Author Archives: Alex Good

Quiz the one hundred-and-forty-ninth: Just a note (Part four)

It’s always nice to get a note. Unless they include death threats. I have to admit, some of these aren’t very nice. Some are even threatening. The last one should have a trigger warning! But see if you can tell what movies they appear in anyway.

See also: Quiz the twelfth: Just a note (Part one), Quiz the thirty-first: Just a note (Part two), Quiz the one hundred-and-eleventh: Just a note (Part three).

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

*. It’s curious how Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde doesn’t usually get considered alongside the other great horror films of the period. Like the others it had a literary source, and it was made in the wake of the success of Dracula and at the same time as Frankenstein was in production (1931 was an annis horribilis, in a good way). I believe this movie marked the tenth time Stevenson’s story had been filmed. It was a big commercial hit and even netted Frederic March an Academy Award for Best Actor, a feat that wouldn’t often be repeated by an actor in a horror movie.
*. Maybe it’s that Oscar cachet that sets it apart. This wasn’t a Universal film (like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man) but a well-budgeted prestige picture from Paramount. That said, it has a lot of the same feel as the Universal pics, which is a compliment to both. What I mean is that it has the same economy in its storytelling, and inventiveness in the direction.
*. Rouben Mamoulian had come from theatre, but took to film like a fish to water. You can tell he was having a lot of fun here, right from that long point-of-view opening. Had there ever been anything like that done before? I honestly don’t know. I love the way it builds up to Dr. Jekyll entering the lecture hall, with a quick moment in the mirror to introduce us to him as he puts on his cape. And such an opening isn’t just meant to show off. Mamoulian uses mirrors throughout the movie in important ways, from Jekyll watching his first transformation (it’s our first glimpse of Mr. Hyde as well) to his appearance behind Ivy near the end.
*. Not all of Mamoulian’s gambles work. Those slow wipes that momentarily stick into a split-screen effect halfway through strike me as ill-advised and ineffective. But they give some idea of how free a hand he was taking.
*. Then there is the economy. Being more a prestige picture this is quite a bit longer than Dracula or Frankenstein, but it still moves pretty quickly (I like how they cut off Jekyll’s opening lecture and let the people leaving finish it talking among themselves as they leave) and the release version ran a fair bit shorter because the censors made significant cuts. The Production Code wasn’t in full swing yet but in some scenes here Mamoulian was going over the line. Albeit not without more playfulness. Look at the suggestive pose the waiter adopts to uncork the champagne, or the pot being brought to a boil (an image the movie will end on, with the pot boiling over).
*. But I can understand the censors raising more than an eyebrow at the scene where Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) transfixes Dr. Jekyll with her garters. There’s a lot of bare thigh on display, and this was at a time when a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking.

*. The studio wanted John Barrymore, star of the 1920 film, to reprise the role but he was already under contract at MGM. Mamoulian was right to want someone younger, and got someone just as handsome in Frederic March. This is a fellow who you can believe is in need of some release. And that’s very much who Hyde is: a randy alter ego looking for the sexual satisfaction he is frustrated in attaining by Victorian codes of behaviour. Ivy, in Kael’s phrase, showcases “the attractions of the gutter.” So while Hyde can be violent when provoked, he really just wants to be Buddy Love.
*. The sexual angle is also part of the Promethean theme. By that I mean scientific curiosity is directly linked to sexual desire, with Dr. Jekyll wanting to pierce the veil of nature. He doesn’t want to play God so much as have a good time. Though he does play God, and there’s an obligatory scene at the end with March holding a Bible and praying for the Almighty to forgive him his presumptions in trying to go further than man should. Ah, but it was God who gave you those hormones Dr. J.
*. The special effects are justifiably famous, holding up well nearly a hundred years later. The main trick was the use of tinted filters to reveal progressively darker make-up. As for the appearance of Mr. Hyde, he’s a Neanderthal that foreshadows the primitive man in Altered States, down to the way he jumps and clambers about like a monkey. The inner man is a reversion to a natural state, taking us back to our days swinging in trees.
*. One of the most remarkable things about this movie is the fact that we nearly lost it. When MGM returned to the property with Spencer Tracy in 1941 they bought the negative and rights to both this film and the Barrymore version and tried to destroy every print of both in existence. For many years it was believed to have been lost. An Oscar winner! I can’t believe people do this. It goes to show what people thought of movies as an art form back in the day. It also made me think of how Bram Stoker’s widow went to court and actually got a judgment ordering the destruction of all prints of Nosferatu for copyright infringement. Today we look on this as madness, but at one time it was quite acceptable.
*. The best version of this oft-told tale? Many people think so. It’s hard to make such a judgment though because there have been so many variations played on its theme, in so many different eras. I think it does nearly everything well: Mamoulian was on, March’s performance is solid, the effects are great, and the lure of the gutter is as strong as ever. Though I think Jekyll today would be less repressed and more pathetic.

Scotland, Pa (2001)

*. There is a Scotland in Pennsylvania, which is where this film is nominally set. It was actually filmed in New Scotland (Nova Scotia, Canada) though. Funny how those things work out.
*. Shakespeare has, of course, been adapted to all kinds of different settings. Macbeth has gone to Japan (Throne of Blood) and the mean streets (Joe MacBeth, Men of Respect). So setting the story in small-town Pennsylvania in the 1970s, with Joe McBeth and his wife taking over a fast-food joint, isn’t that far out of step. Turn the witches into stoner hippies and make Macduff a detective looking into the murder of Duncan and we can feel like we’re on familiar ground.
*. Even the noir angle, which recalls The Postman Always Rings Twice as much as Shakespeare, isn’t a stretch. Macbeth is a crime story, after all.
*. What is new here, at least it seems new to me, is playing the tragedy as farce. This doesn’t often happen. The only other instance I can think of is Strange Brew, but in that case the connection to Hamlet was tenuous to begin with. I wonder why this is. I don’t think it’s because filmmakers see Shakespeare as any kind of sacred cow. Maybe it’s just that no one has found a way to make it work.
*. Scotland, Pa sort of makes it work. The new restaurant McBeth’s is obviously McDonald’s, which also explains how all the Macs in the play have turned into Mcs here. In setting up a drive-through, Joe “Mac” McBeth is showing the kind of entrepreneurial chops that his namesake showed on the battlefield. As played by James LeGros (or Le Gros, I’m not sure which he prefers) he has commanding presence and a shaggy charm, even if we’re not convinced he’s the sharpest knife in the kitchen. Meanwhile, his wife Maura Tierney (actually director Billy Morrissette’s wife at the time) is all lean hunger. We can imagine them going on to establish an empire. If not for the fuzz.
*. The detective McDuff is something new, and a character who I think must have been dead on the page before Christopher Walken stepped into the role. Walken takes over as he always does, and the only thing I was disappointed by was the lack of more back-and-forth between him and Tierney. That might have been fun. But the script settles for being clever instead of smart and we never see them go at it. A shame, because the rest of the town seems far too dull for the two of them.
*. Then again, maybe that was Shakespeare’s point as well. That the normal world doesn’t have any place for those with such excessive ambition. Better to follow modest dreams, like playing in a bar band or starting a vegetarian restaurant (neither of which seem likely to be successful).
*. A fun little movie. For once the retro soundtrack felt right, and I was singing along happily with “Bad Company,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” “Beach Baby,” and “Can’t Get Enough (Of Your Love).” Plus a bit of Beethoven’s Seventh, just because it has a way of finding itself into the strangest places. Scotland, Pa is just such a strange place, though maybe closer to Twin Peaks than the heath. It makes a neat place to visit, or just to drive through.

Fatale (2020)

*. The title isn’t ironic. This is neo-noir territory, with Michael Ealy as an L.A. playa (he’s a celebrity sports agent) and Hilary Swank as the tough cop who goes from being a one-night stand to a fatal attraction.
*. That link to Fatal Attraction isn’t accidental, as the proceedings here really have a throwback vibe to that period of thriller. The 1980s and ’90s don’t seem so long ago anymore. Is this the cult of nostalgia that so many cultural critics speak of? I suppose the freight elevator to Swank’s ginormous loft is another nod to Adrian Lyne’s movie. Just bleach everything in the L.A. sun and throw in lots of luxury-lifestyle porn and some hip-hop on the soundtrack and we’re totally up to date.
*. Speaking of the ’90s noir and the light of that L.A. sun, the film was shot by Dante Spinotti, who also did Heat (1995) and L.A. Confidential (1997). These things all sort of tie together.
*. I don’t have much to say here. The plot strikes me as beyond improbable, an even bigger stretch than the criss-cross of Strangers on a Train. How did Detective Quinlan think this was going to work? I don’t know.
*. Damaris Lewis looks sensational in evening wear or a bikini. Swank pulls off playing tough as well as seductive. Michael Ealy as the sap seems to be suffering some kind of physical pain just sitting at his desk or driving his fancy car. I don’t know if he thought that was the part or if he only has the one expression. It was disconcerting.
*. An erotic thriller that never manages to thrill or be erotic, despite lots of potential for both. You expect some twists, which come as and when expected so they don’t register much as twists.
*. The main problem though is that when things get raw we still feel like we’re watching reality TV. A similar sort of trick was played in Gone Girl, but that movie was sending up Nick and Amy for being comfortably affluent, shallow, and basically amoral young people. I don’t think satire is on tap here, even though there were moments that I thought might have been very funny had they been played that way. Instead we get glossy nostalgia and a punchline that’s just a swing and a miss.

The Killing Fields (1984)

*. The Watergate era has been mythologized as a golden age of American journalism, which is an observation that has several facets. Reporters became heroes in the ’70s (or, perhaps an even better word, stars), but it’s also the case that the public, who were still reading newspapers back then, cared a lot more about the stories being covered. Today’s political scandals are much worse than Watergate, but since the news media ecosystem is so fractured, not to mention so roundly despised and mistrusted, the scandals (and crimes) get lost in the noise.
*. The Killing Fields takes us back to that golden age (it’s set in the mid-’70s) and a pair of heroic newsmen covering a story (the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia) that could still at least evoke sympathy from an American audience. It’s sad to think of how far we’ve fallen since then, and how unlikely it would be for such a movie to be made today. Even the idea that Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor) would stay behind in Cambodia in part because of his love for his country but even more because of his sense of calling in being a reporter, would strike most of us today as unbelievable.
*. Producer David Puttnam wanted Roland Joffé to direct because Joffé had seen the script and recognized that it was primarily a movie about friendship rather than politics. On the DVD commentary Joffé is eloquent on this: “I think friendship is undervalued in our generation, curiously enough, in our age. It’s as though the only relationships that really have any value are supposed to be those between men and women, sexual relationships. Which of course are wonderful and superb but life is full of many things and I think that real friendships in many respects may be more enduring than relationships that are bonded around sexual love. In some respects I think this film was a hymn to that.”

*. And so it is. This is one of the great movies about a passionate male friendship that is not sexual, even if it is, as Joffé thought, “a love story.” This may be due, in part, to the fact (or at least reported fact) that men don’t often form such attachments, at least to the extent that many women do. In any event, it provides a core of honesty here that holds the whole movie in its grip. We feel how much Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterson) and Pran care for each other, which makes us care about them.
*. Ngor was not an actor. In fact he was a doctor who had himself escaped the Khmer Rouge labour camps. Apparently the casting director saw him at a Cambodian wedding in Los Angeles. Remarkable how things like that happen. He’d go on to win a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, though he could easily be seen as being the lead.
*. But Ngor wasn’t the only newbie. Joffé had never directed a feature film before, though he’d done a lot of TV work. This was only John Malkovich’s second movie. He was an unknown, just as was Julian Sands. I don’t know how much movie work Mike Oldfield had done before doing the score but I don’t think there was a lot. And apparently he didn’t care for the experience here very much.
*. An interesting choice to go without subtitles, but I think it pays off. Joffé says he thought it added to the sense of Cambodia turning into “an incomprehensible world,” but it may be more elemental than that. Under the Khmer Rouge language has lost its meaning. Everything is symbolic. Being able to read glances and gestures becomes of great importance and silence is one’s only option to survive.

*. The score is disjointed, perhaps because the movie was being recut and Oldfield felt he had to keep changing it. But I think Pauline Kael is wrong to dismiss it or blame it for ruining some of the best scenes by “hyping death.” I think it has great passages, like the terrific airlift out of Phnom Penh, but also some over-the-top misfires. Even at his least effective, however, I prefer what Oldfield does to Sydney listening to “Nessun dora” in his apartment or John Lennon’s “Imagine” coming on at the end. Talk about trite.
*. Kael’s review is significant in another way. She seems to have been of many minds about the movie. For example, she calls it “an ambitious movie made with an inept, sometimes sly, and very often equivocal script.” Inept, sly, and equivocal? As with the score, I think it’s all three. It’s an uneven movie, but one with real integrity in its message. At 140 minutes it doesn’t feel a bit too long and even the epic scenes — the deurbanization of Phnom Penh, Pran’s march through the mucky Golgotha — occur on a human level.
*. Beautifully shot, with only the one animated blood spatter marring the proceedings. Boy does that look bad! Like Reptilicus bad. They should go back and fix that up now. They have the technology.
*. A chilling portrayal of the horror of the killing fields. The transformation of children into soulless zombies may be the scariest part. Elsewhere there are some slips, but the central story is carried along through some brilliantly worked-up scenes that have stayed with me ever since I first saw the movie, and long after I’d forgotten the few flaccid moments in between.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

*. The first thing you have to do is clear your head of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel. This movie takes Stevenson’s premise and some of its basic elements as its starting point, but it’s really based on a play written by Thomas Russell Sullivan that came out right after the book. There was nothing new in this. Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein were both similarly indebted to stage productions as much as they were to the novels by Stoker and Shelley. It just made things easier.
*. The big addition to the story is a love interest. Or two love interests, if you include Jekyll’s girl Millicent with Miss Gina, the vampish object of Hyde’s desire. There are no female characters in Stevenson’s story, aside from a housekeeper. Hyde is a brute, but not a sexual predator. But while you can get away without having pretty women in a novel, they really are essential for a film adaptation. And thus Hyde as the monster of unchecked libido enters into the mythology. From here on, sex is going to be in the driver’s seat.
*. Another big change from anything in Stevenson has Sir George Carew become a shockingly louche Satan figure given to quoting Oscar Wilde on the need to give in to temptation. In the novel Jekyll is very much the author of his own moral degradation, which results from the bastard breedings of his scientific curiosity with his baser instincts. By making Carew into a tempter figure Jekyll sheds some of this responsibility.
*. Note also that Carew is Millicent’s father. Why is he taking his prospective son-in-law to strip parlours anyway? This is weird.
*. Stevenson famously leaves the appearance of Hyde vague. He is only “deformed” in some hard-to-pin-down way, and much smaller than Jekyll. Needless to say, this is not the way he has been portrayed on screen. Usually he’s just shown as growing a lot of hair, giving away his obvious connection to the Wolf Man (or Wolfman). I think Altered States (1980) was one of the few Jekyll-Hyde stories where Hyde is shown getting a lot smaller.

*. In this film John Barrymore’s Jekyll doesn’t get much help from special effects. The transformation scenes are rendered by way of the usual broad silent-film contortions. Indeed, Barrymore’s gesticulations are so violent at one point that he shakes one of his prosthetic fingers off. But give him credit for doing it all (mostly) on his own. Hyde is a hunchback with long greasy hair and even longer fingers (Barrymore uses those hands well, like a lot of silent stars). He’s not the ape played by Frederic March that would appear just ten years later.
*. I like Barrymore here, but not much else. The story is messy, with too many characters and awkward elements. There’s even a historical flashback to Gina’s poison ring, an item that needn’t have been introduced in the first place.
*. What’s missing is that expressionist note out of Germany, which seems all the more notable for its absence here since it would seem to belong more to such a tale of psychological horror than in Frankenstein. The only flourish in this direction is the very odd appearance of the spider-Hyde crawling into bed with Dr. Jekyll. I’m not sure where that bit of weirdness came from but I wish there were more moments like it.

Macbeth (1979)

*. At university I had a professor who, dismayed at the way Shakespeare was being updated and made modern in so many new adaptations, said that he just wanted to see the actors coming out in barrels and reading the lines. With this production of Macbeth he would have got his wish. Or something close to it.
*. It’s directed by Philip Casson and produced by Trevor Nunn, based on a production Nunn did at The Other Place theatre in 1976. The Other Place is what’s known as a “black box” theatre, and is described by Ian McKellen (playing Macbeth here) in a video intro to the DVD as a “tin hut” that seated around 100. So this became known as “the minimalist Macbeth,” and apparently had the cast sitting around in a circle (as this film version begins) with no costume changes or scenery. McKellen says the whole thing only cost £250 to produce. Nunn’s objective was to just “photograph the text.”
*. I doubt Casson’s movie, shot on videotape (and looking it!) for British television, cost much more than that. No music. Just unaccommodated actors moving about a black space, with lots of close-ups and soliloquies presented without any sense of naturalism.
*. So . . . actors reading the lines then. You can forget about seeing Banquo’s ghost, or any of Macbeth’s visions. Which does make you wonder about how pure such an approach really is. Shakespeare’s audience would have been expecting more of a show, I’m sure.
*. There’s some of the intimacy you might expect in a little theatre production of the play, and the killing of Macduff’s son is chilling in its way, but that’s all I can say for it. Minimalism is fine up to a point, but then starts to work in reverse. You don’t even get some leafy branches to stand in for Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, and as for Macbeth’s noggin being brought in at the end you can forget it. The daggers are obvious props. The costumes seem like a rag-bag of whatever happened to be lying around. I couldn’t put a date to them. Leather jerkins, nineteenth-century court uniforms, black stockings over the heads of the killers. None of it adds up, and the sense I had was that nobody really cared.
*. Judi Dench is fine as Lady M., and lets loose with one hell of a wail in her nightwalking scene. I should have timed it. McKellen I did not care for, though I don’t think it was his fault. He’d done some TV work before this but I don’t think any movies yet, and I think his performance would have worked very well on stage. I don’t think it works on film, at least by today’s standards. He spends a lot of time staring, wide-eyed and unblinking, into the camera. He doesn’t give a very strong sense of a tortured mind though, or express the full depth of Macbeth’s doubts and hesitancies. Overall, I found it a mannered performance, and not in a good way.
*. Despite Macbeth being one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays, and tightly paced, this one drags on for nearly two-and-a-half hours. They may have been trying for a full text version, at least of the parts we think Shakespeare actually wrote. Act 2 Scene 4 is rarely played, and I was so surprised to see it here I had to go to the bookshelf to find out what was going on. So it has that going for it too. But students of Shakespeare will want to look elsewhere for their study notes, and even drama majors will just want to take some quick notes on how a black box production works, and why you might not want to bother filming one.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912)

*. You’d be forgiven for assuming a 12-minute adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would be a fairly radical abridgement. Actually, most of the familiar moments are here, including the little girl being knocked down at the beginning (however quickly). These are familiar only in the backward-looking sense of our knowledge of the tradition of screen adaptations of the story though, which is just as much based on a stage adaptation by Thomas Russell Sullivan as Stevenson’s book.
*. The big change in Sullivan’s version of the story is to give Jekyll a fiancée, which is something most film adaptations held on to. Sullivan also plays down Jekyll’s own culpability in his degeneration. In Stevenson he’s an ambiguous figure, carrying within himself the seed of evil even before he begins taking the magic potion, someone who is drawn to the dark side. In the movies he’s more of a fallen angel.
*. Jekyll’s motivations, however, can’t be developed much here. Indeed, one wonders how great a scientific breakthrough he is making since “his theory” (as it’s called on a title card) is apparently drawn straight from the pages of a chemistry textbook, Graham on Drugs.
*. You shouldn’t expect much in the way of dramatic transformations, though I think they’re very well handled. We get to see the first two (from Jekyll to Hyde and back again), and they are achieved by simple cuts. Hyde is a hunched, darker figure with what look to be fangs. The later transformations, however, are very nicely handled. They happen offscreen while cutting between different locations and each is dramatically perfect. Jekyll runs away from his fiancée, feeling a change coming on. We see her sitting alone, then cut back to a now transformed Hyde. In another scene Jekyll enters one doorway and comes through the other side as Hyde. For 1912 it’s very fluidly done, and in terms of the editing I don’t think could be improved on much today. A tip of the hat to director Lucius Henderson.
*. I think it’s usual in most versions of this story, most notably John Barrymore’s 1920 film, Frederic March’s 1931 version, and the Spencer Tracy 1941 movie, to have the dead Hyde revert to being Henry Jekyll, just as a final reveal for the benefit of the other players in the drama as well as the audience. That doesn’t happen here, even though I think we expect it, again by virtue of that rear-view mirror. As in the novel, Hyde stays Hyde even in death and one presumes the police and others remain none the wiser.
*. James Cruze plays Jekyll and I believe is also Hyde in most scenes (though apparently Harry Benham stood in some of the time). Assuming it’s Cruze in both roles I think he does a good job selling the different characters just through their mannerisms. It’s not only that Hyde is a hunchback but it’s also the excessively erect way Jekyll carries himself. He often seems to be stretching himself up. That must have been a conscious way of playing up the difference between the two.
*. For a one-reeler from the early days this may not be that exceptional a movie, but I think it’s very good, quite capably put forward in every department. The editing in particular really moves the action along well with a fast-paced, strong sense of narrative in need of few title cards. It’s as neat a little production as you’ll find from this period.

Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise (1940)

*. There’s a story behind the title. This is one of the relatively few Charlie Chan movies to be based on one of the novels by Earl Derr Biggers, in this case Charlie Chan Carries On. Now Charlie Chan Carries On had been filmed previously. It had been the first of the Warner Oland Chans, released in 1931, but the only prints had been destroyed in a big fire at Fox which resulted in the studio wanting to remake them. I don’t know if this was because they figured it was something the public wanted or because they figured nobody would even remember the earlier movie so they could just do some recycling.
*. In any event, this all led to a legal suit because the Biggers estate wanted the credit that the movie was based on an original screenplay and not the novel because that way they’d get more money (I’m not sure how this worked, but that’s how it’s explained in the documentary The Chan Era). The credit ended up saying that it was based on a Biggers story, even though it’s quite a loose adaptation.
*. Given that it had an actual literary source I was expecting something a bit tighter. As it is, even after having just watched it I’m not sure I can explain what it was about. Charlie is alerted to the fact that one of the members of a tour group is a strangler. He joins the group on a cruise from Hawaii to San Francisco hoping to uncover who it is. I’d go into more detail, but the plot synopsis you get on the IMDb is nearly 4,000 words! It’s just too confusing to sort out in a few sentences here.
*. Confusing and not at all satisfying. I didn’t care who it was running around in the mask at the end. Nor is there anything entertaining going on. The usual Chan formula is in play. Jimmy Chan bumbles around. They trap the killer but the lights go out and the killer escapes, etc.
*. A few points stand out. In the first place, I mentioned in my notes on Behind That Curtain that it was maybe the first movie I’d seen where you see a character tying their shoes, or at least where this act is made the focus of attention. But in City in Darkness the business of tying shoes comes up again, and in this movie shoelaces are a clue. I wonder why there was such consistency.
*. Another point has to do with spanking. In a couple of earlier movies Charlie identifies his sons (both Lee and Jimmy) from behind when they have their bums stuck in the air, saying he is able to do so because he was acquainted with this part of their anatomy because he’d administered corporal punishment on them when children. This movie begins with Charlie about to administer a spanking to one of his younger sons only to be interrupted by an old friend.
*. Attitudes have changed toward spanking children. I’m against it, but in 1940 I suppose it was fairly common. It doesn’t make me warm to Charlie very much though. Especially since Toler’s Chan is a cold fellow to begin with.
*. Finally, one clue Charlie picks up on is the way the bed has been made in a hotel room. The sheets have been tucked in the wrong order. Of course today all we have is fitted sheets, but back in the day any cleaning lady or nurse had to know how to make proper hospital corners! Now how many people alive today know how to make hospital corners? It’s yet another lost art.
*. Not a cruise worth taking, I’m afraid. It’s surprising that they made a story this weak into a movie twice, but the first is lost and the second best forgotten.