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Tag Archives: Jacques Tourneur

31 Days of Horror!

My wife Jillian and I recently completed a “31 days of horror” challenge in which we watched 31 scary movies in 31 days. We each picked roughly half of the films on the list and tried to focus on watching stuff we’d never seen before. Below are brief, informal reviews of the films that I originally posted on Facebook. They are ranked from favorite to least favorite and I affixed a letter grade to each. I hope this list comes in handy to anyone hoping to do a 31-days-of-horror challenge next year!

Body-Melt

1. NIGHT OF THE DEMON (Jacques Tourneur, UK, 1957): A+
Jacques Tourneur (CAT PEOPLE, OUT OF THE PAST) was a master of cinema and this late entry in his filmography is one of his best. Dana Andrews is a skeptical American professor who travels to England to attend a parapsychology conference and ends up investigating a Satanic cult led by an Aleister Crowley-like figure. Chock-full of remarkable noir-ish visuals and almost unbearably suspenseful set pieces from beginning to end. A masterpiece.

2. SUSPIRIA (Dario Argento, Italy, 1978): A
The most famous of all Italian horror films centers on an American girl arriving at a ballet school in Germany and discovering that it’s run by a coven of witches! There are startling images galore (maggots, a room full of razor wire, attacks by a rabid dog and a bat, etc.) but it’s the bold, stylized color and lighting schemes that truly give this beautiful and surreal film the illogical, uncanny feeling of a nightmare. I’d never seen it before and I’m glad my first time was with the new 4K restoration. Recommended by David Hanley.

3. THE BODY SNATCHER (Val Lewton/Robert Wise, USA, 1945): A
This is what I’m talking about! Boris Karloff is a carriage driver in 18th-century Scotland who provides cadavers — by any means necessary — to a medical school in exchange for cash. The interesting thing is that Karloff’s character, a very charismatic murderer, isn’t the villain. The stick-in-the-mud doctor running the school (who has a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about where the bodies come from) is. Great script and performances and stylish cinematography. The scene between Karloff and Bela Lugosi (reuniting 11 years after Edgar Ulmer’s masterpiece THE BLACK CAT) is an all-timer. So much fun.

4. THE ENTITY (Sidney Furie, USA, 1982): A
This was straight-up the scariest movie of the 31 that Jill and I watched. It’s about a single mother of three who is repeatedly sexually assaulted by an invisible presence in her own home. The attack sequences, accompanied by what sounds like an industrial version of the PSYCHO shower theme, are horrifying. Director Sidney Furie gets a lot of mileage from showing the incursion of evil into a totally banal suburban California setting, and Barbara Hershey’s lead performance is incredible.

5. WITCHFINDER GENERAL (Michael Reeves, UK/USA, 1968): A
Wow, this was an intense and disturbing film! It features what was reportedly one of Vincent Price’s favorite roles and it’s easy to see why: Matthew Hopkins, a real-life self-appointed “witchfinder” who traveled 17th-century England torturing and killing “witches” for money, was the most evil character he ever played. Every one of Price’s line readings is amazing — the unique softness of his voice providing ironic counterpoint to the utter vileness of Hopkins’ deeds. Although not entirely historically accurate, this film nonetheless gets to the heart of the hypocrisy of witch hunts better than any film I’ve seen (aside from Dreyer’s DAY OF WRATH).

6. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (George Romero, USA, 1968): A
I hadn’t watched this in over 20 years so it was a real pleasure to see it again in MoMA’s beautiful new restoration (which George Romero oversaw shortly before his death). Very few popular subgenres descend so definitively from a single movie the way the “zombie film” does from this one. Such a lively piece of filmmaking and such a powerful allegory for American unrest during the Vietnam War and Civil Rights era. The occasionally stilted acting by a cast of unknowns only enhances both the realism and the horror.

7. THE WICKER MAN (Robin Hardy, UK, 1975): A-
A police inspector travels to a remote Scottish Isle in search of a missing girl but the inhabitants are less than forthcoming and nothing is what it seems! I had never seen this much beloved British “folk horror” film before – nor, thankfully, knew any details of the plot – but immediately got what all the fuss was about. Christopher Lee FTW. Recommended by Natalya Oshurkova.

8. THE UNINVITED (Lewis Allen, USA, 1944): A-
Great, atmospheric ghost story set in the UK but made in Hollywood by the non-auteurist-approved director Lewis Allen. Beautiful black-and-white cinematography and impressive ghost effects (even if the film isn’t actively “scary” by today’s standards). Ray Milland and Gail Russell are very appealing as the central couple. I was amazed to learn that the famous standard “Stella by Starlight” was written for this film (Russell’s character is named Stella).

9. RITUALS (Peter Carter, Canada, 1977): A-
A good reason to do a 31-days-of-horror-challenge is to try and seek out underrated or overlooked gems that you’ve never even heard of before. This Canadian “survivalist horror” movie served that function better than any other title on the list. A group of five friends (all of whom are doctors) go on a fishing trip together and find themselves menaced by an unknown assailant. This is a brutal but very well made film featuring a good script, great performances (especially Hal Holbrook as the lead) and taut direction. Obviously influenced by DELIVERANCE, which it’s just as good as and twice as scary as.

10. THE FOG (John Carpenter, USA, 1980): A-
Perhaps John Carpenter’s most underrated movie, this has to do with ghosts from a leper colony seeking vengeance on the citizens of a coastal California town whose founders deliberately caused their demise a century before. Beautifully shot and edited, the whole thing feels like a feature film version of the kind of campfire ghost story being told by John Houseman in the irresistible prologue. This was the second and final screenwriting collaboration between Carpenter and Debra Hill (not counting the obligatory HALLOWEEN II, which Carpenter didn’t direct) and it’s obvious in hindsight that she brought a welcome female energy to his work that can’t be found in his subsequent movies.

11. ISLE OF THE DEAD (Val Lewton/Mark Robson, USA, 1945): A-
Another Lewton/Karloff joint that I hadn’t seen before. A group of people quarantined on a Greek Island after an outbreak of the plague in 1912 break off into two camps: those who believe in science vs. those who believe in superstition! This has atmosphere to spare and the live-burial climax is terrifying.

12. A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH (Grover Babcock/Blue Hadaegh, USA, 2003): A-
This is a different kind of horror movie: a documentary about what happens to people (and their possessions) when they die with no known next of kin. With cool objectivity, the filmmakers follow several Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office employees going about their daily routines. While the movie isn’t remotely sensationalistic (even if shots of corpses in various stages of decomposition will make this difficult viewing for some), it becomes incredibly haunting precisely because of its matter-of-factness. Recommended by Rob Christopher.

13. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (John Carpenter, USA, 1995): B+
Jill picked this, which we’d seen before but it’d been a while. John Carpenter’s last great film. Sam Neill is terrific as an insurance investigator who loses his mind while looking for a missing horror novelist. The final scene shows Neill’s character entering a movie theater and watching a film titled IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS starring himself and directed by “John Carpenter.” After plunging down this meta-horror rabbit hole there was really nothing else left for JC to do.

14. ANGUISH (Bigas Luna, Spain, 1987): B+
Wow. I’d never even heard of this crazy Spanish-American co-production until Patrick Friel recommended it (and Adrian Martin backed him up). It starts off as a straightforward horror movie about an eye surgeon with mommy issues then unexpectedly transforms into a self-reflexive exercise about horror movies. I greatly enjoyed the Hitchcock homages (to PSYCHO, SPELLBOUND and THE BIRDS in particular) and Michael Lerner’s performance is great though I’m not sure the conceit sustains its cleverness for the entire run time.

15. DREAMS OF A LIFE (Carol Morley, UK, 2012): B+
Inspired by our unconventional pick of A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH, Jill searched for other “scary documentaries” to round out our list and came up with this one and DEAR ZACHARY (see below). This is about a 38-year-old woman who died of unknown causes while wrapping Christmas presents in her London apartment but whose body wasn’t discovered until over two years later. By including interviews with those who knew the woman as well as reenactments of her life (one such sequence owes a debt to CLEO FROM 5 TO 7), this asks a lot of questions about how a relatively well-off young person in an urban environment can end up totally forgotten by society. Scary (in an existential sense) and heartbreaking.

16. ALICE SWEET ALICE (Alfred Sole, USA, 1976): B+
When a little girl (Brooke Shields in her film debut) is murdered on the day of her first communion, her troubled older sister seems to be the culprit. But is she? As a film, this may not have much to “say” but the murder sequences (perpetrated by a spectacularly creepy masked figure in a yellow raincoat) are scary and potent even by today’s standards. Recommended by Max O’Connell.

17. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (Roger Corman, USA, 1964): B
Although I’ve seen many films produced by Roger Corman (including two elsewhere on this list), this adaptation of one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous stories is the first Corman-directed film I’ve ever seen. It’s a fun movie with two things to recommend it: Nicolas Roeg’s beautiful color cinematography and the way that Vincent Price seems to relish delivering every line of dialogue.

18. THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (Piers Haggard, UK, 1970): B
A farmer in 17th-century England digs up a demon corpse while plowing his field. The grisly discovery has the consequence of turning the village children into a Satan-worshiping coven. Worth seeing for the impressive period detail and some genuinely frightening moments but the script leaves something to be desired – especially the way the local judge abruptly emerges as the hero in the final act.

19. TALES FROM THE HOOD (Rusty Cundieff, USA, 1995): B
Clever anthology in the TALES FROM THE CRYPT/CREEPSHOW mode but the filmmakers here use the horror genre to explicitly comment on racial and social ills. An unhinged Clarence Williams III is fantastic as the narrator in the framing segments. “Welcome to hell, motherfuckers!”

20. THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (Terence Fisher, UK, 1968): B
As a big fan of Terence Fisher’s earliest Hammer horror films (e.g., THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA), I was hoping this tale of an astronomical society fronting for a satan-worshipping cult — supposedly the movie that brought the studio into the modern era — would be a deathless masterpiece. It’s not — it’s a little too hokey and lightweight for that (especially in comparison to something like ROSEMARY’S BABY, which came out the same year) but it has its moments and Christopher Lee, as a good guy, is magnificent as always.

21. DEF BY TEMPTATION (James Bond III, USA, 1990): B
A nice surprise! Horror/comedy about a female vampire stalking male “players” in the bars of Brooklyn. The first film to use vampirism as a metaphor for AIDS? Beautifully photographed on a shoestring by Spike Lee’s then-regular DP Ernest Dickerson. Kadeem Hardison is charismatic AF and should’ve become a big star. Crazy that writer/director/actor James Bond III never directed or acted again after this. Recommended by Janina Bradley.

22. BODY MELT (Philip Brophy, Australia, 1991): B-
Jillian picked this outrageous Australian body horror/black comedy, which has something to do with a vitamin pill causing deadly side effects in test subjects. I didn’t fully grasp what was going on on a plot level but it was visually inventive and funny enough to the point where I also didn’t really care.

23. GALAXY OF TERROR (B.D. Clark, USA, 1981): B-
Roger Corman-produced ALIEN knockoff but with more sex and violence. Entertaining trash from beginning to end with a good cast that includes Robert “Freddie Krueger” Englund and Grace “Sarah Palmer” Zabriskie. Recommended by Patrick Friel and Bowls MacLean.

24. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (John Hough, UK, 1973): B-
This Richard Matheson-scripted yarn about paranormal investigators venturing into the “Mt. Everest of haunted houses” is a decently entertaining PG-rated affair. Roddy McDowell gives a very committed and sweaty performance. Recommended by Alan Hoffman.

25. TALES FROM THE HOOD 2
(Rusty Cundieff/Darin Scott, USA, 2018): B-
Same concept as the original – and nearly as good – but updated for 2018 (which means, of course, it comments on Trumpism). Well worth seeing but this gets docked half a letter grade for the didactic Emmett Till segment.

26. HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (Barbara Peeters, USA, 1980): C+
Imagine CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON but with gore and nudity. Relentlessly silly but compulsively watchable. The climax with sea-monsters running amok at a carnival is a riot. Apparently Andy Warhol’s favorite movie. Recommended by Aaron Leventman.

27. HOCUS POCUS (Kenny Ortega, 1993): C+
Jillian picked this. Kind of cute in an early ’90s/Disney kind of way, and Bette Midler is a hoot (especially when she sings Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ immortal “I Put a Spell on You,” but this lacks the subversive edge that it sorely needs, an edge that someone like, say, Joe Dante would’ve brought to to it.

28. JUST BEFORE DAWN (Jeff Lieberman, USA, 1981): C
This has a good reputation among slasher aficionados and I can appreciate that it’s the kind of thing that’s well done for what it is — but “what it is” (a film about young people going camping and being murdered one-by-one by a large backwoods dude with a machete) will never really be my thing.

29. DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER (Kurt Kuenne, USA, 2008): C
A filmmaker makes a sort of “video diary” about his murdered friend for the dead man’s infant son. This is one of the earliest entries in a still ongoing documentary trend (see THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS) in which admittedly incredible true stories are put across in a thriller-like manner with an emphasis on unexpected developments and bombshell revelations. I was annoyed by the overly-fast cutting and treacly score.

30. SOCIETY (Brian Yuzna, USA, 1989): C-
This cheesy low-budget 1980s body-horror actually has a great climactic party sequence full of impressive and outrageous “practical effects.” But…it’s kind of a dull journey getting there.

31. FREDDY VS. JASON (Ronnie Yu, USA, 2003): D
Jill picked this. It’s very bad, of course, but it does contain certain stylistic hallmarks (e.g., red-and-blue lighting, copious fog) of director Ronnie Yu, who once upon a time made great movies in Hong Kong (e.g., THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR).

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E.U. Film Festival Week Three: Vote for Pedro!

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At Cine-File today I have a review of Horse Money, the latest film from Portuguese master Pedro Costa, which receives its Chicago premiere at the Siskel Center’s European Union Film Festival tonight. It’s Costa’s fourth consecutive fiction feature to examine the lives of Cape Verdean immigrants living in the Lisbon shantytown of Fontainhas (which hopefully means the Criterion Collection will upgrade their Fontainhas trilogy DVD box-set to a new quadrilogy Blu-ray set) and, in many ways, it’s the most accessible since the first, 1997’s Ossos. It also forms a diptych with Costa’s last fiction feature, 2006’s Colossal Youth, since both take the retired construction worker credited only as “Ventura” as their subject. This is flat-out amazing filmmaking, folks — as poetic as it is political, and informed by a cinephilia that is put to very different ends than the self-congratulatory, spot-the-reference, Tarantino/Simpsons variety that has become depressingly commonplace in contemporary American culture. Note, for instance, the way Ventura is alternately lit and framed to resemble both Darby Jones in Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (i.e., as he wanders the halls of a hospital in a zombie-like trance) at the film’s beginning and Woody Strode in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (i.e., made to seem heroic) during the film’s astonishing climactic elevator/”exorcism” scene — and what each of these visual quotations reveals about his character.

Both Costa and John Ford frame their protagonists from below but light them from above, making the characters seem heroic:

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I also had the great pleasure of interviewing Costa for Time Out Chicago this week. I asked him if Horse Money‘s final shot, which depicts Ventura looking at knives in a store’s display window, was an homage to a similar shot in Fritz Lang’s M. He said that it wasn’t a conscious reference but added that I may have been right to bring up the man he reverentially calls “Mr. Lang” (whose films were so concerned with “justice”) before adding the killer line, “Our films should avenge.” You can read the complete interview here.

Darby Jones as Carrefour in the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur masterpiece I Walked with a Zombie:

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Peter Lorre, as the child killer Hans Beckert, looking at knives in a display window in Fritz Lang’s M:

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A Golden Age of Hollywood Primer, pt. 1

Trying to pare down several decades worth of treasures from Hollywood’s golden age to a list of essential titles was for me virtually impossible. The “studio system era,” lasting from roughly the dawn of the talkie in the late 1920s through the dissolution of the monopoly the studios held on the industry in the late 1950s, was characterized by an assembly line approach to film production that, perhaps paradoxically, proved particularly fertile for the notion of the director as auteur. This diverse and prolific period, which I study the way some art historians study the Renaissance, is just too rich. Nevertheless, I tried! Making my job easier was the decision to “supersize” the list to include 26 titles, which I’ll be splitting across two posts. Also helping out were a few self-imposed rules, such as including only one film per director and only including films produced by the major studios (thus leaving out Poverty Row gems like Edgar Ulmer’s Detour). I also tried to be well-rounded in terms of covering all of the major genres and stars of the era. While it simply wasn’t possible to make the list comprehensive, anyone wanting to become well-versed in classic Hollywood cinema should eventually check out all of the titles below.

The list is in chronological order. Part one encompasses the years 1930 – 1947:

Morocco (von Sternberg, Paramount, 1930)

Hot on the heels of their German masterpiece The Blue Angel, director Joseph von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich re-teamed for this luminously photgraphed fantasy, the latter’s first Hollywood film. The story concerns the doomed love affair between a cabaret singer (Dietrich) and a good-for-nothing French Legionnaire (Gary Cooper, impossibly young and even a little sexy) in the exotic title country. Dietrich memorably performs in drag and even kisses a female audience member on the lips in this outrageously entertaining pre-Code melodrama.

Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, Paramount, 1932)

Another German emigre, director Ernst Lubitsch, inaugurated his mature period with this elegant, witty and sophisticated comedy about a love triangle between a master thief (Herbert Marshall), a female pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and the wealthy businesswoman they are both trying to fleece (Kay Francis). Not only a hilarious film but a very beautiful one; if you want to know what the famous “Lubitsch touch” is all about, this is the best place to start.

Modern Times (Chaplin, United Artists, 1936)

Charlie Chaplin’s last film to feature his “Little Tramp” persona and his first sound film is also, fittingly, the first to pull him out of the Victorian era and into an industrial, recognizably twentieth century landscape. Modern Times masterfully blends comedy and pathos in a series of vignettes as the Tramp and a “gamin” (Paulette Godard, Chaplin’s best leading lady) attempt to find jobs and work toward a brighter future while simultaneously avoiding the cops and a juvenile officer. This contains some of Chaplin’s best known slapstick gags including the opening assembly line scene, in which the Tramp is run through the cogs of a giant machine; on Criterion’s blu-ray edition, the Dardennes brothers note that this image uncannily resembles film running through a projector.

Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, Paramount, 1937)

The Pere Goriot of the cinema: unable to meet their mortgage payments, a retired married couple (Beulah Bondi and Broadway actor Victor Moore) lose possession of their house and are forced to split up and be shuttled between the homes of their ungrateful grown children. A fascinating look at Depression era America in the days before social security, Leo McCarey’s subtle and perceptive film was also clear influence on Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Also a strong candidate for the title of saddest movie ever made.

Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, RKO, 1938)

Cary Grant is an uptight, work-obsessed paleontologist who finds his world turned upside down by zany, free-spirited socialite Katherine Hepburn. After meeting cute on a golf course, a series of mishaps ensues culminating with the pair escorting a leopard to her aunt’s house in the country. Howard Hawks’ masterpiece is the quintessential screwball comedy – a battle of the sexes love story that is fast-paced, ridiculous and very, very funny.

The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, Warner Brothers, 1939)

The conventions of the gangster movie crystallized in the early ’30s with the release of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. By decade’s end, director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney, both specialists in the genre, delivered the definitive gangster movie with this epic and nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of the bootlegging industry. The way the narrative of The Roaring Twenties continually opens up to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29) would exert a major influence on Martin Scorsese. And, as the heavy, Humphrey Bogart is a match for Cagney made in tough guy movie heaven.

Citizen Kane (Welles, RKO, 1941)

Orson Welles’ legendary film about the life of a newspaper tycoon loosely based on William Randolph Hearst was completed when its writer/director/star was just 26 years old. Revolutionary for both its deep focus cinematography and its intricate flashback structure, Citizen Kane also astonishes by capturing wide swaths of human experience in its two hour running time. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is the film most often cited by critics and historians as the greatest of all time.

Casablanca (Curtiz, Warner Brothers, 1942)

You must remember this: Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, an American nightclub owner living in Morocco, whose cynical exterior conceals a sentimental heart; Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund, the Norwegian woman he loved and lost in pre-War France, only to find again under less-than-ideal circumstances in the Vichy-controlled title city. Out of all the gin joints in the world, why did she have to walk into his?! Thank God for the sake of movie lovers that she did. They’ll always have Paris – and we’ll always have Casablanca.

The Seventh Victim (Robson, RKO, 1943)

Although made on a small budget and directed by Mark Robson (who is not generally considered an auteur), The Seventh Victim is essential to include as a representation of the cycle of poetic horror films churned out by RKO’s genius auteur-producer Val Lewton. The plot concerns a young woman’s investigation into her sister’s disappearance, which leads to the discovery of . . . a cult of devil worshipers in Greenwich Village! Creepy, atmospheric, delightfully ambiguous and way ahead of its time.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, Paramount, 1944)

Writer/director Preston Sturges was to the American cinema what Mark Twain was to American literature: the greatest satirist of our mores and all that we hold sacred. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is his most subversive work, a cinematic powder-keg that does impressive narrative somersaults in order to illustrate the predicament of Trudy Kockenlocker (a name that makes me laugh just to type it). Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a small town girl who, in one long drunken night, meets, marries and gets knocked up by a soldier before he heads off to war – but wakes up the next morning unable to remember anything about him. Hilarity ensues when she turns to 4F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), her longtime admirer-from-afar, to help prevent the inevitable local scandal.

The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, MGM, 1946)

The best film ever made about returning soldiers being re-assimilated into American society, The Best Years of Our Lives avoids mawkishness while packing a heavyweight dramatic punch. Lead acting chores fall on Fredric March, Dana Andrews and the unforgettable non-actor Harold Russell, whose characters (representing the Army, Air Force and Navy, respectively) are ecstatic to be demobilized at the conclusion of WWII, only to have to navigate their own emotional minefields back home. Bring a box of kleenex.

It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, RKO, 1946)

Forget about the overplayed highlights and endlessly parodied moments, It’s a Wonderful Life is a much darker film than its reputation would suggest; it is essentially the story of a man whose life’s ambitions have been thwarted at every turn, rendering him unable to realize his dreams and leading him to contemplate suicide on Christmas Eve. And while it’s true that Bedford Falls would have been worse off without George Bailey, have you considered that the rest of the world might have been better off had the enterprising young man left home like he wanted to? If it is ultimately an uplifting film that’s because, as Bob Dylan once sang, the darkest hour is just before the dawn. This is the film director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart were born to make.

Out of the Past (Tourneur, RKO, 1947)

The ultimate film noir – a cynical, fatalistic crime movie with a gorgeous, shadowy visual style in which writer Daniel Mainwaring and director Jacques Tourneur create a dichotomy between: cool detective (Robert Mitchum) and hotheaded gangster (Kirk Douglas), good girl (Virginia Huston) and femme fatale (Jane Greer), idyllic small town and corrupt big city, day and night. Remade officially as Against All Odds and unofficially as A History of Violence.

To be continued . . .


Putting Out Fire with Gasoline (First Time Around)

In honor of Halloween, today’s post concerns one of my favorite horror movies – the RKO production of Cat People from 1942, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur.

Beginning in the early 1940s, RKO Radio Pictures released a cycle of low-budget but poetic horror movies designed to compete with the wildly successful monster movies that Universal Studios had been churning out for over a decade. Cat People is the first and probably the most famous example of this unique and celebrated breed of horror. Although directed by Jacques Tourneur, a great director in his own right who would go on to make Out of the Past (one of the masterpieces of film noir), Cat People today is more often than not discussed as the work of its producer, Val Lewton, rather than Tourneur. In our auteurist age, where movies are typically thought of as personal expressions of their directors, even by casual movie fans, this makes Lewton something of an anomaly.

When the Ukrainian-born, former MGM writer Lewton was given his own B-horror production unit at RKO early in 1942, he was given three rules to follow: he had to use titles for his films that were supplied by his superiors, he had to work with a meager budget of only $150,000 per picture and he had to bring in each film at a running time of under 75 minutes. Within those parameters, Lewton could do as he pleased and he had a talented group of writers, directors, actors and technicians under his command. He would re-use this team (including writer DeWitt Bodeen, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and directors Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson) over and over through classic chillers like Curse of the Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man and, my personal favorite, The Seventh Victim. If Lewton is today considered the primary “author” of these movies, it’s because they have more in common with each other than any of them do with other films made by the same directors that were not produced by Lewton. Also, as Kent Jones points out in his excellent documentary Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows, Lewton was the definitive hands-on producer who practically “pre-directed” his movies on paper before shooting began.

So what are the hallmarks of a Lewton production? First of all, he worked exclusively in the horror genre but he had unique ideas about how horror should be conveyed. The horror in the RKO cycle is almost always supernatural in nature and yet there’s also a certain amount of ambiguity surrounding the supernatural elements – Lewton liked to keep these elements off-screen and out of sight. Cat People, for instance, is about a “cursed” young woman who literally turns into a giant cat when driven to extreme emotional states. However, you never see her as the “cat person” because after the transformation has taken place, she is either kept off-screen or hidden in shadows onscreen (as is the case with the film’s justifiably famous indoor swimming pool scene). Low-key lighting was very important to Lewton’s films because he felt that keeping crucial visual information shrouded in darkness would allow the audience to imagine what was there. Lewton knew that the horror you can imagine is more frightening than anything you can be shown.

Also key to Lewton’s universe is having a strong-willed but sympathetic female protagonist. In Cat People it’s a young Serbian woman named Irena (played with an appropriate mixture of creepiness, stubbornness and vulnerability by the wonderful French actress Simone Simon), who suffers from the aforementioned ancient curse. Or is it simply a figment of her imagination? After a whirlwind courtship with Oliver (Kent Smith), a successful, blandly handsome engineer, the disturbed young woman gets married but, fearing the transformation that may take place in the heat of passion (paging Dr. Freud!), she refuses to consummate the marriage. As time goes by, Oliver grows impatient with his beautiful but frigid bride and enters into a relationship with Alice (Jane Randolph), an attractive co-worker.

It is within these characters and their interrelationships that the film’s modest genius resides. Oliver comes across as a nice guy on the surface but the closer one looks the more he seems uncaring and a little too quick to jump into the arms of the next attractive woman who comes along. The moment in the film when he and Alice give Irena the brush-off in a museum is genuinely heartbreaking. For her part, Irena comes across as both killer and victim; Cat People may be typical of the 1940s in that it “others” female sexuality but the tension between the filmmakers’ conflicting desires to make Irena the character of whom we are afraid and with whom we are meant to most closely identify makes the film look unusually complex today. The one time Irena acts on her murderous impulses is when a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (winningly played with repugnant self-satisfaction by Tom Conway), betrays her trust and makes unwanted sexual advances towards her. In other words, the good doc gets what’s coming to him. This strategy of having the viewer identify with “the other” character is unusual even in today’s horror movies (see my recent post on Guillermo del Toro) but it is also precisely what makes Cat People a beautiful, poignant and, finally, tragic film; Val Lewton knew how to make us locate the horror within ourselves.


Top 25 Films of the 1940s

25. The Ornamental Hairpin (Shimizu, Japan, 1941)

Hiroshi Shimizu’s film about a disparate group of vacationers staying at a hot springs resort for the summer starts off as a comedy and then wondrously, imperceptibly morphs into a poignant drama. The great Chishu Ryu (best known for his work with Ozu) plays a soldier who badly injures his foot when he steps on a hairpin in the communal bath. He later discovers that it was left behind by a beautiful young woman played by Kinuya Tanaka (best known for her work with Mizoguchi). When she returns to the resort to apologize, all of the guests speculate that love must be in the cards. But Shimizu, a master of subtlety, decides to steer the material in a more interesting direction. Released less than four months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, The Ornamental Hairpin contains fleeting references to to the war and the fact that Tanaka’s character is a geisha, lending touches of gravitas to another deceptively light Shimizu masterwork.

24. Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, USA, 1944)

23. Going My Way (McCarey, USA, 1944)

bing crosby, gene lockhart & barry fitzgerald - going my way 1944

22. Colorado Territory (Walsh, USA, 1949)

21. Laura (Preminger, USA, 1944)

20. Notorious (Hitchcock, USA, 1946)

19. Children of Paradise (Carne, France, 1945)

The best collaboration of director Marcel Carne and writer Jacques Prevert is this epic tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century theater. Baptiste is a mime who falls in love with aspiring actress Garance. His shyness prevents their affair from being consummated and they go their separate ways until, years later, fate brings them back together for one last shot at romance. Both the behind the scenes look at theater and the depiction of 19th century France are lovingly detailed and passionately executed. This is sometimes referred to as a French Gone with the Wind but it’s actually much better than even that would suggest. One of the all-time great French movies.

18. Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947)

The ultimate film noir – a cynical, fatalistic crime movie with a gorgeous, shadowy visual style in which writer Daniel Mainwaring and director Jacques Tourneur create a dichotomy between: cool detective (Robert Mitchum) and hotheaded gangster (Kirk Douglas), good girl (Virginia Huston) and femme fatale (Jane Greer), idyllic small town and corrupt big city, day and night. Remade officially as Against All Odds and unofficially as A History of Violence.

17. Brief Encounter (Lean, UK, 1945)

David Lean will probably always be best remembered for lavish, 70mm-photographed Oscar-friendly pictures like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, but I think his relatively early Brief Encounter remains the high point of his career. It’s a minimalist story of adulterous love as “brief” and compressed as the later films are expansive and epic, and arguably all the more effective for it. The performances of Trevor Howard and doe-eyed Celia Johnson as the star-crossed lovers and the script by Noel Coward are all world class. In a memorable line of dialogue Celia’s Laura says “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” If “violence” can be considered purely emotional then this is one of the most violent movies ever made.

16. Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch, USA, 1943)

15. The Third Man (Reed, UK, 1949)

In Carol Reed’s classic British noir Joseph Cotton stars Holly Martins, a dime store novelist who travels to Vienna to visit childhood pal Harry Lime only to find that his friend has died in a mysterious accident. Martins’ belief that Lime was murdered inspires a personal investigation that leads him deep into the morally dubious heart of the postwar European black market as well as into a love affair with Lime’s beautiful girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli). Among the film’s unforgettable ingredients are the catchy zither score by Anton Karas, the legendary extended cameo by Orson Welles and the cinematography of Robert Krasker, whose use of dutch angles and chiaroscuro lighting make the rubble-strewn Viennese streets look positively lunar.

14. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1948)

13. Late Spring (Ozu, Japan, 1949)

Yasujiro Ozu kickstarted his great late period with this terrific drama about a young woman named Noriko (Setsuko Hara, playing the first of three Norikos for Ozu) who lives with her widower father (Chishu Ryu) and is reluctant to get married for fear of leaving him alone. Not only is this the first of the loose “Noriko trilogy” (even though Hara’s characters are different in each film), it also laid down the template that all of Ozu’s subsequent films would follow until his death in 1963: the themes of intergenerational conflict, familial love, loss and regret, wedded to a precise visual style favoring static, low angle compositions and long takes. The depth of feeling that arises from this marriage of form and content is simply unparalleled in cinema.

12. Ivan the Terrible Parts I and II (Eisenstein, Russian, 1944-1958)

ivan

11. Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945)

10. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, USA, 1944)

Writer/director Preston Sturges was to the American cinema what Mark Twain was to American literature: the greatest satirist of our mores and all that we hold sacred. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is his most subversive work, a cinematic powder-keg that does impressive narrative somersaults in order to illustrate the predicament of Trudy Kockenlocker (a name that makes me laugh just to type it). Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a small town girl who, in one long drunken night, meets, marries and gets knocked up by a soldier before he heads off to war – but wakes up the next morning unable to remember anything about him. Hilarity ensues when she turns to 4F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), her longtime admirer-from-afar, to help prevent the inevitable local scandal.

9. Day of Wrath (Dreyer, Denmark, 1943)

The first sound film that Carl Dreyer made in his native Denmark is this great work of art about religious intolerance, hypocrisy and persecution in the 17th century. While “witches” are being burned at the stake, a beautiful young woman marries an elderly pastor and then embarks on an affair with his son, leading to tragedy for everyone. This is no stolid “period drama” but rather a vital piece of filmmaking with incredibly atmospheric cinematography, restrained but razor sharp performances and a story that brims with obvious parallels to the question-and-torture methods of the Nazis. One of the essential films of its era.

8. Spring in a Small Town (Fei, China, 1948)

7. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, USA, 1946)

William Wyler’s hard-hitting film about returning war veterans readjusting to civilian life holds up extremely well today as an absorbing drama as well as a fascinating window into the myriad social issues facing ordinary, small town Americans in the mid-1940s. Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography and the large ensemble cast, including Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and non-actor Harold Russell, are world-class.

6. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, UK, 1948)

As “The Archers,” Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collectively wrote and directed the most extraordinary movies of the golden age of British cinema and The Red Shoes is their masterpiece. Taking its inspiration from a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, this beautiful, visually baroque Technicolor extravaganza tells the story of a ballerina (Moira Shearer) who is torn between the desires of her heart and the quest for perfection in her craft. The highlight is the title ballet sequence, a fifteen minute scene employing dozens of dancers and over a hundred painted backdrops, shot and cut together as a thrilling spectacle of pure cinema. One of the great films about obsession. One of the great films about the artistic process. One of the great films period.

5. Casablanca (Curtiz, USA, 1942)

A strong candidate for the most entertaining movie ever made, Casablanca irresistibly weds the theme of self-sacrifice for a greater good to a love story set against a backdrop of wartime intrigue. Mix in Bogie and Bergman at their most iconic, deliciously witty dialogue, a cast of colorful supporting characters played by unforgettable character actors and the able craftsmanship of director Michael Curtiz and you have Exhibit A for anyone looking to understand the genius of Hollywood’s old studio system.

4. Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941)

Orson Welles’ legendary film about the life of a newspaper tycoon loosely based on William Randolph Hearst was completed when its writer/director/star was just 26 years old. Revolutionary for both its deep focus cinematography and its intricate flashback structure, Citizen Kane also astonishes by capturing wide swaths of human experience in its two hour running time. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is the film most often cited by critics and historians as the greatest of all time.

3. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, Italy, 1948)

The definitive Italian Neorealist film remains a deceptively simple, emotionally overwhelming experience that must be seen by anyone who loves movies. Writer Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio de Sica crafted the ultimately politically engaged drama with this tale of Antonio Ricci, an unemployed factory worker (non-actor Lamberto Maggiorani) who finds a job putting up posters around Rome that requires the use of a bicycle. After selling his bedsheets to get his bike out of hock, Antonio finds that his bicycle is tragically stolen, a turn of events that causes him to spend the day looking for the thief with the aid of his young son Bruno (Enzo Staioloa). A humanistic portrait of despair that has never been bettered.

2. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, 1941)

The failure of the Academy to award Best Picture of 1941 to Citizen Kane is often cited as definitive “proof” that the Oscars have always been out of touch – the cinematic equivalent of the Grammys not honoring Elvis, The Beatles or Bob Dylan for their best recorded work. However, as innovative and influential and great as Kane is, John Ford’s deeply moving portrait of life in a 19th century Welsh mining community is nearly as cinematically expressive and, for my money, the more emotionally affecting work. Ironically, How Green Was My Valley is very similar to Kane in its treatment of the theme of subjectivity; what we see is not after all objective reality but the romanticized memories of Irving Pichel’s offscreen narrator.

1. Letter From an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, USA, 1948)

Set in Vienna in the early twentieth century, Max Ophuls’ masterpiece tells the incredible story of the title letter-writer (Joan Fontaine) and her three brief but fateful encounters with a ne’er-do-well pianist (Louis Jourdan) over the course of several decades. His inability to recognize her on the latter two occasions elevates the simple plot, which is recounted via flashback, to the level of high tragedy. Fontaine is heart-breaking in the lead role but the real star is German-born, French-bred director Max Ophuls, whose relentless use of tracking shots has made him virtually synonymous with that type of camera movement and has been a major influence on subsequent directors from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson.


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