Reviews


 

   

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.

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.

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Year: 1945

Director: William Dieterle

Cast: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Ann Richards

Three years before Dieterle used Jones and Cotten to make his masterpiece Portrait of Jennie, he put together what you might call a dry run with this little gem. Love Letters at its simplest could be called a riff on Cyrano. During WWII, soldier Alan Quinton (Cotten) is writing exquisite notes to the love interest of his buddy Roger Morland — played by Robert Sully. The latter is a crude lothario, lacking in intelligence and grace. His absence of written skills would be a handicap if Alan wasn’t there to do him the favor. The object of Roger’s lust is a beautiful young woman named Victoria (Jones). The two met only briefly in England during shore leave, but Alan’s missives cause her to fall in love with Roger from afar. Cotten’s G.I. — despite his good intentions — finds himself clamoring for Victoria as well, a development that would be difficult to explain to his own girlfriend. No matter, the impetuous Roger marries Victoria making his pal’s conflicted angst superfluous.

During a particular skirmish, Alan is critically wounded and sent to England with an honorable discharge. He convalesces at his parents home in London. With his military identity gone, our protagonist is at a loss to occupy his days. To make matters worse, he finds out that Roger was killed in a marital spat by Victoria. Apparently Roger’s bait and switch did not please his wife. Alan inherits a deceased aunt’s country home in Beltmarsh, a place he used to love as a boy. Having no other plans and just wanting to get away, Cotten’s character decides to take a train and check the place out. His brother suggests they attend a party to celebrate so Alan can leave town on a positive note. The former G.I. is over served during the bash and Dilly (Ann Richards) — the apartment’s tenant — feels badly for the brooding Alan. His drunken confessional concerning the guilt over Roger’s death and the deception of Victoria strikes a chord within Dilly. She makes the connection between his object of desire and her own friend Victoria Singleton. Ms. Singleton killed her husband, went into shock, and was committed to an institution for a year. The young woman has recovered in every way save for her amnesia concerning what happened the night of the murder. Dilly has been kind enough to share her home with Victoria until she decides to move on.

Dilly whispers some clues to the inebriated Alan about what he should be prepared for in Beltmarsh. It seems Roger and Victoria had lived in a neighboring village. The day before his trip, our hero does some archival research on the particulars of the murder. His curious nature and continued jones for Victoria compel him to seek her out. When he finds Jones’ character, he discovers that his feelings weren’t misguided. How does he explain to this beautiful creature of his dreams that his correspondence set in motion events that led to such a heart-breaking tragedy?

One of my local theaters is dedicating the month of January to Jennifer Jones. I’ll be seeing some other pictures and writing reviews as my own tribute to an acting icon. Love Letters has critics who call it sappy, too much like a soap opera. The plot is a little convenient in some key areas, but I found Jennifer sparkling in all her b & w glory.


Year: 1933
Director: Lewis Milestone
Cast: Al Jolson, Madge Evans, Frank Morgan, Harry Langdon, Chester Conklin, Edgar Connor

TCM has been doing a wonderfully showcase this month on Thursday nights on movies about the Great Depression. There are still some wonderful movies coming up, like Gold Diggers of 1933, Faithless, and American Madness. During the first week, they aired this rarely seen on TCM gem, Hallelujah I’m a Bum. It’s not hard to see the purpose of this movie, the glorification of homelessness during a time when a fair deal of the population of NYC was homeless.

Al Jolson plays Bumper, a hobo who happily lives in Central Park with his fellow homeless friends. He enjoys living outside and doesn’t even attempt to get a job. He’s also buddies Mayor John Hastings (Frank Morgan). Hastings is in a clandestine relationship with June (Madge Evans), but after an argument June takes a dive off of a bridge. Bumper fishes her out of the river, but she’s lost her memory and has no idea who she is or where she came from. Not knowing that she’s the mayor’s girl, Bumper falls hard for her.

In New York City during the Depression, Central Park really was the go-to for people who were out of work and without homes. It was the main location for many of the Hoovervilles, and it also served as a home to people like Bumper, who preferred to simply sleep outside. With so much hardship and the lack of homes in the city, it was only natural that the studios over in Hollywood would try to make some movies to lift the spirits of those people. Hallelujah I’m a Bum is easily the most blatant of these types of movies. Bumper and his friends are all homeless, yes, but they’re happy and they’re loving it. Their lives are carefree, especially when you compare them to the lives of the wealthy, like the mayor and his dramatic romantic problems. The “Gee, isn’t poverty swell!” tone to the film may induce some eye-rolling today, but when you remember the time it was made, it’s actually kind of sweet.

It stars Al Jolson, so it’s naturally a musical film. The songs aren’t exactly memorable, but they’re prevalent throughout the film (I’d say more than half, maybe even about two thirds of the movie is sung) which gives the movie a strange but infectious rhythm and pace. It also makes what could be really depressing (not just the homelessness problem, but also June’s attempted suicide) more charming than sad.

Jolson was  likable enough in the lead role, but he never really had that leading man charisma when it came to talkies. Frank Morgan, though, was wonderful as he always was. He really was one of the most dependable character actors of the studio era, and this role shows his range. In so many of his films he’s sort of a sweet, but bumbling guy. It’s nice to see him play someone smart and kind of suave. And then of course there’s Madge Evans. How I adore Madge Evans. She’s simply one of the most charming and likable actresses in Hollywood history. And she’s just as charming and wonderful here as she always is.

Hallelujah I’m a Bum isn’t a conventional movie from the 1930s, from the music, to the pacing, to the ending, but it’s certainly a good movie, especially when viewed in the context in which is was made.

By Katie Richardson

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Year: 1950

Director: Anthony Mann

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Wendell Corey, Gilbert Roland

Yes, my #1 favorite Stanwyck role is Vance Jeffords in The Furies. The great Walter Huston delivers yet another memorable performance as well, which is appropriate since it’s his final one on film. Babs plays a babe here who has more balls than the men in her life. She’s tough as nails, reliable as a calendar, and loyal to the people she loves. Her dream is to take over her father’s vast cattle empire. She wants her birthright more than anything — even marriage. There’s a great scene where she rides out to warn Rip Darrow that he’s no longer welcome on her property. He doesn’t budge a muscle out of defiance, so she pulls a gun out and shoots a hole in his shirt just above the shoulder. Ms. Jerrods is not one for idle chit chat. One of the most iconic movie sequences is Stanwyck’s character throwing a pair of scissors @ her future mother-in-law. I immediately thought of coffee and Gloria Grahame, realizing that Mann’s scene came first. This is easily Mann’s best western and I love the Stewart films as much as anyone. There is a parallel to Joan Crawford’s character in Johnny Guitar, but nobody plays a strong, agressive female better than Babs.

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