This is a list of the best films I saw on dvd this year. I haven't seen enough of the new releases to even make a list of 10, and besides most of the new films are crap, the price of admission is too high and the audiences are intolerable. These reviews originally appeared here during the year.
I checked out the 1945 B version of the Dillinger legend which is a 70 minute fast paced cheapo poverty row little noir gem with a sexy scary lead performance by Lawrence Tierney in his first major performance. After this he did a few other tough guy roles, but because he was such a difficult tough fuck in real life his career took a big nosedive. Directed by the German director Max Nosseck in no nonsense no budget style this film really shakes, rattles and rolls. This is what Woolworth's would look like if it were a movie. It helps that the supporting cast is so great what with Marc Lawrence, Eduardo Ciannelli and the incomparable Elisha Cook Jr. in it how could it not be great. The film has a beg borrowed or steal look with images lost and then found and edited together and its a wonder to me that all the actors managed to fit into a scene, the film is so tight and full it almost bulges out over you. Loaded with great scenes, like the Christmas eve piece with a remorseful and sad Tierney looking out his window as street kids sing Silent Night while a creepy mask wearing Santa Claus looks on, or the opening with Dillinger's dad telling his story to a mesmerized movie audience. The film actually got an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay for 1945. See this one.
La reine Margot (Queen Margot) 1994 directed by Patrice Chéreau is the complex and sometimes confusing story of the court of King Charles IX in 16th century France and the murderous conflict between Catholics and Protestants which lead up to the horrible slaughter of 6,000 Protestants in what becomes known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre which is depicted in the film in explicit gut-wrenching scenes. The film is ravishing with a great cast of actors led by the beautiful Isabelle Adjani who plays Margot the somewhat sluttish daughter of the scheming Catherine de Medici played with cold blooded relish by Virna Lisi who gives a superb perfomance. There is enough betrayal and intrigue in this film for 5 movies and the screen literally sweats blood (as does one of the characters). Visually stunning with lots of color and a marvelous cast of young French actors including Vincent Perez, Daniel Auteuil and above all Jean-Hugues Anglade who is brilliant as the weak willed and easily manipulated King Charles. The superb costumes received an Oscar nomination and be warned that the version now out on dvd is not the original 161 minute version but the 145 minute American cut still this is a compelling historical drama. Look for a very young Asia Argento as Charlotte de Sauve, and for all the bookdealers out there, a rare book on hunting plays an important part in the scheme of things. Highly recommended.
One Girl’s Confession 1953
I know I shouldn’t have liked this film, but I did. Cleo Moore and her breasts star in this B potboiler directed by Hugo Haas who turned out many B potboilers in his career. Cleo plays Mary Adams, basically a good girl, who works in a dump of a dive diner on the waterfront, and who doesn’t take any crap from the male patrons who make rude remarks and gestures towards her. She also has to put up with crap from the owner of the dive who yells at her, and many years before cheated our Mary’s dad out of a lot of money. So one night Mary gets her revenge and steals 25,000 big ones. But instead of breaking free she buries the moola somewhere and confesses her crime to the cops and is promptly sent up the river for 5 years. No big deal Mary tells one of her cellmates. Already the film has taken an odd turn (one of many) as Mary bides her time until she gets out and can dig up the dollars and do everything she ever dreamed of doing. In jail Mary gets a job working along side the great Burt Mustin, character actor par excellence in the prison garden that is made of cardboard & plaster of paris and not even Johnny Appleseed could get anything to grow in this little patch of fakery. But Mary and Burt plant away and soon because she is so good the warden gives her an early release. Mary is off and running but instead of digging up the loot right away she finds work in another dive this one owned and operated by none another than Hugo Haas who plays a character named Dragomie Damitrof. He’s a gambler and soon loses everything in a card game thus causing another big twist in the film. Also in the picture is the handsome hunky hunk fisherman played by Glenn Langan who is probably best know for his role as The Amazing Colossal Man and I can easily see why. Fisherman Glenn has the hots for Cleo and they slowly build up a nice little relationship with romantic interludes on a process shot beach. As I said there are many twists and turns in this nice crummy little B whose message seems to be to be careful what you wish for because it all can really blow up in your face. Cleo Moore was a pint size little sex thing, something you might find at the bottom of a cracker jack box, in fact you could probably find the whole film at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jack. Cleo was never able to take her blonde hair and curves to a good seat at the table, (it didn’t help that she was a bad actress) and neither could Hugo Haas who made several B’s with Moore in the early and mid fifties. This one must have had a budget of $1.99 and although shot on the back lot of Columbia Pictures, it looks like they filmed it in a cave. There are some nice quick day for night outdoor shots of a deco apartment house in which a pivotal 1953 party takes place in and the music for the film has to be one of the worst scores ever and I mean ever written for a film. There are some nice character actors who pop up including a very beautiful actress named Ellen Stansbury. Her look reminded me of Ann Dvorak with a touch of Ronee Blakley and Jennifer Beals thrown in for good measure who plays Damitrof‘s main tootsie and who never made another film after this one. The film also has some terrific cinematography by none other than the great Paul Ivano who goes way back to the silent years and did the cinematography for Von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly and also The Shanghai Gesture for Von Sternberg. along with tons of B and Noir films and lots of TV in the 50’s. Part of the women of Film Noir DVD set.
The Glass Wall 1953
Vittorio Gassman very handsome indeed, stows away on a ship coming from Europe sometime after the war that is carrying refuges and displaced people to New York to hopefully begin a new life, but he gets caught and they want to send him back to Hungry where he came from. Vittorio jumps ship, and thus .begins the cat and mouse chase as he searches for an ex-G.I. who is now a jazz musician and whose life Vittorio saved during the war when they were hiding from the Nazi‘s. Vittorio thinks he’ll be able to stay in the country if only he can find him and the guy can testify on his behalf that he saved a soldier’s life, thus according to law would entitle Vittorio to stay in America On his journey he comes across a down and out Gloria Grahame who has definitely seen better days. Gloria is in a cafeteria where she attempts to steal Kathleen Freeman’s coat as Kathleen munches down on a lot of food, while poor Gloria has to do with a cup of hot water, a tea bag from home, and a half eaten donut that someone left at her table. Yum. So Gloria takes off with the coat with everyone running after her including Vittorio who has a badly damaged rib from when he jumped off the ship and wants to help pouty Gloria to get away. A complicated story to say the least, and I haven’t mentioned half of the plot twists. My favorite being when Vittorio meets up with a Hungarian slightly over the hill exotic dancer who takes pity on him and brings him home to have a meal with her kids, her mother and her nasty brother played by the great Joe Turkel a favorite of Stanley Kurbrick’s. This is a nice little B movie that has amazing on location footage (by the great cinematographer Joseph F.Biroc) of Times Square at night that was taken with a hidden camera and there is lots of it. Personally I was in heaven seeing how the once great Square looked in 1953. There is also wonderful footage all over the town including a car ride down 3rd avenue under the El, and the final sequences at a still unfinished United Nations Building that is referred to in the film a big glass wall, thus the title of the film. Part of the Women of Film Noir DVD set.
Night Editor 1946
This is a misleading title for a sleazy very good little B film noir that is so B it starts leaning into C. The film takes place on a very hot night in New York City and a bunch of newspaper men are sitting around playing cards and chewing the fat. The Night editor for some reason that I won’t go into here starts to tell the story of a cop involved in a murder investigation. and we flashback to the low fat story of the cop played by William Gargan in what can only be described as a tortured performance. Gargan is basically a good cop and family man , but is playing down and dirty on his sweet adorable wife (Jeff Donnell) with one hell of a Cul-de-sac married high society twist that makes every other film noir dame look like Little Mary Sunshine. Played to cold as ice perfection by the very beautiful Janice Carter, who has Gargan twisted around her little jewel encrusted finger. He’s tortured over this affair but he can’t let go, and one night as they smooch in a lover’s lane, they witness a horrible murder of a young woman and they both see who the killer is. Carter practically has an orgasm over this shocking crime and actually wants Gargan to drive by the car so she can look at the corpse. “I want to see her, Tony! I want to look at her’ she screams out. I told you she was one hell of a dame. Meanwhile Gargan is conflicted over what to do, tell what he knows and he looses his family his job and probably his freedom, don’t tell and he looses his mind. That’s all I’m saying about the plot so don’t try to get any more out of me. Filmed on sets that are so compact and claustrophobic they look as if they were all built next to each other on one of Columbia Pictures sound stages, and the actors just walked through one door to the next set. Nothing fancy here. This film is so unclean that you can almost see it crawling about on it’s belly looking for a rock to hide under. The kind of movie that would make James Ellroy drool. Highly recommended. Part of the Women In Film Noir DVD set.
The Last Days of Disco-1998
Funny adroit comedy of manners, set in and around disco partying in the early 80’s and the relationships of a small group of waspy yuppie 20 something professionals trying to make a go of it in Manhattan. The first thing I was attracted to was the marvelous screenplay (the rap the friends have abo...ut the psychological meanings of Disney’s Lady and The Tramp is to be savored), and the lovely performances by Kate Beckinsale (perfect American accent) and Chloë Sevigny (if there is a more beautiful actress working in films today please let me know). They play co workers at a publishing firm who are also friends (ill suited) and roommates (very ill suited) who share a railroad apartment no less, and where Kate is pushy and some what mean, Chloe is demure determined and sweet. Not much really happens they dance a little, drink, date pick up a few venereal diseases and do a lot of talking , but I found them and their young attractive men friends beguiling. Maybe it’s my age. Some have complained that the styles and music are not right for the time, well yes the music, although terrific is more from the mid to late 70’s and the hair and very nice clothes look 90’s but I think that might have been part of the director Whit Stillman’s plan. There are a few sub-plots involving the corruption going on behind closed doors at the Disco, as one character says “To me, shipping cash in canvas bags to Switzerland doesn't sound honest.'' but the film is mainly about the up’s and down’s of this small group of friends. Nicely filmed in New York (the dvd transfer from Criterion is gorgeous as usual) with a great soundtrack and a final scene on the subway that is one of the most charming endings of a film that I have seen and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. One of the best films of 1998.
Over Exposed 1956
No this isn’t a film about Marina Abramovic, but another potboiler starring that little spitfire of a sex pot Cleo Moore. The film opens with Cleo who plays Lily Krenshka being asked by the police to leave town because she was working in a clip joint, not that Lily knew it was that kind of place. “I’m... innocent “Lily yells, but she still has to beat it out of town on the next bus one two three or go to jail. As she’s leaving the police station she is approached by a old down and out photographer who snaps her mug, and an incensed Lily wants the picture. “Come over to my studio and I’ll give it to you,” he replies. Lily being Cleo is distrustful of the old guy who appears to be a bit in his cups, but she goes anyway. Nothing dirty happens, and instead Lily in impressed with his photographs and what can be done with a camera and a darkroom. Lily then comes up with the idea that the old photographer should teach her the tricks of the trade so that she can become a photographer too and tells him that “photography is a good racket for a dame“. So Lily in a couple of months and some nice montage sequences turns into a regular Margaret Bourke-White. She changes her name to Lila Crane and takes off for Columbia Pictures New York City. No sooner has she arrived when in a blink of an eye she meets up with a very young and very bland Richard Crenna (the transfer is so good that you can see the acne scars on his face) who works for a photo news agency and falls for Lila in a big way. Very quickly Lila gets a job as a photographer in a high society nightclub called Club Coco snapping pictures of the rich and famous and selling some of her photos to a low life gossip columnist for publication in one of the tabloids. Lila is doing swell and well and before we know it she’s snapping her way into fame and fortune or as she says “Where there’s money, there’s Lila-green becomes me” Lila starts doing fashion spreads and what not and is making a fortune, and she even hires her old mentor to come to the big apple and work for her. But Lila soon becomes greedy, testy and starts acting like a diva "you'd use your grandmother's bones to pry open a cash register" someone says to her and she gets entangled in couple of bad scenes and scandals. She gets kidnapped and beaten up by some mobsters because of an incriminating photo she took and has her reputation ruined because she accidentally took a photo of a high society old dame dropping dead on the dance floor doing the Mambo. The photo falls into the hands of the gossip columnist who publishes it in a Confidential kind of rag. and Lila is in trouble. What next Lily/Lila /Cleo? But in the end it all ends happily (or does it?) as Lila gives up her lively career to marry dull Richard Crenna. Fool. This is more of a woman’s movie than Film noir, more gray than black. What I found intriguing about the film was not only it’s crumminess, and crummy it is, but it’s unconventional tough feminist storyline that was pretty brave and unusual back in the early and mid fifties. Sure Lila sells out and plays it safe at the end giving up her career and identity for a safe little life with dull Richard Crenna, but at least for a while she gave herself and me one hell of a ride and those Jean Louis gowns are nothing to sneeze at either. Part of the Bad Girls of Film Noir Dvd set.
The African Queen-1951
I’m still jumping up and down over the fact that The African Queen has finally come to Dvd, and in one of the most beautiful restorations I have yet seen. The film is without doubt a classic, a movie that works on all levels, the fine direction by the great John Huston, the screenplay by the equally great James Agree (that alone should make this film mandatory viewing especially for anyone interested in how to write a screenplay), and the performances of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn and who ever said that oil and water don’t mix? This is a real off the wall casting idea that one would think would have been turned down by whoever approves these kind of decisions, but happily it wasn’t and to watch these two actors at the top of their game is so fine and pleasurable that it should almost be against the law. The story is based on the book by C.S. Forester about two sad sacks whose lives get tossed and turned (literally) simply because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time which in this case is German occupied Africa at the start of World War I. Hepburn plays the spinster Rose (the first of many such roles for her) who along with her brother acted by the impeccable Robert Morley run a small Methodist missionary which is destroyed by German soldiers who burn and abduct the villagers to fight in their army. Morley is destroyed in his mind by this and his short but moving death scene is superb. Hepburn who is left alone among the burnt out remains of the village is rescued by the improbable Bogart as Charlie Alnutt a river rat who goes up and down the water ways in his small run down boat the African Queen delivering goods and mail, a small run down man who likes his gin and his simple life. The rest of the film is taken up with their journey on the river, which changes their lives for good. Memorable scenes abound, the ride down the rapids, the leeches, Hepburn dumping Bogie’s gin overboard, the two of them pulling the boat through the marshes, their attempt at blowing up a German war ship and the sweet and touching love that develops between them. They actually made most of the film on location and there are many stories about the difficulty of the shoot (Hepburn even wrote a book about it) plus there’s a pretty good one hour documentary on the making of the film as an extra on the dvd. The color cinematography is by the great Jack Cardiff who many consider to be one of the greatest color cinematographers in the history of film if not the greatest, and viewing the restoration of the film easily attests to this opinion. Granted the film might look a bit quaint to some 2010 viewers who like their computer generated films to be big, loud and seamless and there are some easy to pick out process shots, studio shot scenes and the use of miniatures but for me this only added to the simple beauty and charm of the film. Bogart won an Oscar for his performance over some pretty stiff competition including Marlon Brando for A Streetcar Name Desire (he was the only actor from the film not to win an Oscar) and Montgomery Clift for A Place In The Sun. Surprisingly even though Huston received an Oscar nomination for his flawless direction, the film did not receive a best picture nomination, instead the academy fools nominated Decision Before Dawn (remember that one?) and Quo Vadis two films that sit at the bottom of the deep Oscar well of forgotten films and bad nominations where they belong while The African Queen still sails on and on.
Late one night a young woman listening to music on her ipod and carrying a large framed graduation photo of herself gets on a train in the Melbourne underground. She’s not paying any attention to her surroundings as she sits there listening to her music and looking at her portrait when suddenly she notices a man in the next seat with his back to her slump over and fall to the floor. This gets her attention and she goes over to see if she can help, but she realizes that he is bloody dead. Looking up she suddenly sees dead and bloody bodies, men and women young and old sprawled all over the train. Panicked and screaming she sees that one of the victims a young man is still alive and runs over to comfort him. The young man dazed but not mortally wounded gets up and goes over to one of the slumped bodies where a gun lies, picks it up and fires another round into the already dead body. The girl screams and realizes at the same time that we do that the murderer is in the car with her. So begins the very good and compelling murder mystery from Australia “Noise“. In the mid 70’s and early 80’s Australia had a vibrant film industry going and produced many terrific films that also introduced us to new directors and actors many of whom went on to world wide fame. I would get my hands on as many of these films that I could. most of them on bad quality videos. Then something happened and it seemed that the industry dried up, or we just weren’t getting the latest products in this country. So I was delighted to see that finally I had the opportunity to once again watch a film from down under. Set during Christmas, (it’s summer there) the story is not only about the race to capture this maniac, which is sometimes running in the background like an annoying dripping water faucet but is also about the personal stories of the men and women who are on his trail. Chief among them is a young good looking charismatic constable played by Brendan Cowell who in one of the unusual plot devices is suffering from tinnitus which causes a ringing in his ears, and may be a symptom of a more serious disease. It also provides us with one of the meanings of the title. Set mostly at night with much of the action taking place in a claustrophobic surveillance trailer that is manned by him, and a tough female partner who comes and goes to the job on roller skates (another nice touch) the young constable comes up against some strange and sometimes menacing characters who pass through the night and the trailer and who might offer clues in the solving of the case. There are of course the nasty police commanders and detectives that one expects to come across in these kind of films, but there is also a female detective who is kind and compassionate and who just happens to have a hair lip, and let me ask you when was the last time you saw a female character in a film with a hair lip. Idiosyncrasies abound. I could quibble about some dense and somewhat confusing plot developments, and an ending that might not please some people but these are minor compared to the pleasures that this unconventional and surprising movie offer. Written and directed by Matthew Saville who has mostly done television work. One of the ten best films of 2007. Highly recommended.
Assault on Precinct 13. 1976
A reworking of Howard Hawk’s cult western of 1959, “Rio Bravo” John Carpenters sets his urban “western” in a scary rundown L.A. neighborhood where gangs roam the deserted streets freely causing havoc and violence. Carpenter clues us in from the opening titles on the influence of Rio Bravo an...d Hawks by the editor’s credit listed as John T. Chance. This was John Wayne’s name in Rio Bravo and which Carpenter used as his pseudonym as the actual editor of the film. The action begins with the killing of several members of a violent street gang by the police who then join forces with other gangs to get their revenge on the police and anyone else who gets in their way. Precinct 13 is being shut down and the new commander in charge of getting it closed down and moved out is a young African American rookie well played by Austin Stoker who has to deal with much more than just the closing down and transferring of the precinct. He’s up against it when he Reluntedly agrees to the temporary boarding of several convicts including a likeable but notorious murderer also well played by Darwin Joston when one of them gets violently ill on the bus that is transferring them to a new prison and death row. Also in the building are a couple of secretaries, both wonderfully acted by Carpenter regular Nancy Loomis and newcomer Laurie Zimmer who disappeared after this film and a nearly comatose civilian who takes refuge in the jailhouse after witnessing a horrible murder (this scene made me gasp out loud) by one of the gang members. In a minute of anger and revenge the man takes off in a car after the gang and knocks off one of them with a gun he finds at the scene of the crime. This of course sets off the gangs who are soon attacking the precinct to get revenge in a series of relentless nerve shattering night scenes. The members of the fort I mean precinct have very little ammunition, all the phone lines have been cut and things are looking very bad indeed. Made on a shoe string by Carpenter who besides writing, editing and directing also did the very effective tingly music score and was two years away from making his seminal and influential horror film Halloween. In Precinct he is busy using themes and situations that will turn up in many if not most of his future projects. The isolated setting, characters fighting off against immensurable odds enemies that at times seem inhuman and strong attractive female characters who take control of the dire situations and almost single-handedly save the day. Also of note is the night time cinematography of Douglas Knapp who keeps the gang members in shadowy backgrounds as they surround the precinct thus making them even more menacing and scary. One of the ten best films of 1976.
Clash By Night 1952
Based on a failed play by Clifford Odets (it closed on Broadway in the early 40’s after only 49 performances), it was still somehow turned into a pretty good film in 1952 with direction by Fritz Lang. The play starred Tallulah Bankhead as nervy gritty down on her heels and luck Mae Doyle and in the movie the part is played by the much better suited Barbara Stanwyck who by the way is terrific, but then again when wasn‘t she terrific. From the first shot of Mae lugging a heavy suitcase up an early morning Monterey street you know that this is one tough broad, and in case that didn’t immediately hit you, Stanwyck who is tired of all the lugging stops in a local bar for a quick Brandy. “Better make that a whiskey” the bartender tells her, and she downs it in one gulp. That’s my Babs. One of the patrons in the bar remarks about her drinking so early in the morning “only when I have a cold” Stanwyck snaps back. In town after a 10 year stint of being knocked around and about by life she looks up her hunky brother played by the hunky and handsome Keith Andes. Their house Stanwyck says looks much smaller than she remembers it, and Keith tells her it’s big enough. That’s the kind of tough smart banter that goes back and forth in this tragedy in the making. Also along for the ride is Keith’s cannery girl friend Marilyn Monroe on the cusp of everlasting superstardom. She’s beautiful and fresh, and it’s always startling to see the young Marilyn, it shakes you up, because she’s become such an icon, almost dreamlike, that you wonder did she ever really exist or is she just a Warhol silkscreen? So there’s plenty of eye candy for everyone, Keith has several scenes shirtless, and Monroe is well Monroe, which should be more than enough for anyone. Stanwyck’s Mae is tough, wounded and soiled but inside there’s a gooey soft spot, which she gives to the big lovable clumsy kind fisherman, played by the very good Paul Douglas. They marry, but into the mix is Robert Ryan who is Paul‘s friend, (Ryan was also in the original play but had the role of the brother) who is a misogynist, racist and semi psychopath who works as a movie projectionist (nice touch Fritz). Ryan is mean but attractive in a bad sort of way, and is on the make big time for Stanwyck, who acts like she can’t stand him. Soon Douglas and Stanwyck have a little baby girl named Gloria, but its very hot outside and Stanwyck starts to come apart from the heat and repressed sexual feelings that she’s feeling for psycho Ryan. That’s all the plot you’re getting from me, after all this is not IMDB. I will say that the ending is a little too uplifting for what I was expecting, and it’s probably due to it being uptight 1952 and all that. But still and all this is tough and tangy Hollywood Lang, with lots of symbolic shots of crashing waves, sunsets, and birds, and it really helps to have the great cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca aboard who did the nice blending of actual location work with studio sets.
Born To Kill-1947
Made in 1947 by Robert Wise before he got all epic gooey and sweet, this is a B noir that is almost an A. It tidders on the edge of being a really terrific film because of the lack of energy in the second part of the film. But the first half it is pretty slinky and low down. And how could it not be otherwise with Lawrence Tierney in the lead playing his usual sexy psychopath. The film opens in Reno where deep dish dame Claire Trevor is getting a divorcee and staying in the rundown boarding house run by the great Esther Howard, (more about her later). Also laying about is the equally wonderful Isabel Jewell wounded character actress par excellence. The pot is stirring and soon there is a double homicide which sets the rest of the movie in motion. Trevor who accidentally comes across the bodies of this double murder decides to do nothing except get her ass out of Reno asap and get back home to San Francisco, which she does and is soon picked up by Tierney at the Railroad station. They’re both on the make, you can see it in their eyes and body language, and soon enough after some mid forties sexual banter in the late Art Deco lounge car of the train, Tierney pays Claire an unannounced visit. Poor but living in San Francisco in high style thanks to her rich single pretty foster sister played by Audrey Long. Claire has her legs around the dull but very rich Philip Terry who she is engaged to marry, even though she doesn’t love him. Claire’s knees start getting wobbly and drooly just looking at Tierney, and soon Tierney is making woo woo eyes at her sister Audrey, and before you know it they are at the alter as a jealous Claire looks on. Tierney is bad and Claire knows this, but this doesn’t stop her from having an implied sex a thon with him even though he’s married to her sister. Claire is also very bad. There are lots of complications including an investigation into the two murders by cheap detective Walter Slezak hired by the blowsy friend of one of the victims played by Esther Howard who is superb. A favorite of Preston Sturges, Howard usually played down on their luck dames or zany characters. Here she is both and really delivers the goods especially in the scene where she is lured to a secluded beach. Also lurking about is the always wonderful Elisha Cook Jr. as a very close and dangerous friend of Tierney’s whose feelings for him might be construed as more than just friends. Check out the scene of them lying together on a bed. Dark and jabbing, this film must have been outrageous and shocking to audiences at the time, and it still has the power to shock. Based on the novel “Deadlier Than The Male by James Gunn and with perfect Noir cinematography by Robert De Grasse who photographed a wide range of films including some Astaire and Rogers musicals and several Val Lewton movies.
The Hoodlum. 1951
Loking like it was shot in a shoebox with a budget of $2.00, this gritty little B reunites the scary Lawrence Tierney with Max Nosseck who directed him in 1945’s terrific Dillinger. Clocking in at 61 minutes the story is tough, rancid and minimal. Tierney is a no good small time gangster who when the film opens is attempting to get out of jail on parole with the help of his weepy and trusting mother who throws herself at the parole board and begs for mercy for her son who she thinks is a good boy. Yeah right. As soon as Tierney gets out he’s giving everyone problems including his good natured and straight brother (played by Tierney’s real life brother Edward) who reluctantly gives him a job in his gas station. Tierney is soon plotting a complicated bank robbery, rapes and impregnates his brother’s weepy and trusting girlfriend and is just plain nasty to everyone including the gas station customers who Tierney greets with a threatening “What do you want.” The crummy looking sets and the backlot street setup (which by the way I loved) suits this outsider film very well which is tight and claustrophobic. Nosseck who was born in Germany did three films with Tierney, and he deserves to be rediscovered as a true nervy, primitive and original filmmaker. The movie is also loaded with lots of low budget interesting character actors and actresses including two hot dames who take no prisoners and no crap from Tierney and the well known terrific bit player O.Z. Whitehead (with a name like this he better be good) who plays a creepy funeral home director. Unfortunately the dvd transfer looks like they held auditions for “So You Think You Can Dance” on it, which takes away from the total enjoyment of the film. This is the kind of film that Criterion should be restoring, and I’ll tell you I’ll take “The Hoodlum” over any of the processed sterile big budget blockbuster pieces of shit that Hollywood is shoving down our throats any day of the week.
A week after seeing Sam Fuller’s evocative movie poem on American Society circa 1963 that’s set in a mental hospital, I’m still thinking about this fucking movie. Fuller wraps his little cheapie around an outrageous plot about a newspaper man nicely played by the attractive and appealing Peter Breck... who wants to win a Pulitzer Prize very badly and has the idea to go undercover at a mental hospital to find out who murdered a patient. This ploy will surely get him the big prize he thinks. Things start to get obtuse and out of hand when Peter enlists his stripper girlfriend Cathy (played by Constance Towers) in his crazy scheme and convinces her against her better judgment to pose as his sister and makes up a cockamamy story about having incestuous feelings for each other. He use to play with my pigtails she tells to the doctor. Well Peter gets admitted into the nut house, and is soon roaming the corridor and meeting the inmates. They include a wild group including a shell shock Korean war vet, an African American who is so compassionate about his self hate that he goes around wearing a Klu Klux Klan hood and attacking fellow black inmates. Also in the mix is an obese guy played by the future screenwriter Larry Tucker who’s nickname is Pagliacci and sings to distraction opera off key and a scientist who is haunted by the terrible things he has worked on in the name of science who now in a nearly comatose state and spends most of his time drawing. Sounds like many artists I know. Some of these patients know who the killer is (you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure this out) and Breck goes to great lengths to get the name out of them.. Who murdered Sloane In The Kitchen? he barks at everyone during his tortured stay at the hospital. There are some great jaw dropping moments and images throughout this little crazy B, and Fuller that film brut really knows how to tell a pulp story with words and images. He is ably helped by deep shadowed cinematography by the great Stanley Cortez. who shot among others films The Magnificent Ambersons and The Night of The Hunter. Also helpful is the single set of the hospital corridor designed by Eugène Lourié whose perspective ends in a painted dead end backdrop with midgets walking back and forth to give the sense of distance and depth. His film is like an assemblage, a show and tell, a lost and found. He uses color footage from his film House Of Bamboo when one of the inmates tells of his dreams. and no doubt the footage came first. and then the scene. There are rain storms in the corridor, and Constance Towers comes to Breck’s dreams like a sexy little tinkerbell. And in the end Breck gets his Pulitzer but things eventually turn out very bad for him, but for adventurous movie lovers bad turns out to be awfully good. One of the ten best films of 1963.
Tony Manero. 2008
Dank dark Chilean film directed by Pablo Larraín that takes place in his home country during the repressive and murderous regime of General Pinochet. The film is about a petty psychopath low life criminal who also happens to be serial killer and is obsessed with the movie Saturday Night Fever and the character of Tony Manero that was played by John Travolta. The lead in this film played to a burnt crisp is Alfredo Castro whose one big goal in his miserable life is to appear on a grim tv show in which desperate people impersonate real life low rung celebrities (Chuck Norris for one) and win cheap prizes like blenders and blankets. This monster murders anyone who gets in his way of reaching his goal of winning this dumb ass contest but he is way too old with his dead eyes and dyed black hair to impersonate Travolta plus he’s a lousy dancer. He has a job performing in a sad and tacky cabaret dance act which includes a mother and daughter who he take turns bedding even though he’s probably impotent and a young man who on the side passes out flyers condemning the regime putting his life and the members of the act in danger. As I mentioned this John Travolta wannabe is a real psycho case who sits in a run down empty movie theatre and watches Saturday Night Fever over and over and over, and scurries through the empty streets of his run down neighborhood like some hungry rat mirroring the atrocities that are happening all around him. He knows full well that like the killers who do the dirty work for Pinochet he too will get away with his immoral deeds. Not for the squeamish (a hot shower might be needed after viewing this one). This is an odd flaky disturbing film, which brings to mind “The Honeymoon Killers or some kind of chamber of horrors sideshow.
Carnival of Souls 1962
Cheaply made little supernatural horror flick about a young woman who survives a terrible car accident or does she? The director Herk Harvey whose only film this was, worked for years in an educational and industrial film production company along with his screenwriter John Clifford so he at leas...t brought some knowledge and skill about filmmaking to the project. Full of eccentric and odd touches with some very amateurish acting, but nicely photographed on the fly in Lawrence Kansas and Salt Lake City. The main architectural element in the movie is a large abandoned falling down amusement park built in the late 19th century which has a strong strange pull over Mary the young woman played by Candace Hilligoss a method actress from New York who is between life and death (aren't we all) and who sometimes becomes invisible to people (don’t we all sometimes feel this way?) Mary who after recovering from the accident drives to Salt Lake City to take on a gig as an organ player in a church (I’m serious) but feels no spiritual calling and considers this just a job. She finds cheap lodging in a neat & tidy little house run by an older woman who tells Mary that she has no problem with her taking as many baths as she pleases, and brings her sandwiches and coffee for dinner. Nice. Mary is bothered by the only other border in the house, an oversexed unattractive factory worker who wants only one thing from her and will not let up until Mary goes out with him. Needless to say their evening out is a disaster. Mary is very troubled and from time to time gets hysterical thinking that a strange man (played by the director) in ghoulish white make is following her. By chance a doctor happens by when she is having one of her fits on the street and comes to her rescue, but I found him to be aggressive and brutish to her. There are quite a few memorable moments in this odd and unique film like Mary rising out of the water and mud (the still of this scene is haunting ) after everyone thinks that Mary and the other two girls in the car have perished after it went through a railing on a bridge, falling hard and fast into the river below. Also good is the scene where Mary goes to a department store to buy a new dress, and she becomes invisible to the sales girl and the customers. This becoming invisible happens to her quite a bit, and we wonder what the hell is going on with this young woman. The film for me is comparable to the work of some outsider art, a unique vision, direct and unquestionably disturbing. One of the best films of 1962.
Elevator To The Gallows. 1958
Although made in 1958, I first saw Elevator To The Gallows in 1962 when I was 15 years old dubbed and on the bottom of a double bill at my neighborhood Loew’s movie theatre in Brooklyn. It was probably going by its American title Frantic. I recall that the Friday night audience was not taking to it at all. Me and my friends were also fidgety and bored. I mean what was this strange film. I had never seen a movie like it. But then something clicked for me and I became intrigued with this complex story of illicit love and murder. It stayed with me. Finally many years later I caught up with this tangy little piece of soiled laundry that was Louis Malle’s first film. Although Jeanne Moreau had been doing films and lots of theatre for some years, this was the one that made her famous and put her on her way to international stardom, and started me on my love for her, which has not let up to this day. This is one of the seminal films in the French New Wave, heavily influenced by American noir and crime films of the 1940’s but with a new French twist to it, and a great improvised Jazz score by the American master Miles Davis. The film opens with a beautiful close-up of Moreau breathlessly telling someone how much she loves him. It turns out Moreau who is married is on the phone with her lover played by the sexy and talented Maurice Ronet who works for her dirty big corporation arms dealer of a husband. This short phone conversation is the only moment in the film that the two lovers share any real screen time together one of the many nice twists in this very twisty film. I will say that a murder is planned and that’s all the plot I’m giving away. There are also some plot holes, but one should not let them get in the way of enjoying the film. The beautiful black and white cinematography is by the great Henri Decaë and also in the cast is Lino Ventura & Charles Denner as cops and look for small cameo by Jean-Claude Brialy. It’s amazing that Malle was only 25 when he made this accomplished film. One of the ten best films of 1958.
The Spiral Staircase-1946
Set mostly in a beautifully cluttered Victorian mansion at the turn of the last century with a dark and stormy night raging outside, this is a top notch scary femme jep thriller. The film beautifully opens with the lovely and mute young housekeeper Helen played by the marvelous Dorothy McGuire watching a silent film in a hotel Nickelodeon, while unknown to her and everyone else a young pretty thing with a club foot is being murdered one floor above. It turns out that a crazy killer is on the loose killing young women who are in various ways physically challenged. So right off the bat we know that McGuire is in danger for her life, and because of McGuire’s lovely performance we also worry about her. McGuire who has lost her ability to speak because of a traumatic childhood incident is employed as a house worker by the fail and ailing Ethel Barrymore who spends most of the film in bed being nasty to all except Ms. McGuire who Barrymore is genuinely fond of. Ethel has two sons from different husbands who also live in the house and cause not only her but everyone else lots of aggravation, One is a do nothing vagabond and the other is a professor. The professor played by George Brent has employed the very pretty Rhonda Fleming as his secretary who by the way is carrying on with the do nothing other brother played by an actor I’ve never seen before or since. Also around the house is Kent Smith (not one of my favorite actors) as the kind doctor who believes that McGuire can be cured of her muteness and who is also in love with her. Some really good character actors also have nice parts including the somewhat tipsy cook played by the delightful and very watchable Elsa Lancaster, Sarah Allgood as a put upon nurse is very amusing even though its a small part and Rhys Williams as Lancaster’s husband and handyman around the house. The art direction which is superb is by Albert S. D'Agostino & Darrell Silvera who worked uncredited it seems on The Magnificent Ambersons. The Amberson’s feel is very evident in the film and some of the sets look to me to be recycled from that film. The richness of detail can be seen in every frame of the movie, and the great cinematography by one of the masters of noir and B’s Nicholas Musuraca also brings a richness to the film and is evident from the great transfer. And even though I’ve seen this film at least three times and know the outcome, this movie is still so entertaining and a pleasure to watch. The credit for this must go to to the suave direction of the great German director Robert Siodmak who made a small amount of films in Hollywood including Phantom Lady, The Killers, Criss Cross, Cry of the City and the questionable but campy The Cobra Woman and Son Of Dracula. Siodmak brings a high degree of Expressionism and art to a sub genre that had long reached its peak by then and brings all its components (including stress and tension) together in a terrific package. This is the Hollywood factory at its best height The subject matter is not only original but is also disturbing, and the situations of danger are full of tension especially if seeing it for a first time. One of the best films of the year
Looking like it cost a big 99 cents to make, but having the feel of a good kick to the head, this seminal noir was filmed in 1947 two years after the war and has everything one wants in a good film noir thriller, disgust, suspense, violence, shadows (the shadows in this one have shadows) a few Femme fatales (well actually one, but she’s a real dossy) claustrophobic spaces, dark villains, and a not so happy ending. Based on the novel The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks, before he became the movie director the film was directed by Edward Dmytryk, right before he was blacklisted and produced by RKO. In the book the murder victim was a homosexual but of course this had to be changed this being 1947 and homosexuality in movies and indeed in much of society was a big no no. So the victim went from Homo to Jew without a blink. Much rougher than the more A list more delicate other film that year to deal with anti-Semitism Gentleman’s Agreement which swept the Oscars, the film opens in a dark room where someone is getting badly beaten. The screen is almost divided in half so we can’t see much, but soon we see a couple of guys running out of the room, and a dead body is on the floor. The investigation begins with detective Robert Young leading the way who by the way is excellent in the role. No Father Knows Best- Marcus Welby here just a serious pipe smoking cop who never smiles and is dead serious about finding the murderer. The finger of guilt points to some soldiers just released from the service, who spend their days and nights hanging out in seedy hotels and getting drunk and the rest of the film is taken up with this investigation into guilt despair hatred and unease. The soldiers caught in the headlights are Robert Mitchum, looking beautiful and butch, topping off a very good year for him with this film, Out Of The Past and Pursued, Robert Ryan, (Oscar nominated for a supporting actor Oscar but losing out to Santa Claus) How does one compete against Santa? and a young and new actor whose first film this was George Cooper. Also thrown in the mix is B girl extraordinaire Gloria Grahame in a brief but salty performance (also Oscar nominated) as Ginny so nicknamed because she’s from Virginia, and her maybe husband, maybe not husband a terrific Paul Kelly, who brings to the role his real life problems. The film consists mostly of tight seedy dark interiors with maybe one or two exterior scenes, and none that I can recall that take place in the daytime. With great cinematography by the veteran cinematographer J. Roy Hunt who began shooting films in 1916 and who did mainly B movies and real cheapies. 1947 was probably the seminal year for film noir with nearly 20 noir films made including this one, Out of the Past, Kiss Of Death, The Big Clock, Nightmare Alley, Body and Soul, Boomerang, Dark Passage, Possessed, Pursued, The Unsuspected, Dead Reckoning, Born To Kill, The Man I Love, , Ride The Pink Horse, Brute Force, Railroaded, Lured, The Long Night and others. One of the ten best films of the year.
In 1945 a young soldier newly arrived in New York City, stands confused and lost in the hustle and bustle of New York City’s Penn Station. He peaks outside and is so overwhelmed by what he sees and hears that he scurries back into the station and buys a newspaper to see what he can make of this place. Si...tting on the bottom step of the grand staircase, his lanky legs extended and unaware of what and who is passing in front of him he peruses the paper. Suddenly a young girl walks by, trips over his leg, and knocks the heel of her shoe off. So begins the The Clock Vincente Minnelli’s lovely romantic fable of love found, lost and then found again in Manhattan during the last year of World War II. The young soldier is played by Robert Walker and the young woman is played by Judy Garland, both achingly sweet and beautiful and both destined in real life to doom. But enough of that. Walker plays a small town guy in the city on leave for just two days, and he soon becomes very smitten with the young Garland. After some awkward talk between the two, she agrees to let him tag along with her as she rides one of those long lost delectable double decker buses that use to own 5th avenue. She points out the sights to him, they visit a nearly empty Metropolitan Museum, take a stroll in Central Park and we can see that they are taken with each other and who could blame either of them. But she is hastate about seeing him for a real date that night and they say their goodbyes. Judy continues on her way home on the bus. and looking out the window she sees that Walker is running along side the bus begging her to see him that night, as the other riders laugh and grin at the spectacle of him racing the bus. Judy finally agrees to meet him under the clock at the Astor Hotel later that night. So their New York City adventure and love affair begins within studio sets and process shots of this 1945 city that no longer exists. Beautifully directed by Vincente Minnelli who does a great job guiding Garland (they had just married) in her first non-singing role as Alice. This guy knows how to move his camera. It rolls along through subways and crowds and neighborhood streets that he fills with little bits of business that ring true. Little children playing, neighborhood women hanging out of windows, garbage trucks picking up the trash, milk men doing their deliveries and he actually shows quite a few African Americans which for the time and Hollywood was very unusual. Some may be turned off by the cuteness of the film, or may even find it trite. Not me I was enthralled by it once more, and caught up in the romance and the lovely work by every one involved both in front of and behind the camera. Of special note is a small bit by Moyna MaGill who was Angela Lansbury’s mom as a somewhat raggedy and put upon customer in a luncheonette who is trying to eat her dinner. MaGill pretty much walks off with the scene. Also lovely and true is the breakfast scene with Garland and Walker and James Gleason as a milkman and his wife Lucile Gleason who were husband and wife in real life. Also notable is the cinematography by George Folsey and the great art direction by William Ferrari, Cedric Gibbons and Edwin B. Willis. The Penn Station set is absolutely amazing, and when I first saw the film many years ago I thought that they had actually filmed the movie there. Watching this movie is like finding a tender time capsule of place and performance. One of the ten best films of 1945.
I watched Gun Crazy the other night with a friend who had never seen it. This had to be my 5th time viewing this great classic film noir couple on the lam movie that was made in 1949. Over the credits we see an empty back lot street in the rain. Soon a young boy enters the scene, and what do you know it’s a young adorable Russ Tamblyn (credited here as Rusty) who throws a rock through the window of a pawn shop window and steals a gun. This is a nice way to open a film. Its both beautiful and odd because of the strange perspective that makes Tamblyn appear bigger and out of proportion with the set. The director Joseph Lewis also slips in a subtle crucifixion image of him with his arms outstretched and his back against the broken store window as the cops approach. Then things move quickly. A court scene where his sister, teacher and chums testify about how good rusty really is accompanied. by flashbacks showing Rusty’s “unnatural” attraction to guns but also his aversion to hurting anyone after he kills a little chick when he is really very young. The kindly judge played by Morris Carnovsky feels for the kid, as we all do but still sentences him to 4 years in reform school. Time really does pass quickly especially in the movies and the young Bart has soon grown up, and is now played by John Dall who gives a fascinating performance. Back home he soon meets up with his old chums and they go out for a couple of brewskis and to a carnival, (there is a lovely traveling shot of them moving along viewing the side show attractions) and Lewis nicely fills his scene up with lots of extras also taking in the shows. The friends soon wind up in a sharp shooting gun show where the star is Annie Laurie Starr played by Peggy Cummins who gives an amazing performance as the tough gun toting wild gal with a past who quickly entrances Dall with her shooting skills and her sexiness. He decides to enter a shooting contest against her, which is part of the show, and wins. Sex and guns and guns and sex come front and center, and soon Dall has joined the show and falls strong and fast for Cummins. At first It’s hard to read her character, because she’s tough as nails, but also has a gooey soft center. They quit the show over quarrels with the manager of the act and they quickly decide to marry and a hurried honeymoon montage soon follows with B movie inventiveness that might bring giggles to some viewers. Somewhere along the way, they run out of money, and out of the blue Annie Laurie brings up the idea to Dall that they should become cheap thieves and bank robbers. Bart hems and haws and Dall plays him somewhat weak and tentative, which he is throughout the film. Supposedly Lewis said that he cast Dall in the role because he wanted a homosexual to play him, which Dall was. I don’t know why the actor cast had to be “homosexual” was it because Lewis perceived gays as being weak and passive? Bart who is head over heels in love with Annie Laurie (and Dall is very good and believable conveying this) soon gives in to her crazy scheme when Annie Laurie threatens to leave him high and dry if he doesn’t go along with her plans. Now we come to the first of two superb sequences that rank very high in cinema B movie/Film Noir history. Lewis puts his camera in the car with them as they drive in to a small town to rob a bank, and keeps it there as they make their botched getaway. Done in one take, improvised and filmed pretty much on the fly with no one except the principals in on it. This is a sequence that everyone talks about when discussing the film along with the other famous robbery scene, the Armour Meat packing plant robbery, which has influenced countess heist films since. Planned down to the tinniest detail by Annie Laurie and Bart, (this is another terrific sequence, that Lewis shot from above as Dall & Cummins go over the layout of the plant that is drawn on an open newspaper page). This is the turning point of the film and their lives and it’s also where I stop writing about the plot. The script was taken from a short story that was published in the Saturday Evening Post by MacKinley Kantor and the credit for the screenplay is by him and the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo who was the front for Millard Kaufman. Also superb is the cinematography by Russell Harlan and the full supporting cast is rich with many familiar character actors. The best film of 1949.