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Worth the view
This movie is worth watching for the camera work, the set design, and some great scenes, but it's very uneven in just about every aspect. The scenes in the cop's apartment are probably the worst. They just die from bad sound, cheap set, bad dialog, bad lighting, and stilted acting. (As someone else commented, it seems that acting with sound was still being worked out, and these same actors did much better work later.) The scenes in the night club tend to be much more interesting. I love the art deco sets by William Cameron Menzies and the chorus girl dance routines and '20s jazz music. The camera is much more mobile in these scenes, since it isn't focused on dialog. The story flirts with equating the police and thieves as brutal figures outside the law, but it ends up in much more conventional territory, with Chester Morris prefiguring those early Bogart roles of the tough gangster who turns yellow.
There are several sequences -- including the robbery and a later zooming car ride to the scene of the robbery with a camera attached to the front of the car -- that seem to be taken from Fritz Lang, particularly the first Dr. Mabuse serial. They are very well done. The opening prison sequence is very good, as is a later rooftop chase and the final gorgeous artificially-moonlit shot. One of the more interesting sidelights is the violent relationship between one of the gang members and his moll. They're clearly going to love each other to death.
So very much a mixed bag. I've watched it three times, but I hadn't realized until now that it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Art Direction. It definitely deserved the latter, but I'm not sure about the first two. HALLELUJAH! was probably more deserving of a Best Picture nomination, of other 1929 movies I've seen. Still, West is an interesting figure for a number of reasons, clearly influenced by the Germans. I like his silent movie, THE BAT, better than this one, but since I've watched ALIBI three times, it's obviously got something going for it.
A taut, beautiful thriller
I had to watch this movie three times before I finally started to catch the plot details, because it's just so beautiful to look at that I don't really care about the story. All of the Maurice Tourneur films I've seen are visually fascinating to one degree or another, but this one takes the cake, even over THE BLUE BIRD (which is admittedly a far different kind of movie). I can imagine Josef von Sternberg studying this movie for clues on how to create an exotic look out of papier mache and shadows. (Okay, that papier mache volcano looks pretty silly, but that's about the only major lapse I've noticed.) Griffith may have taught people how to edit, but I'm beginning to think Tourneur taught them how to compose the frame for depth effects and complex texture. The tinting is very beautiful, too, and I love the effect when Heyst blows out the lamp.
But once I focused on the plot, I was impressed on how well-constructed it was. The story moves along at a smooth, smart pace, and the tension builds very nicely. This is a pretty generic thriller in many ways, with a generic romance at the heart of it, but it's put together so effortlessly and with such visual charm that it seems fresh. Still, the real dramatic motor is the bad boys, particularly Lon Chaney as the psychopathic but strangely good-natured Ricardo and Ben Deeley as the cold, creepy Mr. Jones (looking like he stepped out of a Fritz Lang movie). There's also a good twist in the history and brute plan of Bull Montana's Pedro. Seena Owen's role is underwritten, but her weary, vulnerable resolve is beginning to grow on me.
Maybe this is where the movies start for me. Certainly it's the earliest movie to hold me entranced from stem to stern, although the German classics begin full-bore within a year of this. But there's still a lot more to see from the era.
Tekkôki Mikazuki (2000)
And the kitchen sink, too
Giant tin robots, transformer robots, rubber suit monsters, power rangers, evil wizards, bare-breasted witches, aliens ... and maybe a ghost? This mini-series has it all. It's confusing enough -- and it's been long enough since I last saw it -- that I don't remember the whole story, but a young boy is able to summon a giant fighting robot (Mikazuki) to defend the city against a series of monsters (a different monster in each episode). The monsters seem to grow from the thoughts of various characters who may or may not be evil themselves. The first monster -- and the thing that made me realize I was going to love this bizarre show -- is a giant rubber suit wedge of watermelon full of fighting seeds.
The show seems to be aimed at kids or young adults, and along with the boy, there are a couple of spunky teen girls, including one who drives old-fashioned giant tin robots and another who is able to summon another giant robot like Mikazuki. One episode gets into fairly creepy territory with a psychotic man stalking one of the girls, and there are also crotch shots here and there that would be considered taboo (or at least pervy) in the US. There's an after-school-special aspect to the story of kids learning hard lessons.
But hey, what better way to learn hard lessons about responsibility than by fighting rubber suit monsters and sword-wielding evil aliens? Keita Amemiya is a master of production design, as he showed in ZEIRAM, MECHANICAL VIOLATOR HAKAIDER, and MOON OVER TAO, and these shows look fantastic. On top of that, the sheer audacity of imagination on display is entertaining just as spectacle. The baroque story encompasses just about every idea the creators must have had buzzing in their heads, and while each episode has the same basic structure (a confused person causes a giant monster to appear and start kicking buildings down, and Mikazuki fights it), the series builds to a grand revelation ... even if the mangled subtitles on the DVD make it hard to figure out just what the revelation is. And then that giant rubber suit kitchen sink attacks, with faucets blowing cars down the street...
Is this what TV is like in Japan? I'd say that the kids there have it rich!
(Although now I'm thinking Mikazuki vs. Sponge Bob ...)
The Docks of New York (1928)
Another great silent from 1928
One of the fascinating things about the movie to me was that, before he fetishized Dietrich, Sternberg's erotic sensibility seems broader. The opening scene of the men in the boiler room of a ship, wiping oil and coal dust from their gleaming skin, is one of the few times that he dwells on the male body that I can recall. And George Bancroft's swaggering, boisterous Bill is the most virile male I've seen in any of Sternberg's movies -- other than Bancroft as Bull Weed in UNDERWORLD from the year before. Of course, once Betty Compson splashes into the story, the camera loves her world-weary, wry beauty, and Sternberg constantly reminds us that she's naked under her clothing. As in his later, sound films, the settings are also sensual and full of complicated textures, reflections, and depth, with some great dockside shots in a foggy night.
The story itself is a fairly simple, but it has a warmth and genuine (or even sentimental) sympathy for love that is perhaps lost in the power struggles of Sternberg's Dietrich films. All four major characters are strongly drawn, rough-hewn, and well-played. Along with Bancroft and Compson, Olga Baclanova (of FREAKS fame) is also especially good as a sailor's bitter, abandoned wife. The dialogue in the intertitles is full of hard-boiled gems, as when the wedding ceremony is rendered, "If any of you eggs know why these heels shouldn't get hitched, speak now or forever after hold your trap!"
Kevin Brownlow says in THE PARADE'S GONE BY that THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK is Sternberg's finest film, and it may be so. I love the Dietrich films, and the bizarre SHANGHAI GESTURE, but DOCKS stands out for the sweet grittiness.
Mystery Ranch (1932)
Ming the Rancher
The story and writing and much of the acting is not so great, but the Gothic atmosphere and visuals are worth a look. (I'd like to see a better version than the Sinister Cinema DVD-R, but at least it's from a 35 mm print, if I recall correctly.) Charles Middleton is great as the grand piano-playing bad guy (and only says "heh" once), but George O'Brien as the hero is kind of a stiff. I also liked Noble Johnson as the murderous, mute Apache. Between his appearance and the piano-playing villain, this movie starts to make me think of another 1932 adventure film, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. But the shadowy cinematography of Joseph August is the real attraction here, and there are some terrific tracking shots as well. Some of the action sequences are also pretty exciting, but in the end the stakes of the plot just aren't strong enough to generate any tension. I agree with the other comment, however, that the ending is great stuff.
The Ghoul (1933)
Better than all that
Most of the other commenters seem to have seen a truncated, blurry version of this movie. The new DVD certainly kept me entertained! It's true that the movie is very dark, but the shadowy photography is beautiful and Germanic -- prime '30s look, fog, candlelight, and all. I just checked, and I see that cinematographer Gunther Krampf also shot NOSFERATU, THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE, and PANDORA'S BOX. Pretty good resume!
Hoaky old dark house cliches and humor, for sure, but funny if you know the genre. The woman who wants to be the "sheikh's" love slave is a real hoot. Karloff, Thesiger, Hardwick, and Richardson are all very good, as are the romantic couple who spar and then decide they like each other (surprise!). Karloff's self-mutilation scene is brilliantly disturbing. And wait a second, is that a patch of bamboo he stumbles into just in front of the Yorkshire moors? This is all great fun, perhaps best if you check any high expectations at the door.