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House by the River (1950)
A Fascinating, under-appreciated film of Fritz Lang
House by the River was a modestly budgeted film made during an apparent low point in Fritz Lang's film career here in the US for "poverty-row" studio, Republic Pictures. Set in late Victorian times, House details the story of one man's slide from unsuccessful writer to inadvertent murderer and his mostly successful efforts to cover it up. The film shows Lang's continuing interest in mentally disturbed but compelling villains. Stephen Byrne, the villain of House is in a long line of Langian sociopaths, psychopaths and individuals driven mad from injustice from Mabuse, Rottwang the scientist in Metropolis, Peter Lorre in M, Spencer Tracy in Fury among others.
While other commentators have pointed out the superb cinematography that puts this film in the film noir/Gothic story genre, what seems to have been missed is the jet black humor with which this film is shot through. Mordant humor is present when Stephen discovers he's becoming a better writer through his crimes. Comments are made by other characters in the movie about how a writer should only write what he knows about. That takes on a dark, ghoulish tone when the audience becomes aware that Stephen's newest book is entitled, Death on the River and that it has a compelling narrative indeed. In fact, Stephen shows he really enjoys the notoriety of being involved in the disappearance of the servant girl, Emily, as well as her death. He even sends a picture of himself to the newspaper investigating the story. They print it along with the story and Stephen uses the publicity generated to boost his book sales. This film is a good example of Lang as a brilliant yet very dark satirist of human ambition and folly.
In sum, not a perfect film (the conclusion especially feels rushed), but compelling and unexpectedly funny. In some ways, Stephen's mad writer vaguely anticipates Stephen King's equally mad writer, Jack Torrence of The Shining.
A Fascinating, slightly flawed film from David Lean's early period
David Lean's film Madeleine tells the true story of Madeleine Smith, a young woman from an upper-class Scottish family, who was tried for murdering her lover in 1857. The case, which was a media sensation in its day, ended with Ms. Smith being released after the jury reached the verdict of "not proved", which, in Scottish law, meant there wasn't enough evidence to convict her but sufficient evidence to entertain doubts about her innocence. The movie maintains the same ambiguity about her guilt or innocence of the crime, indeed ending with a voice over narrator asking the title character as to whether she was guilty or innocent. She just looks at the camera and gives a vague half smile that could mean either of the two.
The strengths of the film are considerable. The lighting and overall cinematography give the film both a wonderful Victorian-era feel and a film-noir aspect as well. Indeed, the film has much in common with film-noir aside from the lighting. The story, like many noir films, has a dubious heroine who leads a fundamentally disadvantaged man, in this case, a lover from the wrong side of the tracks economically and socially, to his destruction. Indeed, given the situation presented in the film, the lover couldn't have realistically expected Madeleine's domineering and strict father to have ever accepted him given his poor social and economic prospects. Adding into the mix was Madeleine's own ambivalent handling of their relationship, promising one moment to tell her father about them, then pleading it was too difficult to do so. As history indeed bore out, it was a recipe for personal disaster.
My main criticism of the film is that virtually nothing is told of how Madeleine managed to meet her lover in the first place. Some accounts I've read indicated that they first met in a Glasgow park. I think Lean should have shown that meeting to show how Madeleine had a mind of her own and how willing she was to defy her conventional and strict Victorian father. That would have added to the ambiguity of Madeleine's character, seemingly compliant to the demands of her family in terms of love and marriage and yet defiant of them as well.
Still, the performances, especially Ann Todd as the title character, are top notch and this is a film well worth seeing. As I've said, this is the closest David Lean came to film-noir that I've seen.
A wonderful slice of life film from Jacques Feyder
Crainquebille is a delightful silent film from 1922 that tells the story of the poor vegetable peddler, Crainquebille, and his troubles with the law. Because of an altercation with a hard-of-hearing policeman, Crainquebille is put in jail for two weeks and has to pay a fine of 50 francs. Unfortunately, his stay in jail cause his former customers to shun him. Reduced to dire poverty and thrown out of his garret for non-payment of rent, Crainquebille considers suicide until he's rescued by a homeless newspaper boy whom he'd befriended earlier.
This simple story, based on a short story by Anatole France, affords the director Jacques Feyder ample opportunity for great visual wizardry, especially in the trial sequence of the film. The viewer sees the proceedings from Crainquebille's perspective. The policeman who testifies against him is made to seem immense and overpowering while Dr. Mathieu, the one witness in Crainquebille's defense, appears literally small and insignificant. Also, there are several shots of the bust of Marie, the French national symbol, staring at Crainquebille disdainfully indicating that the verdict is never in doubt. Especially imaginative is the dream the aforementioned Dr. Mathieu has the night after Crainquebille's trial in which the unjust and farcical character of the trial is underlined with the judges transformed into howling demons leaping up from their chairs. Indeed, Feyder captures Anatole France's sarcastic rage at the injustices of the French legal especially as it applies to the poor.
This film and the accompanying feature, Faces of Children, are the two best films on the three DVD disc set of the early silent films of Jacques Feyder. As the liner notes aptly quote D.W. Griffith, this film is a wonderful evocation of Paris and Parisian life as it existed in the 1920s. Strongly recommended.
Being Present at the Birth of the Feature Film
This film, as the title plainly indicate, is a dramatization of Dante's Inferno which comprises a third of his Divine Comedy. As is well-known to all, the Inferno relates Dante's journey through Hell being guided by the Roman poet, Virgil. Dante is shown the nine circles of hell where sinners are punished with afflictions appropriate to their sins. The climax of the work is seeing Lucifer himself at the very center of hell.
The influence of this work in Western art and literature is staggering and obvious. Much of what Christians believe to be typical of Hell is derived not from the bible but from Dante. Artists and illustrators from the late Middle Ages through the 19th century have depicted scenes from Dante's work. Indeed, this movie uses Gustave Dore's illustrations of the Inferno as the basis of the cinematography.
As for the film itself, its technical crudity and the highly uneven quality of the film stock, really make it mainly of archival value. Moreover, the acting is of the broad gesturing variety associated with early silent movies.
Still, despite these limitations, the care and effort that went into this film is obvious. The special effects are not half-bad and the Dore illustrations are brought to life reasonably well. To a film audience in 1911, this was plainly seen as a momentous event. In its runs in Europe and America both before and after World War I, the film was extremely successful and grossed for the time enormous box office.
Indeed, in the liner notes to the DVD edition of this movie, an advertisement by a British distributor from 1911 encouraged theaters to rent this film by pointing out how profitable it had been to other exhibitors. In this ad, one can see how the feature film, a film longer than 60 minutes, became established as the basic mode in which film would be presented in the future. From the 1890s until 1911, the short subject was the only medium in which film was shown. With the success of this film and other Italian feature films which followed like The Last Days of Pompeii and Cabiria, film makers like D.W. Griffith were inspired to direct long, involved films like Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.
Unlike most other commentators, I wasn't too put off by the Tangerine Dream soundtrack. I agree it wasn't great but it wasn't the worst I've heard.
An uneven, but still fascinating fantasy/adventure of the Jules Verne variety
L'Atlantide is an early action, adventure movie that strongly recalls the exotic fiction of Jules Verne. Pierre Benoit, the author, clearly was following Verne's footsteps as he retailed a story of French soldiers stationed in colonial Algeria on the cusp of World War I getting lost in the desert and ending up in the kingdom of Atlantis. According to the conceit of the story, part of Atlantis survived the great flood that destroyed most of the island 9,000 years ago and became an oasis in the center of the Sahara desert.
The basic plot of the novel recounts how three French soldiers end up in this kingdom under the rule of a mysterious queen. As the filmization of the novel unfolds, the viewer discovers this queen collects and discards husbands as it strikes her fancy. The exes end up as preserved, life-sized gold statues in the queen's main chamber. Talk about trophy husbands! In the story, the queen meets her match when one of the French soldiers, a religiously pious man who's totally indifferent to the queen's charms. This maddens her and she connives through the use of drugs to get the soldier's friend to kill the man who spurned her. Eventually, the soldier who killed his friend and a female member of the queen's entourage flee the kingdom only to fall victim to the desert. The young woman dies but the soldier barely survives. In the end, the soldier, after having told his story to another friend, sets out to find the kingdom once again as all men who come into contact with the Queen of Atlantis must go back to her.
That, in a nutshell is the story. What such a cursory description cannot detail is the often striking cinematography which was actually shot on location in the Sahara under very difficult circumstances. Also, such a description can't tell how the story is a strange combination of femme fatale a la Salome, covert religious melodrama as well as exotic adventure. The set design of the queen's palace is striking and reminiscent of the elaborate painting of the Symbolist painter, Gustave Moreau.
The principal problems of the film are the overacting by the title character and the over length of the film. The narrative itself is also convoluted as the audience is treated to flashbacks within flashbacks which aren't hard to follow but add to the length of the film. Also, at the denouement, the main character simply runs away from the Queen without directly confronting her even though the movie ends with this character setting out to return to her. Such a resolution seems rather unsatisfying. Another plot line not followed through is the guilt the queen feels for causing the death of the man who spurned her. The guilt is shown but doesn't go anywhere plot-wise.
In sum, a fascinating film that according to what I read was quite successful in its day but very dated in many ways. My advice, be patient with it, laugh at the silly parts and be intrigued by the set designs.
Death Takes a Holiday (1934)
An interesting twist to the old myth of gods walking among us mortals
This fascinating curio from the 1930s is based on an Italian stage play that posited the simple question: Would Death be intrigued by why we mortals cling so stubbornly to life in spite of our self-evident self-destructive urges. Death, in this movie, is at a disadvantage in this since he is immortal and can never death itself. It posits a question that has been posed as earlier as the ancient Greek playwrights such Euripides: Are the gods inferior to mortals because the former have no knowledge nor capacity for understanding the deep suffering the latter are capable of because mortals are always aware on some level that they will ultimately die? This story, Death Takes a Holiday, is reminiscent of aspects of Christian theology that posited Jesus, as the Son of God, was part of the divine Godhead and thus by allowing Jesus the Crucifixion, God could come to understand the suffering of which His creation was capable. By that understanding, Jesus could redeem the sins of mankind as God, through Jesus, gained an understanding of what it meant to be human. Even though this perspective isn't strictly orthodox, it was best illustrated in another movie, The Green Pastures, which was made in 1936.
As to the film itself, the presentation has definitely dated aspects. What keeps the film in the category of a flawed classic rather than a dated curio is Frederick March's wonderful performance as Death who comes as Prince Sirki to a weekend gathering of Italian aristocrats at the villa of one of those aristocrats. March captures ideally the worldliness of an ageless figure, such as death, who has seen everything and his endearing naiveté as Death realizes he's actually experienced nothing of what he sees. It's when he falls in love with the beautiful Grazia that he begins to understand the suffering of which humans are capable. Indeed when Grazia wishes to go with Sirki/Death, Death feels the anguish that a person feels who must part from one he loves. It is when she declares that she knew who he really was all along and isn't afraid to follow him to his realm that Death grasps the power of love in the face of death. March conveys all of this beautifully and even makes his final rather overwrought speech memorable and moving.
Unfortunately, from those thespian heights, the other aspects of the film are a rather mixed bag. The young actress who plays Grazia is given overdone dialog that irresistibly reminds me of the lines of the "serious" play that Katherine Hepburn's character in the movie, Backstage, is auditioning for. That's the play with the classic line, much parodied, "Father, the calla lillies are in bloom again..." Grazia's lines approach the laughable. Also, for a group of Italian aristocrats, the guests at the house sport frank American or English accents while the few working class Italians that appear are pure stage Italians out of the Chico Marx mold.
But despite these limitations which led me to subtract three stars out of ten, it's a film well worth seeing.
Witchfinder General (1968)
An intriguing dark film of the 1960s
Even though this film stars horror film icon Vincent Price, this is really a psychological thriller with plenty of gruesome moments spread throughout. In a sense, the action the audience sees on screen is reflexive of the time period in which the story is set. As the narrator explains near the start of the film, the year is 1645 and England is in the grip of a bloody civil war between King Charles I and the forces of the parliamentary party commanded by Oliver Cromwell.
As the narrator further elaborates law and order has pretty much broken down which gives self-righteous opportunists like Matthew Hopkins the ability to take advantage of people's superstitions and fears to hunt down suspected witches, hence the original title of the movie, Witchfinder General. Early on in the film, it's quite apparent that Hopkins and his sidekick, John Stern, are basically racketeers who extract confessions of witchcraft out of people by barbarous means for financial recompense by the local magistrates who operate free of any government supervision given the chaotic conditions of the country at the time.
What is most intriguing about the film is that Matthew Hopkins, wonderfully portrayed by Vincent Price, is really the personal embodiment of the hatred, fear and rage that arise in a country torn by civil strife. It is highly symbolic that the young soldier who finally stops Hopkins's bloody reign of terror with an ax is infected by the madness and hatred that had gripped Hopkins by the end.
This is not a film for the squeamish but neither is it just horror exploitation. It demonstrates how dark times can produce monstrous people.
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953)
An Intriguing artifact of the 1950s
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is one of those anomalous films that result when one takes the style of a brilliant illustrator and translate it to live action. All sorts of psychological concerns not so evident in the illustrated, cartoon work of Dr. Seuss become more readily apparent when live actors are substituted for cartoon characters. For example, the lack of a father figure for a young boy and the resultant feelings of loss and loneliness are very strongly expressed in this work. Young Bart's father has died prior to the start of the film and the discipline of Doctor Terwilliger's piano practice methods seems to serve Bart's mother as a means of providing the masculine element missing in Bart's life.
The problem is that Dr. Terwilliger's take on masculinity, as the film makes abundantly clear, is rooted in megalomania and, worse, has strong suggestions of sexual perversion. Many commentators have pointed out Dr. Terwilliger's obvious gay affect. Remember, this film, as an artifact of the 1950s, would not have viewed this sexual preference favorably. Mr. Zablodowski, the plumber, is presented as the representative of so-called "normal" sexuality, i.e., heterosexuality.
I suspect Dr. Terwilliger's gayness stems from American ambivalence about high culture. On one hand, Bart's mother sees merit in his practicing the piano. Even Mr. Zablodowski concurs with that at one point in the film. On the other, there is the suspicion underlying this film that anyone committed to a career in high art, has to be bent sexually. (This was graphically shown in a recent episode of the police drama, Law and Order, Special Victims Unit, where a piano teacher was a predatory pedophile. The allure of high art was that piano teacher's bait to catch children for sexual purposes.) Dr. Terwilliger embodies these suspicions and anxieties. Clearly, as flamboyantly unpleasant as Dr. Terwilliger is, parents send their children to him to introduce them to high art. Yet, it is up to Bart to liberate the children from Dr. Terwilliger's hold.
It's an ironic position: On one hand, the film argues that kids should be kids and do kid things like run with their dog and play ball and look up to salt-of-the-earth men like the local plumber, Mr. Zablodowski. On the other hand, very real artistry went into the depiction of Dr. Terwilliger's institute as well as the songs that served to bolster the story. So, art is desired yet deprecated. Like I said, an intriguing artifact of the 1950s.
Chairman of the Board (1998)
Agonizingly bad movie
Yes, the votes are in. This film may very well be the Plan 9 From Outer Space for our generation. But whereas Ed Wood's film, for all its flaws, retains a certain charm despite it all, this film defines the word "charmless" to the nth degree. In fact, I'd suggest to the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary to cite this movie as a key example defining the that word in the next update to the dictionary.
Carrot Top is a performer of such abysmal ability that normally rational people that I know once they hear his name become homicidal maniacs dedicated to wanting to kill Mr. Top as soon as possible. Indeed, if one goes to Amazon.com and look at customer reviews for Carrot Top's movie and other performance DVD, one will find several that could be construed as death threats to Mr. Top.
One other curious fact about this film, I recall that Mike Nelson, the head writer for MST 3000, in his book Mike's Mega Cheese about movies, good and bad, said he saw this film and shortly afterwords couldn't recall a thing about it, including the title. Obviously Mike was suffering a classic reaction to trauma. Viewing this atrocity was so soul numbing, Mike Nelson had to block it from his mind. (Evidently, in a later chapter in his book, Mike Nelson had recovered his memeory of this film. From the review he offers, Mike Nelson was definitely not grateful for the recovered memory.)
The only comment I offer about the film, and it is not a spoiler, it's simply God's honest truth, it's not funny. None of it is, not even a nanosecond of it is funny.
Glen or Glenda (1953)
A Truly Unique Film
I agree with one commentator who says that it's really impossible to review Glen or Glenda? objectively. If one does so, the film on its merits would have to be rated as fairly terrible given the hilarious, convoluted dialog, the generally mediocre to poor acting by the cast as well as the zero production values. Yet, such an assessment does not capture the absolutely riveting experience of watching this film as it unfolds. It isn't the fact that the subject of the film is transvestitism and that it was a controversial lifestyle choice in the 1950s. It's not even the plea for tolerance of people who embrace alternate life choices that fascinates except as an historic relic.
No, what makes Glen or Glenda? still a fascinating film after 50 years is that Ed Wood laid his psyche bare in a way that so-called auteur directors like Hitchcock or Godard, despite their vastly superior talents, never did. In Glen or Glenda, Wood isn't afraid to reveal his own deeply conflicted feelings about being a transvestite despite the plea for tolerance for it through out the film. Indeed, the conclusion of the film suggest that Ed Wood's Glen character will be able to "kill" his Glenda female counterpart by transferring the feelings of love and affection Glen has for his feminine counterpart to his future wife, Barbara. The psychiatrist even reassures Glen and Barbara that as Glen makes that psychic transference, Glenda will disappear. So, while Wood could plead for tolerance of transvestites in general, he wasn't so sure of desiring it for himself.
Moreover, Wood wasn't afraid of throwing everything else that crossed his mind on the screen. He did it with whatever stock footage he could get his hands on. If it didn't cohere, so what? What the viewer saw in Glen or Glenda especially was Ed Wood's imaginative world in all of its fundamental strangeness.
The only comment I wish to add to my comment above is that my two-star rating is based solely on the objective evaluation criteria cited in the first paragraph. The oddly memeric effect the film has despite its technically atrocious qualities I don't think can be rated.