Is democracy so feeble that it can be undermined by a look or a line?
–Humphrey Bogart, protesting the investigation by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) into communist sympathies in Hollywood
One of Bogart’s best lines was delivered outside of a movie
Is democracy so feeble that it can be undermined by a look or a line?
–Humphrey Bogart, protesting the investigation by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) into communist sympathies in Hollywood
Alastair Sim and Michael Hordern collaborated on both live action and animated versions of A Christmas Carol, both remarkable films
Scrooge: Alastair Sim and Michael Hordern lead a perfect cast in the best live-action adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
A Christmas Carol — The best animated adaptation of the same story is eerie and utterly original. Wonderfully, it features Sim and Hordern among the voice actors.
Cary Grant and Loretta Young’s film The Bishop’s Wife makes for wonderful Christmas viewing
If you were asked to recall a 1947 Christmas movie that was nominated for a best picture Oscar, you would probably come up with the famous Miracle on 34th Street. But remarkably, it was only one of two Christmas films so honored that year. The other is this week’s film recommendation: The Bishop’s Wife.
Anglican Bishop Henry Brougham (A miscast but appealing David Niven) is under strain as he attempts to raise money for a new cathedral. Donations are not arriving, and the wealthiest woman in town (Gladys Cooper) will only help if the building is made into a tasteless monument to her late husband. Meanwhile, since becoming an Archbishop consumed with finances and grandiose plans, Henry has been drifting apart from his long-suffering wife Julia (the ever-luminous Loretta Young). He prays to God for aid and a friendly, dashing, sharply dressed fellow arrives at his office (Who else but Cary Grant?). Calling himself Dudley, the new arrival says he is here to help, which Henry takes to mean help raising money. But Dudley spends most of his time trying to restore Julia’s happiness instead, much to Henry’s irritation.
Some films live or die on the strength of a star’s charm, and this is an example of a film living, indeed thriving, on the charm of the inimitable Grant. Director Henry Koster seems to have instructed every female member of the cast to swoon upon meeting him, and it’s utterly believable given with warmth and gentleness that the handsome Grant radiates in ever scene. Loretta Young’s devout-and-goodly performance is perfectly matched to Grant’s, as the story requires their relationship to be intimate but at the same time innocent. She was at the peak of her powers in 1947, during which she not only garnered raves for her role in the Bishop’s Wife but also won a Best Actress Oscar for The Farmer’s Daughter.
Grant and Young get strong support from the rest of cast, particularly Monty Woolley as an atheistic retired college professor who is an old friend of Julia and Henry’s. The Robert Mitchell Boy Choir are also on hand for a mellifluous number in Henry’s former and very poor church, a symbol of the simpler faith and life that he has lost.
The Bishop’s Wife rewards the eye as well as the heart, thanks to Gregg Toland being behind the camera. The town looks lovely, peaceful and Christmassy as can be. And Toland gets to be Toland, as you see on the left, which is my favorite shot in the movie, during which the characters slowly accrue at different depths away from Grant, who is making an emotional and religious connection to Henry and Julia’s little girl (played by Karolyn Grimes, who essayed a similar role in It’s a Wonderful Life).
The Bishop’s Wife is not a film for the cynical nor for those hostile to religious messages. But if the Christmas spirit animates your heart at this time of year, you will find much to love in this extraordinarily sweet movie.
I embed below the amusing “un-trailer” of the film, featuring the three leads and absolutely, positively no spoilers.
Stanford Professor and his friends recommend over 125 outstanding films
Happy Thanksgiving. With a valuable assist from Johann this past year, RBC film recommendations remain a regular feature of our website. I have been pleasantly surprised at the popularity of what started as a lark, and gratified that they lead at least some readers to rediscover old movies.
I last updated the RBC digest of film recommendations on Memorial Day, so the present holiday seemed a good time to bring the list up to date.
A digest of all the films we have reviewed is available here.
Happy viewing to all.
1973’s The Wicker Man has deservedly attained cult status as an original, exceptional horror film
Our Edward Woodward tribute continues this week with a big screen triumph he made not long after the Callan TV show ended (RBC Recommendation here). This week’s recommendation is an unconventional low-budget horror film that has no monsters or ghosts, includes almost no night time scenes, blood, gore or special effects, yet is unquestionably harrowing: 1973’s The Wicker Man.
The plot: Uptight, devout and dedicated Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives alone by seaplane at a small Scottish island to investigate reports that a little girl has gone missing. He finds a strange community of back-to-nature types who claim never to have heard of the girl, much to Howie’s frustration. He is further inflamed by their paganistic world view, sexual expressiveness and apparent disregard for his authority as a representative of HMG. He eventually meets the head of the community, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), who confounds him further even while ostensibly supporting his quest to find the missing girl. His anger and anxiety mounting, Howie presses his investigation to the limit, but matters become only more maddening and much, much more dangerous.
It’s easy to see why Christopher Lee, who has made almost 300 films, declared that this was the best one he was ever in. He, Woodward, and the actors in other key roles (Diane Cilento and Britt Ekland) give performances that are somehow both realistic and otherworldly at the same time. And Anthony Shaffer’s script has the perfect set-up for suspense: A man absolutely alone in a strange place that he cannot understand and in which no help is available.
In addition to being scary, The Wicker Man is also sensually pleasurable. It features among other sexually charged moments one of the most erotic and original seduction scenes in the history of film. The soundtrack is also rich and stimulating. It would have been easy to simply have the music of the islanders be a recycled collection of old Celtic folk songs, but instead Paul Giovanni composed authentic sounding music that adds immeasurably to the atmosphere.
Warning: This film had an unhappy history post-production, with many cuts being made both by studio suits who didn’t get the film and morality police who hated the sex. The lack of respect for the film at the time is best expressed by the fact that the negative ended up buried beneath the M4 motorway (not a joke, sadly). Work very hard to get as long a cut as you can; Wikipedia has an account of all the versions here.
I hope you will take the time to discover this cult classic of British horror cinema. After the jump, I offer an interpretational addendum for those of you who have already seen it.
Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Wicker Man”
Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” is fantastic update of old time gangster movies with knockout performances by Robert De Niro and Sean Connery
Many classic TV shows have been made into dreadful movies, but Brian De Palma came up aces in 1987 when he made this week’s film recommendation: The Untouchables.
The plot: Naive treasury agent Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) comes to Prohibition-era Chicago to do battle with bootlegger, murderer and king of the gangsters Al Capone (Robert De Niro). Realizing that the police and politicians are all corrupted by Capone, Ness assembles his own team of “untouchable” agents who can’t be bought. His squad is anchored by a cynical, over-the-hill beat cop named Jim Malone (Sean Connery), who teaches him how the game is played in the Windy City. The two of them and their fellow untouchables embark on an epic confrontation with powerful, violent mobsters and a legal system that is rotten from top to bottom.
The key theme of the film is voiced by Connery, in one of the many scenes where he virtually acts the bland Costner right off the screen: What are you prepared to do? The basic tension of David Mamet’s crackerjack script derives from the fact that the good guys can’t win without breaking the rules they have sworn to uphold. This adds moral weight to a story that is also packed with thrilling action sequences and powerful dramatic moments.
De Palma often echoes classic films in his movies, and The Untouchables is no exception. A spectacularly executed shoot-out sequence in Union Station is an homage to the equally brilliant Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. Although I don’t know for sure, I believe the first scene of the movie, in which a terrified barber reacts to having nicked Capone’s face while shaving him, is an echo of one of the opening scenes of a prior RBC recommendation: The Chase. De Palma makes these allusions is such a way that you don’t have to get them to enjoy the film, but if you do it’s even more fun.
This was a big budget Hollywood film and it shows in every scene. The set design and art direction are darbs, and the period cars, clothes and architecture are the cat’s meow. Producer Art Linson is a Chicago native, and clearly knew where to spend money to bring the Prohibition Era alive. To top it all off, Ennio Morricone contributes one of the most memorable and evocative scores of the 1980s.
Other than Costner, who is painfully weak here, the entire cast explodes. But even in that field, Connery and De Niro tower over everyone with powerhouse performances. Capone has been portrayed many times on film, but never in such a scary fashion. In De Niro’s hands, he is a man who can go from mirth and charm to murderous rage with no warning, and the viewer fully appreciates why all of his underlings tiptoe around him.
Connery, who won a long-overdue Oscar for playing Malone, also tears up the screen. His Malone is world-weary and tough yet also capable of wit and even a sort of gentleness (His big brother-little brother relationship to Andy Garcia’s rookie cop is perfectly played by the two actors). Because he became famous playing James Bond, it took Connery a long time to convince people that he really is a fine actor. I have commended his strong performances in RBC recommendations many times, including in The Hill and Outland. He triumphs again in The Untouchables, one of many reasons to see this near-perfect update of classic cops-versus-gangsters television shows and movies.
The Howling is a werewolf tale with astonishing special effects and a smart-alecky John Sayles script filled with in-jokes for fans of the genre
Originally intended as a straight-ahead werewolf film, it was changed significantly in tone by a late-arriving co-screenwriter, the ever-creative John Sayles. Sayles kept the scary bits, but added a pile of in jokes and satiric moments (including one with himself as a coroner). The result was unsatisfying to some viewers, but the movie returned its modest budget many times over as horror fans embraced it enthusiastically.
The story opens with earnest, All-American TV reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace) putting herself in danger to help capture a serial killer who has developed an obsession with her. Despite police backup (actually, BECAUSE of police backup), things go horribly awry and she is psychologically traumatized. With the support of her ex-Stanford football star husband Bill Neill (Christopher Stone) she seeks treatment from a pompous psychiatrist who emphasizes the need to release the beast within (Patrick Macnee). He sends Karen and Bill to “the colony” an Esalen-type retreat, for healing. What the innocent couple don’t know is that the colony is a den of werewolves, and before you can say “Aaahooooooooo” they are both being terrorized by a motley assortment of lycanthropes!
The budget apparently prevented the casting of any A-listers, but the performers do a serviceable job, especially MacNee, who gamely spouts 1970s psychobabble, and the sultry Elisabeth Brooks, who memorably redefines the term “maneater”. But the real stars are Sayles’ parade of little gags (everyone eats Wolf Chili and drinks Wolf’s Liquor; look fast also for a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl), and the astonishing person-to-wolf transformations of Rob Bottin. Bottin leaves the CGI-dependent special effects artists of today in the dust with his extraordinarily scary work here.
The film has some flaws. After a gripping opening 20 minutes, it shifts the pace to neutral for too long before revving up a thrilling final act (In fairness, the film is over 30 years old, so perhaps a little flab in the middle is forgivable). I can understand also that the smart-alecky script may elude some viewers or seem to precious to others. But for horror movie buffs, The Howling is a fun screamfest that will enliven your Halloween.
And, now A TRIVIA QUIZ, with answers after the jump, with all the questions deriving from Sayles’ script flourishes.
1. MacNee’s character is named George Waggner. The real Waggner directed what horror classic?
2. One member of the colony is named Erle Kenton, after the director of the spooky 1945 movie House of the Dracula. The actor playing Kenton in The Howling was actually IN that movie. Who is he?
3. Early in the film, when Karen White is in a phone booth waiting to meet serial killer Eddie Quist, a tall man stands just outside the door. Is he waiting to use the phone, or is he the killer, blocking her escape? Well, when he turns to face the camera he is revealed to be a famous horror movie director. Who? Hint: I recommended one of his films very recently.
4. Stone’s character is named after R. William Neill, who directed what great horror “team-up” movie?
5. Noble Willingham plays a character named Charlie Barton. Barton directed what famous comedy-horror mashup?
Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr is an arty horror classic well worth viewing this Halloween
Boo! It’s Halloween season again, so this week will feature another spooky film. Many film historians consider Carl Theodor Dreyer cinema’s most visionary director, and his talent is on vivid, memorable display in this week’s film recommendation, the pioneering 1932 horror classic Vampyr.
The story concerns student of the occult Allan Grey, who arrives at a French town with a blank expression on his face that suggests he might be dreaming. He checks into a small hotel and is startled when a strange man enters his room and gives him a package “to be opened upon my death”. Grey wanders around the hotel, where he encounters a creepy doctor and his elderly female companion, as well as dancing shadows and a one-legged old soldier. Travelling through the town, Grey witnesses the murder of the strange man, leading him to open the package. It contains a book relating the story of the vampyr, one of which is currently menacing the village. The vampyr’s victims include a lovely young woman who catches Grey’s eye and whom he wants to save. As Grey tries to battle the fiend and its accomplices, he experiences disorienting visions and mysterious events that may daze the viewer as well, but at the same time will compel attention.
As the film was destined for release in France, Germany and England, Dreyer kept dialogue to a minimum to avoid language challenges. Instead, he tells the story through unforgettable images: A strange metal sculpture against cloudy skies, an inside-the-coffin view of a live burial, a mysterious figure with a scythe, a relentless downpour of deadly flour, the visible carnal hunger of an incipient vampyr, and shadows that move independently of their casters. The novel visual effects are many, including double-exposure, shooting through cheese cloth and other trickery.
No film I have seen quite captures the inner logic of nightmares as well as Vampyr. In our scary dreams, events often seem nonsensical, yet we encounter characters who are completely undisturbed at the maddeningly illogical proceedings. They proceed in their own bizarre course and we proceed along with them because we have no choice but to obey the rules of our nightmare. That is the journey on which this film takes the audience, and it’s completely original and masterfully executed.
It’s a tribute to Dreyer’s directorial skills that he got effective performances out of an almost entirely amateur cast, including colorful bon vivant Nicolas Louis Alexandre, Baron de Gunzburg who bankrolled the project and appears under the name Julian West. The other critical ingredient is the groundbreaking camerawork of the legendary Rudolph MatÃ©. The resulting film is probably too “arty” for some tastes, but most viewers will find it stays with them for a long time.
p.s. The public domain version of this film is available for free on Internet Archive and is watchable, but you will enjoy yourself much more if you view the Criterion Collection restored version, which is leagues better in terms of visual quality.
p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? See the full list of RBC recommendations here.
I just watched Mark Stevens’ excellent 1956 film noir Timetable. There was a funny movie trope during the robbery scene portrayed above. After the robber blows the safe, he steals “$500,000 in small bills”. The money is contained in two small satchels each about the size of a woman’s purse, which he almost daintily lifts and then tosses into his suitcase.
In real life, a piece of US currency is .0043 inches think and weighs about a gram. If we assume the average “small bill” is a $10 note and that the bills are all perfectly pressed flat with no wrinkles, the stack of bills should have been 17.92 FEET high and would have weighed just over 110 pounds!
But in the movies, money is small and light. Countless caper films feature people nimbly running around with zillions of dollars in their small, lightweight satchels.
Does anyone know any movies that undo this trope, for example by having a kidnapper not be strong enough to lift the suitcase with the ransom in it, or having a car axle bend under the weight of the multi-billion dollar haul in the back seat?
Roger Corman’s spooky, campy film “Tales of Terror” is ideal for Halloween viewing
As Halloween approaches, it seems a good time to recommend one of the many Edgar Allen Poe films of low budget whiz Roger Corman: Tales of Terror.
This 1962 film is a trilogy of stories based on four different Poe stories: Morella, a pastiche of The Black Cat and The Cask of Amontillado, and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. The stories are well-employed in the script of the late, great Richard Matheson, whose ability to infuse new, um, blood, into hoary tales I have praised here at RBC before. Vincent Price anchors the film with three lead performances, which vary in tone from lugubrious to frothy to sepulchral.
Price is joined by two aging stars who still know how to deliver the goods. Peter Lorre makes a fine boozy bully in The Black Cat and Basil Rathbone lends gravitas to the role of Carmichael, the hypnotist who tries to hold Valdemar at the point of death in the final story. The roles of the women characters however are comparatively flat, with the female performers cast mainly for their looks.
Many horror films, including some of the most famous, include some element of camp, and Tales of Terror is very much in that tradition. Price and Lorre enjoy themselves enormously in The Black Cat, inviting the audience to laugh at them as much as be frightened by the murderous proceedings. As a viewer, you should bring eggs for this part of the film, because these guys are bringing the ham.
In addition to the tension and fear generated by the three stories, the film makes for good horror viewing because Corman, as always, was experimenting as he went along. Some novel special effects are on display, all of which work pretty well. On the small screen, some of the Cinemascope trickery at the screen edges will be lost, so see this one on the big screen or in letterbox format if you can.
In some people’s minds, Corman is nothing but a schlock merchant, but that’s not fair to him. Like Richard Rodriguez, he has a genius for improvising in a low-budget environment. He shot movies on the sets of other movies while they were being torn down, writing a script each night to take advantage of whichever set would be gone by the end of the next day. He told Peter Bogdanovich that “Boris Karloff owes me a few days of filming, let’s make something out of that”, which became the nail-biting Targets. And he also helped launch many future superstars, including Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, and Francis Ford Coppola. I was absolutely delighted when Hollywood finally woke up and gave the 83-year old Corman an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, because he’s long been the kind of disruptive, creative force that the film industry needs to maintain its vitality.
p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.