Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

Loosely adapted from the Doyle story “His Last Bow”, this third entry in the Rathbone-Bruce Holmes series is typical of the direction it would take at Universal. More obviously a "B" picture than the two previous entries made at Fox, it nonetheless captures the spirit and tone of the character even while placing him in a contemporary setting. Holmes is brought in to investigate the source of a series of radio broadcasts purporting to depict various acts of terrorism carried out against England by Nazi Germany.

There is a strong patriotic streak for Mother England running throughout the entire film, and it's easy to see how updating the story to the present (1942) day sat well with wartime sensibilities. With this entry in the series, some of the flaws that the Rathbone-Bruce films have been frequently criticized for become apparent, most notably by reducing Bruce's portrayal of Dr. Watson to a bumbling, slow-witted sidekick rather than a loyal friend and colleague. The update to the modern setting works well enough, as the characters fit more or less seamlessly into the contemporary surroundings as written (Holmes substitutes a fedora for his traditional Deerstalker), but one still finds oneself missing the rich period detail of the first two films (though Elwood Bredell's cinematography is quite good, at times looking forward to his fine work on THE KILLERS). The Universal films reduced the Holmes series from superb, elaborately-produced "A" pictures to well-crafted and entertaining "B" programmers.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Leon Shamroy, cinematographer (1901-1974)

Watching THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES last night, I noticed that it had been photographed by Leon Shamroy. This caught my attention because Shamroy lensed some of the most gorgeous films for 20th Century-Fox during the 1950s and 60s, and his work for the studio during that time has always struck me as a particularly stunning example of cinematography that ranks among the finest ever put on the screen, so I'm always excited when I see a film that has Shamroy's name in the credits.

I first became aware of Shamroy's work as a kid, watching THE KING AND I (1956) on video with my mother, a film that continues to impress me for its unforgettably rich and elaborate imagery (see the still below for an example). Even watching it on a pan-and-scan VHS copy that did not do full justice to the artistry of Shamroy's eye, I was deeply impressed with what I saw, and his work continues to impress me for its masterful arrangement of the CinemaScope frame and its stunning use of the DeLuxe color palette.

Born in New York in 1901, Shamroy studied engineering at Columbia University but became involved in film production through some family connections, landing a low-level position in the labs of Fox studios in 1920. He began to make a name for himself by shooting some experimental films, and by the end of the decade, he was working as a full-fledged cinematographer on projects for various studios. After a stint shooting documentary footage in Asia in the early 1930s, Shamroy worked for Paramount for much of the decade under producer B.P. Schulberg.

When Schulberg left Paramount, Shamroy followed, and with his solid reputation well established, ended up at 20th Century-Fox in 1943, where he would shoot many of the studio's biggest productions over the next two decades, including THE ROBE, THE KING AND I, SOUTH PACIFIC, CLEOPATRA, THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY, and PLANET OF THE APES, working regularly up until just a few years before his death in 1974.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

This immediate follow-up to THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (released by Fox earlier the same year) is adapted from William Gillette's stage play from 1899 and directed by Alfred Werker, a competent studio craftsman but not a director known for any particularly distinctive visual style. As a result, it feels more theatrical in its staging than the previous film, but compensates by being bathed in atmospheric, high-contrast lighting by Leon Shamroy.

This second film in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Holmes series finds the master sleuth being called on to protect a woman in trouble (Ida Lupino) whose father and brother have both met mysterious ends, and fears she might be next. This turns out to be an elaborate diversion from the real crime being plotted by Holmes' arch nemesis, Prof. Moriarty (George Zucco), leading to a face-off between the two in a suspenseful climax at the Tower of London. 

The effective art direction (especially the foggy, nocturnal London settings), intelligent script, and top-notch supporting cast make it a first-rate production all around. It also includes the fun bonus of seeing Rathbone in a musical turn, performing the music hall ditty "I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside", a nice reminder of what a versatile talent he was.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

The first of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films is also the best. Exquisitely designed, expertly directed and acted, it is an exercise in atmospheric mystery done in the best old Hollywood style. Made with the full resources of the Fox studio, the miniatures and models of the Moor, Baskerville Manor, and other settings are works of art in themselves that I never tire of looking at, especially after repeat viewings when you know how the mystery ends.

Made in the peak year of Hollywood's golden age, when the studio system was firing on all cylinders, it launched one of the most enduring series of films and gave us what many consider to be the definitive screen portrayal of Doyle's sleuth. Rathbone and Bruce would team up for 13 more Holmes films together (one more at Fox, and then a dozen for Universal, where the series took a slightly different but no less entertaining turn).

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Finally caught this one on DVD last weekend, and planned to write it up here but found myself unsure of just how I feel about it. The Coens are the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today, and I always find their films worthwhile even if I care for some more than others.

It's much more understated than their films that I enjoy the most. Still it's evocative and reflective, perfectly capturing that moment in many young artist's development when they realize that life has other plans for them. It's also one of the Coens' most assured works.

Still, I was unsure of how I felt about it all, for reasons I'm unable to put my finger on. I plan to re-visit the film in the near future.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Ghostbusters (1984)

Not sure just why I enjoy this one so much, but I do, and every time I see it I appreciate the subtleties (yes, subtleties) of the performances and writing more and more. One of the very few big-budget comedies that doesn't sink under the weight of its own production values, it works in the same way that earlier "fright" comedies like ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN or THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN worked, by offering up some genuinely spooky stuff which make the comedians' reactions all the more funny.

With strong direction by Ivan Reitman from a script by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, combined with an excellent cast, fine special effects, and an effective score by Elmer Bernstein, this one fires on all cylinders. Rick Moranis, in one of his best roles, makes the most of his part as the nerdy neighbor, and William Atherton's uptight EPA official is the perfect foil for Bill Murray's sarcasm.

Besides, you have to love a movie that finds room for a Joe Franklin cameo.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Remembering Tom Neal

Tom Neal (1914-72), one of the most reliable actors to appear in Poverty Row pictures during the 1940s.

Born in Evanston, Ill., Neal had studied at Northwestern University as an undergraduate, before going on to earn a law degree from Harvard University. His heart was in acting, however, and in the late '30s he was signed by MGM, then subsequently worked for smaller studios where he achieved his greatest success, especially with his performance as ill-fated nightclub pianist Al Roberts in DETOUR (1945).

Sadly, his later years were marked by problems. His screen career effectively ended in 1951 after a much-publicized brawl with actor Franchot Tone (whose fiancée Neal was secretly involved with). Later, in 1965, Neal shot and killed his third wife, which he claimed was an accident and landed him in jail for six years. He died a year after being paroled, in 1972, from heart failure at the age of 58.