Year: 1960 

Director: Michael Powell 

Cast: Karlheinz Böhm, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley 

Peeping Tom is a UK film that was ahead of its time.  It is sometimes compared to Hitchcock’s extremely successful and critically acclaimed Psycho, however, unlike Psycho it was not well received at the time, despite a modern cult following.  It lacks the explicit visuals of many modern horror films yet there is something very unsettling, disturbing and fascinating about this film even 50 years later.  Part of that fascination has to do with a subject that is deeply disturbing, the idea of snuff films; killing someone on camera.  The movie follows an introverted focus puller who works for a British film studio and the disturbing obsession he pursues in his free time.  He refers to it as a documentary that he is working on, meanwhile people are turning up dead. 

Part of what makes Peeping Tom so interesting is how it portrays the main character.  Unlike so many horror movies from the early days of film that feature purely evil villains and monsters, this movie explores in greater depth the psychology of the main character.  He is rounded out, and his motives are explored, which makes the movie all the more engrossing.  In some respects it is more satisfying.  Of course, that sort of psychoanalyzing of characters is much more common place in modern movies and television, but at the time, it must have been alarming to audiences when they started to feel sympathy for a man involved in such hideous crimes. 

Another interesting aspect worth looking for and contemplating while watching the movie is the subtext which discusses the use of film within this film.  It is an exploration not only of psychology, but of filmmaking and the motives and mindset of those behind the camera and those who consume that which is recorded by the camera; both moving and still pictures.  The main character works in the “legitimate” world of film, but he also takes suggestive photographs for a man who sells pornographic and suggestive material behind closed doors, and then there is his “documentary.”  He is part of what is accepted, what is underground but consumed, and part of what is taboo and criminal, yet they all have to do with film.  

Karlheinz Böhm is fantastic as Mark Lewis.  He manages to depict the perfect blend of awkwardness and menace.  Peter Lorre springs to mind; creepy, but vulnerable, and Böhm’s performance keeps the viewers glued to his every mannerism.  He is driven by his damaged childhood and his obsessions, but at the same time he is clearly fighting his awful urges, so while hopefully most reading this short article aren’t tempted to kill, I think he does sort of hold the mirror up to our own behavior, as we try to keep control of our own demons, but at the same time are tempted to act out and satisfy our more primal and sinister desires.  Peeping Tom is both smart and spine tingling.  It is a must-see, especially for fans of thrillers and horror. 

 

Don`t Bother to Knock (1952)

 

Year: 1952

Director: Roy Ward Baker

Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Richard Widmark, Anne Bancroft, Elisha Cook Jr.

Much like The Set-Up, a movie from 3 years earlier, Don’t Bother to Knock attempts to tell a story in real time or at least near real time.  This is a stylistic choice that was rarely made in films of this era, in fact it has rarely been attempted in the entire history of film.  A few examples come to mind, such as the television show 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland, and the 2003 film Phone Booth as well as 88 minutes with Al Pacino.  Rope (1948), which was Directed by Alfred Hitchcock also employed an attempt at this near real time approach.

Much like Rope, Don’t Bother to Knock begins to feel somewhat claustrophobic.  The fact that it all takes place in the same location, a hotel in New York, also adds to the claustrophobic feel.  These choices serve the story, for Marilyn Monroe’s character is not entirely stable, in fact, she has spent some time in a mental institution.  Those three years in the institution supposedly did a lot of good for her, but the one night she spends in this hotel might do just as much bad for her.  It is as if her isolation in one location unravels the positive results of her isolation in another location.

Besides the ambitious efforts to tell this story in real time and in one location, the other most impressive aspect of this film has got to be Marilyn Monroe and her performance.  Here we see her in the first few years of her film career, with a whole decade of film roles ahead of her, and already we can see that she is more than just a pretty face and a set of seductive curves, but an impressive actor as well.  She is an actress who much like other early well known method actors, such as Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger, used method acting to great success.  Don’t Bother to Knock is arguably one of her greatest successes as an actress, and ironically came fairly early in her career, much before a lot of criticism arose.  After watching a movie like Don’t Bother to Knock, it is ironic that her talents were often questioned by critics of the time and the present.  Her performance is clearly the best thing this film has going for it.

The story is about a young woman, who is haunted by a melancholy and apparently sadly repressive past.  Part of what is engaging about this film is trying to not only figure out exactly what in her past might have caused her mental and emotional damage, but also whether or not the supposed clues to that past point in the direction one might assume when watching the film.  Viewing Don’t Bother to Knock certainly leads one to want to read the source material, a novel by Charlotte Armstrong entitled Mischief.  A movie such as Don’t Bother to Knock must have pushed the censorship guidelines of the time for film.  Surely, the source material must contain some juicy details that would fill out the story.  That, coincidentally, is another connection to the movie Rope, which makes no mention of homosexuality, but is often talked about now as a movie that discusses the subject, which was certainly taboo at the time.

What exactly happened to Marilyn Monroe’s Nell Forbes?  What demons are in her past?  What exactly is the nature of her relationship with her uncle (played quite well by talented actor Elisha Cook Jr., who interestingly had no children, but did spend some time raising a niece)?  What will happen next to Nell?  These questions are basically unanswered, leaving much to the imagination of the viewer, serving as sort of a psychological analysis of the viewer, and an exercise in dissecting dialogue and hunting for subtext.

Despite all the unanswered questions, one thing is clear however, Marilyn Monroe could definitely act.

 

Year: 1941

Director: H. Bruce Humberstone

Cast: Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Vicky Lynn, Laird Cregar, Alan Mowbray, Allyn Joslyn, Elisha Cook Jr.

I Wake Up Screaming is an engaging whodunnit told initially in a non-linear style through interviews, in which everyone appears to be a suspect, even perhaps those trying to solve the case.  It cuts right to the chase, in fact, the victim is already dead when the film begins.
As far as themes go, the film does deal with two or three intertwined themes that are perhaps more pertinent now than they were then.  It illustrates the importance of the media, not necessarily talent, in shaping and also perhaps destroying celebrities.  It tangentially discusses narcissism and the personality warping effect of having fame thrust upon you, rather than earning it.  It doesn’t dwell on these themes however.  This film is fairly quickly paced in fact, and doesn’t waste much time.  At a mere, according to IMDB, 82 minutes in length, this movie really moves.
The tone of this film feels unique, and depending on the audience it can arguably be perceived as oddly engaging or perhaps frustrating and disjointed.  It not only deals with a murder but other stereotypically twisted noir themes and plot points, yet it comes across as light, fun and chipper for the vast majority of its running time.  It has moments of menace too, but most of the movie is downright cheerful.  This reviewer kind of liked this imbalance.  It was sort of refreshing and endearing, though some may scratch their heads, especially if it is compared to other well known noir films.
The darker moments come from two excellent actors.  As far as performances go Laird Cregar and Elisha Cook Jr. really stand out amongst the otherwise perfectly adequate performances in this film.  Elisha Cook Jr., is always a scene stealer with memorable roles in many great film classics including, but not limited to, The Maltese Falcon (which happened to be released the same year as I Wake Up Screaming), The Big Sleep, Shane, The Killing, and Rosemary’s Baby.  He is perfect in this film, as he often is.  Unfortunately, you don’t see much of him, which is true of a lot of his characters.  It isn’t surprising Elisha Cook Jr. worked in television and movies from the early 1930s to the late 1980s.  The other performance really worth noting is that of Laird Cregar, who tragically didn’t have a similarly long career due to a radical diet that ultimately resulted in his death at the young age of 31.  Laird Cregar is really remarkable as a creepy and intimidating detective despite his soft voice and pudgy face.  He single handedly provides all the gravitas in this picture.
Part of what makes Cregar’s performance so ominous is the way he is shot.  This film may seem run-of-the-mill at first glance, but stylistically it makes really good use of shadows, canted angles, and music.  Whether or not these touches are consciously noticed or they just seep in to the brain, they have an impressive effect on the viewer and they serve to add to the impressive nature to this compact and fact paced film.  While watching it, pay attention to the use of lighting, especially in regards to Laird Cregar’s performance.
While it isn’t of the same caliber as Laura or Citizen Kane, it could be compared in some aspects to both films.  A fan of those two films and films from this era or genre will especially enjoy this wonderful little pseudo-film noir.

I’m really glad that it looks like both Greg and James are back to posting on a somewhat regular basis. Not just because I’ve been busy lately and haven’t had much time to update (well, that, too I guess), but because I’m going to continue to be busy with Faulkner February.

I’m doing Faulkner February HARDCORE this year. It’s more than just reading a few books. I’m turning it into a whole project. Seven books (which means 50 pages a day). It might interest you guys, though, because I will also be watching the Faulkner films I can get my hands on (without putting down cash, which is tight right now).

This doesn’t mean I won’t be updating here for the next 40 days at all. I will be. Just not as often as I used to. But as soon as Faulkner February is over, I will definitely be back to the old schedule.

So head over to my other blog, thoughtful.thinking.thoughts if you’re interested. I start my reading tomorrow.

Year: 1955

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Cast: Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Katie Johnson, Danny Green, Herbert Lom, Cecil Parker

Alec Guiness (best known as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the 1977 film Star Wars) leads a group of criminals as Professor Marcus, a criminal mastermind with an impeccable reputation and a knack for planning and executing flawless heists.  Until now….

This delightful film begins very unassumingly as we get to know a doddering, innocent old woman as she reports on a U.F.O. siting to the police.  She nearly forgets her umbrella as she saunters out of the police station.  She returns home to her parrots and her lopsided old house only to find someone has taken an interest in renting one of her available rooms.  The man at the doorstep seems innocent enough to the naive old woman.  Actually, the same could be said about the man.  He too feels she is innocent enough, but he may very well regret meeting the petite octogenarian that stands before him.  When he explains that he and four other amateur musician friends merely want the use of the room for short while to practice their music she happily agrees.  Of course the man at the doorstep requesting the use of her room is Professor Marcus, and he has a much more insidious plan than he is willing to admit.

Better stop there.  It is better to stop before giving too much away.  Part of the fun of the movie is not knowing how it will all unfold, but trust this reviewer, it is a good time and the first five minutes certainly don’t leave an viewer expecting what they’ll find in the last five minutes!

The Ladykillers is a timeless story that deals masterfully with the viewers expectations, and in so doing is very entertaining.  The film is written in such a way that just when you think you know what to expect, you are surprised, and even if you do predict the next portion of the story, it doesn’t matter, because the execution of each plot point is so entertaining that the time just flies by as you watch the film.  In fact, the screenplay earned William Rose an Oscar nomination.  A nomination he well deserved it seems, for this material in the hands of an inexperienced screenwriter might have just ended up overly silly or zany. While moments of this film surely are zany, a balance is achieved in which there is still some suspense and some danger, but ultimately just good entertainment for all.  There were so many ways this film could have gone wrong, and I don’t know why, but I kept wondering if it would.  Perhaps it is because so many modern movies are often so predictable and generic.  This film isn’t, and it goes places you wouldn’t initially expect.  One might expect the aforementioned parrots to repeat something incriminating for instance.  After all, it seems so many screenwriters are unable to avoid the temptation of using a parrot for just that purpose.  The physical comedy could have ventured too far into silliness in a plot such as this, but that was also used in moderation.  In some ways, it is the perfect use of restraint that made this movie so worth the time spent watching it.

Modern Hollywood could take notes from this perfectly balanced and delightfully performed little dark comedy.  I recommend it for a fun evening.

I saw Pitfall, Deported, Fly-By-Night, and Cry Danger over the weekend. I’ll see four more later this week. On opening night, Eddie Muller opened the festival with this brilliant tribute to film noir called “The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir”:

Amazingly, this wonderful video was edited together by a 20-year old girl named Serena Bramble. Her homage brought the house down.

Yeah, I’m a few days late on this one. Like I said, I was really busy making that facebook page and all.

Sadly, we’ve lost another great actress of the classic era. Jean Simmons died on Thursday, just a little over a week short of her 81st birthday.

Simmons started her career on the screen in small roles in B-pictures before moving up the ranks in Hollywood. Soon she was getting supporting roles in major films with major directors, like Michael Powell and David Lean. Soon she was playing the leading lady in a variety of roles, from Shakespeare to noir to biblical epics.

She worked diligently in film throughout the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, and she then moved on to many television projects, including the miniseries North and South and the popular television show Murder She Wrote.

She’s known for her more popular films, like Black Narcissus and Great Expectations, but since this is Obscure Classics after all, I want to hit on a few of her lesser remembered films.

Angel Face is a fantastic noir that Simmons made with film noir heavyweight Robert Mitchum. It has an intentionally slow pace that builds the suspense for a wallop of a conclusion. Mitchum is, as always, pretty great. But it’s Simmons who really anchors the movie. She’s definitely nuts, but she’s so calm about it that it’s really downright eerie.

So Long at the Fair is a strange film, based on a supposedly true story (the details on it are sketchy and hard to pin down). This time Simmons is playing a sane person who everyone thinks is crazy, and it’s a more frantic performance than the one in Angel Face. It works as both a bizarre mystery and as a strong costume drama.

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