A Colt is My Passport (1967)

Nikkatsu studio’s reputation for these kinds of down and dirty pieces of noir pulp employed action and gangster plots to entice the youth market. Obviously, the influence of the American canon cannot be disregarded, and yet the films came into their own given Japan’s own turbulent history with syndicated crime.

However, A Colt is My Passport does something more with the genre archetypes. It starts with this mythical weapon, not traditionally of mobsters and hitmen, but western heroes and villains dueling out on the range. Wherever the firearm might have progressed, it always carries this mythos about it.

As such, the movie is introduced with a whistling, stringed, and partially staccato score that might as well be plucked out of a  spaghetti western. Further strengthening the ties is Quick Draw Joe, a movie Joe Shishido starred in that was also directed by Takashi Nomura. Now half a dozen years they meet again to build on their collaboration.

The initial beats are familiar if you’ve seen any of these types of pictures. There’s a target to knock off. His name’s Shimazu, and when he’s not constantly being shadowed by a bodyguard, he’s stashed away behind bulletproof glass. It’s a tough job with only one day to see it out.

In this world of guns and souped-up automobiles, Shishido, the chipmunked-cheeked cult hero of cool, somehow feels right at home. It’s all part of his work as he studies his target, sets himself up with a hotel room, and then prepares to get in and get out with surgical precision behind his sniper rifle.

If there’s a methodology here it suggests how Colt is a film built out of a regimen and the setting of its protagonist in an architectural world. He is always completely cognizant of his location and how he functions in relation to the spaces around him. Thus, it becomes as much about mood and milieu as it is focused on action and violence.

Take for instance, how the story is constantly switching contexts. It’s in a car, about getting to a plane at the airport, holding up in a hotel, then fetching a barge out of the country, and when that fails, commandeering a big rig to retaliate against the enemy.

Of course, there must be a love interest. In the subplot, Mina, a young woman who works at the Nagisakan hotel, offers them asylum from their pursuers. What draws her to them? She says the god of death follows in her wake. Her former beau must have been like them, and as she spends her days serving the riffraff and sewer rats always loitering around, she looks to take back her life in some way. This is her form of rebellion in a world generally dominated by men.

However, even with the proliferation of gangster imagery and this kind of masculine bravado, the contours are the film consistently emulate the West with its own recurring motifs. There’s a musical aside of guitar not unlike Ricky Nelson or Dean Martin might knockback in Rio Bravo (Your star is a lonely little star…but now your face is a ghost town in the mist”).

It’s a way to bide the time before inevitable showdowns while also distilling this sense of male camaraderie in such a way as to make it palpable. It evokes the loyalty forged between two men, one mentor and his pupil, who have been through so much together. He shields his partner by giving himself up.

He knows where he must go. Where else would we end up but a deserted, windswept landfill where we half expect to see a tumbleweed roll by? Instantly the urban world and streets, even the maritime port of Yokohama, all but evaporate and fade into the periphery. The entire film culminates in one definitive moment where the sides are drawn up all but prepared to have it out in an instant. While the final showdown is fairly spare, it still manages to blow the lid off the picture with its gritty cross-pollination of the noir, western, and yakuza inspirations.

It’s hardly drawn out — finished in what feels like a few suspended moments of chaos — and yet it might be one of the most monumental standoffs you’ve ever seen. As Shishido digs a hole (what might as well be his grave), then sets a charge of dynamite, which might as well be a self-destruct mechanization, and then finally fights for his life, we are inundated by the full brunt of the impact.

There’s hardly any mistaking who came out victorious, but then again it might be just as difficult to claim a hero as a man totters away from the wreckage.  I’m not altogether familiar with the etymology of “borderless action” cinema as marketed by Nikkatsu, but here it feels like one meaning is about this unabashed melding of genre and inspirations.

Shishido channels hitman, gunslinger, and jaded antihero all rolled into one. He’s got a dash of Eastwood, maybe a bit of a Melville assassin, but also a distinctly Japanese sensibility. It creates this pleasing amalgamation that finds something rather gripping in its myriad of influences. There’s an indiscriminate and still somehow an artful freedom to it drawing me in all the more. 

4/5 Stars

The Threat (1949): Starring Charles McGraw

ThreatPoster.jpgThe beauty of a picture like this comes with the efficiency of the drama with a prison breakout occurring under the opening credits. Soon we learn a notorious, shadowy criminal named Kluger has broken out of Folsom prison.

The convict once vowed to kill both the detective and district attorney who worked to put him away and he doesn’t take the threat lightly. He means to carry it out.

When he finally does show his face, Charles McGraw, makes an indelible entrance almost bursting the seams of such a lowly movie. He’s so imperative to the movie’s meager claim at success destining him for thug greatness for all posterity (and a few hardboiled heroic turns once he’d paid his dues).

Felix Feist’s latest thriller is at its best putting forth its claustrophobic kidnapping scenario strung out with tension and genuine terror. Our so-called heroes are a fairly drab bunch including a career cop and family man, Ray Williams (Michael O’Shea).

In contrast, McGraw maintains the film’s gruff core more than willing to throw his weight around as he plans the rest of his getaway and subsequent revenge. To the movie’s credit, he’s liable to do anything he deems advantageous to his plans, doling out orders to his cronies, and forcibly throwing around anyone he wants. He doesn’t care about others. They’re disposable goods.

It starts with the old moll (Virginia Grey) he thinks has double-crossed him, then his two old adversaries, and finally the unwitting delivery truck driver who proves integral to his proposed plan to weasel his way past the police dragnet and network of roadblocks.

However, the tension is borne in the intervals in-between where they must wait around. First, at a house and then out at an old shack in the desert, until their buddy, Tony, drops in with his plane. Both sides are hanging on edge, either for fear of being killed or the threat of being captured.

There’s one shot, in particular, slyly setting up the dynamics of the film’s finale to come as the camera peers down into the shack they’re holding up in. With time running out, our drama must escalate. Red coaxes the gun away from one stir-crazy housemate just to turn around and use it in the next. There’s no prevailing mercy or level of sentiment, whether it’s a man or woman. It’s this continual unpredictability making for a sweaty, nasty little climax.

The plot’s breakthrough revolves around a long shot — a nice bit of circumstance — and it is by any stretch of the imagination.  I’m not sure if the logic exactly checks out, narratively speaking, though it’s easy enough to turn a blind eye for the sake of the action. You don’t necessarily seek out The Threat to feed your desire for taut scripting.

My only real qualm is how this film ends like so many others I’m seen recently where a happy ending is only obtained through a wife’s pregnancy. It is a bit of shorthand to say something about the American Dream circa the 1940s and 50s — and new life is such a precious thing — but it seems like such a tiresome trope when it’s used as a crutch so often.

Up to this point, The Threat genuinely lives up to its title mostly in part to Charles McGraw. If you’re a fan of the minor film noir icon, it’s a must-see. Otherwise, it’s best to look elsewhere for diversions of a higher caliber.

3/5 Stars

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947): Starring Lawrence Tierney

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Felix Feist is a relatively obscure figure today and the only reason I’ve come to him has to do with two B films he was attached to, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and The Threat released two years later.

As a Southern Californian, I might obtain more glee out of name recognition than other viewers. It comes, quite literally, with the territory. These types of second-bill features hit the ground running. In this case, The Bank of San Diego gets its pockets picked by a thug.

So much is evoked stylistically, and we are reminded how integral signs become as a shorthand and cost-effective device for these quickie B-movies. Feist scripted the movie as well as directing, and we might sum it ups as a Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hell courtesy of garble-mouthed tough guy Lawrence Tierney. He certainly doesn’t skimp on his brand of scowling, unrepentant, hard-ball, and the picture is indebted to the cloaked menace he provides.

Because he’s the forger-turned-bank robber now on the lamb from the rousing authorities. Not unlike Detour (1945), it’s some fateful or cinematic force landing him in the car of a happy sap and devoted family man (Ted North) just off a joint birthday/anniversary with his best buds in San Diego. It looked to be a real gas, and he’s grinning from ear to ear. He might still be feeling the buzz from the merriment, but he’s sane enough to drive. The contrast is set up immediately, and they develop a fairly easy-going rapport since they cancel one another out.

They make a pit stop at a gas station as “Fergie” calls in on his adoring wife telling her to synchronize her watch for “3 hours and 26 minutes and 42 seconds.” Doing my own mental calculations, freeways (and automobiles) must have been a lot slower because today you could probably be doing San Diego to L.A. in 2 and a half hours (without traffic). When one of the passengers notes the driver is almost pushing 70 MPH, that might give us some indication.

Even as we eavesdrop on his conversation and Morgan snaps at the fresh-faced gas station attendant (Glen Vernon), the movie exudes the rudimentary pleasures of seeing mundane aspects of life circa 1947. The telephone. The music playing on the radio. The garb the gas station clerk wears. Each detail, whether only a studio embellishment or an authentic accent, adds something to the picture. Because elements of it are familiar to me and yet so far removed from the world I know.

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In the process, they pick up two dames looking for a lift — one of them a husky-voiced blonde (Betty Lawford) the other a diffident brunette (Nan Leslie), again juxtaposed for dramatic effect. Now our story on wheels is loaded up not unlike Arigato-san (1936) or Stagecoach (1939), albeit to a lesser degree.

In the ensuing moments, the slighted and eagle-eyed station attendant calls up the police because he thinks he’s spotted the man they’re looking for. Of course, he has. On the other end of the line, the dogged but good-natured police break their perpetual off-duty poker game to jump back into action. Roadblocks are set up all over the coast and the veteran detective on the beat (Harry Shannon) takes along the overzealous youngster to apprehend the criminal.

Staying true to actual geography, they make their way up the California coast from San Diego. First, Oceanside, then San Clemente, and then placing roadblocks at both “Capistrano” (San Juan Capistrano) and near “Laguna” (Laguna Beach). What’s more, the carpoolers set their course for a friend’s place in Newport — Newport Beach that is — and they wind up hitting all the local hot spots from my childhood. Santa Ana even gets a mention.

They set up shop in the bachelor pad in the harbor, although there’s no Bogey or Duke Wayne to be had riding the waters. All we get is a doddering nightwatchman (Andrew Tombes), a wild array of near-screwball antics, murder, and then ensuing hostage situations. Come to think of it, based on what we were promised, it pretty much measures up.

While the characters are cliched to the max and their reactions are a bit wonky, especially after rolling over a cop in pursuit, it’s easy to take delight in the cumulative effect. A title like The Devil Thumbs a Ride should be some kind of tip-off and between Tierney’s minacious countenance and the sheer shoddiness behind many of the lines of dialogue, there’s an odd tone developed. It can be near-screwball one minute, and then instantly plunged back into thriller territory.

The family man gets in hot water with his wife thanks to the conniving blonde jumping on the hone extension. The Devil still has his eyes on the other girl even as he’s anxious to wait it out and let the situation die down. Even as the cops start closing in, there’s a sense something explosive is going to happen. Because when agitated and cornered, outlaws have a habit of lashing out in a desperate struggle to survive. They don’t much care who gets in their way.

Much of The Devil Thumbs a Ride feels mediocre, but if you’ve never been acquainted with Lawrence Tierney or you’re game for a bit of post-war time capsule filmmaking, there are a few modest delights crammed into its 62 minutes.

3/5 Stars

Night Editor (1946) and a Femme Fatale Worse Than Blood Poisoning

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This expedient B noir opens with the most peculiar of narrative devices. The only guess is it’s somehow tied to the film’s roots in serial radio drama. A pack of poker-playing, late-night newshounds is chewing the fat, and out of their nattering comes the story of Tony Cochrane (William Gargan).

The real film starts in a kid’s bedroom. A father talks cops and robbers with his son along with roller skates and going fishing like they used to. The boy watches his “Pops” leave before entreating him to “Keep his nose clean.”

Gargan, a gruff, marble-mouthed type, fits the role of the nondescript detective on a beat, though he doesn’t seem like much of a family man. It’s not the only seemingly incongruity around him. His doting, overly angelic wife (Ms. Jeff Donnell), a typical noir staple, wants to see more of him because she loves him dearly. Expectedly, her very presence sets up an uneasy queasiness in the cinemagoer’s stomach. Where there exists a “noir angel” her foil must be nearby — a woman whose feet go down to death.

Sure enough, he’s knee-deep in a clandestine affair. He’s got another dame and what a vicious creature of deception she is. We’ve jumped from the seat of matrimony and domestic tranquility to the front seat of his car stashed away in some neglected place all the more convenient for necking.

Janis Carter doesn’t get too many kudos these days, even in noir circles, but a picture like Night Editor alone is worthy of hoisting her out of the shadows into a place of ill-repute. It’s more than scummy and vindictive enough to put her on the map.

Granted, a lot of the film’s dialogue is clunky but some of it is also too delicious to pass up in terms of noir-speak. One opening exchange between the surreptitious lovers springs to mind, “You’re just no good for me. We both add up to zero. You’re worse than blood poisoning.”

This is fertile ground for something devastating to happen. It turns out we don’t have to wait around because Cochrane and Jill happen to witness a nighttime murder just across the road. It’s the kind of punchy jolt movies like this thrive on.

Instantly the dramatic situation is placed before us conveniently because our protagonist is a cop — bound by some sense of morals and justice — he’s not completely ditched his conscience yet.

Still, her pleading words ring in his ears as he sticks out his gun to apprehend the killer. It’ll be a scandal. His wife and kid will suffer. And the worst part: She’s right. So the assailant runs off into the night and for the rest of the picture, he’s got to wrestle with his decision. It’s a petrifying situation to be in, and it’s got him all twisted up inside.

Soon enough, news of the murder breaks, and the game is afoot as Tony is called on to help with the case (and simultaneously looks to cover his tracks). Ole (Paul E. Burns) is his amiable colleague at the police station. Although he’s more Swedish and less imposing, he shares some overlapping qualities with Barton Keyes, employing the same kind of uncanny intuition. But, best of all, he’s a loyal friend.

Meanwhile, the newshounds sitting around the station wait with bated breath for scraps. There’s a feeling the case could blow wide open at any moment. It just so happens his gal is a smarmy high society gal where it counts, married to an affluent old boy. She’s a trophy wife out on the prowl. However, she’s also got another budding love affair — no doubt one of many — but this one is of particular importance.

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A flattering man named Loring who works at the local bank holds the keys to the case. Except only Tony and Jill know it. When she effectively provides him a fictitious alibi, Tony is all but forced to live a lie and eat his words as she walks off with another man. Truth is often created by the people who speak first, and there’s no way for him to easily refute her.

What’s before him now is an extension of his living nightmare. No girl, no relief, and, of course, his home life has suffered due to his increasing aloofness. There’s little recourse but to take a stand against Julia — with one final stab at veracity — lest the lies eat him alive.

It’s a foregone conclusion. Their final confrontation cannot end well. There’s too much between them, of both malice and consequence, for any decision to resolve itself smoothly. And so in the kitchen, sure enough, he lets her know he’s going to talk — someone’s going to believe him.

Her reaction is almost cute. The doe eyes. The breathiness. The physical touch and the vaguely genuine show of sincerity. There’s an inkling that it might be true. But even if it is, she’s predisposed toward the violence and self-preservation all but ingrained in her very nature.

He staggers out into the living room in a near surreal state, with a new resolve and calm cast over him. Still, we’ve witnessed something bearing irrevocable consequences. Out on the doorstep stand the authorities. Surely, this is the end…Then, he crumples to the ground — the dramatic exclamation point to a sordid procedural.

Sadly this quagmire of fatalism was not to be, all but remedied by the same hokey radio program hoax as the editors tie the story up with an ending fit for an innocuous Disney movie. Until this final false step of pollyannaism, Night Editor more than earns its keep as a wanton noir gem. You just have to look between the bylines.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Duel (1971): The Stirring Success of a Young Spielberg

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Duel stands as a stirring reminder that this is the same Steven Spielberg who brazenly got himself on the Universal lot because he needed to be in as close proximity to movies by any means possible. There was no other alternative.

Here is a young, brash filmmaker, part Hitchcock, part Truffaut, and all American humanist. Is it wrong to say he is dearly missed? Because this is not to imply films like Bridge of Spies or The Post do not have merit or are not worthy of acclaim. However, it does feel expected of them. If ever a gigantic cinematic undertaking could be termed safe, they are, at least in terms of comparison.

Duel is full of the electrifying exuberance of youth with a director out on the prowl to prove himself. He most certainly does. He cannot help but shape our perceptions along the entire adventure through impetuous moves and constant manipulation. But that is what the directors and the magicians behind films are capable of at their highest potential.

What sets it apart instantly is the point of view. As an audience, we are flying down the streets of what can only be L.A. and the world is being relayed to us from the cab of the car as the radio whirs with the typical chatter.

Baseball scores. The latest exploits of Lee Trevino. A man calling in proclaiming himself a member of the silent majority and simultaneously afraid folks will get the wrong idea if it gets out he’s not his family’s primary breadwinner. His masculinity is in danger of being under attack. Blah blah blah.

It is not a film saturated in dialogue so whatever you hear serves a key purpose either thematically (like in this case) or to define character conflict. This is the first instance where it becomes especially apparent.

The movie, originally a television movie, also fits nicely into TV’s cultural moment with Dennis Weaver of later McCloud fame and Spielberg himself having directed an early episode of Columbo for Sunday Mystery Movie Night.

Our hero is a Vietnam war vet still trying to exorcize demons while grappling with his own faulty sense of masculinity that has his own marriage going down the tubes. What follows is a laughably simple premise executed exquisitely to a fever’s pitch.

Because David Mann (Weaver) is currently being delayed from getting home to his wife and kid due to a business trip. It can’t be helped and seen in this light, Duel might easily be a suburban family drama about the daily monotonies of life as a member of the aforementioned silent majority.

And yet Duel slowly unfurls a more menacing and blatantly overt conceit. Real, tangible opposition is created in the arrival of a flammable tanker and rolling pollution factory belching exhaust. The story as originally conceived by the prolific Richard Matheson preys on the anxieties about L.A. smog and the uninhibited road rage brought to a simmer by the daily commute.

Because soon enough Mann, for some inexplicable reason, finds himself being pursued and bullied off the road by the massive truck. It’s the personification of a destructive vendetta out on the road. It’s vindictive. It feels personal. But we never understand why.

As they begin to make their way across more secluded desert highways and byways, what starts out feeling like a practical joke continually escalates. It follows him to a diner, waits for him menacingly, and comes upon him as he tries to service a broken down school bus. The kids seem to jeer him, a jarring image, given the fact this ominous big rig comes to their aid. Could it be they are in cahoots? The fears begin to proliferate.

However, from a narrative perspective, the true masterstroke is how Spielberg never tips us off to who the phantom pursuer is. He is more a creature of diesel propelled by exorbitant amounts of fury rather than a human being — a cinematic creation more than a real-world entity.  It sounds eerily familiar to a mechanical shark just hopped up on gasoline and plowing down the roadways instead of the deep blue.

Thus, the parallel to Jaws are all too obvious. This is a low budget, compact, and even punchier rendition. However, everything goes back to Spielberg’s fearless inventiveness, whether it’s in the elementary way in which to frame shots or to build up this ever heightening sense of paranoia as the world begins to collapse around our protagonist.

Dennis Weaver embodies this brand of All-American, nevertheless, plagued by demons, and his spells of voiceover, particularly in a roadside diner, lend an added depth to his anxiety.

It is one way we are given license to get inside of his head as he tries to guess which old boy sitting at the counter is the one out to get him. His nerves are all about shot by the end of it and if he’s our surrogate, as an audience we do not fare much better.

Obviously, there are these moments of dialogue, but the sparse moments full of near-wordless action recall Hitchcock quite vividly. A film can be won and lost in how it utilizes these moments, and Spielberg rides them out to great effect.

When the radiator hose breaks, and it feels like sheer desperation time the camera is literally peering up through the steering wheel on the most severe angle on Dennis Weaver yet. Because we have hit the most crucial moment in the picture.

Mann is broaching a precipice of mad despair as he wills his vehicle to not completely fall to pieces around him. He’s physically incapable of running any longer because his wheels have betrayed him. His only hope is making it to the top of an incline so he can coast his way to freedom.

Whether he conquerors the beast or not, the struggle is not without consequence on both our hero and the audience. You would assume Duel is a movie that would feel stagnant and yet even with rhythms that repeat, it somehow manages to maintain a level of tension that must be accredited not only to Spielberg and his cameraman but Weaver’s anchoring performance as he goes through a hellish battle against the steely-beast. TV movies often get a bad rap but Duel is at least one shining example in their favor.

4/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: 1950s Film Noir

We follow up last week’s guide to classic film noir of the 1940s by continuing into the 1950s with 4 more entries. With the new decade came new progressions in realism, location shooting, and heightened character psychology.

As Paul Schrader wrote, the noir hero started to “go bananas.” What remained were graft, corruption, and the depravity of the human heart. True, gumshoes and femme fatales were never cut-and-dry. Now they were even less so. Enjoy!

Gun Crazy (1950)

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B movies form the backbone of this often down and dirty genre. There are few better than Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy an exercise in inventive economy. It tells the tale of a romance-fueled crime spree with verve and violent passion. Although mostly forgotten today, John Dall and Peggy Cummins do a fine rendition as a latter-day incarnation of Bonnie and Clyde

The Big Heat (1953)

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It’s a cops and robbers procedural with Glenn Ford as the straight-arrow family man going against the local mob. What Fritz Lang does is boil it over with newfound vindictiveness. We soon find out the good guys aren’t always untarnished nor the noir dames (Gloria Grahame) always the villains. True to form, Lee Marvin plays an incorrigible heavy.

The Killing (1956)

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It’s early Stanley Kubrick so some might find it a stark contrast to his later works. Regardless, it’s one of the finest heist films of all-time. Because the best-laid plans — even the most meticulous — always have a habit of going awry. The set-up is gritty and no-nonsense with a cast headed by a fitting protagonist: Sterling Hayden. Likewise, it’s ending just about sums up film noir fatalism.

Touch of Evil (1958)

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It’s often cited as one of the final signposts of classic film noir. With its tale of below the border corruption instigated by a portly Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) against a Mexican policeman (Charlton Heston) and his wife (Janet Leigh), it more than fits the parameters of the genre. The extended opening shot is just one stunning testament of Welles’ vision as a director.

Worth Watching:

Sunset Blvd., In a Lonely Place, Night and The City, Where The Sidewalk Ends, Ace in The Hole, The Narrow Margin, Kansas City Confidential, Pickup on South Street, Night of The Hunter, Kiss Me Deadly, Bad Day at Black Rock, Murder by Contract, and so many more.

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 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

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