Category Archives: 1950s

Cult of the Cobra (1955)

*. A pompous and obscure title card is revealed: “Slender hangs illusion, fragile the thread to reality.” Then there’s some other stuff before we are told “The time is 1945. The place is Asia.”
*. “Asia.” Asia is very big. I assume we are in India, but it’s never made clear. There weren’t that many American soldiers stationed in India in World War Two, were there? And while the part-Creole Faith Domergue looks slightly exotic, as the priestess of the cobra cult she doesn’t look a bit Indian. I mean, with a bit of make-up Leonard Strong can play an ersatz native (he actually made a career out of playing “Asians,” as well as other ethnicities), but they don’t even try with Domergue.
*. The story here gets going when a group of servicemen sneak into a ceremony of the cobra cult. They’ve actually paid a hefty sum ($100) to one of the Lamians (that would be Leonard Strong) in order to see a person turn into a snake or vice versa. What they get is a crappy floor show featuring a woman in snake tights. When they give themselves away as interlopers they proceed to act as boorish Americans abroad, beating up the Lamians and torching their temple. This earns them a curse: the cobra cult will hunt them down and kill them one by one.
*. Revenge comes knocking in the shape of Lisa Moya (Domergue), who follows the doughboys back to New York City and turns into a cobra to start picking them off. They are remarkably quick to twig to the fact that this has something to do with the cult’s curse, but alas one of them has fallen in love with Lisa and she has reciprocated.
*. I’ve heard this one described both as a cult favourite and a “minor camp masterpiece” (Leonard Maltin) but I didn’t enjoy it even as a good-bad movie. It has none of the energy or panache needed to make its ridiculous premise work. The transformation scenes are weak, even when presented indirectly. The CobraVision business should be funnier but just comes across as awkward. The business of Lisa falling in love and losing her faith cracks a smile but that’s it. It’s all very silly, but really not as much fun as it sounds.

Tarantula! (1955)

*. In the 1950s everything got supersized. Blame the bomb. In his book The Monster Show David J. Skal names Godzilla (1954) as the film that launched “one of the biggest ritual displays of naive metaphor the world has ever seen.” The vehicle of that metaphor being giant creatures, the tenor atomic anxiety.
*. This is an obvious point that doesn’t need any further emphasizing here. In this movie the naive metaphor is a giant tarantula. In Them! it’s giant ants. In The Amazing Colossal Man it’s Glenn Langan. In The Giant Gila Monster . . . you get the point. The question I have is why a fear of nuclear war would bring forth such monsters.
*. Radiation makes people sick. Very sick. It doesn’t make things grow or give them super powers, both of which effects are actually pretty cool. And yet that’s the way it was imagined in the early nuclear age, and indeed has been up to the present day and figures like Doctor Manhattan. I’m not sure what to make of that.
*. Another thing driving the spate of gigantism in SF during the ’50s, and perhaps of even greater importance, was the improvement in special effects. By today’s standards the giant creatures stumbling through model landscapes or looming over hillsides may not be very convincing, but they were the CGI of their day. Sure you can see right through the giant tarantula’s legs in some of the shots here, but I’ll bet audiences in 1955 were thrilled. A movie like this gave them everything they paid for.

*. Mara Corday. Damn she looks good. She’s sexy even when just looking faintly bemused at what’s going on. Meanwhile, John Agar tries to do the same thing and only looks like a simpleton. Double standards.
*. Professor Deemer is often described as a mad scientist but his associates seem to have been the really bad ones, especially in their rush to do some human testing. The way the dying Paul injects Deemer with the growth isotope serum is particularly cruel. Their project, however, is humanitarian. Like Dr. Cragis in The Killer Shrews they’re concerned about growing global population and world hunger. Deemer wants an alternative food source while Cragis wants to shrink people so they won’t need to eat as much.
*. Deemer is concerned that by the year 2000 the population will be 3.6 billion. We nearly doubled that. As a result, today’s mad scientists are more interested in radical plans for depopulation than trying to save the human race.
*. Jack Arnold gets a lot of credit for being one of the major figures of this genre, directing such classics as It Came from Outer Space, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Incredible Shrinking Man. I think he did well enough with the material, but he wasn’t what I’d call an auteur. I feel like he really just keeps things moving along. He knew what audiences wanted to see and he didn’t cheat them, giving them their monsters in a series of building climaxes. The connecting tissue is just the usual dull stuff to be gotten through, which helps build up those climaxes even more.
*. All of which is only to say that this is a movie that’s no more than what it sets out to be, which is to be an excuse to see a giant spider crawling around the desert eating people before having Clint Eastwood flying in to save the day with some well-placed napalm. Fun then and fun now. How confident are we that our CGI blockbusters will play this well in fifty years?

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

*. I’ve talked before about how, back in the day, big-name producers sometimes overshadowed, even creatively, their directors. Examples include Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World (directed by Christian Nyby) were Val Lewton’s Cat People (directed by Jacques Tourneur) and George Pal’s The War of the Worlds (directed by Byron Haskin).
*. But in the case of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms it’s not the producer’s name that gets most of the credit. Instead this is Ray Harryhausen’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, with pre-eminence given to the man who did the stop-motion animation monster effects.
*. Poor Eugène Lourié. This was his directorial debut, having previously worked as a respected art director. Apparently he didn’t care much for directing, or at least directing monster movies, which he was immediately pigeonholed for after the success of this one. I wonder if he ever called up Ichiro Honda to commiserate. Meanwhile, Harryhausen says he was left on his own to do his scenes (that is, all the monster stuff).
*. The rest of the film, meaning the non-monster stuff, is predictably poor. The script feels like a work in progress, which I think in part it was, especially at the end. The business about the monster carrying a virus is really strained, and seems to only be introduced to take the military option of blowing it up off the table. Then the way it’s killed is an even bigger stretch. But then, by the standards of the genre I guess it’s not too crazy.
*. How cool is it that the marksman on call is Lee Van Cleef? He even says he picks his teeth with a grenade rifle. Go get ‘im, Angel Eyes.
*. I said that the ending was a stretch, with its silly idea about shooting a radioactive isotope at the monster, but that it’s not all that crazy given the genre we’re dealing with. And, I should add, given the time. These SF films from the ’50s and ’60s are full of pseudoscientific claptrap that just seems hilarious today. Two of the biggest laugh lines here are the title itself, since 20,000 fathoms is far deeper than the deepest part of the ocean, and the professor claiming the Beast has survived from the paleolithic age, which it obviously preceded by a few million years.
*. I’m not sure why they went with a title that was so far off the mark since my understanding is that the monster (a Rhedosaurus, which is a species they made up) was frozen in ice at or near the surface. But I guess it’s all carnival-barker hype anyway.

*. It’s also worth pointing out, while talking about the genre, that this movie introduced the idea of a giant monster somehow created or awakened by the explosion of atomic weapons. Godzilla would be on his way in another year.
*. Comparisons to Gojira (Godzilla) are inevitable. In terms of effects, I think Harryhausen’s work holds up quite well. Toho couldn’t do stop-motion animation because it was too expensive and so had to go the rubber-suit route, which worked out for them pretty well. Gojira, however, had more of a story behind it, for better or worse.
*. Speaking of silly genre elements, both this movie and Gojira (as well as the rest of the Godzilla franchise) share the ridiculous notion that these giant monsters can somehow be lost. I love the radio announcer here saying “It was last seen on Wall Street.” That’s it? And nobody knows where it went? How do you lose a dinosaur on Wall Street?
*. I find Lee (Paula Raymond) a sexy babe, in a somewhat rigid way, and really loved the way she kisses her fuddy-duddy old professor twice . . . on the mouth! Her boyfriend doesn’t get a taste of that action even at the end when he is going off to fight the monster. Oh to have lived in those blissful days of yore when professors naturally took their students in as “assistants.” And she makes coffee and brownies too!
*. This is a movie I can still watch and enjoy, but I think a lot of that comes down to it being very short. I like watching the Beast strolling through the canyons of NYC, tossing cars and eating people. The rest of the movie is silly trifle but at least quick and good humoured. Despite being a huge box-office success, however, it didn’t spawn a franchise like Godzilla’s. Perhaps a giant lizard that looked like a lizard (walking on four legs) just couldn’t be infused with enough personality. Godzilla quickly transformed into something almost human, but the Beast was done evolving.

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

*. My DVD of On Dangerous Ground is part of a box set, Vol. 3 in the Film Nor Classic Collection. By this point it seems to me Warner Bros. were starting to scrape bottom (though they had more of these sets to come). I don’t mean this in terms of the quality of the films, but in their connection to film noir. The first film included in Vol. 3 is Border Incident, a movie about an investigation into illegal immigrant farm labour. The second, His Kind of Woman, is a very odd sort of crime comedy (also, like Border Incident, set partially in Mexico). Were these noirs? Well, they were about cops and criminals.
*. One can argue endlessly over the definition of noir. And indeed many people have. Since the 1970s it’s been a favourite topic for critics. Is noir even a genre? Does it describe a moral vision, a style of photography, a setting, or scripts grounded in hard-boiled, tough-guy fiction?
*. I don’t want to make a big thing over this but personally I think it’s a stretch to see On Dangerous Ground as noir. It seems to me more like a crime melodrama. But others disagree. In 100 Film Noirs (part of the BFI Screen Guides series) authors Jim Hillier and Alastair Phillips include it. And it’s in this box set. So there’s some consensus out there for seeing it through this lens.
*. As Glenn Erickson notes on the DVD commentary track, this is a movie that has enjoyed a revival in terms of its crtical standing. Its current high reputation, he tells us “is all retroactive.” When On Dangerous Ground came out it was not well received, for what I think the innocent viewer will understand as obvious reasons. Ida Lupino’s judgement was that it was well produced but suffered from a poor script. Bosley Crowther concurred, thinking director Nicholas Ray made the most of “flimsy material,” the story being “a shallow, uneven affair.” It’s a movie that splits in two, and however deliberate a decision this was (it’s not in the source novel), Variety thought it seeemed like “two pictures grafted together.”
*. I’d agree with these negative judgments. It is a poor script from A. I. Bezzerides (best known for writing Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, and making a surprise cameo here as the sleazy Gatos). Much of the dialogue strikes me as overwrought and formalistic, and in the second half the romance between Jim (Robert Ryan) and Mary (Lupino), however capably rendered, is just too much. Again, this was not a failing that anyone missed at the time. Ray’s original ending did not have Jim coming back to Mary but presumably continuing his lonely downward spiral in the city. But that would have been too bleak even for noir.
*. It is an interesting film to look at, and has some terrific photography in different modes, from the handheld camera in the early street scenes to the chiaroscuro in the shed. This made the poor quality of the DVD transfer I was watching all the more disappointing. You really need to see the restored version.
*. What is that thing in the farm house that looks like the sculpture of a tree branch? Is it a sculpture of a tree branch? Or is it supposed to be a tree?
*. Did Robert Ryan look like Sterling Hayden back in the day or what? I actually thought he was Sterling Hayden for a moment.
*. Speaking of misidentifications, when the cops chase down the man in the street, they’re going off a radio description that only tells them they’re looking for a man in a gabardine coat. No wonder they get the wrong guy! That’s not a lot to go by. How would you even be able to tell if someone was wearing a gabardine coat if you were just driving by them anyway?
*. In their chapter on the film in 100 Film Noirs Hillier and Phillips mention that it’s a favourite of Martin Scorsese “and a key influence on Taxi Driver.” This echoed something Erickson says in his commentary: that the later film On Dangerous Ground most resembles is Taxi Driver. I’m not sure I see much of a connection. Travis Bickle is, like Jim Wilson, an alienated loner who sees the city as full of garbage, but is there anything aside from that? Is Iris supposed to be Mary? Is Travis rehabilitated? Does he renounce violence? I don’t get it.
*. There’s a lot to like here. Bernard Hermann’s score really grabs you by the lapels as the titles come up (if you have lapels), and it nicely develops an echoing hunting theme as the chase after Danny begins. Both the city streets and snowy upstate landscapes are well evoked and juxtaposed. Danny is an interesting figure, bold even for the time. Ryan does a good job in what is a complicated role. Lupino does her best to get us to take Mary seriously. But I keep finding myself drifting back to those earlier judgments. This really is a flimsy script, both on a line-by-line basis and for its contrived and sentimental premise. That’s hard to overcome.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

*. Why Kiss Me, Deadly? Note the comma, so I’m talking about the Mickey Spillane novel this film (whose title goes without the comma) is based on.
*. What I mean is, why bother with a book that producer-director Robert Aldrich didn’t seem to much care for, and that screenwriter A. I. Bezerides thought was “awful”? “I wrote it [the script] fast because I had contempt for it,” Bezerides would later say, “It was automatic writing.” Spillane, naturally, hated what Bezerides had done.
*. Were they just making fun of Spillane’s already cartoonish Mike Hammer, using him as a means to parody the crime genre? That may be, since he’s made into an even less likeable character here than he is in the book. He’s more of a heel, pimping out Velda as part of the scam he runs as a “bedroom dick,” and he seems to take more pleasure in dealing out callous punishment, even to the innocent.
*. As if all this weren’t enough, note how big a brickhead Aldrich makes Hammer out to be. As Alex Cox puts it in his video introduction to the Criterion release, where Spillane’s Hammer is violent, thuggish and stupid, Aldrich’s is violent, thuggish, and stupider. Of course, Christina knows, he doesn’t read poetry. But can he even read? Does he need Gabrielle to read that Rossetti poem to him because he can’t? Then there’s the scene where the feline Pat (Wesley Addy) says to him “Now listen, Mike. Listen carefully. I’m going to pronounce a few words. They’re harmless words. Just a bunch of letters scrambled together. But their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean.” Presumably Pat knows Mike pretty well, but it’s like he’s talking to a pre-schooler. And the stubbornly dull look on Hammer’s face as he’s being told off by Pat tells quite a story. Does he get it now?

*. Another nice comment on Hammer’s empty head is the fact that when shot up with sodium pentathol he has nothing to say. Of course he doesn’t give the gang any information about the great whatsit because he doesn’t know anything about that yet. But he doesn’t say anything at all. His stream of consciousness is just a dull moan.
*. What makes Hammer’s dullness even more striking, and perhaps significant, are the number of cultured and intelligent people he’s surrounded by. On the commentary track James Ursini adverts to the “intellectual-artistic patina the film has,” while J. Hoberman, in his essay, notes how “the movie unfolds in a deranged cubist space, amid the debris of Western civilization—shards of opera, deserted museums, molls who paraphrase Shakespeare, mad references to Greek mythology and the Old Testament. A nineteenth-century poem furnishes the movie’s major clue.” All of this goes right over Hammer’s head. Is Aldrich getting at something here?
*. Note what Danny Peary says in this regard: “Culture is on the way out as these barbarians [the brutes and gangsters, like Hammer] take over: Trivaco, who sings opera (badly), is beaten; Velda, who practices ballet exercises (badly), is used by the man she loves as if she were a hoooker and he were her pimp; Christina (the most likable character in the film), who appreciates poetry, classical music, and art, is eliminated. Intellectuals (Soberin) are killed, and the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of stupid Gabrielle.” Yes, stupid, sleepy-eyed, butch Gabrielle (Aldrich wanted Gaby Rodgers to play her as a lesbian). And remember, she’s the one Mike gives the book to so that she can read him the poem!

*. So is all this part of advancing the parody? An example, as Alain Silver suggests on the commentary, of noir’s vision of class war? Is it political? Have Spillane’s dirty commies been replaced by poetry aficionados and gallery owners? Or is the point simply that modern life only proves the survival of the dumbest, its explosive ending expressive of what David Thomson calls “the sheer rapture of stupidity”? Poor Gabrielle just can’t help playing Pandora and opening that damn box. Though why she wants to is beyond me. Soberin was presumably the only guy who was going to be able to fence whatever was inside. It’s amazing how she keeps getting the drop on people. I don’t think that’s because she’s playing dumb. She really is dumb, but that works to her advantage.

*. Is such a movie meant to be torn apart on this level? Are we supposed to wonder about that missing comma in the title? Are we meant to find that significant? Of course noir is notorious for having plots that are balls of yarn, with lots of unanswered questions and threads that lead nowhere, but Kiss Me Deadly seems more chaotic than most. And we never actually see Hammer figuring anything out. There’s no real plot because if there were it would be too difficult for him to follow. So what we get is just an almost random string of incidents and accidents. There are no clues to follow How, for example, does Hammer get from anything in Rossetti’s poem to Christina swallowing the key? There’s no connection at all that I can see.
*. Question: What is the art gallery owner Gish’s connection to all this? Diker points him out to Velda at a bar, but that’s all we’re told. I guess Soberin is his doctor, and Gish sees him as collecting some new kind of art, but what does that mean? It’s just information like Rossetti’s poem, not even a clue. I mean, I could ask the same question as Christina’s connection to all this as well. Was she part of the gang?

*. Perhaps tearing apart and tearing down is the point. The French New Wave were in love with Kiss Me Deadly I think because it’s a movie that seems to be coming undone at the seams. And by that I mainly mean its editing, which is discontinuous and at times incoherent, becoming an all-too-visible art. The early scene where Hammer fights the hood in the street sets the tone. Do the rapid cuts make sense? It seems to my eye as though the two paired closeups are repeated, or at least the one of the hand Hammer is holding behind the hood’s back. It’s quite jarring.
*. To me it seems like a grab bag of a movie. For example, I hate the way things start, after Christina is picked up. While the opening titles scroll backward (something that has always struck me as just a stunt) we get the incredibly annoying heavy breathing/sobbing of Christina over top of Nat King Cole. Her noises sound totally forced and unnatural to me and she goes on far too long, to the point where I have to think Aldrich had a point he was trying to make. I don’t know what it might have been.

*. Standing at the center of it all is Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer. Meeker is someone who really shouldn’t work in the role, and it’s a strange performance that has been often remarked upon. He smiles or smirks a lot at seemingly inappropriate times. Some find him sadistic. He’s certainly a bully, slapping people around just for giggles (though I think the coroner asks for it). I guess he’s a tough guy as well (what horrific move does he pull on Sugar Smallhouse?), but he’s just got a jerky quality to him that’s beneath the usual noir hero. It’s not that he doesn’t come off as a latter-day knight or anti-Galahad (as Ursini calls him) patrolling the dirty streets of L.A. — he actually does have some sense of loyalty, at least to Velda and Nicky — as that he’s charmless. Naturally the babes swoon all over him, but even that seems like a joke.
*. In any event, Aldrich was supposed to do a couple of Hammer films, but My Gun Is Quick would be directed by Victor Saville (executive producer of Kiss Me Deadly) and star Robert Bray as Hammer. The Aldrich-Meeks experiment was over. But given that the edited version of Kiss Me Deadly (not the “original” version but the version audiences saw) had Mike and Velda presumably dying in the beach house meltdown I doubt he really had plans for a sequel. As it is, he is often credited for drawing the curtain on the classic age of noir and after Kiss Me Deadly struck out on his own.

*. Of course the ending makes no sense. The box that screams and sends out an incendiary glow before exploding is a wonderful construct, but can’t be squared with any understanding of the behaviour of radioactive material. Silver sees it as something like a dirty bomb but that’s more than a stretch. I wonder if Aldrich or Bezerides even knew about things like that. Well, I’m sure they didn’t care.
*. Many critics comment on the mythic characteristics of the plot, especially given the references made to classical figures. One thought that has always niggled away with me is that Mike actually does die in the opening car crash and the rest of the film plays out like a noir version of Carnival of Souls. I think this occurs to me for two reasons: (1) despite falling down the cliff in his car, without a seatbelt on, and the car bursting into flames on its way down, Hammer seems totally uninjured when he wakes up the next day in the hospital; (2) Soberin makes a strained reference to Christina’s resurrection after he’s killed her, and when Nicky sees Mike after his accident he says “Look Sammy! My friend just returned from the grave!” That may not seem like much, but more has been made of less in suggesting that Lee Marvin is actually dead at the beginning of Point Blank.
*. So maybe the whole thing is the dream of a dead man. It’s a weird enough movie to allow the conjecture, a film “real yet surreal” in Thomson’s judgment. As with most such films you’re left wondering how much of the chaos was intentional. To be honest, I don’t think it’s a very good movie. Much of the dialogue feels wildly overwritten, even for a comic book. The pieces don’t fit together and not all of the pieces are interesting. I couldn’t stand the character of Nick Va Va Voom, for example. Still, it’s a movie I enjoy, and for a genre flick it remains something of a singularity.

The Killer Shrews (1959)

*. The Killer Shrews is a one of the best-known independently-produced, Grade-Z horror films of the 1950s, largely because of its eponymous pack of killer critters. I mean, they even sound funny. Killer shrews?
*. That these shrews are fanged beasts with poison saliva should make them more threatening, but the fact that they’re just a bunch of coon hounds wearing long-haired coats and toothy masks sort of undercuts the scare factor. Now to be fair, I do get a kick out of their appearance. At least I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything else like them. But they’re not scary.
*. A terrible movie? Sure. But it definitely falls into the so-bad-it’s-good category. Of course the plot is silly and the shrews ridiculous, but there are all sorts of enjoyable moments along the way. A quick list: Captain Sherman (James Best) being offered a martini upon his arrival at the island; Sherman using the barrel of his pistol to tighten a tourniquet around Mario’s leg; Ann looking like she’s trying not to break out laughing when Mario dies; Sherman getting ready to toss Jerry’s unconscious body to the shrews before having second thoughts; the escape plan that has the survivors duck-walking to the boat under a bunch of inverted metal tanks; and finally Sherman’s final line to Ann’s father as he takes Ann in his arms and claims her with a lustful smooch: “I’m not going to worry about overpopulation just yet.”
*. Any movie with so many smile points in just 69 minutes can’t be all bad. And in fact The Killer Shrews is a lot of fun. Some people complain about there being so much talk in the first half of the picture, but I didn’t think the arrival of the shrews (all four or five of them) made that big a difference. It’s never a terribly suspenseful or thrilling movie. But it deserves its reputation as one of the best of the worst of its time.

The Mole People (1956)

*. Things begin with Dr. Frank C. Baxter telling us about “strange” historical theories about what’s inside the Earth. But Dr. Baxter is an English professor. What is he doing pontificating on such matters?
*. Actually, Dr. Baxter, who does have expressive hands, was his real name, and he really was an English professor. He went on to play Dr. Research on the Bell Systems Science Series: television specials that started in 1956 discussing various science topics. That said, I’m not sure what he was thinking in taking this particular project on.
*. I think The Mole People is remembered, if at all, more for its title and a few meme-like moments than anything else. Most of it plays out like one of the more forgettable episodes on the original Star Trek series, right down to the bad matte paintings and vapid slave girls in minidresses.
*. John Agar is Captain Kirk, leading an away team of archeologists into a subterranean world where Sumerian albinos rule over the titular mole people. Even the symbol of the Sumerians looks like a Star Fleet insignia turned on its side. There’s the usual social allegory, and the surface dwellers lucking out with a bit of useful tech in their flashlight with remarkably long-lasting batteries.
*. Isn’t it a bit odd that Adad dies at the end? She doesn’t burn to a crisp like the naked sacrfices, I guess because she’s all wrapped up, but then a pillar goes and falls on her. I thought poor Dr. Bentley was going to get something out of this expedition.
*. I’m not sure what the point was in losing Adad. In both the movie adaptations of The Time Machine (a novel that must have been in mind while making this movie) the Time Traveler stays with his Weena. I guess that couldn’t happen here.
*. Leonard Malton judged this “probably the worst of Universal-International’s ’50s sci-fi movies.” I don’t find much interesting about it, but it moves quickly and has its moments. The underground world has a kind of silly charm, what with those Whack-A-Mole pits the mole people pop in and out of and the mushroom-everything diet. Unfortunately the story is flimsy, the direction only rudimentary, and the characters props. Not that you should be expecting anything more.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

*. The Night of the Hunter is a movie that a lot has been written about, and a lot that has been written is very good. There’s no need to go over all of it again here. For example, I think everyone knows the story of how it was Charles Laughton’s only turn as a director, with the response being so disappointing he never directed again.
*. There was plenty of blame to go around for its not being understood at the time. Just look at the theatrical release posters and you can see the studio didn’t have the faintest idea what the movie was about or how to promote it. I wonder, however, if there was any chance of it ever being a hit.
*. The thing is, it’s a great movie but it’s not addressed to a mass movie audience (of the kind that existed then or exists now). The look is self-consciously stagey and lyrical, anti-naturalistic and artificial in its effects. This is something I think everyone can appreciate, but is it the sort of experience many people are looking for in a movie? I suspect not.

*. “It was the public that was wrong,” David Thomson concludes, “and no condition is more alarming.” That’s a judgment worth dwelling on, but I won’t. I’ll just say that it may not be a question of being right or wrong but only be a matter of taste.
*. It should have always appealed to critics though, as it’s a veritable anthology of different styles, bringing in a silent film aesthetic, noir, expressionism, and other forms of theatricality. Just look at the way those blossoms are arranged around the children as they are introduced. That’s not a yard, it’s a stage.
*. And it’s not just the film’s visual language but how well that language is being spoken. It’s a movie filled with fantastic visual elements but most of them are nearly static, thus making it a mine of memorable stills. I think this goes with how Laughton was inspired by silent film and its overly dramatic gestures and isolation of dramatic moments. The way Mitchum’s Preacher holds the knife up in the weird chapel of a bedroom, and keeps holding it as though turning into a statue. For audiences in 1955, and even more so audiences today, I think that comes across as weird.

*. Then there is the matter of tone. Is it a horror movie with “peculiar overtones of humor” (Pauline Kael), or a comic fairy tale with jarring notes of horror? It probably doesn’t make a difference as they’re all in the mix. I don’t think it upsets any kind of thematic unity because fairy tales are scary and funny and fanciful all at the same time. Still, you can understand the confusion people felt. There have been other screen villains who have performed comic bits, but the Harry Powell is slapstick most of the way through. Even at his most menacing there’s something phony about him, like he’s only playing a bad guy.

*. It’s a movie of favourite moments, most of them characterized by their staging and the dramatic photography of Stanley Cortez. Willa as Ophelia underwater. The Preacher silhouetted on horseback. The duet between the Preacher sitting outside and Lilian Gish inside with her shotgun. But I think my favourite is the look Shelley Winters gives Mitchum when she comes in to the house after hearing him threatening Pearl. What she does with her eyes there is remarkable.
*. That’s a model of Winters in the underwater shot, by the way. But damn does it look convincing. I always thought it was really her holding her breath.
*. Willa is also the most interesting psychological study in the film. She actually makes a good match with Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) in the way they are both taken in by Powell. Only where Willa surrenders herself to her fate, becoming whatever he wants her to be, Icey represents the furious backlash, standing at the front of the mob screaming for Mitchum’s blood at the end. Such people are always swinging from one extreme to the other. Poor Ruby, looking for love in all the wrong places, is the one true believer left carrying a torch (and not a pitchfork).

*. I mentioned the photography by Stanley Cortez and I will again. Of course light and shadow are two of the key ingredients to the art of photography, but you have to wonder if they’ve ever been as well employed as they are here. The shadows and blacks have an almost tactile silkiness to them, while light has a corresponding glow and texture. And it’s not just for show. The light and shadow have a real purpose.
*. In fact I think it’s a great movie in almost every department. Something in the editing seems hit-and-miss to me though, as the timing is badly off in several scenes, mainly in terms of what appear to be awkwardly delayed reactions. I also think the river journey with the foregrounded animals is presented in too crude a manner. I find this part of the film alienating.
*. Still, it’s managed to last. You’d think that melodrama wouldn’t, being so fixed in contemporary sentiment, but there’s something about such stories that abides and endures.

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.

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.