Boris Karloff at RKO: Body Snatcher, Isle of The Dead, Bedlam

In our current climate, it almost seems like an oxymoron to have a shoestring budget period piece, but many of Val Lewton’s best movies were founded on this formula.

His three-film partnership was beneficial for all parties involved and we would like to consider how he was able to fashion Karloff into a new kind of monster.

In honor of the spooky season, let’s talk about Karloff at RKO:

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Robert Louis Stevenson is an auspicious literary figure for anyone raised up on fiction like Dr. Jeykll, Treasure Island, or Kidnapped. Much of this might have come from any of their many adaptations. Thus, it seems fitting to know his work also received the Val Lewton treatment in the form of his short story, “The Body Snatcher.”

The year is 1831 in Edinburgh, Scotland, a place I reminisce about fondly. This is not a world of invading pod people; it’s actually a much more arcane movie with a gothic mood and style of the Victorian Age.

There’s a practicality to its premise and the origin of the horror. Not unlike Doctor Frankenstein, these doctors need cadavers — specimens on which to learn their trade. They have a bit of a silent agreement with a local coachman named Gray (his eminence, Boris Karloff), who is also a “Resurrection Man” by night. In other words, he digs up dead bodies.

The Doctor Macfarlane (Henry Daniell) has an empty callousness in his face and voice, like a shell of a former man who probably had ideals in his youth. Now he’s shackled by something, either vocational obsessions or something far more sinister.

The character dynamics are mostly intriguing as it’s hinted that “Toddy” and Gray shared a slightly sordid past together long before their current business arrangement. The Doctor’s housekeeper is also closer than she appears, chiding him to let the past go and with it the callow boy he’s brought on as his assistant.

Russell Wade is perfect as the naive Fettes, who only sees the altruistic good in their profession and his mentor. The young student vows to a pretty young mother that her invalid daughter might walk again if only the doctor might operate on her. Macfarlane’s less inclined to make such a rash promise.

Because of these clouded histories, much of the movie is about the specters of the past with Gray constantly at the ready to hound the man of reputation. He aims to keep their lucrative partnership going by any means necessary.

One of the film’s most visually arresting scenes is in the dead of night. There’s a haunting street singer done up in a shawl with a small bowl for arms. Her gorgeous brogue pierces through the evening lamplight and the all but silent cobblestone streets as she sings “When Ye Gang Awa Jamie.” Soon even she goes quiet…

Another definitive moment comes later upon entering the cabby’s quarters with the camera turning right into his horse resulting in a genuine jump scare. Bela Lugosi feels almost unrecognizable to me and by that I mean he hardly speaks, mostly slinking about in the periphery of the story. When he finally does speak that’s the giveaway.

Joseph pays a visit to gray with a mind to blackmail, but he’s not half as cunning. They share a drink in the firelight. Karloff’s propped on the table grinning lasciviously as he leans over the oblivious man. Who’s in control of the situation is plainly apparent, and it’s such a stunning composition honoring two of the greatest horror showcases Universal ever had.

Now they are with RKO, certainly older, but Val Lewton pays them his utmost respects. Although Karloff’s the biggest name, this is a new generation of films removed from his earlier persona. Lewton effectively allows him to rebrand himself as a new kind of villain, a new kind of monster to be feared. The extraordinary thing is how it’s hardly makeup or special effects-driven but performative in nature. It’s also chilling.

There’s a jolt of ambiguity into the ending of the movie as the Doctor is haunted by his sins, but Karloff’s just as agonizing. Maybe it’s because he seems to represent past sins reincarnated. I’m curious if contemporary critics hailed it as a return to form for Karloff. Even with the passage of time, it seems to show a startling range I’ve appreciated more with time. He gets to show another side of himself.

4/5 Stars

Isle of The Dead (1945)

Isle of The Dead begins with an unbelievable scenario with no forewarning as Karloff’s General intimates for a disgraced officer to commit suicide in order to maintain the company’s reputation. Minutes later he takes a journalist (Marc Kramer) for an amble through no man’s land in the First Balkans War as if nothing has happened.

There’s something uncanny and manufactured about how this General brings this other man along with him as he goes to visit his wife’s crypt on a nearby deserted island. Just saying it now sounds outlandish. But this is what happens. I’m not saying it’s naturalistic, but that’s hardly the reason for watching this movie. It’s as if we have entered this transitory world that operates outside of our accepted logic.

It is a bit of a surprise because Lewton normally worked very hard to create the baseline world and the logic of his stories, so we might be fully committed as an audience. Although this might be partially lacking in Isle of The Dead, what’s not absent is his signature sense of foreboding atmosphere adding a shroud of horror-worthy darkness to all his pictures. Their eeriness cannot be shaken off easily.

Then, again perhaps I spoke too soon. The story still works in ample amounts of mythology including Vrykolakas: undead, vampire-like creatures that haunt the living. Some believe they have been sent as punishment by the gods, there are pagan rituals to Hermes, prayers are sent up regularly, and belief is a powerful force.

Although the opening premise is suspect, it’s this added context creating the foundation for the rest of the movie as it sends Karloff deeper into this Grecian abyss of darkness and shadow. In no moment is this more clear than the glorious sequence when Ellen Drew walks the hallways at night, candle in hand. It encapsulates the entire movie in a few successive shots of stylized pitch-blackness.

Our protagonist says, “I put my faith in what I can feel and know and see,” and yet his rationality must do war with the steady barrage of wind and shadow. Many of the island’s inhabitants are stricken with the plague. It seems like a silent killer born out of voices calling out from the night and a fleeting apparition in white.

Lewton hasn’t lost his touch in conjuring up such mysterious environs to assault our senses. It’s never about out and out shock value, but this pervasive sense of the inevitable. This must all come to some end. We all die be it from war, plague, or something equally as sinister.

3.5/5 Stars

Bedlam (1946)

It’s curious and rather extraordinary that two of Karloff’s films with RKO were inspired by paintings. Bedlam came out of William Hogarth’s series A Rake’s Progress. It occupies itself with Bethlehem Asylum in 18th century London. Although this is the so-called “Age of Reason,” treatment of the mentally ill is hardly benevolent.

All the “loonies” are kept in their cages like sideshow attractions for the public to gawk at for a tuppence fare. We’re privy to one of its present tragedies: a man falling to his death from the asylum rooftops with a little assistance. If we want to get to the bottom of the callous hell hole, we must look no further than Master George Sims.

There he is: Boris Karloff done up in a wig and the attire of the age. Here’s another joyous occasion to see him take on yet another century of English history through the period lens of Hollywood. It’s a deliciously unctuous performance, and he proves himself just as skeevy as he’s ever been.

He’s called in for a stern talking to — the corpulent Lord Mortimer (Billy House) and his lady protege (Anna Lee) have some words for him. He’s taken mild dissatisfaction on losing some of their entertainment.

Always quick to ingratiate himself and despite having sent Mortimer’s poet to his demise, he vows to put on a frivolous performance to tickle the patron’s fancy. It’s so easy for him to use and degrade his tenants for monetary gain because what worth are they to the world outside?

The moment Anna Lee enters the inner sanctum of the asylum and sees the tenants in their own world she’s momentarily surprised even moved by their fate. Though she tries to mask it on the outside with words and a riding crop, she does harbor pity for them.

It is a perceptive quaker (Richard Fraser) who notices her reaction and rouses her to some form of Christian action. She is more sympathetic than the rest of the idle masses because she is self-made. Without the luxury of personal wealth or power, she knows intuitively how hard it is to find self-preservation in an often heartless world.

In some way, it feels like a call for tolerance and sympathy by reaching into the past to inform the present. Because although it is a story in the guise of 18th-century horror — Karloff’s presence makes sure of that — there is something more to the picture.

Like all Lewton’s work, there’s a deceptive depth and substance to Bedlam that is at one time both intriguing and generally commendable. Because he doesn’t just make entertainment. It entertains, yes, but you can watch the RKO films and there are supplementary thematic interests to them.

Karloff is the standout in all three pictures — no one else comes close — though I am fond of Lee here because she actually has spirit and stands for something. She’s willing to do battle with him. It’s a collision of dueling philosophies.

He snarls that men are not brothers — they are not good and kind — but savages that must be ruled by force and his worldview plays out in how he governs Bedlam. With the saintly quaker speaking into her life, she looks to reform the asylum as she is trapped on the inside vowing not to give in and cave to Sims’s merciless conception of the world.

Karloff obviously relishes his subtle insinuations and well-placed comments to stir pots and get what he wants while pushing back against those who wronged him. Namely, gaining the good graces of Lord Mortimer and spurning the impudent, proud lady.

Is he evil? Not exactly — at least not at first — but he has a steady mean streak which proves to be utterly Machiavellian and maniacal. It’s villainy at its finest because it slinks so easily under the radar of societal convention. He’s despicable and still oddly droll making for a fine antagonist.

4/5 Stars

Blood on the Moon (1948): A Robert Mitchum Horse Noir

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This is admittedly nitpicky, but the title cards of Blood on the Moon are a bit jarring as the white-lettered names all but disappear into the sliver of light stretching across the otherwise black canvas of the screen. Thus, I missed out on about a fourth of the names in the cast.

Opening credits aside, entering the world itself is an unmitigated pleasure as we are submerged straight into a rainstorm meeting us with a near tactile sense of tone. Against the dark slopes, a solitary rider sits aloft in wet hat and poncho. He’s seeking cover from the downpour.

Though he finds it,  his nice, warming fire essentially gets stampeded by a pack of steers, and a man with a gun comes to oust him. He comes in contact with a not too neighborly outfit led by a man name Lufton who is a part of a longstanding feud between two factions. The age-old animosity kicked up between cattlemen and homesteaders. Lufton is on the side of the cattle.

However, we have yet to know where this stranger — Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum) — falls along the gradient, if anywhere. He has his first run-in with a lady (Barbara Bel Geddes) and sends her packing into the adjoining stream with some nifty shooting. Then, he drifts into a town, which seems cloaked in a dubious conspiracy of its own.

A host of characters sit around a poker table — among them Walter Brennan and Charles McGraw — shooting the bull about the new man. They want to get a read on him through a bit of deception. He reads them like a book, and it still seems like all the thugs are coming out of the woodwork just to take a shot at him.

Finally, he reconnects with his old comrade Tate Riling (Robert Preston). Their past is all but unspoken yet we understand they’ve been through some times together. Thus, it’s no less jolting to learn this man Tate is on the other side of the feud. He has sided with the local ranches and a government agent (Frank Faylen) to push Lufton’s cattle off the land. An awfully crooked Preston is girded by that age-old charisma of his. He somehow still gives off an aura of likability in a not too trustworthy sort of way.

So Garry has been unwittingly been called upon as a de facto gunman to help make the transition stick. He initially goes along with it, because Tate used to be his pal. What makes the story an interesting one relies on the fact Garry has that age-old deficiency — a human conscience.

The plucky rancher he shot at before was one of Lufton’s daughters, Amy, who though sore at him, eventually warms up when his integrity becomes apparent. She realizes he is a different breed than the rest. However, her sister Carol (Phyllis Thaxter), as fearful as Amy is fierce, falls for another man, making for the most intriguing foil in the movie.

Walter Brennan’s place as one of the ranchers taken in by Tate’s promises remains relatively understated and minor next to all the greats he’s played (especially given my last picture of his was The Westerner). Likewise, Charles McGraw isn’t given much to do aside from being gruff though he was still in the nascent stages of his career.

The stakes have been set for a surprisingly complicated interplay even as the cursory beats of Lillie Hayward’s script look all too familiar. It seems Robert Wise has the right pedigree for the material as does cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca because whether deliberate or not, this 40s oater is cloaked by film noir sensibilities through and through.

While not the cleanest of prints, there’s no denying the scope of the terrain nor the layers of atmosphere they’re able to draw out of the scenery, between shadows and light. If it sounds familiar, these are the shades of noir embodied as much in the character of Robert Mitchum as any of the mise en scène. The iconic lazy-eyed indifference of Mitchum transfers seamlessly from Out of the Past (1947) — coincidentally, also photographed by Musuraca.

Again and again, we must fall back on Mitchum and in all the RKO pictures he made, the onus usually landed on him because fewer resources meant more was asked of him. Aside from being a workhorse, Mitchum has the gumption and the unflinching enigmatic cool to bear the story upon his shoulders. It relies on precisely this quality dwelling within him, shifting so easily between attributes of self-service and integrity.

As far as psychological westerns go, I find the compact punchiness of Blood on the Moon far more appealing than Pursued (1947), starring Mitchum and Teresa Wright whom I adore. However, this story is not simply an excuse for deep-suited psychological issues. What the picture doesn’t skimp on are fairly complicated human relationships. There it finds a heady weight to carry it through to the end even if it does falter a little.

Mitchum has it out with his old pal in a deserted bar with near Anthony Mann level fighting, verging on the fanatically crazed. It’s a beautiful piece of stylized brutality. There’s disheveled and then there’s Robert Mitchum’s appearance after the altercation.

He was never one to be an untouchable white knight, preferring shades of gray. It’s a brilliant moment of pitch dark adrenaline. The film never quite regains this same energy, but there is still work to be done.

Garry, Amy, and the rancher Kris Barden all have a personal reason for wanting to get rid of Tate for good. The inevitable showdown occurs after a snowcapped chase, leading to a shootout in a forest with a wounded Mitchum and his two compatriots looking to hold down the fort.

I already mentioned this picture heavily relies on Mitchum so what would the final moments be without him going after his adversary systematically, injured though he may be, to finish this business for good? A happy ending lightens the impact, but it’s a small price to pay for this underrated horse noir from Robert Wise. He surely could make a gripping movie.

3.5/5 Stars

Run Silent, Run Deep (1958): A Streamlined Submarine Drama

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Run Silent, Run Deep features what amounts to a cold open, set in the Bungo Straits, near the coast of Japan in 1942. The foreboding sonar-infused score by Franz Waxman suggests this will be a no-nonsense war drama and sure enough, within the first 5 minutes, a submarine commanded by one P.J. Richardson (Clark Gable) has been sunk in its mission to destroy an enemy ship, leading to the capsizing of the entire crew.

As Richardson looks back at his receding enemy, we see the film’s objective right before us. He is bent on revenge. Given the situation, this is not a film so much about survival but returning to finish a job no matter the circumstances, dangers, or counter-orders standing in the way.

After a short leave of action, Richardson talks his way into another command, this time taking over from Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster) who has already formed a close-knit rapport with his men. They don’t look too kindly on a new man taking over and Bledsoe broaches the subject bluntly with his new superior.

Richardson is hardly going to be dissuaded by a minor thorn in his side and his new crew begrudgingly take to the grueling regiment of drills he has them on. No one is looking to make any friends. This is hardly a film about buddy, buddy or camaraderie. There isn’t time. The one thing the commander does instill in them is discipline and well-oiled efficiency. It’s probably the greatest gift he can give them based on the circumstances.

The stakes are obvious as the death trap, Area 7, has led to the loss of four separate Allied subs, including Richardson’s previous command. What the story devolves into is a fairly straightforward WWII drama which is nevertheless riddled with tension as they knowingly enter perilous waters.

It’s true a submarine serves as an impeccable locale because its very form functions in constraining the action and ratcheting up emotions. There is no release valve and all these crewmen are literally submerged underwater for hours at a time. If that isn’t nerve-wracking I’m not sure what else qualifies.

Combine this environment with men who are already in tight quarters only to become more contentious over a major distaste in their commanding officer. It’s easy to envision him as a modern-day Captain Ahab. His white whale is the infamous Japanese Akikaze, Bungo Charlie, that he’s already has a deadly history with. The seafaring setting and power dynamics also hint at the traditions of The Mutiny on The Bounty though the story foregoes this exact demarcation.

While there are few flourishes or subsequent surprises from director Robert Wise’s film, there’s no question in labeling Run Silent, Run Deep an immersive experience, even for such a streamlined endeavor. In fact, that more than anything plays to its advantage. This allows it to be compact actioner extremely aware of its outcomes and not content until its mission has been accomplished. While it does not leave a great deal of leeway in the area of character development, our cast is a varied and compelling ensemble.

Obviously, the central figureheads are Gable and Lancaster, two hard-bitten battlers who are also consequently, far too old to be playing their parts. But this is Hollywood, after all, so it’s easy enough to make allowances when you’re getting top tier talent.

However,  surround them with the likes of Jack Warden, Brad Dexter, Don Rickles (in his film debut), and Lancaster’s long-time collaborator Nick Cravat, and you have something quite engaging.

The key to the success of both the mission and the film is that it ends as quickly as it begins. It gets in and gets out with striking precision, taking little time to rest too long on its laurels. Between the flurry of malfunctioning torpedoes, the barrage of enemy depth charges, and bombs raining from up above, there is plenty of flack to provide antagonistic interference. By the end, it seems a miracle our men get through at all but of course, it’s not without a toll, both physically and mentally.

Because even when you cannot see the enemy in the flesh, the capability to do harm hardly slackens. In some cases, it proves even worse. What is easier to exterminate, an enemy who lacks any type of form or personage or one that is living and breathing? In this regard, Wise’s picture is sterile and impersonal. It’s not so much a flaw as it is a sobering reality.

3.5/5 Stars

I Want to Live! (1958): The Anomaly of Barbara Graham

220px-I_Want_to_Live!I Want to Live! calls upon the words of two men of repute to make an ethos appeal to the audience. The first quotation is plucked from Albert Camus. I’m not sure what the context actually was but the excerpt reads, “What good are films if they do not make us face the realities of our time.” This is followed up by some very official-looking script signed by Edward S. Montgomery, Pulitzer Prize winner, who confirms this is a factual story based on his own journalism and the personal letters of one Barbara Graham.

So the film asserts its authenticity right off the bat before even showing an image. It’s obviously hewn out of the tradition of the real crime docudramas popular at the time. And yet with any type of project, perhaps especially those that make such a claim, we must still call details into question and take them with a grain of salt.

Director Robert Wise is at it again handily developing an environment that feels lived in, opening with dutch angles to give us a slightly disconcerting introduction to a jazzy hole-in-the-wall joint. The crime maestro is at his best when he is working with locales he can play around with and in this case, the world gives way to character.

Meeting Susan Hayward in this picture is reminiscent of meeting Burt Lancaster’s Swede in The Killers. They’re in an upper room, a bedroom, cloaked in shadow and we know they have a tragic end in sight. Where we find them is almost as important as the characters themselves because it acts as an extension of who they are.

Graham is a different type of flawed figure who we find not in a lover’s room but some random bimbo. Though the word is never said outright, she’s undoubtedly a prostitute with police looking to nab her. This is our initial image of her, and it is telling.

However, the rest of her story is sutured together with whirling whip pans and mementos from photos to newspaper clippings to TV coverage, providing snapshots of a life through intermittent scenes. What we are given is admittedly jarring and not altogether cohesive, though one could easily concede no life is ever straightforward to piece together. So it is with this one.

Before seeing either film, I always mentally confused Caged and I Want to Live! because of the superficial similarity of women criminals behind bars. However, there is a substantial difference in Eleanor Parker who is able to lead her character through a visible transformation. With Hayward its more about reconciling and portraying the varying entities of this befuddling human being: Barbara Graham.

Soon she is styled as “Bloody Babs” by the media, initially lambasting her as a brazen killer with a past full of criminal activity and impropriety. But at least one man, Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland), begins to change his tune and crusades tirelessly for her innocence. His help, along with the support of a benevolent psychologist (Theodore Bikel), just might turn the tide. Maybe…

Again, the most enjoyable aspect seems to be the mimetic world that has been evoked because to recall the Camus quote, “Here is the reality of our time, and we have no right to be ignorant of it. The day will come when such documents will seem to us to refer to prehistoric times.”

The people (including a young Gavin MacLeod), their clothing, the interiors of rooms, the press, and the mechanisms of the criminal justice system, are all touchstones of some kind. There’s always something we can learn from each even as we must be suspect of how authentic they really are.

Thus, the real star is the direction, featuring some of the most visual flourishes I recall in a Wise picture, further complemented by the jazzy scoring of Johnny Mandel. But its all elemental in creating a backdrop for the story.  Black & White serves Wise particularly well.

The final act initially stalls because the story is played from a waiting game angle, trying to ratchet the tension, although the ending is an already foregone conclusion. Everyone is waiting around. I would have thought the ending would go to Susan Hayward. Because until those foreboding final moments, her character hardly feels established even after all we have witnessed. But sometimes one scene can be galvanizing and emblematic of an entire picture.

However, this is not a boisterous exclamation point but an oddly entrancing death scene and this seemingly purposeful decision proves consistent with most of the picture. It foregoes dramatic and visual hyperbole for leaner more understated beats that bear markers of truthfulness. In the end, life doesn’t go out with an explosion but a drop off into somber nothingness.

With such a conclusion we certainly feel sorry for Barbara Graham. However, I’m not sure if we can completely empathize with her. Nevertheless, like any such high stakes story, I Want to Live! calls into question the American justice system, the death penalty, and our understanding of guilt in this country. So was Graham guilty or innocent? I would have to do more outside research to corroborate the facts though the film implies its own position quite overtly.

Regardless, maybe the picture is about larger themes altogether. Issues that go deeper still into the very fabric of how we enact justice, how we perceive it in the media, and even socially, how certain people seem to get raked over the coals.

Why Barbara Graham? Why not someone else? Why like this? It’s an issue that goes beyond superficial terms like good or bad. As a people, I think we are fascinated by individuals who are layered anomalies not to be understood with a cursory glance. Barbara Graham seems like such a person. We cannot write her off with a convenient stereotype.

3.5/5 Stars

Somebody Up Their Likes Me (1956): Starring Paul Newman and Pier Angeli

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Here is the first of two purported instances where Paul Newman wound up taking on roles earmarked for the recently deceased James Dean. Dean even had a fairly visible relationship with Pier Angeli who would have been his co-star. At one point, there was even talk of marriage swirling around though Angeli’s mother disapproved of Dean. Because it’s true he was “the rebel,” and she the angelic ingenue. It served them both well on screen, and the saintly image works well opposite Newman here.

While Dean had the angst and a sturdy enough frame to have at Rock Hudson in Giant, there’s no doubt his slight build doesn’t seem like the physique of a boxer. In this physical regard alone Newman might have proved to be a fine choice and in consideration of the performance itself, he showcases a glint of many of the traits that would turn him into a beloved box office attraction.

Watching his big break in the context of his illustrious career is gratifying for just those reasons. Because we know the successes waiting for him. Somebody Up There Likes Me finally gave him a shot to put himself out there so people could take note.

Due to the aura of The Sound of Music and to a lesser extent West Side Story, they are two films that effectively misrepresent the career of director Robert Wise. At the very least, they can be deceptive.

True, West Side Story gives us a glimpse into gangland New York, albeit touched up in vibrant color. But we only need look to Wise’s early noir works, a pedigree including the boxing classic The Set-Up; or even Odds Against Tomorrow, to see what he was capable of in terms of grungy atmospherics. This one occupies a seedy dive world akin to something like On The Waterfront (1954) or even Love with a Proper Stranger (1963).

Coincidentally, Steve McQueen has an early part in this one and Sal Mineo, a Dean compatriot leftover from Rebel Without a Cause, gives a crucial supporting role. Because Rocky incurs a childhood of abuse only to grow up as a hoodlum on the streets terrorizing the neighborhood with his band of cronies. Romolo (Sal Mineo) is the most important because they have the same life experience but wind up in completely different stratospheres.

It does take Rocky a long time though. He lands himself in a reformatory and gets thrown around the social reform structures implemented by society, all to no avail. He gets upgraded to a Penitentiary and still, his brutish intensity is never cowed.

Picking a fight with everyone big or small. It doesn’t matter if they’ve got stripes on their shoulders, suits, college educations, or police badges in their pockets. He’s ready and willing to wail on anyone. To say he has a blatant disregard for rules and authority is a gross understatement.  It’s part of what makes Newman’s turn entertaining in the earliest segments.

We wonder when he’s ever going to hit an upswing as he’s on the lamb, then dishonorably discharged, and awarded a stint at Leavenworth. Could that be a bit of Luke Jackson that we see?

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Even as he reluctantly agrees to jump in the ring for a promoter (Everett Sloane) to earn some desperately needed cash, he never has a taste for fighting. It seems like for once in his life the newly minted Rocky Graziano (like the wine) is looking to get away from fighting. And yet over time, he is convinced to train and to channel his hate into his right hand, like a charge of dynamite, so it can benefit him in the confines of the ring.

Also, about this time, he is introduced to his sister’s friend Norma, a sweet, reticent girl who is taken with romantic movies, butterfly kisses, and nice words spoken out of a place of kindness. Rocky’s entire upbringing has left him with the impression “love is for the birds.” They shouldn’t be together and yet, for some unexplainable reason, they are.

Soon, with the help of Irving (Sloane), Rocky has made a name for himself as the most popular Italian in the world, aside from Frank Sinatra and Michelangelo. Still, Norma can’t stand his fighting believing it is all, “meanness and blood and ignorance.”

On the surface, it seems true. However, Graziano is a curious force. So brutal and antagonistic and yet in his own gruff way, he’s so capable of love. He loves his mother (Eileen Heckert) dearly even as he tears her apart. He loves his wife, never laying a hand on her. He only has tenderness in his heart for them.

Still, in the ring he is ruthless and outside it, he’s plagued by fixers (Robert Loggia in a slimy debut) and a horde of journalists looking to smear his past all over the tabloids.

The climactic bout versus incumbent champion Tony Zale personifies how chaotically communal boxing is. An assortment of POV shots with punches aimed right at the camera, a flurry of edits, and a boisterous brand of intimacy makes us feel like we’re living right inside the ring. The beauty of it has to be the fact Rocky seems like he’s losing the entire time. Sometimes that doesn’t matter. Grit alone sustains. It’s a delightful finishing point, but the film is not won in the ring.

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I’m trying to come up with concrete justifications for why I enjoyed this experience so much. A few have been offered up but on the whole, I’m at a loss for words. Certainly Wise is no stranger to this street corner aesthetic, which he develops with such assured conviction, but the beats of the story are nothing new. They come to be expected; what takes you by pleasant surprise in such a context is a performance or a bit of dialogue from Ernest Lehman.

Because the boxing ring is only ever an arena for the life outside the ropes to play out and thankfully a rapport is built with the characters that comes to more than a few fights to prove oneself. In fact, until the final showdown in the ring, most of what we know about Rocky occurs outside of the ring with the gloves off.

Newman invests himself in the part readily showing a young punk evolve into a broken man with hatred in his blood, delinquency, and rage at the core of his being. Yet by some miracle, he’s able to gain a life and a beautiful girl to bless him with an existence worth living. Yes, he wins a big fight in the end, but we get the sense we leave him on a firm foundation. When the inevitable comes and he’s taken down, there’s still something and someone to return home to. Until that day he can relish what he was bred to do. But it’s not his all.

Then, of course, there’s Pier Angeli who is a minor revelation not because of any amount of flamboyance but the exact opposite. She is gifted with a grace and a poise that is positively enthralling. Her voice, quiet even hushed, flows with a peacefulness — an unassuming dignity even — so very unlike the ravishing vivacity of our Italian movie star archetypes. She is a discovery to be sure though her life was unfortunately cut tragically short. This role might be the finest testament to her presence as a performer.

It’s admittedly almost hokey witnessing Rocky riding down a cheering street, staring into the heavens noting exuberantly, “Somebody up there likes me.” Certainly, that’s true, but his wife reminds him, “Someone down here does too.” That’s how he knows The Big Man Upstairs was looking after him, putting such a calming force into the turbulence of his own life.  The scene is so easy to forgive because we’ve witnessed how very true it is.

This boxing biopic would be something of lesser note without Paul Newman’s star-making turn and what is an anti-hero without a companion to salvage their brokenness and turn them into the best person that they can be? Accordingly, comparable praise must be heaped on Angeli too.

4/5 Stars

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

Executive Suite (1954)

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Executive Suite is a story of the high rise corporate jungle where on a daily basis it’s a Darwinian experiment not only pitting company against company but, on a microscale, man against man. After all, in the most cynical sense, that’s what free market capitalism is.

Top to bottom, the film boasts rich reservoirs of talent from sure-handed director Robert Wise and screenwriting newcomer Ernest Lehman who would soon be a hot commodity in the industry thanks to the likes of The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and North by Northwest (1959).

It also proves to be an All-Star cast if there ever was one,  stacked with at least 10 easily recognizable names rounding out a lineup which could go toe-to-toe with any other drama of the decade on talent alone. Such a bevy of stars hearkens back to the golden years of MGM in the 1930s before television was ever a thing and they had as many stars as there were stars in the sky.

Today Executive Suite admittedly doesn’t get much coverage as a drama because, in spite of its vast ensemble, it’s not necessarily grandiose or vibrant, even compared to later Wise successes like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). However, this in no way should downplay its striking qualities and there are some compelling ones.

Out of all the stylistic choices, one of the most noticeable ones and, subsequently, unusual decisions for the era is the absence of any form of traditional musical scoring. In this regard, we could say the scenes are not manipulated by any amount of sonorousness. What we see is making some claim at authenticity with street noise in lieu of diegetic sound and Chet Huntley introducing our narrative set in the upper echelons of a skyscraper.

Though a bit gimmicky by today’s standards, Wise does immediately catch our eyes with an extended POV shot taking on the perspective of an unseen big wig name Bulliard, the formidable head of Tredway Furniture Co. He’s coming back to town and has slated a meeting for that same evening, upon his return. Except something highly unsuspected happens. One might blame the taxing strain of his work but he winds up dropping dead in the street. Some scrounger conveniently picks up his discarded wallet, making any form of identification more difficult for the police.

The company is thrown into an uproar following his sudden and untimely death, especially because there is no true contingency plan as the deceased had no single, hand-picked second-in-command.

Nina Foch is the secretary managing a vast network of information, funneling down to all the executive suite. She is the runner between offices and boardrooms, relaying the information to all the necessary contacts as Bulliard’s right-hand assistant.

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They gather for their impromptu meeting. There’s Frederick Y. Alderson (Walter Pidgeon), a career man who has been by the side of his friend Mr. Bulliard for many, many years now. Loren Shaw (Frederic March) is a relatively new addition to the company but as chief controller and a shrewd numbers man; he’s been able to up the annual earnings at Tredway as of late.

J. Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas) is the charismatic head of sales who could talk anyone into buying just about anything. He’s that good. Of course, his dirty little secret is he’s been embroiled in an affair with his secretary (Shelley Winters).

The ambitious young family man Don Walling (William Holden) holds a more hands-on position in the factory, overseeing design and development while the old warhorse, Mr. Grimm (Dean Jagger), is in charge of manufacturing. However, with their product going down in quality to cut expenses, he’s got an idea to retire. He holds no pride in his work anymore.

Between all these men and the opportunistic snake-in-the-grass, George Caswell (Louis Calhern), we have the gathering of the top brass and quality acting talent. It’s a bountiful proposition getting all these people in a room together. And when the news breaks it’s essentially an exhibition of “who died and made you king” as the factions scramble into action, assembling to vie for some form of supremacy.

Shaw is the first man spurred into action in the wake of Bulliard’s death because though Alderson holds private aspirations, he resigns himself to acquiescence. But that doesn’t mean they’re going down without a fight. Walling plays the number games late at night trying to figure where everyone stands. He confides in his wife (June Allyson) and plays catch with his son but his work-life balance is suffering. His wife worries the instability will bury him professionally.

It’s true the names are continually interchanging thanks to dirty politics and a plethora of finagling, leveraging, and leaning to line everything up for the impending nominations session to be undertaken on a closed ballot.

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In a man’s world, it’s fitting that Barbara Stanwyck would be the only woman with any sway on the meeting of the mind’s thanks to her stock holdings in her father’s company, which Bulliard helped appreciate. She doesn’t have much screentime but her very financial capital makes her crucial to the picture as an unpredictable swing vote. Her wild card and some late arrivals obscure the resolution to the last possible instant in thrilling fashion.

It’s true Henry Fonda was up for a part in the movie and that inkling gives me a rather obvious realization. Executive Suite does play like a bigger, loftier version of 12 Angry Men (1957). Especially in its most crucial minutes. Far be it from me to say people sitting around a boardroom table cannot be interesting because once more I was invested in what decision was arrived upon and I knew it took every one of those actors around that table to make it stick.

Someone has to rise to the occasion and that person is William Holden, positioned as the initially hesitant one, dismissed as still inexperienced, and yet he has a vision the others lack. He’s not a tired old man. He’s not driven solely by profits or bitter over past affronts.

He’s looking beyond to new territory and a future where the company can prosper not simply because of penny-pinching but an actual pride in the quality of the product they can offer their customers. If you wanted to make a sweeping statement, you could say he, even momentarily, redeems the American Dream, a symbol of the American everyman with his white picket fence, beautiful wife, and high ideals. That is until the next board meeting happens. But I would like to think he is capable as a leader for change. It’s true we need people like him in this world of ours.

4/5 Stars

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

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The unofficial timeline for classic film noir is approximately given as 1941-1958 but of course, there are notable outliers including Stranger on The 3rd Floor (1940) at the front end and this film, Odds Against Tomorrow, bringing up the rear. Pictures with what can easily be categorized as noir sensibilities whether visually, psychologically, or otherwise certainly were released outside of these arbitrary parameters. However, that’s part of the fun because this “genre” is so fluid and malleable; there’s no technical cutoff or subjective standards.

Director Robert Wise is generally remembered for his later works like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965) but every man has a Hollywood origin story. He cut his teeth editing Citizen Kane (1941) no less and began making gritty crime dramas in the late 40s. Two of the most commendable would be Born to Kill (1947) and The Set-Up (1949), the latter featuring Robert Ryan, now a crucial player again a decade later in the last of Wise’s outings in the same noir world.

We get our first glimpse of Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) walking on West Side Street in New York City and those shots assist in establishing the locale that we will be making our home in. Slater is on his way to a business arrangement with David Burke (Ed Begley).

They both have their reasons for joining forces. Burke was formerly a policeman who spent years faithfully serving on the force but when he wouldn’t get involved in a criminal investigation it all but sunk his career. Earl’s a less desirable character with a messy past as an ex-con and none too hidden racist tendencies.

He was the bigot with antisemitism in Crossfire (1947) so it’s a cinch that Ryan could play the narrow-minded white man in this picture too. We get an inclination when he playfully picks up the little African-American girl on his way to a meeting but it comes into full relief once he and the third member of their party, Ingram, are actually in a room together.

What makes the characterization so fascinating is though it’s so easy to envision Ryan in such roles because he plays each with such convincing enmity, he was a real-life crusader for Civil Rights and numerous other progressive causes. This is by no means his actual stance; far from it. Yet he makes us believe.

Though predominantly remembered as a singing star and for his presence in musicals, this was a self-selected part for Harry Belafonte (through his HarBel production company) that substantiates itself as arguably the most rewarding part of his career. He is Johnny Ingram a nightclub crooner who also plays a mean xylophone. But his greatest vice is that he’s a compulsive and extremely unsuccessful gambler — a bankroll of over $7,000 he’s supposed to dish out to a local mobster is residual proof.

Ed Begley, in a particularly charming role, acts as the calming force assuaging egos and keeping his team from completely tearing each other apart. Because he appreciates their talents and keeps them focused most of all on the payday that awaits them, $50,000 they could all use desperately.

Obviously, Ingram has his debts but also a daughter and an estranged wife to look after. Slater is rather unhappily married to a woman (Shelley Winters) who is supporting him for now. But he’s also fairly amicable with his neighbor down the hall (Gloria Grahame).

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Although the bigotry angle is no doubt important it’s not necessarily the focal point of the picture. Foremost of all, Odds Against Tomorrow is a showcase of style and atmospherics. There’s a seedy urban realism that aids in fashioning a tale of claustrophobic impending doom merely supplemented by the racial undertones. Wise achieves a certain look widely due to his on-location shoot but also infrared film stock which gives a very specific monochromatic quality to the exterior shots. Backed by jazzy scoring courtesy of John Lewis and we have a complete package standing toe to toe with Wise’s grittiest efforts.

Whereas most heist pictures take the route of letting the job occur and slowly unravel with mishaps that lead to extended agitation, this picture takes a slightly different approach. We get a line on the characters — their significant others and their problems — so their decisions make more sense. We know why they feel compelled to go through with what looks like “easy money.” However, the actual undertaking torques the picture’s ending into a fever pitch.

Because the title, of course, refers to gambling and the outcomes prove to be pretty bleak. Though the racial element began in the periphery it can’t help but reveal its ugliness in the film’s fatalistic finale. I won’t say the story comes off perfectly but if one is willing to feel it out and become immersed in the atmosphere, it generally succeeds by reveling in its environment.

3.5/5 Stars

Born to Kill (1947)

born-to-kill-1If you know what you want in life be sure of it and you can’t miss. I found that out early.  ~ Lawrence Tierney as Sam Wilde

Reno was always a Hollywood euphemism. What it stood for, of course, was divorce, a dirty word given the sensibilities of the 40s and the 50s. But then again, being the dirty, licentious, pernicious movement that it was, divorce is a perfect starting point for film-noir. That’s where we first meet Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) as she walks down the front steps of the courthouse.

She’s free of her former husband and about to leave her current residence to be closer to her sister back in San Francisco. She also has a wealthy beau on tap who seems to fit her well-to-do, refined nature. In fact, Claire Trevor is different than perhaps we’ve ever known her before, tempered and proper from the higher echelons of society — hardly a femme fatale — so it seems.

Except that’s not quite the case. Put her in contact with a certain type of man, a man of brute aggression and unfettered jealousy and she’s bound to get into trouble. It happens rather haphazardly as Sam Wilde stiff arms his way into her life. Because, the fact is, that is how he does everything. Their meet-cute happens over a craps table of all places. No words are spoken. They give each other the eyes. He is just off a fit of rage and she is looking to return home. So in the end, they wind up together, drawn to each other.

But she is spoken for, and not to be impeded by anything Sam easily shifts his sights on Helen’s younger foster sister Georgia (Audrey Long) who actually holds the wealth in the family after receiving a great inheritance. That suits Sam just fine as he closes in on this new prize. Georgia in her innocence is taken by this new man. Meanwhile, Helen at the same time abhors this man pursuing her sister and still madly desires him in some twisted way. Their affair is as passionate as ever.

born-to-kill-2However, evil always looks to catch up with the guilty party and a private investigator is poking around in all the places he can to find the culprit behind an egregious crime. Walter Slezak’s Albert Arnett is a witty sleazeball with the lowest scruples imaginable when money is concerned. But he also happens to be decent at his occupation bringing him to San Francisco in pursuit of answers.

Sam is assisted by his faithful accomplice Marty (Elisha Cook Jr.) showcasing his ability with playing crooked pushovers. In the meantime, Helen finds herself losing her fiancee in the drama while being blackmailed by the shady Arnett.

There’s now nothing buffering Helen from the explosive evil in her drawing room. Her sister’s life is torn apart and Helen and Sam must have it out once and for all. They’re too deadly — too volatile for their own good — as everything around them begins to unravel and implode. We expect nothing less in the end.

For being a lesser star, Lawrence Tierney undoubtedly made a killing off his fist-throwing brusque tough guy roles. He’s no turnip, as he puts it, and if there ever was a homme fatale — a deadly male — he most certainly would be the gold standard…

I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets and he who falls beneath her spell has need of God’s mercy.” This is a bit of poetic observation from Slezak but there’s also a tremendous resonance to what he says quoting straight from the Bible’s wisdom literature. But perhaps this wisdom also goes both ways since it’s not just the woman who is fallen and corrupted but most certainly her male counterpart. Humans were not Created to Kill but over time they have been Born to Kill and Born to Die too. There’s a difference and that really is the tragic lot of humanity as we know it. Vanity of vanities everything is vanity. 

This is without question Robert Wise’s toughest, deadliest, grittiest picture. He never made a film with more vices or more despicable characters. Imagine, a character who kills for no good reason at all. Just because someone gave him the cold shoulder. It really scrapes the darkest recesses of the barrel. The way of the transgressor is hard. More’s the pity. More’s the pity. It’s cynical too.

3.5/5 Stars

The Set-Up (1949)

SetupPosterWhat it manages to bring together within the frame of a meager B-film plot is quite astounding, balancing the brutality and atmospheric visuals with the direction of Robert Wise to develop something quite memorable. Boxing movies have been bigger and better, but film-noir has a way of dredging up the grittiest pulp and the Set-Up is that kind of film.

Its fight sequences are violently staged with human forms evoking the early realist images of George Bellows. However, it’s as much of a backroom drama as it is a fighting film. We see the payoff taking place behind Stoker Thompson’s (Robert Ryan) back as his manager (George Tobias) cuts a deal with the opposition without telling his main man what’s going on. He figures Stoker is all washed up at 35. There’s no way in heck he can beat the young buck he’s up against.

The dressing room is full of has-beens, young guns, and hopefuls who in just a few minutes paint a picture of what the boxing world really is. It’s a cruel game that is sweet in victory and sometimes even deadly in defeat. Still men of all backgrounds and values are drawn to it for one reason or another.

In fact, they are not the only ones. One of Robert Wise’s most formidable allies in this film are his close-ups that ratchet up his drama by utilizing the emotive reactions of his crowd. He builds a cadence introducing each nameless face early on and riding their reactions all the way through the fight. There is the woman who feigns repugnance only to reveal her ugly penchant for brutality. There’s the tub of lard who fills up on every concession imaginable while greedily watching the violence unfold. Then, the nervous husband who is constantly hitting and jabbing a phantom opponent. The list goes on.

We also witness the initial reluctance of Stoker’s girl (Audrey Totter) to go see him get beaten to a pulp. This is more than just fighting–it affects their future life together. And while he gets ready to fight, she listlessly wanders the streets too frightened to watch him get his block knocked off and still not yet empowered enough to change things. All she can manage is a jaunt through an arcade parlor, a few furtive glances overlooking the passing trains, and finally a lonely visit to a midnight diner. But this is hardly casting blame mind you.

The bottom line is that Stoker doesn’t see his girl ringside, and it feels like everyone down the line has abandoned him. There’s a need for vindication–to prove his worth when no one will give him a second thought. And that’s a dangerous place to be when people are betting on you to take a fall compliantly, namely one big whig named “Little Boy.” But Thompson’s not about to do that, fighting until he has nothing left to give. And he wins someway, somehow.

It’s when he gets ready to leave the building after the crowds have filed out and the trainers have left for home, that he meets an ominous welcoming committee. It’s not an unsurprising conclusion, but still, Thompson’s story finds a silver lining amidst all the violence. This film is a miracle of the studio age and Wise makes it an incessantly interesting piece of noir.

3.5/5 Stars