Tuesday, 24 June 2014

"The Killer that Stalked New York"

Today's film is the 1950 film with the Horror B-Movie title of "The Killer That Stalked New York". It's directed by Earl McEvoy, with a screenplay by Harry Essex (who wrote such films as "The Creature from the Black Lagoon) adapting an article by Milton Lehman.  It stars Evelyn Keyes, Charles Korvin, and William Bishop.

A basic summary of the film is in order I suppose.  Evelyn Keyes plays Sheila Bennet, a diamond smuggler with some hot merchandise who is unknowingly carrying a strain of smallpox.  She's doing this for her husband, Charles Korvin as Matt Krane.  Meanwhile, a handsome doctor played by William Bishop works to stop the spread of the deadly plague.

I want to deal with the most obvious interpretation of the film.  If you look at it from a feminist perspective, or a freudian perspective, you can argue that the woman wandering around spreading disease represents either the patriarchal fear/hatred of women or a fear of sexually transmitted disease spread by women.  This is interesting and I don't think it's entirely without merit, however it is undermined by how the main acts of immorality are perpretrated by a male character.  Matt sleeps around and betrays people and seems only motivated by his own self-interest, manifested in a Scrooge McDuckian love of money.  (He even attempts to rape someone and it's not played for anything but serious drama). I think if the people that produced this film truly hated women, they'd have gone with the more obvious femme fatale route.  This isn't to say that she isn't dangerous - she is. But she's not exactly evil, especially compared to some other noir femmes. Whether those femmes represent a fear of the female presence is up for debate.

Mostly, I let the femme fatale role slide because it's a cliche.  I know that's a dumb reason to let something go.  But cliches are powerful; if used enough, they become archetypes and resonate with the human consciousness, and the human experience.  In this way I see the femme fatale role not as a malevolent force, but maybe as an open window into the human psyche.  Sure, the room may be ugly, but would it be better if we ignored it, or should we maybe tidy up a little?  So I basically respect the femme role for two reasons: you have to respect archetypes, and they clue us in to some stuff that's going on in the cultural consciousness.

This film has a beautiful score. During calm scenes it is eerie, with carefully placed arrangements of piano and other instruments, spooky, as if this movie were actually about a scary slasher and not a subversion of the usual horror routine.  Then when things start to get exciting, the music rises with excitement, like many other film scores I suppose, but with a distinctive horror bent.

This film offers us a window into societal mores of the time.  In one scene, the main character is approached by a small girl.  I winced as I saw her pick the girl up and place her on her lap before continuing the conversation.  Not to state the obvious but you couldn't do that sort of thing nowadays.  Heck, the narrator even takes the time to establish new york as a city where millions of people cheerfully work together to solve problems.  I've heard differing descriptions from some of my friends.

The film plays with cheerful patriotic Americana imagery.  When the crisis starts to become, well, a crisis, the mayor is pulled from umpire duty of several rambunctious scamps playing baseball. This is, the film is saying, what is at stake as the disease spreads throughout the city.  Our children, playing baseball.

This film also seems to anticipate the vaccine argument that is happening today.  I'll be honest; I'm not sure what the arguments against vaccines are today.  They seem like a pretty good deal to me.  But you still get stuff on social media about how vaccines are evil, etcetera.  In the film, the argument against the vaccine for the disease that is killing people by the truckload is that even a small amount of the disease is bad, even if it protects against future infection.  The movie doesn't spend much time on this viewpoint; eventually, people get the vaccine.  So maybe this film was made by Big Vaccine or whatever.

There's a lot of other stuff to talk about, but I don't want to spoil this film. It's kind of corny, but there's a decent story that leads up to a pretty exciting climax.

Best line: The plague is described as "a killer out of the past, loose among eight million people," vocalized melodramatically by Ludwig Donath.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

"Three Strangers"

"Three Strangers" is a 1946 film released by Warner Brothers.  It stars Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Geraldine Fitzgerald.  It was directed by Jean Negulesco from a script by -get this- John Huston and Howard Koch.

The first thing I will mention is that this film is in colour- the first such movie I've written about here.  And a lot stands out- including eye-popping femme outfits.  (I assume that this is intended to get the same effect that ostentatiously designed outfits usually achieve for femmes.  Honestly, sparkly (and weird) dame dresses are possibly my least favourite thing about the noir aesthetic.)

The premise of the movie is simple.  Three characters are brought together- the titular "Three Strangers"- and they make a bet on a horse race.  They could all use the money, for various reasons.  They then return to their various lives, which are full of drama and heartbreak, and we see how those lives play out.

Peter Lorre's Johnny West is one of the three strangers and arguably the one the film features most heavily. He's not the sort of creepy weirdo he is in films like the Maltese Falcon.  Instead, though he has his trademark manner, he seems to be noble hearted, a victim to his chosen vice of alcohol perhaps, but full of goodness in a world that seems to be ruled by cold hard cash and those that have enough of it.  He's easily my favourite character, always ready with a quip or wise proverb.

Geraldine Fitzgerald's Crystal Shackleford is almost Shakespearian in the forces that are arrayed against her and the ways she tries to deal with them.  I would call her the protagonist, as it is her actions that kickstart the plot.

Sydney Greenstreet's character, Jerome Arbutny, is the third stranger.  Like in the Maltese Falcon, he plays a rich old fat guy.  At first, he wants the money so he can be a respected barrister, soon complications develop.  His civilized appearance belies the hypocrisy and greed that is at the heart of his character.

The setting is London in 1938, which looks different from how I might have pictured the thirties. There are neon signs all over this metropolis, for starters. The movie opens on bustling crowds, and Crystal stands out from them immediately in her daring pink scarf, soon revealing a daring pink outfit.  In fact, the femmes of this film all wear boldly coloured outfits, as I talked about above.

The movie has elements of mysticism.  When the characters make a wish on the mysterious idol, there are eerie winds and other spooky happenings that make the initially skeptical characters take the supernatural elements seriously.  These mystical elements are enhanced by the cuts between scenes, which are foggy dissolves.

Supporting characters are memorable.  Peter Lorre's character is part of a criminal gang, which includes his love interest, the sort of puppydog whose been kicked around a few times, and a knife thrower who exudes the menace of an underclass man prone to violence. (He stands in sharp contrast to the "civilized" air that so many of the characters carry.) Crystal's husband is a smug gentleman trying to leave old paramours by the wayside. And the object of Jerome Arbutny's affections, lady Rhea Belladon, is very amusing.

I complained about a lack of classiness in the film "Born to Kill", and I think that was a little naive after seeing this film.  Sure, characters seem cooler when drinking whiskeys and sodas.  But the characters in positions of wealth and status are for the most part far more reprehensible than the less "civilized" in this film.  It's an important reminder that "civilization" can just be a veneer; cliche as it sounds, what matters is your soul.

This movie deals with two interrelated themes: fate and superstition.  If the gods are real, if their powers extend beyond the reasonable, the rational, the comprehensible, then they surely determine our fates- or so one would imagine. This film explores whether human freedom is possible in an incomprehensible universe.

Best Line: "We are but strangers on this moving globe. It's not for us to tarry long," delivered educationally by Peter Lorre.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

"Born to Kill"

Note: I'm doing something different this time.  There's no plot mentions of any kind and it's mostly gut impressions. Shaking things up as it were.
Born to Kill is a 1947 film released under RKO pictures.  It's not a terribly classy film, possibly the least classy noir I've seen to date.  When characters are straight out asking for beer and not, say, whiskeys and sodas, you know you're in trouble.  But it does have plenty of fedoras, and women with improbable hairstyles.

It stars Lawrence Tierney (of "Reservoir Dogs" fame), Clair Trevor (from "Key Largo" and "Murder, My Sweet"), and Walter Slezak, but none of their performances are especially memorable.  Far more memorable is Elisha Cook Jr. (from the  Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Star Trek) who, although his performance is slightly undermined by sleaziness, has a sort of manipulative charm.  It's hard not to cheer for these characters who are clearly smarter than those they share the screen with.  Another memorable performance is Esther Howard's alcoholic old lady, who makes up for in vim and vigor that she lacks in class.

The fight scenes especially seemed pretty strange, and kind of take away from the grim and gritty tone with their bizarre poses.  There are some surreal facial expressions as characters seem unsure what to do.  There are also some pretty sloppy make-outs.

The dialogue (at its best) is what lends the movie its shine.  It's blunt and forceful, like an oncoming train. Characters relentlessly hit on each other.  There's some advice about dames which isn't especially misogynistic and struck me as relevant to my own life.  There's also a quite profound bit of wisdom delivered in a cafe.  And there's a plot-relevant biblical quote which seems a little too convenient to be real, but works anyways.  Unfortunately, sometimes characters nervously babble and make unecessary statements.  But overall I would say it's pretty sharp, if low-brow.

Ultimately this movie fails due to a lack of class in other areas.  Characters literally spit at each other, for example.  This lack of class hurts the movie when it tries to be literary and intellectual. (Walter Slezak's character is fond of literary allusions, but he isn't exempt from the no-class rule).

I think this film is ultimately just kind of shady.  Sure, a lot of noirs are, but I think the best noirs keep a certain classiness that this movie fails to attain (if it was even trying.)

Best Line: "As you grow older you'll discover that life is very much like coffee.  The aroma is always better than the actuality", delivered pleasantly by Walter Slezak.