Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Doctor X (1932)

Dr. X, posing in the shadows to look creepy.
Ingredients: Cannibalism. Lunar madness. Synthetic flesh. A somber, isolated mansion on the craggy cliffs of Long Island. A flat-footed reporter with a penchant for practical jokes. Not one, but five deranged mad scientists with severe psychological trauma, one of which is likely a new serial killer just hitting his stride. Fay Wray in a negligee, screaming bloody murder. Such are the appeals of Michael Curtiz's delightfully creepy pre-code horror Doctor X, all filmed in painterly two-strip Technicolor.

In investigating a series of cannibalistic murders, police have a strong hunch that the killer must come from Dr. Jerry Xavier's Academy of Surgical Research. "If you're just looking for someone to hang suspicion on," Dr. X (Lionel Atwill) says to the police investigating the murder, "there's not a man in my faculty that wouldn't come under that heading." Ain't that the truth. The Academy's faculty is a veritable rogue's gallery of psychopaths in the making. We have the one-handed Dr. Wells (Preston Foster), who has recently returned from an expedition to Africa to study cannibalism and keeps a living heart in a jar on his desk. Dr. Haines (John Wray, no relation), who is studying "brain grafting", and the one-eyed Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), were shipwrecked together off the coast of Tahita and are suspected of having eaten one of their companions through necessity (did they develop a taste for it?). Rounding out the set we have the crotchety paralytic Dr. Duke (Harry Beresford), who studies the effect of "moon rays" on the mind along with Dr. Haines. Dr. Duke may appear to be the least neurotic of group, but he couples this normalcy with such ill manners that merely to say hello is a personal affront.

Under the guidance of the most accommodating police force in New York history, Dr. X takes his staff to his house on Long Island to conduct his own investigation. As a scientist, he conducts this search exactly as one might expect--through a series of experiments. Actually, his experiment works something like a cross between a polygraph test and Hamlet's play "The Mouse Trap."  The suspects are strapped down and hooked up to a device that measures their "blood reaction" while scenes of the murders are acted out in front of them. Naturally, the retelling gets far too real for anyone's taste and threatens to entangle a pair of innocents: Dr. X's daughter Joanne (Fay Wray) and a stowaway reporter (Lee Tracy) looking for a scoop (he'll settle for either a good story or the delicious Joanne).

Sssynnthetic flessshhh...!!
The acting is really fine all around. Preston Foster's gleeful chant of "Synthetic flesh!" as he grabs handfuls of goo from a smoking vat and smears it on his face is the best portrayal of a scientist's love affair with his own work since Colin Clive shrieked, "It's alive!" the year before. Lee Tracy as the bumbling reporter who jumps at shadows even while surrounded by actual monsters enhances the tension in the rest of the film by juxtaposing his silliness with its seriousness. I find myself wanting to cheer him on when he walks past a table without knocking it over. The scene of him hiding in a closet with a gang of skeletons, much of which was ad-libbed, is particularly well-conceived. The ever-lovely Fay Wray is wonderful as the doctor's devoted daughter. As Joanne she resists the "damsel in distress" role as long as humanly possible, braving every danger with stoic calm until the scream positively bursts out of her, the intensity of her fear wildly amplified by her demonstrated strength of character.

Is this the hand of a killer, or of an actor pretending to be a killer? You decide.
The biggest appeal in Doctor X, though, is not its story or acting, although both are solid throughout. No, art director Anton Grot gets the blue ribbon here for his dense, expressionistic set design and masterful use of early color. The Technicolor print was long believed to have been lost, but was discovered in the personal collection of Jack Warner after his death in 1978. UCLA has done a fine restoration, and the film looks fresh and new. The images are murky and strange, engendering in the viewer a sense of malaise long before the plot justifies the fear already created. The sets themselves are many and varied, including a New York waterfront, a brothel, Dr. X's academy, and his Long Island home. Two full sets of "mad scientist" labs are used, one at the academy and one at the mansion, each of which is full of all the bubbling, oversized beakers, big mysterious dials, billowing smoke and buzzing electricity that we know and love. 

Something is rotten in the state of New York.
Curtiz made good use of his pre-code freedoms, seasoning the story with adult themes that wouldn't have passed muster a few years later: cannibalism, rape, and prostitution are all essential to the plot, and seem far more shocking than they would in a modern film by the novelty of their context. All told, Curtiz really brought everything together with Doctor X, combining the solid acting of this ensemble cast with gorgeous set design and good, old-fashioned story-telling to create one of the most powerful and frightening horror films of early Hollywood.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Salon Kitty (1976) and a word (or a hundred) about online shopping

Was this what they signed up for when they joined the Hitler Youth?

Tinto Brass is one of a handful of true auteurs of erotic cinema, and an ever rarer species in that unlike, say Radley Metzger, he survived the advent of both hardcore and home video and continues to produce his own brand of softcore cinema to this day.  He's best known in the United States for 1979's Caligula, which is a damn shame.  I reckon that there's few, if any, filmmakers whose work could survive being butchered by Penthouse editor Bob Guccione.  A far, far better indicator of Brass' considerable talents is 1976's Salon Kitty, a sly and witty exploitation film that has far more on its mind than mere titillation (not that that is remotely neglected.)   Kitty uses the true story of a Nazi brothel to examine the clash of cultures when National Socialism arrived in the debauched heart of Weimar Germany and the messy business of mingling sex and politics, and it does so with lavish production design, appealing cabaret numbers and an excellent cast loaded with veterans of the grindhouse and the arthouse.  Of course, many out there will disagree with me.  Some will find this movie to be deeply offensive or outright pornographic.  That's great.  There would be little fun in sharing our thoughts on film if we all thought the same way.  Unfortunately, there's some out there who not only don't like this movie, but think that no one else should either.  Worse, these people have the ear of a certain major online retailer.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)

Much of the film uses stylish matte paintings like this one.
Max Reinhardt's lavish production has so much to recommend it that it seems almost inevitable that the end result be something less than the sum of its parts. Far, far less, as it turns out. Unfortunately, even the film's inspired music and design choices can't quite save it from its own wordiness. The quagmires of verbal sludge come with the territory--the halls of IMDB are filled with poorly directed Shakespeare adaptations in which Hollywood's finest can't quite get their tongues around the dialogue. The poetry may be the best in the world, but a naturalistic portrayal of language so intrinsically unnatural is an understandably tall order. I'm assuming it also helps if the director--unlike European theater titan Max Reinhardt--actually speaks English. James Cagney later reported cast members standing around off set whispering to each other, "Somebody ought to tell him." Well, they didn't. In spite of its strong production values and star-studded cast, a couple of poor casting choices and unimpressive dialogue direction throughout weighs down an otherwise excellent film.

Highest marks certainly go to the film's artistic team. Reinhardt's ethereal vision was brought to life by art director Anton Grot (whose work in Doctor X first made me stop and take note) and cinematographer Hal Mohr (who won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for this film as a write-in). A wide array of devices are used to create the striking visual effects that separate the reality of the forest from the magical world of fairies that is superimposed on top of it. In this case that's a literal truth--simple double exposure tricks allow the fairies to flit through the air and in the trees, and pop in and out of sight. The film uses a soft focus throughout, and combines this with an array of unusual filters to make the fairy world sparkle and shimmer.

These two dancers deliver the finest performances in the film.
Erich Wolfgang Kornhold adapted Mendelssohn's incidental music for the film's score, which adds even more to the film's class and integrity. Many of the wordier passages are sung instead of spoken, as indeed they probably were when the play was first staged. Fortunately, many of the cast members--particularly Dick Powell and James Cagney--are talented singers, so the musical adaptation of the dialogue works well. Even more impressive are the expressionistic ballet sequences that accompany the score. The depiction of the fairies' exit from the forest, in which the dancer's waving hands become the flapping wings of the fairies fluttering away into darkness, is easily my favorite moment in the film.

This was the film debut of Olivia de Havilland.
If Reinhardt is credited with only one contribution to Hollywood filmmaking, surely it must be his discovery of eighteen-year-old Olivia de Havilland in her college production of Midsummer. He snatched her up for his extravagant stage production of the play at the Hollywood  Bowl in 1934, which was the basis for this film version a year later. She is fresh and young and lovely, and her breezy portrayal of Hermia is enough to make you forget that it is actually Helena that is usually considered the plum role. Another inspired casting choice is James Cagney as Bottom the Weaver. Cagney was never in a Shakespeare play before or since, but his commanding screen presence and comedic timing are flawless. Comedian Joe E. Brown, then at the peak of his rather extraordinary popularity, gives a stellar performance opposite Cagney as Flute, the Bellows-Mender.

James Cagney and Joe E. Brown make an unlikely yet highly entertaining couple.

Other performances in the film are much less impressive. For instance, I know for a fact that Dick Powell can actually act, and does not look like a Conrad Veidt-inspired Botox victim. If Dream were all I had to go on, however, that would probably be the extent of my estimation of him. He said himself he felt he was miscast as Lysander, and went through filming feeling a little lost, and so he wears the same goofy grin from start to finish. The only saving grace of his performance is that he almost never appears without Olivia de Havilland opposite him, so there's never much reason to actually look at him on screen.

Alas, Dick Powell is not the worst casting choice in the film. I never thought I would say this, but I find myself wishing that George Lucas could oversee this movie's next DVD release. Surely it would occur to him, as it did me, that the only logical approach would be to edit out the lead performer and replace him with a CGI creation. Anything ILM could come up with would have to be better than fourteen-year-old Mickey Rooney as Puck. He shrieks and cackles his way through his lines without ever delivering a single line that is not actually painful to hear. As if that weren't enough, he fills all his remaining screen time with utterly unnecessary howling, hooting, and laughter. I'm sure it was meant to be "impish," but it comes across only as "obnoxious." I've never understood Rooney's popularity and have more than once wanted to find a way to remove him from some of his films (Girl Crazy, Breakfast at Tiffany's), but this is probably the worst.

Unfortunately, Dream demands a strong ensemble cast, and a few good performances won't outweigh the remaining mediocrity, even aside from the train wrecks of Powell and Rooney. The remaining cast all look well enough for the parts, but deliver their lines with ludicrously exaggerated intonations that mask any real emotion and leave the speakers looking only ridiculous. Even de Havilland is sometimes guilty of this, although she proves elsewhere in the film that she does possess the subtlety necessary to do the thing properly. This is not your standard Shakespearean bombast. Rather than emphasizing the elegance in the words at the expense of their sense, everyone in Dream favors emotion, and the words are often lost in inappropriate squeals and laughter.

Artistically, the film is stunning, and the use of ballet sequences and composite images makes it daring and innovative as well. Unfortunately, the lackluster performances by most of the cast on top of Mickey Rooney's incessant cackling makes it all but unwatchable in spite of its beauties.

Friday, August 5, 2011

What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (1974)

It begins with a body...

I see that I haven't posted a new review in over a month.  (Thankfully, Allex has kept the blog active in my absence.)  There's not really a great explanation for my silence.  I've watched a metric shit-ton of movies in the past month, so it's not like I haven't had plenty of choices to write about.  Sure, I've had some new projects going on, but none so time-consuming that I couldn't produce a few reviews in the past few weeks.  No, I think it's simply best written off as a summer vacation.  But I'm back now, summer heat be damned, with a review of Massimo Dallamano's 1974 giallo/poliziotteschi hybrid What Have They Done to Your Daughters?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Casanova Brown (1944)

Demonstrating how not to make a good impression on your in-laws.
(That's their house in the background.)
Casanova Brown is one of those films that tries to be too many things at once--screwball comedy, modern day retelling of the Casanova legend, social commentary--and succeeds at all of them, at least up to a point. While perhaps a bit more focus in the story's conception could have made a tighter, more elegant film, as it stands it is laugh out loud funny from start to finish, and that is more than enough to make it a winner in my book.

Gary Cooper heads a stellar cast in a comedy of remarriage so true to formula it seems the role surely must have been written for Cary Grant. Mild mannered English professor Casanova "Cass" Brown (Cooper) learns, on the eve of his marriage, that his first wife has just had a baby (his, naturally). That first marriage lasted less than twenty-four hours, from their chance meeting in the library to his burning down her parents' house the next morning, and the two of them have not spoken since their annulment. He only learns about the baby at all because his ex-wife Isabel (Teresa Wright) is putting the baby up for adoption, and the hospital needs his medical records. Cass falls for the baby just as quickly as he fell for her mother, and when he realizes that he has no legal rights to the child, he kidnaps her. Isabel and her father and his new fiance and her father all spend the next few weeks trying to track him down and keep him from doing anything rash, like eloping with the chambermaid. So much for the Casanova angle to the story.

Much of the humor in Casanova is of the "painfully embarrassing" variety, but stops just shy of the line where it starts to feel more like a horror movie than a comedy. It comes awfully close to the edge--throws spitballs over it in fact--but never quite crosses. The worst of it comes relatively early, when Cass goes to visit his new in-laws and finds they don't keep an ash tray in the library. This prompts a desperate search for a place to put out his cigarette, until he finally puts it out in his handkerchief and stuffs it in his pocket. For his next act he tries to convince them he doesn't smoke, even as his smoldering jacket says otherwise. Of course, lies like this spread like wildfire, and so does fire--particularly when you treat it like a stray cat, and throw books and newspapers at it to make it go away.

If the whole movie were like this, funny though it is, I'd be crying myself to sleep tonight. Thankfully, most of the rest of the film is less painful to watch, centering in the first half around Cass's relationship with his future father-in-law (Frank Morgan) and in the second around his bungling attempts at caring for an infant. Cooper and Morgan make a wonderful comic duo, Cooper's quiet sincerity making him the perfect straight man for Morgan's bumbling effervescence. In fact, the biggest criticism I have of Casanova is that these two don't get more screen time together. Both actors bring such warmth and good humor to most every part they play, and their relationship, with all its quarreling and insults, is both recognizable and endearing.

Frank Morgan very nearly steals the movie.
The second half of the film takes a more serious tone, although thankfully never at the expense of the comedy. Even more bewildering to Cass than the sudden knowledge that he is a father is the realization that he has no legal rights to his own daughter. That's not fair, he argues, and of course he is right. One could read much of this film as an argument in favor of paternal rights. In defiance to the notion that a woman is somehow better equipped to raise a child than a man (outside of the obvious biological advantage), Cass does an excellent job at caring for his hostage in spite of his inexperience. While the film makes light of his terrified precautions against germs and his obsession with charting her weight at hourly increments, he also makes no serious blunders and pretty much does everything as he should. When the baby is reunited with her mother, Cass must teach her how to hold the baby and how to burp her. As a new mother, she has no more natural instinct for these things than Cass did.

Although the film is ostensibly a romantic comedy and progresses through three different love interests for Cass, the heart of the story is his relationship with his daughter rather than any of the adult women. That relationship is powerfully and sympathetically portrayed, and the film never relies on mere cuteness for its impact as so many films about children and babies often do.

Careful. There be germs a-foot.
Teresa Wright gives a solid performance as well, and is as beautiful and likable as always, although even so Casanova, her fifth film, is by far the weakest item in her early resume. Her first three films (The Little Foxes, Mrs. Minivr, Pride of the Yankees) each earned her an Oscar nomination, and her fourth (Shadow of a Doubt) arguably should have. She just doesn't have the screen time to really develop a memorable character here, although even as it is she is instantly charismatic enough that it's no surprise when Cass picks her in the end (if you don't see that ending coming, you probably need to get out more).

Casanova doesn't really offer anything you can't find in a dozen other films, but it is a solidly built story and a welcome addition to an imminently likable sub-genre. It will never be a replacement for The Awful Truth or His Girl Friday, but if you've already seen those and liked them, it's a good bet you'll enjoy Casanova as much as I did.