Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Ten Strange Films you should maybe Tape (April on TCM)

This being their first month without dear Robert (who died March 6th), I extend special love and encouragement to the TCM. So here's my culling of ten films worth taping. When I was a youth all the best, weirdest stuff came on in the wee small hours; I would get up in the dead of night and slink downstairs without waking my parents, in order to tape them (via ye old VHS), just so I could pause during commercials (and because our timer didn't always work). TCM still keeps this art alive by showing odd stuff at odd hours, but lucky you - your DVR or TIVO need never miss a trick. And TCM still, knock on wood, daily, is still commercial-free. (PS - Avoid QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE, Weds. night - for it will make you so frustrated to consider its written by Charles Beaumont and Ben Hecht. I never thought I'd say this, but Zsa Zsa Gabor is the best part. She almost provides some centrifugal center around which the terrible dialogue and hokey line readings can keep within orbit of some kind of soul. But the rest of the time there's not much to do except note that the FORBIDDEN PLANET costume box must have been stored next to a window - for they are truly faded and tattered).

Weds. April 5, 2017

(1931) Dir. Tay Garnett

Melvyn Douglas dissolves before our eyes as a French officer put in charge of French Vietnam's most sweltering prison camp. Adolphe Menjou is the scheming major with designs on Douglas' new wife, Ann Harding; he probably sent Douglas off to the camp in the first place, hoping she'd stay behind so he can get his dirty little hobbit hands on her, as he's fond of doing in these sorts of triangle films, but who can prove it? Harding's dad says she shouldn't follow Douglas into this jungle hell, but if she does she already has the only thing that can save her there, the 'prestige' of being white. She must never slacken her grip or lose her superior breeding! Never! The natives are a mix of African-American extras, genuine Asians, and ugly white dudes in a lot of make-up, all depicted as little more than untamed animals in comparison with the staunch white man and his wife. As with all the Commonwealth-set pre-codes, the specter of miscegenation hangs throughout!

A product of the relatively rough-edged RKO-Pathe studio, PRESTIGE has strong expressionist touches and excellent tracking shots: fire dances, cockfights, guillotines, whips, chains, and general white-on-black brutality, it's like John Ford on bad acid and malaria. Simultaneously racist and anti-colonialist, PRESTIGE should be shown in every college class about Vietnam, as a horrific underbelly of colonialism. As the screwed-over 'hero,' Douglas starts out wanting to be nice, but gets a fever, sweats, collapses, shakes and turns sadistic, chaining up prisoners, guillotining rebel leaders while devolving into a hate-filled drunk. Harding is her usual lovely, wistful self. Her soft voice ever crackling with dignity and emotion, as befits her 'white prestige,' she does what she can, but they won't even let her hang curtains. And the ending is intense, lurid, and nihilistic. 

(1934) Dir Phil Rosen

Melvyn Douglas stars as a bit of a rogue in a publishing concern that--and this would be considered verboten by the early code--is co-ed-owned and operated by a group of men and women who share duties and power equally, mixing business and pleasure and turning it all into a kind of cocktails and ritzy MAD MEN-style bestselling author-seducing moveable feast. The women don't have to choose between career and romance as it's all seamlessly interwoven, noted with some interest by their star acquisition, an Agatha Christie-type who's visiting New York to sign a contract. A blown radio tube leads to conversation about a missing chunk of cash meant to be a retainer for a different author, but the cash disappeared awhile ago and they've been avoiding dealing with it. Eventually the truth comes out but maybe sleeping dogs should lie, and maybe they still can, or did, but with whom?

One wonders, though, in the end, what the point of it all is. Did playwright J.B. Priestley need to subtextually validate why he stayed in the closet or chose not to public with his mistress? Either way it's all very mature. The idea of women being totally men's equal in every facet of their shared business is marvelously progressive, and the romantic roundelay of everyone married to the wrong person all comes to the fore pretty fast. Luckily the cast is up for the challenge and then there are numerous twists and the ending is a gotcha of the sort I normally don't approve of, but which works here as a kind of suggestion that killing yourself might just involve 'skipping' into alternate dimensions, gradually becoming immortal by living several variants of your own life all at the same time, and death just shrinking the number of available dimensional planes down farther and farther, until one's next lives have already begun so you can let the last one of the old ones go, i.e. quantum suicide. (My apologies to anyone who read my initial misdiagnosis this was THE NARROW CORNER, a totally different film - its CORNER threw me).

Thurs. April 6th 2017
9:30 AM - KONGO 
(1932) Dir William Cowen

Infamous for his tight control of a vast 80 mile section of the Congo, wheelchair-bound sadist Flint (a rabid Walter Huston) hoards ivory, sleeps with a chimp, and controls the local tribes via displays of magic tricks all while planning his OLDBOY-style revenge against the guy who carved up his face and left him crippled to die. This plan involves Flint taking custody of his enemy's daughter and putting her through an all girls convent school, only to pull her out on her 18th birthday and throw her into a Zanzibar brothel for a year or two of degradation. After she's sufficiently debauched he drags her out to his godforsaken corner of the jungle, gives her "black fever" and strings her along on booze and beatings (and god knows what else  -even the pre-code had its limits). Meanwhile, a white doctor (Conrad Nagel) in the throes of addiction to some kind of local opiate root shows up, and Flint tries to get him clean (via leeches!) so he can operate on Flint's back. But Lupe Velez secretly risks having her tongue cut out in order to bring the doc all the root he can handle in exchange for sex. And that's not all! A parade of sadistic horrors are either narrowly escaped from and/or inflicted offstage while Huston roars in sadistic laughter; and what about the native practice of burning women alive on their dead husband's funeral pyre? GOOD GOD! This was made in 1932!? It's almost too sordid to handle even today. With all the physical abuse, vile racist caricature, and sexual degradation it would deservedly get an NC-17. (more)
Friday, April 7th
(1958) Dir. John Cromwell

I've never seen it, it's almost never been seen by anyone (no one's proud of it) but hmm mmm mmm heard such bad things about this Monroe roman a-clef I can hardly wait. All TCM offers by way of synopsis is "Booze, pills and loneliness mark a young actress' rise to stardom." Well whose doesn't, honey? Paddy Chayefsky wrote the script and from afar it seems to be one of the bridges between his early kitchen sink blue-collah period (MARTY, A CATERED AFFAIR) and his later loquacious satire period (NETWORK, THE HOSPITAL).  Kim Stanley--a stage actress whose roles were 'few and far between'--plays the goddess. Don't confuse her with Kim Hunter, as I did for the longest time (since Kim Hunter was married to Stanley in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE). Sure, THE GODDESS is supposed to be a stilted mess ("Ponderous" raves Eric Fry), but even at its worst, Chayefsky's dialogue is worth enduring. I'm hoping. There seems to be--even from this distance--a lot wrong with GODDESS. Looking at the pics above, Stanley is clearly miscast in the MM role; she could play Marilyn's abusive psycho mom maybe, but no matter how breathy and mannered her delivery may be, she just ain't a convincing sex symbol. That said, I'm excited to see if she can act as ferociously as they say and to attempt to savor what's sure to be an excruciating slog through the VALLEY OF THE DOLLS WHO'LL CRY TOMORROW, DEAREST. (PS - I tried to watch this, coming in around the middle, but it was like five endless minutes of a screaming baby while Stanley made half-assed attempts to be maternal and longed to escape. It's like we get it, we go to movies to escape crying babies, though, frickin' hell, and the idea that Stanley could be a bombshell is absurd -Carroll Baker might have saved it, but she'd done HARLOW already and I'd hate to put her through it all again).

Saturday - April 8th
(1934) Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer

Most people know the 'monsters' of classic Universal horror, Drac, Frank, Wolfman, and the Mummy. But only one ever had 'the devil -- and this is it. Hear Boris reciting extempore Latin hazily remembered from school while conducting the only devil worship / Satanic ceremony Hollywood's lurid pre-code era could produce before the censors clamped down (later the same year). They were afraid to even speak the horned one's cursed name! There's so much more, too: crazy Art Deco sets, Karloff and Lugosi (playing chess to decide who 'gets' newlywed Jacqueline Welles, or skinning each other alive, they have fun), sexually uninhibited states brought about by powerful narcotics; David Manners as an alleged writer who can't describe Poelzig's architecture better than "tricky," and "interesting", allusions to massive carnage of WWI (15 bodies deep piled in the trenches!), betrayal, loss, dead wives mounted in trophy cases and lit up as if in a carny spook house or museum, creepy floating tracking shots with OS conversation, the original use of the term 'undermined,' Lugosi as a medical doctor cautioning Manners about dismissing the supernatural as "baloney," or trying to couple with his new wife on their honeymoon despite her sexually uninhibited state; a complete and all consuming horror of cats getting in the way of revenge plans, and an ominously Wagnerian score from Heinz Roemheld. Once seen, THE BLACK CAT is not easily forgotten. Seen again, it is as if brand new. Let it inspire you to also track down MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932), THE RAVEN and WEREWOLF OF LONDON (both 1935), all of them lesser-known Universal classics deserving to stand tall with the 'big boys,' taller even.  

(1971) Dir. Tom Hansen

I've never seen it, but as with THE GODDESS above, I've heard bad things. So let me turn it over to one of my few trustworthy sources, Bleeding Skull, and the Astounding Ziemba:
"The Zodiac Killer is, first and foremost, a true-crime expose which attempts to provide a theoretical rationale for San Francisco’s famed late-60s Zodiac murders. Accordingly-yet-surprisingly, the film sticks close to the facts. That is, it perceives Truth as a bent thumb-tack with which to (barely) hang all sorts of unbelievable ridiculousness. But that’s the contradiction which guarantees Zodiac‘s success. For example, The Zodiac guns down a teenage couple with frightening, vérité-lite zest. Sixty seconds later, a hilariously misogynist man named Grover wears a green polyester suit and hairsprays his poignant toupee while stating, “Yep. I’m a good lookin’ sonuvagun.” This is before he attempts to kidnap his daughter. With a saw. 
"It would be easy for me to relay ten pages of details regarding the strange vortex that this film creates for itself. Because that’s what it’s all about — details. Tons of them. Every crevice, every SECOND, is teeming with some sort of absurd declaration (“Why are evil people allowed to live, but innocent rabbits must die?”), technical levity (Did you know that The Zodiac occasionally wore Groucho glasses?), or grim, unnerving violence (the lakeside attack scene Will Get You). To reveal anything further would be a disservice to you and your first viewing. And nobody wants that." -Joseph Ziemba

Monday Morning - April 10th
(1933) Dir. George Cukor

One of my favorite recent TCM discoveries, this has great saucy dialogue and sophisticated ideas on lover-swapping, especially when its just gigolo changing hands between two ladies of title, the American-born heiress Lady Grayston (Constance Bennett) and Dutchess Minnie (Violet Kemble-Cooper). Pepi (Gilbert Roland) is the gigolo. A weekend at the Grayston country estate is called for, REGLE DU JEU-style, wherein Grayston gets it on in the poolside bath house with Pepi and placates Minnie with the guest of honor, a fey dance instructor named Earnest, the "hardest to get" houseguest in the whole of upper crust London. Meanwhile Anita Louise, Alan Mowbray, and others look on, aghast. We'd not see such liberal display of continental minds again until Tennessee Williams' 1961 opus, THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE. 

And Earnest steals the show.... in the very last scene no less. George Cukor--as few have before or since--really shows how the right gay male at the right time makes any party ten times better and Earnest's last act entry really kicks home the idea of a weekend party's hungover Sunday. Maybe you know the feeling: you've had a great drunken time but now its the day to go back home and you can barely remember how and when but you're fairly sure you made a fool of yourself the night before. You're anxious to leave before brunch so you can get home to your private bar and video collection before you're able to remember, but are stopped on the way out by the late arrival of the very person you'd been hoping would come the night before. This late arrival's lack of connection with last night's damage makes him/her like an embodiment of fresh starts and forgiveness as she or he just starts rearranging everyone's mood even as the butler's taking your bag out to the car. So who laughs last? Call Earnest a stereotype, but he's delightful.

Weds. Night - April 12th 

(1965) Dir. Norman Taurog 

Speaking of fey aesthetes who enliven any party, don't let its leaden sequel by Mario Bava keep you away from this giddy AIP romp which--amongst other delights--shows Vincent Price having a high time frugging his way through a plot to destroy the UN or something via his coterie of exploding hottie automatons. There's all sorts of wry nods to both AIP's greatest series, the Beach Party films and Corman Poes; Frankie falls below the swinging old pit and pendulum set, and Annette Funicello shows in the stocks), and--between the curvacous gold bikini-clad 'bots and gold smoking-jacketed Price you can forgive it any trespass, even spastic Frankie Avalon as the over-caffeinated FBI man in charge of the investigation. Granted the music is unbearably coy in spots, especially during the wacky chase scene finale, but as long as Price looks like he's having fun, how can we do aught else? And doesn't he always? Zippy the Pinhead's numero uno hombre Norman Taurog directed in his inimitable Tashlin-type style. Save it on the cue for when you need it. And you will.

Friday Night: April 14th 
(1957) Dir. Douglas Sirk

Like THE THIN MAN was a cross-authorial unofficial sequel to THE BIG SLEEP (i.e. Nick and Nora = if Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge after a few years of blissful marriage), so TARNISHED ANGELS can be imagined as a sequel to those 30s MGM barnstormers like TEST PILOT, with Robert Stack as the Clark Gable daredevil pilot, and Jack Carson as the Spencer Tracy mechanic. Then there's Dorothy Malone in the Loy-cum-Harlow role, so smoking hot and well-lit you join the crew of leering sleazebags that pay to watch her parachute down in a fluttering skirt. It's based on a Faulkner story and you will finally believe Rock Hudson can act as he plays a tipsy reporter smitten by Malone and in quiet awe of Stack's daring, but Stack needs flight "like an alcoholic needs his drink," and when his plane crashes out from under him he pimps out his wife to get a new one. Hmmm, damn right all that's missing is a Bacall for shit to be WRITTEN ON THE WIND in reverse.

If you're worried Sirk is nothing without his Technicolor, fear not. He's a master of black and white, too --images are gorgeous, flight scenes are spectacular (biplanes whizz around poles mere feet off the ground like some gonzo desert drag race) but the best scene occurs with Stack and Malone crashing on Hudson's floor and couch. He comes home a bit drunk, Carson is asleep, and there she is, awake and whispering to him. Sirk's decadent black and white lighting shining through her white nightgown as she spreads herself along the couch, and it's so hot you almost pass the fuck out. Looks like we're... closed for the evening. I'd give Stack a plane too, and so would Rock, if we could have for ourselves the Malone in this film, even for a night; and we hate ourselves for being so vile, and so does she. But that just makes her all the sexier.

Thurs. April 27
(1933) Dir. J. Walter Reuben

It's got everything I love: it occurs over one afternoon and night, ends at dawn and there's fog, a washed out road, a windy house, murder suspects, death masks, and two of my favorite pre-code actresses: Anita Louise (Titania in the 1935 Reinhardt Midsummer Night's Dream) and Karen Morley (Poppy in Scarface). The latter delivers a scene-swipingly slithery performance as no-bones gold digger Jenny Wren, who's decided to retire and intends blackmailing all her rich ex and present lovers in one fell swoop, gathering them at a remote mansion at midnight, along with their wives, if any, her own shrewd maid (Hilda Vaughn), a colorful drunk, a butch aunt (Pauline Frederick), and gangsters telling snobby hypocrites to cut out their whispering. Jenny's retirement is prompted, we learn, via groundbreaking whirlwind flashbacks, to some naive rich kid college boy leaping from a cliff after she dumped him (she learned his father had cut him off). Then his ghostly face appears unto her on the balcony, and then she's dead.... from a dart.

On hand is Ricardo Cortez as a slickster hired by an unseen party to retrieve some incriminating love letters from her suitcase. He knows the coppers will pin her murder on him so he sets out to solve the mystery before the law can fix the ubiquitous washed-out bridge. The ending, on a foggy cliff with a single engine police plane coming in overhead, and the two guys walking off into the fog, foreshadows Casablanca. The photography is Von Sternbergian level-shadowy, but with (in this case, Spanish-style) old dark house accoutrements -- secret passage, clues, complex motive crosswork -- instead of masochism and feathers, and then-revolutionary whizzing camera flashbacks, it becomes sublime. Vaughn may be the coolest maid in all pre-code, almost a Leporello-level co-conspirator rather than a mere servant. And if the lesbian currents didn't run deep enough, what about Vaughn's butch old aunt who, like Mercedes McCambridge in GIANT--is fond of using horse breeding terminology when scrutinizing potential in-law brides? Even if you're not cuckoo for pre-code old dark house mysteries, and gaga for Louise and Morely, you got to profer props for the lesbian undercurrent where e'r it flows!

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