a city that feels generally unfriendly. However, this is not entirely the case as she makes the acquaintance of Jason, a local poet who looks to lighten up the atmosphere. Likewise, Hugh Beaumont acts as a calming force in this labyrinth of turbulence and underlying dread. Nevertheless, he warns Mary that her sister, “Lived in a world of her own fancy. Didn’t always know the truth.” Another portent of some ill fate awaiting her.

Admittedly, on a micro-level, all the pieces simply do not fit together. To understand why we only need look at what moments were potentially left on the cutting room floor. In the age of narrative incoherence in crime storytelling, The 7th Victim is among the best (or worst). The fact that in such a short time it can be so befuddling must speak to something. Dissenters might clamor this is a disjointed mess but if this is faulty storytelling there is also a sense of apprehension present, inherent to such narratives.

It cannot simply be about four scenes that were famously cut out of the picture. Though we would have gained clarity in one sense, in another these missing pieces somehow aid in this byzantine journey weaving a yarn out of relatively meager resources. The dialogue is just okay but on a macro level, it’s all very intriguing.

The creme de la creme of chiaroscuro photography occurs when Mary goes down to a mysterious shop with Mr. August on a clandestine mission that goes awry. Anyone walking into such a world would know to begin with no good will come of it, inching down a hallway of darkness.

Then, we have the curious appearance of Dr. Judd (Tom Power) from Cat People who conveniently provides another male character with information on Jacqueline’s current situation. He subsequently has deep abscesses of knowledge about a cult of Palladian Devil Worshippers operating out of Greenwich Village. Again, we have a mythology evoked with traditions and sacred texts lending credence to this widespread conspiratorial atmosphere.

Because of course, as you might have guessed already, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), now cloaked in a bob of dark hair, found herself immersed in a very foreboding crowd. They don’t look too kindly on those who let their secrets out. Another stylistically rewarding moment comes right after the woman is released from certain death and winds up wandering the darkened streets in a near dazed state. She scurries away into the shadows to evade an unknown pursuer — frantically seeking the aid of an oblivious theater troupe.

We’re on again with the perplexing waling nightmares because the film chooses to dwell in such places. But if the picture chooses to acknowledge Satanic cults the equal and opposite must be called upon to whether the evil. Though not an obviously religious man, the good psychiatrist asserts there is proof that good is superior to evil.

It comes in the words of the Lord’s Prayer. He speaks the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…Deliver us from evil.” Again, the real world liturgy pads the narrative with a kind of believable ethos even as Jacqueline is still hounded by some unknowable, supernatural specter.

The final scene is a blink and you missed it circumstance. Provided a few more seconds to sink in it could have been a horrible thing. As is we hardly have time for the facts to dawn on us until the movie is over, literally seconds later. While not optimal there’s no discounting how the scene was handled visually. Even in this single moment, it says so much with what is not seen and a sound compared to so many other pictures bloated with extravagant sets and resources.

7th Victim is a reminder that sometimes our movies lack imagination, thinking money and special effects can be thrown at a story to make it novel. While this might be true on a most superficial level, sometimes it is constraints that bring out creativity and reveal to us how starkness in the right context can be a beautiful gift. Val Lewton’s horror unit is one of the small wonders of classic cinema, and they cast an indomitable shadow, widely in part to cinematographers like Nicholas Murucasa. This one is another low-lit gem. Once again economy rules.

4/5 Stars

The Leopard Man (1943): A Work of Sound and Shadow

190px-Leopard_man.jpgIt’s fitting that a pair of castanets act as our entry point into the latest entry from Val Lewton’s RKO unit. Not only do they instantly grab our attention, but they foreshadow the auditory nature of the film and, in the cultural context, provide a little shorthand for where our setting might be.

Because with this stereotypical “Latin flavor” we find out soon enough we are indeed in New Mexico. At the local nightclub, Kiki (Jean Brooks) bemoans the fact her rival Clo-Clo (Margo) is constantly clicking, and it does seem blondes like herself are on the downside. However, her boyfriend, a fledgling publicity man (Dennis O’Keefe), has a new stunt to make waves with the viewing public.

When he walks into her dressing room with a leopard on a leash, she nearly dies of fright, and we have entered into the kind of territory intent on making our B feature a pulpy pleasure. Kiki reluctantly makes a grand entrance with her new pet and makes quite the impression as patrons look on with shivers of trepidation. Except her moment doesn’t last long as Clo-Clo scares the creature off and it goes racing off into the night — a beast off on the loose. One can only imagine what a deadly cat might get up to lurking in the shadows on any given evening…

From this point onward, the picture introduces a plethora of players from a fortune teller hiding in the shadows with her deck of cards just waiting to tell Clo-Clo her fortune. There’s the hapless bloke Charlie who gave up his prized leopard to Manning and wants his remuneration.

Then the local girl deathly afraid of the beast at large and nevertheless gets locked out of the house by her mother until she fetches the cornmeal for her father’s supper. We know the inevitable is about to happen. The creature will find her. Her world is developed almost solely through sound. The drip of water. Feet trudging through the dirt. A train passing overhead. They punctuate the scene immaculately leading into the big reveal. Because we know what is waiting for her…

She makes a mad dash to the front door of her home crying out to her family to open up but she gets no further. Like Cat People before it, The Leopard Man is made as much out of what is not seen and it has one of the most startling cinematic death scenes executed through utter minimalism.

Because although Manning and his girl feel awful about their hand in this girl’s tragic death, they soon realize more might be afoot. Another grisly death follows and then a subsequent evening Clo-Clo…

It is the stripped-down sound design in the picture that reflects the Lewton/Tourneur unit at the pinnacles of their powers. Where pure suggestion is imbued with so much meaning. So little can be so very much. Whereas M was a picture where the killer has a calling card, in this film the murders can be remembered by their accompanying sounds.

The wind whipping through the trees as a woman sits locked in a garden. A car engine driving off to get someone to open up the gate. Rustling leaves being stepped on and then quiet. With Clo-Clo it’s little different with the same repetition of her heels clicking on the pavement in rhythm with her castanets. Then, she too reaches a finality.

Despite the stylistically rewarding elements, The Leopard Man gets less interesting with time as it comes out the leopard might be masking a more mundane serial killer plot. Not to sound overly callous, but this is more of a real-world development. Aside from courting too many characters who dilute the impact of the whole story, The Leopard Man feels more stagnant than its predecessors.

The greatest pity is how there isn’t the same unnerving magic hanging over the picture. It probably has too big a stake in reality. What its predecessors were blessed with, in narrative terms, was the supernatural mixed in with everyday reality. The Leopard Man falls on the wrong side of the fence, unable to leave us with the same type of lingering specter. Its strengths were always in what was not actually there, instead of human beings of tangible flesh and blood.

3.5/5 Stars

I Walked with a Zombie (1943): Shadow and Psychology

IwalkedwithazombieThe film commences brilliantly as Frances Dee can be heard in voiceover with almost fond recollection, matter-of-factly stating, “I Walked with a Zombie.” The way she expresses it immediately debunks anything we might think from an admittedly exploitative title. Producer Val Lewton does not settle for a straightforward slapped together horror flick.

His ambitions were always to elevate the concepts he was handed into something indelibly interesting. Our heroine Betsy Cornell (Dee) is a Canadian nurse who applies for a position taking care of a man’s wife. It’s all very mysterious, but she’s eager to work and sets sail for San Sebastian where she will be in the service of Mr. Paul Holland (Tom Conway).

Lewton re-framed the source material into a Jane Eyre tale transplanted to the West Indies. Here Ms. Cornell arrives by boat, immediately struck with a callous first impression of the aloof Mr. Holland. He easily dismisses her childhood fear of the dark, while noting he never should have hired her.

I still contend most children are never afraid of the dark per se but what might come out of it. It’s the fear of an unknown thing lurking out of reach. Meanwhile, his younger brother (James Ellison) is a charming fellow who immediately takes a liking to the new nurse and helps to make her feel welcome. We have polar opposites set up and obvious points in a possible love triangle.

However, in following the plotting of Bronte’s work, the elder half-brother is tortured by a secret, literally locked away. It is, in fact, his mysterious wife, whom Betsy unwittingly meets one night, upon hearing a startling noise. At first, she’s taken aback by this specter of a woman, this ghost, this living dead.

But as her kindly doctor explains, supplying a firm foundation of ethos to this enigma, a portion of the spinal cord is burned out, and it has permanently made her a sleepwalker who can never be awakened. Aside from a potentially dangerous foray into shock therapy — to induce some sort of coma and hope for the best — her future prospects look dim. That is unless there’s an alternate means to bring about healing.

Like the Wolf Man before it, we are introduced to a stylized but nevertheless real locale that thrives by mixing the logical digressions that come from our world with ghostly influences. Screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Raye create a kind of poetic mythology for a supernatural conclusion to be crafted out of. Whether they meant to or not, they succeeded in canonizing zombies in the same manner werewolves were developed in Siodmak’s earlier script.

What’s lovely is how Betsy foreshadows all sorts of events to come and there are strangely mesmerizing objects to captivate us. The figurehead of a slave ship features Saint Sebastian himself pierced by arrows. It lends this undercurrent of the brutish injustices of the slave trade to the landscape we must come to terms with.

These very same traditions have the same weighty dolefulness but are also imbued with an otherworldly quality of its own. It gives this shading to the African-American characters who seem so happy-go-lucky like other Hollywood creations, and yet there’s an almost unnerving sense about them as if something is working under the surface. It’s hard to put an exact finger to it, but though they look similar, they aren’t quite straightforward stereotypes.

A local club singer chants an island song mixed with family folklore telling of the deep-rooted tragedies of the Holland family. The local populations are also adherents of local voodoo customs, and their nightly drumbeats ring out through the air ominously, picked up by the tropic winds. It’s yet another layer to this continually bewitching atmosphere.

Another character of crucial importance is Mrs. Rand, the deceased patriarch’s widow, and Wesley’s birth mother.  Her own station in life, as the wife of a Christian missionary, creates a juxtaposition between a so-called normal religion and a darker, more dubious strain.

Because it cannot help but bump up against the voodoo rituals even as black and white people now exist together. In fact, one might say the religious rituals become nearly intertwined. Betsy begins to realize maybe some powers at be might be capable of lifting the spell that has entranced Ms. Holland, even as she herself falls for the comatose woman’s husband.

As such, it is not horror lingering over the frames but a near mesmerizing catatonia. It carries you up in its grips from start to finish, trying to decipher what to make of such a vision. Enchantment, ugliness, cruelty all apply. And yet it’s difficult to cry out and out evil against the people partaking in these dances or voodoo ceremonies. The acts themselves might be evil, but the people are held in the grips of entrancement. Everyone is, to varying degrees, weighed down with desolateness even before the fateful dead are laid to rest.

We must recall the beginning voiceover once more. The fact Betsy walked with a zombie might hold an inherent element of terror, but more so, it carries with it a despondency that cannot be lifted. It hangs over us and haunts us just as the lurching Carrefour does throughout the picture.

The beauty of most any of the Val Lewton films of the 40s is how the studio and the audience expected one thing — a low budget horror flick with a provocative title — then the producer turned around to make micro-budget gems steeped in shadow and psychology. They have more depth and complexity than they have any right to.

Each entry boasts sumptuous visuals hiding weaknesses in the budget department to fully develop, not necessarily a world, but the impression of a world. One might contend the latter is far more powerful in an expressionistic capacity. Arguably, Lewton had no more formidable collaborator than director Jacques Tourneur who had an established knack for conjuring up the most splendid atmospherics.

This time he is aided by the black and white photography of Roy Hunt. In their hands, every character has a doppelganger in the form of shadows creeping along the walls with their human counterparts. It’s developed with the utmost efficiency, which seems all but a lost art these days.

But the astounding economy is matched only by a ceaseless ingenuity. Because the artfulness they managed to accomplish on the very same shoestring budget, is part of what makes them marvels even today. If you willingly invest your time in one of these RKO pictures, it’s very likely you’ll be met with a lasting impression. The dividends, as far as cinematic capital is concerned, are enormous.

4/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Alfred Hitchcock

This series is meant to help fledgling classic movie fans grab hold of a few titles they should watch. Instead of trying to be comprehensive, I want to try and make the discovery manageable with only 4 films.

Let’s begin with one of the most universally beloved directors of all time, “The Master of Suspense” himself: Alfred Hitchcock.

He began his career in silent film and made a name himself with a bunch of early British thrillers in the 1930s. After transitioning to Hollywood in 1940, his career took off and by the 1950s he was one of the most widely-known directors in the world.

Here are a few films to get you started!

Notorious (1946)

Classic Movie Beginner's Guide: Alfred Hitchcock

It kills me to leave off so much early Hitchcock. The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt. You should go watch them all. But Notorious, starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, is arguably one of his finest romantic thrillers. It’s masterful.

Rear Window (1954)

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I know, I know. It’s quite a big jump but this is also the quintessential Hitchcock movie (at least in my humble opinion). James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Limited space and a harrowing murder plot. This film is a textbook example of how to create tension. There’s so much here worth talking about. I’ll leave it at that.

If you like it, check out Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much remake (with Stewart) and Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief (with Kelly).

North By Northwest (1959)

It didn’t earn its nickname as the most epic man-on-the-run Hitchcock movie for nothing. Between crop dusters and Mt. Rushmore, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, this one is an absolute blast of thrilling exhilaration. For bonus points, see how it reworks themes of Hitch’s earlier masterwork The 39 Steps.

Psycho (1960)

Here we are. The one everyone will forever associate with Hitchcock and showers everywhere. And Norman Bates. And his mother. Anyway, it’s another technical masterpiece in manipulation. It rewrote the books on modern horror and still packs a psychotic punch. Pun intended.

Worth Watching:

Let’s make this easy and say all of them. And for the record, I realize I left out Vertigo. Go watch it.