Category Archives: 1950s

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.

The Killers (1956)

*. What was it about noir that made it so popular outside of the U.S.? It had a big influence on the French New Wave, and, as this student film suggests, even in the Soviet Union.
*. Not that this movie was inspired by Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film. I’m not sure if anyone involved had even seen it. But they knew Hemingway’s 1927 story and it had enough of the noir flavour: a hapless hero caught up in a web of crime; laconic tough-guy patter; an overarching sense of doom.
*. I think it’s fair to say that the only reason this film is known today is because part of it (the first and last sections) was co-directed by Andrei Tarkovsky when he was at the State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK). But while it’s very cleanly presented, I don’t see much of the mature Tarkovsky here. It’s a stagey short, but far less effective in its use of space than Siodmak’s version.

*. Instead, what I really like about it are the two killers. At first I thought they seemed overdressed, slightly comic figures, like those threatening characters we get in Beckett or Pinter. But then I had to admit that their American cousins are just as silly. Their talk is just too tough, to the point where it seems unprofessional. If they’re only in town to do a hit, why bother alienating so many people?
*. Then there’s Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager in Don Siegel’s 1964 version. Wearing sunglasses to invade the Home for the Blind. How is that not comic? And they even get tough and threatening with the inmates. What kind of tough guys do that? They’re parody heavies, almost like something out of the annals of Police Squad.
*. I wonder what Tarkovsky, or his co-creators on this project, Marika Beiku and Aleksandr Gordon, were thinking of. Were the killers supposed to be their idea of American gangsters? Or were they KGB commissars? Was there a difference?
*. Of the three adaptations of Hemingway this one sticks closest to the source, not presenting any back story explaining why Ole Andreson turns his face to the wall. Meanwhile Nick Adams decides he has to leave this town. That’s a very American kind of thing to say, but I wonder how it played in Soviet Russia. It’s not like Nick is going to be able to strike out for the frontier. There was a wall to the West, and maybe that’s the Wall that Ole is turned toward, and that Nick is facing too. Which makes a Moscow diner the perfect setting for this latter-day existentialist drama. There’s no escape.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

*. Richard Matheson’s novel was just titled The Shrinking Man. Hollywood added the “Incredible.”
*. They wanted to add some other stuff too. Most obviously a happy ending where the doctors find a cure and Scott Carey becomes a big person again. But, remarkably, the test audiences went well and they stuck to what Matheson (who had insisted on doing the screenplay) had written. Which, despite its note of spiritual uplift, is pretty darn bleak. Scott is disappearing into solitary nothingness. This may lead to his finally becoming one with the universe but only in the sense that we all do when we dissolve into our irreducible atoms. As Stephen King remarked, he’s just reached the acceptance stage of finding out that his condition is terminal.

*. To be sure, there are significant changes made to the novel. The curse of Scott’s sexual frustration, most notably, is gently elided. Scott and Louise don’t have a kid, so there is no babysitter for him to ogle. And the theme of humiliation — as Scott is progressively infantilized and feminized — barely registers. In the initial stages of his shrinking, when they just think it’s weight loss, Louise teases Scott that he can live a child’s dream world and eat nothing but ice cream and cake, but this is dramatic irony, not mockery. And the scenes in the novel where Scott is beaten up by a gang of kids and molested by a dirty old man are both dropped. There was a fairly large page-to-screen gap in the 1950s.

*. I don’t imagine Matheson was at all bothered by any of these changes. He was a commercial writer and he wanted a hit to get him started in the film biz. For example: in the story Scott’s basement nemesis is a black widow spider. Matheson knew a black widow spider doesn’t spin a web but he wanted that type of spider anyway for thematic reasons, and the black widow has a resonant name. In the movie the spider is changed into the even more improbable tarantula, which also doesn’t spin a web. But so what? Would anyone care? Not a chance.
*. Mostly it’s an effects movie, and I thought these were pretty good considering the time and the fact that this wasn’t a big-budget picture. Some of the process shots look a bit cut-and-paste, and at one point Scott’s body turns transparent, but for the most part it works well. Scott’s playing with the oversize props (pencil, mousetrap, scissors) was a lot of fun. I was a bit upset though that Clarice, the circus midget, wasn’t a midget at all but a beautiful actress given the same treatment as Scott.
*. The one effect that had me wondering was the giant waterdrops falling from the water heater. I assumed these must have been balloons. In fact they were condoms filled with water.

*. They got a good performance out of that cat. Cats are notoriously hard to coach, but “Butch” seems to have come through. The scene where Louise is sure Butch has eaten Scott, and then we see Butch coughing as though on a hairball, is wickedly funny, though audiences at the time might have found it upsetting.
*. It’s a great novel, predictably popularized by Hollywood. But they didn’t change as much as I thought they would have, and the ending in particular maintains a kind of bleak dignity. Other movies would make use of the same conceit, shrinking a woman, shrinking the kids, shrinking a submarine, but they wouldn’t have the same weight as this one. Which is why we still remember it, when all the other tiny people have shrunk away to nothing and disappeared.

The Lineup (1958)


*. This is a movie that was based on a television series, which in turn had been based on a radio show. Given the date I think it must have been one of the earliest such migrations.
*. Director Don Siegel had been involved with the TV show (he directed the pilot), but wanted to do something different with this movie. Specifically, he wanted to ditch the police-procedural part of the story and just focus on the trio of gangsters gathering the heroin. The studio, however, insisted on the tie-in to the TV series. Some might disagree, but I think this was wise, as I don’t find the villains here as interesting as many seem to. I don’t think they could have carried the whole movie.
*. It’s sometimes described as a film noir, and it’s even packaged as such in the first of Columbia’s Film Noir Classics sets, but I don’t think the label fits. Most of the key noir elements are missing. I’ll mention three.
*. First, there’s no sense of moral ambiguity. Dancer (Eli Wallach) is described as a pure psychopath, and there’s no reason to doubt he’s just bad all the way through. The only inner conflict he feels is in trying to keep his rage in check. “He pushed me too far!” is a great line — but only for Wallach’s delivery.


*. Second, it’s a day film. I’ve mentioned before how San Francisco has never struck me as a noir town because it’s just so bright and pretty (see my notes on The Sniper and Where Danger Lives). That sense of prettiness is emphasized even more here because all the action takes place during a single cloudless, fogless day (with no night scenes). And it’s not a city of grime or shadows. The settings are almost all very tony and attractive, with the junky driver’s room being the only exception I can think of.
*. Third, there’s no femme fatale. Indeed, there’s only one woman in the cast, and she’s a hostage (and single mom) who doesn’t provide any erotic spark. This lack of women opens the door for the kind of crazy speculations that James Ellroy makes on the commentary track about how many of the characters in the movie are gay. I think he goes further down this road than is warranted based on the evidence, though something is clearly being hinted at in the steam room scene, and the ambiguous relationship between Julian and Dancer, neither of whom seem attracted to women (Julian thinks they “have no place in society”), is up for grabs.


*. These three items aren’t determinative (apparently Eddie Muller and Ellroy consider the great theme of noir to be “we’re fucked,” which is certainly the case here), but in my book they count against considering The Lineup as a film noir. That said, it is a decent crime film.
*. Eli Wallach got star billing in what I think was only his second feature (after Baby Doll). For some reason he reminds me of Joe Pesci here. They have the same air of comic, weaselly menace. Of course given the role of Dancer he basically steals the show, but I think he would have managed that anyway. Eddie Muller: “there’s something scarily attractive about that character, you’re going to see a lot more of it in American movies after this.”
*. Everybody else, even the other crooks, seems ’50s square. I think there’s only one scene where they take their hats off.
*. The locations are fascinating, even if they do give the film a bit of the feel of a tour of SF landmarks after a while.


*. The direction is certainly “proficient” (Ellroy’s word) but also has a lot of nice flourishes. You have to love Dancer shooting the housekeeper being reflected in the mirror. Big style points for that one. Then notice how that scene in the crime lab at the beginning where they discover the heroin in the statuette is all done in one take. That’s pretty impressive as the camera moves around quite a bit and the scene moves through several distinct phases of exposition Then we’re taken to the opera house and a lovely tracking shot following our two detectives through the colossal halls. And even Manny Farber, who didn’t much care for Siegel, admired the Hitchcockian “minor masterpiece” of the Sutro’s Museum sequence.
*. Which brings us to the car chase. Siegel liked car chases (he’d already done at least one very good one in The Big Steal), and here he offers up an excellent mix of back projection (which Muller thought Siegel probably hated, but which he nevertheless handled very well) and dramatic locations (most obviously the Embarcadero Freeway, still under construction). Muller goes so far as to call it “the best car chase done in a movie up to this point,” and he may be right.


*. I wonder if it was that easy to pick up women in 1958, or if audiences at the time found the aquarium scene ridiculous. Forget the fact that Dancer’s a dangerous killer, even if he’d been on the level would he have been able to get such a woman to trust in him so quickly and so completely? Ellroy calls his method “the con of male isolation,” but I’ve never known that to be such a winner.
*. But then the entire plot is ridiculous. Ellroy: “never in the history of crime has something like this gone down, with the multiple kidnappings and murders . . . it’s a specious construction.” You can’t think about it for a second. Eddie Muller mentions how the whole plan would fall apart if Dancer didn’t happen to meet the cleaning lady in the hall of the hotel who tells him where his last mule has gone, and he’s right. But you can’t ask questions like that of a movie like this. It’s not built to make sense. I mean, Dancer doesn’t even have a remotely credible cover story for just walking into the Sanders mansion and getting them to give him their flatware. And the idea of taking the woman and her child hostage so that she can explain to the Man what went wrong is beyond ludicrous.


*. Even aside from the absurdities, the plot seems to me to be a very rough piece of work. What was the point of Raymond Bailey’s character Dressler? Just to introduce us to the mechanics of drug smuggling via unwitting mules? Surely that information could have been presented in a way more integral to the main action, as Dressler is dropped completely after the first third of the film and is never returned to.


*. As with any genre flick you have to appreciate the little perverse twists. Here these would include Julian’s collection of last words, the strange figure of the Man, in a wheelchair no less, and the little girl who winks at Dancer before the nuns take her away. What was that all about?
*. Today there’s more of a formula for this sort of film, but at the time this was a pretty daring piece of work. It’s still great fun, full of memorable if not quite classic moments. I’m surprised it isn’t better known, as it holds up well as entertainment. Looking into it as deeply as I can, I can’t see it as aspiring to be anything more.


Run for the Sun (1956)


*. Chances are you’ve heard this film is based on the Richard Connell story “The Most Dangerous Game,” which had already been made into a classic B-picture in 1932. And if you come to it with that knowledge and expectations, expectations triggered by Connell’s name appearing in the credits, it won’t be long before you’re wondering what’s going on.
*. There is a danger that goes along with re-telling any familiar story. Not so much the need to make it new, but to make it interesting. In the case of Run for the Sun they certainly made it new, but they fell down on the interesting part.
*. As far as what’s new is concerned, I don’t see how Connell got a credit, as there’s almost no connection to his story here at all. Or maybe it was based on some other story by Richard Connell, as the story isn’t named. But I doubt it.
*. Instead of a madman on an island hunting humans we have a couple of Nazis hiding out in the jungles of Mexico. When a reclusive writer named Michael Latimer (Richard Widmark) drops in on them, accompanied by a reporter named Katherine Connors (Jane Greer), the Nazis decide they can’t let them go. Our heroes escape from the magnificent jungle estate, are hunted, and then hop on a plane and fly away.
*. That is not the story of “The Most Dangerous Game.” Browne (Trevor Howard) is not a hunter but an ex-diplomat. He doesn’t have a gruesome trophy room full of human heads. He isn’t even that eccentric a figure. He mostly seems bored with life in the jungle, and is more irritated than anything else by Widmark’s sudden appearance.
*. So if you were expecting a rousing adventure story you’re not going to find it here. We’re half an hour into it before we’re even introduced to Howard. Instead the emphasis is all on the budding romance between Widmark and Greer.
*. I mention the time because it’s indicative of a problem. “The Most Dangerous Game” is a very short story. The 1932 film came in at 63 minutes. A Game of Death was 72 minutes. Bloodlust! was 68 minutes. These films kept things moving. Run for the Sun has much higher production values and a bigger cast, but that’s not necessarily a plus. For material like this such an approach is out of place. It’s a trashy little story and needs to be treated as such.
*. In short, there’s too much set-up, and the eccentric figure of Zaroff is marginalized. This means Widmark and Greer have to carry the picture. But while they’re both capable of this — Widmark is well cast as the damaged, edgy hero (in a role that usually calls for a stiff), and Greer — the woman who built Robert Mitchum’s gallows high in Out of the Past — is easy on the eyes, but they are mostly wasted here in parts that are conventional and dull. Trevor Howard is horribly underused playing Browne as just another burned-out case. Latimer is capable but not all that bright (why does he give himself away to Browne?), and Katie is just dead weight (“It’s no use, leave me, go on!”). She even screams when she sees a lizard, which may have been a nod to Fay Wray. Because, you know, it’s just a lizard.
*. I’d want to note though that Greer suffered for her art, contracting a virus during the location shooting that eventually required her to have a heart operation. We often look down on A-list actors as pampered divas, but most of them are real troopers.
*. It’s a shame they couldn’t find a way to play up a triangle with Browne. In other versions of the story the Zaroff figure expects to take the hero’s woman as a (living) trophy or an addition to his harem, but Browne doesn’t seem interested in Katie at all. I wonder if we’re meant to question his sexuality. There’s mention of his having had a wife in Germany who was killed in a British air raid, but nothing much is made of it. Now he lives with his brother-in-law (Peter van Eyck) and they seem rather like a couple. There are no women around.
*. It’s a movie I’d like to like more, as I admire the stars and it looks good. But the story drags. There’s less action than other versions of the story, and what action there is makes little sense (Latimer’s improvised door-gun is highly improbable, and I don’t see how you can run a man down in a plane taxiing for take-off unless they’re very, very stupid). There’s some nice photography and good-looking locations, but I think it’s finally just too conventional a telling of what is essentially a perverse and transgressive tale.



The Black Castle (1952)


*. 1952. It’s twenty years since the glory days of Universal horror. And this is what things have come to. A collection of cinematic bric-a-brac without any strong, unifying narrative or art to the presentation.
*. The bric-a-brac make us think we’re in a half dozen different movies. First off, there’s the creepy castle, the graveyard, and the howling wolf. Then there’s what may be a premature burial. Has that young man been turned into a zombie? I only wish. Then a set-up lifted wholesale from Dracula: planning the journey on a map, and then a carriage ride that stops at an inn where dropping the wrong names sets off alarm bells. But the count in this case is not a vampire. Instead, he’s someone like Zaroff, the huntsman from The Most Dangerous Game.
*. Toss in some other odds and ends like a moat filled with alligators (a real high point in the film, for me), a villain with an eye patch, some African totems, the black leopard from Cat People (well, at least it looks like the same kitty), a bit of subterfuge borrowed from Romeo and Juliet, and even Boris Karloff, poor Boris Karloff, turning in another tired performance in a generic supporting part. And poor Lon Chaney (Jr.), turning in another tired performance in a generic supporting part, this time as a mute Igor. Or Gargon. Sheesh.
*. Throw it all in a pot, or a black castle, stir, and . . . you have this.
*. If it all sounds like a messy stew, that’s because it is. What’s remarkable is that it’s actually a flashback film, spending most of its length explaining how our heroes ended up about to be buried alive. It just takes forever before we are told what is going on. Which, it turns out, is a revenge plot so bizarre it never could be explained properly anyway.
*. Aside from the alligator room (did I say how much I liked that?), the only other thing that interested me here was the rather casual attitude displayed toward adultery. Count Karl von Bruno is married to Elga, his second wife, after having disposed of his first a la the collector in Browning’s “My Last Duchess” (I assume that’s her corpse stored in the dungeon, for no reason except to be discovered at a bad time). Despite his current marital status, he makes love openly at his castle with Therese, who is presumably the next in line. Meanwhile, Elga takes all of about twenty minutes to fall into the arms of the dashing Burton. Before long they are confessing that their lives meant nothing before they met each other.
*. I can see making the count out to be an adulterous lech, though even so it seems odd that he’d be carrying on with Therese right in front of his wife. Basically he’s telling her she’s being replaced. I guess this helps justify her quickly taking up with Burton, but in 1952 it’s all shockingly a bit like a swap meet.
*. So it’s really just a collection of leftovers from other horror movies, stitched together in a very awkward way. The potential for comedy was there — Richard Greene would have been a terrific comic lead — but that was probably seen as less profitable. Too bad.


Murder by Contract (1958)


*. How much of a cue is the score giving us? The lights come up on a typical noir setting: the hood wearing a wifebeater shaving in front of a mirror in his dour apartment. But Perry Botkin’s plucking of those electric guitar strings recalls the jaunty zither music from The Third Man. Is this a noir comedy?
*. I think it’s very funny, but I can’t be sure how intentional this was. Could it have been meant as a satire?
*. Take the character of Claude, the philosopher-psychopath hit man. He’s always ready with a lecture on what it takes to be a perfect killing machine, and these are delivered with such intensity that it helps to mask his near total incompetence. But at least he has George fooled. And boy is he cool. Look at the quiet scene where he kills the man at the barbershop, the way his own nodding head echoes that of his victim. It’s like they’re both ready to fall asleep.
*. His lectures, in turn, are sheer nonsense. They impress the hell out of George, but then George admits to only having made it to the third grade. Most of what Claude says just boils down to killing being a business. He browbeats both the waiter and the call girl over the need to focus more on the bottom line. And in case we could possibly miss the point, the script keeps hammering us. Contract work is business: “You murder the competition. Instead of price-cutting, throat cutting.” We start to feel as though Claude is just a little too full of himself, even bragging about his supposed lack of empathy: “I wasn’t born this way. I trained myself. I eliminate personal feeling.”
*. But Claude’s best speeches are the ones where he tries to explain why women always make a mess of things. They are unpredictable. You can’t plan for them. Then, contradicting this, both of his first two plans to kill Billie rely on her behaving in entirely predictable ways. The second one, for example, is based on the scientific premise that “The human female is descended from the monkey, and monkeys are about the most curious animal in the world. If anything goes on, it just can’t stand it not to know about it. Same thing with a woman.” Nobody could have written that with a straight face, even in 1958.
*. Shot in just eight days by Irving Lerner, it’s a movie most often praised for its “economy of style” (Martin Scorsese) and “lean, purposeful” approach (Jonathan Rosenbaum). I guess this is fair enough, bu the stylistic sparseness makes an odd, comic juxtaposition with the wild absurdity of Claude’s Wile E. Coyote murder schemes.
*. In the first of these, Claude somehow fixes the power lines going into Billie’s house so that when she turns on her television it will explode. No, really. That’s his genius plan. The guy, George declares, has a brain like Einstein’s! Alas, when Billie switches her TV on with a remote, her life is spared. Drat! Foiled again! Back to the old drawing board . . .
*. His next brilliant plan involves all three hoods working together to trick Billie into coming to her front door. How can they possibly do that? Hm. Well, spend the day training George how to shoot with a bow so that he can fire a flaming arrow into some dry grass near Billie’s house. Then have Marc call up the fire department. You see, when Billie hears the sirens of the fire engines, she will (being a woman descended from the monkey and thus about the most curious animal in the world) open the door and then KABLAMMO! Contract fulfilled! What could possibly go wrong with a plan like that? It’s genius, I tells ya.
*. Unfortunately Billie is not the one who opens the door so somebody else (another curious woman, naturally) ends up getting shot. Grrrrr! If only Claude had actually got that artillery piece that he told George about!
*. Marc and George must be meant as comic relief: bickering villainous lightweights providing a foil for Claude. There’s no way the shot of the three of them lined up together in the convertible taking in the sights of L.A. wasn’t meant to be funny, is there? The score here helps too. I’ve heard it compared to the theme music for The Beverly Hillbillies, which Botkin also composed.
*. Billie Williams is funny too. She reciprocates Claude’s sexism, hating all men because she thinks they’re “sex crazy” (something she tells us apropos of nothing). She also wears a leopard-print dress and carries a teddy bear around when she isn’t watching TV or playing the piano.
*. Finally, the plot is filled with inconsistencies and absurdities. A call girl is introduced who just happens to be in possession of secret inside information from the D.A.’s office that she relays unwittingly to Claude. That’s her whole reason for being in the movie. Marc and George take Claude to a film set to whack him, and George doesn’t even bring a gun. And why does the Chief even give these two idiots the job in the first place, when it’s already been established that neither of them have killed a man before? Finally, after refusing to save his life by fulfilling the contract on Billie, Claude kills Marc and George and then proceeds to try, once again, to kill Billie. Why? I mean, seeing as she’d already testified, why even bother? Was the Chief really going to pay him?
*. I hope all of this lets you know how enjoyable a movie Murder by Contract is. It’s easily one of the silliest, most singular, and bizarre noirs ever made. Was that what they wanted? I think not. But there’s nothing wrong with happy accidents.