Nightmare in Wax (1969)

*. The premise of a murderer who makes wax effigies of his victims apparently goes back to a short story by Charles S. Belden titled “The Wax Works.” The story remained unpublished however, and I’ve never been able to track a copy down. So these are obscure beginnings.
*. For all intents and purposes, however, things really got started with Mystery of the Wax Museum, a 1933 film that seems to have been a kind of afterthought following up a similar production the year before (Doctor X). Nevertheless, the hook was set in the popular imagination, especially with the success of the 1953 remake House of Wax starring Vincent Price. But I think the movies were only tapping into something deeper. We are used to seeing mannequins in store windows that we might initially mistake for real people. Well, what if they were real people?
*. The story also draws on another horror archetype: that of the deranged artist obsessed with his muse. It’s the direct offspring of Phantom of the Opera, and has had nearly as long a life. The artist-muse connection would continue in minor variations on the waxworks theme such as this film and Crucible of Terror, but would oddly disappear from the 2005 production of House of Wax, which opted for the rustic psychotic-family plot.
*. Now let’s turn to a consideration of Nightmare in Wax. We won’t be long. This is an ultra-cheap Crown International flick that makes for an ugly and poorly constructed retelling of the myth.
*. The idea had promise. It’s not just a remake of the earlier House of Wax movies. In particular there are two big differences.
*. (1) It’s a Hollywood movie. Evil genius Vincent Rinard (Cameron Mitchell) is a make-up man and his nemesis Max Black is the mogul in charge of Paragon Pictures. The museum is the Movieland Wax Museum, a real place in Buena Park, California, acknowledged in the end credits as “the authentic Hall of Fame in wax of the world’s great stars.” I think a lot more could have been done with this angle (aren’t Hollywood stars all plastic people in the first place?), but as it stands at least it’s an interesting update on the original story.
*. (2) The figures aren’t in fact waxen corpses but rather living models injected with a hypnotic paralyzing agent. This is as creepy as it is ridiculous, though in the end it tends to come down heavier on the ridiculous side. Just for starters, since the victims can’t even blink how do their eyes not dry out?
*. One other positive worth noting is the way Vincent is disfigured. Max throws a glass of wine at him while he’s lighting a cigarette and this ignites his face. Would this work? Probably not, but it is kind of weird and surprising.

*. Outweighing all of this, however, is the lack of talent involved. At the top of the list are those two banes of most low-budget film productions: poor lighting and dismal sound. You can’t see anything in all the dark. Or in all the sunlight. Check out the scene of the two cops driving around during the day where the car’s interior is like a black hole. Then you can barely hear a damn thing given the gummy sound. There are some howlers of bad lines in this movie but you have to really strain to make them out.
*. The effects are predictably bad as well. Vincent’s melted face consists of an eyepatch and a bit of plaster on his cheek. That’s it.
*. Despite the interesting new wrinkles added to the traditional story everything moves at an awkward pace. There’s a lot of talk where nothing important is said. We get the point of what’s going on, but further elaboration just makes things less clear.
*. Then there’s the ending. Spoiler alert! But how can you spoil an ending this bad? Basically Vincent wakes up and we find out that the whole movie was a bad dream. Pre-marital jitters. Why they went with this when they had a decent enough ending available — Vincent falling into the vat of boiling wax, much as his predecessors Lionel Atwill and Vincent Price had done — is beyond me. It turns the whole movie into a joke, albeit one that isn’t funny at all.

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.

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

*. I wasn’t long into this one before I felt sure I’d seen it before. This was not, however, because I was familiar with the 1953 remake House of Wax starring Vincent Price, which remains pretty faithful to the original (outside of losing the girl reporter). Instead, what I was remembering was Doctor X.
*. Doctor X had come out just the year before and had also been directed by Michael Curtiz, starred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, had the same art director and cinematographer, was shot in the same two-color Technicolor system (the last studio feature filmed using this process), and had the same opening theme music. Even some of the plot elements are the same as in Doctor X, which also had a fast-talking reporter and made use of waxwork figures to dramatize the crimes.
*. I mentioned that the 1953 version cuts out the lady reporter character, replacing her with a giggling, gold-digging bimbo. I also mentioned the names of the two top-billed stars here: Atwill and Wray. In doing so I’m guilty of promoting what I think is a common misunderstanding of this movie. The thing is, this is really Glenda Farrell’s movie. She’s the spunky reporter Florence Dempsey, and I suspect she has the most lines in the movie and perhaps the most screen time as well. She’s also the character who does all the work of the plot in uncovering Mr. Igor’s foul scheme. Wray is really just a damsel in distress who screams.

*. I enjoy the newspaper angle, even if all the wisecracking, sarcastic quips, and sexual innuendo is an odd fit with the Mr. Igor story. Indeed, it’s not just an odd fit. It actually overwhelms Igor’s mad revenge. I’ll admit I got lost figuring out what his long game was vis-a-vis his former partner Worth. And where did the hophead Darcy fit into all this?
*. The ending confused audiences then and now. Florence turns down the rich kid Winton for her editor Jim. Plausible, but Winton had seemed like fun while there wasn’t much going on between Florence and Jim but the usual banter.
*. The Technicolor system required so much lighting the heat apparently melted some of the wax figures, requiring them to be played by actors. A lesson in irony there.

*. I wonder if the lighting requirements were also behind the giant sets. Igor’s museum and studio look the size of airplane hangars. The morgue is a palace of the dead. Even the girls’ apartment is ginormous. There’s so much empty space.
*. There’s much to like in this movie (I haven’t mentioned the bizarre techno-expressionist lab) but I found the gap between the newspaper stuff and the wax museum story a real bother. The remake wisely got rid of the former, even though this led to the female leads being significantly downgraded. Atwill is just OK here, perhaps not realizing how much he really needed to ham such a slight part up. Curtiz goes for a lot of close-ups but they tend to be either overdrawn (Wray) or inexpressive (Atwill). All-in-all, I find Doctor X to be more entertaining fare, though it’s far less well known. Nevertheless, the basic idea here, which actually came from an unpublished story, was gold. There were going to be many more visits to this museum in the years to come.

Green Room (2015)

*. Green Room is a very familiar movie in some ways. A punk band finds itself playing a gig in hell, and soon find themselves trapped in what looks and feels like a particularly nasty episode of Breaking Bad.
*. Taking a step further back, the siege, with good guys barricaded inside while monsters outside are trying to break in, is one of the most basic horror plots. It makes the essential list of archetypes, even if we’re boiling down said list to only the top three or four.
*. From this basic concept, however, things soon wander off track. And I think “wander” is the right word. This is an action thriller that defies expectations by disappointing them in a casual way. So while the film is something different, I can’t say it’s all that effective in its difference.
*. I think the biggest example of this has to do with the monsters: a gang of neo-Nazis led by a guy named Darcy.
*. The gang are criminals and clearly bad dudes with murderous intent, but they are also strangely unthreatening. The scariest of them, a guy named Werm, disappears from the film shortly after being introduced, and I’m still not sure if he was a bad guy or just dim. This leaves Big Justin (who is easily overcome by the band), Gabe (who is actually a nice guy), Daniel (who turns out to be on the band’s side), a dog trainer who really only cares about the welfare of his dogs (who are in turn faithfully loyal to him), and a pair of supposedly elite “red shoelace” punks who turn out to be incompetent and cowardly.
*. Then there’s Darcy, played by Patrick Stewart. Stewart manages to lend the part some gravitas, but it doesn’t call for much and he doesn’t try to play it up at all. Darcy seems tired, weary. Early on he complains that his voice is giving out. When he remarks at the end that it’s been a hellish night for everyone, himself included, we can believe him. He’s not a sadistic person but just a small businessman who wants to clean up a mess that somebody else made. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier says of him that his presence is more threatening than who he actually is, and calls this Stewart’s “quietest performance ever given on stage or screen.” Pat is disappointed when they finally meet face to face, commenting that he was so scary at night, when he was just a voice.

*. All of this strikes me as very realistic, especially compared to the usual fare of superhuman bad guys who have to be killed several times over. When people get killed in this movie, they stay dead. Also realistic is the simplicity of the story. Don’t be expecting the usual series of plot twists and revelations. There’s no conspiracy, as Daniel says at one point, it’s all just a clusterfuck.
*. I’d like to applaud all this, but it has the effect of draining the film of most of its energy. The heavies here need to be heavier. They have to be more dangerous.
*. As for our heroes, they are a strange bunch as well. And I think “strange” is also the right word. I’m not saying this to be negative, but Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots both look and sound a bit strange. Then on top of this they play strange characters. What is Pat’s problem? Why can’t he think of a favourite band? I guess some performers are introverts, but he seems to take things too far. Amber, meanwhile, is a weirdly low-key badass, almost sleepwalking through the violence. When she kills Big Justin it’s like she’s undoing a zipper on his gut. Again one feels an entropic undertow in the film, a failure to really engage.
*. Or does Reece kill Justin? It isn’t clear to me. Amber just slices his belly open, which would be messy and painful as hell, but not a fatal wound, at least immediately. I suppose Reece might have broken his neck. It isn’t clear.
*. One point of against-convention realism I appreciated was all the business with the cellphones. I was dreading the now obligatory scene where someone would try to make a call only to find out that there was no reception in this backwoods hideout. They didn’t go that route, and the business of making calls becomes a real plot point.
*. I’ll confess I sent up a little prayer at the start that I wouldn’t have to listen to much punk music. That stuff’s OK live in a club, I guess, but everywhere else it just sounds like what it is, which is noise.
*. Speaking of punk, is there still a punk scene? I don’t recall it being big even back when it was big, but are bands like the Ain’t Rights really out there?

*. The script strikes me as not very well thought out. There’s a “big paintball speech” (quoting Jeremy Saulnier) that takes up a lot of time, twice, and it should have been dropped, as it doesn’t have a useful point to make. Why does Darcy tell Justin to give the band his gun? That struck me as a pointless, counterproductive gesture. All it does is drag out the negotiations. But later, when it seems like the gang wouldn’t have much trouble storming the green room (this is once they’d got the gun back), they just sit on their hands. And why is it that the only entrance to the secret lab and money vault for the gang is in a guest lounge? Does that make sense?
*. There are also inconsistencies. I like the realism of the shotgun being of no use in the initial breakout because Sam doesn’t know how to use it and she fires it without hitting anything. On the commentary Saulnier points out that this is more along the lines of what you would expect. But then we get the big paintball speech about going berserker (“full jackass”) and this does work for Amber and Pat. So realism just goes out the window. On the commentary he insists that the paintball speech is based on a true story and could really happen, but this contradicts what he’d just said about people who don’t know a thing about guns not being able to stand up against professionals.
*. Actually, I don’t think the film contradicts itself here. I just think the paintball speech and Saulnier’s commentary is misleading, since Pat and Amber’s plan is in fact quite well thought out. They don’t go crazy.
*. One nice line in the script comes when Darcy asks Gabe if Reece is still breathing. Gabe replies “A little bit, yeah.” The reason I like that is because it’s not exactly what you expect him to say (“barely” would be the formulaic answer), and it doesn’t really make sense, but it fits because Gabe is upset and maybe a bit confused. So give some credit for the script on that one (if the line wasn’t improvised).
*. They call it a green room because many of the early ones were painted green or had green décor. I don’t think many of them today are actually green or even have much green in them. This one doesn’t seem very green, which is disappointing because it would have made an interesting parallel with the green world outside, the dripping emerald forests of the Northwest. They could have really gone to town with that palette, but didn’t. Instead everything just looks dark.
*. The great outdoors also makes an interesting parallel with the club because the forest is just as claustrophobic as the green room, if not more so. Even the overhead shot of the road makes it look like it’s being overgrown with moss, the most basic line demarking civilization being lost. You don’t have the sense that Pat and Amber are escaping anything at the end but just going deeper into the heart of darkness.
*. I was a little surprised at how favourable a reception this one received. It’s not a bad movie, and it does take a different tack than many films of its ilk, but in the end nothing stands out about it and it’s too understated for its own good. The way Darcy just turns and walks away from Pat and Amber at the end underlines this. It’s so weird and anticlimactic a finish. Saulnier calls it “a defiant march,” and I guess on some level it is, but it looks as though he’s leaving the picture because he really has someplace else he has to be and he’s tired of all this now. And how does that make us feel?

The Killers (1964)

*. The title was sometimes given out as Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, which was highly misleading. Director Don Siegel (who had actually been considered to direct the 1946 version) thought keeping Papa’s name in the title didn’t make any sense, didn’t want to use any of Hemingway’s dialogue, and indeed didn’t want to keep anything at all from Hemingway’s story but the initial idea of the guy who doesn’t want to escape his fate. A fate which is now finalized not in a diner but a home for the blind. Which might be a metaphor. Or something.
*. I don’t care for this movie at all. It has a few nice elements, but a lot more bad than good in it.
*. The thing that stands out the most is its look. Yes it’s flat and bright and sunny where noir was dark and shadowy and textured. This is in part due to the setting (California and Florida mainly), but perhaps more to the fact that it was originally shot as a TV movie. It couldn’t air on TV because it was too violent, but the damage had been done. Paul Schrader, referencing this film: “Technically, television, with its demand for full lighting and close-ups, gradually undercut the German influence, and color cinematography was, of course, the final blow to the ‘noir‘ look.”
*. Post-Tarantino I guess we can’t say that such a look is a poor match for this material, but in this film I still feel the disjunction. Everything about it has a meretricious feel. Critics have tried to salvage it by tying their praise into counterintuitive knots, as in Geoffrey O’Brien’s very good Criterion essay: “”when the film came out, the fakeness and mismatches made it seem not less but more real: movies like this helped confirm the notion that a recent era of authentic luxury and nuance (reflected in the exquisite textures of forties Hollywood) had given way to a cheap, mass-produced simulacrum. What was up on the screen had a new tackiness that in many ways very much resembled the world outside the movie theater.” But this seems like being too clever by half.
*. More than the look, however, I think it’s the casting that really undoes it. Not Lee Marvin. He’s great here, warming up for a similar role in Point Blank. But the rest of the cast is pretty awful.

*. It’s not fair to blame Angie Dickinson for being no Ava Gardner, but she isn’t. What’s frustrating though is that her character isn’t filled in any more than Gardner’s Kitty. Who is Sheila? Is she just a vacuous moll who likes pretty things? Is she a scheming mastermind? We never know. And she’s even killed offscreen, without any of Kitty’s final ambiguous hysterics.
*. I really love Charlie’s line to her just before he kills her. She’s trying to exculpate herself and he cuts her short. “Lady, I don’t have the time.” I think that must have been a steal from Out of the Past, where Mitchum tells a similarly plaintive (and duplicitous) moll “Baby, I don’t care” when she asks if he believes her.
*. Ronald Reagan. Here’s the obligatory note that this was his last theatrical film and the only movie where he played a villain. He doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself one bit, and apparently he wasn’t. I don’t buy him for a minute as a heavy, which is actually kind of weird. I say that not as a knock against his politics, but just because playing an operator like Jack Browning should have been natural for him. So why does he seem so totally out of place?
*. Not quite as out of place, however, as Clu Gulager. I think his health-obsessed hit-man could have worked, but there’s just something about his performance that makes him seem too lightweight to be taken seriously. I think he was just wrong for the part. Really wrong.

*. Ditto for Norman Fell. Come to think of it, aside from Marvin this may be the most unthreatening collection of gangsters ever. And John Cassavetes, who might have been believable as a hood, is instead turned into a somewhat naive gearhead who I couldn’t understand turning to a life of crime (in the 1946 version Lancaster’s Ole had a long criminal history before being recruited for the heist).
*. Manny Farber, of all people, said that this “scummy Siegel remake of The Killers . . . far outclasses the Siodmak epic.” I have no idea what he was talking about. Outclasses?
*. When Johnny North says he has “calluses on my rump,” do you think he’s referring to hemorrhoids?
*. Wow. In 1964 even racecar drives didn’t wear seatbelts. And apparently Cassavetes barely knew how to drive.

*. I’ve never seen a hood in a gangster film stick his gun into his back pocket. In this movie Marvin has his whole holster stuck into his back pocket. Isn’t that weird?
*. It’s really neat how Johnny, lying in his hospital bed with his eyes wrapped in bandages, lunges wildly at his garage partner but never loses the cigarette from his mouth! Neat, or ridiculous.
*. I can’t think of any way this movie improves on the Siodmak version. In particular, it seems much bulkier. Compare the interminable scenes at the racetrack with the boxing scenes in the original. And there’s no comparison at all between the brilliant and economical heist in the original (all one crane shot, perfectly choreographed), and the highway robbery here. Why do we have to see them driving down the same roads three different times?
*. I’ve mentioned before how good Siegel filmed chase scenes (see my notes on The Big Steal and The Lineup). But the driving scenes here are ridiculous in their use of back projection (the go-kart scene is the worst offender), and boring in their use of overhead shots (the aforementioned rehearsals for the heist). It’s like Siegel had forgotten everything he ever knew. On the other hand, he was starting to really show a liking for pointing guns at the camera.

*. Well, I think this is a pretty lousy movie. It’s slack, miscast, not that well written, downright silly in places (the killers in all three versions — I’m including Tarkovsky’s — are almost comic figures), and it just plain looks weird. But . . .
*. But I have to recommend it for one of my all-time favourite pieces of (what I’m sure must have been) dramatic improvisation. There stand Ronald Reagan and John Cassavetes in their highway patrol outfits and sunglasses, getting ready to stop the mail truck. Reagan is tall, commanding, and looks born to wear the uniform. Cassavetes looks the opposite. As the mail truck approaches Reagan curtly dismisses Cassavetes, saying “I’ll do all the talking.” Cassavetes leans away and nods his head, pointing at Reagan. You’re the man, Ronnie. This is hilarious. I laugh every time I see it. So you should definitely watch The Killers just to see it. But in the end, it’s only a meme moment. It does not the movie make.

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 Killers (1946)

*. It’s been called the Citizen Kane of noir, and for good reason. We are introduced to the central character at the moment of his death. The only clues to the meaning of that death are his enigmatic final words and a silk handkerchief he had with him. That will be his Rosebud. Enter an insurance investigator who will attempt to backtrack and piece together his story by way of interviews with the people who knew him.
*. The inspiration wasn’t Kane though but Hemingway’s story, and it’s one of the more interesting cases of adaptation I’ve seen. The story is presented, quite faithfully and in its entirety, in the film’s opening act, so that it can then be used as a launching pad for a wholly original tale involving gangsters and a femme fatale. I can’t think of another literary source being used in this way. From Beyond comes to mind (which is really comparing great things to small), but the pre-credit material in From Beyond, which is all that connects the film to the story, is only very tenuously connected to what Lovecraft wrote.
*. The opening does raise some questions too. How well is it incorporated into the rest of the film? As a prologue, doesn’t it go on too long? I think most people would reject this, but I think it’s an issue. All that tough-guy talk about the bright boys doesn’t have much of a point. I think it’s all very nicely realized, but it’s a bit too much like a separate movie, a short that plays before the feature.
*. As for the new material bolted on to the Hemingway story, well, perhaps “wholly original” has to be qualified. It’s bog standard noir. David Thomson: “the plot of The Killers feels mundane and pedestrian.” That’s because, at least by the standards of noir, and maybe any standards, it is mundane and pedestrian. The hero who finds himself on the wrong side of the law falling hard for the wrong gal. The heist. The double-cross. The fallout. Run credits.
*. The arrangement of these familiar elements is a big part of what makes the film work. I don’t think anyone in the audience is in any doubt about what happened, but the way it’s revealed makes it interesting.
*. What makes it really interesting, though, is its look. Noir yes, but I want to look a little deeper into what that means. Here’s Paul Schrader, from his seminal essay on the subject, addressing the noir style: “Compositional tension is preferred to physical action. A typical film noir would rather move the scene cinematographically around the actor than have the actor control the scene by physical tension.”
*. I think there are a number of examples of what I think Schrader is talking about in The Killers. The whole opening in the diner does an incredible job of working up that set from different angles and exaggerating mundane matters, like the door that keeps slamming (why hasn’t somebody fixed that?). Nothing happens, but there’s a sense of threat established through “compositional tension.”

*. Another good example is the scene in the prison cell between Ole (Burt Lancaster) and Charleston (Vince Barnett). There is no action here. The two characters maintain static positions throughout. But by presenting the scene in a sequence of beautifully composed shots Siodmak creates a powerful sense of fate and tragic destiny. The stars and the bars are enough for that.
*. But what does this scene tell us? Nothing. How does it advance the plot? Not at all. It’s just atmosphere, but what atmosphere!
*. Burt Lancaster’s debut, and what an odd star-making role. He’d become famous later for his physical presence, but here, despite playing a boxer and sporting a wifebeater, he’s downright ethereal. Manny Farber: “He has a dreamy, peaceful, introspective air that dissociates him from everything earthly.” Lying in bed he looks a bit like the Dying Gaul.

*. Ava Gardner’s gets her start here too (not her first film, but her first major role). She is, of course, stunning. I mean Virginia Christine (playing Lilly) looks great too, even in her Puritan dress, but she clearly doesn’t have a chance as soon as Ole locks eyes on Kitty.
*. That first scene together probably tries too hard in underlining how hard Ole is falling though. The way Lilly looks at him when he first sees Kitty is enough. But this is a movie full of scenes of people looking at other people in knowing ways. It’s a movie of glances.

*. Kitty isn’t a great part. She’s left too vague. Does she really care for Colfax? He seems so far beneath her. Does she have any genuine feeling for Ole? Or is she just a narcissist? Her final lines, wailed to the dead Colfax, begging him to save her (while referring to herself in the third person, if “Kitty” really is her name) suggest the latter. I don’t think she’s a real femme fatale who’s pulling the strings here. I think she’s a good-looking but naive kid.
*. Among the supporting cast the heavies steal the show. Jack Lambert as the deep-voiced Dum-Dum is great. Albert Dekker is good as Colfax. You wouldn’t want to mess with either. The two investigators — Edmond O’Brien’s Reardon and Sam Levene’s Lubinsky — are suitably dull in comparison. When Reardon tries to get the drop on Dum-Dum we know he’s way out of his league. He may be a great insurance investigator, but he doesn’t know how to handle a gun.

*. I found it amusing how Reardon has to apologize for asking the police to help him . . . with a murder investigation! That whole scene where he’s introduced to Sam struck me as odd. At first Sam seems unconcerned at the news of Ole’s death, as though he was just some guy. Then he reveals that they were actually childhood friends!
*. “Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into Hell.” That’s a memorable line, even if I’m not entirely sure what it means. Surely Colfax is going to hell anyway. Covering for Kitty might be seen as him trying to do a good turn (depending on Kitty’s culpability, which remains vague).
*. When Ole gets the drop on the other gangsters after the robbery he calls out for them to “Heist ’em!” Meaning put their hands in the air. I’d never heard the word “heist” used this way before, but I guess it makes sense as heist is a bit of American slang that only dates back to the 1920s and is derived from “hoist.”
*. That score by Miklos Rozsa really sounds like it’s coming to get you. Later he’d do the theme music for Dragnet, and you can hear something of that here. It’s another element that fell into place.
*. I really like The Killers, though I feel like it’s missing something. Lancaster has that ghostly quality, and Gardner’s Kitty isn’t sharply drawn. The investigators, whose pursuit of Ole is presumably meant to recall the pair of “killers” we see in the opening, are too bland. The story, despite it’s interesting arrangement, is too conventional. It looks wonderful, and is one of the most interesting noirs ever made, but I can’t rank it as one of my all-time favourites. Making my top ten for this stacked genre though is pretty good.

The Village (2004)

*. I wonder how much M. Night Shyamalan’s trademark — the twist ending — has damaged his career. It obviously didn’t hurt him with The Sixth Sense, since it wasn’t a trademark yet and that movie basically launched his career. But ever since . . .
*. I don’t think it helps him at all here. This is for two reasons. As with all his movies, since you know the twist is coming you spend all your time thinking about it, and when it comes it’s inevitably a disappointment after so much build up.
*. In the second place, the ending distorts the movie itself. Everything is sacrificed to concealing the big reveal, to the point where the movie has no other purpose.
*. This really struck me when watching The Village. I couldn’t help thinking that it would have been a more interesting movie without all the misdirection and if it had dealt directly with the elders and their desire to exile themselves from modernity and all its attendant suffering. John Hurt and Sigourney Weaver seem so much more interesting than Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard — both as actors and in character.

*. I don’t think Shyamalan is a bad filmmaker, not at all, but he’s taking a really simple idea here and stretching it a long, long way. The ending only comes as a surprise, in so far as it does, because the premise is so bizarre.
*. Even if we grant the elders their plan, why go back to the nineteenth century? I mean, a sustainable, isolated community would no doubt have to be quite primitive, but is there any need for the period costumes and formal speech? How is all this reclaiming a state of innocence? It seems more like they’re putting on some kind of reality show. Personally, I’d be happy to live in a small community without access to the Internet.

*. You could pull the premise apart in a hundred ways but I’m not sure it’s worth it. Roger Ebert, who wrote a scathing review, makes the most telling point: “Critics were enjoined after the screening to avoid revealing the plot secrets. That is not because we would spoil the movie for you. It’s because if you knew them, you wouldn’t want to go.”
*. It’s a good-looking movie, very nicely photographed by Roger Deakins. I liked most of the design elements, including the monster costumes. The cast is terrific, with only Phoenix seeming out of place. And yet it all seems in aid of so little. The movie makes a shift from Lucius to Ivy part-way through, but as I said earlier the most interesting characters are the elders. They are the ones who have the major emotional arc to travel. Something might have been done with what is revealed to Ivy at the end, but that is left up for grabs. Misdirection is one thing, but The Village only leads us to a dead end.

Ant-Man (2015)

*. If you’re looking hard to find some significance here it may be in the comic evolution of Marvel films. Sure they always had a sense of humour, what with wise-cracking superheroes and an awareness of their own absurdity, but with Ant-Man you get something that’s a big step toward a superhero comedy. A proto-Deadpool, if you will. And even if you don’t care for such levity, it’s more welcome than those awful Dark Knight movies of Christopher Nolan. But then, could you imagine Christian Bale cracking wise?
*. It’s a good thing the tone here is so light, as it has to carry a very slight, very improbable, and very predictable plot.
*. I was wondering, before things got started, just how they were going to get started. I mean, we know the basic outline cold by now. Ordinary guy (even billionaire Tony Stark is very much an ordinary guy) gains super powers through some kind of accident. He has the usual problems adjusting his personal life to fit the new circumstances he finds himself in. There’s usually an older mentor figure who is involved at some point, and an evil corporation or alien force (sometimes allied) with designs on global domination. So as you take your seat you just want them to get on with it.
*. Well, at least things move quickly, even if there are no surprises. This is a movie that doesn’t want to surprise us. Is there anyone who didn’t think the safecracking business was a test right from the start? Or that Darren Cross was going to double-cross our heroes? You had to know that even without knowing his last name.
*. They even make a joke of this at times, especially with the running gag involving sucker punches. The person being punched is always taken by surprise, but I don’t think the audience ever is. And the movie knows this. It doesn’t have any tricks up its sleeve.
*. And yet it still works pretty well. The good guys are all likeable. Paul Rudd has that “scruffy yet buff dude” look that has become dominant for male leads (I mistook him for Ben Affleck in Gone Girl). Michael Douglas is decent. Evangeline Lilly comes close to stealing the show, in a part that is very poorly written. The three “wombats” are conventionally funny.
*. Where things fall down is with the villains. They aren’t interesting at all, and their motivations are only a throwaway. Basically they’re just Lex Luthor and Hydra ex machina (who the hell are those guys anyway?). Eventually it all comes to seem very much like the first Iron Man movie. Which, again, is something the movie is aware of. Michael Douglas makes the point early that his particle is far more significant an invention than Iron Man’s fancy suit. Because he knows you’ve already made the connection.
*. This knowingness could be annoying, and I guess it is a bit, but it’s all kept very low key. We go through all the obvious dramatic stageposts, like Hank Pym telling his daughter Hope about what happened to her mother, or Lang and Paxton bonding at the end, but then they’re undercut with a grin and a wink at how this is all just a “moment.”

*. Maybe it’s this winking knowingness that helps paper over what I found to be a rather disturbing scene when Cross miniaturizes a corporate enemy into a dab of goo and then wipes him up off the floor and flushes him down the toilet. I found that rather uncomfortable, but given the movie’s attitude of “it’s just a movie” it doesn’t carry any weight. Still, I wish they’d left it out.
*. Little people have always been a popular subject for effects films. Yet despite all the advances that have been made from the days of The Devil-Doll, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Tom Thumb, Gulliver’s Travels, and Fantastic Voyage, I didn’t find the effects here very compelling. I never had the sense of a tiny person in an oversized world. Maybe it was how fast everything was cut. Maybe it was the way Ant-Man was able to keep zipping back and forth from big to small. Maybe it was the fact that small Ant-Man has increased atomic density (or whatever) and so is just as strong as when he’s full-size, so he is in no real danger from angry kittens or vacuum cleaners. Or maybe it was the way CGI makes everything look fake. Whatever it was, I just didn’t feel involved in the microworld. Though the Thomas the Tank Engine stuff was cute.
*. One thing that did strike me as interesting was the idea of the fully wired hero. I guess Iron Man is somewhat the same thing, but Ant-Man, with his hacker friend, helmet that puts him in constant communication with everyone, ant-mounted cameras seeing everything, and special insect telepathy powers (that make no sense at all and which the movie doesn’t even try to explain), is networked. It almost seems like someone should be controlling him with a joystick while everyone else watches him live online.
*. It could have, and probably should have, been a lot worse. It’s incoherent and slapdash. There’s a whole scene of Ant-Man breaking into the Avengers mansion to steal . . . something, which is just an excuse to tie the character in to the rest of the Marvel universe. I guess. The jokes are lame. As noted, the plot is predictable, and also improbable in the extreme. I mean, ant-sized people who hold on to ICBMs while in flight? I can’t even begin to explain all the things wrong with that. Finally, the action scenes struck me as unexceptional. I couldn’t get into any of them.
*. Nevertheless, it has a kind of goofy charm that has become the Marvel house style. This helps smooth things over. Like all the Marvel movies I can think of (or remember) it’s certainly not worth watching twice, but it’s painless the first time around.

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.