Category Archives: Film Directors

Soul Erosion in a Counterfeit World

Soul Erosion in a Counterfeit World:

The definitive film of the 1980’s

William Friedkin’s career masterpiece

To Live and Die in L.A.

MGM/UA, 1985

TLADILA-Poster

 4 stars out of 4. Immortal classic film.

As a lifelong fan of The French Connection (likely still the best film ever made about the police) I use none of the words above lightly. Over the years I find myself returning to this film and its ideas, themes and context. It has never truly gone away and is arguably more relevant today than upon its original release. TLADILA is a bold, brash and unrelenting explosion of energy, drive and complete erosion of the soul. This soul erosion is a reflection of the shift in culture that occurred and defined the 80’s, and an extension of Reganomics itself. It goes without saying that the industry itself was turned inside out for the worse but combined with the rise of commercialism in every aspect of society, conglomerates amassing huge amounts of control over our daily lives amidst a general feeling that cash solves all problems. It is no wonder that the film itself deals with a counterfeiting plot.

The film deals with the US Secret Service and their everyday activities fighting against counterfeiting rackets as an extension of the US Treasury department. Agent Richard Chance (the astounding William Petersen) is a reckless and brash field agent who risks everything in the pursuit of his target. When his retiring partner is ambushed and killed by ultra-counterfeiter Rick Masters (the incomparable Willem Dafoe), Chance sets out to nail Masters by any means necessary, roping in a new partner the by-the-book John Vukovich (John Pankow). Chance’s enraged pursuit, backed by a scintillating ego will place absolutely everything in the crossfire.

Chance is perhaps the worst agent possible. He must live on the edge almost as if it is as essential as breathing and frequently risks everything in order to achieve his goals. With the murder of his older partner pushing him over the edge, now the law he has upheld his entire career is merely an obstacle that slows him down. His partner Vukovich is another obstacle, as a traditional agent who finds Chance’s actions more and more objectionable though he himself gets involved deeper and deeper running against his own moral code and perhaps beginning to enjoy the danger somewhat.

Rick Masters is also not a typical villain. He may be even more of an enigma than Chance. As an artist he is consistently searching for something to fill the empty void within himself, the same degree of counterfeiting displayed in his excellent false money. This is why he burns all of his work, as it reveals something he cannot or will not acknowledge about himself. The same reasoning applies to the consistent videotaping of his own sexual encounters with his girlfriend. It is an extension of how each character displays such a deep rooted sense of teetering on the edge of destruction due to the fact that only primordial reasons guide them forwards in a land of imposed annihilation.

All in the film are completely developed and morally questionable characters, amidst a world that burns away at them. Frequently it seems as if everyone in the film is treading water in a sea of acid all while trying to grasp at any shred of debris to stop their flesh burning away. The style and tone of the film completely predates the slightly later 80’s action film renaissance where character began to take a backseat to unrealistic glories which when closely examined feel quite hollow i.e. the Rambos, Miami Vice-styled crud and even predates many of the same themes that turned up in Lethal Weapon and Die Hard before those franchises became imitators of themselves.

Each and every one of these characters is morally questionable and absolutely duplicitous. It is up to the audience to determine when they are counterfeit or if they are completely gone. The character of Vukovich is perhaps the only one who is not too far gone but over the course of the film even his motives come called into question. Friedkin described the film as being set in a counterfeit world, where everyone and everything is as counterfeit as the money Rick Masters makes. But this can only take place once the soul has eroded away leaving a world of people who revert to primordial tendencies of greed and rage with a degree of conviction because they have nothing else left to them. It is this central emptiness to their lives that pushes Masters to continually burn all of his own artwork as he cannot face the fact that he is already a dead man, and the reason why Chance lives so close to the edge taking enormous risks without any hesitation.

Friedkin was and is what I describe as a kinetic filmmaker, or one who uses the medium to convey a sense of motion and immediacy through sensory linked visuals in addition to narrative. You see this in The Excorcist and The French Connection, but never as blatant and layered as TLADILA, where they begin in the opening titles. It may come across as heavy handed to some, but they serve to link the narrative to the individual character’s state of mind and also to disorient the viewer and forcing the brain to work harder to get the meaning thus involving the audience in the picture even more. That this is done in a refined way without any modern tendencies to induce false realism only adds to the picture’s power. This extends to the soundmix design which uses varying levels of volume and other trickery to create a sense of unease in the brain that puts the audience on edge. And to extract such a degree of control on a low budget film in the era of analog Dolby Stereo, which was extremely limited in terms of what you could and couldn’t do, is nothing short of amazing.

Seeing this film begs the question: “how in the world did they get away with all this?” The answer is simply that it was made as essentially an indie with a non-union crew, and where everyone took pay cuts to simply do the film. Budgeted at six million, TLADILA was never meant for star power, and thus actually cast for the respective parts using lesser known stage and screen actors. It is of course no surprise that many are familiar faces now since much time and care was placed in finding the right people to fill the roles. Particularly Petersen and Dafoe both of which are absolutely riveting, with Petersen presaging his phenomenal work a year later in Michael Mann’s stylistically similar/outright inspired by TLADILA,  Manhunter. (Mann later tried to sue Friedkin by claiming TLADILA stole from his developing Miami Vice series. Which it didn’t, as Vice was a poor man’s version of TLADILA, made for TV.)   Then you have Friedkin’s usage of all practical locations and no sets. This bridges the line between fiction and reality so that we’re already in the film’s world and it is our own. To add to this it was Friedkin’s desire and practice during shooting to secretly film rehearsals and not cut at scene’s end in order to try and catch those magical moments of realism that came from developing a real trust with all the actors. The film truly evolves into a nightmarish vision of what seems like just another chapter in the madness of humanity.

The film was shot fast and dirty, but still provides remarkable cinematography from Robby Muller with great usage of color and staggering tracking shots that directly recall TFC. The editing is seamless and editor Bud Smith actually co-produced the picture. (I met Mr. Smith once at a lecture; who aside from being very honest, informative and talented is a very nice man. All a rarity in the business.)

The other and perhaps best stroke of luck possible is that the film’s deal was moved to MGM/UA who at this time was still financially off kilter, and UA had been bought out after the Heaven’s Gate fiasco. This led to many things being virtually unquestioned until it was far too late to do anything and because the budget was so low less care was placed on messing with Friedkin’s decisions.  This was challenged in the ending, where the studio objected to the abrupt reversals and demanded a more conventional and absolutely implausible happy ending. That being said is a testament to all those involved that they could craft such a piece of garbage and tie it in beautifully to the film’s overlying tone.

Anyone who knows of the film today or remembers it is usually referring to the now renowned car chase that tears through backstreets, train yards and the LA aqueducts before finally heading down the freeway against oncoming traffic. It is as bold as the film itself and was inserted only as Friedkin put it: “if it could top the chase in The French Connection”. Due to the latter’s sheer iconic status it doesn’t exactly do that, but it is one of the rare chases that so perfectly matches the story and characters with reality. Every single aspect of this chase is down to earth and places the audiences right there in the moment with Chance and the panicked Vukovich in the back of a crap Chevy sedan at its breaking point. Friedkin went for broke here and rightfully so. Car chases have become a cliché and never serve anything other than being the umpteenth bad action scene in any standard filth. They used to mean something and the really good ones told you about character whilst performing vehicular feats you could only dream about doing. Thus this chase is up there with the greats from TFC, The Seven-Ups, Ronin and of course the big one: Bullitt.

Now we come to the score. Friedkin handpicked Wang Chung to score the entire film as he liked their sound on the Points of the Curve album and felt they would be perfect for the setting he was trying to achieve. While it seems to be off-putting to modern reviewers who lambast the sounds as being terribly dated, in fact Friedkin was right and not only is the score perfectly matched to the narrative, but it is the best work the band ever achieved-particularly before going down in history as the “everybody wang chung tonight” guys. It is a symphony of darkness in a sun-blazed world set against synthesizers. Even their earlier hit “Dance Hall Days” was incorporated into the film as what its eventual resting place likely was: background music for a seedy stripclub in the daytime hours.

Modern viewers complain about the film’s style and staging being severely dated, but this misses the point entirely. The goal was to fully utilize the new sheen of the 80’s to fully convey just how far gone society had become. It is all defined by the erosion of the soul I underlined. It beautifully hints at the film industry shifts occurring at the time, the dark underbelly of Reganomics and the growing desire at the time for more.

The gaze of Regan himself reaches into the film, as a framed portrait on the wall of the abandoned Secret service branch office, glimpsed as Chance and Vukovich return arms late at night. It is one of those real life touches that so eloquently underscores the film’s study of the difference between outer shells and true intent. Regan is of course also heard in the opening, where he is giving a speech and heard over the radio comms.

Friedkin is still working today, but never achieved the recognition or career of some of his contemporaries, likely due to his up and downs at the box office and his somewhat abrasive personality. But it cannot be stressed enough that he is a prime example of someone who truly cares about the medium and isn’t afraid to embrace cinema history or to break rules. Somebody PLEASE give the man a decent budget and free reign. TLADILA was his return to form, and essentially going back to his roots of independent documentary filmmaking. It remains a triumph of story, style, execution and complete mastery and control of narrative cinema—particularly after the absolute waste that was his film Cruising.

TLADILA is a film not easily forgotten, and if closely examined reveals a rich understanding of the human condition and how it our own impositions that tear away at the soul. It is practically The Third Man of the 1980’s.

A federal agent is dead…

A killer is loose…

And the City of Angels is about to explode…

EDITIONS:

Not much to report here. Image eventually released a decent LD with okay color, widescreen matting and the original Dolby Stereo mix in PCM. MGM finally released the DVD in 2003 with extras and commentary surprisingly. The sound was remixed in 5.1 but preserved the original intent and design thank goodness. Eventually a Blu-ray was released and thankfully it features no tweaking or revisionism. The color and contrast is remarkably improved providing for likely the best presentation since the film’s 35mm run in 1985. The 5,1 remix was upgraded to a lossless DTS-HDMA presentation and is lovely. I only wish they had also included the original 2.0 track in lossless. Stupidly this disc has no new features nor any of the previous SD features so one must keep the DVD for those and swap discs to enjoy them.

Also of note, the DVD and Blu-ray releases stupidly and pointlessly airbrush out Petersen’s silhouetted face from the stunning poster and substitute a generic one. What the heck MGM?!?!?

SOUNDTRACK RELEASES:

Wang Chung’s score was released on LP and CD, arranged into a vocal side and instrumental side. I haven’t heard the CD as the vinyl is phenomenal and can be had four typically under two dollars. It was mastered at Artisan studios in LA just as their other records for Geffen were, so you have really the pinnacle of great 80’s production, engineering and plating going on to produce great records. The mix is far better than the film version and the album is a great listen for any mood. Sadly it does not include “Dance Hall Days”, but this can be rectified with one of the many 7” or 12” single releases of the song, or an LP copy of Points on the Curve, the album that convinced Friedkin that they should score the film, and it also includes “Wait”.

I recently found a 2015 dated vinyl reissue from Geffen of the film’s score in stores, but have no idea as to its origins or cutting information. If the price falls enough I will try it out, but don’t expect anything to touch the original LP, nor it be something that would justify the nearly $30 price difference between the two.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, Immortal Films, William Friedkin

Ronin (1998)

ronin-532f4f95c72a5

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film. Final masterpiece from the legendary John Frankenheimer.

The best action-adventure film or spy thriller made in the past few decades.

 

Don’t you see? I never left.”

 

Three little words. So small, so minute and so seemingly insignificant that they could not possibly have any real impact on a story. Yet in Ronin they form the entire crux upon which the film and its deeply nuanced worldly characters are based. To have a film in this day and age so perfectly poised, so perfectly balanced on a razor’s edge and yet filled to the brim with great performances helmed by one of the great directors at the top of his game firing on all fronts is practically impossible to even fathom. That is has at least been remembered for one thing is some small consolation. Ronin is the only modern entry in the very small list of great car chases that include Bullitt, The French Connection, The Seven-Ups and To Live and Die In L.A..

Yet separating that one fact from the film as a whole does it a major disservice as it has long deserved a major revisiting as not only a modern classic but a great film. This is not because of its car chases, action sequences or the fact that it practically capped off the Eurothriller movement that was so prevalent in the 90’s. No, the reason is because it is a film that given a chance never leaves the mind fully.

“If there is any doubt then there is no doubt.”

How can this be, people will ask me. The film’s storyline is so threadbare and downplayed that it becomes a non-entity. The plot is essentially that various ex-government agents and foreign mercenaries are gathered together to steal a mysterious briefcase for an unknown party. Innumerable reversals, betrayals and plot twists ensue but the reason for the film’s staying power is its commitment to both reality and a heavy prevailing sense of world weariness. These characters are real people who are burdened with such a huge lifetime’s worth of pain, loss, bloodshed and that particular brand of absolute loneliness known only to spies and the devoted readers of espionage fiction.

Deep weight is conveyed in every single moment of character interplay, as the slightest glance or action can speak volumes. The dialogue is sparkling and note-perfect, stemming from a rewrite by an uncredited David Mamet. This gives the film’s world outlook such a beautiful layered sense of poetry that is most perfectly outlined in the defensive retorts of the ex-CIA man, known only as Sam, portrayed by Robert DeNiro in what is to date his last great screen role before he went into an endless string of forgettable pictures.

DeNiro’s Sam is a picture in himself. The audience can instantly tell that this man has been through it all and seen it all, much like an American version of LeCarre’s Alec Leamas. DeNiro brings a definite energy to his trademark low-key style that in a certain light reflects his fantastic turn in Midnight Run. The film’s opening has long been criticized for being overdrawn and slow but if examined closely perfectly sets up both the DeNiro character with practically no dialogue but also the dark and shadowy world of the film itself. All in a few minutes of silent exposition.

Sam is not only the lead character but in a way what the picture is really about. Never mind that the briefcase is the suggested goal-Sam’s pursuit of it invokes something other than money despite his continual claims to the contrary. We can get a sense of something else much larger behind his actions motivating them, perhaps something much greater than money. This reflects most in his relationship with the team’s equipment man, Vincent (Jean Reno, who has probably never been better-certainly not in any English language production) the Frenchman. That the others are practically only known by nationality adheres to their strict business-like code of work.

The film is a cryptic labyrinth of motivations and betrayals. These characters are forced to hedge all their bets not to mention their lives on the single turn of an event, with one insignificant miscalculation proving fatal. It is an absolute delight to see something in the espionage genre that actually has a working brain behind it. So long have we been bombarded with absolutely mindless and trivial spy thrillers that to come across one so perfectly formed and honest to the world it creates is beyond a breath of fresh air; it is mesmerizing. And behind such a grounded and multifaceted plot is a master perfectly working the controls. Ronin’s greatest strength is Frankenheimer’s seamless grasp of proper and classical filmmaking techniques. The picture is effortless and seamlessly constructed. It was the major return to form for Frankenheimer after several extremely strong television productions and sadly proved to be his own swan song in this regard. (The less said about the troubled Reindeer Games the better.)

The car chases deserve their legendary status. Nothing since has ever topped the sight of a BMW and Peugeot tearing through Paris reaching speeds of over one hundred miles per hour…in single takes….with the actors inside the cars…and everything being done one hundred percent practically! That Frankenheimer himself was a car nut is obvious. His trademark low to the ground car POV shots from Grand Prix (1967) return with an even greater degree of suspense which heightens every last nail biting moment of the film’s several chases. The realism is so incredible that only moments in Bullitt and Popeye Doyle’s furious pursuit of the EL train in The French Connection hold up as well.

Released with a number of CCE prints which heighten the silver content and minimize color, Ronin is a strikingly cold and dark picture to look at. The photography was conducted in Super35 which uses the spherical lens focus superiority to provide truly staggering trademark multicharacter focus shots the Frankenheimer so adored-and all without the obvious fakery of a split focus diopter. This also allowed for good usage of deep focus technique, which is truly a lost art. The sound mix, released originally only in DTS, is exceptional for the time and when properly represented still holds up very well today.

That Frankenheimer knew France and knew Paris like the back of his hand comes into play practically as soon as the film starts. Only someone who had both lived in and loved the country for years could make a picture that truly delves right into the back alleyways of many of the nation’s great cities. He was also thus able to get a number of permits for shooting that most would never be allowed to have in this day and age. This only aids the blending of reality with the so-called Eurothriller style, giving Ronin an edge over virtually every action thriller made since.

The alternate ending Frankenheimer wanted, is included on disc and would have given a poetic noir-ish ending had it been left in. However UA wasn’t so much of a fan and it works well without the extra scene, just perhaps not as completely as planned.

But again, it is the perfection of film technique which makes the film so incredibly strong. Frankenheimer trusts us to not have to be guided and respects the audience for actually having a brain thus not holding back from trusting us to follow the story. At no time are we ever spoken down to, nor is anything being spoon fed. This is why the film has become a cult favorite and appears on many late night cable channels, because its replayability is infinite.

The film opens with a small bit of text which explains the title. Ronin are masterless samurai, whose master has been killed thus throwing them back out into the world completely devoid of meaning or purpose. The mercenaries are thus modern day masterless samurai and must find their own purpose whatever worthless exercise it may be. The concept that these various operators are exactly like the Ronin of old Japan is an absolutely perfect metaphor for their continued existence: whatever may be left of it.

A true qualified masterpiece in every sense of the word. A forgotten and undervalued motion picture that has NEVER gotten the reception it so deserves; as the last great work of a master.

EDITIONS:

Released on Laserdisc and a DTS edition, DVD, CE 2 disc DVD and Blu-ray.

The DVDs are practically identical, stemming I presume from the LD master. The 2 disc version changes the color timing however a slight bit, has some infrequent combing artifacts, and is marginally sharper. The old disc includes a open matte copy that reveals more frame information from the Super35 production. The Blu-ray is a MPEG-2 transfer and is extremely outdated. It also reverts the color scheme to something more basic in the skintones losing the DVD’s slightly colder look which I attributed as being closer to the original CCE prints ordered by Frankenheimer. I think it is based on the CE master that had already been worked on in the 2000’s and appears very old.

Audio is best heard on the Blu-ray which at least gives us a lossless DTS-HDMA rendering. It comes across a slight bit canned and harsh in the upper ranges at times along with some dialog sounding a bit mono. I hope to soon check the LD audio of which the DTS track might outperform the lossless rendering due to the older format utilizing mainly untouched theatrical audio mixes.

All extras are on the 2 disc CE DVD and not on the Blu-ray as is typical of MGM held titles. Thus, you must obtain the DVD to watch them and for primarily fluff they are actually not bad at all. Best is Frankenheimer’s commentary which is a very detailed and frank discussion about the process and making of the film. Hearing it makes it even sadder that this proved to be his piece de resistance.

Verdict: BD and 2 disc CE DVD for extras.

 

You’re worried about saving your own skin?

–Yeah I am. It covers my body.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, Immortal Films, John Frankenheimer

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Poster - Maltese Falcon, The (1941)_02

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film. One of the finest motion pictures ever made, with one of the best casts ever assembled. An unforgettable and groundbreaking masterpiece.

by S. Draper

     The Maltese Falcon is one of the most immortal films ever made for many reasons. It is the film that is most responsible for bringing Film noir to the masses. It is the cinematic foundation of the private eye, much as Hammett’s novel was for literature eleven years prior. It is the film that cemented Bogart as the immortal star. But key amongst these is the film’s adherence to the literary source material by a first-time director hell bent on making not only a successful career as a director but the best possible film version of one of the finest novels ever written.

In doing so John Huston helped to usher in film noir, a term so thrown around today that one forgets the true meaning of noir as a dreamier reality that accurately reflected the fears and desires of the immediate war and postwar America, bathing them in such shadowy darkness that it became a sort of comfort to audiences dealing with many of the same instances in their own lives. This is another point that the film shares with Dashiell Hammett’s novel, in that it was the first work to truly take a realistic outlook on murder by giving “it back to the people who commit murder for reasons”. (Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”)

Additionally, Falcon builds upon all of the wonderfully gritty qualities of classic era 1930’s Warner Bros. gangster pictures, maintaining the down and dirty atmosphere but with a more expressionistic feel and outlook that was later tied down to being derived from German Expressionism in everyone’s writing on noir. What is missed usually is the strength of Warners production. Warners had maintained themselves as a production unit throughout the Depression by making these down and dirty gritty pictures about real characters and situations. They may have not been the most prestige of the big studios, but they had won the hearts of the people many times over in addition to having one the most impressive rosters of talent both on and off the screen.

Of course the reason why most of us know the film so well is that it is the picture that finally brought Bogie to stardom, building upon all the years of frustration in small bit parts and roles as Gangster no. 2 deferring and always being killed off in the final reels by Cagney, Robinson and Raft. The role of Sam Spade takes the breakout performance Bogie gave as sympathetic aging ex-con Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941, written by Huston) and molds it it into the complete and superior version as Spade who straddles both sides of the law.

Spade is tough by any standard. In the book, he is as cold as they come, a seemingly nasty example of a man first described as resembling a “blond satan”.  The way Bogart plays him is suggestive of Hammett’s description and characterization, yet a man who is seemingly older and wiser than Hammett’s creation. This Spade has seen the underbelly of society and armed himself against it. His use of cynicism as both a defense mechanism and a way of cutting through the ice is tied to Bogie’s personality and his intrinsic rueful cynicism that has made him such a striking figure to so many endearing fans. Roy Earle finally showed through on Bogie’s promise as an actor and displayed that through all the hard boiled armor that he was a big softie underneath. With Falcon, the Bogart character is complete with fully functioning armor that not only provides for one of cinema’s toughest tough guys but also presents a kind of ideal man, incapable of straying from his code.

The rest of the cast is absolutely perfect, arguably the finest ever put together for a motion picture. Each so fulfills their respective role with perfect nuance and passion that it becomes impossible to not perceive the narrative as reality, even down to the smallest of bit parts. As the nefarious Kasper Gutman, the physically massive Sydney Greenstreet made his first entry into motion pictures after decades on the stage. The performance is so imposing, so charming, so dominating that it is impossible to believe this was his screen debut, and makes Gutman a far more involving character than the novel’s iteration in addition to providing for one of cinema’s greatest loveable villains.

Falcon was Peter Lorre’s favorite film and his favorite performance out of his entire career. As the eerie perfumed Joel Cairo, he succeeded in making a name for himself as the resident creepy foreigner. Lorre provides a greater deal of characterization than that of the novel, succeeding in turning a despicable nasty little man into an overly charming, scheming, prissy articulated man who would be pleased to carry on an extremely polite conversation while about to shoot you. The novel explains Cairo as a homosexual, something of course forbidden by the Production Code. Huston more than adequately gets this point across, merely by letting Lorre inflect the character with little mannerisms and the addition of perfumed accessories.

Mary Astor was a famed silent actress who had been rocked with various scandals involving her sexual life, and was in all honesty a perfect choice for the role of the duplicitous Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Her passion for the role of this devious woman, constantly performing at every turn to fully manipulate any man in her path, is fully evident in every scene. She shifts between strength and weakness, between will and submission so effortlessly that the performance is almost invisible-even to those who knows of her treachery. This is a beautiful woman, fully cultivated and with all the mannerisms of a true lady of culture, while truly a devastating lure for any man. Brigid is the model and foundation of the femme fatale.

Then there’s the gunsel, Wilmer Cook. Gutman needs an extension of himself, and Wilmer is merely the physical long arm of Gutman. He is cold, emotionless and empty as can be. Most of his thinking is done with the two .45’s bulging from his coat pockets. Of course, this role founded the career of Elisha Cook Jr. who played tough and weak variations of this character for the entire of his career. Wilmer is both an imposing yet weak figure because he is all action and no brains. He is as cheap a crook as they come, with the gaudiest of patters.

The police are reflected in the film as obstinate and abrasive towards Spade and the whole of private investigation, as it is in the real world. For once, the cops are portrayed in a more accurate light as grumpy bulldogs more than perfect one-dimensional upholders of the law. The first cop shown on-screen accosts our hero as if he were nothing. The two detectives, Tom Pollhaus (Ward Bond) and Lt. Dundy (Barton MacLaine) are both friendly and antagonistic towards Sam. They fulfill both sides of the coin when it comes to typical police response, cooperation and suspicion.

Then there is Spade himself, as which Bogart defines his entire career whilst portraying one of the screen’s first true antiheroes. Hammett’s Spade was a cold, empty man one who was defined by his actions and not his thoughts. Bogart’s Spade is a passionate man who has learned to survive by burying his passions underneath layers and layers of thick hard boiled shell. He is man of wisdom and restraint who has the rare ability to move through any given situation by manipulating others, using their preconceived notions of himself against them like Brigid. However, out of the entire cast of characters, Spade alone has the ability to step back from events and look at underlying motives. His mind is always a dozen steps ahead of the others, a necessary precaution in order to simply stay alive. Here, Bogart is not merely the antihero, or the unlikely protagonist to root for, as in High Sierra. This is a wonderfully dark character that just happens to be on the right side of the law. Spade is a cool customer, belying all kinds of buried humanity deep beneath the thick hard boiled shell. In essence, he is not merely just another tough guy, but truly an idealized version of what a tough guy can be. Spade is to be idolized and related to, a world-weary traveler of the most sordid aspects of humanity. A man who lives to a personal standard all of his own and no one else’s, a self-made man who refuses to dirty possibly the only thing any of us has left, integrity.

It must be mentioned that the cameo role of the untimely Captain Jacobi is portrayed by the legendary Walter Huston, who wonderfully played his single scene as a good luck charm for his son.

Comparing this to Hammett’s original 1930 novel is essential to understanding the importance and greatness of the film adaptation. The novel is extremely direct, as was Hammett’s style. The characters within however do not have the same panache, the same life force that are in the Huston version. In direct comparison, the novel feels a bit underdeveloped a bit too realistic and without the wonderful character development. We never associate as closely with any of the characters. The literary Spade is merely cold and distant rather than cold and cynical. The script axes a very few scenes form the novel for economical and censorship reasons, but this was also done in a way to tighten and strengthen the original narrative. The compression of events to fit into the time frame of a 1940’s movie is almost always harmful to any narrative but in maintaining virtually 99% of the story, Huston actually evolves Hammett’s prose into a higher realm. This combined with the  censorship concedes allow for development of character, visuals belaying meanings, and arguably the finest ever literary adaptation ever produced due to Huston’s insistence.

Additionally, the film version incorporates mythical aspects surrounding the black bird, by the blending in of history and adventure. The long lost treasure lore as evidenced by Gutman’s recounting of the Falcon’s history and the opening prologue add a sense of excitement and enchantment to surround the figure with an actual interest to the audience. Instead of merely being a MacGuffin to the characters it now becomes a fabled object to the audience who want to see it revealed just as badly as those willing to kill for it.

As mentioned previously, this is the third time that Warners adapted The Maltese Falcon into a film. The previous two inferior versions are absolute oddities that were once merely trivia answers. When seen today, the Pre-Code 1931 film version is a temporarily exciting mix of sex, Hammett and sex. But the film turns all too quickly from Hammett’s timeless story and becomes more of the seductress and a detective. It isn’t a bad film but is so inferior to the kind of storytelling in eith the novel or the Huston version. The second film, 1936’s Satan Met a Lady, strayed so far away from Hammett that it seems impossible to be credited as a Falcon adaptation. This is to be avoided, as they turned the entire story into a disgustingly silly comedy that has no wit, no use for being and no idea what the source material actually is. Both prior versions are painful to sit through for their respective reasons, but especially in light of one of the greatest films ever made.

The score by Adolph Deutsch is something so rarely mentioned, yet so extremely vital to the film’s success. The music is so sparse, yet so perfectly effective at conveying mystery, wonder, suspense, tension and excitement that is impossible to imagine the film without it. The film immediately begins with the unforgettable awe-inspiring Warner logo of the 40’s, but in a drastically lower tone which immediately cues the audience in that this is a different kind of movie. Then that crescendo fades into the opening titles, perfectly setting up the film’s signature main theme motif that accurately reflects the smoky, duplicitous world of greedy amoral men and women all scheming, double crossing, conniving and murdering to get their hands on the Maltese Falcon.

The cinematography by Arthur Edison shows a stunning innovative use of low and sometimes tilted angles, use of high contrast between light and dark, shadows and light and perhaps most impressive is the usage of depth in every single frame. This allows for a new visual style to emerge and make the film stand out from its brethren even more. Not only is this a film with shadowy morals, but so are the visuals. The usage of depth provides a visual context for each scene and respective character, for example Gutman is photographed with his massive bulk filling the screen thus showing his domination and imposing figure as oppressive over all. The sets are designed to perfectly work with this stylistic choice and allows for a heavy usage of foreground and background which is unthinkable for a film of the time. These decisions also provide for a greater sense of reality, a greater connection with the audience in order to make the story seem real in addition to sounding real.

The Maltese Falcon shares some of these visual traits with another film released in 1941. Perhaps most obvious is the fact that visible ceilings appear just as in Citizen Kane. The relationship of Kane and Falcon go beyond merely looking alike. They formed a new breed of motion picture, packed with new ideas, fresh enthusiasm for the medium and supreme technical craftsmanship. These two films were so ahead of their time and so daring that it makes 1941 a standout year in cinema, ousting the so-called golden year of 1939 in this opinion, as these two films are so fully formed and modern that they still seem fresh and relevant to this day.

The true secret to the film’s success is Huston being so prepared and so primed for his first direction job. His intense design of every scene; the working out of all camera movements, blocking, storyboards and working intensely with the actors makes the result more than a film but gives the feeling of a lived-in universe. His strict adherence to the source material (something he maintained throughout his career) keeps the author’s and story’s meaning intact, thus avoiding the typical monotonous Hollywood adaptation. Huston rehearsed his actors and additionally built relationships with them in order to maintain a friendly and understanding work environment so that everyone from the stars to the lowest assistant could and would do their utmost for the film. This led to Huston finding a lifelong friend and comrade in Bogie. The shooting of the picture was done entirely in sequence to better allow the performers to work in the story’s nuances.  All of these are examples of Huston’s tight and taut working of the story into the film which is still a breathless wonder.

The symbolism of the black bird is directly tied to its overall meaninglessness, the pursuit of desire and greed to obtain it, because the symbol that it represents is that of the grand lore of humanity.  This is the ultimate MacGuffin, because though meaningless, it represents both the meaning of life and the utter degradation of humanity personified in the small “black figure of a bird”.

The film’s final denouement balances completely on how the playing of the scene adds so much to the meaning; Bogie reveals all of Spade by implying and detailing Spade’s personal feelings deep beneath the surface. The all-important moral code is not what Spade lives by, it IS HIS IDENTITY. Without it he is nothing, he has so devoted his existence to this code as a means of living that it gives him both purpose and a meaning to living. This is what is so attractive to audiences, that the character is an antihero, a person who can work both ends of the law yet somehow remain pure and even have a heart underneath all the hardboiled shell. Spade is an idealized version of the detective, in contrast to the more defined and human Phillip Marlowe. (This even arises in Bogart’s differing portrayal of both characters) The central theme of Spade’s life is the phrase that is most repeated. “I won’t play the sap for you.” This one line means more to Spade than anything in the world. It is his code in one sentence, his personal mission to be true to his own soul or whatever is left of it.

The immortality of the film is unquestionable. Firstly, The Maltese Falcon’s importance as the first true film noir alone grants it a place in the annals of history. But it was in reducing Falcon to its barest elements and adhering strictly to the source material, John Huston effectively created the textbook for Film noir. Falcon creates everything central to noir, and still has an identity all of its own. This the largest of connections shared between novel and film. The novel was the first breakthrough work of hard boiled detective fiction and everything afterwards built upon it. The same goes for all of noir and this film version.

Bogie finally made the jump onto the A-list as Spade, and the film’s surprise hit success with the public truly cemented his stardom. Perhaps it was an unconscious reaction to the film, but audiences were finally being given something akin to reality-exactly as did Hammett’s novel had done originally. The Huston film is so richly textured and detailed that its superiority to one of the greatest novels ever written is remarkable for a picture that had neither large budget nor any real studio confidence. There is a magic rapture it forever holds audiences in, and that last line which elevates everything to a whole other level. Improvised by Bogie on-set, borrowing from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, when asked what the bird is he both describes the pursuit of all mankind and inadvertently the entire meaning of the movies themselves. Never has anything more true been said about the silver screen.

The uh, stuff that dreams are made of.”

And of course cop Tom Pollhaus gives the film’s last line in response.

“Huh?”

That my friends, is the story of life.

EDITIONS: Released countless times on VHS and LD, the first DVD was stunning in its better handling of the B&W cinematography and use of contrast. The 2006 three disc edition improves on that transfer remarkably with a new HD master that allows the viewer to experience the film visually. The latest Blu-ray incarnation uses the same master but is better able to handle the black levels due to the increased size and bitrate and is thus fully accurate of what the film looks like theatrically. The mono soundtrack was in a surprisingly effective compressed Dolby Digital track on the DVDs, and this is bumped to a lossless 1.0 DTS-HD presentation that accurately retains dynamic range and even some intrinsic inherent noise that faintly occurs. All extras have been ported over, save for the drastically inferior 1931 and 1936 film versions which remain only on the 3 disc DVD special edition.  The TCM featurette on Bogart’s rise to stardom as catalogued through his film trailers is essential to understanding his career.

This film is as essential to any library as Kane.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film noir, Film Review, Humphrey Bogart, Immortal Films, John Huston

The Invisible Man (1933)

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film. A stunning early sound era masterpiece from the genius of James Whale.

“We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction.”

Let’s make no bones about it. This is a James Whale film through and through. Produced at a time when he had complete autonomy at Universal courtesy of production head Carl Laemmle Jr., Whale chose to reject the stupid proposed drafts and merely enhance H. G. Well’s classic novel with his own trademark brand of black humor and chills.

The Invisible Man is the stepping stone between Whale’s earlier Frankenstein (1931) and the supreme masterpiece that unquestionably one of the greatest films of all time: Bride of Frankenstein (1935). While extraordinarily developed from Dracula (1931) and for being such an early sound film, Frankenstein does have its problems and pitfalls like any other production. All of these are primarily from a lack of hale being involved fully in every capacity and are thus gone in The Invisible Man. Man is not only a classic, a stunning early sound film, but a surprisingly British film made here on American shores.

It is also an absolute gem and along with The Mummy (1932) the most underrated of all the Universal horrors. Whale fills the film with his favored use of offbeat secondary characters including the wonderfully shrieking Una O’Connor and even a bit for Dwight Frye. This helps immensely to fill out to scope of the story’s universe and fills in the gaps that the more limited production values of the time could not. Of course these are all supplanted by the first American screen role of one of cinema’s finest actors, a man so good at his craft that he typically slips into the background as invisible as his character here. The genius of Whale in casting Claude Rains is that he sought a voice and not a performer since who would be seeing the performer as an invisible man?? This allowed the casting of someone thought to be terrible all due to a poor screentest. But Whale heard that one of a kind voice that projects such extreme vulnerability and mortality along with a underlying conviction that could be construed into strength. And that was all it took.

Rains is a wonder as the Invisible Man, running the gamut from weak and terrified to kind and loving to paranoiac and power-mad to vengeful and murderous to finally poetic and elegiac. It is truly a stupendous performance, proving the adage once again of the strength that can come only from the best of radio and voice acting performances. The other roles are filled out accordingly with some of Whale’s favorite actors as mention above along with Gloria Stuart from The Old Dark House (1932) and even a part for our favorite guardian angel Henry Travers.

The special effects still hold up today and despite having a few things visible actually are more effective with the passage of time due to their antique quality, much like King Kong (1933). They seem so archaic from today’s technology we are oversaturated with that they seem downright off-putting and creepy in places. By using black velvet coverings and separately filmed backgrounds, John P. Fulton painstakingly produced scenes that still to this day drive home the idea of an invisible man.

Instead of Frankenstein‘s Gothic atmosphere, Whale opts for a different atmosphere this time and presents snowy villages of England which to be perfectly honest allows for a much more varied and rich atmosphere than the simple trappings of Germany did two years earlier. The setting is so well implemented that one can almost feel the cold charm of the snowy taverns and the cozy atmosphere of an empty rocking chair in front of the fire rocking almost as if its own accord. The black humor maintained throughout enhances this to such a degree that the film becomes for many, myself included, an old and very cherished friend to revisit at least once every October.

Of course remove Whale and the entire thing would fall apart, as the four later sequels proved. Of these only the first has any semblance of the original’s charm due to the plotting of Curt Siodmak (much like the Mummy sequels, only The Mummy’s Hand (1940) is of any merit) and casts another charming actor invisible, Vincent Price. Fulton remained for all of these and only bettered his already outstanding work despite the increasing pointlessness of the films.

Whale abounds in using black humor to round out the story, and thus makes The Invisible Man an absolute delight to return to frequently. By using offbeat characters and enhanced plotting from the novel that makes this the most deadly of the Universal monsters it is a film that is simultaneously thrilling, suspenseful, comic and endearing nearly 70 years on. It betters the novel and Whale’s own Frankenstein, and points he way towards the pinnacle of the entire cycle. A wonderful movie to behold.

Put a warm rug in the car. It’s cold outside when you have to go about naked.”

EDITIONS: The initial DVD and the Legacy Collection version are largely identical. These are missing a music cue found on the Laserdisc, which has been substituted for legal clearance reasons. The film is the most worn of the films, with wear, tears, scratches running throughout the opening reels, but these largely clear up for the most part during the remainder of the feature. The image is an overall nice looking 1.33 Academy ratio SD transfer with good contrast levels and balance. The audio is relatively clear with less hiss than the earlier films, but of course not as well recorded as the later films were. The film has undergone an intensive restoration courtesy of Technicolor and the discovery of an almost complete dupe held at the British Film Institute. This was painstakingly redone to create a new HD master for theatrical exhibition and for the new Blu-ray found in the Universal box set. The BD has some DNR and edge enhancement and this processing while completely unnecessary does not detract terribly from the film and I hope it gains a greater audience in it’s sparkling new HD incarnation.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, Immortal Films, James Whale, Universal Horror

Tales of Terror (1962)

2.5 stars out of 4.

When you have such a diverse and astounding canon as that of Edgar Allan Poe, it becomes a challenge to select which of the masterpieces to adapt to film. Roger Corman had established a formula of taking a singular Poe short story and adapting it into a full narrative framework, but was in need of a different approach for the fourth film. This time he decided to make an anthology film of multiple shorter Poe adaptations.

Tales of Terror is that result, a film made up of three adaptations: Morella, The Black Cat and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. Unfortunately for some of my personal favorite Poe stories, the resulting film feels more at times like a contractual obligation or money grab than a fully realized film.

The film is introduced and linked by some brief but well written narrated passages read by Vincent Price, who appears in all three segments. If the resulting film had been as interesting as these brief passages then this review would not be necessary. As it stands the film reduces three Poe stories to weakened pastiche of the previous films, a smart and funny take on Poe, and a great Poe tale buried in staple melodrama respectively.

Morella opens the film, or to put it more correctly, an adaptation of Morella in the traditional Corman Poe framework. A young girl arrives at the same house set found in all the previous films, in order to find her father. All she finds is a house in disrepair and a drunken brooding Vincent Price with some bad makeup demanding that she leave. Price blames her for his beloved wife’s death and has shut her out of his depressed existence ever since. She has now returned in a vain attempt to reconcile with her estranged father due to a terminal illness. This reveal of course softens some of Vincent’s brooding and there is a hinting of building a father-child relationship anew. Of course, the discovery of Morella’s corpse on Vincent’s bed hardly raises an eyebrow which should set up the final conclusion. Wifey cannot stand for their daughter’s return and her vengeful spirit suddenly rises up in a pitiful process shot to swoop through the house and kill her. Then her body rises restored and begins to strangle Vincent in the burning mansion, in the manner by which Vincent is destined to die in virtually every film he appears. This adaptation virtually disregards Poe’s central conceit of the newborn child’s gift of life being taken directly form the wicked Morella and directly causing her instantaneous death. It also drops the possible insanity of the narrator. Along with dropping Poe’s idea it loses all credibility as an interesting short film and becomes merely a microcosm of the first two Corman Poe films reduced a to a 25 minute exercise in dull boredom.

The Black Cat thankfully picks up from this disappointment and provides the only real satisfying point of the film. the story is really a combination of the titular story and The Cask of Amontillado, with some elements from The Tell-Tale Heart of course. Peter Lorre has a ball playing Montresor, a town drunk who lives only to reach each night where he can drown himself in more drink. He has a pretty wife at home who is tormented by his drunken protests for their meager funds to drink away. Montresor is reaching the end of his fortunes, and returns home to drunken hallucinations and his hatred for his wife’s black cat. One night he is thrown out aof a tavern and stumbles onto an extremely convenient wine merchants convention. Here the foremost tasting expert is giving a demonstration which Montresor scoffs at. Of course the expert is Fortunato Luchresi played to the ultimate hammiest by Vincent Price. Then begins a wine tasting off between the two and much is made of Montresor matching Luchresi’s extremely overdone fastidiousness by downing wine with abandon.  Of course Luchresi is stuck with taking the drunkard home and there meets Mrs. Montresor, which begins their budding romance. And of course Montresor will find out about their little romantic dalliance and exact his revenge. Lorre is excellent in maintaining a comedic bent in his walling up of the two in the cellar. The requisite Corman nightmare sequence is quite weird, even for one of these films, for Montresor is tormented by his wife and friend whom he has killed and at one point they remove his head an begin to play ball with it.

All in all, The Black Cat alone is the reason for sitting through this film and paved the way to the later films along a similar serious-comedic bent: The Raven (1963) and The Comedy of Terrors (1964). Price and Lorre are a joy to watch playing off one another and for a brief time the film picks up an energy not seen anywhere in the first section.

Lastly comes Tales‘s version of M. Valdemar. Here the idea of a man on his deathbed being placed into a state of hypnosis to escape the pains of death is placed in a setting of melodrama featuring a evil hypnotist. This of course in and of itself would be silly in any normal context, but the film plays it perfectly straight which is a major help. the other strength is the hypnotist being played by Basil Rathbone who lends an incredible believably to the small role which is essential in telling this adaptation. One can seriously believe his evil intent simply due to the performance which is pointed, clipped and quite cold. Thankfully the segment is not allowed to last long enough to wear out its welcome and the film hits the end credits which leave the audience wondering why they chose to sit through the exercise in the first place.

Tales of Terror is a failed experiment that never really works, except in The Black Cat segment, where as with the best of these films, the script deviates from Poe enough to make things seem fresh without losing the original spirit. One story is a flat out rehashing of previous films, one is a darkly funny little gem and the last is merely okay. All in all one must ask what happened to all the creativity and effort that made the first three so remarkably interesting? This question would sadly again be asked in the end of the next film in the cycle: The Haunted Palace (1963). And that one wasn’t even based on Poe at all despite the advertising. It’s actually based on H.P. Lovecraft.

What disappoints me most about the film is the lack of regard to Poe’s work, which is so visually oriented that it almost cries out to be faithfully adapted to film. The anthology format allows for multiple stories to be adapted, thus providing a broader portrait of the great legend’s canon but in Tales of Terror the focus is more on wringing the most out of the drive-in crowd instead. There is a constant feeling throughout of doing the film by-the-numbers as if to fulfill contractual obligation. The previous three films had vitality and the work’s spirit despite deviating heavily from Poe in details. Corman’s heart really isn’t really in the film, except perhaps in The Black Cat.

EDITIONS: MGM’s transfer is one of the older ones in the cycle, but the anamorphically enhanced image is quite clear of print defects. Dupes and transitions are dirty, then click into the homogenized feature. Overall pleasing to an extent but not representative of film. Colors are fine as with all of these releases, if a bit muted. Sound is clear with very occasional defects. These films were released in HD on broadcast HDTV channels a few years ago, and have begun to leak out on Blu-ray in Europe.

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Filed under 2.5 stars, Corman Poe series, Film Review, Roger Corman, Vincent Price

The Premature Burial (1962)

All of the Corman Poes had some great poster artwork.

3 stars out of 4.

It’s truly amazing to see what one can do with so little when one puts in the necessary willpower. This single idea is the meaning behind Roger Corman’s entire filmmaking career. He became legendary for stretching tiny budgets to the absolute maximum, and producing results of such a similar uniform quality that audiences came to know exactly what a Corman production entailed.

The Premature Burial is no exception. in the third of his Poe series, Corman departs from the successful formula established on House of Usher (1960) and wonderfully developed on Pit and the Pendulum (1961). This time the Poe experience is brought away form the rather Gothic and medieval trappings and into the realm of a character study. As all Poe enthusiasts are aware, the Corman films merely use the words of Poe as a backdrop and setup for an entire film. because they utilize the short stories there isn’t enough material to cover an entire film narrative and so with varying degrees the films depart from their source material.  The best of them actually deviate the most, becoming freer to create their own particular worlds and in turn remain faithful to the spirit of Poe, if not in the exact details. (Pit and Masque of the Red Death respectively)

And so the film in question is obviously about a man terrified of being buried alive. Guy Carrell (Ray Milland) suffers from a fear of developing catalepsy and being buried alive, just as he believes his father was many years ago. He has refused to marry his sweetheart, Emily (the wonderful Hazel Court, borrowed from Hammer) because of this but is convinced perhaps wrongly that they should marry anyway. (As if the thousand strikes of ominous lightning that interrupt their wedding ceremony doesn’t tell them anything.) Guy’s malignant fears of premature internment have been awakened by attending a exhumation that happens to reveal the occupant was indeed buried alive. His overly convenient doctor friend warns Emily that Guy’s fears may, if properly motivated by events, actually cayuse the condition of catalepsy he so fears.

After the marriage, Guy retreats into himself and builds and elaborate tomb complete with a multitude of escape methods all in the event of a premature burial. Still, he finds himself confronted by memories and visions of the exhumation, references to death and premature burial and finally the fears of his father’s fate. Are these indeed true, and has Guy begun to actually go mad or could there be something else at work…

As with all the Poes, this is the primary conundrum for the audience. The casting of Milland over Vincent Price furthers the different flavor of Burial, and allows for a fresh look at what could have quickly become boring and routine. Milland brings his leading man charm that became so increasingly underused by Hollywood, and this non-use led him to productions like Corman’s. This is at a completely different angle than Price, who would either coldly or joyously throw himself into whatever the role dictated. Milland always retains a certain steely sense of sophistication, much like his portrayal of the jilted husband who plots an elaborate way to murder his wife in Dial M For Murder (1953). In the final denouement of the film, this becomes absolutely exemplary and a joy to watch, however brief the result may be.

And here we are with yet another inherent flaw in these films, the fact that the short 80 minute or so running time does not allow for an adequate space for the plot reveals to actually work and take hold in the audience’s mind. here it’s a great one, but the handling is so rushed that it loses almost all credibility. Inf act it takes the second viewing to fully appreciate the entire story in context and the ending because  one isn’t simply hit over the head with hit in the last minute of the reel!

Part of the fun of the Poe films is seeing where the same sets were reused from picture to picture, or actors, props, costumes and not to mention those damn red candles that appear in every film. (Seemingly when making House of Usher someone got a great deal on red candles.) But on Premature Burial, this isn’t as readily apparent as on some of the others. It seems as if Corman and his team tried to create a different film from the previous two so that it may reside in the same world, but has its own distinct personality. In fact, the film that reminds me most of Burial besides the other Poes is Hammer’s The Mummy (1959).

This is a brisk little film that may not prove to be very surprising, or shocking in any regard but it is a nice little reminder of what craftsmanship can do with good talent in even the lowest of production values. An essential Halloween treat shrouded in fog. It is worth viewing alone for the Poe series requirement of a color tinted nightmare sequence, this time depicting how Guy’s burial tomb goes horrifyingly wrong.

EDITIONS: Released by MGM on DVD some time ago, Burial is one of the best looking of the Poes on disc. The Panavision frame is well presented in a 16:9 anamorphically enhanced transfer. Print damage and wear is light but occasionally noticeable. Color looks good, though grain is seemingly reduced a bit. Dupes and transitions are a bit dirty but then click into the main feature cleanliness again. Audio is clear in Dolby 2.0 mono with only some very faint hiss on occasion. Later repackaged with The Masque of the Red Death at a reduced price. Look for these films to hit Blu-ray in Europe, sourced from the HD transfers that first appeared on HDTV networks a few years ago.

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Filed under 3 stars, Corman Poe series, Film Review, Roger Corman

The Old Dark House (1932)

4 stars out of 4. A timeless gem nearly lost to us.

 

Here is a film where five travelers wind up in the titular old dark house on a dark and stormy night. We can already see where this is going. Despite being the inspiration behind so many of these cliched old house plotlines, The Old Dark House is a charming delight of a film in no small thanks to its director, James Whale.

Whale’s films, especially his horrors for Universal, contain a trademark charm and black humor that permeate even the most serious of narratives. his fondness for oddball characters reaches a high point with this film as every single one is so full of vitality that the weirder that events become onscreen, the more we as an audience anticipates with absolute delight.

In this house we find the hulking mute of a butler known as Morgan (Boris Karloff), whose emre appearance should tell anyone daring to enter that it probably isn’t the best of ideas. We are then introduced to the masters of the house, the odd siblings Horace and Rebecca Femm. Rebecca is an old crone of a woman, driven by religious fervor and an endearing bad sense of hearing. Horace is played by Ernest Thesiger which should tell you everything about his character. All right I’ll admit it, I can only think of him as Dr. Pretorious so his appearance in this film as beyond welcome. They live in a semi state of fear of their surroundings and in a sort of power vacuum for some as yet unknown reason.

This quickly becomes resolved as the fact that they have a mad older brother who is kept locked away upstairs, and can only be controlled by Morgan who just happens to have hit the bottle. This quickly turns badly for all in the house, and I will say little to spoil the plot here because the real fun of the film is in the detail. The explicit reveal and pulling back of detail as if to tantalize the audience like a cat with a ball of string.

The cast is first rate, and with a notable early appearance of Charles Laughton, perfectly serves the swift little story so that everything is wrapped up in a neat package at the end of 72 minutes. In fact the relative briefness of the narrative is perhaps the film’s only flaw. We want it to last all night.

The Old Dark House never struck a chord with audiences and was quickly shelved by Universal as a failure. Whale had made a film that was partly a tribute to the great silent films that blended horror, suspense and a drawing room charm and not a runaway hit more along the lines of Frankenstein (1931). Because of this, it was another mark against the director and designated to sit on shelves until either junked or destroyed by time. Thanks to filmmaker and friend to Whale, Curtis Harrington, the negative was saved in the 1960’s despite having to replace one reel.

To understand the basic appeal of the horror film, one must go back to the beginning. The silent horrors have their power still, but once you reach the golden age of Universal horror and feel the power of their sheer imagination, you can never return to what is today considered a “horror film”.

EDITIONS: the only available edition of the film is Kino’s 1998 DVD, which appears to be mastered for the most part from the source used for their Laserdisc release. The source seems to be a battered reduction print, perhaps even 16mm. The image is extremely grainy, with some occasional compression artifacts. There is frame wobble and all sorts of wear and tear. Audio is set in the accurate format of 1.0 mono but in a lossy Dolby Digital track that is filled with hiss and pops. Damage is very prevalent throughout and overall is not worthy of the film. Without detailed intervention the negative would have been lost and as it was only one reel had to be salvaged elsewhere. The fact that the film has never been given the proper treatment is appalling, especially for such an important early American release. I recommend the film, but the disc is quite poor. Highly in need of a new transfer if not the full blown Criterion treatment. Keep in mind, this is like watching a video copy of a battered 16mm reduction copy of a great film. Oh wait, that’s what you’re doing.

 

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, James Whale, Universal Horror