Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Movie Review: The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion

Stealing its title from Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, Luciano Ercoli's The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (Le foto proibite di una signora per been) (1970) is a sleazy blend of blackmail, backstabbing, and business corruption, all centering around an entrepreneur in debt and his wife who has been compromised by some pornographic photos. Dripping with sleaze, vice, and style, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion has just about everything one could want of a vintage giallo thriller. It's written by Enresto Gastaldi, the hardest working man in Italian cinema in the 1970s (Sartana the Gravedigger, Almost Human, Torso, The Grand Duel, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I have the Key, All the Colors of the Dark, and countless others), and features music by perhaps the greatest film composer of all time, Ennio Morricone.

The movie available on DVD from Blue Underground (a triple bill that also includes The Fifth Cord and The Pyjama Girl Case). Here's the trailer. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Movie Review: "The Lonely Man" (1957)

The Lonely Man is a great example of the psychological, adult-themed westerns of the 1950s. Overlooked in comparison to the movies of Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann of the same period, this brooding chamber drama is well-deserving of rediscovery and re-appraisal. It explores a classic western theme—the gunfighter who wants to hang-up his guns but can’t because his past won’t leave him alone—but the film is just so artfully done, and the performances so deeply empathetic, that it breathes new life into the standard trope.

Jack Palance is the gunfighter looking to holster his guns and reconnect with his estranged son, played by Anthony Perkins. Perkins hasn’t forgiven his father for being who he is, and how his reputation caused the town to persecute her so much that she committed suicide. With his reputation still following him wherever he goes, Palance and Perkins are unwelcome in any town. When Perkins falls sick on the road, Palance takes him to a ranch belonging to an old flame. Meanwhile, Palance begins losing his eyesight, which proves to be a problem when an old acquaintance tracks him down. Outlaw Neville Brand has been nursing a grudge against Palance. He carries with him the same bullet that Palance once shot him with, and he plans to give the bullet right back to him.

Palance is one of my favorite actors. He’s best known for almost psychotically intense performances, such as the man in black in Shane, a monomaniacal producer in Contempt, the Apache revolutionary in Arrowhead, a nihilistic bomb diffuser in Ten Seconds to Hell, a ex-parson who turned his family into a Quantrill’s Raiders-esque gang in The Desperados, an actors caught in a web of personal and professional crises in The Big Knife, or—you know—Atilla the Hun in Sign of the Pagan. Here, though, Palance gives a very different sort of performance. He’s calm. The most extreme calm I’ve ever seen. Palance catches you off guard with his stillness and soft-spoken delivery of dialog. There’s something deeply sad about him that goes unspoken—not regret so much as acceptance of the harm he’s caused, the life he’s lead, and the things he can’t undo. The Lonely Man stands up there with Palance’s finest and most moving performances, and it shows off his tonal range and emotional depth in ways that other films do not.

Anthony Perkins made this film one year after his Academy Award-nominated performance as the conflicted Quaker in Friendly Persuasion, and it is three years before his brilliant and iconic role of Norman Bates in Psycho. Perkins was great at communicating internal conflict and emotional disturbance. There was something fragile about him—a little neurotic, a little melancholic, a little insecure, a little bit lonely. Here, he shows all the hallmarks of his individual style. There’s adolescent rebellion mixed with Oedipal revenge, but also a clinging need to be close to family, even if it is someone he hates.

In addition to strong performances from Palance and Perkins, The Lonely Man offers an excellent ensemble cast that also includes Neville Brand, Elisa Cook Jr., Claude Akins, Lee Van Cleef, and Denver Pyle, stark photography from Paramount’s in-house expert Lionel Lindon (The Manchurian Candidate), and subtle but deft direction from Henry Levin (The Desperados). A forgotten gem that deserves a higher place in the western canon.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Movie Review: "Desert Fury" (1947)

In the 1940s and early 1950s, Paramount released a string of stunning crime films, including This Gun For Hire, Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia, The Big Clock, The Asphalt Jungle, and Ace in the Hole. Desert Fury was released in 1947, right in the midst of this extraordinary run of movies. It’s got a cast that seems destined for greatness—Mary Astor, Burt Lancaster, Lizabeth Scott, Wendell Corey, and John Hodiak—and a script by A. I. Bezzerides (Kiss Me Deadly, On Dangerous Ground) and Robert Rossen (writer/director of All the King's Men and The Hustler), based on the novel Desert Town by Ramona Stewart. And the film’s director, Lewis Allen, had previously directed The Unseen with a script co-written by Raymond Chandler. On paper, at least, Desert Fury should be great. Should be—but isn’t. And while the resulting film is certainly no classic, it is certainly eccentric and bizarre enough to warrant cult appeal.

You could call Desert Fury a Technicolor modern-day western-noir-soap opera that is steeped in hardboiled gay camp. It's sort of like if James M. Cain and Douglas Sirk started off to Vegas but instead shacked up in some tumbleweed shithole along the way. Vulgar in its display of colors and emotions, all in all it’s a rather tastelessly directed movie—but that’s exactly what makes the film so irresistible and entrancing.

How’s this for a tangled web of perverse desires? Mary Astor runs a mining town saloon and casino. Her daughter, Lizabeth Scott, has quit school and returned home to live with her mom. At the same time, her mom’s ex-lover, gambler and crook John Hodiak, rolls into town with his loyal partner, Wendell Corey. Scott begins seeing Hodiak, ignorant of her beau’s former relationship with her mother. Meanwhile Scott’s ex-boyfriend, deputy sheriff Burt Lancaster, is trying to prove that Hodiak was responsible for his wife’s death several years ago. Add to this some extremely un-subtle hints of homoerotic bonds between Hodiak and Corey, and even strangely incestuous suggestions between Astor and Scott, and you’ve got all the kinky and corrupt elements of Desert Fury.

If this isn’t “soap noir,” I don’t know what is. It's all a mess of tangled flesh, like some sexual pretzel. It's nauseating keeping track of who's slept with who, who wants to sleep with who, and who wants who to sleep with who.

It’s gaudy and more than a little trashy, but there's not one frame that takes place in reality. It seems to inhabit some realm that is equal parts mythology and melodrama: a Hollywood cocktail of crime, camp, and corn.

But, in the midst of all this excess, a fascinating movie somehow emerges.

The colors are bursting with exaggeration, anticipating John Alton’s garish palette used for Slightly Scarlet nine years later in 1956. Not your usual stark black-and-white cinematography, or fog-shrouded sets.

Mary Astor delivers a complex performance that blends the entrepreneurial ambition and motherly devotion of Mildred Pierce with the devious subterfuge of a femme fatale (an archetype she defined in The Maltese Falcon). Astor deliciously delivers her lines with hardboiled panache: “You look good, baby, nice and fresh and alive—I like to see you dressed up” she says to her daughter. And then, a few scenes later, she can outpour emotion through a monolog like this: “You don't know anything about love … He's no good. Do you have any idea what I went through to bring you up? You think I like living here? You think I like Pat and the judge and drunken miners. After your father died and I found out I had something the matter with my lungs I didn't want to live, but I did, only because of you, because I wanted to give you something I didn't have, and it wasn't Eddie Bendix.”

Lancaster, as always, is terrific, even if the part doesn’t give him much room to show off. This is one year after his brilliant debut as Swede, the doomed boxer-turned-criminal in The Killers, and the same year as his powerful performance as a prisoner burning with rage in Brute Force. His role as the deputy in Desert Fury is pretty one-note and, compared to the rest of the cast, rather vanilla and tame. No sexual hang-ups, no burning desire, just a pretty normal guy looking to bust a crook and marry a pretty girl. But Lancaster has that star charisma—tough, sexy, rugged yet beautiful, appealing to both men and women.

John Hodiak had some good roles, including Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, The Harvey Girls opposite Judy Garland, and Somewhere in the Night in which he played an amnesiac veteran convinced he committed a murder he doesn’t remember. Here, he’s fittingly sleazy and transparent—an homme fatale out to corrupt and destroy.

Wendell Corey gives the most surprising performance of all. Even though this is his first film, and he’s got the smallest of the leading roles, he dominates every shot he’s in. He exudes a quiet sense of danger, an intensity that’s not to be trusted. Best remembered for playing the police detective that saves the day in Rear Window, Corey also delivered an iconic noir performance in The File on Thelma Jordan, in which he played an assistant district attorney pulled into a web of deceit because of Barbara Stanwyck’s wicked ways.

All in all? Desert Fury isn’t great, and maybe not all that good, but it’s definitely one-of-a-kind. Fascinatingly tacky and tawdry.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Lists! Seven Lost Movies I Want To See

The Internet has made it seem like we have access to every movie … almost. 

Sure, Netflix, YouTube, Archive.org, and a bazillion other sites offer us a seemingly unlimited supply of movies. But still, there are a lot of movies one can't see (or order) online, and that's because they're lost. Or just playing a really, really, infuriatingly good game of hide-and-seek. And while more than 90% of silent films are gone, it's not just the pre-talkies that are missing from our screens today, as a number of more recent films are also AWOL. 

Here is a list of seven presumably lost movies that I'd love to see. I say "presumably" because, as sometimes happens, these movies are found in archives, closets, or antique stores.

The Life of General Villa (1914)

Shortly after arriving in Hollywood, 27-year-old Raoul Walsh (the future director of The Big Trail, High Sierra, White Heat, and umpteen other classics) was sent down to Mexico for his second film as a director. The assignment? Ride with Pancho Villa and his army, and film them on the front lines! To make this film a reality, Mutual Film Corporation had to pay Pancho Villa and guarantee him a percentage of the profits. 

Read more about the legend and reality behind The Life of General Villa here at the Smithsonian and Cine Silente Mexicano (in Spanish).

Remodeling Her Husband (1920) 

Remodeling Her Husband is the only film directed by legendary actress Lillian Gish. It was written by Dorothy Parker, and starred Lillian's sister, Dorothy Gish. The story is about a woman who is fed up with her husband's philandering ways, so she leaves him and reinvents herself as a prosperous Wall Street businesswoman. The legacy of women directors in Hollywood was kept hidden for decades, and over the past few years scholars have been resurrecting this incredible legacy. Many of the films, however, are lost, save for a few reviews, posters, and anecdotes found in trade publications, memoirs, and biographies.

The Drag Net (1928) 

In the late 1920s, Josef von Sternberg directed three seminal crime films that survive: Underworld (1927)  The Docks of New York (1928), and Thunderbolt (1929). The Drag Net, also made in 1928, is considered lost. Judging by the quality of his work in this era (Sternberg is among the most visually stylish in the history of cinema), this is a huge loss. The fact that the intertitles were written by Citizen Kane co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz makes this even more desirable!

Check out how cool this one sounds. What an amazing cast (and such colorful character names).

George Bancroft as Two-Gun Nolan
Evelyn Brent as The Magpie
William Powell as Dapper Frank Trent
Francis McDonald as Sniper Dawson
Leslie Fenton as Shakespeare

“When he becomes convinced that he has accidentally killed his partner, Nolan goes on a bender. Actually, the crime was committed by one of gangster William Powell's henchman. Powell's moll Evelyn Brent takes a liking to Nolan; she tells him the truth, whereupon Nolan pulls himself together and goes after Powell all by himself.” (Description by Hal Erickson, Rovi)

Convention City (1933)

Check out this tagline: "Traveling Salesmen on the Make! Farmers' Daughters on the Jump! Jealous Wives on the Trail! Missing Husbands on the Pan! That's Convention City"

Convention City, if it survived, might just be the most Pre-Code of all Pre-Code films. It "leeringly depicted the sexual shenanigans of Atlantic City conventioneers and their frisky gold-digging hangers-on, with a cast that included Joan Blondell, Adolphe Menjou, and Dick Powell" (according to Film Forum's website).

Judging by the censor's comments, Convention City would have more than lived up to its reputation: "We must put brassieres on Joan Blondell and make her cover up her breasts because, otherwise, we are going to have these pictures stopped in a lot of places. I believe in showing their forms but, for Lord's sake, don't let those bulbs stick out."

Another potential gem lost to the dust of time.

Face of the Phantom (1960)

Here's a real lost curio for noir fans. Harry Whittington, King of the Paperbacks, himself financed and directed a movie called Face of the Phantom. Not much is known about the movie, what is was about, or what happened to it. As Whittington himself recollected, "I had contracted the movie virus in Hollywood. I returned to Florida, wrote, produced and directed – and could not sell to a distributor – a horror film called Face of the Phantom. For the next eight years I could not produce or sell enough scripts to stay ahead of howling creditors."

Big Daddy (1969) 

With a tagline like this, one can only imagine the sleazy exploitation goodness (or badness, depending on your viewpoint) that this might have been: "He had no virtue ... only vices ... and every woman in the swamp knew it!"

Big Daddy starred Victor Buono (The Strangler and The Mad Butcher) and Joan Blondell. It was directed and written by Carl K. Hittleman who had previously written Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter and Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, and directed Kentucky Rifle, The Buckskin Lady, Gun Battle at Monterey, and Sheena: Queen of the Jungle. Considering those credits, this one might not be a masterpiece, but it probably would have been good, schlocky fun.

IMDB summary: "A visitor to the Everglades swamps in Florida encounters and falls in love with an uneducated girl. But he finds competition for her affections from the unlikely and mysterious A. Beauregard Lincoln. He also discovers danger from nature in the form of vicious alligators and from the mystical in the form of a voodoo witch doctor." 

Hangup aka Hang Up aka Super Dude (1974)

Henry Hathaway had one of the most extraordinary careers in Hollywood. Among the classics he directed are The Shepherd of the Hills, The House on 92nd Street, The Dark Corner, Kiss of Death, Call Northside 777, Fourteen Hours, Rawhide, Niagara, Garden of Evil, North to Alaska, The Sons of Katie Elder, Nevada Smith, and True Grit. This was his last film, a Blaxploitation action movie about an undercover cop going after drug dealers. You can read more about the movie here at Temple of Schlock. While the movie is still AWOL, the trailer managed to survive:

Next time you are cleaning your room, check to see if any of these films happen to be hiding under your bed or in your closet collecting dust.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Movie Review: "Terror Street" (1953)

Terror Street (1953) is one of many film noir thrillers made in England during the 1950s that imported Hollywood talent for leading roles. This one stars Dan Duryea, a great character actor whose wiry frame, off-balanced grin, nasally voice, and permanently sweaty hair made him the consummate “bad guy” in movies like Scarlet Street, Criss Cross, Too Late for Tears, and One Way Street. Even in westerns like Silver Lode and Winchester ’73 he was the bad guy. And in a western comedy like Along Came Jones—yup, the bad guy. Occasionally he got to play the good guy in a leading role—Black Angel and The Underworld Story are two examples. But whether good or bad, Duryea had an unmistakable and totally unique charisma. His was an effortless and totally convincing hardboiled attitude. Sarcasm and cynicism dripped off his every word. Unlike Robert Ryan, who was always boiling with intensity, Duryea was always cool, calm, and collected, which made him all the more threatening. Even when he played the good guy, he exuded a resolute composure that meant one thing: this guy means business.

Terror Street—or 36 Hours as it was called in England—was one of those movies that gave Duryea the opportunity to play the hero. Here he’s a US air force pilot who sneaks abroad a plane and goes AWOL to visit his wife in London. When he arrives, he waits in her apartment for her to come home. As soon as she walks in the door, however, someone strikes him on the back of the head and he blacks out. Waking up, he finds his wife dead and the gun in his hands. Now wanted for murder, Duryea must elude the police while piecing together his wife’s mysterious secret life in London that involves customs officers, smugglers, and blackmail.

The plot might seem routine, but in the hands of veteran pulpster and mystery novelist Steve Fisher (I Wake Up Screaming), the script becomes a well-oiled, fast-moving and expertly timed thriller. The small ensemble cast is excellent, but it is really Duryea’s performance that carries the movie. It’s nice to see him taking a turn as the wrong man (as opposed to the man who does wrong). But regardless of what side of the law he was on, Duryea was just a natural for crime movies.

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