Monday, July 30, 2007

“The Boogie Man Will Get You” (1942)

There is one comic bit of surreal silliness in TBMWGY that endears it to my heart. Peter Lorre stars as Dr. Lorentz, who is town coroner, sheriff, mayor, justice of the peace, and just about everything else. He is the grandest of grand Pooh-Bahs. He wears a black frock coat and stiff hat with a short crown and wide, circular brim. And he never goes anywhere without putting a Siamese kitten in his inside coat pocket.

Fortunately, no explanation is ever offered for this nuttiness, nor is the kitten ever to put to any use—not even as a paperweight, as is the one in “You Can’t Take It With You.”

Boris Karloff is Lorre’s co-star. King Karloff plays Prof. Nathaniel Billings, a crazed but amiable scientist who works in a “B” movie lab in the cellar of a rapidly fading colonial inn. He uses traveling salesmen in his experiments, attempting to—it’s been a week since I last saw this movie and damned if I can remember what it is Prof. Billings is trying to do. Doesn’t matter. It’s just silly.

His money running short, Billings sells the inn to perky Winnie Slade (Miss Jeff Donnell), who wants to turn the place into a working hotel. She is followed by her ex-husband Bill Layden (Larry Parks) who wants to talk her out of the deal but then decides to stick around, Nancy Drew style, to uncover The Secret of the Old Inn.

Assisting the professor as house and groundskeepers are Amelia and Ebenezer (Maude Eburn and George McKay), she obsessed with the chickens she doesn’t have and he with being mysterious.

When Bill stumbles over what he takes to be a corpse in the basement, he calls the local police and Lorentz shows up. By the time the official gets to the inn, the body is missing.

From this point on, the action is farcical, nothing makes much sense and it doesn’t matter.

Karloff and Lorre seem to be having a good time spoofing the kinds of films they were better known for, although my teeth starting grinding every time Karloff had to stoop and pick up a corpse—he had severe back problems from “Frankenstein” on. Parks, who later became one of the actors most damaged by HUAC when he admitted to having belonged to a Communist cell from 1941 to 1945, is boyish and was undoubtedly held in adoring awe by junior high girls. Donnell, whose second film this was, continued as a “B” movie queen until she moved to TV in the mid-1950s. And “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom adds his trademark air of punchdrunk je ne sais quoi.

The movie was directed by Lew Landers, who followed Donnell’s career path and ended up directing over 150 “B” films and TV shows. He’d partnered with Karloff on “The Raven” in 1935. Landers (who worked under his birth name--Louis Friedlander—for his first 9 pictures, 1934-36) is one of the few guys in Hollywood who turned out so much product with so little inspiration. Only Bela Lugosi’s over-the-top raving and Karloff’s understated masochism in “The Raven” give that sole Landers’ effort a chance at immortality.

As for TBMWGY, well, this one is for old school horroristas on holiday and small children who want to see “a scary movie” that isn’t really scary at all.

Friday, July 27, 2007

"The Raven" (1935)

At the pinnacle of his insanity in “The Raven” Bela Lugosi, as the mad surgeon Dr. Richard Vollin, screams out, “Poe, you are avenged!” But who will avenge Poe for the misuse of his name in this monster mish-mash of mad scientist, torture chamber, haunted house, and ugly-faced butler clichés?

When the first pairing of Karloff and Lugosi in “The Black Cat” (1934) turned out to be a hit, Universal concocted a story “suggested by Edgar Allan Poe’s immortal classic” “The Raven.” Unfortunately, the new script, credited onscreen to David Boehm alone, although there were seven other contributors, including Dore Schary and Guy Endore, was one of the most insipid from Universal’s golden age of horror.

Lugosi is Dr. Vollin, whose reputation as a brilliant surgeon proves to be more a curse than a blessing. When Jean (Irene Ware), the daughter of Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) crashes her car and her life is in the balance, the young woman’s doctors tell her father that Vollin is the only man who can save her life. Vollin has given up his practice to devote himself to research and at first refuses to help. Thatcher plays on his vanity and Vollin agrees to operate.

Within a matter of weeks, Jean is up and perfectly well again. Vollin misreads her gratitude as passion and determines to wed her. Thatcher, at first thinking like Vollin that Jean loves him, tries to dissuade the older physician from encouraging her attentions. When he realizes that it’s Vollin who is doing the chasing, he become horrified and warns the doctor to keep away.

The good-natured Jean, who is a ballerina, choreographs a dance called “The Spirit of Poe”—dressed in a costume that makes her look like a Margaret Brundage “Weird Tales” cover girl--to show her appreciation to Vollin, who is such a admirer of the writer’s that he has created life-sized replicas of the torture devices mentioned in Poe’s tales.

Discovering the extent of Vollin’s fanboyism is one of those hold-the-phone moments. This is a man who boasts about building and owning working torture devices and no one appears to find it in the least peculiar. Books, okay. Miniatures, okay. But a full-sized pit and pendulum set-up? “Death is my talisman,” he says. He first saw Jean lying still as death on the operating table, as good a stand-in for a morgue slab as the wealthy necrophile can find.

Paging Dr. Krafft-Ebing—call for Dr. Krafft-Ebing.

Now it’s time for Karloff to make his entrance into the story. He is Edmond Bateman, on the lam from the law after shooting his way out of prison and killing two policemen in the process. He’s also shoved a burning acetylene torch in some fella’s face, pretty much on a whim. Yes, he’s the one we end up feeling sorry for, which just goes to show what a fiend Vollin is.

Bateman is in some kind of dive or speakeasy. We can’t hear what’s being told to him, but we find out later that he is in search of a doctor who can alter his face enough to avoid recapture. He goes calling on Vollin.

Why? When a killer needs a crooked doctor, why does Vollin’s name enter the conversation? Vollin agrees to help Bateman when he gets the idea that if he makes the escaped con look ugly, he will be more apt to perform ugly acts. Vollin takes Bateman to his hidden operating room and reassures the con that a simple operation on the nerve endings of his face will alter his appearance, and it will take only ten minutes. The desperate Bateman agrees.

When the bandages are removed we see that the right side of Bateman’s face has been altered, but not for the better. Thanks to an uncredited Jack Pierce, Karloff’s face seems to have been melted. The actor completes the image by tipping his head slightly to the right, as if the neck muscles could no longer hold it upright. He hunches his shoulders forwards to create a stooped, hunched look.

Bateman first sees his new face in a series of mirrors that have been installed around the walls of the circular room. Each is behind a curtain, and the curtains are drawn one by one revealing a curved line of reflections. The moment is effective, but the question arises, why would Vollin have such a place in his house unless he’s made a hobby of distorting people’s faces and then forcing them to stare at repeated images of their new ugliness.

From this point on the film becomes more and more a reflection of Vollin’s mind, and as such it becomes less and less sane. The doctor lures Jean, her father, and her fiancé to the house for a weekend party—along with two other couples of such lesser importance it is difficult to fathom why they invited along unless they represent a plot development that was cut from the final film.

But now the house, with its secret doorways, hidden torture chamber, steel shutters, and traps in the floor, becomes huge. There is no end to the torture chamber, which goes on forever into the shadows.

Vollin straps Judge Thatcher—named as he is for a representative of solid American respectability and sanity in “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn”—onto a slab under the swinging pendulum, and he locks Jean and her fiancé (Lester Matthews) into a steel-walled chamber that will crush them to death.

Vollin and Bateman have the inevitable falling out over the girl’s fate and only those who deserve a horrible death receive one.

There are two attractions to “The Raven.” One is the pairing of its two stars, both of whom are credited at the film’s opening by their last names only. They are still working well together although Lugosi’s over the top hysterical mania is less convincing than Karloff’s soft-spoken, hesitant, almost reluctant murderousness and masochism.

The film’s second pleasure is its heedless rush to barking madness. Director Louis Friedlander’s (later billed as Lew Landers) lack of restraint stands out in a field that has since given us “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” as the benchmark of cinematic no-holds-barred lunacy.

“The Raven” is a 12-year old boy’s interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe, all they-think-I’m-crazy-but-I’ll-show-them-how-sane-I-am-heh-heh-heh screeching and posturing. It’s not possible to take it seriously, nor is it in the least frightening at the visceral level. But it is fun and, taken with “The Black Cat,” it makes a nice showcase for its two leads.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

"Dodsworth" (1936)

Adapted from Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel by playwright Sidney Howard (“Gone With the Wind”) and directed by three-time Oscar winner William Wyler (“Mrs. Miniver,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Ben-Hur”),” Dodsworth” is one of the forgotten treasures of American film. Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton star as Sam Dodsworth and his wife Fran, two middle-aged Americans vacationing in Europe. Sam, a recently retired auto parts manufacturer, is the man he’s always been, but Fran is in the midst of a mid-life crisis and is terrified of growing old. As old world gigolos start following her around, her capacity for self-deception becomes boundless and Sam drifts into the orbit of Mrs. Cortwright (a luminous Mary Astor), an American ex-patriot living in Italy.

Chatterton’s performance is particularly gripping as Fran is foolish, vain, and delusional. The actress was 43 when she took on the role and her film career was almost finished, but she made of the self-destructive pseudo-sophisticate the kind of woman whose sad, lonely future is pitiable but her own fault just the same.

Astor, who won the Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Great Lie” in 1942, is probably best remembered for her role as the duplicitous, creepy Bridget O’Shaughnessy in “The Maltese Falcon,” but if Bridget exists in a middle-earth between camp over-acting and a total contempt for the intelligence of Bogart’s Sam Spade, Edith Cortright is the nearly perfect woman for a man like Sam Dodsworth. She says she’s living in Italy because it’s less expensive than living in the states, and yet she appears to have enough money to cross the Atlantic in style whenever she wants to. There seems to be something sad in her background, and yet she’s getting over it. Cortright/Astor’s face in the film’s last shot is radiant and nearly as memorable as Chaplin’s at the conclusion of “City Lights.”

When you see enough of Walter Huston’s movies—“The Virginian,” “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy”—you’ll lament again over the way Hollywood takes its great character actors for granted. He won the National Board of Review’s Best Actor award for “Dodsworth,” copped the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and supplied a nifty in-joke, uncredited cameo to “The Maltese Falcon.” In this picture, he brings an underplayed seriousness and melancholy to Sam Dodsworth, matching Chatterton’s edgy tension with a quiet understanding that is heartbreaking.

When the 70-year old “Dodsworth” was showcased at the Telluride Film Festival in 2006, the festival program planners called it “a redemptive tale of American self-revulsion and the quest for eternal youth,” and said of it that it is “a high point of Wyler’s fruitful, 20-year-long partnership with producer Samuel Goldwyn. “Dodsworth” proves that sharp-witted, literate films never go out of style.”