Friday, April 27, 2012

April Quick Picks and Pans – 50s Edition

Diabolique (aka: Les diaboliques) (1954) Don’t be surprised if you experience a distinct sense of déjà vu while watching Diabolique (The French pun is purely unintentional).  From a modern perspective it’s easy to dismiss all of the plot twists and turns as clichéd, instead of seeing them as the inspiration for so many modern psychological thrillers (including Hitchcock’s Psycho and the under-seen Hammer film Taste of Fear).  Director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film is a skillful combination of suspense and superb acting.  The characters includes Christina Delasalle (played by the director’s wife Vera Clouzot) and Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) as wife and mistress, respectively, to Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse), a cruel boarding school principal.  Both women conspire to murder Michel and end his tyrannical cycle of physical and mental abuse.  There’s a stark contrast between Christina, who grapples with her belief system, and Nicole, who lost her faith a long time ago.  Just when they think they’ve pulled off the perfect crime, Michel’s body goes missing.  Even if the shocks are not quite as jarring as they must have been for audiences in 1954, the film maintains a high level of tension throughout.  Often imitated, but never duplicated, Diabolique is a true masterpiece.

Rating: **** ½.  Available on DVD

The Big Heat (1953) Fritz Lang directed this film noir gem set in Los Angeles.  Glenn Ford plays Dave Bannion, an honest cop investigating the suicide of a fellow police sergeant.  He discovers that there’s more to the story than he originally thought, tracing a cycle of corruption that leads all the way to the top, but his superiors just want to sweep everything under the rug.  Lang depicts a city ruled by fear, where everyone keeps their mouth shut if they want to live another day, and no one wants to lend a helping hand for fear of reprisal.  As Bannion gets closer to the answers, his wife gets caught in the crossfire.  He becomes an unstoppable force, intent on finding the men responsible for her death, and taking down the crimelord who’s pulling all of the strings in town.  In addition to Ford’s superb portrayal of a copy who’s been pushed too far, there’s some great supporting performances by Lee Marvin as the icy hired thug Vince Stone and Gloria Grahame as his wise-cracking girlfriend Debby.  It’s a tense, gritty and taut crime drama that’s not to be missed!

Rating: **** ½.  Available on DVD   

Four-Sided Triangle (1953) Few probably remember this obscure Hammer science fiction film from director Terence Fisher, but it’s worth a look if you’re a Hammer completist or B sci-fi enthusiast.  The title refers to the relationship between two scientists and the woman that they love, and the unusual solution that one of them concocts to solve their dilemma.  Bill (Stephen Murray) is a brilliant inventor who creates a device that can duplicate anything (Don’t hurt your brain trying to figure out how such a device could actually work – his extremely cursory explanation might as well involve magic).  When his childhood friend Lena (Barbara Payton) marries his mutual friend and colleague Robin, he does what any other sensible researcher would do, and creates a copy of Lena (referred to as Helen).  Other than being easy on the eyes, I’m not really sure what all the fuss was about with Lena, considering the fact that she didn’t know who Albert Einstein (No, really!) was, perhaps proving that love is dumb as well as blind.  Filled with unnecessary narration and a contrived ending that sidesteps the headier moral and ethical dilemmas raised throughout, Four Sided Triangle could have been better, but it’s still quite watchable. 

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) Nancy Fowler Archer (Allison Hayes) is wealthy, alcoholic and emotionally unstable.  Her philandering husband Harry Archer (William Hudson) plots to have her committed to a mental hospital so he can take control of her fortune and run off with local town floozy Honey Parker (Yvette Vickers).  Probably no one would remember the film today if not for the stroke of insanity/genius on the part of the producers, who decided to add a cheesy sci-fi twist to this little melodrama.  Nancy encounters an alien ship (which is repeatedly referred to as a “satellite”) with a bald 30-foot alien lurking inside.  Apparently, he wants her expensive diamond necklace because his ship runs on diamonds (Um, okay), but she manages to evade him.  It’s never really explained how or why she grows to such enormous proportions (or why the alien was 30 feet tall, and she’s supposedly 50 feet).   Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is so bad, it’s nearly good, and taken in the right light can be a heck of a lot of fun.  It has terrible effects (the alien, his spacecraft, and the title character are all transparent), hammy acting and characters no one cares about.  It’s hard to imagine that anyone ever thought this movie was a good idea, but I’m sort of glad that they went ahead with it anyway.  Nathan Juran (who was apparently so embarrassed by the material that he went by the name “Nathan Hertz” for this film), coincidentally directed the superlative fantasy The 7thVoyage of Sinbad the same year! 

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD

The Manster (aka: The Split) (1959) This bizarre Japanese/American co-production might be worth a look just for its sheer audacity.   American reporter Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley) is having a great time in Japan, while his co-dependent wife pines for him in the States.  He’s investigating a mad scientist (played by Tetsu Nakamura) who performs strange, poorly defined experiments on humans.  Larry soon becomes the newest subject of his research after he’s injected with the latest batch of serum.  As the serum takes effect he begins to sprout a new noggin, and serves as living evidence that two heads are not necessarily better than one.  While the film itself is goofy fun, it’s hampered by a completely unsympathetic main character.  Larry is such a selfish jerk to begin with, that it’s hard to care what happens to him when he turns homicidal and begins to go on a killing rampage through the streets of Tokyo.  Because he doesn’t really seem to possess a good half, the film becomes a Mr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde story.  The Manster is chock full of hammy acting, ridiculous dialogue and an ending so abrupt that you’d swear they chopped off a complete scene (and with a scant 72 minute running time, it’s a distinct possibility).  This isn’t a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re in the right mood (or possibly inebriated) this could just be the ticket.

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

The Invisible Boy (1957) I regret to report that The Invisible Boy was not quite the lost classic I was hoping for.  With Robby the Robot featured in a prominent role and a screenplay by Cyril Hume (who wrote the screenplay for Forbidden Planet), my level of expectations was set unrealistically high.  While the film is sporadically amusing, it eventually wears out its welcome due to an inconsistent tone and a meandering story that seems to be cobbled together from other sci-fi movies.  Richard Eyer stars as Timmie Merrinoe, providing what I suppose is a “child’s eye” perspective of the world.  His neglectful father (Philip Abbot) creates a warehouse-sized supercomputer that runs off of punch cards (Ahh, modern technology!), and fails to notice when his son successfully reassembles a robot that was lying in pieces in his workshop.  Eventually, the computer becomes smarter, and takes control of Robby, using the robot as an instrument to threaten the world.  This odd shift in tone takes place about two-thirds of the way in, as the film changes suddenly from whimsical to serious.  The stakes are raised as the computer threatens to give the boy a slow, painful death (via Robby) if his father doesn’t give in to its demands.   This isn’t exactly lightweight stuff, even if the movie itself is supposed to be a slight “family” film.  The parents’ behavior is noticeably strange as well, as they appear to be oblivious to Robby’s presence and mostly ignore Timmie.  In one scene, the father is more interested in doling out punishment than curious about how Timmy managed to become invisible.  The Invisible Boy is unavailable as a standalone disc, but can be found as an extra (!) on the Forbidden Planet DVD and Blu-ray.  Come to think of it, you’re probably better off just watching Forbidden Planet instead.

Rating: **.  Available on DVD and Blu-ray (as an extra feature on the Forbidden Planet disc)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fifties Movie Monster Faves

The 1950s represented a truly golden age for monster movies.  You could fill volumes with the sheer variety and quantity of different creatures from that amazing cinematic decade.  Some of them came from space, while others were purely terrestrial.   While a few of these creatures’ origins could be attributed to the natural/supernatural world, many were the result of human intervention (an extension of our hubris).   A common culprit was radiation and its effects on nature and humanity – a recurrent theme in the 50s.  Alongside this postwar fear of the nuclear genie that had been unleashed from its bottle was trepidation about science and progress.  Add to this a generalized distrust and animosity toward outsiders and the unknown, and you had the seeds of some pretty fearsome creations.
It was tough to narrow a list of 50s movie monsters down to a mere handful without it seeming superficial, so I decided to confine my list to those that have left the biggest impression on me over the years.  While it’s far from a comprehensive list, I hope I’ve included at least a few of your favorites as well (If not, feel free to list them in the comments section).   Here’s my baker’s dozen of favorites, in no particular order:

1. The Gill-Man (The Creature from the Black Lagoon – 1954) The infamous Gill-Man represented the last of Universal’s illustrious line of classic monsters, but what a monster it was!   Some things are better left alone, or at least treated with greater reverence.  Researchers in the Amazon jungle stumble upon a throwback to another age – not really a missing link but more of an evolutionary tangent.  The awesome aquatic humanoid creature was designed by Millicent Patrick (who was uncredited), and Ricou Browning brought him to life within the suit, conveying equal helpings of power and pathos.

2. The Blob (The Blob – 1958) Who thought that cherry Jello could be so menacing?  Actually, the filmmakers used a glob of red-dyed silicone, but it’s hard not to think of that cafeteria staple when watching the title creature do its stuff.  Compared to the other monsters on this list, the blob doesn’t have much personality, but it makes up for this deficit with a voracious appetite.  This non-terrestrial creature engulf s every living thing in sight, and is relentless in its goal to take over the world (or at least a tiny part of it in small-town Pennsylanvia).  Can Steve McQueen and friends stop it in time?

3. Dracula (The Horror of Dracula – 1958) Christopher Lee adds another dimension to the eponymous count, with his animalistic interpretation in Hammer’s audacious reboot of the Universal franchise.  Peter Cushing’s Dr. Van Helsing couldn’t stop him from returning for several sequels of varying quality.  Honorable mention:  Frankenstein’s monster (The Curse of Frankenstein – 1957).  Christopher Lee looks suitably hideous in makeup that was purposely designed not to be mistaken for Jack Pierce’s copyrighted creation in the earlier Universal films.
4. Giant ants (Them! – 1954) Atomic testing in White Sands, New Mexico results in a colony of common ants growing to mammoth proportions.  Giant bug movies were a dime a dozen in the 50s, with audiences witnessing oversized tarantulas, mantises, locusts and scorpions – none of which could hold a candle to the giant ants.  Their demise provided little comfort, as their very existence promised that similar atom-age terrors would be on the way.

5. Mutant (This Island Earth – 1955) There are few depictions of alien creatures that are as iconic as this one, with its goggle eyes and oversized brainy head.  In a decade full of memorable aliens, the Metaluna Mutant ranks with the best.  The movie it originated from has gained a bad rap in recent years, no thanks to being raked over the coals by Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (which was enjoyable in its own right), but taken in the right vein it’s still a lot of nostalgic fun.

6. Martians (The War of the Worlds—1953) We only catch a few brief glimpses of the Martians from The War of the Worlds, but their entrance (and exit) is unforgettable.  I was always impressed by their imaginative, only vaguely humanoid, design; most notably, their unusual three-partitioned eye.   The Martians were a radical departure from other depictions of Mars life (compare to Invaders from Mars, released the same year).  Perhaps the greatest feat of the filmmakers, however, was generating some sympathy for these beings that had nearly wiped out the human race.  I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the sickly aliens as they were wiped out by Earthly germs.

7. Godzilla (Gojira/Godzilla – 1954) The monster that refused to stay dead made its debut appearance in 1954.  Awakened as a result of atomic testing in the South Pacific, Godzilla stands as a powerful metaphor for tampering with forces that we can scarcely understand.  When we push Mother Nature, Mother Nature pushes back.  There have been several different iterations of the Big G over the years, but they all owe a debt of gratitude to this original design and Eiji Tsuburaya’s creature effects work.  Was there ever any doubt that he would end up on this list?

8. Brain creatures (Fiend Without a Face – 1958) I don’t think these things officially had a name, but “brain creatures,” works as well as any.  They’re the stuff of nightmares – invisible monsters made visible.  They’re the unfortunate byproduct of (wait for it) a nuclear power plant, and resemble disembodied brains that use their spinal cord tails to strangle their victims.  Must be seen to be believed!

9. The Thing (The Thing from Another World - 1951) – James Arness stars as the titular creature, an intelligent plant from a crashed flying saucer that terrorizes an arctic base.  The story is a departure from the original John W. Campbell story “Who Goes There?” but effective nonetheless.   The Thing serves as a poster child for cold war paranoia and xenophobia.  In the film’s final line, we’re admonished by reporter Ned “Scotty” Scott to “Keep watching the skies!”

10. The Fly/Andre (The Fly – 1958) The original Fly always left an impression on me as a kid, even though my first viewing experience was on my parents’ 14-inch RCA TV in the 70s, rather than in a movie theater.  As a young, impressionable lad there was nothing like watching for the first time as Helene lifted the cover from her inventor husband to reveal (gasp!) a fly head.  Truth be told, I think it was her scream that got to me the most.   While the makeup might seem tame to today’s jaded audiences (even naïve and quaint compared to David Cronenberg’s excellent remake), it’s still an unusual man-made monster.

11. The Ymir (20 Million Miles to Earth – 1953) The Ymir never asked to be brought back from Venus, which makes it one of the more tragic monsters on this list.  He comes to life, thanks to Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion wizardry.  Harryhausen made many significant contributions to the body of fantasy and sci-fi films in the 50s, but this one showcased his ability to engage our sense of wonder and our hearts.

12. Giant squid (20,000Leagues Under the Sea – 1954) The sole real-life monster featured here, this above all of the others comes closest to the real thing.  No one’s ever seen a live giant squid with quite the same proportions as the one depicted in the film, but it remains plausible that such animals dwell in the ocean depths.  I’d like to be able to admire a specimen as large as the one that attacked the Nautilus one day… from a distance, of course.

13. Monster from the Id (Forbidden Planet – 1956) Probably the most esoteric monster on this rogue’s gallery, the Monster from the Id is not a flesh and blood creature, but a monster made up of pure energy.  A product of the unfathomably advanced Krell machinery and the mind of its creator, Dr. Morbius, the Monster from the Id is virtually omnipotent and invincible.  Can it be stopped before it wipes out Commander Adam’s crew?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Animal Farm

(1954) Directed by Joy Batchelor and John Halas; Written by Lothar Wolff, Borden Mace, Philip Stapp, John Halas and Joy Batchelor; Based on the novella by George Orwell; Starring: Gordon Heath and Maurice Denham; Available on DVD

Rating:  *** ½

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” – Animal Farm

Animal Farm is a darkly allegorical tale, based on George Orwell’s 1945 story with the same name.  Although the main characters are farm animals, the subject matter is anything but typical Disney family fare.  Its themes of inherent corruption in governing bodies must have hit unsuspecting audiences like a sledgehammer.  Those who were looking for light entertainment were treated to a grim parable about the consequences of power left unchecked.   While the thematic elements would be sufficient to cement Animal Farm’s place in history as a landmark in animated film, it has become notorious in recent years due to the recent revelation that it was at least partially funded by the CIA. 

The story behind the film’s inception could easily be a film in itself. * Only a year after George Orwell’s death, the CIA identified Animal Farm as a potential propaganda tool to help combat the “red menace.”  The organization promptly secured the film rights to Animal Farm by bargaining with Orwell’s widow.  The price?  She was promised that she could meet her movie idol, Clark Gable.  Oddly enough, production of the animated film was awarded by Paramount to a British firm, Halas and Batchelor, led by John Halas and Joy Batchelor.  This film would serve to be the first animated feature to come from Great Britain, and took more than two years to create.   

* For more about the strange but true story behind the Animal Farm movie, be sure to check out Karl Cohen’s 2003 article in The Guardian, “The cartoon that came in from the cold.”

While the ideological intent behind the film’s production was motivated by cold war fears, Animal Farm’s themes are universal.  We witness a demonstration of how a change in regime doesn’t necessarily result in the good of the people.  After triumphing over their despotic human captor Mr. Jones, the animals of Manor Farm waste no time declaring that all animals are equal, and establishing a set of edicts.  These lofty ideals quickly erode, however, as the pigs (led by the ambitious Napoleon) maneuver for control over the farm.  Before long, Napoleon and his cronies have violated each of the laws that they’ve set in place.   Notably, “No animal shall kill another animal” gains the addendum, “without cause.”  In the end, the rulers have changed, but no one’s better off.  Manor Farm, renamed “Animal Farm,” has become a thriving community, but at the expense of the workers, who toil away while their leaders become fat.  The rest of the animals learn too late that they’ve simply traded one oppressor for another.   This was pretty serious material for a medium that was commonly viewed as kid stuff at the time.     

Animation director John F. Reed worked on various Disney animated films before joining Halas and Batchelor to work on Animal Farm.  His influence undoubtedly involved adding little comic flourishes to an otherwise dour story, infusing some visual gags to temper the rather sober proceedings.  While the animation lacked the polish of Disney productions from the same era (the characters are not as expressive or detailed), it was more than adequate to convey the story, and was easily several steps above the cut-rate animation that emerged in the 1960s.  Despite the brief moments of levity, Animal Farm is much darker in tone than its Disney counterparts.

With the exception of Gordon Heath’s narration, Maurice Denham provided all of the voices heard in the film.  Denham masterfully combined guttural animal noises with intelligible speech to create a variety of distinctive voices for the human and non-human characters.  Heath’s narration is mostly superfluous, pointing out the obvious and making observations that could easily be ascertained through dialogue and action.

The finished film product represents a compromise between creating a commercially viable piece of entertainment and retaining the impact of Orwell’s original story.  The decision to tamper with Orwell’s ending and conclude on a more upbeat note was made by the producers (possibly with some intervention by the film’s aforementioned investors), but ultimately provides little solace.  After the grim events that preceded it, the victory seems especially hollow.  We’re also left to ponder if the cycle will just repeat itself.

Animal Farm reaches beyond borders as more than just a cold war artifact.  It represents a significant evolutionary step forward in animated storytelling.  It prefigured by several decades other animated films that featured animal characters (such as Watership Down and The Plague Dogs) to convey mature subjects, rather than existing solely as cute diversions.  Another important aspect of Animal Farm is its applicability to other situations – probably not what the creators (or shadowy funders had in mind).  While the film’s target was communism, modern-day audiences could just as easily interpret the goings-on as an example of the unchecked excesses of capitalism.  Exploitation is not the exclusive byproduct of any one ideology, but it can rear its head from many sources as people start with good intentions and eventually twist them around.  Animal Farm exists outside of the context of the era when it was conceived, serving as a cautionary tale about downtrodden masses, whatever they might look like, or which side of the fence they stand.     

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Once Over Twice: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

(1953) Directed by Ray Rowland; Written by Dr. Seuss and Allan Scott; Starring: Mary Healy, Hans Conried, Tommy Rettig and Peter Lind Hayes; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

One of the common criticisms about the recent glut of Dr. Seuss-themed flicks is that they don’t adequately capture his signature visual style or wit.  They seem to have captured the words, but not the music.  How about a movie that actually involved the actual Dr. Seuss in the creative process?  Audiences probably had no idea what hit them in 1953, when The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was released.  There was little frame of reference for the bizarre imagery that was presented on screen, so it’s not surprising that this weird, surrealistic musical wasn’t embraced by critics or audiences at the time.  Seuss himself saw the film as a failure, and essentially disowned it.  The funny thing about cult movies, however, is that they tend to take on a life of their own, regardless of their initial reception.  Something about this odd brainchild of Dr. Seuss connected with those who could appreciate its unique charms.

Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) is an average boy who’d rather be daydreaming or romping outside than playing music.  When we’re first introduced to Bart, he’s practicing under the watchful eye of his over-zealous piano teacher Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried).  He dislikes his teacher, but practices for the sake of his mom (Mary Healy), who’s doing her best to fill the role of father and mother (It’s established early on that his father is deceased).  Despite his best intentions, he succumbs to boredom and falls asleep in front of the piano.  We’re then treated to the elaborate dream world created by Bart’s psyche.

In this alternate universe, his piano teacher takes on sinister tones, as a musical despot intent on enslaving Bart and 499 other kids so that they can play his 5,000-key piano.  It’s the sort of batty premise that only makes sense from the perspective of a Dr. Seuss book.  Screenwriters Seuss and Allan Scott cook up a Freudian/Jungian soup that’s comprised of every child’s deepest fears.  Dr. Terwilliker manages to ensnare Bart’s mother and keep her under his control through various means.  Meanwhile, Bart is being held captive so that he can perform around the clock for Dr. T’s amusement.  Taken from a child’s point of view, these imaginary fears seem very tangible.  What child hasn’t felt oppressed at one time or another by a well-meaning parent or self-serving teacher to do something that he or she finds meaningless and absurd?

Help arrives under the unlikely guise of friendly plumber August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), who’s first seen working on the Collins household kitchen sink, and somehow ends up in Bart’s elaborate dream.  Bart’s only ally, he states, “We should always believe children. We should even believe their lies.”  He represents a child’s ideal concept of an adult – kind, wise, and willing to entertain even the silliest of notions.  August treats Bart as an equal, and is viewed as a surrogate father.  Of course, this begs the question: How frequently does he come around to the Collins house, anyway?

Dr. Seuss also wrote the lyrics for the whimsical songs (with music by Friedrich Hollaender).  Some standouts are “Because We’re Kids,” where Bart laments not being taken seriously, and "Dressing Song: Do-Mi-Do Duds," where Dr. Terwilliker celebrates his evil scheme coming to fruition.  The playful lyrics are prime examples of classic Seussian wordplay, filled with equal doses of profundity and nonsense.  Unfortunately, half of the songs were cut from the finished film, and at least one song was edited.  “The Dungeon Song,” featured when Bart and August descend in an elevator through several hellish subterranean levels, is only left partially intact.  References to third-floor torture devices were deleted from later releases of the film.  Even presented in its compromised form, the songs from the film are a fun crop of ditties.

To say that there’s little else like The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, would be an understatement.  The closest comparison would be to the German expressionist films of the 20s and 30s, albeit if they had been done in color.  The 3-strip Technicolor process adds another delicious layer of unreality, presenting vibrant, larger-than-life hues.  The net effect resembles a live action cartoon.  The inspired art design, sets and matte paintings bring Dr. Seuss’ fanciful illustrations to life.  Everything is full of curved lines, with nary a straight edge.  The scenes are populated by numerous eccentric flourishes, such as Dr. T’s henchmen – roller skating twins that share a single long beard.  In one visually impressive scene, Bart climbs an impossibly tall, curving ladder that looms precariously over the Terwilliker compound’s landscape, hundreds of feet below.

In a lame attempt to break even Columbia Pictures re-released The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T a few years later under the decidedly less imaginative title, Crazy Music, but that generic moniker probably only confused people further.  The film never quite gained the recognition it deserved, wallowing in movie history as sort of a bastard stepchild of Seuss’ fertile imagination.  Thankfully, home video and subsequent re-releases have afforded the movie a second (and third) look by new audiences, and it’s well worth seeking out for Seuss aficionados, lovers of the delightfully absurd and families looking for something beyond the usual watered-down gruel that typically gets passed off as entertainment these days.  I’d like to think that in some alternate reality it’s as well regarded as The Wizard of Oz, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or the Toy Story movies.  Just one viewing will leave an indelible impression.  Love it or hate it, it’s easy to agree that there’s been nothing else quite like The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T before or since.