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Posts Tagged ‘Edward Dmytryk’

William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man (1944)

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

From the sublime to the ridiculous, here’s William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man on Blu-ray.

In the 1940s, horror films were really more like fantasies, in which no one was ever really at risk. At Universal, the studio put Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and the Wolfman through their predictable paces; at RKO, Val Lewton was busy producing a series of low budget horror films such as The Cat People (1942) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) which are now justly considered classics; Paramount tried and succeeded with Lewis Allen’s memorable ghost story The Uninvited (1944), top-lining Ray Milland; and 20th Century Fox also tried their hand at horror, with John Brahm’s marvelously atmospheric The Undying Monster (1942).

Columbia produced a series of films with Boris Karloff, most centering on the theme of “science gone mad,” the most effective of which was probably Edward Dmytryk’s The Devil Commands (1941). Producers Releasing Corporation also cranked out low-budget horror films such as The Devil Bat (1940) and Dead Men Walk (1943), but the circumstances of their production was so threadbare that the results were fatally compromised, while Republic Pictures, better known for their Saturday morning serials, still managed to create several memorable stand-alone films, such as Lesley Selander’s The Vampire’s Ghost (1945, and still unavailable on DVD), with an excellent script by the great Leigh Brackett.

Somewhere between the major studios and the bottom of Poverty Row was Monogram, an odd studio that built its “reputation” on westerns, horror films, and lowbrow comedies, usually shot in a week or less, and often directed by William Beaudine, one of the most prolific helmers in Hollywood history, along with the even more prolific Sam Newfield (aka Sherman Scott and Peter Stewart, to disguise his torrential output), who usually worked for PRC, which was run by his brother, Sigmund Neufeld.

Monogram’s films were made quickly and efficiently – as actor John Carradine once observed, “it was just like Universal, except they moved twice as fast on the set” – and more often than not had to be endured rather than enjoyed on any level, with a few notable exceptions, such as Beaudine’s The Face of Marble (1946), which was essentially remade in 2015 as The Lazarus Effect.

Voodoo Man is another Monogram film that manages to intermittently hit the mark, and has now been digitally remastered in a superb restoration by Olive Films, an interesting independent label whose catalogue swings all the way from Hollywood classics, to foreign films, to obscure contemporary releases, and in this case, program horror films.

As the British critic Graeme Clark describes the film’s preposterous yet oddly compelling narrative, “a lone woman driver is out in the countryside one night when she finds herself slightly lost, but as luck would have it she sees a gas station up ahead and stops to ask for directions.

A middle-aged Englishman appears and offers to help, giving his advice to carry on up to the fork in the road; she thanks him and carries on, little knowing she has been duped for the station owner, Nicholas (George Zucco) has sent her to her potential doom. He gets on the phone to two henchmen up ahead, and they uncover a hidden route, then place a detour sign on the official road, leading the motorist the wrong way, whereupon her car breaks down and the henchmen pounce, dragging her from it and towards a trapdoor in the bushes . . .

It’s debatable which cast member was the titular fiend for there were at least four options, but for the purposes of this we had to assume Bela Lugosi was that character . . . that said, the star wattage for vintage horror fans was not to be sneezed at, for producer Sam Katzman had hired three icons of the genre.

Lugosi here was ending his contract with the notoriously cheap ‘Poverty Row’ outfit Monogram Pictures, having made nine films with them of which this was the last, a selection that many buffs like to collect as if they were a matching set, though some are easier to come by than others.

Typically, the star would take the part of a mad scientist or practioner of supernatural arts as he did here, though he had a catatonic wife to add pathos since he wishes to revive her by transferring the life force of the kidnapped women into the body of [his wife] (Ellen Hall), a practice which appears to succeed for a few seconds before leaving the doctor distraught that he has lost her to the whims of fate once more . . .

Yes, those ritual sequences were quite something seeing as how it united the trio of horror stars – Lugosi, Zucco, and John Carradine – and had them act out a curious scene, the first two decorated in some striking Aleister Crowley-style decorated robes [while intoning] some nonsense about ‘Ramboona’ and Zucco makes a couple of lengths of rope tie themselves together (Beaudine pulled the ropes apart and ran the clip backwards), as the two ladies in question stare off into space.

In a spot of apparent autobiography on the part of screenwriter Robert Charles, the hero in this case is Ralph Dawson (stage actor Tod Andrews under the pseudonym he used for cheapo efforts), who is a screenwriter ordered to script a film about the disappearances by his boss at Banner pictures, S.K., who sadly was not played by the actual boss at Banner pictures, Sam Katzman, but it was an in-joke they could cheerfully make when working with such a low stakes production – just listen for the final line for the ultimate in cheek in that respect.

Ralph loses Stella (Louise Currie, the last member of the Citizen Kane cast to pass away) on that darned road, who in a coincidence is the cousin of Betty (Wanda McKay), the woman he’s supposed to be marrying that week – Stella was driving over to attend the wedding. With the cops not much help, Ralph and Betty take it upon themselves to sleuth, bringing together the cast for a denouement to a movie that paradoxically moves briskly under the prolific William Beaudine’s functional direction, yet feels oddly leisurely.”

It’s certainly no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination – or lack of it – but at the same time, the “leisurely” pace of the film makes the entire effort somehow more claustrophobic and intimate, and Lugosi, Carradine, and the ever-menacing George Zucco throw themselves into their roles with abandon, well aware that the end result will be just another horror film from one of Hollywood’s most cost-conscious film factories.

Voodoo Man offers the viewer a look into the world of 1940s bread-and-butter horror films, which audiences, tired from the cares of World War II, flocked to in droves. Then, too, at 70 minutes in length, no one is going to get bored, and Beaudine does keep the project moving along “briskly” – even as it seems to inhabit a twilight zone of phantom reality.

Voodoo Man – newly restored – is thus an an authentic talisman of a lost era.

Mirage (1965)

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

Gregory Peck, Diane Baker and director Edward Dmytryk on location in Central Park, New York — Summer, 1964 — for the noir suspense thriller Mirage (1965).

I have an essay on the noir suspense thriller Mirage in the latest Noir of the Week; it’s an interesting film despite some defects in structure, and since it’s on DVD, one can easily see the film and make up your own mind. It’s certainly worth viewing.

Here’s the start of my piece: “Mirage is an odd film; a “sort of” noir shot in the mid 1960s, by one of the men who helped invented the noir genre back in the 40s, Edward Dmytryk. From the start, Dmytryk was an interesting stylist, taking rather mundane projects like the routine horror film The Devil Commands (1941), or the even less promising Captive Wild Woman (1943), and imbuing them with a sense of personal commitment and genuine menace. Then, with the exploitation thriller Hitler’s Children (1943), which made a fortune for RKO, and supposedly depicted the activities of the Hitler Youth movement, Dmytryk finally had a chance to move up, and with Murder, My Sweet (1944), one of the best of Philip Marlowe films, which gave Dick Powell a whole new career as a hard boiled detective after spending the 1930s as a juvenile crooner in Busby Berkeley films, Dmytryk did just that.

Crossfire
(1947) consolidated his reputation as a noir realist, specializing in stories torn from the headlines, but Dmytryk’s political beliefs soon came under scrutiny from the House Un-American Activities Committee, and along with many others, he soon found himself on trial for contempt of Congress as one of the Hollywood Ten – the story is well known. Found guilty, Dmytryk was sent to prison, but soon cracked, was released, gave “friendly” testimony to the HUAC, named names, and was rewarded with one of the most brutal films of his career, The Sniper (1952), about a psychopathic killer, with Eduard Franz in the leading role, and Adolphe Menjou, one of the architects of the Blacklist, as the co-star, perhaps to keep an eye on the erring director.”

You can read the rest of the essay here; my thanks to Steve Eifert, the Noir of the Week site administrator, for the chance to write on this deeply idiosyncratic film.

Cornered (1945)

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

A few days ago, I watched Cornered (1945) by Edward Dmytryk again  — I’ve seen it many times — and while it isn’t one of Dmytryk’s best films, it still has an honesty and a sincerity of purpose sadly missing from too many contemporary films designed simply to make a buck. The film’s plot is simple: at the end of World War II, Laurence Gerard (Dick Powell), a Canadian pilot who had served in the Royal Canadian Air Force with distinction until he was shot down and confined to a German prisoner of war camp, is discharged from the service with a large sum of back pay and reparations.

But Gerard has only one thing on his mind; finding the Vichy hoodlum who ordered the execution of his French wife of only 20 days, before Gerard was called up for service. The name of the person responsible is easily discovered; one Marcel Jarnac. But Jarnac is supposed to be dead, and there seems to be no evidence of his existence; no photos, no dossier, nothing at all. Gerard immediately, and reasonably, assumes that Jarnac has simply gone into hiding, and by following his widow, tracks him to Buenos Aires.

Falling in, much against his better judgment, with a sleazy “tour guide,” the rotund and loquacious Melchior Incza (Walter Slezak), who seems to have connections everywhere, Gerard goes on a no holds barred vendetta to track down Jarnac, despite the pleas of exiled members of the French Resistance to lighten up on his heavy-handed methods. Completely obsessed with his mission, Gerard ignores their advice, and plunges headlong into a whirlpool of double-crosses and deception, until, in the film’s final minutes, he comes to face with Jarnac — alive, well, and ready to start the Third Reich all over again, in ten or twenty years time.

An openly anti-fascist tract, Cornered sadly featured four men who only a few years later would become victims of the Hollywood blacklist; producer Adrian Scott, director Edward Dmytryk, and actors Morris Carnovsky and Luther Adler, who played the role of Jarnac. In an interesting bit of legerdemain, Adler is not listed in the film’s opening credits, and when he finally does appear in the film’s final minutes, he is seen only in the shadows, stepping into the light only for a few minutes before Cornered’s violent conclusion. He is, as he says in the film, “a man you have never seen, a man you don’t know,” and his actor’s credit is shown only at the end of the film.

Cornered is far from perfect, and for some viewers it hasn’t aged well — too complex, say some, though to me it seems absolutely direct and simplicity itself — but for me, the film’s sincerity, sense of purpose, and its resolute moral compass more than redeems the film. It’s a message picture, and Dmytryk made many such films; it would be nice if more such films were made today, with the same skill and concision.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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