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Posts Tagged ‘Genre Films’

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.

The Chinese Cinema Explosion – 22 New Screens Every Day

Monday, April 11th, 2016

The theatrical film experience in China is absolutely exploding.

As the CBS News program 60 Minutes reports, “The movie business is booming across China. Shopping malls have popped up everywhere, and with them, theaters. Twenty-two new movie screens open every day, that’s right, every day. In the last five years, box office receipts have grown a staggering 350 per cent . . .

In February, the Chinese box office brought in over a billion dollars for the first time ever, beating the U.S. and Canada. China, with its 1.3 billion people, is expected to become the biggest movie market in the world as early as next year. Hollywood has taken notice, partnering with Chinese studios and making blockbusters as much for Chinese audiences as American ones. But the U.S. film industry is also facing competition from Chinese moguls and movie stars with big ambitions . . .

Chinese studios produce over 600 features a year, action movies, sci-fi, thrillers . . . [Said one seasoned observer of the Chinese film industry] ‘they are smart. They understand storytelling. They are super well-versed in what works in their own country. They are super well-versed in what works globally. I couldn’t be more excited. So I would say– you know, Hollywood, watch out.’”

This is a fascinating story – read the entire piece here, with videos.

William Castle’s The Night Walker (1964) Finally Released on DVD

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

William Castle’s last truly accomplished suspense film is finally available on a DVD release.

As Wikipedia notes, “The Night Walker is a 1964 American psychological suspense thriller by genre specialist William Castle, with an original screenplay by Robert Bloch, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Hayden Rorke, Judi Meredith, Rochelle Hudson, and Lloyd Bochner as ‘The Dream.’ The film was one of the last black and white theatrical features – photographed by suitably dreamlike monochrome by the gifted Harold E. Stine – released by Universal Pictures, and Stanwyck’s last theatrical motion picture, before she moved over exclusively to television work.

The film chronicles the ordeal of Irene Trent (Stanwyck), who is unhappily married to a blind, pathologically possessive millionaire inventor, Howard Trent (Rorke). Howard and Irene’s palatial mansion is packed with an endless assortment of clocks, all in perfect synchronization, and Howard tape records all conversations in the house for later reference, hoping to catch Irene plotting an illicit liaison.

Irene thus lives in a constant state of dread, wondering how far Howard’s jealousy will go. Yet despite Howard’s continual accusations of infidelity, Irene remains faithful to Howard, but has nightly recurrent dreams of a fantasy lover as a sort of escape from the reality of her tormented existence. She is also attracted to Howard’s personal attorney, Barry Moreland (Taylor), the only visitor allowed in the house.

Howard spends most of his time working in his laboratory on a variety of projects, the nature of which he refuses to divulge to anyone. As tensions mount, Irene feels trapped in a loveless, lonely relationship. But suddenly, everything changes: one night, Howard is killed by an explosion in his laboratory, and Irene inherits the house and Howard’s entire fortune.

The laboratory itself, a charred wreck, is secured from the rest of the house by a deadbolt so that no one may enter. Irene, after consulting with Barry Moreland, decides to move out of the house, into the back room apartment of a small beauty shop she owns, ‘Irene’s,’ which she operated before she met and married Howard. Almost immediately, the dreams of a fantasy love begin again, with increasing intensity, until they take the form of an “ideal” man—known only as ‘The Dream’ (Bochner).

Night after night, ‘The Dream’ appears before Irene, whisking her away to a bizarre wedding ceremony in which she ‘marries’ ‘The Dream’ in front of a group of wax figure witnesses, or engages in a harmless tryst over champagne in a deserted hotel. Irene begins to doubt her sanity and unaccountably finds herself wishing to return to the nightmarish house she shared with Howard. But the reality behind Irene’s dreams is a secret that The Night Walker withholds until the very end; a bizarre and complex tale of murder, betrayal, and deception.

Modestly budgeted, and shot entirely at Universal City, the film was a change of pace for Castle, who usually relied on gimmicks to sell his films, such as ‘Emergo’ for House on Haunted Hill, or ‘Percepto’ for The Tingler. This time, Castle relied on Bloch’s reputation as the author of the novel on which Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is based, as well as the re-teaming of Stanwyck and Taylor, who had been married from 1939 to 1951, as being sufficient to publicize the film.

Nevertheless, the film was not a financial success. The Night Walker marked the end of Castle’s most influential period as a director, although he would go on to produce and/or direct a number of additional films for Universal, and later, Paramount Pictures – most notably producing Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1968.”

This has been available only on VHS since 1993; it’s really nice to see this sharp, atmospheric film get a legitimate DVD release as part of the TCM/Universal “Selects” series, on a double bill with director Harvey Hart’s lost supernatural thriller Dark Intruder, another film that has never been available on DVD, with a strong link to the works of the writer H.P. Lovecraft. The DVD was released with almost no publicity on December 7, 2015, and I just stumbled over it by accident – I hope people will take the time to watch this intriguing and impressive film, a lost gem that really deserves greater attention.

The Night Walker – with a great score by Vic Mizzy – is well worth viewing.

Radha Vatsal in The Atlantic – Forgotten Female Action Stars

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

Serial star Ruth Roland in an advertisement for Hands Up! (1918)

Writing in The Atlantic, Radha Vatsal has a fascinating piece on early women heroines. As Vatsal notes, “in the current movie landscape, female action heroes tend to be so few and far between that their mere existence seems like an accomplishment (think: Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Rey in Star Wars, or the four stars of the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot).

But more than a century ago, before women had even won the right to vote in many countries, actresses headed up some of the U.S’s most popular and successful action movies—even if they performed stunts in skirts that ended only a few inches above their ankles.

During the early years of cinema in the 1900s and 1910s, men starred in action films such as westerns, but women dominated the so-called ’serial’ or ‘chapter’ film genre. These were movies in which the same character appeared over several installments released on a regular basis, with plots that were either ongoing or episodic.

The story lines typically featured female leads getting into danger, getting out of danger, brandishing guns, giving chase in cars, and battling villains. The film scholar Ben Singer estimates that between 1912 and 1920, about 60 action serials with female protagonists were released, totaling around 800 episodes.

What’s most striking about the category, Singer says, is its ‘extraordinary emphasis on female heroism.’ Protagonists exhibited traditionally ‘masculine’ qualities like ‘physical strength and endurance, self-reliance, courage, social authority, and the freedom to explore novel experiences outside the domestic sphere.’ Then, by the early 1920s, those films and their stars, the so-called ’serial queens,’ disappeared.

What happened? The answer may have to do with the early film industry’s short-lived tolerance of greater female involvement at all levels of the filmmaking process—a phenomenon that helps explain why today, even after women have shattered so many cultural barriers, action movies still continue to be dominated by male stars.

To understand what happened in the 1910s, it’s necessary to put the emergence of the serial film into context. During this period, two film formats jostled for dominance: what we’d now call ’shorts’ and ‘features.’ But short films weren’t labeled as ’short’ at the time—they were simply the industry standard, and were usually described by their length (in number of reels).

Features, meanwhile, were the newcomers, with higher production values, more ambitious plots, and greater production costs. Serials were something of a bridge between the two formats. Each episode in a serial was the length of a 15- or 20-minute short film, but over several weeks, a serial could tell a more complicated story.

Serials focused on women action heroes from the start, possibly thanks to the format’s tie-ins with magazines and newspapers, which aimed to draw female readers because they were attractive to advertisers. In 1912, Thomas Edison’s film company teamed up with Ladies’ World magazine to put one of the earliest instances of a serial film, What Happened to Mary, into print.

This example of cross-promotion would continue as other ‘chapter films’ were serialized in newspapers. The Chicago Tribune printed the story of The Adventures of Kathleen (1913) while the film episodes played in theaters. (Incidentally, Kathlyn was the first film serial to have a narrative thread that continued from week to week instead of relying on the same leading character to provide cohesiveness.)

Why do the 2010s lag behind the 1910s in terms of a robust body of films with female action leads? The focus on heroines seems also to correlate with the film industry’s fascination with the ‘New Woman.’ ‘She wore less restrictive clothes,’ the film curator Eileen Bowser notes, ’she was active, she went everywhere she wanted, and she was capable of resolving mysteries.’

The proliferation of women in all areas of the film industry during the 1910s—not just as actors, but as screenwriters, theater managers, gossip columnists, film producers, and directors—reflected the increasing number of women in the American workplace, and also the efforts of the vocal and energetic women’s suffrage movement.”

Fascinating stuff – and not well enough known – read the entire article here.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Suspiria (1976)

Saturday, March 26th, 2016

Here’s an interesting new book on Dario Argento’s classic horror film, Suspiria.

Part of the relatively new series of short monographs on individual horror films, Devil’s Advocates, published by Auteur Press in the UK and distributed in the US by Columbia University Press, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas‘ take on Suspiria is at once original and deeply subversive, for as the notes for the volume argue, “as one of the most globally recognizable instances of 20th century Eurohorror, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1976) is poetic, chaotic, and intriguing. The cult reputation of Argento’s baroque nightmare is reflected in the critical praise it continues to receive almost 40 years after its original release, and it appears regularly on lists of the greatest horror films ever.

For fans and critics alike, Suspiria is as mesmerizing as it is impenetrable: the impact of Argento’s notorious disinterest in matters of plot and characterization combines with Suspiria’s aggressive stylistic hyperactivity to render it a movie that needs to be experienced through the body as much as through emotion or the intellect. For its many fans, Suspiria is synonymous with European horror more broadly, and Argento himself is by far the most famous of all the Italian horror directors.

If there was any doubt of his status as one of the great horror auteurs, Argento’s international reputation was solidified well beyond the realms of cult fandom in the 1990s with retrospectives at both the American Museum of the Moving Image and the British Film Institute. This book considers the complex ways that Argento weaves together light, sound and cinema history to construct one of the most breathtaking horror movies of all time, a film as fascinating as it is ultimately unfathomable.”

This is a really sharp book, and an excellent series, which seems to take its inspiration from the long-beloved BFI series on individual film classics, but concentrating on one genre – the horror film – alone. Volumes in the series thus far include studies of the classic British horror film Dead of Night (1945 – and a particular favorite of mine), Nosferatu, The Curse of Frankenstein, John Carpenter’s version of The Thing and many others – there are so many potential candidates for examination that this series seems to be just beginning.

I’d love to see a volume on Terence Fisher’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula), or Roger Corman’s version of The Pit and The Pendulum, right off the top of my head, and the writers are all clearly enthusiastic about their work, so I’m sure we’ll see books on these key films shortly. Brief, compact, and authoritative, these are the volumes to beat on these classic genre films, and augur well for the continuation of the series, which seems to have really filled a niche. In any event, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ book on Suspiria is a good place to start – and then you can go on from there.

This is an intriguing group of short volumes – well worth exploring.

Video: Things to Come (1936) – H.G. Wells’ Vision of the Future

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

H.G. Wells’ Things To Come is one of the most prophetic visions of the future ever created for the screen.

H.G. Wells wrote many novels about the possible future of mankind, all of which have been filmed in various adaptations, but he wrote only one futuristic vision with a film adaptation directly in mind; his 1933 magnum opus The Shape of Things To Come, which Wells then adapted into the screenplay for the film Things to Come in 1936.

The production designer and director of the film, William Cameron Menzies, is lately having a run on this blog, with posts on his film Invaders from Mars and James Curtis’ book William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, but it’s only right that this film, perhaps the only time that Menzies really had a decent budget at his disposal as a director, gets its own entry here.

The collaboration between Wells and Menzies – as well as the actors, including Raymond Massey, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Sir Ralph Richardson – was stormy at best, with the major stumbling block being that Wells, who had almost no visual or dramatic sensibility for the cinema, kept insisting that his long, declamatory speeches remain intact on the screen, despite Menzies’ and the cast’s insistence that judicious cuts to the material would make the end product more effective.

But Wells wouldn’t hear of it, and so there are, in truth, about thirty minutes of the film that could easily be cut – something that all the contemporary reviewers of the film readily pointed out – and Wells, disappointed with the film’s initial reception, amazingly blamed Menzies for this – but it simply isn’t so.

Despite this problem, however, Things to Come remains an astonishing film, accurately predicting the onset on World War II, for one thing, as well as such technological advances as television, space travel, enclosed cities, social breakdown bordering on feudalism in some areas, and clearly posited science as the savior of mankind.

It’s essential, of course, to see Things to Come on a big screen; it’s one of those films that calls insistently for large scale projection – and for many years, when the film fell into the Public Domain, inferior 16mm and video copies circulated from a variety of sources, none of which approached the scope and grandeur of the original film. However, in recent years, the film has come back under copyright.

Legend Films has thus brought out a superb DVD and Blu-ray of the film, completely restored, which can be seen either in its original black and white version (my choice), or in a remarkably good colorized version, supervised by the late special effects master Ray Harryhausen. So, thanks to Curt Bright, here’s a short video essay on the film as part of the Frame by Frame series, and now, you can see the film for yourself.

Don’t miss a chance to see this classic if you can; click here for a video essay on the film.

Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952)

Friday, September 11th, 2015

Robert Mitchum and director Nicholas Ray on the set of Ray’s film The Lusty Men.

Last night, unable to sleep, I switched on TCM and caught about 40 minutes of Nicholas Ray’s brilliant modern day western, The Lusty Men – sort of a forerunner to John Huston’s The Misfits – which deals with life on the rodeo circuit, and features one of Robert Mitchum’s best performances.

As Roger Fristoe writes on the TCM website, “Mitchum plays a banged-up former rodeo star forced into retirement after being gored by a bull. He’s hired by Arthur Kennedy to train him so he, too, can become a champion. Once the sparks fly between Mitchum and the headstrong Susan Hayward, Kennedy challenges his mentor to a showdown in the rodeo ring.

To give the film its gritty, semi-documentary feeling, Ray spent months shooting on the rodeo circuit. He reportedly had only the bare outline of a script when filming began, so that scenes were written one night and shot the following day. Despite the hectic pace, Ray took so much time with individual scenes that Mitchum nicknamed him ‘The Mystic’ because of his habit of staring silently at the actors as he led them to probe the complexities of their characters . . .

Mitchum, who usually pretended indifference to his own performances, responded well to Ray’s painstaking direction and requested to see the film when it was two-thirds complete. Ray later recalled that Mitchum was so proud of what he saw that the two went to a bar to celebrate. Ray’s final memory of a drunken evening was Mitchum encountering a pair of FBI agents, borrowing a gun from one of them and firing it into a stack of dirty dishes.”

Using a great deal of location footage, and enhanced by Hayward’s reluctant participation in the project – which fits her character perfectly – the film is sharp, brutal, and offers a glimpse into the hard edged world of 1950s Western America, where modern day cowboys travel from one rodeo to the next in broken down trailers, in endless pursuit of prize money, won for punishing rides on bucking broncos, while their wives and girlfriends suffer on the sidelines – grateful for a cup of coffee or a hot shower offered by a friend, drifting from one honky-tonk bar to the next in search of momentary escape.

Most people know Ray, of course, from his most famous film, the iconic teen drama Rebel Without A Cause, which is a brilliant film, but so is this, and In A Lonely Place – arguably the best and most acidic film ever made about the Hollywood dream factory – and in the end, Ray emerges as one of the most important, and influential filmmakers of the 1950s, who the saw truth of an era in every American social strata, and brought that truth to the screen.

The Lusty Men is now available on DVD, and well worth checking out.

Sidney Hayers’ Burn, Witch, Burn (1962) Restored to Blu-ray

Sunday, August 16th, 2015

Sidney Hayers’ 1962 Burn, Witch, Burn, finally gets the Blu-ray treatment - click here for the trailer.

As an anonymous reviewer on the website Movie Review Query Engine notes, “Night of the Eagle was the second film version of Fritz Leiber Jr.’s novel Conjure Wife (the first was Reginald Le Borg’s Weird Woman (1944), perhaps the best of Universal’s low-budget Inner Sanctum series of the 1940s). The film’s title was possibly meant to invoke memories of Jacques Tourneur’s earlier Night of the Demon (released in the US as Curse of the Demon, 1958); both films involve a rational scientist (in the case of Night of the Eagle, Peter Wyngarde) forced to accept the existence of the supernatural. All evidence points to the conclusion that the scientist’s American wife Janet Blair is the reincarnation of a witch, and a practitioner of voodoo. The actual villain is supposed to be a mystery, though the identity was made clear in the Leiber original and in both other film versions of Conjure Wife (there was a 1980 parody version titled Witches Brew). The supernatural aspect of Night of the Eagle is convincingly handled, including a knockout sequence with a wild eagle rampaging through the scientist’s tranquil study. With a screenplay by Twilight Zone stalwarts Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, the British-made Night of the Eagle was released in the US as Burn, Witch, Burn.”

Margaret Johnston in Burn, Witch, Burn – click here to see this scene from the film.

Adds David Pirie, an expert in British Gothic cinema in Time Out London, “made on a comparatively low budget, [the film deals with] is about a hardheaded psychology lecturer in a provincial university who gradually discovers that his wife Tansy and some of his closest colleagues are practicing witchcraft (in furtherance of campus politics). From the opening sequences in which Tansy (Blair) scrambles frantically round her house searching for a witch-doll left by one of the faculty wives, the whole thing takes off into a kind of joyous amalgam of Rosemary’s Baby and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? . . . Sidney Hayers shoots the whole thing with an almost Wellesian flourish, and the script (by Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson) is structured with incredible tightness as the sane, rational outlook of the hero (Wyngarde) is gradually dislocated by the world of madness and dreams.”

Peter Wyngarde in the classroom, lecturing to a group of skeptical students.

These frame blowups from the new Kino-Lorber Blu-ray release of the film come from the excellent website DVD Beaver, which regularly reviews new DVD releases, grading them both on image and sound quality, as well as content and historical value. I’ve loved this film for many years, as an excellent example of black and white British Gothic filmmaking at its finest, and though she isn’t mentioned in any of the press materials, I think it’s only fair to give the deeply underrated Margaret Johnston a nod for her excellent, malevolent work in the film.

As Gary Tooze noted on the DVD Beaver website, “Burn, Witch, Burn is wonderful. I immediately got impressions of Tourneur’s Night of the Demon. I loved the story, the suspenseful build-up and Reginald H. Wyer’s (Island of Terror, Night of the Big Heat) cinematography. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray has immense value – a superb 60’s horror production looking very impressive, a Richard Matheson commentary and an interview. This is close to a masterpiece of its genre and we give it our highest recommendation!”

As do I – check it out now, if you’d like to see a real masterpiece of the macabre.

Nicholas Musuraca, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

L to R: Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum, Jacques Tourneur, and Nicholas Musuraca on the set of Out of The Past.

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I have a new book coming out in a month or so, entitled Black & White Cinema: A Short History. Writing the book was a tremendously difficult task, and I also had to cut a lot of interesting “sidebar” material that I would have liked to include to keep it at a more reasonable length. In my section on Nicholas Musuraca, one of the greatest of all Hollywood cinematographers, especially in his black and white work, I had to omit most of a fascinating 1941 interview with the cinematographer for reasons of space, so, in the run up to the book’s publication, I’m going to offer in this blog some sections on various cinematographers that aren’t in the final version of the text. Nick Musuraca seemed like an ideal place to begin.

As I wrote in the first draft of the book, “Musuraca was a major figure in the 1940s in Hollywood, whose visual style is instantly recognizable over a wide range of films, in a career that spanned more than four decades worth of work. Although he was deeply secretive about his personal life, even with his colleagues (a brief item in American Cinematographer from February, 1941, notes that “trade-papers report Nick Musuraca, A.S.C., secretly married early last month. If it’s so — congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Nick!”) at least some of his trade secrets have come down to us through second-hand sources, and at least one interview, conducted by Walter Blanchard. This is the period in which Musuraca did his best work, the work for which he is remembered, but what is truly astonishing is how much work he did, and despite his noir typing, how many different styles of cinematography he embraced.

One of his finest efforts was his cinematography on Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), considered by many to be one of the first noir thrillers ever made, with perpetual tough guy Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey, a former private investigator who now runs a gas station in Bridgeport, California, in a futile attempt to escape his shadowy past. But when smooth crime boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, in one of his earliest roles) asks him to find his “girlfriend” Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who has absconded with $40,000 of Whit’s money, things just get more complex from there, and soon Jeff is smitten with Kathie, and smooth talked into betraying Whit, and, of course, as in any true noir, everything ends very badly.

As George Turner noted of the film, “Out of the Past was generously financed and shot in 64 working days (an unusually long schedule at the time), mostly on the sound stages at RKO’s Hollywood studio and the Pathe lot in Culver City, [with] extensive location scenes with several of the principals made in the Lake Tahoe area on the California-Nevada boundary and second unit work from Acapulco, New York and San Francisco…The picture united for the third and final time one of the most remarkable director-cinematographer teams the industry has produced: Jacques Tourneur and Nicholas Musuraca.

Tourneur, husky but mild-mannered, was usually relaxed and seemingly devoid of temperament on the set, always keeping his actors at their ease and relying heavily upon Musuraca’s know-how to produce the combination of mystery and visual beauty essential to these films. He did not agree with the cinematic convention that heavy drama must be lit in a low key, comedy in high key, and romance in soft focus, but that the style should be determined by the logic of the scene.

‘For example, a vast amount of real-life drama occurs in hospitals, and a modern hospital isn’t by any means a somber appearing place,’ he pointed out. ‘Everything is light-colored and glistening; what’s more, everything is pretty well illuminated — trust these medical men to see to it that there’s enough illumination everywhere to prevent eyestrain. So why should we always have things somber and gloomy when…we try to portray sad or tragic action in a hospital?’

‘In the same way, if there’s no logical reason for it, why should comedy always be lit in a high key? Sometimes your action may really demand low-key effects to put it over…all too often we’re all of us [i.e., Musuraca’s A.S.C. colleagues] likely to find ourselves throwing in an extra light here, and another there, simply to correct something which is a bit wrong because of the way one basic lamp is placed or adjusted…If, on the other hand, that one original lamp is in its really correct place and adjustment, the others aren’t needed. Any time I find myself using a more than ordinary number of light sources for a scene, I try to stop and think it out. Nine times out of ten I’ll find I’ve slipped up somewhere, and the extra lights are really unnecessary.’”

Click here, or on the image above,  for a great clip from Out of The Past.

Musuraca had a clearly defined strategy in his classical 1940s work, and the uncanny ability to size up any scene and discern almost immediately precisely what tools he would need to effectively present the desired image on the screen — and Musuraca brought this same instinct for simplicity to his exterior work, as well.  As he told Walter Blanchard in 1941,

‘The same [technique of simplicity] applies to making exterior scenes. One of the commonest sources of unnecessary complication is in overdoing filtering. Just because the research scientists have evolved a range of several score filters of different colors and densities isn’t by any means a reason that we’ve got to use them — or even burden ourselves down with them! On my own part, I’ve always found that the simplest filtering is the best. Give me a good yellow filter, for mild correction effects, and a good red or red-orange one for heavier corrections, and I’ll guarantee to bring you back almost any sort of exterior effects (other than night scenes) that you’ll need in the average production.

And by the way — when in doubt about filtering — don’t. Nine times out of ten you’re better off that way, especially if there are people in the scene. The best example of misdirected enthusiasm for filtering is in making snow-scenes. I remember a while back I was on location doing some such scenes. As we approached our first set-up, my crew came to me and asked what filter they were to use. When I told them none, they couldn’t believe me. Everyone used some sort of filter in the snow! But what have you really got to filter? Your snow will render as an extreme white, no matter what you do. The evergreens, trees, rocks and so on will come out good and dark. You’re going to have extreme contrast no matter what you do. Under these conditions the sky automatically will take its proper place in rendering a pleasing picture. So why filter?

Filter to control that contrast, you say? I don’t agree. Most filters tend to increase contrast; in snow, even a Neutral Density filter will do so, for while it may hold back the snow, it will also hold back the dark areas. My experience has been that the real secret of good snow scenes is correct exposure — correct exposure for whatever part of the scene is most important to your shot. Usually it will be the people, and especially their faces. Expose for them, and the rest of the shot is likely to be all right.

This works out in practice, too. On the occasion I mentioned, my crew couldn’t be persuaded that my decision not to use the filter was or could be correct. They were very polite about it, but I could just feel them thinking, ‘Poor old Nick — he’s a back-number!’ [i.e., “out of date”] So I told them to make one take filtering as they thought they should. The operative [cameraman] saw to it that that take was unmistakably marked ‘print’ in that day’s negative reports! He was the first man in the projection-room next day, too, when we ran the rushes.

All went well until his shot came on. It was off-balance and unbelievably contrasty. The director hit the ceiling, and the operative wished he could sink through the floor! Immediately after, the un-filtered scenes came on — and were perfect. Since then, that gang has been a whole lot less ready to suggest using filters except where they were demonstrably necessary!’”

Black & White Cinema: A Short History will be out shortly; more “trims” coming soon.

Roberty Downey Sr.’s Pound (1970)

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

Robert Downey Sr. (center) with cast members on the set of his film Pound.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a friend and fan of the work of Robert Downey Sr., whose best known film after all these years is Putney Swope. I first met Bob back in 1969, right after the success of Putney, when he was editing Pound in a cutting room in the West 50s in Manhattan. We hit it off, and remain friends to this day, but although I’ve written about a lot of his other work, I’ve never really tacked Pound, which is simultaneously one of his most disturbing and ambitious films, and was – at least in my mind – a highly unlikely follow-up to Putney Swope. But at this point in his career, Bob could write his own ticket, and the result is one of the darkest, most unsettling visions of humanity in crisis that ever hit the screen – yet to this day, Pound is almost impossible to see.

As Rich Drees noted in a 2006 article on Pound, the plot of the film is simple: “set in a New York City dog pound, 18 dogs, played by human actors, wait to be adopted. Part existential comedy, part allegory, the dogs include a punch drunk Boxer (Stan Gottlieb), a hyperactive Mexican Hairless (a scene stealing Lawrence Wolf) and a sleek Greyhound (Antonio Fargas). Meanwhile, the city is being terrorized by a serial killer dubbed The Honky Killer (James Green). Pound also features the debut of performance of Downey’s son Robert Jr. as a puppy temporarily held at the pound.”

But that’s just the set-up. Hovering over all the characters is the continual threat of death from “the needle” – they’re not so much waiting to be adopted, as waiting to be executed. A terrier advises that they should revolt against their captors and escape, while an airedale argues that their deaths are not imminent, and a pardon is forthcoming. Throughout the film, there a number of mournful musical numbers which verge on nihilistic vaudeville, interspersed with a series of philosophical diatribes on the nature of existence, the transience of life, and the ways in which we’re all in a prison of one sort or another, whether we wish to admit it or not.

The end of the film is terrifying, as all of their ranting against the caprices of fate comes to naught. Without warning, a guard peremptorily pulls a switch that sends poisonous gas into the holding chamber, and one by one, the animals die an agonizing death, with each “dog” given a last, wistful closeup as they expire. Downey then cuts to a final sequence on a train to nowhere, as the “dogs” sit in their seats, bound for who knows where – heaven? hell? limbo? – and a candy barker walks through the aisle with a megaphone singing the 1930s song “Just One More Chance,” the lyrics of which, in part, lament that “we spend our lives in groping for happiness / I found it once and tossed it aside / I paid for it with hours of loneliness / I’ve nothing to hide.” And on this unresolved note, the film ends.

Not surprisingly, Pound was summarily rejected by the sponsoring studio, MGM, who for some reason, Downey told me, thought that the film would be an animated cartoon. When they saw the finished result, MGM dumped it on the bottom half of a double bill with Federico Fellini’s Satryicon, to Downey’s delight. Yet not surprisingly, given the film’s incredibly bleak outlook on life, Pound has never had a VHS or DVD release, although it was available as a streaming download on Netflix for a time, but has now been withdrawn.

Indeed, as Drees notes, it’s a miracle that the film exists at all, since “the only print of the film that Downey could locate was found in his ‘cameraman’s ex-wife’s closet . . . a 35mm print that was dead.’ Although the print itself was deemed unprojectable, it was able to be digitally scanned and restored. ‘So they put the color back in,’ says Downey. ‘They cleaned up the sound a bit too. Technology is great, it’s just the movies aren’t getting any better. It’s only because of digital technology that some of this stuff can be saved, because most of the colors just go. Most of my stuff in color other than Greasers Palace (1972), I hate the color. I love black and white.’”

Based on a play Downey wrote very early in his career, The Comeuppance, which was produced Off-Off Broadway in 1961, Pound betrays its theatrical origins, and has strong links to Sartre’s play No Exit, as well as to Downey’s even earlier efforts, such as his first play about two nuclear missiles in a silo, waiting go off, talking to each other about the destruction they will inevitably inflict on humankind. Pound can certainly be seen as an extension of that, and it’s no wonder that it was so roundly rejected by the general public, and got an NC-17 rating – it’s a real warning that the only one you can really trust in life is yourself.

There are bootlegs of the film, of course, drifting around on the web, and today, the film’s major curiosity draw seems to be the brief appearance of Bob Downey Jr. in a small role as a puppy – but the film is much more than that. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, and Downey himself has expressed definite reservations about Pound, but all in all, it’s one hell of a scary vision of life, and a real outlier in film history – the work of someone chasing not success, but his own vision, consequences be damned. As Downey said of his work as a filmmaker, “after being thrown out of the house, four schools and the United States Army, I discovered that I was on the right track.”

“I just think he’s one of our great American directors” — Paul Thomas Anderson

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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