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Stopover Tokyo (1957)
Correcting one comment
What the previous commenter says about the movie is basically true--this is simply an escapist picture-postcard movie with a bad, clumsy script. The action, what there is of it, makes no particular sense and the romance is dull and pointless. Some lines of dialogue, like the one about "no paragraph about Welshmen" (used twice!) are actually stupid. However, the commenter also went over the top himself when discussing the movie's condescension. Robert Wagner doesn't say "Ah, Madame Butterfly" to a waitress. She's not a waitress, she's a famous Japanese diva that he met on the flight to Japan, and it's explained in the first scene that she's known for playing Butterfly. So there's nothing condescending or inappropriate about it, but this detail is so clumsily placed (like everything else) that I can't blame the viewer for misunderstanding it.
The Amazing Mr. X (1948)
Clearing up a couple of points
I echo the praise for this film that others have contributed to this page, and I want to clear up a couple of points.
1) Alton's photography is indeed wonderful, but others are credited for "special photographic effects" and "special art effects." Clearly this refers to the "ghost" superimposition that chases the heroine, but I assume it also refers to the lousy matte (rear projection?) work on some of the beach scenes. I'm glad Alton doesn't deserve blame for that.
2) Several people have questioned the "plot hole" about how Christine's husband has supported himself for two years. I don't see any plot hole. Christine's lawyer/boyfriend says he has evidence the man was some kind of bigamist who lived off rich women before, so we don't have to use too much imagination to wonder how he's been living recently or why he's showed up again after two years.
Les raisins de la mort (1978)
About that decapitation (spoilers)
I just saw this Synapse DVD last night and enjoyed it quite a bit, but I have to add a different perspective on the decapitation scene that everyone seems to enjoy. The most shocking and significant part of the scene is the crucifixion, but the head-chopping itself . . . well, it's about as believable as Herschell Gordon Lewis. It's one of those things where a limp, soft, human actress instantly turns into a stiff wooden or plastic mannequin coated with paint. You can even hear the wooden chunk of the hatchet going through! You can only laugh. And the editing of that scene looks like a hatchet was used there too. It's like the director or producer thought he needed a "money shot." That's the most unconvincing moment in the movie, the low point of an otherwise pretty decent, paranoid, nicely photographed nightmare with character touches and subversive elements.
By the way, my favorite element is the fact that the baddies aren't real "living dead" zombies and they don't want to eat the living. They're just people with a disease that drives them mad, but they can be killed in any ordinary way and they don't get up again. That makes it a bit more like "The Crazies" or "Rabid" or "Blue Sunshine" than a traditional zombie movie.
The Ape (1940)
Karloff and Siodmak add class to ridiculous tale
It doesn't sound like much of a compliment, but this cheapie was better than I expected, thanks not only to Karloff's sympathetic performance but to a script by Curt Siodmak, who did much better things. Once you accept that the main idea is stupid, you can appreciate that each individual scene is well-written in terms of character development. Everyone is slightly more ambiguous than their stock character usually would be. The "mad" doctor is sincerely concerned with the insipid heroine who reminds him of his daughter, and his madness is a kind of beautiful tragedy. The "good" boyfriend says he doesn't want her hurt, but he also seems jealous of the doctor and resentful that the heroine won't be so dependent on him. There's real tension in their triangle. The hick sheriff is almost sharp enough to figure things out. The town blowhard gets several scenes showing what a well-chiseled wretch he is, especially the scene with his pathetic wife. The small-towners are all various little unflattering types--lazy, suspicious, gossipy, narrow-minded--not exactly an ad for rural life. Karloff's maid seems mute except when she suddenly whispers one word. There's a city doctor who comes on as an antagonist, then gets converted into an ally by Karloff's evidence, and disappears from the movie! There's the wise caretaker, introduced in a surprising pan shot that begins with a black circus worker playing a trumpet for a dancing elephant and ending with the ape being provoked by the rotten trainer. The very ending, too, has a certain power if you meet the movie halfway. The trouble is, just as you're pulled into the simplicity and effectiveness of all these human scenes, along comes another scene with that apesuit to pull the rug out from under the movie's credibility. The ape is the worst thing about THE APE!
Spewing from the core (SPOILERS)
I just saw the DVD of this Cinemascope film from 1959 and found it quite dull except for two elements: Bernard Herrmann's music, and the fact that Pat Boone and tall blond Peter Ronson spend half the movie shirtless. Their pecs are the most impressive effects.
On the surface, as it were, the movie sounds more interesting than it is, but it's incapable of handling its own subtext. It's about the discovery of the erotic by travelling from the repressed northern civilization of Scotland through Iceland to submerged pagan heat. A misogynistic scientist (James Mason) who surrounds himself with strapping lads (his students) goes into a dead volcano, complaining bitterly all the way at being saddled with a woman (a widow, a sign of sexual experience) until they get soaked in a whirpool at the core and he begins to warm up to her. The near-naked Boone also comes on to her at one point but she reminds him that he's got a girl waiting. (He has self-consciously evaded the engagement out of various rationales, financial and scientific.) After facing giant mushrooms (implying the heady nature of the experience) and superimposed iguanas, they discover a ruined temple in Atlantis and climb in a big bowl for sacrifices to the serpent god, which they ride like a cork up the volcano--p.o.v. shots shooting up the tube, reverse shots of Mason and Arlene Dahl floored in orgasmic wonder.
They are ejaculated or re-birthed into the world, landing in the sea, except Boone who lands naked in a tree surrounded by nuns. This typifies the movie's retreat into merry humor, seemingly aimed at kids, whenever it nears the throbbing pulse of its all-too-limp narrative propulsion. Ronson is introduced when Mason and Boone overhear him (they think) kissing and cooing to his lover Gertrude, who turns out to be a duck. Lord, he loves a duck (thus perversely representing the unselfconscious tenderness of foreigners) and flies into a murderous rage when another man eats her. (The duck as sacrificial virgin? Hmm, duck . . . duck . . . ) A pivotal moment, gratuitous except for the subtext, is also played for laffs at an edenic pool where Boone showers behind a discreetly placed boulder and Mason tells Dahl she'll have to take off her "stays" (corset) because it'll be too hot. Their dialogue is played for mutual embarrassment and the duck runs away with the stays. The erotic implications of the moment are themselves stiffly corseted in juvenile humor. We are meant to be amused at these uptight Victorians, never noticing the joke is at our expense, because it is we who must be spared.
Old San Francisco (1927)
Religion conquers all
The climax of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake might be model work made for the film, but it also looks like it might be stock footage (perhaps from Lon Chaney's movie THE SHOCK or something else). In any case, this film and THE SHOCK adopt the "cosmic retribution" angle that the dust-up was really a Gomorrah-like act of divine intervention against the Barbary excesses of Chinatown and such. Anna May Wong is thanklessly wasted as the sinfully exquisite assistant of future Charlie Chan Warner Oland, a ruthless land shark who doesn't let anyone know he's really Chinese. He keeps his jeering dwarf brother in a cage and terrorizes the heiress of an old Spanish family, whose righteous Christian iconography pierces his "mongol heart." He codifies the social and sexual threat of "passing" and miscegenation, which is depicted as repulsive to both races. But this is all articulated in religious terms. The anglos refer to his "heathen gods," while the Chinese get irate that he "betrays his ancestors." For a festival of Asian-American images in silent films, compare this with the more ambiguous sexual morality of Cecil B. DeMille's THE CHEAT with Sessue Hayakawa, the tragedy of Wong's role in THE TOLL OF THE SEA, the later films made by Hayakawa, or even Griffith's BROKEN BLOSSOMS.
interesting racial angles
People are often made uncomfortable by elements that reveal racial attitudes in old movies, but those elements can make the movie fascinating. "Dimples", which is set in the 1850s before the Civil War, often makes explicit references to slavery and also reveals 1930s stereotypes. (Also, the movie keeps referring to "the depression," drawing parallels to the '30s.)
The opening legend calls attention, with deliberate irony, to the fact that some young radicals are questioning "that respectable institution of slavery". Then we see Shirley dancing with black and white street orphans, implying that they are equal in their economic straits. Stepin Fetchit has an important but unbilled role as Frank Morgan's servant (who isn't a slave, but isn't getting paid either). Black servants are shown everywhere, especially at Mrs. Drew's house.
Two plot points are important. The central question is whether Mrs. Drew will "buy" Shirley for $5000, and the characters go back and forth on this question. On the night of the debut of the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" play, Mrs. Drew arrests Frank Morgan (in disguise as Uncle Tom). Then while watching Shirley's death scene in the play, where she begs for Uncle Tom to be free, Mrs. Drew "frees Uncle Tom" (letting Morgan go). Shirley converts Mrs. Drew's impulse to "enslave" people.
We see (with historical accuracy) that the play uses white actors in blackface--but in a curious twist, the play closes with a "new entertainment from the South," a minstrel show with the actual black performers (including Fetchit) pretending to be white actors in blackface. These elements make some viewers uncomfortable, but if you can watch critically, it reveals how the movie was attempting at some level to recognize and deal with unpleasant realities of U.S. history and address freedom, equality, and integration in disguise as entertainment. The Hall Johnson Choir appear, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson choreographed the dances.
Strangler of the Swamp (1946)
Foggy chiller dredges deep pools
Frank Wisbar is one of the more overlooked directors who came to Hollywood from Nazi Germany. He worked at the Poverty Row studio PRC and went back to Germany after the war. At PRC he made such curiosities as DEVIL BAT'S DAUGHTER and this little item, which actually remakes his own 1936 German film.
It's confined almost entirely to a foggy swamp (with some indoor scenes). The theatrical, atmospheric first act includes a striking scene of three old women standing like statues on the ferry, intoning their dire warnings as it goes back and forth, guided by the ferryman who is responsible for dooming the village. Wisbar evokes Greek mythology (Charon, who ferries people across the Styx; the Three Fates). The camera pans back and forth with the ferry of old people, underlining the stagnation, the fact that no one is going anywhere.
When the young heroine comes into the picture, she seems a breath of fresh air. But with her independent attitude in assuming the job of ferryman (inherited from her dad), she doesn't seem to realize that she too is going nowhere and may be doomed. Another breath of fresh air is the fact that her heroic young fiancee (Blake Edwards) can do nothing to rescue her, but on the contrary she must save him and the rest of the village from "the sins of the fathers." When you place this fable in its original context of Weimar cinema (its preoccupation with sins of authority figures and the previous generation) and the new threat of Hitler, you can see where Wisbar is coming from.
Two Smart People (1946)
Signpost to noir
This obscure B-movie was Jules Dassin's last film before embarking on a series of classic noir and crime films--and actually it's the first of his crime films and shows his interest in developing the genre. As another critic reports in a previous post, this film is NOT a comedy (as Maltin's book describes it) about two con artists mixed up "in art forgery." Actually, it's a crime/road movie about stolen bonds, co-written by the creator of "The Saint." True, Lucille Ball co-stars, and she and John Hodiak meet cute in a TROUBLE IN PARADISE manner, blowing each other's cons with a mutual pigeon. But from the first shot, Dassin reveals his interest in crime
Like Dassin's forgettable comedy A LETTER FOR EVIE, this film is shot by the great Karl Freund, in decline from his silent heyday and not yet arrived at his groundbreaking I LOVE LUCY three-camera period. He gives us expressionist shots aplenty, and such privileged moments as a pan shot with window reflection from outside a train, a cactus-by-moonlight scene, and a chiaroscuro moment when Ball is menaced by Elisha Cook Jr lighting a match. The presence of Cook, Lloyd Nolan, and Hugo Haas (on their way to being entrenched noir icons) also counts for something. The road trip plot (on a train) allows stops in Mexico and New Orleans. The last third (set at Mardi Gras) is suspenseful and colorful, with Cook in fool's motley.
In conclusion, if this 1946 film doesn't hold up as well as Dassin's later, truer noirs, we can still see it's an early step in the development of that genre.
The Opposite Sex (1956)
Comparisons are odious, but . . .
This remake of the 1939 film THE WOMEN is slow, witless and glossy, but we might as well note the differences between the versions. The story follows the divorce/remarriage formula that was worn so well in the late 30s and 40s, with wife divorcing husband (never vice versa) only to remarry him, so that divorce isn't condoned.
1) This version is barely a musical, with a handful of numbers presented as realistic performances. In other words, June Allyson plays a singer and her husband Leslie Nielsen is a Broadway producer, and we see samples of their work, but these forgettable numbers have nothing to do with the plot. The characters don't burst into spontaneous song and dance in the middle of dialogue. It's still set in a version of our "real world," not the world of musicals--more's the pity.
2) The '39 version had the gimmick or stunt of having zero male characters on screen. This remake doesn't do that, and therefore is more ordinary.
3) Attitude changes: If I recall the first version correctly, the marriage breaks up over false rumors of the husband's infidelity. In this remake, the rumors aren't false. Nielsen defends himself by saying "She meant nothing to me." That's one modern concession, and the other is that Nielsen goes thru with marriage to the other woman. Therefore, in order for the first marriage to be restored, the 2nd marriage must break irrevocably. And the heroine's fellow divorcees in Reno are depicted in the first film in existential misery, smiling through their tears, their raucous attitude covering sadness. In the remake, the serial divorcees are rewarded with seemingly happy lives and new boyfriends. So divorce does solve a few problems.