Posts Tagged ‘review’

Corridors of Blood (1958)

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There’s a bit of a misnomer in the title of this film: while there are many corridors, there’s very little blood featured in what amounts to an effective thriller from 1958.

Corridors of Blood stars Boris Karloff in rare non-monstrous mode as Dr. Thomas Bolton, an expert surgeon in the Victorian period searching for the key to painless surgery. Bolton’s humanitarian efforts to discover anesthesia have him experimenting on himself with a mixture of gases until he finally finds the mixture that works. Unfortunately, the mixture also causes blackouts that have Bolton wandering London, getting into mischief and eventually being exploited by underworld criminal Black Ben (Francis de Wolff) and his associate Resurrection Joe (Christopher Lee) to sign false death certificates for murder victims.

Corridors of Blood is a surprisingly slow-moving film for its run time (it comes in at less than an hour and a half), taking awhile to build the character of Bolton and the world of barbarous surgery that he’s trying to reform. The most intense scenes are also the earliest, as Bolton performs amputations without the benefit of anesthesia. That in itself is horrific enough and Bolton’s colleagues seem to be immune to the suffering of their patients, relying on the refrain that you cannot separate pain and the knife. Bolton disagrees, but as he gradually becomes addicted to the anesthetic gases with which he experiments his own surgical skill suffers.

While far from a horror film, Corridors of Blood is actually quite effective at creating a sympathetic protagonist whose gradual downfall is entirely due to his humanism (in contrast to your usual mad scientist). Christopher Lee puts in a strong but underused performance as the sepulchral Resurrection Joe, a character who looms out of dark corridors dressed in a funeral coat and top hat. The other characters are fairly stock, from the earnest young doctor who wants to make a difference to the sweet Victorian maiden (Bolton’s niece) confused by what’s going with her uncle. Still, though you can predict the ending of this film, that doesn’t make it any less poignant.

Le Corbeau (1943)

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Best known for the thrillers Les Diaboliques (The Devils) and La Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear), director Henri-Georges Clouzot is best described as the French Hitchcock. In fact, a certain key scene in Les Diaboliques was so frightening that it reportedly prompted Hitchcock to up the ante in that Psycho’s famous shower scene. Clouzot certainly never went by halves in his films, ramping up tension and paranoia until characters either broke or the audience did, as proven by the disturbing Le Corbeau (The Raven).

Le Corbeau opens on small French town Saint-Robin, where anonymous poison-pen letters signed only Le Corbeau have been plaguing the inhabitants. The main target seems to be the town’s doctor Remy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), accused of  a multitude of sins including having an affair with his colleague’s wife Laura (Micheline Francey) and providing illegal abortions for women in trouble. But soon other members of the community begin receiving letters informing them of infidelity, usury, and even illness. The catch is that the cruelly worded accusations seem to be true. As the letters pile up, the people begin to turn against each other, revealing the petty cruelties, prejudices, and paranoia underlying the idyllic little town.

Le Corbeau is not a pleasant film; it’s a film about unpleasantness, about meanness and cruelty and, more than that, about the willingness to believe the worst of your neighbors. While The Raven is a vilified figure, the gossip he or she spreads is believed without question, causing the destruction of homes, careers, and lives. The townspeople are divided in their suspicions of each other – not only could anyone be the Raven, anyone could also be targeted by the Raven, prompting a bizarre playing off of people against each other as they learn the worst about their neighbors. As the film proceeds to its inevitable climax, the viewer is treated to seeing characters at their vindictive worst.

Le Corbeau created something of a stir in France, both during and after its premiere. The film appeared in 1943 and was produced by Continental Films, a German production company set up in France just prior to Occupation. While the Germans viewed Le Corbeau as anti-Nazi, the French would later accuse Clouzot of vilifying the French people. This background throws the argument of Le Corbeau into interesting relief: the film does indeed represent the villagers as petty and malicious people, more concerned for propriety and disguising their own amorality than in punishing the guilty and exalting the innocent. Germain, one of the few decent people in Saint-Robin, is repeatedly attacked both by the Raven and the townspeople until forced into revealing his entire past; innocent people die or are injured because they’re suspected of being the letter writer. The film paints a very dark picture of France in the 1940s. It’s made even darker if read as a veiled allegory for the Nazi occupation, the turning of the French people against each other as neighbors become informers.

If Le Corbeau has any flaw it is in the denouement, when the discovery of the letter writer plays as secondary to Germain’s crisis of faith and eventual rejection of the town as a whole. The ending feels strangely rushed, as though Clouzot had run out of ideas and was simply trying to give the narrative some kind of closure. But the point of the film is not about closure – it’s about suspicion, about paranoia. The Raven is vindictive, but so is the entire town. As the film ends with the image of a figure in widow weeds walking down the empty street, one feels as though nothing has actually been resolved. Whatever Clouzot actually intended in his film – and whether he intended any parallels to be drawn at all – it is a deeply critical film at a time when France was in no mood to be criticized.

Billy Jack (1971)

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The 1970s produced some rather unique films. The rise of independent filmmaking, coupled with the aggressive shifts in the culture that pitted youth against age, black against racist white, the minority against the majority in all its shapes and sizes, developed a cinematic culture vibrant, violent, and increasingly bizarre. The relative mainstream success of blaxsploitation films like Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song brought minority perspectives into cinemas – and while those films were occasionally poor or amateurish, they were never boring.

Billy Jack represents an entry into the small but rather fascinating genre that is basically (for lack of a better term) “redsploitation”: an American Indian version of the counterculture films that came out of the Black and Chicano power movements. The story centers around Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin), a part white and part Navajo hero who, armed with badass Green Beret tactics and deadpan jokes, defends his reservation from racist townspeople. He’s further allied with the counterculture via his girlfriend Jean (Delores Taylor), who runs the “Freedom School” on the reservation, a school dedicated to giving a home to wayward young people otherwise living on the fringes of society. Billy’s main enemies come in the form of Bernard (David Roya), the nasty son of a local boss (Bert Freed), and his gang, who get their jollies by abusing anyone who comes in their paths, especially the students from the Freedom School. As violent acts pile up, Billy must prepare to fight the onslaught of town councils and the National Guard, all in the name of defending the defenseless.

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Billy Jack is a free-floating film with only the nebulous beginnings of a central plot. Large swathes of the film are dedicated to the “psycho-drama” performances of Freedom School students, as they stage arguments with the local council over curfews, or prove the inherent hypocrisy of the system through street theater. The villains are dyed-in-the-wool racists, xenophobes, and sadists, with little to make them even close to sympathetic. Interestingly, the local sheriff is more on the side of Billy Jack and the students than he is with the white majority, as he tries to keep the peace and stop the escalating violence. There are recognizable scenes of sit-ins, including a lunch counter sequence in which the American Indian students are bullied by Bernard and his gang. Enter Billy Jack, who takes off his shoes and kicks everyone’s ass. The film later takes some decidedly dark turns, including featuring a sexual assault. The central theme also develops into a conflict of Billy Jack’s use of violence to stop the baddies, while Jean hangs onto her pacifism as the only way forward.

Billy Jack opened several years before the American Indian Movement’s stand at Wounded Knee, and in that sense the film is prescient in its final sequence. It’s a smorgasbord of the early 70s, incorporating counterculture ideology, nonviolence, and civil rights conflicts into a reversal of the typical western narrative. Here the Indians are the violated minority, while the townspeople endlessly encroach on their land and their freedom in fear of anything that is different. But the film provides no clear or easy answers to any of the questions it poses. Like sister films such as Sweet Sweetback, Medium Cool, and Easy Rider, the best that we can hope for is for the struggle to carry on.

Night and the City (1950)

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Jules Dassin’s Night and the City is often noted as a seminal noir, an early example of the British version of a classically American genre that pits bad guys against worse guys. It’s an extraordinarily pessimistic film, its central character just as unlikable as the villains who surround him.

Richard Widmark is Harry Fabian, a small-time hustler who works at the Silver Fox Club, where his girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney) is a singer. Fabian’s main purpose is to find a way to live a “life of plenty,” which to him means slowly conning his way up the criminal social ladder. To this end, he decides to become a wrestling promoter, taking business away from the local magnate Kristo (Herbert Lom) by enlisting the latter’s father to train wrestlers. Subterfuge piles on subterfuge: Harry obtains his start-up money from his boss’s wife Helen (Googie Whithers) by promising to help her get a license to start her own nightclub and leave her husband Phil (Francis L. Sullivan, doing his Sidney Greenstreet impression). But all of Harry’s machinations threaten to destroy him, as he sweet-talks one dangerous criminal after another and places himself, and everyone connected to him, in harm’s way.

Night and the City‘s complex plot belies its fairly short running time, with a lot of plot development packed into a very small space. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it film: one minute Harry is on top of the world, the next in the gutter trying to talk his way out again. It’s hard to root for anyone here except perhaps Mary, who suffers mightily at the hands of a man who refuses to see that he’s always going to a failure. Just as Harry is supremely unlikable, the other villains have levels of pathos: Kristos is tortured by his father’s abandonment, Phil passionately in love with a wife who hates him, Helen desperate to escape from a loveless marriage. The film’s climax is inevitable without being predictable: Harry is doomed and everyone but him knows it from the start. There is no hope underlying Night and the City’s pessimism: the criminals have almost no fear of the law, but each of them is trapped in their personal hells of ambition.

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One of the most striking and brutal scenes occurs between Kristos’s father Gregorious (Stanislaus Zbyszko) and the Strangler (Mike Mazurki). The two competing wrestlers tussle together for an extended sequence that is fascinating and painful to watch: this is real wrestling, not the staged matches that Kristos specializes in. The camera documents their fight with an unflinching gaze, bringing us so close that you can almost smell the blood and sweat. If this film has an argument, it’s present in this one climactic moment. Forgotten are Harry’s fancy word games and Kristos’s gangland posturing; the melodrama that has been played out for most of the film falls back in the face of a brutal match between two men who are treated as animals. As with the rest of the film, there’s no one to root for: it’s violence without purpose, compelling and meaningless.

Night and the City’s reputation has certainly been earned: it’s an influential film with a strong cast and striking images that will be played out, in different forms, across cinematic history. It’s not one to end an evening on, though: few films are as hopeless as a European film noir, and in this one it’s hard to even cry for the loss of innocence. This is a film where innocence does not even exist.

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.

Death Dispatch (Episode 2-13, December 1962).

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*I’m going a bit out of order, but eventually will get around to most of the good ones.

The Cathy Gale series can be very spotty on quality. For every truly stellar episode, there are several mediocre ones and at least one or two terrible ones. Thank God for the good ones, though, because when they’re good, they’re very good. Which is where we stand with Death Dispatch.

The plot follows Steed and Cathy investigating the murder of a British courier carrying special dispatches. When the courier is found dead in his Jamaican hotel, Steed heads off with the dispatches in tow and Cathy close behind. I’m still not 100% clear on the importance of the dispatches to the diabolical mastermind behind the murder – something to do with a South American coup – but only rarely does the plot matter in this series.

What does matter is how much fun the entire episode is. Steed lounges onto the screen, flirting with girls by the pool while his superior One-Ten (one of the few appearances of Steed’s superior in the entire show) explains the basic plot. Then enter Cathy Gale, enjoying her Jamaican vacation immensely. There’s a marvelous scene between the pair when Steed invades her hotel room dressed only in a bathrobe. They banter, they flirt, they evidently enjoy each other’s company for the first time in the whole Cathy Gale series. Up until Death Dispatch, Cathy has been a distant, hard-edged and slightly cold character, unimpressed by Steed’s antics but equally unwilling to enter into the fun of espionage. She must have been deficient in vitamin D or something, because her mood obviously improves the second she gets into the sun. She actually seems to be having fun with him.

Death Dispatch also includes some of the best secondary characters to jump into The Avengers. The scene between Steed and the assistant British consul is one the funniest in the entire series. The villains all pop, and the danger Cathy gets into (which she finally does) is tense and well-shot. Steed also has his chance to let some of the darker elements of his character through, as he bludgeons and threatens his way to rescuing Cathy the moment he realizes she’s in danger.

All in all, I would probably recommend Death Dispatch as the place to start with the Cathy Gale series. Although you won’t get the development of Steed and Cathy’s relationship, you will get one of the best, most tightly written and well-acted episodes. This is 60s cool at its finest.