all hail The General
Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Format: Noir Alley on TCM
Director: Edward L. Cahn
Shown on Noir Alley, Eddie Muller set the stage perfectly - Destination Murder (1950) is not going to fool anyone into thinking they're watching an A picture, but it is a wild ride of a film with a lot of character and more twists than a bag of pretzels.
Laura Mansfield (Joyce MacKenzie) has come home from college on the east coast when her father opens the door for a seeming delivery man and takes a fatal bullet. The cops seem to be stumbling, so Laura takes it upon herself to do some snooping. Unfortunately, all of the delivery drivers in their line-up had alibis, but Laura fakes trust in her most likely suspect, and that opens a door into the underworld of the city, all based around The Vogue nightclub.
Cast includes most recognizably Stanley Clements as the delivery man and assassin, Albert Dekker as the boss of the nightclub, Hurd Hatfield as the brains and manager of the nightclub, and Myrna Dell as a competing femme fatale.
For the first thirty minutes, it feels like a standard B-picture, and then the twists start coming hard and fast. Some are jaw-droppers, some are "say what?" moments, but all of it does fit into the logic of the movie. And, anchored by the solid delivery by Joyce MacKenzie, it's all a bit crazy but just works. That said - no one will be in a rush to nominate anyone here for an Oscar.
Highly recommended in a "well, that was crazy!" kind of way.
Format: Amazon Watch Party
Director: Allan Dwan - Director of Photography: John Alton
This week's Tuesday selection by Jenifer was Slightly Scarlet (1956), an RKO noir picture that seemed to have all the hallmarks of an RKO crime picture, and - starring the late Rhonda Fleming - was released in technicolor. Jenifer no doubt selected the film because Fleming passed just last week on the 14th, and it seemed like a good way to remember the red-head bombshell, known as "Queen of Technicolor".*
Shot by John Alton, one of the now-most-famous noir DP's, it's wild to see a noir of this period in color, and one that was still being lit like all we were working with was gray tone and black and white. Even if the story of the film doesn't grab you, it's interesting enough just to see how the rules for how these movies would be shot that had been brewing for a decade works and doesn't work once your subjects are in living color.
The story is James M. Cain, who gave us Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice, so you know it's family melodrama mixed with MURDER.
Fleming plays a career-gal who has just landed the next mayor of her California coastal city (the fictional Bay City) as her beau. She's picking up her sister from jail, a troubled young woman with a bent psyche. But along comes John Payne - an educated fellow playing dirty in the rackets and has an eye on the Big Man's chair (Ted De Corsia).
Payne romances Fleming, the sister - who becomes increasingly unhinged out of her prison environs - decides she wants her some John Payne, and city politics mix with mob corruption.
All in all, a tight noir plot. Aside from color, the stand-out difference is really Arlene Dahl's portrayal of the troubled sister, who would be winding up in a Mental Health Court these days, and how treatment and support of family (even as Dahl is blaming Fleming for her state) is everything. It does lean into "there's a specific event that caused this" psychology of the time, at least as far as movies are concerned - and it is lifted wholesale from 1946's The Locket - but it's still an interesting twist to not just write off the sister as twisted or evil.
Also - a harpoon gun is deployed!
I think I did a phenomenal job of not acting like a Tex Avery wolf cartoon when Fleming was on screen - and the movie (in classic RKO noir fashion) - was certainly going for production value. I can't tell if this was part of the Howard Hughes era of the studio - certainly it has the feel of something he would have had his hands on, from Fleming's wardrobe, to Arlene Dahl's personal line of negligee playing a featured role, and fight scenes that feel a little bone-crunchy. My suspicion is: yes. But I'm not sure when Hughes' grip on RKO slipped, and it would have been around this period. But, man, that poster looks like something Hughes would have insisted on.
*it's hard to say the impact red-heads had on Technicolor and it had on red-heads. I know Maureen O'Hara was also considered a highlight of Technicolor film.
Saturday, October 17, 2020
PODCAST: "Phantom of the Opera" (1925) and (1962) - Universal and Hammer Studios! - Halloween 2020 w/ SimonUK and Ryan
Watched: October 4 ('25) October 6 ('62) 2020
Format: BluRay (Kino Lorber) and Amazon Streaming
Viewing: 1000th and First
Decade: 1920's and 1960's
Director: Rupert Julian and Terence Fisher
SimonUK and Ryan cannot remain silent on the topic of that wacky phantom what lurks beneath the opera! We take a look at two of the many film appearances where a creepy music teacher stalks and abducts his pupil while making the most of a poor real estate situation and skin condition. We take a look at the 1925 film from Universal as well as the 1962 take from Hammer, and, boy howdy, are these two different films.
The Signal Watch PodCast · 123: "The Phantom Of The Opera" 1925 and 1962 - Universal & Hammer Halloween 2020 w/ SimonUK & Ryan
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor - JS Bach (unknown performer)
Don Juan Triumphant? I'm not sure, honestly
Format: Amazon Streaming
Director: Freddie Francis
Let's start by saying "continuity" is not the watch-word for Hammer's Dracula series.
The remote village which last saw Dracula die by drowning in a frozen moat around his castle is now located in a steep mountain area (as suggested in prior films, but which always seemed a whole lot like a forested area in a topographically uninteresting meadow). I think the movie opens during Dracula's brief return to life from Dracula: Prince of Darkness when Dracula must have stopped off for a bite in the village, leaving a village maiden dead and inverted inside the bell of the local church.
The plot is a bit windy, but involves a good-hearted Monsignor showing up, trying to ensure Dracula cannot return after the events of the prior movie, but a fallen priest winds up bringing Dracula back (and becomes Drac's henchman). Dracula tracks the Monsignor home where he targets his niece. The niece is dating/ apparently shagging a local student/ outspoken atheist.
Prior characters and locations are kind of nodded at, but only in the faintest ways. The nearby abbey featured prominently in the prior film is unmentioned, as are any previously seen characters. You'd think folks would invent speed-dial just to keep Van Helsing on it.
As in prior Hammer vampire films, there's a question of how Christianity and faith intersect with the abomination that is Dracula - and this film puts a fine point on it, featuring a priest who has lost his faith, a priest who has not and a smart mouthed atheist college student. A cross is a good way to put Dracula off, but it requires faith in the object - something an atheist doesn't have (nor a fallen priest). Released in 1968, while Britain and the US were wrestling with youth culture movements (our juvenile lead is doing his best to look like Roger Daltrey circa 1968) there's certainly a strain of "this new-fangled thinking by the youths is gonna get us all Dracula'd".
Of course, seeing the inverse of God and miracles is a pretty good argument that one is not getting the full picture and answers questions of someone who might ask them - and so there's an emergency (and logical) jump to faith, or at least a reasonable facsimile of faith. And the lack of faith by the fallen priest has made him vulnerable to Drac's evil ways and not even particularly interested in resistance.
Yeah, it's a bit on the nose that Dracula is literally impaled on a cross at the end, but given the themes, it's got a certain poetry and we'll allow it. There does seem to be some sort of divine will at play in this film, but you don't want to be a flirty barmaid/ cannon fodder for the plot.
This is the Hammer Dracula with the weird "Drac Lens". It's not a terrible effect, but once you notice it, you do keep looking at it instead of the action of the screen. It's not without motivation, but would have worked better as a POV device.
It's good to have Lee back as Dracula, who even has lines this time, and other familiar faces like Michael Ripper and Rupert Davies.
All in all - enjoyable as the last, if very different in tone as this one was not directed by Terence Fisher.
Thursday, October 15, 2020
Format: Amazon Watch Party
Decade: 1960's (and how!)
Director: Robert Gaffney
Jenifer picked this particular gem for our Tuesday screening, and it was a g-d delight.
For reasons that are never explained, NASA creates a sort of synthetic man they want to launch into space in place of an astronaut (we are all fine with automation in our space probes, and I'm not sure why the ruse is necessary). He doesn't actually work very well, but they go ahead with the plan.
Meanwhile, aliens from a distant world that has experienced a wave of self-destruction via nuclear exchange have come to Earth in a space ship roughly the size of a small house, with plans to steal our women - because they have none. Except for their leader, a sort of imperious-but-fun Space Queen (Marilyn Hanold) in a heck of a pant-suit and head dress.
Wednesday, October 14, 2020
Format: Noir Alley on TCM
Director: John Cromwell, Mel Ferrer...(uncredited), Tay Garnett...(uncredited), Nicholas Ray...(uncredited) Sherman Todd...(uncredited)
Part of the "tough, straight-lace cop goes up against the mob" noir genre that crescendos (for me) with The Big Heat, The Racket (1951) sees Robert Ryan cast as a mob boss who came up the ranks thanks to his Capone-like ruthlessness who now realizes that by joining a combination that's moved into town and absorbed him - he's getting sidelined. And in his business, that can mean a pine box. Ryan's opposite is Robert Mitchum, a guy who grew up in the same neighborhood as Ryan, but found satisfaction on the side of the angels. before we see him, we know he's paid the price for not playing patty-cake with the mob - passed over for promotion despite his success and pushed to yet another district.
There's no small amount of politics, graft and corruption, and Ryan's to-date clean record (bought via a line of pliable judges) is still holding up, but his desire to remain top dog in his town is leading him to recklessness - including deciding to put out a hit on a would-be judicial candidate. Mitchum takes the indirect route to Ryan, picks up his brother, which brings the brother's songbird ladyfriend into the picture - here played by noir icon Lizabeth Scott. There's also an amorous reporter who is awkwardly guileless for the profession he's selected, and William Talman plays a cop trying to live up to and follow in Mitchum's footsteps.
Also look for a young, The Killers-era William Conrad playing a role 20 years ahead of its time and "that guy" actor Ray Collins as the scumbag politician.
The film is an RKO picture, and on the tough side. Even our good-guys play a bit fast and loose with the truth when they know the mob is using the law as a blunt instrument. People throw punches with minimal provocation. Even the virginal housewives (Joyce Mackenzie and Virginia Huston) have to deal with death and their foyers exploding. Cars don't just crash, they flip.
If you're a Mitchum or Robert Ryan fan (and I am), then that's enough. RKO spent some money on this one, if not a ton of money, and the performances, dialog and stakes work well enough to gloss over some rockier aspects of the story.
It's interesting to see Lizabeth Scott cast as more of a free-agent than the love interest of a main character. Yeah, she's pursued by two characters in the film, but when her character speaks to Ryan and Mitchum, it's not through the filter of a romance - she's just laying down the truth, man. She's pretty good here, honestly (she's never been my favorite of the noirista favorite dames), but credit where it's due. I think she's terrific as an end-of-her rope songbird who couldn't believe she'd stumbled into a little luck in romance and possible financial security (those post-Depression notes just don't show up in movies anymore as a motivator, and they should).
This is an ancestor of tough guy cops and robbers movies that we're still enjoying - although after Heat, I'm not sure anyone is bothering anymore. It's got that visceral appeal of an RKO noir, and doesn't put a shiny veneer on anything. And, honestly, probably hews closer to a version of the truth than we want to think about as more than a fun crime story. It won't make you rethink cinema, and it's not the best even in it's sub-genre, but it's a solid production despite multiple writers and 4 directors (that we know of).
Tuesday, October 13, 2020
Format: Amazon Watch Party
Director: Herbert L. Strock
How to Make a Monster (1958) turned out to be a surprisingly watchable bit of borrowed-thunder schlock from American International Pictures, an indie studio that knew Universal couldn't copyright wolf men or frankensteins and really focused on the hep teens as an audience. You know they loved the kids because a character, just at the far end of middle-age, literally monologues for a minute about how great "teens" are, just sort of out of the blue.
On the heels of I Was a Teenage Werewolf (an early Michael Landon film) and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, I guess AIP decided to do some metacommentary and, thus, How to Make a Monster is about how monster pictures are no longer the cool thing, daddio, so our aging movie-monster specialist is told that after this last movie, he's being cut loose. See, new producers just bought the studio and they basically want to make singing and dancing pictures (a real eye for the future, these guys).
The make-up specialist has figured out that a formula he's been working on for make-up application has a hypnotic quality, and he uses it to get the teens he's so fond of to start murdering the interloping new bosses.
There's plenty of 1950's B-movie hijinks, some deeply questionable decisions, and a seemingly stable make-up artist who has a whole different scene going on in his private life than you'd have guessed.
I am unsure if the movie is trying to comment upon the career of Jack Pierce, famous for the creation of Frankenstein's monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and others - who was ousted in 1946 from Universal.* After all, the movie is about a make-up artist who created wolfman and Frankenstein monsters and who is let go as new studio brass comes in and wants a change in tone for the studio.
Jack Pierce didn't go on to murder anyone that I know of, nor was he a master of mind-control, and finished his days working on Mr. Ed. It's really been the rise of the Rick Baker's of the world who discussed Pierce that means he's discussed today among make-up nerds.
It is not clear why the villain needs to put on full make-ups in order to get his minions to kill people, or why he puts recognizable make-ups on them, but the effect is something else as the poor kids run around strangling business guys just going about their own business. Nor is it clear why the make-up man doesn't clear out to give himself a better alibi, rather than waiting around while the murders happen.
But, all in all, a cheery little horror movie that abruptly goes into color in the final reel, making for a jolting effect that feels almost surreal.
*there's a whole weird chapter of Hollywood make-up history that includes a near mafia-like relationship between the Westmore family and all of the studios. The Westmores basically took over make-up across LA in the 40's and 50's, and were jealously protective of their reputation. In some ways, the relationship continues to this day with SyFy's Face Off monster movie make-up contest - a product of the Westmore family. Some of this, I believe, is covered in the recent Lady From the Black Lagoon book, which describes the sidelining of Millicent Patrick as a designer for the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Monday, October 12, 2020
Director: Terence Fisher
This Halloween, we're making our way through the Dracula films from Hammer Studios. This is the second appearance of Christopher Lee as Drac and the third in the series (the second film, Brides of, dealt with a sort of faux-Dracula making like Drac and building up his own creepy harem).
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) sees a pair of English brothers and their wives touring around Eastern Europe when they decide, against the advice of everyone, to head to a town near Dracula's castle. They're met by a cleric who is VERY against the idea of going anywhere near the castle (which isn't on the map, and so they believe must not exist, despite the assurance it does). Being British, which in this movie means everyone who is not a British male of a certain standing must be wrong about everything, the tourists head right for the path the cleric warned against, and, hey, get dropped off right in front of Dracula's castle by a coachman who is NOT putting up with these dummies.
Helen, one of the wives, is a bit of a pill, but she is 100% right about everything and no one listens to her, which is why you want to not be a pill about everything. The foursome come across a random DRIVERLESS CARRIAGE, and GET IN, thinking they'll take it to town - I suppose because these men think a free carriage for the taking is a reasonable touch befitting their place and not at all weird - until the horses ignore their directions and dump them the crew in front of the castle.
A Lurch-like minion welcomes the quartet and sets them up comfortably.
Turns out, Drac is still "destroyed", but like Sea Monkeys and tap-water, he can be brought to life if you add blood to his ashes. So, our minion, Clove, goes about making that happen.
Like Horror of Dracula, the scale of the Dracula story here is rather small. The travelers are a small party, Dracula only ever really seems to threaten them (for all the talk about the force he is), and a lot of the movie depends on people - in classic horror tradition - making bad choices. Which, before 2020, seemed like a contrivance, but, well... While I very much liked Father Sandor, played by Andrew Kier - I became a fan of Helen (Barbara Shelley) who is the only one with any common sense and who gets to let her hair down as a vampire (even if Dracula is a bully to her).
Lee doesn't have any actual dialog in the film, and there are two accounts of how that happened. The screenwriter claims he didn't give the titular character any, and Lee says he refused to say any of the dumb dialog as it was written. I have no idea, but I tend to believe Lee. So it's weird to have your villain just sort of growling and hissing at people when he also seems to care a lot about his appearance (I mean, he always looks neat as a pin).
As promised, we're paying attention to the role of Christianity in these films, and it's hard to ignore the role of Father Sandor and his pals in the monastery. A monastery that's surprisingly cross and crucifix free. But it does show the readiness of the literate clergyman to combat evil in physical form, and, yes, there's ample deployment of the cross as a deterrent. It's NOT clear why the church hasn't just set the castle ablaze, which seems to the prudent move when you have the King of the Undead a carriage ride away*, but we at least get Father Sandor laying the smack down.
I'm making fun, but I liked the movie a pretty good deal. It's not amazing cinema, but it is a sensible follow on to Horror of Dracula and manages some genuine thrills, if not chills.
*I'm not one to call for murder, but it doesn't count when your target is an unholy monstrosity bent upon the devastation of human life, yo