Category Archives: 1950s

His Kind of Woman (1951)

*. A lot of movies have complicated back stories. Some are as interesting as the films themselves. But while of interest to film historians and other odd sorts, the story behind the making of a particular movie isn’t always that significant when relating it to the movie itself. Does it matter who directed The Thing from Another World? Or Gone with the Wind?
*. His Kind of Woman is a movie with just such a muddled biography, and I think its origins are relevant to any discussion of it. The credited director is John Farrow (Mia’s father) but Richard Fleischer was called in to shoot a lot of new material, including the entire final third of the picture. The reason this is important is because it’s clear from a first viewing that His Kind of Woman is two movies. Or really, as Vivian Sobchack puts it on the DVD commentary, it’s a “very strange blend of a number of things.”
*. It was a strange mix not just because of the two directors, but also because of the assistance/meddling of producer Howard Hughes. Hughes was the one calling the shots on the reshoot, and rewriting parts of the script. He also called for the recasting of the Nick Ferraro character, replacing Lee Van Cleef with Raymond Burr even after Fleischer had finished filming.
*. As you might expect given such a production the script comes apart at the seams. There’s some great dialogue — snappy lines and sultry double entendres — but it’s a hopeless mess of a story. At two hours it’s a very long noir, and it is so because it’s got a lot of stuff thrown in that’s kind of pointless. Sobchack mentions the plane landing in the storm as not advancing the plot and being “a somewhat extraneous” element. But Hughes liked planes, so.
*. There are also too many characters introduced, not all of them important. Jim Backus is always fun to watch, but Winton isn’t connected to anything here. Nor are the newlyweds, though they all get together in a fun card game where Milner plays the hero.
*. Perhaps chief among these superfluous, however, is Jane Russell’s Lenore. What is she doing here? She isn’t a femme fatale (Sobchack only refers to her as “a femme fatale, but hardly”). She has no relation to the Ferrrao plot. I wasn’t even entirely sure what she was doing at the lodge in the first place. Seducing the married Cardigan seems like a long shot, and when she gets to the lodge she doesn’t seem interested in him at all (or he in her). It’s shameful the way she’s tossed in a closet for the entire final act of the picture (“This is man’s work! Women are for weeping!”), but even worse is the fact that I didn’t miss her.
*. As for Russell herself, it’s hard not to seem reductive. David Thomson thought her “no actress . . . but dryly skeptical and physically glorious.” By dryly skeptical he may be referring to the fact that she rarely smiles, preferring to curl her lip back in what looks like a sneer, even at the most inappropriate moments (look at her after her first kiss with Mitchum, or upon discovering Lusk’s body). As for “physically glorious,” that can only refer to her décolleté. I guess ever since The Outlaw, which is to say the beginning, this is what she was known for. And it’s certainly what gets put on display here.

*. When Vincent Price shoves Russell in the closet you know he’s taken over the film. Is that a bad thing? He’s a lot of fun and gets to do the sort of Shakespearean camp that he’d still be reciting over twenty years later in Theater of Blood. He also relives the Ernest Hemingway story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” while quoting from it. He’s a literate ham.
*. The difficulty with all the Price stuff is that it’s slapstick farce, and farce is an odd combination, especially when it’s directly intercut, with brutal violence. A very strange blend indeed, and I can’t say it works that well. The stuff with Mitchum being beaten and threatened with the needle is dragged out to a ridiculous length just to give Price more gags to play with, like the sinking of his boat (an expensive folly that Hughes insisted on).
*. According to Sobchack one of the scenes that Hughes took a personal interest in rewriting was the business with the doctor and his needle. I wonder why, since none of it struck me as being very scientific. In fact, I’m not sure how the identity switch was supposed to work. It sounds almost as though what is being proposed is a sort of face transplant, not just plastic surgery to make Burr look more like Mitchum. Why else keep Mitchum alive? But since the whole idea is nuts to begin with — wouldn’t it be easier just to set Ferraro up with some fake ID? — there may be no point in pursuing this.
*. With a little bit of everything and not too much of anything this is a movie that’s easy to like but hard to rate critically. Leonard Maltin saw it as a precursor to Beat the Devil for its send-up of masculinity, but that seems to me to only be part of it. Perhaps the biggest difference is that John Huston seems to have thought of his film as a joke right from the start and His Kind of Woman didn’t at least start out that way. Beat the Devil was deliberate chaos. His Kind of Woman is more of an accident. Or a train wreck. Either way it’s fun to rubberneck.

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The Mummy (1959)

*. The Mummy introduced the third of Universal’s initial triumvirate of monsters, and was the third to be adapted by Hammer in their profitable exercise in movie graverobbing. But after the success of their Dracula remake (Horror of Dracula) they had entered into an agreement with Universal-International so at least they had a permit this time.
*. It’s been said that this is less an adaptation of The Mummy than it is a reworking of later films in the series like The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb. I guess they borrowed the names (the Mummy is Kharis not Imhotep, and his lost love is Ananka), but aside from that there’s little connection at all. At the end of The Mummy’s Ghost the Mummy sinks into a bog, which is what also happens here, but in that earlier movie he took Ananka with him. It’s also the case that the priests are again worshippers of Karnak and not Arkam and there’s none of the stupid business involving tana leaves. So really it’s a very different movie.
*. They got rid of the tana leaves but were still stuck with the awkward business of having to relate a lot of information through flashbacks. And as much fun as it looks like everyone is having with the costumes and the sets, the historical material stops the film dead in its tracks. Then there is another flashback later in the film to show us stuff that happened at the beginning. All of this should have been tightened up.
*. The Mummy isn’t much of a role for an actor, but Christopher Lee is really good just working with his eyes. You feel sympathy for Kharis’s lonely fate. Lee also makes the most of his towering physical presence, which apparently led to him taking a beating during filming. All-in-all he may be my favourite movie mummy, or at least near the top of the list.

*. In the original Universal films southern California stood in for Egypt, which I don’t think fooled anyone. (I’m not sure, but 1981’s Dawn of the Mummy may be the only mummy picture actually made in Egypt.) In this film we’re even further removed from anything that feels like a real location, as it’s an almost totally studio-bound production. The archaeological dig might as well be Gilligan’s island, and even the bog was a giant tank on a set. It all looks artificial as can be, but I didn’t mind. There’s a consistency in the film’s look that’s maintained throughout, which is the important thing. Once you get over that first jungle set you’ll even buy into the tidy and well-lit tombs.
*. It was going to be a more shocking movie, as the scene where Kharis has his tongue cut out had to itself be cut out. Too bad. But they did keep the scene where Banning (Peter Cushing) spears Kharis and Kharis does a back-breaker move on his priestly handler Mehemet Bey. I was getting tired of the same old strangulation routine.
*. As you know from my notes on them, I don’t care much for the Universal Mummy series. I did, however, like this picture, so it may be one of the few cases where I actually prefer the Hammer version to the original. Sure there isn’t much chance for interplay between Cushing and Lee, seeing as the Mummy can’t speak, but then Lee’s Dracula had hardly any lines in Horror of Dracula either. I think they both do a great job with what they have to work with, and the design of the film is very nice. There’s even one somewhat scary scene when the elder Banning is killed in his padded cell (conveniently forgetting for a moment that he’d just been told to ring the bell in case of emergency).
*. In short, it’s classic Hammer horror in the house style of the house that dripped blood. It’s not all that lively (Terence Fisher just didn’t have that gear), but compared to other work in the genre both before and after I think it holds up pretty well.

The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy (1958)

*. Please. A movie that clocks in at just a few minutes over an hour spends the first twenty-five minutes recapping the previous two Aztec Mummy films (The Aztec Mummy and Curse of the Aztec Mummy). That doesn’t leave a lot of time for original material!
*. Nor is the original material all that original. You will not be surprised to know that the evil genius Dr. Krupp escaped from the rattlesnake pit he was tossed into at the end of the last film (“and, strangely, I don’t think he’d been bitten”). What’s more, he’s still after that Aztec gold! Luckily (for him) Flor remains under his hypnotic control so she can lead him to the cemetery where Popoca (that’s the mummy) is now at rest. And this time he actually has a plan for getting the golden breastplate and bracelet, the possession of which will then be used to fund the creation of a robot army.
*. Aside from all the time spent on recapping, another disappointment is that the character of The Angel, the masked wrestler from Curse of the Aztec Mummy, has disappeared. Indeed, it’s like he never existed. I guess since his secret identity had been revealed at the end of the previous movie there was no point in keeping Pinacate in his costume any longer, but it was always fun seeing him getting beaten up. And while his presence here would have been awkward there are plenty of other things in this serial that make even less sense.
*. Really the only attraction here is the “human robot” of the title. And by attraction I mean something so silly that it’s good for a laugh. On the outside it’s just the usual cardboard box with arms and legs but on the inside it’s apparently some kind of animated corpse, making it a mechanical Frankenstein’s monster.
*. Actually, the Universal source for the story here is far more Frankenstein than The Mummy, especially during the scene in the lab where the robot is brought to life. This is in fact the only part of the movie with any energy at all, as it gives Dr. Krupp a chance to chew the scenery with some hammy lines. “No one can possibly imagine how hard I worked. When I dug in the mud with these hands and entered tombs! I tortured many animals — with pleasure! — to find the answers, the answers to man’s existence!” That sort of thing.
*. Despite having a special radium power that is supposed to be capable of disintegrating anything, the robot turns out to be no match for Popoca, who swiftly dismantles it before being sent shuffling back to the graves of his ancestors with his treasure intact.
*. Well, it’s not nearly as much fun as the title would lead you to believe. If you’re in a rush I’d recommend just watching the last ten or fifteen minutes. Or even if you’re not in a rush. The rest of it is a waste of time.

Curse of the Aztec Mummy (1957)

*. Curse of the Aztec Mummy is the second of three Mexican films all shot at the same time and released as a mini-serial. The first film was The Aztec Mummy and the next The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy. Just for the sake of completeness, The Aztec Mummy was recut with additional footage with an American cast included for U.S. release and retitled Attack of the Mayan Mummy (1963). A fourth instalment, Wrestling Women vs. The Aztec Mummy (1964) isn’t related to these films at all.
*. In any trilogy — and the same holds true for novels as it does for films — the middle work is usually the weakest, being just a way of marking time after the first instalment and the conclusion. Curse of the Aztec Mummy very much fits into this scheme, though it’s not without some redeeming features.
*. The story picks up where The Aztec Mummy left off. Criminal mastermind Dr. Krupp (a.k.a., The Bat) is in police custody but his gang soon bust him loose. Then he kidnaps Dr. Almada’s girlfriend Flor and hypnotizes her again into leading him to the mummy’s tomb. There the mummy (his name is Popoca) is let loose and foils the gang’s plans.
*. It’s a hopelessly cheap, ineptly made film that only has entertainment value for laughs today. I did say it had some redeeming features though, so here goes.
*. In the first place, it correctly realizes that the mummy himself isn’t a very interesting figure. He rarely is in a mummy movie. So they’ve built a story around him here involving a whole lot of other nonsense, including a long-range radio wristwatch and a death room whose floor withdraws to reveal a pit of snakes beneath. In fact, Popoca doesn’t even put in an appearance here until the last ten minutes of the film.
*. The ludicrously stiff dialogue is another source of fun. When the evil Dr. Krupp is slapping the nobel Dr. Almada, who is tied to a chair, around he forcefully rebuts the accusation of cowardice. “I don’t doubt for a second that you’re plenty of man. I’d be glad to try you out, I have a pair of fists that could break your head. But right now I want to get something that’s more important. After it’s mine I promise that you and I . . . I want to fight you, doctor. Alone!”
*. Probably the best (meaning the most wonderful and ridiculous) element added is The Angel: a crimefighting figure decked out like a professional wrestler, complete with a mask and cape. It’s a costume that’s both silly and impractical, as it keeps getting in his way when he’s trying to throw punches. In one fight scene it even gets pulled all the way around so that he’s forced to wear it like a bib.
*. I’m not sure why this figure has been so popular in Mexican pop culture. El Santo is the seminal figure but I think his first movie actually came out a year after this one. Nevertheless, he was already a famous personality on the wrestling circuit so the Luchador enmascarado (masked pro wrestler) as hero wasn’t that big a breakthrough.
*. The Aztec Mummy trilogy have since gone on to achieve a kind of cult status, which they probably deserve. They really are odd. But despite being only an hour long with quite a bit of plot to get through I found Curse of the Aztec Mummy to really drag in places. We get some stuff borrowed from the first movie explaining who Popoca is and then some dull passages relating to Flor’s hypnosis and Dr. Almada’s translation work. Meanwhile, The Angel gets beaten up and captured so many times it’s almost humorous in how repetitive it becomes.
*. An oddity then, and not without some laughs, but not a good movie. Only conoisseurs of trash will want to seek it out.

Pharaoh’s Curse (1957)

*. Pharaoh’s Curse is a B-picture that was shot in six days. A team of archaeologists dig up a tomb in Egypt, setting free an ancient evil. It’s a mummy movie where the mummy comes to life by possessing the body of one of the team’s native grunts and turning him into a blood-sucking creature that ages at an advanced rate. He looks like an old man wandering around, apparently lost, in his night clothes.
*. That’s it in a nutshell. There were, however, a couple of things I found interesting that might be worth teasing out.
*. In the first place, the love interest, Sylvia (Diane Brewster), is a married woman who has grown tired of her archaeologist husband and is more than ready to step into the strong arms of Captain Storm (the kind of military stud whose uniform stays clean and neatly pressed even after crossing Death Valley). I thought that rather progressive for 1957.
*. What struck me the most however was the resemblance to The Thing from Another World and Carpenter’s The Thing. I’ll admit it’s not a close resemblance, but still the group of (male) scientists digging up a monster that proceeds to possess and then kill them off one by one does register as echo. Or maybe it was just the image of the team standing around the empty sarcophagus like it’s the giant block of ice that’s brought back to the base camp. Was The Thing really a mummy movie then?
*. Bad enough that the doctor is given a name like Faraday, but he also has to deliver some truly groan-worthy lines. “As a doctor, as a man of science, my knowledge is limited to things physiological. I’m afraid superstition is out of my field.” “You can fight known things. But I don’t know how to fight the unknown.”
*. I’m not sure I ever understood the plot that well. Simira (Ziva Rodann) is a cat goddess in human form, so does that mean Numar was never her brother? Does her brother become the new guardian of the tomb? Does he die at the end or just go back to sleep?
*. Questions like this may not be fair given how slapdash and cheap a production it is. There have been movies that cost a lot more that made a even less sense. There also isn’t much of a climax, and what we do get comes with another seven minutes of film left to run (which is a lot given the conventions of the time and the fact that it’s only just over an hour long). Still, the story manages to get Sylvia’s husband out of the way so we can at least feel better about who she’s going home with.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

*. This was basically the end of the road for Abbott and Costello: their last picture for Universal and second last overall. In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein they were on their way up, at the top of their game. Not even ten years later they seem utterly played out. Even the classic comic disjunction between the tall thin guy and the short fat one is upset because Bud looks almost as stout as Lou. Dressed in the same costumes they are almost indistinguishable.
*. One way to tell they’re played out is the reliance on so much physical humour. The opening dance sequence sets the tone, with lots of prat falls and people being knocked down. That’s the way the rest of the movie is going to be. There’s little verbal dexterity and what there is seems laboured (for example, the punning on “mummy” and “pick”). The gags are all familiar and you can see them coming a long way in advance. Bud and Lou always had the same shtick and stuck to it, but now even they seem tired of the routine.
*. It’s a sign of just how tired and slapdash a production it is that their characters’ names are only revealed in the end credits (Pete Patterson and Freddie Franklin). Until then, they call each other by their real names. It’s like nobody cared. And perhaps nobody did.
*. Joe Dante, in his Trailers from Hell appreciation, admits it’s not the duo’s best work but says he’ll always have fond memories of having snuck in to see it as part of a double bill. He winds up his commentary by saying it likely still appeals to nine-year-olds. I think maybe it does, but that really is the level they’re aiming at. Not that a lot of today’s comedy aims much higher.
*. Well, it’s a bit of fun, tired as a lot of it may be. It’s not a movie to get angry at. Just one to feel nostalgic over. Abbot and Costello’s time, like the time of Universal’s run of classic monsters, was past.

The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)

*. Before the advent of CGI you never heard a lot of talk about a “realistic” style of animation. That wasn’t the point. A cartoon or animated film wasn’t supposed to look real, but either be fantasy (as with much of Disney’s production), comedy (with anthropomorphic talking animals), or done in some other exaggerated artistic style. Computer animation, on the other hand, is supposed to look real. It’s highest praise is to have audiences not be able to tell the difference.
*. The stories of Edgar Allan Poe are a good fit for animation, not just because they’re short (“The Tell-Tale Heart” only runs to five pages in the edition I have sitting beside me), or because they deal with fantastic subject matter, but because they have the crazy or expressionistic quality of subjective points of view. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a tale told by a madman, whatever his protestations to the contrary, and so its world is distorted when we see it through his eyes.
*. The clearest indication in this film that this is the killer’s view of the world is that we never see his face, and the events mainly appear from his own perspective. As the intro titles tell us: “This story is told through the eyes of a madman.” I think perspective is behind the scruffy and obscure style of animation as well, which doesn’t flow in imitation of a normal film but rather consists of quick pans up and down or across what are static images. Another example is the way the screen goes completely dark for 45 seconds (in an 8-minute short) while the narrator stands in the darkness of the old man’s bedroom. We are not a witness to the event, but in the young man’s shoes.
*. James Mason is a counterintuitive bit of casting that works. He’s not the kind of voice I’d normally associate with the hyper, nervous acuity of the story’s narrator but he captures the sense of earnest and thoughful confusion well. Plus, who needs an excuse to listen to James Mason? This is a rich film visually, but I’d enjoy it almost as much hearing it on the radio.

Un Chant d’Amour (1950)

*. Pornography? Well, the American courts thought so, with the original decision against it being appealed (and affirmed) all the way to the top. I’ve also heard that Genet made it for the porn crowd, or at least porn conoisseurs and collectors.
*. The imagery was very explicit for the time. The men blowing smoke through a straw stuck through the wall is a stylish metaphor, and has a literary pedigree going back to the Pyramus and Thisbe play put on by the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but we also see some dancing cocks at full and half mast and in 1950 that was still a taboo. Indeed, they’re rarely seen today, even though I think they’re permitted.
*. More than that, however, what I think makes it pornographic is that observing eye, which (weirdly) seems to be looking down a tunnel into the prison cells. As I said in my notes on the unabashedly pornographic (but stylish) Night Trips, porn movies aren’t about having sex but about watching people have sex. Un Chant d’Amour is all about the looking. The voyeur of a guard is a proxy for the audience, getting off on watching his prisoners masturbate while they dream of earlier erotic encounters. This does strike me as having something essentially pornographic about it, but not in a bad way.
*. Is it political porn? I guess to some extent we have to credit it as being an early gay statement. One assumes the two convicts have been imprisoned for their love. Meanwhile, the state, represented by the guard, is hypocritical in its own repressed desires. The gun becomes yet another cock. That’s not much of a political message, but it’s something.
*. This was Jean Genet’s only film, and it’s at least true to his own vision of homoeroticism. He’d spent some time in prison himself. But I don’t think it’s a very accomplished bit of work. Rumours are that Jean Cocteau may have shot part of it, but it really doesn’t look like anything special and the story isn’t terribly interesting. Lot in Sodom had more to say back in 1933, without trying nearly as hard. Nevertheless, it did have an impact on later directors and is celebrated as a milestone despite seeming rather overdrawn and obvious today. That in itself can be taken as a sort of progress.

Panic in the Streets (1950)

*. The outbreak plot has long been a staple in movies and television episodes. But I wonder just how long it’s been around. It seems like somebody must have done it before Panic in the Streets (whose original working title was Outbreak). The DVD liner notes here say that Darryl Zanuck didn’t want to do a disease movie because he knew they had trouble finding an audience. That suggests an already established track record for the genre (or sub-genre).
*. Whatever its original in this regard, you could think of Panic in the Streets as a slightly groundbreaking movie in other ways too. For one thing, there’s the debut of (Walter) Jack Palance. There he is, standing alone on the DVD box cover, but tucked in the credits under the leading triumvirate of Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, and Barbara Bel Geddes. Like any star, however, he commands the screen in every shot he’s in, looking like a sort of praying mantis in his oddly-buttoned shirt and severely plaited pants. And that face, which already looks so old and like a caricature. The story has it that he had suffered burns in the war and had reconstructive surgery, but he later called that into question. The flattened nose at least made him look like someone who had been busted up.

*. The rest of the cast looks just as odd. Widmark was relieved not to be playing another heavy, but he seems a bit unsure of himself as the heroic doctor. Paul Douglas was, as James Ursini notes on the commentary, best known for playing “comic shlubs.” Here he’s the chief police detective. Again, he feels out of place. Paired with Palance as Blackie’s sidekick is the inevitably comic Zero Mostel. It’s as though this film is daring us to take it seriously, especially as we watch the climax with Palance literally dragging Mostel along like a prison ball he’s chained to.
*. Then there’s the matter of Elia Kazan’s direction. Ursini and co-commentator Alain Silver point out that Panic in the Streets was a transitional film for Kazan, meant to show that he could direct something less theatrical. Hence all the location shooting in New Orleans. But aside from the locations, and pace the gushings of Pauline Kael (“Seeing this film, one wouldn’t know that he had ever worked in the theatre”) it still seems like a movie that’s rooted in his theatrical background.
*. I’m thinking of two things when I say this. In the first place there all the long takes. Some of these are indeed impressive, especially the one right at the beginning involving a moving train. But they are not necessarily cinematic. A lot of directors liked long takes in part because they were a way of showing off but also because they were more theatrical in nature (there not being any cuts, aside from the scene breaks, in live theatre). This is, I think, clearly behind their use by directors like Welles, Olivier, and Branagh, who all came to film from the stage.
*. The other theatre habit Kazan keeps using in this film is a particular way of organizing characters in the frame: with two characters facing off and a third in the middle background. This is a traditional bit of positioning on stage, and it works on screen too but done so often it does start to look like it’s a kind of visual comfort zone that Kazan is falling back on. You start to wish he’d think of some other arrangement.

*. Is it true that the long takes are a way of building tension? This is suggested on the commentary but I’m not so sure. I don’t think they necessarily do. A long take slows the action down, as opposed to frantic cutting that compresses time. Long takes could be used to create suspense, but just as often I think they just suggest a kind of elegant continuity.
*. Something seems off, really off, with the relationship between Widmark and Barbara Bel Geddes. Maybe it’s just a lack of chemistry, but I never had the sense that these were two people who liked each other much.
*. As you might expect, there’s a political angle to the proceedings. Note the number of scenes where we’re surrounded by crowds of the working class: in the seamen’s hall, on board the ship, in the coffee warehouse. These are the masses, exploited but not without a sense of solidarity. It’s interesting how Blackie is recognized by the one guard at the warehouse as having once been one of them. He shows them how far he’s come.
*. There’s a curious scene where Douglas complains about how much Doctor Reed must make working a government, civil service job. This from a cop! Meanwhile, Reed can’t even pay his grocery bills on his chief medical officer’s salary. I guess those were the days.
*. I do like how Douglas has never heard of a shish kebab before. I guess they weren’t that big back in 1950.
*. Widmark’s speech about how any notion of “the community” belongs in the middle ages predates Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” by ten years, but I think McLuhan was talking about something slightly different. Of course, given a similar outbreak scenario today any attempt at containment would be even more difficult.
*. What a strangely anticlimactic ending. Blackie isn’t even gunned down but simply drops from exhaustion. That’s sort of odd given how much he’d been built up as a stone-cold killer.

*. I can’t say this is one of my favourite noirs, though it has some nice moments. I like how Blackie and Fitch attempt to get away in a produce delivery truck, and the way they toss poor Poldi off the staircase. That’s almost as bad as what Widmark did to the lady in the wheelchair in Kiss of Death. But the casting is just a little too odd and it never really ratchets up the suspense. The breaks to Doctor Reed’s home life are annoying interruptions with no purpose and I never felt that the city itself was under any kind of threat. After all, it seems as though there is an effective inoculation for the plague so it’s not like a pandemic is going to break out. Why would people flee the city when they can just get a booster shot?
*. I guess in the end I felt like all the pieces didn’t add up. They probably should have trimmed things down a bit, cutting out some of the more awkwardly introduced characters (like the reporter) and shrinking a couple of Widmark’s overly heroic speeches. I’m guessing Kazan felt the movie had to be making some kind of point, but I don’t think in this case a message was really that important.

House of Wax (1953)

*. I wonder why we keep going back to 3-D. It gets reborn every generation or so, only to be abandoned as a gimmick after a run of a few years. The first go round kicked off with Bwana Devil in 1952 but had run its course by 1955 and The Revenge of the Creature. Studios were responding to the competition posed by television, and initially audiences were taken by the novelty of 3-D. But things soon ran their course.
*. House of Wax was one of these original 3-D movies, and it did great box office. But who cares about that today?
*. The technology it used was stereoscopic 3-D, which required special projectors and a special screen. This is why, by the way, such a short film has an Intermission: because each projector of the theater’s two projectors was dedicated to one of the stereoscopic images. Nobody sees it this way today. It also came with a stereoscopic soundtrack that is now lost.
*. Of some significance also was the fact that director André de Toth was blind in one eye and unable to experience any of the 3-D effects. So he just went ahead and made the best movie he could and ignored the trickery. Which, when you get down to it, doesn’t amount to much. The barker with the paddleball is the main 3-D effect, and it’s completely gratuitous.

*. In short, the technical innovations (or gimmickry) hasn’t lasted, but the movie has. Why? I think mainly because of Vincent Price, really introducing himself here as the refined connoisseur of terror in what I believe was his first leading part in a horror film. When he poses as the sardonic tour guide to his museum of horrors you seen an actor who has really found his niche.
*. How refined is he? When, expecting guests, he hears a knock on the door he exclaims “That should be they now.” Grammatically correct, but who talks like this? I can only remember ever hearing something like it in one of the Thin Man movies.
*. It’s a bit odd that his burned face is revealed so early. Usually, as in any of the Phantom of the Opera movies, which it closely resembles, the villain’s face is built up to as a shocking reveal. It’s not often a film like this will lead with its trump card (though in the 1933 version, Mystery of the Wax Museum, Lionel Atwill’s disfigured face is also shown right away).

*. The rest of the cast strike me as entirely forgettable but for an early appearance of Charles Bronson as the deaf-mute assistant Igor. Yes, Igor (as in “Ee-gor”, not the “Mr. Eye-gor” that Lionel Atwill played in the original). Zero points for originality there. Bronson does get to show his muscles off though, and manages to fight his way through a lot of coppers.
*. Apparently Price was in real danger during the fire scene, and I can believe it. It looks great, and had me wondering several times how they were managing to do it. There were a lot of flames on that set.
*. There isn’t a whole lot of story, and I think they knew it so they filled things out with some comic bits. The morgue attendants, for example, or the man mistaken for a waxwork, or fainting Millie, or the paddleball man breaking down the fourth wall by hitting his ball straight into our popcorn.

*. Speaking of the morgue attendants, when did we first see wise-cracking morgue attendants or pathologists in a movie? Any scene involving a trip to the morgue is guaranteed to have some gallows humour, but when did this get started? They’d been in Mystery of the Wax Museum twenty years earlier and I don’t think they were original then.
*. Speaking of fainting Millie, I thought this movie had an odd way of presenting women throughout. Gone are the days of the fast-talking Glenda Farrell. It’s not even that the women here are innocent victims but rather that they’re something less. Cathy is only a giggling gold-digger and it’s hard to get upset at her fate. Millie seems a little too easily given to passing out. And Sue . . .

*. Sue strikes me as a prude, what with her being the good girl to Cathy’s tramp and being so upset by the dancers showing their underwear. But this prudery perhaps accentuates the ending, where she is stripped naked and bound in a box for her waxing. All things considered, this was pretty daring for 1953. In 1933 they gave Fay Wray a blanket.
*. It was so daring the script has to make a joke of it. At the end Sue has to think the police chief for the use of his coat (which is something we don’t see, so it hardly needs to be mentioned). He responds that she wasn’t “dressed too warmly, [and] I didn’t want you to catch a cold.” There’s something almost leering about this, and it also underlines the erotic nature of the finale.
*. The house of wax concept is a decent premise for a horror movie, and it’s been done several times. But it does have its limitations, especially as the story always has to play out in pretty much the same way. The big upgrade they thought they were making with this version, 3-D, means nothing today. Still, I think I’d rate this the best of the wax museum movies. For that almost all the credit belongs to Price, and from this point on his course was set.