Category Archives: 1950s

Othello (1951)

*. There’s an always been an issue with Othello relating to how much Iago should be allowed to take over the proceedings. This is because (1) villains are more interesting than heroes; (2) Iago is actually a bigger role, with more lines than Othello; (3) Iago is more relatable than the heroic but alien Moor; and (4) Iago’s the one directing the whole show, the guy who makes everything happen.
*. But Iago taking over isn’t an issue with this production. Iago is still Iago (and played well by Micheál MacLiammóir, a stage actor making his first film appearance), but he’s a diminished thing. To take only the most obvious example, there’s no entry point for inquiring into his motives for hating Othello since he has no soliloquies! This is a radical pruning and re-imagining of the text, signaling a major shift in how we experience the play.
*. Of course Shakespeare almost always has to be cut when being put on screen. He was actually being cut back in the days when Will himself was helping to run the Globe. A “full text” version of Hamlet would run close to four hours in performance (Branagh did it in less, but only by running at a crazy pace). This Othello comes in at 90 minutes, and there’s a lot of time for mood-setting extras (like the pre-title sequence, which goes on for nearly five minutes). So obviously some lines were going to be dropped.
*. Having made that obvious point, however, I think the cuts here mean that while this is a great movie it’s not great Shakespeare. On the Criterion DVD commentary Peter Bogdanovich calls it “the most cinematic Shakespearean adaptation that had ever been made, the truest to the spirit if not the letter of Shakespeare.” I could get on board with the first part of this, but not the second. The spirit if not the letter of Shakespeare?

*. The visuals, and in particular the use of architecture and framing, is the real star. The sound (the “letter,” or lines) is a secondary consideration. Now what I’m not commenting on here is the terrible dubbing, which was remarked upon by contemporary reviewers and has been criticized ever since. The lines as they are delivered aren’t synchronized either in terms of timing or to the actors’ delivery. We barely see someone’s lips move as a line is being shouted or bellowed. Welles just went with what he thought were the best readings and plugged them in. Sometimes the lines were recorded years later, and the actors didn’t even have a chance to see the film. That is, when they were the same actors. That isn’t Suzanne Cloutier’s voice. All of her lines were dubbed.
*. Just sticking with this aside for a moment, David Thomson remarks on how the sound in Welles’s Chimes at Midnight and Macbeth was “hideously postsynched . . . but the blurring assists the dreamy ambience of his Shakespeare.” That’s a nice try, but no. Sometimes messy sound just sounds messy. It doesn’t add dreary ambience.
*. Instead of commenting on the sound, what I am saying is pretty much the opposite of what Myron Meisel says in his DVD commentary, that “when the time comes to respect Shakespeare’s language and when Welles decides to employ it specifically, he adjusts his camera style to give the maximum impact to the lyricism of Shakespeare’s words.”
*. This doesn’t strike me as being true. To take just one example, when Othello delivers his dramatic line “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them” we can barely see or hear him because he’s just a dot on a distant balcony of an imposing ducal façade and the reading is faint.

*. Meisel also draws attention to the scene where Othello first calls Iago “honest” in a shot where no figures are seen at all. Meisel says this is done so as to make us feel that Othello is “addressing a man with no independent personality whatsoever.” This strikes me as a very strange reading of the scene, not least because I don’t see how any production of Othello could present Iago as being a character without any personality. That could not have been Welles’s intention, and I don’t think the shot implies it. Instead, I get the sense that Welles just liked the shot and didn’t care much about how the line fit with it.
*. A quick correction to something else Meisel says on the commentary. Iago does not have the most lines in Shakespeare. Meisel says he has more lines than even Hamlet, but this isn’t true. Hamlet has the most, followed by Richard III. Henry V and Falstaff would have the most if you counted all their appearances spread out over three plays.
*. A final note on Meisel’s commentary. He really goes to town on interpreting the visuals of the film as having sexual significance. Every spear is a phallus and every narrow window or slat is a vulva. This is then taken as representative of the underlying motivation of Iago, which Meisel takes to be his impotence. I think much of this is a stretch, and if Welles had wanted to play up that angle he could have done it far more effectively.
*. I mean, you could see a spear as being phallic, but the thing is Welles really had a thing for them. I think he used them in all of his Shakespeare films. At least I remember them being featured prominently in Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight. We seem them again here. They may have been drawn from Renaissance art, where they were a staple going back at least to Giotto’s Betrayal of Christ.

*. Probably the most remarkable aspect of the film’s look is the editing. Apparently there are significantly more shots in Othello than in any other film by Welles (and four times as many as in Citizen Kane). This was due mainly to the way it was made: over a period of three years and shot on widely separated locations. But necessity led to something amazing, as the editing lends a tremendous energy to the proceedings. At times, however, it is disorienting, as characters seem to transport to different spots instantaneously.
*. The longest single take is a minute and a half. It’s in the famous scene where Iago infects Othello with jealousy, and given how well-known this scene is I think Welles had to try and do it as one shot. He must have known that’s what would have been expected. But even so it’s only part of the seduction scene, not the whole thing.
*. Given the incredible difficulties in its production I think this has to be seen as a stunning achievement. It makes me think of other directors pursuing seemingly doomed and self-destructive foreign adventures in films like Apocalypse Now and Fitzcaralldo. That these movies ever were completed is amazing. That they were classics tells you everything you need to know about the men behind them.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

*. Let’s return to those glorious days of yesteryear when newspaper columnists mattered. They spoke and wrote words with power, having the ability to make or break entire careers. Waldo Lydecker. Addison DeWitt. J. J. Hunsecker.
*. Enjoy them in these movies because they’re gone. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is a great heavy, but his kind are no longer with us. Plus he’s a true oddity that can’t be fully credited or understood. His power has clearly gone to his head, but his relationship with his sister Susan (Susan Harrison) just doesn’t add up.
*. The character of Hunsecker was based on that of the columnist Walter Winchell, who was rumoured to have had a similarly strange affection for his daughter. This would have made a lot more sense here (Lancaster was 25 years older than Harrison, for starters), but might have got them in trouble, so instead we get a bit of sibling perversity. Meanwhile, it’s J. J. and Sidney who seem to be fighting a more dangerous mutual attraction.
*. I also don’t think Lancaster is believable in the part. As David Lee Roth once put it, the reason so many rock critics like Elvis Costello is because they look like Elvis Costello. Lancaster doesn’t look like any kind of ink-stained columnist I’ve ever met. I understand the way his physical presence “gives his character the physical embodiment of violence that’s always implied somewhere” (James Naremore), and you need it at the end when he slaps Tony Curtis around, but he just doesn’t look right.

*. So I can’t buy Hunsecker. I mean, I can see being a bit concerned about Susan running off with a cat who plays in a jazz band, but “Steve Dallas” (Martin Milner), if that is his real name, is about as all-American a boy as central casting could dream of.
*. No, you won’t see the likes of J. J. Hunsecker again, and he’s very much a one-off here. But you will still meet Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). In fact, you won’t be able to avoid him. He’s everywhere, an insinuating weasel — or shrimp, mouse, “trained poodle,” “cookie full of arsenic” — who just sucks up to anyone in power hoping to feed off the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. Apparently Ben Jonson’s Volpone was an inspiration here, with Sidney being Mosca, the parasite.
*. Lancaster and Curtis both took big chances playing such an unlikeable pair, and in Curtis’s case it paid off with what may be the best performance of his career. He’s perfect as the aging pretty boy who can be sniveling or bullying by turn. He’s such a bottom-dweller we don’t even get any satisfaction out of his comeuppance. He only lies there like trash on the street.

*. I like how Naremore’s commentary picks up on the way James Wong Howe’s photography is always casting Hunsecker in shadows, with those browline glasses functioning almost like shades. Apparently Lancaster had a glare that could petrify, but there was no point in overdoing that. The threat of violence is always kept in reserve.
*. It’s a movie with lots to enjoy, but it misses out on being great. The script by Clifford Odets, based on a novella by Ernest Lehman, is actually kind of clunky. The snappy patter sounds put on and there are chunks of plot that just float around in the mix. Not to mention that the whole frame-up seems ridiculous. Apparently they had a half-dozen different endings they tried out too, which always suggests to me that they didn’t know where they were going.
*. Manny Farber catalogues some of the negatives: “In The Sweet Smell of Success, the dialogue spills out of realistically mannered mouths before you expect it. The ‘dumb-blonde’ cigarette girl minces and whines in a quick unfolding as though she had been cranked like a toy. Newspapers are read and flung away in a violently stylish way and the frozen-lipped delivery of repartee makes the columnist look like a pompous orangutan. It is inconceivable that this high-glossed, ultra-sophisticated drama hinges on a dope-planting act in a nightclub that is carried on with as little difficulty as water has finding its way through a sieve.”
*. Yes to all of this, and I’d throw in some really chopping editing as well that undercuts thee painstaking (read: slow and overbudget) direction by Sandy Mackendrick. But Sidney Falco is one of this period’s great inventions and there are moments here that still have bite. Sidney pimping out the cigarette girl, for example. This part of the story works because, again, we feel that such sordid deals still go down all the time, long after the last great columnist has gone to his rest.

Julius Caesar (1953)

*. Julius Caesar is usually stuck together in my head with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet as making up Shakespeare’s high school trilogy. Which makes me wonder how often, or even if, Shakespeare is taught in high school today.
*. Well, suffice it to say that once upon a time schoolkids did watch movies like this in class to go along with their reading of the plays. Because it was Shakespeare and it had the kind of cast that seemed very educational. You couldn’t go wrong with names like James Mason and John Gielgud, Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr. Everyone knew who they were.
*. Everyone knew who Marlon Brando was too, though at the time his being cast as Mark Antony was quite a reach. They even had Paul Scofield waiting in the wings if Brando’s screen tests hadn’t worked out. But the jump from Stanley Kowalski in a wifebeater to Antony in a toga (or bare-chested) didn’t turn out to be that great, and Brando took some tips from the pros and always knew how to play to the camera if not on the boards. So he remains the film’s main draw today.

*. I say that because the rest of the cast of Very Fine Actors seem out of place next to him. That’s not usually how it works. A rough American often stands out in a mostly-British (and Shakespearean trained) cast. But here it’s Mason (as Brutus) and Gielgud (Cassius) who don’t belong. Gielgud is surprisingly lean and hungry, but his wig looks ridiculous. Mason, an actor I almost always enjoy, is miscast (though he had played Brutus on stage). He’s just too soft-spoken and frankly wimpy. We can believe his being scared of a ghost. Meanwhile, he isn’t helped by making him into a cowardly assassin, and looking like he’s in drag when done up in his Roman armour. That latter wardrobe error is a huge embarrassment and I don’t know how it got through.
*. Louis Calhern wasn’t a Brit, but he plays one as Caesar. He’s just old stuff-and-feathers and doesn’t have any of the fierceness and steel that we might expect. Yes, Shakespeare’s Caesar is a pompous ass at times, but we can never be sure how much of that is an act. Probably most of it. Calhern seems more like a 1950s chairman of the board and not someone who was ever a warrior.

*. The result is the kind of movie that could reliably be shown to high school students. It’s mostly faithful to the text and you can hear all the lines being enunciated clearly. But today it feels stuffy and stiff. Every single speech seems practiced and rehearsed, and the characters don’t appear to be interacting or engaging with each other but delivering lines for the audience. At times they don’t even look at who they’re talking to but turn away from them to directly address the camera, which goes beyond being merely awkward into downright weird territory. Apparently Joseph L. Mankiewicz was chosen to direct because he was so good with dialogue. He wasn’t showing it here.
*. They were originally going to shoot in Italy, but then decided Italy could come to L.A. Specifically, the sets from Quo Vadis were dismantled and flown from Rome to MGM’s backlot. Oh, the irony.
*. Before Olivier’s Henry V it was thought Shakespeare couldn’t pull box office. Producer John Houseman even said that the success of Henry V led to this film being made. It did well enough, and Houseman later said it made more money than any of his other pictures. But it doesn’t work for me. Still, if you’re cramming for an exam and haven’t cracked open the play yet it might help you make the grade.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

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*. According to people who keep track of these things, Forbidden Planet was the first SF film . . . set entirely in space, to feature humans traveling in a spaceship of their own invention, to be shot in colour and CinemaScope, to be produced by a major studio with an A budget, and one of the first to have a robot that is also a character with an individual personality.
*. Of course it wasn’t the first SF film but it set the standard in so many ways for what came after. In the same sort of way John Carpenter’s Halloween wasn’t the first killer’s-point-of-view, dead-teenager slasher film but nevertheless was the seminal classic of the genre. Just in terms of material artefacts, the spaceship and Robby the Robot would be recycled many times as enduring props.
*. How a movie that did not do great box office (some reports even say it lost money) went on to have this kind of impact is the real mystery. We all know why Halloween was imitated so much. But the influence of Forbidden Planet was something different. It made SF mainstream, even if audiences weren’t quite ready yet.
*. High concept meets high art, with a story loosely based on The Tempest. But the acting and script are pure B picture, by which I mean they’re not very good. You get the feeling of a Star Trek episode that’s dragging on for an extra half hour.

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*. Some of the business was already predictable, even hoary by 1956: the scientific gibberish in particular, and the laser rifles that look like caulking guns. People still argue over the wisdom of showing the Id monster, and it’s animated appearance. I think for an effects movie like this they had to reveal it at some point, but it didn’t come off as very scary. Then again, Altair-4 is a cartoon planet through and through.

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*. The sexual subtext is positively rank, and I’m not sure we can even speak of it as subtext. Dr. Morbius has a fanatical reverse-Electra complex, having killed his wife to possess his daughter. The rest of the men have to make do with . . . well, whatever is at hand. As Commander Adams tries to explain to Alta: “I’m in command of 18 competitively selected super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6 who have been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days!”
*. Even the machines are horny. Robby says that he has no gender (he says “the question is totally without meaning”), but it’s a zinger when he comes in to tell Altaira (“Alta”) that he’s been busy oiling himself. At least I think it’s a zinger, given how bad the script is I doubt it was intended that way. And then we’re told of how the Krell machines have been at work for millions of years lubricating themselves. Mars, or Altair-4, needs women! Or else lots of hand lotion.

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*. What’s funny is, in the face of all this, how extraneous and cold a figure Alta is. She might as well be a sex toy, an animate blow-up doll. It’s a total buzz kill when we’re led to believe she’s skinny-dipping in the pool and then we see her wearing some kind of outfit when she pulls herself out of the water. Did that scene go on too long? Or did they think there’d be censor problems with just being suggestive?
*. The homestead on Altair-4 was actually shot on leftover sets of Munchkin land from The Wizard of Oz. Same thing? In terms of its look, yes, and it’s a look that would continue into Star Trek (Gene Rodenberry admitted being influenced). But it’s more ’50s American consumerist Utopia than Oz: a sort of SF version of Leave It to Beaver. The gardens and sliding doors open on to a world of automated domestic bliss. Robby is a perfect cook and Morbius’s home is immaculate. What does Alta do all day? Swim, read, and design dresses?
*. Of course when you think of Leslie Neilsen now you first think of Lt. Frank Drebin from the Naked Gun (and before that Police Squad!). In fact, Frank Drebin may well be the only role you remember him playing. In 1956 he could still be imagined as a leading man, but you can already see something isn’t right, something’s missing. He doesn’t project any sexuality at all (something that may in fact be his salvation on the planet of the Id monster). Flickers of comic deadpan come through, but the script wasn’t there. He would have to wait a very long time to come into his own.

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*. Is it political at all? There seems to be some message about our power having outstripped our moral compass, that we’re still just apes only now we have nuclear weapons. Even the Krell have gone the way of Nineveh and Tyre. Dr. Morbius says he isn’t a mad doctor like you see on “the tapes,” but he’s obviously a dictator-in-waiting, king of his “little egomaniac empire.” We’re sure he won’t be satisfied with that for long. The military good guys put him in his place, but aren’t they just more apes? The cook is a raging alcoholic. Farman is a horny dog, to the point of undercutting his commander’s authority by spreading lies about him to Alta. Even Doc Ostrow kills himself in a mad attempt to become a Krell uberman. Thank heavens Robby is in charge at the end! They’ll need him.
*. This is a landmark movie, one that set down genre conventions, styles, and even archetypes for years to come. That doesn’t mean it’s a good movie. The script is crap, the acting mechanical (it’s an old joke, but only because it’s true, that Robby is the most lively personality on screen), and the direction never pays off. This could have been quite a suspenseful SF thriller, what with the invisible monster tearing the team apart. But the scene where it sneaks past the guards and on board the spaceship is so ludicrous it defeats suspense. I guess it can adjust its size at will, but why was it sabotaging the ship in the first place if Dr. Morbius wanted them to leave? Or, if mayhem was its intention, why didn’t it just kill everyone? I guess only the Id knows for sure, and it has its own reasons.

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Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)

*. In my notes on Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy I talked about how great a falling off it marked from the comedy-horror heights of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. But Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde actually came out two years before Meet the Mummy and it’s even worse, so it wasn’t a consistent decline.
*. This is grim stuff. Not just a clunker in terms of the humour — I don’t recall smiling once at it — but for the desperation of the comedy and general sense of unpleasantness. We begin with Mr. Hyde killing a man in the street, which isn’t a joke at all. In Britain the film would actually receive an X rating. In 1953!
*. The plot has our heroes, two characters named Slim and Tubby (I’ll leave you to sort them out), playing American cops who are visiting London and working with the bobbies as part of some kind of study-abroad program. But they are soon removed from the force after a chaotic riot at a suffragette rally. Meanwhile, one of the suffragettes is the ward of Dr. Jekyll (Boris Karloff), and she has caught the eye of a dashing young reporter. That’s the love interest. Dr. Jekyll wants to keep his young ward for himself though, and enlists the aid of Mr. Hyde to rid himself of the reporter. But, trying to get back in the good graces of the police chief, Slim and Tubby are on the case.
*. That’s the plot, and it’s dreadful. The would-be laughs involve very little wordplay and instead rely mostly on pratfalls and the like. One scene takes place in a wax museum so we get double-takes at wax figures being mistaken for living creature, and then vice versa. There are also a number of predictable scenes involving something scary coming up behind Slim or Tubby that they remain oblivious too. Ha-ha.
*. At one point Tubby (yes that’s Lou) gets turned into a mouse-man. Here’s how laboured the humour is. When they go back to explore the doctor’s secret lab they find it’s all been dismantled and made over into a wine cellar. No idea how, but there it is. Trying to find some explanation for how Tubby got turned into a mouse, Slim picks out a bottle of Moselle wine and says “See, Mouse-ell! That’s what turned you into a mouse!” So he then keeps giving Tubby glasses of Moselle to see if he’ll turn into a mouse again but it only makes Tubby drunk. I mean, it doesn’t make sense on any level.
*. Leonard Maltin: “Special effects are film’s main asset.” Which is noteworthy for two reasons: (1) if you’re watching an Abbott and Costello movie for the special effects, you’re in trouble; and (2) the effects are terrible. The transformation scenes are a considerable step down from what had been done in 1931, and the full Mr. Hyde is just a guy (not Karloff, by the way) wearing a mask.
*. Watching this one I was actually surprised it came out as late as 1953. It feels at least ten years out of date. Seventy years later on, it hasn’t improved a bit.

Richard III (1955)

*. What a terrible opening scroll. “Laurence Olivier Present’s Richard III by William Shakespeare.” That apostrophe! How could they?
*. And the thing is, the rest of the scroll is almost as bad, being a bunch of fustian English that does little to introduce the play. This is disappointing because Richard III is a play where the audience could use a lot of help, and seeing as they went through the trouble of providing an introduction it might have been of more assistance.
*. I think they should have foregone the scroll. The thing is, I’ve rarely been able to keep all the characters and their relationships straight and I’ve read the play numerous times and also know the background history pretty well. It’s just a hopeless task.
*. The play itself has often been described, and is best enjoyed, as a one-man show. That’s the case again here. Pauline Kael found the supporting cast “a dull lot,” but then that’s what they’re supposed to be. Though Ralph Richardson’s Buckingham is well developed and I found him interesting to watch.
*. Apparently Olivier wanted Orson Welles for the part of Buckingham, as he thought Richardson would play as too likeable. But I think Richardson is perfect. Buckingham is a politician, after all, just like Richard. And I’ve never been a big fan of mixing American and British actors in Shakespeare. I think Welles might have looked especially out of place in this production, though the thought intrigues me. He was so good at rascals.

*. It’s a standout performance by Olivier, and I’d maybe rate it his best Shakespearean role on film. That’s putting it ahead of some tough competition (his Hamlet, Henry V, Othello, and King Lear), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen Richard so well played. He is powerful, unscrupulous, and seductive. Ian McKellen is more a pathetic grotesque, it’s a great interpretation, but eccentric. Olivier’s Richard, one feels, could pass as normal, which makes him more dangerous.
*. The rest of the production is solid, but not overwhelming. It’s stagey, but Olivier did his best with the battle scene and I thought it worked well. It’s not up to the level of what Welles did with the Battle of Shrewsbury in Chimes at Midnight, but then few if any filmmakers have climbed those heights. (As a footnote, both Welles’s Shrewsbury and Olivier’s Bosworth were shot in Spain. The difference being that in this film it looks like Spain. Chalk another one up for Welles.)
*. I also liked the costumes, especially with Richard’s hanging sleeves giving him a bug-like appearance. Aside from that, however, most of it is stagecraft on film. Gielgud’s Clarence adopting a pose that mirrors the crucifix on the wall opposite him in his cell, for example. Or the way Richard has his posse kneel to him in the courtyard. All of this accompanied by loud cues in the score.

*. It was fun coming to this movie again, decades since I’d last seen it. Several scenes have always stuck in my mind. Clarence being hammered into the butt of malmsey. The look Richard gives the young prince when he makes the crack about his shoulders. Richard crying out for a horse. Now here, I thought, is a man who really needs a horse!
*. Olivier had limits as a filmmaker. He could certainly film a play, but in the end the stage was always his creative comfort zone. Still, there are the performances. And for his Richard III to still be reigning after over sixty years is quite an achievement. How did he do it? Yes, Shakespeare is for all time, but in this particular case I think it’s Olivier who is our contemporary. I’ve mentioned how normal he can seem, and how this makes his Richard dangerous. But I wonder how much of that is due to our having become more familiar with such figures. In politics, has Richard become the new normal? At times it certainly seems that way.

Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1955)

*. I’ve mentioned before how near allied the Dr. Jekyll story is to werewolf mythology, both of them involving the personification (monsterfication?) of human duality and the struggle between our normal or everyday selves and a bestial id.
*. But who says you have to choose? Meaning not that you can have Mr. Hyde and the Wolf Man appear in the same movie, but that they can be combined in the same character, with a bit of vampirism thrown in for good measure.
*. Such is the premise behind Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, which has Janet Smith (Gloria Talbott) and fiancé George Hastings (John Agar) showing up at a generic, fog-enshrouded English country estate that she’s about to inherit (I’m pretty sure you’ll have seen it before in other movies of this ilk). Alas, another part of her inheritance comes due to the fact that she’s actually the daughter of Dr. Jekyll, who it turns out was a werewolf. Which may, we are told, be an inheritable condition. Cancel the wedding!

*. What’s more, this particular strain of lycanthropy, as all the villagers know, can only be dealt with by planting a stake in the werewolf’s heart. A werewolf, George learns from a book that he consults, is a soul that leaves a corpse to suck the blood of living persons. Which is a totally novel conception of what a werewolf is, and is where the vampire angle I mentioned comes in. I wonder if the writer (Jack Pollexfen, who had also written The Son of Dr. Jekyll) even knew the difference between a vampire and a werewolf. Or if he cared.
*. In sum, this is a bit of a grab-bag of familiar ingredients. Despite the title and the presence of a secret chemistry lab (which plays no part in the story at all) it has nothing to do with either Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. But there’s more. This is also a gaslighting story, as a scheming doctor with a ready supply of pills and potions is looking to drive the heiress Janet crazy and suicidal. What exactly he hopes to achieve by this wasn’t clear to me, though I’ll admit I wasn’t paying close attention. Then at the end there’s yet another wrinkle thrown in that just makes you want to throw your hands up at the whole thing.
*. So it’s silly, and quick, and mostly fun. Fans of director Edgar G. Ulmer and leading man John Agar will be satisfied. Ulmer does his best, which is pretty good, to take our minds off the worthless script while Agar dons a jacket that makes him look like a carnival barker or member of a barbershop quartet. Gloria Talbott gets laced into a corset and can really scream. Worth a look if you enjoy the low-budget SF-horror of the ’50s but not a movie I can see myself ever watching again.

Throne of Blood (1957)

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*. Shakespeare isn’t known for his great original plots. He usually just borrowed some old (sometimes very old) stand-by or took an episode from a historical chronicle to dramatize. Among the few plays where he did come up with an original storyline (The Tempest was one), it’s not the story that stands out.
*. So when a director decides to “do” a Shakespearean play in another language, thus losing all the language and only keeping the plot, he’s playing from behind. He’s going to have to go big (meaning give the play a novel interpretive angle or a bold look) or else go home.
*. I think Akira Kurosawa pulls it off in this movie, in large part because he’s drawing on such an alien theatrical tradition. And while I can’t be sure, I think he’s made a movie that probably means something very different (though still meaningful) to Western and Eastern audiences alike.

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*. A literal translation of the Japanese title (so I’m told) is Spider Web Castle. Not as catchy, but it does introduce one of the main motifs of Kurosawa’s interpretation of Shakespeare: from the mist that conceals and reveals to the “labyrinth” of the forest, we feel we’re lost and caught in a trap.
*. In my notes on Rashomon I talked a bit about how the point of that movie was not that people experienced the same events differently, but that they were all lying, not least of all to themselves. Kurosawa saw the theme as being that “human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves.”

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*. This is the same point being made here. The Witch is surprised (or perhaps just disappointed, it’s hard to tell) that Washizu isn’t happy about having his good fortune told. “You humans. Never will I comprehend you. You are afraid of your desires — you try to hide them.” Washizu should embrace his fate, and not lie to himself about it. As the Witch tells him during their second meeting: “If you choose ambition, choose it honestly, with cruelty.”
*. The Witch is against hypocrisy. But hypocrisy, for Shakespeare, is what makes the world go ’round. All of it, after all, is a stage. Washizu and Asaji are players in both the old and the modern sense. They strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then disappear.

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*. This is especially interesting in relation to Asaji. She’s made up as a stage actress and is obviously performing for her husband (I don’t believe her for a second when she tells him she’s with child). The keynote of that performance is her surprisingly cool demeanour.
*. David Thomson says Asaji “fails to suggest the nagging sexual force that urges her husband on”. True, but different cultures find different things sexy. Asaji knows her gender role and she knows her man: she can play the yin to his yang, her quiet, unemotional cool against Washizu’s hyper-emotional, eye-rolling glowering.
*. Toshiru Mifune’s acting really carries a load here. Everyone else around him is far more composed, sedate. It’s not just Asaji but Miki as well. It’s even the sets, the interiors of which are quite minimal and theatrical. You need a passionate performance to play against so much blank canvas.

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*. At the end, the same temperature differential can be seen writ large inside the fort as Washizu screams and yells at his men, who listen in stony silence before reaching for their bows.
*. Yes, shooting real arrows at Mifune makes the finale seem even more impressive. But you have to wonder then if the soldiers in the fort are all such bad shots or if they’re trying to miss him. Sure he gets hit, but the arrows all cluster to one or the other side of him. Of course that was necessary to film it the way they did, but despite being “real” it doesn’t look entirely realistic.
*. I’ve seen Birnham Wood go to Dunsinane many times, on stage and screen, but I don’t think it’s ever been done better than it is here. Pauline Kael thought this one of the two great moments in the film. It helps that no human figures are seen, only the soft, shaggy tops of the trees undulating in the mist, looking like an evergreen amoeba coming to absorb the castle.
*. I’m not as fond of the opening and closing chorus. The effect is to present the movie as a legend, a ghost story, a tale of long ago. Compare the equally un-Shakespearean epilogue to Polanski’s Macbeth, where the effect is very different. Polanski underlines that this is not a unique story but one that will be repeated many times in ages hence.

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Joe Macbeth (1955)

*. I don’t think there could have been anything new about doing Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a gangster drama in 1955. Somebody must have done it on stage before, as they’ve done since. It’s tale of cut-throat ambition fits well with the genre, as you could see movies like Scarface and Little Caesar, which told similar stories about the “number one boy” taking over from a kingpin. And on screen we’d see it done again with Men of Respect (1990). Criminal organizations, like large business corporations, are thoroughly Macbethian.
*. This British production doesn’t have much interest except in so far as seeing how they’re going to bring all the old familiar elements up to the present day. So Joe Macbeth here, played by Paul Douglas, is the chief lieutenant of a boss named the Duke. Joe is married to a cold-blooded riser named Lily (Ruth Gordon), and his best buddy in the gang is Banky (the Carry On gang’s Sid James), who has a son named Lenny. Lenny is an adult, with a wife and child, so his part gets to double up as Macduff.
*. Perhaps the oddest thing in all of this is that the fortune-telling woman who takes over the role of the witches is a dramatist herself, and references the play Macbeth. So this is an updating of the Macbeth story where the characters are themselves aware of the Macbeth story. But no one seems to connect the dots to figure out that they’re in a remake. And don’t say it’s because they’re all a bunch of hoods, because one of them even quotes Keats. Back in the day, a basic knowledge of Shakespeare was pretty much general knowledge. I used to know people of that generation (most of them dead now) who never went to college but who could quote the reams of the Bard at you.
*. Some of it works well enough. The murder of the Duke is nice, with the tolling of a buoy bell playing in the background. The closest parallel to the play comes when Macbeth’s butler answers the knocking at the door. The appearance of Banky at dinner is less impressive, because inexplicable. We’re never made to feel as though this is a world where the supernatural has any purchase, or that Joe is the kind of guy high-strung enough to start seeing things.
*. Douglas might have pulled it off. He’s older than you’d expect, not really an ambitious up-and-comer. In fact, he doesn’t project ambition much at all. He’s more a solid, ox-like follower than the kind of guy you expect to see killing his way to the top, wading in blood, etc. This might have worked if they’d done more to develop his being the muscle and Lily the brains (as I’ve said before, it’s always a bad sign in such movies when women do the driving), but they don’t give us enough of this. And besides, she still has to fall apart at the end.
*. It’s not a well-made movie. Douglas is miscast but does his best, and his Macbeth is at least something a bit different. Gordon is a suitably chilly Lily. But aside from that you find you’re just watching out of curiosity to see what they’re going to do with it, not because you’re entertained.

Return of the Fly (1959)

*. Huh? The 20th Century Fox logo comes up and it’s . . . in black and white? Hadn’t The Fly been shot in beautiful DeLuxe color? What happened?
*. Money happened. They weren’t going for any kind of an art-house vibe here, rest assured. But at the time shooting in colour was a lot more expensive, and the budget here was about half that of the original so . . .
*. There’s some continuity. Kurt Neumann died shortly after finishing The Fly so Edward Bernds took over directing chores. Vincent Price is back as François Delambre and not looking a day older while little Philippe Delambre (Brett Halsey) is all grown up. The chalkboard in the lab still has André’s last message to his wife on it, which I thought a nice touch.
*. But the lab has moved. For some reason the original lab, which was in the basement of André’s house, is now said to be located at the foundry. Why did they move it? Especially since now Philippe has to build his own lab . . . in the basement of his house (that is, the same house the lab was originally located in). Why did they move the lab out of the basement just so that they could move it back?
*. I mentioned in my notes on The Fly how it benefited from a tight script. The script here, despite the film being 15 minutes shorter, is not as tight. In fact, it’s bizarre in its complexity, including a reporter introduced in the opening scene who is never heard from again, a love interest for Philippe who only opens her mouth to scream on a couple of occasions, a cop (or something) who is turned into a guinea pig hybrid, a heel who is looking to steal Philippe’s invention and sell it to the highest bidder, and his fence, who is a peculiar guy running a funeral home as a front for some business we’re told nothing about.
*. The set-up will have been familiar to any horror movie fan at the time. Basically Philippe is the son of Frankenstein, driven to follow in his father’s footsteps and even discovering a book with all his notes which might as well have been titled How I Did It. Also like father like son is the transformation, which gives Philippe the head, arm, and (this time) the leg of a fly. The heel turns on him and stuffs him in the disintegrator cabinet. Why? I couldn’t figure this part out. Or why he stuck the cop in the device. To kill them? Hardly. It would have been easier just to shoot them. So just to mess them up? I didn’t get it.
*. They do their best to ratchet up the grotesquerie. The guinea pig man is kind of freaky. The fly man is bigger, with a much bigger head, though for some reason his clothes still fit. Unlike the original Fly this one gets to go around killing people though. Not because he’s bad but because they deserve it.
*. The best you can say is that it’s better than average for ’50s monster flicks, but that’s not saying much. It can’t hold a candle to the first movie. Despite being shorter it’s duller in every frame. Where the end of the original still has the power to shock, the ending here has the white-headed fly captured and Philippe (and the fly!) successfully reintegrated. No spoiler alert for that. It’s rotten enough already.