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Posts Tagged ‘Genre Films’

Richard Fleischer’s “Bodyguard” (1948)

Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

Here’s a great little film noir, recently released to DVD – check it out.

Since I seem to be in a noir mood today, I’ll follow up my entry on The Big Clock with this neat little programmer from 1948, which I blogged about some time back on the website Film Noir of The Week, ably edited by Steve Eifert.

As I wrote for NOTW, “Lawrence Tierney (whose brother was the equally tough actor Scott Brady) pushes his way through Richard Fleischer’s Bodyguard (1948) with the same brutal assurance he brought to such films as Max Nosseck’s Dillinger (1945), in which he played the title role of the notorious gangster with eerie intensity, and his finest film, Robert Wise’s Born to Kill (1947). But then again, in all his roles, Tierney was really channeling his real life persona of a rabble rousing hellion, who seemed absolutely incapable of staying out of trouble. Tierney is one of the cinema’s unique characters, indelibly identified with violent roles, and in real life, just as much of a loose cannon as he was on the screen.

Bodyguard is a distinctly down-market affair, with a running time of a mere 62 minutes, and was produced by RKO’s B unit, but it still packs a punch; in many ways, the noirs that Richard Fleischer directed for RKO in the first days of his career, such as Follow Me Quietly (1949), Armored Car Robbery (1950), and The Narrow Margin (1952) are his best work, certainly worthy of more attention than Fantastic Voyage (1966) or Doctor Dolittle (1967), which typified the big budget films that dominated the bulk of Fleischer’s career.

Here, working from a script by Fred Niblo Jr. and Harry Essex, from a story by George W. George and Robert Altman (yes, that Robert Altman), Fleischer tells the tale of tough guy cop Mike Carter (Tierney), who is pushed off the force for cutting corners with little things like search warrants and beating up suspects to get a confession out of them, much to the delight of his immediate superior Lieutenant Borden (Frank Fenton).

Fleischer stages the confrontation between Carter and Borden in a series of increasingly tight close-ups, in which each man gradually walks towards the camera, cutting back and forth, until both faces dominate the frame with overpowering intensity. The literal face-off ends when Carter abrupt punches Borden in the nose, and is kicked off the force for good.

In his spare time, Mike looks after (in an odd sort of way) a group of young toughs as a sort of Big Brother, and the film quickly moves to a baseball game, where Mike has treated the kids to a doubleheader in the company of his girlfriend, Doris Brewster (Priscilla Lane, in her final screen performance).

No sooner does Mike take his seat, however, than the slimy Freddie Dysen (Phillip Reed at his most disagreeable) slips in beside him, and offers him a job as bodyguard to one “Gene” Dysen, the owner of a meatpacking plant who has been receiving death threats. Despite a generous retainer, Mike turns the job down, but Freddie persists, and when Mike discovers that “Gene” Dysen is in reality Eugenia Dysen (Elisabeth Risdon, coolly professional as always), and there is another attempt on Eugenia’s life, Mike reluctantly accepts the position.

What follows is a typically violent 1940s noir, with Tierney walking through the role with his customary forthright arrogance – “one side, Dracula” he barks at Eugenia’s startled butler when first entering the Dysen mansion – and Lane offering capable support as his long suffering girlfriend. Naturally, there’s a murder, and Mike is implicated, and just as predictably, has to clear himself despite police interference.

I don’t want to give the plot away, except to note that lurking behind the entire affair is the profit motive – capitalism turned to murder – and Fleischer effectively limns the dark side of post war Los Angeles with deft assurance, ably assisted by the cinematography of Robert De Grasse, and Elmo Williams’ editing.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, and see the trailer by clicking here; while you’re at it, why not check out the entire Film Noir of the Week website by clicking here, for a nearly encyclopedic series of entries on some of the most effective – and often overlooked – noirs of all time. It’s nice that Bodyguard is on DVD; many of these films never made the jump to that format. Get it while you can!

A remarkably tight and effective little film; well worth an hour of your time.

John Farrow’s “The Big Clock” (1948)

Saturday, August 26th, 2017

Charles Laughton and Ray Milland in the superb 1948 film noir, The Big Clock.

As Joseph D’Onofrio writes perceptively on the TCM website, “In The Big Clock, George Stroud, (Ray Milland) the editor of Crimeways magazine has been given the task of solving a murder before his own staff finds evidence that will point to him as the killer. As he races to find the real murderer, Milland discovers that his search has led him to his magazine’s corporate headquarters. Located in a massive tower within the cold confines of those headquarters, the big clock seems to dominate everything. Even when Milland hides in a room just behind the clock, it’s as if he’s trapped inside a box of time within other boxes, one onto the other. All of them enclosed in the labyrinthian corridors of the imposing, futuristic-looking Janoth building. Time is the real enemy in The Big Clock. Even the murder weapon, a sundial, reinforces this notion.

The Big Clock is directed by John Farrow in an elegantly understated style, described by Simon Callow in his book, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor, as ‘nearly’ noir. As Callow puts it, ‘The play of shadows is handled in a masterly way, while the plot with its inversions and convolutions, presents an image of nightmarish reversals.’ Callow also speculates that Charles Laughton, as Earl Janoth, the owner of a publishing empire, seemed to be intentionally ‘drawing attention to the robotic heartlessness of big business.’ Janoth’s right hand man, Steve Hagen, is superbly played by veteran heavy George Macready, while Harry Morgan, in a very early role, appears as Janoth’s bodyguard, Bill Womack, without saying one word in the film.

Just after World War Two, Americans were witnessing the building of corporate giants, and the complications that come from such growth and progress. As much as The Big Clock is an entertaining thriller, it also seems to be an attempt to come to grips with that loss of identity within the corporate milieu. Workers, now faced with more powerful corporate heads in the new streamlined workplace, could relate to Laughton’s cunning portrayal of what Callow called, ‘a Napoleon of print.’

Farrow’s camera follows Laughton closely. It captures his nervous tics and twitches as he rules his employees with a fierce adherence to the adage that time does, indeed, equal money. A perfect example of this occurs when Laughton gives an order to an underling: ‘There’s a bulb that’s been burning for several days in a closet on the fourth floor to no apparent purpose. Find out who’s responsible; dock his pay.’ As Callow puts it, ‘The performance is a technical tour-de-force of high-speed throwaway, comic and powerful at the same time. We know everything about what he (Janoth) is, and how he works – like a clock, as it happens, the image that dominates and unifies the whole film.’

But it was Ray Milland who received top billing in The Big Clock, a rather ironic turn of events considering that Laughton once helped Milland as a struggling young actor in a supporting role in Payment Deferred (1932). If anything was made of this Hollywood twist of fate, it doesn’t show in the final product. The two men work well together and Milland is, as always, the consummate professional. We feel his confusion and anxiety as a man who misses a train and has a fateful, soon-to-be disastrous meeting which leaves him a man on the run, desperate to clear himself of murder.

When Milland won the Oscar for his gritty portrayal of an alcoholic in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945), he began to take on less glamorous, more challenging roles. In movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954), for example, he comes full circle, playing a jaded sophisticate and man-about-town who plots his wife’s murder. The Big Clock came at a transitional point in Milland’s career, offering him a role that falls somewhere between the elegant leading man of his earlier period and the more cynical and corrupt characters he later essayed.”

See the trailer for the film, featuring on-screen narrator Art Gilmore, by clicking here.

The Anatomy of Films by John Atkinson

Friday, July 28th, 2017

Here’s a hilarious and all too true overview of filmic clichés from cartoonist John Atkinson.

Wikipedia has a similar list of all-too-frequent movie situations, including “a car fails to start in a time-sensitive situation . . . a character attempts to use a cell phone but finds that there is no reception . . . a character runs from a threat and falls to the ground, without any force present that would impede their balance . . . a character repositions a bathroom mirror, revealing a threat behind them in the reflection . . . a character falls from a dangerously tall height, but survives by landing in a body of water . . . a protagonist who wants to commit one last job in a heist film before he retires from a life of crime” – this last one has been used a lot, especially of late – but John’s cartoon, reprinted here with his kind permission, lays the whole thing out with one sweep, and is more accurate than many would care to admit – especially in the matter of film running times by genre [see extreme right hand column].

Thanks, John – much appreciated!

What’s Up With The Star Wars Firing?

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Directors don’t have the same autonomy they used to – here’s a case in point.

As Kim Masters writes in The Hollywood Reporter, in part, “matters had already reached a boiling point in mid-June when Phil Lord and Chris Miller, co-directors of the still-untitled young Han Solo movie, were in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon but didn’t start shooting until 1 p.m. That day the two used only three different setups — that is, three variations on camera placement — as opposed to the 12 to 15 that Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy had expected, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

Not only was the going slow, but the few angles that had been shot did not provide a wealth of options to use in editing the movie. This was hardly the first time Kennedy was unhappy with how the film was progressing. And as he looked at dailies from his home in Los Angeles, Lawrence Kasdan — screenwriter, executive producer and keeper of the Stars Wars flame — also was said to be displeased.

Meanwhile, Lord and Miller, the exceptionally successful team behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, were chafing, too, according to a source close to them. There were ‘deep fundamental philosophical differences’ in filmmaking styles, this person says, and the directors felt they were being given ‘zero creative freedom.’ They also felt they were being asked to operate under ‘extreme scheduling constraints’ and ‘were never given enough days for each scene from the very beginning.’

Shortly after the shoot in the Millennium Falcon, on June 20, the world learned that Kennedy — with the backing of Disney studio chief Alan Horn — had taken the extraordinary step of firing Lord and Miller. Obviously, Kennedy knew this would set off a storm of publicity that no one wants or needs in any movie — especially one in the Star Wars universe, where every move is closely watched by a gigantic audience with a sense of ownership . . .”

The problem here is simply one of auteurship – who’s really running the show in this case? It’s just another Star Wars film, so it’s off my radar, but it’s clear that the Lucasfilm people wanted tighter creative control over improvisational sequences, and more coverage – footage shot from various different angles to play around with in the cutting room – when it’s well known that directors who shoot fewer takes, and fewer angles, are often doing this so the film can only be cut together one way, avoiding later interference in the cutting room.

But frankly, this seems to me to be a tempest in a teapot. It’s a Star Wars franchise movie, so what do you expect? It’s much too valuable a property to allow for too much experimentation, and the replacement director, Ron Howard, will no doubt bring it on time and on budget – as much as he can, given the amount of material he probably has to reshoot – and deliver a perfectly salable product.

There was nothing on the line here in the first place. This is just a commercial enterprise. Directors on franchise films are simply hired guns who are brought in to “wrangle” the project into shape, and they shouldn’t expect any creative freedom. This isn’t as if someone is trying to take Persona away from Ingmar Bergman, and give it to another director to finish. It’s a Hollywood popcorn movie, due out sometime in 2018 – and may the force be with it.

This is just business as usual – nothing to see here; move along, move along.

Shocking News! Movie Trailers Lie!

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Would you believe it? Sometimes movie trailers – especially for horror films – can be deceptive!

As Jordan Crucchiola notes in Vulture, “If you went to see the horror movie It Comes at Night, chances are you saw a movie that was entirely different from the one you were expecting. Based on the movie’s trailers, you might have thought you were getting a highbrow take on a cabin-in-the-woods movie, with an unknown terror waiting to jump out at any moment. What you got instead was a dark, deliberate rumination on what it means to be human in a violent, unstructured world. That’s a movie that one subset of horror fans will love, but it’s not the movie A24 was selling.

This isn’t an exceptional situation. Any time an incredible trailer comes out, fans whip themselves into a state of high anticipation, even while fretting over the possibility that all the cool shots have gone into the previews. It’s long been a play in the bad-movie handbook to dazzle ticket buyers with two minutes of tantalizing material, only to leave them dissatisfied when the movie turns out to be a mess. (Suicide Squad, please stand up.) But what we’re seeing a lot more recently is studios selling good movies with deceptive trailers. It Comes at Night is the most recent example, but it’s hardly alone: One hallmark of the new wave of prestige horror is that the movies are often nothing like the trailers.

In its mood and setting, It Comes at Night is reminiscent of another A24 horror movie The Witch, which was heavily lauded at Sundance and enjoyed healthy studio support for its release last spring. Critics loved it, and it made a lot of money for a micro-budget film — but a lot of viewers walked out of it unsatisfied. While it pulled in a 91 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the audience score was just 56 percent. (The same has happened to It Comes at Night: Audiences, feeling the bait and switch, have given the movie a D CinemaScore rating.)

When people see the word Witch and watch a trailer with lots of exciting 17th-century action, they’re not buying a ticket for a quiet, suspenseful period drama. When expectation doesn’t match reality, fans are bound to be disappointed, no matter how good the movie is. But even if The Witch didn’t live up to the excitement of its trailer, the movie at least had a witch; there’s no ‘it’ in It Comes at Night.”

It’s true; I’ve seen the film, and it’s more of a low key survivalist drama with very little plot, lots of atmospheric lighting, and long sections where various cast members prowl around a large, deserted house in a supposedly post-apocalyptic world – and nothing happens. The set up for the film is admirably sparse; a family in a house is trying to survive as a mysterious illness sweeps the nation in a world after some sort of unspecified global meltdown.

All well and bad, but from there, the film reminds me of nothing so much of the numerous Italian horror films of the 1960s in which the various protagonists would wander through the halls of some ancient castle, candelabra in hand, only to discover after a long series of elegantly executed tracking shots that there’s nothing really happening – other than a “shock” scare that lasts only for a second. It’s a handsomely mounted, but ultimately empty film.

I’m somewhat amazed at the stellar reviews this film is getting; oh, well.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

Only Lovers Left Alive is that rare thing – a genre film that reinvents the genre.

As Susan Wloszczyna writes in a sharp and perceptive review from 2014, very little can “compete with the fabulously aloof and effortlessly cool creatures of the night lurking in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. They don’t need the sun to sparkle. They are superstars illuminated from within.

Not that Jarmusch’s denizens of the dark are so mundane as to be directly referred to as vampires during the course of this pleasurably droll and languorous soak in a pool of comical musings, nostalgic longing and sorrowful loss. They are more like supreme beings, too good for the mundane and crassly disposable 21st-century chaos that exists outside their carefully curated domains. The domestic fortresses where they doze during daylight hours are bursting with rare books, objets d’art, collectible musical instruments, exotic fabrics, ancient electric gadgets and other relics culled from the many centuries they have existed amongst us lesser mortals.

Like most of Jim Jarmusch’s films, the emphasis is not on action but interaction—especially the verbal kind. And atmosphere. Loads of atmosphere, down to the sounds of far-off howls and crimson-red Gothic lettering during the opening credits. As usual, his pacing is decidedly unhurried—the less kind might say sluggish—but it is made more than tolerable by the presence of a pair of exceedingly appealing lead actors.

Tom Hiddleston, with wavy dark hair cascading Veronica Lake-style over one eye and boasting a poet’s slim-hipped physique, Hiddleston is a [superb] as a woeful and weary loner who finds solace in collecting classic guitars and penning mournfully hypnotic mood music. The only thing that truly relieves his gloom is his spouse and soulmate, Tilda Swinton’s more upbeat Eve. This runway-ready vision in a fawn-hued apparel, sunglasses and leather gloves while topped by a tangled mop of beige hair resides across the globe in Tangier, but stays in touch with her Apple iPhone.

Despite the distance between them, Jarmusch cleverly signals their psychic connection to one another from the first scene when a spinning 45-rpm record fills the screen and rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson’s witchy wail resounds on the soundtrack. That hypnotic image dissolves into the sight of two reclining figures going round in a circle, seemingly in the same room yet miles apart.

The story, such as it is, revolves around a concerned Eve paying her beloved Adam a visit, which requires booking a night-time-only flight and selecting just the right fake passport.Why they are apart is not fully explained, though we are left to guess it has to do with Eve’s close ties to Christopher Marlowe. Yes, that Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan tragedian whom some believe—including Jarmusch—wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. He, too, is a vampire but less than thriving. The conceit that he is still around, hiding out in Morocco and supplying fresh untainted blood to Eve comes a bit out of nowhere, but John Hurt invests both pathos and humor into the role.

It is just one of the ways that Jarmusch, who with his legendary shock of white hair could be a cool vampire himself, allows his characters to toy with supernatural lore instead of over-explaining their lifestyles. Fearing contamination from feeding on humans directly, Adam, posing as Dr. Faust, gets his supply of hemoglobin by bribing a hospital worker who goes by the name of Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright). He also employs the services of Ian (Anton Yelchin), a none-too-swift kid who may or may not have tipped off others about the existence of Adam and his underground recordings.

Ian, who is a real bloodhound when it comes to fulfilling his master’s craving for rare guitars, doesn’t seem to question Adam’s nocturnal habits or the fact that his bathroom is perpetually out of order. The only time he gets suspicious is when his delivery of a Gretsch Chet Atkins gets Adam reminiscing about seeing rocker Eddie Cochran of Summertime Blues fame—who died in 1960—perform while using that model. Ian pipes up: ‘You saw Eddie Cochran play?’ ‘On YouTube,’ quickly explains Adam, covering his tracks. It’s akin to Bela Lugosi saying, ‘I never drink—wine.’

The arrival of Ava, Eve’s brazenly bratty little sister who is given a mischievous spin around the seductive bloodsucker block by Mia Wasikowska, soon up-ends the order of their carefully maintained universe. But the best parts are when we get to witness the reunion of Adam and Eve, sipping blood in aperitif glasses or slurping it in Popsicle form, driving around the ruins of a downtrodden Detroit in a vintage sports car (when Adam mentions the Motown Museum, Eve begs off: ‘I’m more of a Stax girl myself’) and sharing ancient memories of acquaintances past.”

Everything about the film is meticulously detailed, and the gorgeous score, composed principally by Jarmusch’s own band, is the perfect accompaniment to the proceedings. The ruins of Detroit, the back alleys of Tangier, and a seemingly endless round of intercontinental flights blend together to create a commentary on the passing of time, coping with changing technology, of the long view that 500 years of existence can bring to one, and the daily need for blood – now obtained through blood banks and other semi-legal means (most of the time) – as a constant factor in continued existence.

What makes the film so ravishing is the intoxicating camera work, the dim yet pungent lighting, and the mood, feel, atmosphere and eternal timelessness that the film conveys. This isn’t another film about some roving vampires and their victims, and it isn’t another franchise film cranked out by someone who once had promise with their first film, and then abandoned any pretense of artistic integrity to follow the Marvel or DC bandwagon. This is a slow moving, deeply felt, and passionately crafted film, which lingers in the mind long after the last frame has faded from the screen.

Only Lovers Left Alive does nothing less than create a whole new way of looking at the “undead.”

Happy Birthday Howard Hawks!!

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017

Director Howard Hawks and star Angie Dickinson on the set of Rio Bravo (1959).

Howard Hawks, one of the most famous and revered multi-genre directors of all time, was born on this date in 1896. As Oliver Lyttelton noted in Indiewire back in 2012, “Howard Hawks was one of the first, and one of the best. Across a 55-year career that spanned silents and talkies, black-and-white and color, Hawks tackled virtually every genre under the sun, often turning out films that still stand as among the best in that style. Romantic comedy? Two of the finest ever. War? To Have And Have Not and Sergeant York [to name just two films] the latter of which won him his only Best Director Academy Award nomination (though he did win an Honorary Award in 1975, two years before his death).

Science-fiction? The much ripped-off The Thing From Another World [officially credited to Christian Nyby, Hawks’ editor for many years, but actually directed by Hawks]. Gangster movies? Scarface, which practically invented a whole genre. From film noir and melodrama to Westerns and musicals, Hawks took them all in his stride. [Hawks] famously said that the secret to a good movie was ‘three great scenes and no bad ones,’ and he hit that target many times.”

Here’s an interesting site that celebrates his work, in great detail, as we consider the career of an artist who was comfortable with westerns, comedies, straight drama, film noir, even historical spectacle films. Check it out here, and consider the career of a director who could do it all, and make it look easy in the process. There aren’t many directors who ever matched Hawks’ versatility and drive, and he worked with all the greats, from actors like Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant to writers like William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett. Here’s to a person you should know more about: Howard Hawks.

Howard Hawks – one of the absolute giants of Hollywood history.

Typical Script Detail at Universal in the 1940s

Saturday, April 1st, 2017

Even on the most minor projects, Universal in the 1940s paid attention to the smallest details.

Weird Woman was a modest 1944 release from Universal in their “Inner Sanctum” series, all starring Lon Chaney Jr. – here as Professor Norman Reed – many of which were directed by Reginald Le Borg, including this film. It’s about an hour long, and had a very short shooting schedule – but Le Borg manages to squeeze the most atmosphere possible out of the proceedings, even if Chaney Jr. seems a rather unlikely college professor (much of his dialogue is delivered in voice over, to heighten the claustrophobic feel of the film). But as even a cursory glance at the script page above demonstrates, on the most overtly commercial offerings from the studio during this period, a great deal of care was taken to make the film as precise and detailed as possible.

For an average shooting script, there’s a great deal of description – and even camera movements – spelled out in minute detail, so that the entire film is carefully pre-planned, and can be shot with maximum efficiency, without sacrificing quality. The budget for the film was somewhere in the $100,000 range, and Chaney Jr. at this point in his career was being used as the studio’s “clean up” man, tackling any role they threw at him – even in a western – with only a few complaints. Above all, during the 1940s, Universal was a factory, operating in a nation at war, delivering a product to audiences that satisfied genre expectations. The shooting schedule was at the most a few weeks, if that.

But even though the film is resolutely a program picture, it’s also enlivened by the skill of a gallery of gifted supporting actors, including Anne Gwynne, Evelyn Ankers, the always reliable Ralph Morgan, Elisabeth Risdon, and the ever-alarming Elizabeth Russell. Based on a novel by the gifted Fritz LieberConjure Wife – which was remade in 1962 as Night of the Eagle – this is a solid entry in the “Inner Sanctum” series, which everyone involved took seriously, even if the end result is somewhat threadbare, if only because of the circumstances of budgetary constraints, lack of time, and the ever present need for a “happy ending.” Still, it’s very much worth watching, and you can now see the whole film online.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire film.

New Article: Don Sharp’s Pyschomania Restored by the BFI

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Director Don Sharp’s Psychomania has just been restored by the British Film Institute.

As I write in Senses of Cinema 81 (December, 2016), “BFI’s Flipside series continues with another excellent release, a completely restored version of Don Sharp’s ‘zombie biker’ film Psychomania (1973), starring George Sanders in his last role, with capable assists from Beryl Reid and Nicky Henson.

Psychomania concerns Tom Latham (Henson), the leader of a teenage motorcycle gang, The Living Dead, who with the aid of his devil-worshipping mother (Reid) and her obedient butler Shadwell (Sanders) makes a deal with the Devil for his gang’s literal immortality.

Soon the gang members are deliberately killing themselves in a variety of grotesque and spectacular fashions, secure in the knowledge that they will soon be immortal. However, as with all such arrangements, things don’t go precisely as planned. Suffice it to say that business transactions with Satan are a decidedly risky business, for as we all know, the Devil is in the details.

Tom is an impetuous fellow, and he’s suspicious (with good reason) about his parentage and his home life in general. ‘Why did my father die in that locked room?’ he asks Shadwell petulantly. ‘Why do you never get any older? And what is the secret of the living dead?’

Soon enough, Tom’s mother – a curiously distant maternal figure if ever there was one – inducts Tom into the cult. With that accomplished, the rest of the film is a series of violent action set pieces, involving the ritualistic suicide of the gang members and their almost immediate resurrection, in which supermarkets are ransacked, innocent pedestrians are mowed down, and general mayhem ensues.

But that’s just for openers. Like so many motion picture motorcycle gangs before them, Tom has bigger plans, and wants to embark upon a campaign of wholesale violence, murdering policemen, judges, teachers, any authority figure that might hamper the gang’s activities. At this juncture, Tom’s mother and Shadwell intervene to put a halt to Tom’s grandiose scheme, in a manner that’s both bizarre and apparently quite effective.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above; a real cult classic.

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.

About the Author

Headshot of 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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