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La parmigiana (1963)
8/10
A Girl on the Go
27 September 2016
Catherine Spaak's status as a kind of "It" girl of the Sixties has rather mystified me. In the few movies in which I'd seen her (La Noia, The Libertine, Hotel, Il Sorpasso), she struck me as a rather conventional sexpot, not particularly beautiful, and usually playing a blank and sullen girl who played, unemotionally, with men's feelings. In "La Parmigiana", she plays a similar type of woman, but with a wide range of expressions and feelings that constitute, for me, a delightful surprise and her best screen performance.

Dora, a stylish young woman, arrives unexpectedly in Parma to stay with an "aunt" (actually, a friend of her late mother). Director Pietrangeli then skillfully unfolds the story of how she reached this point in her life. Gliding the camera to the right, to focus on a dark area of space, then continuing the movement into a flashback, is the continual brilliant structure of the film. Though the aunt thinks of Dora as an innocent girl, the viewer learns that she has progressed through life by relying on her charms with a succession of men. The scenario brings to mind Pietrangeli's recently revived - and darkly pessimistic - "Io La Conoscevo Bene", in which Stefania Sandrelli plays a dim-witted country girl striving for a career in the movies. In "La Parmigiana", Spaak's character Dora lives by her wits, and leaves us confident of her resilience.

Excellent supporting performances by Didi Perego as the loquacious Aunt Amneris, Salvo Randone as her seemingly hen-pecked musician husband, roused from torpor by the presence of Dora, Lando Buzzanca as a hapless suitor, and Nino Manfredi as an ambitious would-be ad man, frustrated at his inability to catch the wave of "il Boom", round out a thoroughly engaging satiric comedy. It's a shame that this is not as well known as those other superb entertainments from Italy in the Sixties.
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8/10
Something new and yet classical
6 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Even from the title credit - which, unusually, opens the film - one has the sense of experiencing something new in cinema, yet, simultaneously, something that harks back to the classic cinema of the Sixties. The languorous pace and the detailing of intricate relations among the members of a rich Italian family, living in luxurious wealth, evoke Visconti; the eye for unusual architectural detail and some unusual shot placements bring to mind the best of (woefully underrated) Losey. There are several wordless segments of extraordinary sensuality. The film is wholly mesmerizing, until a melodramatic jolt near the end, which suddenly brings the underlying banality of the story to the forefront.

Upon reflection, the film strikes one as a triumph of style over melodrama. The story is a rather standard familial soap opera, with undertones of class conflict, and the modern-day dilemma of maintaining the family business or selling out. The character of Antonio, the chef, is particularly underwritten - his motivations throughout the film seem quite ungrounded. Is he striving to break out of his class (as Eduardo's fiancée, Eva, seems to be doing with great success?) If so, surely a business alliance with Eduardo would be a more secure path than having an affair with his mother.

Tilda Swinton's magnificent performance of the dominant character sweeps all else before it; Flavio Parenti, as her son Eduardo, is a leading man of sensitivity and strength ; and there are wonderful contributions from Marisa Berenson and Gabriele Ferzetti, as well as Maria Paiato, as the servant who knows the family intimately, yet is always at a distant - her final scene is an emotional high point of the film.

Make sure to stay for the coda after the cast credits, unconvincing as it is. I could not help but wonder if the producers insisted upon it.
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Wavelength (1967)
5/10
Hypnotic transport
23 August 2008
Warning: Spoilers
A second-story room overlooking a busy New York Street. The camera is placed high in a corner of the room, looking toward the windows and the street. The room is sparsely furnished, with only a desk in front of the window, a wooden desk chair, a phone on the desk, and a yellow dinette-style chair next to the desk. Three photos are tacked on a narrow strip of wall between two windows, to the right of the desk. Two men enter, carrying an empty bookcase, which the woman with them directs to place against the wall to the left. They all depart. Traffic noise is heard, loudly, through an open window. A barely perceptible, incremental zoom begins. Two women enter: one goes to the left of the desk and turns on a radio or record player which plays "Strawberry Fields"; the other woman closes the window and sits by it for a while. After a while, mid-song, the radio or phonograph is turned off, and both women leave. The zoom continues. The ambient noise is replaced by a simultaneous low buzz and high-pitched whine, interrupted briefly by some clattering noises which may or may not contain a gunshot or shots. There are moments when the screen goes white for several seconds; it is not always evident if this indicates a cut, but often it seems to. The natural light changes, the street scene outside sometimes darkens, and there are optical changes in which the scene turns dark, or red, or green. The inexorable zoom narrows the visual field steadily, directed steadily toward the desk. A man enters from the bottom of the frame, seeming to walk normally, then clutches his chest and collapses on the floor. The slow zoom keeps him briefly in sight, then passes over him. A woman comes in and picks-up the phone, while staring toward the floor. She tells the man who answers that she is "here", but there's a dead man on the floor and she's frightened. She says she will wait downstairs, and leaves. In the film's most fascinating moments, her ghosted image reappears, superimposed several times on the present zoom.

Now the focal point of the zoom appears to be the three photos on the wall. However, it seems to me that at a certain point, the photo in the upper left changes, from what had appeared at a distance as some kind of photograph to two duplicate solid black pictures with a white silhouette of a woman. Perhaps I'm mistaken. But - if so, that, and the discontinuous zoom, throw into question, for me, the point of the film. If it's not an exercise in stillness in real time, what exactly is it? And why do avant-garde filmmakers of the 60's so often revert to B-movie genre tropes (like Godard, for example)?

The irritating soundtrack noise reaches a maddening crescendo as the image of the lower photo nearly fills the screen; a cut superimposes a ghosted larger image of the photo behind the actual photo on the wall. What had seemed, from a distance, to be photo of mountaintops amid swirling clouds turns out to be an almost abstract shot of oceanic waves. Finally, as the soundtrack is mercifully silenced, the entire screen is filled with the image of the waves. And the patient viewer is rewarded by suddenly being taken out of the present time, out of the time of the film, to an entirely different time and space.

Which, I suppose, is the point.
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7/10
Intriguing intrigue
16 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Robbe-Grillet's most overtly playful movie, with a narrative that doubly doubles back on itself. A writer (played by Robbe-Grillet himself), his assistant (Catherine, his wife), and a producer board the Trans-Europ Express for Antwerp. The producer asks the writer to formulate a screenplay based on their present situation. Jean-Louis Trintignant, seen in a prologue buying L'Express, then stealing another magazine with pictures of women in bondage poses, enters their compartment, looks furtively at the trio, and leaves. They "recognize" him as the actor Trintignant, and the writer begins to compose his story, with Trintignant as the protagonist, of a smuggler running drugs into Belgium. The film we see is that story, with occasional interruptions by the assistant or the producer commenting on the story ("But that's absurd!" "Well, we'll cut that scene then"). The smuggler follows clues for a complicated drop-off, and dallies with a prostitute (the lovely Marie-France Pisier), in a typical Robbe-Grillet scene of consensual rape and bondage. Then the whole drug delivery set-up is revealed as a dry run for the novice smuggler, who must then re-embark on the same journey, with different results.

Robbe-Grillet's fantasies of erotic violence and bondage culminate in this film with a night-club act, in which a young woman, kneeling with one leg extended behind her, on a revolving table, is stripped and chained, in slow close-ups, making voyeurs of the movie audience as well as the night-club patrons.

The story ends as our trio arrives in Antwerp, with a surprise final freeze frame of "Trintignant" being greeted by "Pisier". An entertaining diversion on storytelling. Robbe-Grillet may just be the "anti-Godard"; his films (of which I've now seen four) are demonstrations of cinema as "un-truth" at 24 frames per second.
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8/10
The untrustworthy narrator
15 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
An exercise in duplicitous narration taken to its logical extreme. Nothing the protagonist says about himself or the past can be believed, including his identity: he introduces himself as "Jean Robin", then tells us that he is really "Boris Viasso", and relates the tale of his wartime comrade in the resistance, Jean Robin, who is first portrayed as a hero, then implied to be a traitor. Or was it Viasso himself who was the traitor? Or, since he seems unrecognized in the village, is he merely trying to insinuate himself into the household of three beautiful women: the widow, sister and maid of the late Robin? Robbe-Grillet plays his customary brilliant games with narrative and imagery. There are women in blindfolds, women bound with ropes; a broken glass; death by broken balustrade. All the characters wear contemporary clothing, even in "flashback" to the wartime past, when they interact with soldiers in WWII garb. Beautiful Czech locales - forests, a crumbling castle, a labyrinthine cavern - are filmed in sumptuous black-and-white by Igor Luthor. A memorable sequence of betrayal, with freeze-frames, featuring A R-G's wife, Catherine.

A provocative treat from this great and under-rated master of cinema.

Seen at BAM on July 14, 2008.
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8/10
Image(inary) or "real"?
15 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Typically elliptical Robbe-Grillet "narrative" about college students playing games with and enacting quasi-dangerous pranks on each other, mostly in a Mondrian-inspired cafe with colored panels and mirrors, until a Magus-like stranger inspires (?) or leads (?) them to more dangerous pursuits and practices in Tunisia. Or is it all a fantasy of the lovely protagonist, Violette (Catherine Jourdan)? What is real, and what is imaginary? Nothing in movies is real, except for the image itself, including the images of actors enacting behavior that is not real, but which represents the imagination of the writer/director. Many familiar R-G tropes here: beautiful women in bondage, and in blindfolds; a glass shattering on the floor; violent sexual encounters; exotic locales. Is there an underlying profundity here, or is it all just a provocative intellectual game of repetitive themes and obsessions, masterfully strung together in a sequence of beautiful images and sounds? The latter, one suspects. Everything is on the surface, even the violence; scenes of Russian roulette a deux, or a suicide by revolver in a blood-filled bath, evoke no real emotion in the viewer, apart from an admiration for Robbe-Grillet's ability to put his rather specialized fantasies on film for the delectation of cinemaddicts everywhere.
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Backfire (1964)
8/10
Delectable comic thriller
20 June 2008
Lighthearted mixture of thrills, laughs and romance, done in the fizzy style that seems unique to the 60's. Diamond smuggling in a loaded Triumph sports car provides the action, as the protagonists go from Barcelona to Beirut, from Athens to Bremen, accompanied by an exhilarating jazzy score by Martial Solal.

The fun is aided immeasurably by the charisma and chemistry of the two stars: Belmondo, full of bravado and charm, displaying his full star power; and Seberg looking impossibly glamorous and cool, showing toughness and vulnerability. Gert Frobe and Fernando Rey lend their strong personalities to several scenes.

It's astonishing that this heady entertainment is barely known, given that it's a reunion of the stars from the famous "Breathless". A must-see for any fan of 60's caper movies, and of the two stars.

Seen at MoMA, NYC, on June 16, 2008.
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4/10
Garish melodrama
20 June 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Venice in winter provides the reliably attractive setting for this movie that begins as a free-spirited romance and declines into a laughably Gothic melodrama.

Rather puzzlingly, it begins with a full-screen presentation of a Gerald McBoing Boing animation; about halfway through it, there's an insert shot of an audience laughing in a cinema, and the rest of the cartoon is shown on the smaller screen that the audience is watching. This sets up the flirtatious encounter between two exiting patrons Sophie (Francoise Arnoul) and Michel(Christian Marquand)(and also prompts the question - why a cartoon at the end of the show?). Despite a confrontation with Sforzi (Robert Hossein), who pretends to be Sophie's brother, but acts more like a jealous lover, Sophie brings Robert home to her room in a Venetian palazzo, which is owned by the reclusive Baron von Bergen (O.E. Hasse), protected by two comically ineffectual bodyguards. The baron is also jealous of Sophie, and Michel sensibly decides to treat his night with Sophie as a one-night stand. However, they can't keep away from each other; soon enough, money and murder lead to chases down Venetian alleyways and across rooftops and a predictably violent denouement.

Sumptuous settings and skillful cinematography keep the visuals consistently interesting; there's a wonderful shot, framed by an archway, of the lovers walking through the Piazza San Marco, with the pigeons erupting and flurrying about them. One surprising element is John Lewis's elegant score, played by the Modern Jazz Quartet; given the trashy story, one would expect a fully overstated sturm-und-drang score of the most old-fashioned kind. Lewis's spare and sparkling tunes lend a sophisticated patina to the junk on screen.

Seen, in a faded print with heavy magenta overtones, at MoMA on June 18, 2008.
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L'immortelle (1963)
9/10
Stretching the boundaries of cinema
23 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Fresh from "Last Year at Marienbad", Alain Robbe-Grillet not only wrote, but directed, this brilliantly rendered exercise in cinematic style. The superb combination of story, actors, setting, cinematography, editing, music and sound all make this a cinematic experience of the highest order.

A Frenchman, newly arrived in Turkey, encounters a beautiful woman, and meets her again on several occasions, but learns virtually nothing about her - although she appears to be shadowed by a man in sunglasses with two Dobermans; when she fails to keep a rendezvous, he attempts to find her, but is hindered by his foreignness in an alien culture. The lugubrious Jacques Doniol-Valcroze makes the perfect foil for the "eternal feminine" embodied by Francoise Brion - exquisitely desirable, in stunningly elegant clothes and coiffures, with a seemingly sunny and open manner, but ultimately opaque. Filmed in crisp black-and-white images, the Istanbul locales (mosque, houses, cafés, streets and seascapes) give the film its magical background of fantasy grounded in realism. The stunningly shot and edited scene in the plaza, at first populated (a la "Marienbad") with stationary people casting no shadows, then empty, with only Brion walking across it, is one highlight of a film filled with many memorable shots and sequences: the fisherman by the bay; the woman seen - in memory or fantasy? - through the slats of the wooden blinds; the cemetery of steles - by day - and at night; the wooded glen, when the woman writes her address on a paper, which she then casts away - and the man later searches for it; the excavation with the long, steep staircase; the vendor outside the mosque who pretends (or does he?) not to speak French, and the photo set he gives to the man, with the woman in the shadow - scenes not soon to be forgotten. In the background, the recurring diegetic Turkish music, dogs barking, the murmur of the sea and the city - all so endemic that it's a surprise to see a music credit for Georges Delerue in the end credits. All in all, a landmark of inventive cinema from its period of peak creativity.

Seen at the French Institute, NYC, on February 19, 2008; programmed, coincidentally (?), one day after the death of Robbe-Grillet. Excellent print, but slightly spoiled by a bubble in the screen, which caused an irritating rippling effect for the many panning shots.
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7/10
Solid spy drama
23 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Mostly right on target, this 60's spy drama is set in a gritty-looking London, with James Mason, in an excellent and emotional (more than usual, for him) performance, facing betrayal on international, state and personal levels. Long scenes of people speaking intelligent dialogue with each other fills one with a nostalgia for this superb method of film-making - lost in similar movies made today, where vertiginous camera-work and fast cuts are relied upon to supply the thrills. Realistic violence - where victims are actually hurt after minimal fisticuffs - also raises the level above current fare.

Simone Signoret provides an aching gravitas to her role. Maximilian Schell is not just handsome and suave, but plumbs the depths of his character. The great Harry Andrews is authoritative as a retired, and amusingly narcoleptic, policeman. Harriet Andersson makes the best of a thankless role (somewhat extraneously plotted,as a not very successful parallel to Signoret's role) as Mason's much younger wife; a line such as "Why don't you just call me a nymphomaniac slut?" was probably considered frank and "adult" in 1967, but just makes one wince today. Aside from that, the story is nuanced, suspenseful (even though the culprit is rather obvious) and - importantly for this genre - coherent.

Quincy Jones' score, lushly orchestrated, with Brazilian inflections (Astrud Gilberto sings a recurring melody), is beautiful in itself and a treat to listen to, but jarringly inappropriate for the film.
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4/10
And soon the nonsensical behavior begins...
3 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Two English girls on a biking holiday ride through a rural portion of France, populated exclusively by sinister people. Somewhat too cleverly plotted film, with a huge red herring: one of the main characters acts in a completely irrational way simply to create confusion for the audience and lead into a kind of trick ending. Perhaps Cathy's extreme reticence is meant to be typical British reserve, but she eventually seems too self-possessed to be credible. And why bother to move the victim, when the entire location is so remote? Granted, it's well-directed and suspenseful throughout, but once it's over, the irrationalities undercut the accomplishment.
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Cruising (1980)
Needle in the Haystack
28 October 2007
Warning: Spoilers
A look at William Friedkin's filmography reveals that the driving force of much of his work is sensationalism. On the plus side: "The French Connection", a quintessentially exciting New York movie; "The Night They Raided Minsky's", an amusing period piece about a turn-of-the-century scandal; and "The Boys in the Band", in which self-hating gays exchange barbed witticisms in the late 60's. On the minus side: "The Exorcist"; "Rampage"; "Jade". The notorious "Cruising" must largely be counted on the minus side.

The film begins with an inherently absurd premise: set loose, without support, one undercover cop, who fits the profile of the victims, on the prowl in the underground world of gay S&M bars, in order to lure the killer into being caught. As the ostensibly straight cop, Al Pacino, in order to gain a fast-track promotion to detective, stoically dresses in jeans and leather and indefatigably descends into a world of free-for-all sex - without (except for having his chest groped) actually engaging in any man-on-man sex.

The gritty late-70's New York locations are the film's greatest asset. Yet, this sort of documentary realism becomes a problem when used mere backdrop, in a movie in which cinematic style seems paramount. The bar scenes, using actual patrons rather than extras, are obviously authentic, yet over-lighting and inauthentic soundtrack music exert a form of judgement and deprive the scenes of any sensuality.

The fatal flaw is that Pacino's character remains, not just inarticulate, but entirely opaque. He seemingly befriends his gay neighbor(in an undeveloped sub-plot); he enjoys one ecstatic, amyl-nitrate fueled, dance in a club, which threatens to submerge him but doesn't; then complains to his chief (Paul Sorvino, in a wonderful performance as the world-weary seen-it-all head of the detectives squad) that he can't handle it. As his girl-friend, Karen Allen (in a woefully underwritten role), has no other function than as "proof" of Pacino's heterosexuality as an occasional sex partner (with better sex after his immersion in the bars). The final murder, and the ambiguity of the ending, undermine the entire picture. This is not "Last Year at Marienbad"!. Murder mysteries demand resolution. The "giallo" genre successfully exploits the idea of multiple murderers - with all the killers eventually revealed. That the murders are shown (by using different actors as the killers) as the work of possibly more than one man,with an "enigmatic" ending, delivers a subliminal anti-gay message that these sick perverts would just as soon kill as f**k.

Seen on DVD; do not omit the enlightening (to a certain extent) "Making of..." features.
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5/10
Paris as star
28 March 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Rivette in minor, self-imitative mode (echoes of "Duelle" and "Celine et Julie vont en bateau"), exploring one of his usual obsessions - a suspected vast conspiracy, uncovered and struggled against by glamorous looking women. Carelessly plotted and filmed (the boom makes frequent appearances at the top of the frame, and one wishes that the clangorous "natural" soundtrack had been cleaned up, at least of traffic noise), the film's best aspect is the Parisian setting - here, a city seemingly under assault by developers - many of the locations are in a state of decay, transition or destruction - this is not the Paris seen either by tourists or in most movies. As Marie LaFee (Bulle Ogier) has just been released from a year's sentence, she finds it impossible to breathe when she enters an interior; hence, there is not a single indoor shot in the movie (apart from a brief elevated train trip, and a night spent in a parked car - and even these are open to the outdoors). After encountering Baptiste (Pascale Ogier) three times (according to Baptiste: once is accident, twice is chance, three times is fate), Marie pairs up with this strange young woman who fancies herself as Marie's protector from the all-seeing "Maxes" (spies who are everywhere). Marie encounters her former lover Julien (Pierre Clementi) and the two women deduce (from a briefcase full of newspaper clippings, and a map of Paris divided into 64 segments) that he is involved in some sort of conspiracy; all three are followed by a threatening, but ineffectual, "Max" (Jean-Francois Stevenin). There are elements of fairy tales (the lions, the "dragon" in the playground) and sci-fi (the "eyes" which Baptiste feels compelled to slash, the spider web), but, despite the pervasive humorlessness, it's hard to take this movie seriously. The whole thing seems like a silly trifle, concocted primarily for the amusement of the participant's - especially at the end, when Rivette seems to abandon the film completely and simply keeps the camera rolling on a martial arts lesson between two of the actors.

Still, worth seeing for Paris and the always wonderful Bulle Ogier. Rivette is never uninteresting, even when he's not entirely successful.

Seen March 27, 2007 at Florence Gould Hall at the French Institute, NYC.
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Deadfall (1968)
So-so 60's heist movie
27 December 2006
Warning: Spoilers
With Shirley Bassey wailing a "Goldfinger"-ish song over some stylized credits featuring a seagull, one looks forward to viewing one of those great 60's heist movies. But "Deadfall" soon falls far short. Despite fine cinematography (by Gerry Turpin) with some offbeat angles, Bryan Forbes is too stodgy a director for this material - and the whole thing could have been edited down by half an hour. The cross-cutting in the first heist scene, for instance, just goes on for too long: OK, we get that the robbery is taking place during the duration of the concert - there's really no need keep cutting back to the concert hall until the very end of the sequence - especially just to focus on the performers and not the (oddly anonymous) victims of the crime. Not to mention that the suspense is undercut by the absurdity of a program which consists solely of one 20-minute guitar concerto; unlikely - no, impossible - that an audience would dress to the nines and pay for such a concert.

Best aspects of the movie are the score (very much in the Bond mode)of John Barry, the swell Spanish settings, and Michael Caine's performance. What a sexy screen presence he had, with his heavy-lidded, sometimes cold (almost reptilian) eyes and cocky, self-confident voice conveying a mixture of indifference and condescension, which combine to equal utter cool. Caine's love scenes with the rather charmless Giovanna Ralli, however, lack warmth and spark, so the romance between them fails to convince; the bedroom scene is possibly one of the worst ever filmed (Ralli's phony emoting and the sheet between their two bodies put to pasture any notions of passion). Eric Portman makes a fine foil for Caine in their scenes together; but his character ends up being simultaneously over-complicated and underwritten, causing the last third of the movie to become, for me, just plain bewildering. Nanette Newman's role as "The Girl" is utterly pointless and she is so wooden (that dance scene!!!) that it's obvious that she's there only in the capacity of director's wife.

A big disappointment. As someone mentions elsewhere, see "Gambit" instead.
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The Rip-Off (1977)
6/10
Kidnapping farce
30 September 2006
Warning: Spoilers
This is really not a thriller at all, but a satiric comedy with some hilarious moments about a trio of small-time crooks who latch on to another crook's kidnapping scheme in order to abduct the ransom. One can see why it was not released at the time; Italy was undoubtedly not ready to laugh at a situation which was happening frequently in real life. Directed by Ercoli with alternately light and broad touches, and outstanding performances by all. Sharpest barbs directed against the rich parents of the kidnapping victim. Kudos once again to No Shame Films for releasing such a gem. Excellent subtitles even alert the viewer to language changes, when the characters speak in Neapolitan or Apulian dialect.

Most enjoyable.
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5/10
Creaky plot, but superb direction
23 October 2005
It was a dark and stormy night...this, plus a Gothic-style house of long corridors, staircases and dark, multi-roomed basement, supply the atmosphere for a hoary story of a young woman threatened by an unknown killer. It doesn't take long to figure out who that killer is. However, Robert Siodmak's superb direction still elicits shivers and chills. The rustling in the bushes, the black-gloved figure in the rain, the close-ups of the killer's eye, assessing his victims - Siodmak's use of these elements remain as frightening and effective today as when the movie was new. Dorothy McGuire is very appealing as the voiceless heroine; Elsa Lanchester contributes a comic gem as the housekeeper too fond of brandy; and Ethel Barrymore gives an over-the-top performance as the portentous, bed-ridden matriarch. The men are all '40's standard handsome-and-bland. Opens with an entertaining scene of an early silent-movie screening.
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