Beware, My Lovely (1952)

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Beware, My Lovely falls into that particular sub-genre of thrillers classified as “house invasion” films: a criminal or gang of criminals manage to break into a family’s home and take it over, transforming the safe suburban landscape into a land of dark shadows and looming threats. The sub-genre was particularly prevalent in post-World War II America as an off-shoot of Cold War paranoia and the increasing sense that the enemy could be the person next door. In Beware, My Lovely, the sub-genre also deals with the incipient sense of inferiority of post-war masculinity.

Beware, My Lovely is set in 1918 and features Ida Lupino as Helen Gordon, a widowed housewife preparing her home for Christmas by a spate of extensive cleaning. Her lodger is leaving for several weeks, and her young niece Ruth is of little assistance, so Helen calls in an itinerant handyman Howard Wilton (Robert Ryan) to help her with the heavy work. As Helen finds herself alone with Howard, it develops that the otherwise friendly worker has a serious psychosis. After a violent outburst, Howard confesses to Helen that he has occasional blackouts where he does things – including murder – that he later cannot remember. Although Helen tries to express sympathy for the damaged man, she soon discovers that Howard has locked them in the house and hidden the keys, prompting a battle of wills as Helen tries to convince the damaged Howard to let her go.

Beware, My Lovely is a chamber-piece of a film noir anchored primarily by Lupino and Ryan, with only a few supporting characters coming in and out. It moves quickly, developing Howard’s psychosis and subsequent possession of the house as something nearly outside of his control. Ryan plays his part with remarkable pathos: Howard isn’t a bad or evil person per se; he’s after nothing more than help and some cure for his loneliness, but is incapable of controlling his blackouts or his behavior within them. Refused entry into the army, Howard’s madness seems to be instigated by a sense that he’s “less of a man,” his violence directed at women that he believes are laughing at him. It’s Helen’s niece who prompts his outburst when she tells him that the housework he’s doing is “woman’s work.” beware-my-lovely

Lupino has a more thankless role. While Helen begins the film with a strong emotional character, her behavior sometimes borders on nonsensical. She never seems to get past her terror and so remains a victim throughout the film – a companion to similar female characters in home invasion films who never manage to get their hands on a coffee pot, a lamp, or a kitchen knife long enough to do something. While the audience shares her terror, her ineptitude becomes increasingly exasperating. This isn’t a slur on Lupino, however, who has one of the strongest screen personas you can ask for in a Classical Hollywood actress. But Lupino’s very strength of character makes Helen’s behavior seem unbelievable; Ida Lupino would never faint the way this woman does.

Despite Helen’s hysteria, there’s much to like in Beware, My Lovely. It maintains a claustrophobic atmosphere that does not let up until the final frame. Most of the film takes place within Helen’s house, juxtaposed occasionally against the world outside that goes along as it always had, developing into a seeming mockery of Helen’s situation. It’s the scenes of near-escape that have the most energy, as do the moments where Helen tries to convince Howard that she’ll help him if he’ll only unlock the front door.

Beware, My Lovely has the hallmarks of a classic, even if it falls somewhat short in the execution. Ryan and Lupino are attractive screen presences, and Ryan in particular uses his looming physicality and sorrowful eyes to excellent effect. If it never quite achieves the level it might, Beware, My Lovely is a diverting piece of thriller cinema.

The Bat (1959)

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B-grade mystery movies of the 1950s had a cache all their own. Very often the ghostly or apparently supernatural killer was in it for the money and nothing else, which for me usually takes some of the suspense out of the investigation. I was pleasantly surprised by The Bat, however, which has all the earmarks of a generic thriller and manages to be a bit different. The Bat is a surprisingly clever, funny little film, stocked with some excellent character actors led by Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price.

The Bat opens with mystery writer Cornelia Van Gorder (Moorehead) leasing an old mansion while the owner is away on an extended hunting trip. The mansion and the small town have a sinister history, though: they were the site of several murders the year before by a character known only as The Bat, a serial killer who preys on women by ripping their throats out with steel claws. Cornelia is thrilled at first, but things start getting ugly when The Bat apparently breaks into her house and releases a rabid bat into her bedroom. These events are wound up in the disappearance of a million dollars in securities from the vault of the local bank. The culprit is the bank’s owner and proprietor of the very mansion where Cornelia and her maid now live; but the bank owner was murdered by his friend Dr. Malcolm Wells (Vincent Price) before revealing the location of the securities (I’d say this was a spoiler, but it happens within the first ten minutes of the film’s run time).

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There are actually more than a few twists and turns running through a film that appears quite simple on the face of it. The mansion is treated as an “old dark house,” but some of the suspense is punctured by Cornelia and her maid’s no-nonsense attitude to tales of ghosts and killers. AgnesMoorehead is at the top of her game here, playing Cornelia as an acerbic Agatha Christie who delights in the mayhem going on around her, and is more than capable of taking on several Bats at once.The film makes excellent use of its female characters, each of whom proves to be much tougher than the men that surround them. Female friendship is powerful and long-lasting, while male friendship proves remarkably false. It’s really up to the women to solve the mystery, save the town, and find the loot; the men are too busy killing each other off.

Moorehead has a brilliant counterpart in Vincent Price; their scenes together pop as each tries to out-creep the other. Price’s sinister persona is pitch perfect as always, giving the simplest lines dark and terrible meaning that he obviously delights in. If there’s a flaw in him, it’s that he’s so obviously sinister from the beginning, as the audience is privy to the original murder of the bank owner.

The Bat isn’t a brilliant thriller by any means; one wonders what a Hitchcock or a Lang might have made out of the same cast and script. But it is a diverting little film, enjoyable from beginning to end. Don’t assume that you know the solution as you go into it – it has quite a number of hidden corridors.

Carnival of Souls (1962)

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American filmmaking went through a period of spectacular growth and increased genre diversity throughout the 1950s and 60s. The Hollywood studio system was slowly collapsing, allowing more space for young directors, writers, and actors to step in and start experimenting. While the low-budget horror film Carnival of Souls didn’t achieve cult status until many years after its release, it has all the hallmarks of early American realism, filtered through a horror story that asks more questions than it tries to answer.

Carnival of Souls tells the story of Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a young woman plagued by hallucinations following a near death experience when her car plunges off a bridge during a drag-race. The other occupants of the vehicle are killed, but Mary emerges from the river three hours later with no memory of what happened or how she escaped. A week afterwards, she takes a job as an organist at a church in a small Utah town, hoping to escape from the trauma of her car wreck. But when she arrives in the town, she begins to hallucinate that a bizarre man is stalking her. This all seems tied to an abandoned carnival on the outskirts of the town, though how or to what purpose remains unclear.

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Carnival of Souls relies mostly on the tense, off-kilter atmosphere of the town and its inhabitants, focalized through Mary and her increasing paranoia. The camera work itself feels carnivalesque, managing to instill close-ups and otherwise normal scenes with a sense of foreboding. No one is really normal in this film: Mary’s fellow lodger John Linden is nearly a sexual predator, insinuating himself into Mary’s room and life with self-centered ease; her landlady, the minister for whom she works, and even the kindly doctor who attempts to assist her all seem in collusion with supernatural forces. The film as a whole has a silent-movie aesthetic, especially in the appearance of the devilish ghouls who menace Mary. This element is further punctuated by an eerie organ score that veers between religious and carnival themes. The two overlap as Mary’s hallucinations become more pronounced, and then cut out altogether in key sequences, as though transition from one plane of existence to the next has been imperfectly completed.

Hilligoss’s distanced performance is central to the film’s conceit: Mary is unable to connect to anyone, desperate for human contact one minute and then cold and distant the next. While the other actors vary between amateur theatrics and solid performance, Hilligoss remains both sympathetic and remote; the audience shares her terror, but cannot fully invest in her as a person. Most of the film is told through her eyes, yet there’s a sense of distance even in the most frightening sequences. Like Mary, we are disconnected from this world, and we also feel the terror that goes with that disconnection. It’s an excellent trick that combines cinematography, soundtrack, and the actress’s performance, and lends Carnival of Souls its most basic horror.

Carnival of Souls was made on a budget of $3,000 and has influenced filmmakers like George Romero and David Lynch. Director Herk Harvey never made another feature film, though he was a prolific director of educational and industrial films. It’s a shame Carnival of Souls didn’t do any better at the box office, for it might have encourage Harvey to continue to hone his undoubted abilities in combining the mundane and the supernatural. As it is, the film stands as a cult classic and a deeply influential work that helped shape the future of horror.

Horror Express (1972)

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Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee made a remarkable 22 films together over the course of four decades – the first being one where they never even appeared in the same scene, as the pair actually appeared in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948. More often than not they were antagonists, pitted against one another in a series of Dracula films from Hammer Studios and as Victor Frankenstein and his Monster. It’s a pleasure to come across a film where the two friends share the screen and are (mostly) friendly with one another.

Horror Express is not a Hammer film, but it certainly looks and sounds like one.  The film features Lee as Sir Alexander Saxton, an archaeologist and scientist who discovers a “missing link” in a cave in Manchuria. Returning to England with the specimen via the Trans-Siberian Express, Saxton hopes to change the face of science with his mummified creature. They’re joined Saxton’s friendly rival Dr. Wells (Cushing), his assistant Miss Jones (Alice Reinhea), and a whole gang of suspicious characters that include a Polish Countess and her husband, a lovely stowaway, and a mad monk.  Also on board is Inspector Mirov (Jose Pena), a police officer following Saxton around after the sudden and inexplicable death of a thief in close proximity to Saxton’s mummy.  As soon as the train starts moving, people start dying. It rapidly becomes clear that the thing Saxton has in that case is not quite as dead as it appears, and is capable of murdering with one glance of its shimmering red eyes.

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Horror Express is something like The Mummy meets Murder on the Orient Express with a healthy overtone of Italian giallo. The influence of the latter becomes obvious during the murder sequences, a bit more violent and disturbingly realistic than your usual horror fare of the time period. The violence is not overdone, however, and the film relies more cleanly on the slow realization of who, and what, is doing the killing. An abrupt shift halfway through the film makes for some excellent tension, while Saxton and Wells join forces to stop the creature and protect as many people as they can.

Cushing and Lee are enjoying themselves here, as perhaps the only English speakers in a Spanish/British horror film with a primarily Spanish cast. They begin initially as rivals and quickly become buddies, facing the monstrous horror with two very stiff upper lips. The pair are always fun to watch together; their chemistry tends to leap off the screen, even when the surrounding events might make lesser actors into hams. The rest of the cast is quite impressive on the whole, with no one standing out as a poor performer among the rest. You have to be willing to enter into the madhouse spirit of a film like this to get any enjoyment out of it, but at least the cast seem game, taking their parts seriously without overacting.

There’s really not much to complain about with Horror Express, so long as you accept the initial and rather silly premise. The denouement does feel rushed, however, and raises a number of questions of plotting that are never satisfactorily answered. The sudden introduction of Telly Savalas as a Cossack commander is jarring, not least because Savalas does not even attempt to sound like a Cossack. The final showdown comes off as perfunctory, especially after some strong tension building over the rest of the film.

I would not put Horror Express forward as the best film Cushing and Lee made together, but it is very far from the worst. It’s a solid, enjoyable hour and a half spent in the company of one nasty monster, and two of the finest horror actors to ever haunt the screen. As we mourn Lee’s passing, we can find a bright spot in the idea that he’s still stalking monsters with Cushing, on the screen and, perhaps, elsewhere as well.

A Woman’s Face (1941)

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Over the course of a long career, George Cukor made any number of excellent films. While he delved into melodrama (and made some great pre-Code films like The Animal Kingdom), he was primarily known as a director of light drama and even lighter comedy like Dinner at Eight and The Philadelphia Story. A Woman’s Face is an anomaly in Cukor’s career: a noir-ish thriller with undercurrents of psycho-sexual tension, mental trauma, and physical abuse.

The film begins with witnesses coming forward at the murder trial of Anna Holm (Joan Crawford). As each character tells their version of the story, the film develops a strikingly serious and personal narrative. Following a childhood trauma that left the side of her face horribly scarred, Anna becomes a blackmailer and the leader of a criminal ring. She meets Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt), the first man to look at her with no horror and no pity, seeing a woman as outwardly and inwardly corrupt as himself. After falling in love with him and becoming his partner in crime, Anna comes across a doctor (Melvyn Douglas) who believes that he can repair the damage done to her face. Her physical transformation begins to transform Anna’s psychology and she finds herself torn between her desire for a normal life, and her continued attraction to the criminal world.

While the film largely follows a linear narrative, despite the numerous narrators, it cannily avoids revealing too much at a time. Who it was that Anna actually killed – there are at least two candidates for murder as the film proceeds – and whether she is guilty of the crime plays second fiddle to the development of Anna’s psychological state. Her scar covers several symbolic layers: at first an apparent indication of evil, then a tragic example of violated innocence, and finally a physical manifestation of the world’s cruelty. Its removal does not really change the person that Anna is, but the way that the world treats her, as she finds the tenderness and acceptance she always craved. Yet one wonders if the scar was used more as a guard against emotional understanding and involvement, an excuse for evil rather than the cause of evil in itself.

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The cast of A Woman’s Face are a combination of 1940s character actors and stars. I’ve never been a big fan of Joan Crawford, but she plays Anna with a mixture of pathos and defiance that made me side with her even when she was doing awful things. Her anger at the world is understandable, as is her underlying desperation to simply be loved. She has a perfect counterpart in Conrad Veidt as Torsten Barring, a man for whom cruelty and sadism is an expression of love. Veidt is as terribly fascinating as a sleek jungle cat, slinking across the screen and offering one hell of an argument for the dark side. Set against him, physically and morally, is Melvyn Douglas, as earnest and likable a lead actor as you can come by. The three form a moral triangle with Anna at the apex; it’s anyone’s guess which side she’ll finally belong to.

There are missteps in A Woman’s Face, however. Several comic moments feel out of place, as though Cukor was trying to inject some lightness into a very serious script. The film is occasionally predictable – I could tell you the ending halfway through, though not necessarily the exact form it would take. Cukor seems a trifle uncertain how to handle the subject matter – the most intense example of chiaroscuro taking place during an extended conversation between Barring and Anna, as the former finally expresses his nascent madness and fascist tendencies. Barring’s implied fascism might not surprise (this is 1941, after all), but it does rather puncture some of the intense psychological sparring that the film took such pains to set up. It smacks of an attempt to bring current historical concerns into the film, but comes off feeling a bit clumsy and a little too pat.

Mild flaws aside, A Woman’s Face is a fascinating film, by turns surprising and curiously satisfying. I left the film with a sense of having seen something unique, something unexpected from a Hollywood of 1941. There are some films that have you saying that they don’t make ’em like this anymore. A Woman’s Face had me wishing that they made more of ’em.

Man with Two Shadows (Episode 3-03, October 1963).

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Man with Two Shadows represents the first Avengers attempt at a “doppelgänger” episode – they will repeat the performance in Season 4’s Two’s a Crowd, Season 6’s They Keep Killing Steed, and The New Avengers’ Faces. But Man with Two Shadows stands as the best use of the often-overused trope, and also the most disturbing.

The episode opens with the interrogation of Peter Borowski (Terence Lodge), an agent who has apparently been brainwashed and implanted with multiple personalities. In a disturbing sequence, Steed effectively beats and tortures Borowski, finally discovering the existence of a plot to replace certain key members of the British government with doppelgängers. Tracing some of Borowski’s movements, as well as the disappearance of Gordon, an eminent government scientist, Steed and Cathy stumble onto a holiday camp where the villains have been funneling their doppelgängers into regular life. As they delve deeper into the investigation, they also discover that one of the replacements might be Steed himself.

There are any number of excellent elements to this uneven episode. Terence Lodge gives a brief but virtuosic performance as the mad Borowski, his mania both terrifying and pathetic in a scene that deeply complicates the audience’s feelings about Steed (his own superior can’t stand to watch the agent beating Borowski). Paul Whitsun-Jones is equally bizarre as Steed’s superior Charles, a rather disgusting and morally questionable member of the Ministry. But the doppelgänger plot itself is somewhat thin: much time is spent on proving whether or not Gordon is the “real” Gordon, something of which the audience is already aware. Sections of the plot are elided over, giving the episode a disconnected feeling, as though some needed details and character development have been left out. It’s hard to feel sympathy for Judy, the girl whom the doppelgänger Gordon finds himself involved with, when her character is so single-note.

Man with Two Shadows does manage to twist the Steed and Cathy relationship to a degree that we might wonder if they ever manage to trust each other again. Steed reveals that he has in fact been captured and interrogated by the very people who drove Borowski mad; later, his very personality will come into question when his doppelgänger arrives to kill and replace him. Cathy remains in the dark, uncertain about whether to trust Steed, uncertain if he even IS Steed. The results are disconcerting, made more so if one notes that this episode aired right before The Nutshell, where Steed might (or might not) be a traitor. The partners have never been divided so deeply as they are here, and there is a distressing sense that not only do they fail to trust each other, they don’t even know each other.

The levels of moral ambiguity fail to resolve in Man with Two Shadows, leaving us with a sense of violation at a rather unsatisfying conclusion. While everyone in the cast give remarkable performances, there is something deeply unpleasant at the core of this episode. Sympathies are divided and remain divided, loyalties are drawn into question without resolution. While far better in tone and script than the later doppelgänger attempts, Man with Two Shadows still mostly succeeds in making you dislike everyone involved. In a show that typically trades on the charm and interplay between its leads, there is very little to enjoy here.

Le Samourai (1967)

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There are two actors who represent the epitome of “Gallic cool” in the 1960s: one is Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the other Alain Delon. Belmondo was the French Bogart: a true tough guy (or at least one who thought he was tough), cigarette poised in the corner of his mouth, rumpled and just slightly the worse for wear. Delon was the Alan Ladd of the French New Wave: cold, calculating, beautiful, and psychotic.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai has Delon at his ice-cold best. He’s Jef Costello, a hitman who dresses (and kills) as befits a Japanese warrior. Hired by an unknown organization to kill the owner of a Parisian nightclub, the film follows Jef as he prepares for and completes his assignment. A chance encounter with pianist Valerie (Cathy Rosier) following the murder places Jef in danger, and the police are soon on his trail. Determined to prove Jef guilty, the investigating officer (Francois Pelier) goes to all lengths, threatening witnesses, trailing suspects, and bugging Jef’s flat.

Le Samourai is part crime thriller, part police procedural, and occupies that curious position of 1960s films with few, if any, sympathetic characters. Jef is a detached, unsmiling figure, his methodical killing abilities hinting at that edge of sociopathy that Delon played with great aplomb in Purple Noon. Yet the world that surrounds him permits no attachment, even if he was capable of one: his girlfriend Jane (Nathalie Delon) is a “kept woman” who gives him his alibi and with whom he never even manages to take off his coat. Each character fits their surroundings like pieces of furniture: Jef in his spartan apartment, Jane in her more opulent flat, Valerie in her black and white art deco apartment and night club.

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The key here is style: Jef’s clothing and physicality are precise and a perfect match to the surroundings in which we first encounter him. His apartment is spartan to an almost absurd degree, the only point of color or activity occupied by the small bird in a cage that provides Jef with his most poignant relationship. As he rises and dresses to go out, fixing his hat and coat in the mirror as though fitting himself for battle, the film has established its argument without a line of dialogue. This is about style and style is about fate: each character moves along their established lines and either cannot or will not deviate from the future set out for them.

Le Samourai might almost be termed a nihilistic film; it’s certainly a cold one. Human connection does not exist, nor is the viewer asked to sympathize with Jef beyond the fact that he is our central character. No one else is even likable, least of all the investigating officer who pursues Jef with a mania bordering on obsession. This could be read as an indictment of France’s surveillance society, if the film made any move to establish a political argument. But that is not Melville’s project; the bugging of Jef’s apartment and relentless pursuit by the police is simply another form of fate.

Le Samourai is not a lovable film, but it is a great one. It offers no explanation for its events and barely any character motivation, yet it is not therefore inexplicable or dull. Delon conjures a fascinating character without making him sympathetic. As the film proceeds to its inevitable conclusion, the viewer is drawn into rooting for Jef without being allied to him. We know how this is going to end, though, because there is no other ending.