Friday, March 28, 2014

The Desperate Hours (1955)

The Hillard's are your average suburban family, with a father (Fredric March), mother (Martha Scott), grown daughter (Mary Murphy), and young son (Richard Eyer). One day, their organized routine is disrupted when a trio of escaped convicts, led by Humphrey Bogart, invade their home and force them at gunpoint to keep their existence quite.

The movie is not that far from a horror film; you have the home invasion angle and the characters making stupid decisions that elongate their trial. However, what raises The Desperate Hours above most other films covering the same ground is its brief shocking bits of violence. There's no blood, but there are guns being used as a club, as well as breaking of glass, china, and furniture. As the criminals feel more at home, the family, particularly the patriarch, take to using more and more desperate measures to try to get them out of their house. What results is a tense, if slightly overlong, film that toys with the security that one would normally feel in suburbia, topped by stellar performances from March, Scott, Bogart, and Arthur Kennedy as the deputy sheriff put in charge of the manhunt.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

What Price Hollywood? (1932)

A waitress at The Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood, Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) serves the very famous and very inebriated director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman). Being a wannabe actress, Evans gets into his good graces, and he arranges for her to have a bit part in his current film. After a stalled start, this performance impresses the heads of the studio so much that they make her a star. But Hollywood has other trick up its sleeve, not all of them nice.

It's widely believe that this film was the inspiration for the original  A Star is Born (and, by default, its many remakes). It manages to stand up on its own, however, thanks to a good cast and plenty of realist behind the scenes looks at how Hollywood works. There are meetings with yes men, a wedding that gets chaotically mobbed with fans, paparazzi with flashbulbs, and of course, studio scenes, including an indoor rain shower created with sprinklers and fire hoses!

A special highlight is Sherman's performance as the director whose career goes into decline as Bennett's rises. In real life, Sherman was a director along with being an actor, so his few scenes behind the camera have a special sort of authenticity. Sherman also shares very good platonicly fond chemistry with Bennett, and is both amusing and moving as a troubled mentor who is unable to give himself the leg up that his star received on her way to success.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I Married a Witch (1942)

In Puritan times, a witch and her father are burned at the stake in a New England town. Before her execution, however, the witch placed a spell on Johnathan Wooley (Fredric March), the man who accused her, cursing him and all his decedents to be stuck in miserable marriages. Fast-forward to the present, and the newest Wooley (again Fredric March) is running for governor and is due to be married to a shrewish woman (Susan Hayward) the next day. As (bad) luck would have it, the witch is resurrected in the form of Veronica Lake, and she plans to continue messing with the Wooley family by having March fall in love with her.

I have a special nostalgic place in my heart for this movie. It was one of the first old films I ever watched multiple times as a child, and it was my introduction to director René Clair and stars Veronica Lake and Fredric March, the latter who has and will always be one of my favorite actors. Therefore, it's completely reasonable that I should herald this film as an under-seen comedic masterpiece. Which it is. It's funny,  charming,  witty, well-acted, smartly filmed, and contains some marvelous special effects for the time. What more can I say?

Well, Lake gives one of her best performances as the witch of the title, being at times beguiling, conniving, and a little goofy. She pouts when things don't go as planned, but recovers herself by sliding up a banister in order to give March a love potion. March himself is also enjoyable, trying unsuccessfully to hide his attraction to Lake through briskness, only for his voice to squeak whenever she gives him reason to panic. Together they make a cute pair; I'm particularly fond of the sequence when March spends literally all night explaining to Lake why she can't be in love with him, only to end up stroking her hair and laughing at her gobble up his breakfast waffles.

Director René Clair was a master craftsman when it came to moviemaking, and despite being overshadowed by his earlier and more well-regarded French musicals (Le Million for example), I Married a Witch is just as visually stunning as its predecessors. The special effects are deceptively simple, with miniatures, wires, and plenty of smoke to go around. Lake's costumes, designed by Edith Head are gorgeous. And the comedic sequences are golden, especially March's chaotic wedding to Hayward, which is continually interrupted, at first by Lake and her devious spell casting father (Cecil Kellaway), then by March as Lake's influences take their toll on him.

The total effect is nothing short of hilarious; it's the type of film that not only leaves you smiling and maybe a little moved, but will also prevent you from hearing the song "I Love You Truly" the same way ever again.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

You can sure cram in a lot of story in an hour. This pre-code gem stars a young and handsome Joel McCrea as world famous hunter Bob Rainsford, who ends up shipwrecked on a foreboding island. He meets the island's owner, the polite and cultured Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who also happens to be a well regarded hunter. He also has guests who have been shipwrecked a week earlier: siblings Martin (Robert Armstrong) and Eve (Fay Wray) Trowbridge. But something sinister is afoot: turns out that Count Zaroff has grown tired of killing wild animals. Now he enjoys hunting The Most Dangerous Game of All: MAN!!!!

Filmed on the same jungle sets as King King (1933), with the same actors (Wray and Armstrong), producers ( Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, the former additionally co-directing), and composer (Max Steiner), The Most Dangerous Game is based on a short story, but is smart enough not to kill it with padding. The telling is straightforward, and gets to the gist relatively quickly, thanks to some well-placed severed heads. And when we reach the jungle, and McCrea and Wray (a wonderful name pairing), the pacing doesn't lag. There isn't even time given for a love scene, but that shouldn't be suprising; when there are killer dogs and kosaks on your tail, sweet nothings would be the farthest thing from anyone's mind.

McCrea and Wray are in fine form in their lightly ripped clothing, as is Armstrong in his brief role as an realistically annoying drunk, but Banks steals the show. He recites his lines with a touch of camp, but he remains a formidable villain who is equally exited with the prospect of killing McCrea and having Wray. It's to the movie's credit that, though it tells a gripping yarn, the stakes are never lowered. Banks's Zaroff is a figure of imminence experience and discipline when it comes to hunting, making the chase sequences chock full of suspense, particularly when the couple are pursued by Zaroff and his hounds through a foggy swamp.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Blood and Sand (1922)

Juan Gallardo (Rudolph Valentino) is a famous bullfighter in Spain, married to his saintly childhood sweetheart Carmen (Lila Lee), but seduced into an affair with the vampy Doña Sol (Nita Naldi). This silent film is one of Valentino's better known titles, but without him, it would have been a slog to get through.

The movie seems to be preoccupied not only with the adulterous hijinks of Naldi and our hero, but also with the idea that nothing good can result from a career which puts so much emphasis on death. It presses the latter point home with the inclusion of two rather superfluous characters who are vague acquaintances of Juan: an outlaw who also makes his living by killing, and a philosopher who muses on passion and death while gazing at the torture devises that decorate his study (a macabre hobby that no one else seems to find odd).

Valentino is in fine form, as usual, and pulls off the bullfighting garb. Naldi is unintentionally very amusing as the bad girl who causes our hero to stray the moment she gives him an ancient Eygptian snake ring as a trophy for one of his successful kills. At one point in the film, she bites his hand in a passion, causing him to violently throw her across the room! She is the definition of over the top silent film acting, and is by far the most amusing aspect of the film

The 1941 technicolor version, with Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth, is a far more satisfying and engrossing telling, but Valentino and Silent Film fans should check the original out in passing. Just don't expect anything mindblowing.

Fun Factoid: Fred Niblo, the director of the 1922 film, went on to direct silent versions of Ben Hur (1925) and Camille (1926), both of which are also overshadowed by later, more famous cinematic variations.