Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Benson Murder Case (1930)

Routine entry in the "Philo Vance" series, with William Powell in his third turn as S.S. Van Dine's amateur detective investigating the murder of a ruthless stockbroker. It's a little unusual in that the murder doesn't take place until roughly halfway through the film, and as a result it takes a while to really get going.

This was the third and final of the Vance films produced by Paramount, before the series switched over to Warner Bros. Frank Tuttle's direction here is noticeably less fluid than in the previous two entries he helmed. The fine supporting cast includes series regulars Eugene Pallette as Sgt. Heath and E.H. Calvert as District Attorney Markham, and Natalie Moorhead, William "Stage" Boyd, Paul Lukas, Richard Tucker, and Mischa Auer. Overall, it is certainly a bit static and creaky, but Powell's typically suave and charming performance is enough to recommend it.

The Curtain Pole (1909)

Early American slapstick comedy, directed by D.W. Griffith and starring future comedy producer Mack Sennett as a French dandy who goes in search of a new curtain pole to replace the one he has broken. Transporting the pole back through the streets, he proceeds to wreck everything in his path, causing the irate townspeople to give chase.

It is an atypical effort for Griffith, and a rather impersonal one, being just one of the many short subjects he directed for Biograph during this time (and shot on the streets of Fort Lee, NJ). While it demonstrates his penchant for rousing chase sequences, the staging and editing feel loose and rather clumsy compared to his best dramatic efforts of the period, though are certainly moments of effective slapstick (mostly involving Sennett in a runaway carriage). Clearly inspired by the French chase comedies of the Pathe company, it is mainly of interest now as a forerunner of the kind of screen comedy that its star would perfect at Keystone a few years later.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Frankenstein (1931)

This is a film I have seen many times over the years (including three times with an audience) and a film whose reputation as an influential classic of its genre has always seemed justified to me on the basis of Karloff's iconic performance. He achieves a combination of almost childlike innocence and fear which make his actions and responses to the world around him all the more tragic.

If I have one criticism of the film, it's that Whale's sometimes campy approach to the material too often undercuts the power of Karloff's incredibly poignant and haunting performance for me. There are a number of scenes -- such as the hunchback stealing the wrong brain, the inopportune arrival of Frankenstein's fiancée and company at his laboratory, and the Monster showing up at Frankenstein's wedding -- in which Whale seems to be actively resisting the tragic tone of the story. In my experience, seen with an audience, it unfortunately tends to provoke distracting laughter throughout, in part a reflection of the audience's over-familiarity with the situations through countless imitations and parody over the years, but also disconcerting in how much of the response seems intentional as a result of the direction.

For a long time, I preferred this film over Universal's other landmark horror film of the same year, DRACULA, which I found stagy and creaky in comparison to FRANKENSTEIN's stylish direction and fluid cinematography. Now, I find DRACULA more effective in its dreamlike, almost ethereal atmosphere and the sense of dread that Lugosi's performance produces, but FRANKENSTEIN continues to impress me for the deep humanity Karloff achieves in playing the Monster.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Haunting (1963)

An intelligent, atmospheric gothic horror film, adapted from the Shirley Jackson novel "The Haunting of Hill House", about a New England manor that is possessed by the tortured spirits of its past inhabitants. Julie Harris delivers a strong and nuanced performance as the sad, tormented Eleanor Lance, who is called to take part in a paranormal research project at the house, and who gradually descends into hysteria as a result of what she encounters there. Equally effective in their parts are Richard Johnson as the somewhat overzealous paranormal investigator Dr. Markway, Claire Bloom as the mysterious Theo, possessed with ESP abilities, and Russ Tamblyn as Luke, the sarcastic skeptic of the group.

Robert Wise's direction shows the influence of his time spent working with Val Lewton's B-horror unit at RKO in the '40s, leaving the supernatural goings-on entirely to the audience's imagination, and borrowing heavily from Lewton's approach of using shadows and sound to conjure up effects far more horrifying than any on-screen depictions would be. Generally, the choice works here, but is perhaps less powerful than it could be, as it grows increasingly ineffective through repetition as the characters are menaced by off-screen wailing and pounding. Alternately, Wise seems unwilling to explore further the possibilities of the horror being purely psychological, the result of Eleanor's past experiences, rather than something explicitly supernatural.

Still, it's undeniably an expertly-directed and splendidly-mounted production, with a really fine cast and exceptional production design. Wise's endlessly creative and skillful use of the screen space is particularly admirable, moving the characters deftly through the cavernous, looming layout of the manor house in such a way that is both logical and yet disorienting in its perspective, greatly aided by the tight editing and sharp, deep focus photography.

Seen 10/25/14 at Loew's Jersey in a nice 35mm print.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Limousine Love (1928)

Very funny two-reel farce, with Charley Chase -- en route to his wedding -- finding himself stuck in a car with a woman who's lost her clothes, and her jealous husband who would kill them both if he found his wife with another man. The second half of the film, with Chase trying desperately to hide the woman with the help of both her unsuspecting husband and the entire wedding party, is a masterpiece of construction.

Chase milks the comic possibilities of this situation for all their worth, and creates a classic comedy of embarrassment that ranks among the very best of the films he made for Hal Roach. He's expertly directed here by Fred L. Guiol, and supported by a fine ensemble cast including master of the slow-burn Edgar Kennedy as the jealous husband, Viola Richard as the embarrassed wife, and Edna Marion as the suspicious bride-to-be.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thale (2012)

I was in the mood for a break from the usual Hollywood fare tonight, and this Norwegian sci-fi fantasy fit the bill just fine. A pair of young men, who run a cleaning service specializing in bloody crime scenes, are called out on a job at a remote station in the woods. Once there, they discover a young woman with a troubled past who turns out to be a mythical, tailed creature that inhabits the woods, and is being hunted by the ruthless scientists who have been performing experiments on her since childhood.

Shot on a low budget, it is a bit slow going at times, especially toward the end, but it's nonetheless an effective and haunting supernatural flick that lives up to the potential of its unusual premise, and its atmospheric sense of unease and dread is certainly a welcome change from the shock-a-minute torture porn typical of the horror films coming out of Hollywood these days.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Last Picture Show (1971)

I watched this one for the first time tonight and was not prepared for how it moved me. Bogdanovich's film is set in a small town in Texas, and is an evocative portrait of a group of young people on the cusp of adulthood as they struggle to come into their own. Having grown up in a similarly small town myself, it certainly struck a chord with me as one of the best depictions of the sense of malaise and directionlessness endemic to that milieu.

It deals fundamentally with America's present by reflecting on its past -- how did we get here from where we've been? Watching it in 2014, it inspires further reflection on the fact that it's impossible to imagine a film like this being made today.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mammy (1930)

Excellent Al Jolson vehicle and pre-Code musical drama, from the Irving Berlin play, about romance and intrigue behind the scenes of a traveling minstrel show. Al, the troupe's endman and star attraction, is in love with manager's daughter, but finds himself accused of the attempted murder of the company interlocutor after real bullets are substituted in his prop gun during the act one night.

Berlin's hit songs include "Across the Breakfast Table, Looking at You", "Night Boat to Albany", "Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle?", and "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy", all performed with great gusto by Jolson. Louise Dresser turns in a touching performance as Al's mother. Directed with snappy pacing by Michael Curtiz, and featuring sequences shot in 2-color Technicolor, capturing the atmosphere of the minstrel show with a vibrant sense of immediacy and authenticity.

Clarence Cheats at Croquet (1915)

A pleasant and genteel little comedy, produced by the Thanhouser company in New Rochelle, NY -- one of the many films produced by this pioneering studio in the early days of motion pictures. The premise is standard stuff, centering around a croquet match between two opponents squaring off for the affection of a young woman.

Nicely photographed and deliberately paced with mild slapstick and subdued characterizations. Of special interest now as an example of the wide range of short comedy subjects being produced at that time outside of the major comedy "factories" like Keystone.