The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep (poster)

Background:  Although he spent his formative years in England, Raymond Chandler will always be remembered for his stories of mid-century Los Angeles sleaze. Along with James M. Cain and Dashiel Hammett, Chandler pioneered modern crime fiction and laid the foundations of film noir. His hard-boiled vision of the city remains a cornerstone of the genre, echoing through Chinatown (1974), Pulp Fiction (1994), and L.A. Confidential (1997.)

Chandler only began writing seriously at age forty-four, when the Depression and his own alcoholism ended a long career in the oil business. Desperate to find work, he began writing for the influential detective magazine Black Mask, honing his skills in a series of twenty-one novellas. He “cannibalized” two of them – science fiction authors would call it a “fix-up” – into his first novel, The Big Sleep. First published in 1939, Chandler’s debut introduced his most famous creation, cynical private detective Philip Marlowe.

I read The Big Sleep for this review and was struck by Chandler’s style: he had a tremendous economy of language and a true ability to create atmosphere. Despite his English background (he once remarked that he learned “American” as a foreign language), he really knew the Southern California landscape and had an ear for American vernacular. Writing from Marlowe’s perspective, Chandler immerses the reader in the detective’s nocturnal world. In one haunting passage, Marlowe drive through Laurel Canyon “past lighted windows in big houses on ghostly enormous grounds, vague clusters of eaves and gables and lighted windows high on the hillside, remote and inaccessible, like witch houses in a forest.” Chandler’s writing is so noir that you can see the chiaroscuro lighting.

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Described by some critics as Los Angeles’s epic poet, Chandler conquered Hollywood in 1944: RKO released the first Philip Marlowe film, Murder, My Sweet, and Chandler collaborated with Billy Wilder on the script for Double Indemnity. The James M. Cain adaptation became a hit with audiences and critics, receiving 7 Oscar nominations (including one for the screenplay) and earning a place in the film noir pantheon. A month after Double Indemnity premiered, Warner Brothers released an adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not that featured the first pairing of real life lovers Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Looking to capitalize on the couples’ notoriety, studio mogul Jack L. Warner asked producer/director Howard Hawks to find a new vehicle for them. Hawks suggested The Big Sleep

After acquiring the rights to the book, Warner Brothers assembled an incredible team to bring it to life. Besides reuniting Hawks with Bogart and Bacall, the studio also brought in  Max Steiner to compose the score and a talented group to write the screenplay. Nobel laureate William Faulkner worked with noted science fiction author Leigh Brackett – she would co-write Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back much later in life – and longtime Hawks collaborator Jules Furthman adapt Chandler’s novel. The trio finished the screenplay in eight days and production started immediately, with principal photography wrapping up in January of 1945. (The finished product contains multiple references to wartime rationing.)

Warner Brothers, however, decided to tinker with the film before its wide release; Bacall’s agent pressured the studio to giver her more screentime. While several of the film’s slower, more dialogue-heavy scenes were reduced or completely eliminated, Casablanca (1942) screenwriter Julius Epstein added sexual innuendo and developed the relationship between Bogart and Bacall’s characters. After these reshoots, Warners released The Big Sleep in August 1946. While I watched both versions, I don’t want to spend a lot of time discussing the differences between them, so this review will cover the final cut.

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Plot Introduction: Wheelchair-bound millionaire General Guy Sternwood (Charles Waldron) has grown too old and infirm to control his two daughters’ scandalous behavior. When a blackmailer targets Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), the general hires private eye Philip Marlowe (Bogart) to investigate. Marlowe discovers that blackmail is only the beginning of the Sternwoods’ problems: the family has become caught up in a spider’s web of murder and betrayal. Several killings ensue, all of which seem to involve racketeer Eddie Mars (John Ridgely.) To make things even more complicate, the detective falls in love with Carmen’s older sister Vivian (Bacall.) Having solved the blackmail case, Marlowe descends into the L.A. underworld to solve the murders and protect the Sternwood sisters.

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My Thoughts: When I mentioned echoes, I had something very specific in mind, as my first encounter with The Big Sleep was really when I watched The Big Lebowski (1998.) Yes, that Jeff Bridges cult classic is an affectionate pastiche of Chandler’s writing, sharing its setting, basic plot structure, and specific details – i.e. a disabled millionaire attended to by an obsequious butler – with the author’s first novel. (Joel and Ethan Coen seem interested in a kind of cinematic intertextuality; 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou has a close relationship with the films of Preston Sturges.) If you take my recommendation and watch or rewatch The Big Sleep, keep an eye out for how closely it mirrors The Dude’s strange adventure.

At its best, golden age Hollywood has this kind of mythological resonance, the ability to be rediscovered and reinterpreted by each new generation. Decades later, the images remain vivid in the popular imagination: a giant gorilla atop the Empire State Building, Dorothy Gale leaving sepia Kansas for Technicolor Oz, Norma Desmond ready for her closeup. I think that these film  endure because they are the product of many talented people instead of one auteur, as myth belongs to no single author. Described by Roger Ebert as “a case where ‘studio interference’ was exactly the right thing,” The Big Sleep offers a perfect example of mythology created on time, on budget, and within genre conventions.

Few exemplified creativity within the system as much as director Howard Hawks. If you’re not familiar with Hawks, Peter Bogdanovich provides the perfect introduction to the filmmaker in his book Who The Devil Made It. Bogdanovich illustrates the director’s ability to handle many different genres by imagining a viewer watching a bunch of classic Hawks films and asking, “Did the same guy direct all of these?” Hawks, unlike many acclaimed directors – you always know when you’re watching a Hitchcock film or a Kubrick film – never overshadows the stories themselves.

Even with his famous versatility, Hawks is an especially good fit for The Big SleepPhilip Marlowe might be the perfect Hawksian hero, a consummate professional and nonchalant in the face of death. Hawks, who once said that “for me, the best drama is the one that deals with a man in danger,” excelled at directing this kind of characters in films like Only Angels Have Wings (1939.) Furthermore, he directed some of the studio era’s finest romantic comedies, and the witty, fast-paced banter of Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) prepared him for Chandler’s sarcastic dialogue. When people talk about The Big Sleep, they always bring up the verbal sparring between Bogart and Bacall; Hawks has them play it like a screwball comedy.

And, of course, Hawks had Humphrey Bogart at the height of his powers. By the time he made The Big Sleep, “Bogie” was one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942) in the immediate past and Key Largo (1948) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) on the horizon. Bogart as a trench coat-clad detective has to be one of the most iconic images in film history, and his Philip Marlowe is even better than his Sam Spade. Because Bogart’s screen persona and Chandler’s character are almost identical, Bogart basically plays himself throughout the film, demonstrating again and again why he remains a symbol of cool. As one might image, he and his then-wife have fantastic chemistry; she’s just as good at delivering razor-sharp dialogue as he is.

Bogart and Bacall give stellar performances, but they also get a lot of help from a fine supporting cast. As Carmen Sternwood, Martha Vickers has to communicate her character’s troubled psyche through innuendo alone. In the novel, Carmen is completely out of control with sex and drug addictions; Marlowe’s initial task is to retrieve and destroy nude photos of her. Obviously, the Production Code meant that none of this could be said outright, but Vickers’ nymphomaniacal performance makes that unnecessary. She’s another great femme fatale. To play all the story’s various criminals, Warner Brothers brought together an army of strange-looking character actors: particularly effective are Ben Welden and Tom Fadden as Mars’ goons and Bob Steele as a hitman aptly named Canino. As Mars himself, John Ridgely plays an anti-Marlowe, someone just as quick-witted and unflappable but on the other side of the law.

While The Big Sleep undoubtedly ranks among the great films noir, its visual style doesn’t always match the genre’s iconic look. When I think of noir, I think of shadows: screens dominated by monolithic slabs of darkness. On this film, cinematographer Sidney Hickox goes in a different direction, with light defused through rain and fog and streetlamps reflecting off vintage cars. The film’s world is grayscale rather than the high-contrast black and white I’d associate with, say, John Alton’s cinematography. Many of the film’s most evocative scenes involve Marlowe sitting in a parked car, smoking and waiting for something to happen. These shots have a tremendous power, and I realized – after some thought – that Hickox’s cinematography channels the loneliness of Edward Hopper paintings.

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When the story movies to the interior of blackmailer Arthur Geiger’s home, The Big Sleep fully embodies the classic film noir style. In both the cinematic and literary versions, the plot always returns to the Geiger house, which seems to be a magnet for death. Drawing on Chandler’s description of a creepy Laurel Canyon bungalow, Hickox and the production designers place lights and Geiger’s collection of “exotic” Asian trinkets in a way that creates strange, moving shadows. Simply put, I can’t think of a better illustration of how dreamlike (nightmarish?) old black and white film can be.

Along with the cinematography, the film’s screenplay preserves the novel’s atmosphere. Faulkner et al keep the flavor of Chandler’s dialogue and make it even wittier, adding double entendres and clever wordplay. As I mentioned before, this innuendo-drive approach is important because so much of the novel – homosexuality, drug abuse, pornography, nymphomania – would have been deemed unacceptable for contemporary audiences. Despite these limitations, the screenwriters keep much of the original plot, allowing all the members of Chandler’s underworld to form alliances and double-cross each other. They make one major change, however, transforming Vivian Sternwood from a minor character to the main love interest. In the book, Marlowe abides by a strict code of ethics and refuses to get personally involved with clients.

While it would be easy to criticize this as purely commercial, I think that the writers made the right decision. As every reviewer mentions, The Big Sleep has a labyrinthine plot built around interlocking murder mysteries. (This blog has a handy chart that explains the complicated connections between all the characters.) Simplifying the plot, however, would simply not work, as so much of the novel’s tense atmosphere comes from its tangled threads. Instead of cutting out plot points, the writers change the focus, using the crime plot as a backdrop for the romance story. As strange as it may seem, this through-line ties the film together as well as The Dude’s rug: now, Marlowe has a personal investment in the Sternwood family that did not exist in the original novel.

At the very beginning of Chandler’s book, Marlowe enters the Sternwoods’ stately home and sees “a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree.” Many scholars have identified Arthurian themes in Chandler’s ouvre (his original name for Marlowe was Mallory, as in the compiler of Le Morte d’Arthur) and, in many ways, that is what the film gives us. The many hands that it passed through shaped it into an archetypal, Campbellian story: a knight who wears a fedora and drives a coupe ventures into the dark world of 1940’s Los Angeles to save a maiden. Like no other film I can think of, The Big Sleep is a hero’s quest within a romantic comedy within a film noir.

Author’s Note: Much of the background information in this blog post came from Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction, and Film Noir by Gene D. Phillips. If you’re interested in the noir genre, this book is definitely worth checking out.)

Ray Harryhausen Retrospective: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)

earth-vs-the-flying-saucers Background: In July 1952, pilots and air traffic controllers at both Washington National Airport and Andrews Air Force Base reported fireballs and strange lights in the sky above the nation’s capital. Airport radar detected seven unidentified flying objects that moved completely unlike any earthly aircraft. Combined with Cold War tensions, these sightings caused a media frenzy, as newspapers around the country published stories about flying saucers. The public reaction to these stories lead military higher-ups to hold a major press conference at the Pentagon: Major General John Samford, the Air Force Director of Intelligence, explained that the sightings were really natural phenomena. More than sixty years later, fringe theorists continue to use the incidents as evidence of alien visitors.

Columbia producer Charles H. Schneer took notice of the public interest in UFO’s – and, doubtlessly, the success of films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The War of the Worlds (1953) – and decided to make a flying saucer picture of his own. Besides Ray Harryhausen, who he brought back to do the visual effects, Schneer also hired b-movie journeyman Fred F. Sears to director and The Wolfman (1941) writer Curt Siodmak to work on the screenplay. Haryhausen’s copious research into UFO sightings led him to meet and interview people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Drawing from this, he designed and built both the alien spaceships and the Washington landmarks that they so memorably destroy. flying saucers Plot Introduction: The US Air Force prepares for manned spaceflight with Operation Skyhook, a project that uses satellites to gather data on the upper atmosphere. Alien visitors, however, misinterpret the satellites as offensive weapons and shoot them out of the sky as a prelude to their assault on earth. The aliens land at a military base and use their advanced weapons to kill everyone except for Skyhook direction Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife Carol (Joan Taylor.) Shortly thereafter, the Marvins and several others are abducted by the aliens and tasked with setting up peace negotiations between the extraterrestrials and leaders of the world; as one might imagine, the human race is unwilling to surrender. Dr. Marvin analyzes captured alien technology and creates a sonic weapon that he hopes will prove effective against the invaders. The final showdown takes place in Washington D.C., where Marvin’s weapons cause the aliens to lose control of their spaceships and crash into various landmarks. earth vs. flying saucers My Thoughts: Last time, I marveled at the fact that Ray Harryhausen’s sophomore effort was released on a double bill with a film called Creature With the Atom Brain: a film with that title could have only come from the 1950’s or an attempt at 1950’s retro cool. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, however,has to be the most sublimely kitschy fifties movie title – it’s completely absurd and high-concept to the point where I really didn’t need to write a plot introduction at all. Fortunately, Harryhausen and Schneer crafted a fun, fast- paced science fiction flick that lives up to its amazing title. Because Columbia continued to provide Harryhausen and Schneer with shoestring budgets (on the DVD commentary, Harryhausen estimated that the production cost well under $300,000), they and director Fred F . Sears wisely choose to play Earth vs. the Flying Saucers as camp. While it shares the same basic plot structure as Harryhausen’s previous films, the script peppers its live-action scenes with ridiculous pseudoscience – the extraterrestrials wear suits made of “solidified electricity” and can remove minds from bodies, leaving the unfortunate human in a zombie-like state – and silly alien voices. (The aliens are voiced by Paul Frees, best known as the narrator of Disney’s Haunted Mansion.) Hugh Marlowe explains the alien technology like Adam West’s Batman solving one of the Riddler’s riddles: in one scene, he exclaims “of course!” and launches into an unbroken stream of technobabble.

Due to budget constraints, the aliens had to be men in suits instead of Harryhausen creatures, which adds another source of possibly intentional humor. It’s painfully clear that there only two aliens on screen at any one time because that’s how many costumes they had. On that note, the supposedly advanced extraterrestrials often behave in completely idiotic ways; during the assault on the Air Force base, one of them steps outside the flying saucer’s protective force field and is immediately shot and killed. Besides adding some much-needed humor, the screenplay (along with editor Danny D. Landres, who seamlessly merges live-action, stock footage, and special effects shots) helps the film flow better by cutting out the obligatory romantic subplot: the two leads are already married when the film begins. Because of this, the human story never detracts from the science fiction plot like it did in It Came From Beneath the Sea. 

Despite the lack of actual stop-motion creatures, Harryhausen’s visual effects are a new personal best. Deprived of his signature technique (creature animation), Harryhausen had to use all of his creativity to bring the alien invaders to life. Although the disintegration rays and protective force fields both look fantastic by 1956 standards, the titular flying saucers are the reason to watch the film. Desperate to prevent the spaceships from looking like “boring lumps of metal,” Harryhausen designed the saucers so that the top and bottom halves rotate in opposite directions, a design feature that gives them a suitably otherworldly feel. When the aliens lose control and the saucers start to wobble and veer off course, the viewer never thinks of them as merely models on wire. In both The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and It Came From Beneath the Sea, Harryhausen simulated the destruction of buildings by painstakingly animating pieces of rubble on wire, a technique that he uses extensively here. As Richard Scheib, one of my favorite internet film critics, writes, “Harryhausen’s vandalistic fantasies reached their absolute apotheosis in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

Although he worked on the visual effects by himself, Harryhausen gets a lot of help from the sound design. Besides Paul Frees’ alien voices, the flying saucers sound unearthly (Harryhausen’s book reveals that it’s really modified noise from a sewage treatment plant!) and the ping when bombs bounce off of their force fields wouldn’t be out of place in Star Wars.  Along with Forbidden PlanetRodan, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is a major reason why 1956 was such an important year for science fiction cinema. It has also proven to be one of Harryhausen’s most influential films, predating Independence Day (1996) by forty years and directly inspiring Mars Attacks! (1996.) For a perfect illustration of how groundbreaking Harryhausen was, just compare his work to the visual effects in director Fred F. Sears’ next effort, The Giant Claw (1957); that film’s monstrous bird is truly something you’d expect to see on Mystery Science Theater 3000. With Ray Harryhausen, you can never see the wires.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

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Background: Born to poor Belorussian immigrants, Issur Danielovitch changed his name to the very Anglo-Saxon Kirk Doughlas and became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, raising his voice and flaring his nostrils in a series of performances that straddle the line between hamminess and greatness. Before he was Vincent van Gogh or Spartacus, Douglas debuted as the fourth-billed actor in this adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright John Patrick’s Oscar-nominated story. Released in July, the film – directed by two-time Oscar winner Lewis Milestone – was entered into the second Cannes Film Festival.

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Plot Introduction: In 1928, teenager Martha Ivers decides to run away with local boy Sam Masterson in an attempt to escape her domineering aunt (Judith Anderson.) Tattled on by goodie-two-shoes Walter O’Neil, the two are picked up by the police and returned to the Ivers mansion where Martha gets into a heated argument with her aunt. During the confrontation, Martha accidentally pushes her aunt down a stairwell, killing her. Walter’s father covers up the incident; Sam leaves town on a train.

Flash forward to 1946, where Sam (Van Heflin) is now a disillusioned World War II veteran, drifting his way around country. A card accident leads him to his old hometown, where industrial magnate Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) and district attorney Walter (Douglas) are a married couple who hold political and economic power over the whole town. Sam’s return shakes up the lives of Mr. and Mrs. O’Neil: Walter fears that the new arrival will blackmail him and his wife whereas Martha seeks to rekindle her old relationship with Sam. Meanwhile, Sam begins a relationship with the troubled Antonia “Toni” Maracek (Lizabeth Scott); these tangled relationships lead to jealousy and, eventually, death.

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My Thoughts: Although it’s often described as film noir, I don’t think that The Strange Love of Martha Ivers really fits into that category. It contains few of the genre’s archetypes, offering neither big city sleaze nor chiaroscuro lighting nor cynical private eyes. (Scott and Stanwyck are both pretty good femmes fatale, however.) Instead, this is a prime example of studio era melodrama, with perhaps a few noir elements here and there. I’ll admit that this isn’t my favorite genre; I much prefer character driven stories as opposed to plot device-driven stories. I could easily criticize the script – by longtime Frank Capra collaborator Robert Riskin and future The Hustler (1961) director Robert Rossen – for relying too much on coincidence: Walter and Sam just happen to be there the night Martha’s aunt died, Sam’s fender-bender just happens to occur right outside Iverstown.

That, however, would be kind of unfair. The real issuer for a review of a film like this isn’t whether it uses genre conventions but rather how it uses them. The presence of Judith Anderson almost reprising her famous role as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940) points in a very specific direction: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers aspires to be that kind of movie, a quasi-gothic romance about the dark secrets of stately homes. Just listen to Miklos Rosza’s lust strings, which clearly belong to old-school Hollywood melodrama. On that level, the film works pretty well.

My two biggest complaints are much more superficial. First, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a bad, clunky, overwrought title. I think that the original short story title, “Love Lies Bleeding,” would have been much better. (Maybe I’m just thinking of the Elton John song.) Second, I feel like, in this context, the Ivers family should live in a palatatial, Victorian- or Edwardian-style house on a hill. I know that’s a total cliche, but I feel like this film is so cliched already that it might as well embrace it and give us a creepy mansion. Instead, the sets are completely generic and would have worked equally well in a romantic comedy.

As basically a love triangle (rectangle? square?) , your enjoyment of this movie is entirely dependent on whether you like the characters. The focal point, Van Heflin’s Sam, is kind of an archetypical figure in noir-ish cinema; this is the third 1946 film I’ve seen that involves a drifter revealing the insecurities of a major and eventually leading to its violent downfall. It’s a compelling through-line, and I’ve seen it done extremely well with John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice. I’m not too familiar with Van Heflin – I know him as the homesteader in Shane (1953) and that’s about it – but he does a decent job here. His character is different than Garfield’s because, despite being an itinerant gambler, Sam Masterson is basically a standup guy, more the character that exposes evil than the one that causes it. That makes him a good point-of-view protagonist.

After Sam returns to Iverstown, the first person he connects to is Toni, the least fleshed-out of the four main characters. Although Lizabeth Scott is almost a dead ringer for Lauren Bacall (someone I’ll be talking about very soon), she doesn’t really have the former Mrs. Bogart’s screen presence. While she makes for an okay femme fatale, the character is simply not compelling because the script tells us almost nothing about her, not even the reason why she was in jail. Again, she’s another stock character.

To be honest, the relationship between Sam and Toni never really grabbed me; I found Walter and Martha’s relationship much more compelling. It’s with them that the store becomes more character-driven, which is a definite plus. I like the idea of two characters having a traumatic experience in their formative years and reacting to it in opposite ways. Kirk Douglas makes his debuts in a very un-Kirk Douglas role: Walter O’Neil is a spineless alcoholic, a man completely dominated by his wife. He could have played this character in several different ways, but Douglas wisely decides to play to his strengths by emphasizing Walter’s passive-aggressive nastiness. Walter is a very conflicted character, a respected public figure who turns to the bottle because his private life is a mess. Douglas’ best scene comes near the end, where he confronts Van Heflin and describes him as all his wife’s infidelities “rolled into one.” The actor perfectly captures the emotional turmoil of a man whose long-repressed anger finally erupts. If I do give out Oscar-style awards at the end of this project, I’ll have to consider Douglas for Best Supporting Actor.

Barbara Stanwyck, who plays his wife, would also be a strong contender for a fictitious award. After the critical and commercial success of Double Indemnity (1944), it makes sense that Paramount mogul Adolph Zukor would cast her in a somewhat similar role. In fact, I wonder if that was the reason for the making of this film. Anyway, Stanwyck plays the title character in much the same way – I’ve yet to see a review that doesn’t describe her as “steely – as she did in that Billy Wilder film, bringing the same cold intensity. Like Douglas, the script gives her a lot to work with: Martha Ivers is torn between escaping her life with Sam and becoming a mirror image of her controlling aunt. It’s a good role and she makes the most of it.

I was torn on whether or not to recommend The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, weighing the mostly good performances against the mostly unexceptional script. The ending, however, pushed the film over the line for me, as it was something I would not have expected from a Production Code-era Hollywood film. If that sounds interesting to you, you can watch or download this now-public domain film at the Internet Archive.

Ray Harryhausen Retrospective: It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)

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Background: After The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms became a sleeper hit, Ray Harryhausen proposed an original idea to producer Jack Dietz for a follow-up. His story treatment, entitled The Elementalsinvolved a race of winged creatures invading Paris and roosting in the Eiffel Tower. (You can see a preliminary test, “starring” Harryhausen himself, on youtube.) While Deitz supported the project, he insisted that it be made in then-popular 3D and had Harryhausen experiment with 3D stop-motion animation. After a few tests, the two men mutually agreed that such a process would be far too expensive and time-consuming; The Elementals never got off the ground.

Meanwhile, Columbia producer Charles H. Schneer had seen The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and recognized major commercial potential in the burgeoning giant monster genre. Inspired by Harryhausen’s dinosaur, Schneer hired the man himself to work on another high-concept creature feature, this one featuring a gigantic octopus on a rampage through the Bay Area. Eager to work on another feature film, the animator began pre-production, crafting the creature models and observing octopi at local aquariums to get ideas. Famously, budget constraints meant that the octopus could only have six tentacles; the ever-thrifty Harryhausen would later transform them into dinosaur tails. Working from a script by Them! (1954) writer George Worthing Yates, director Robert Gordon finished principal photography in two to three weeks (Harryhausen’s visual effects work took upwards of seven months) by rarely using more than one take.

By the time It Came From Beneath the Sea premiered in July 1955, Harryhausen-esque creatures had become a regular part of the moviegoing experience: 1954 saw the release of Them! and Godzilla and Harryhausen’s second film came out in the same year as Tarantula and Godzilla Raids Again. (Although it might seem a bit campy today, giant monsters provided a perfect, if literal, metaphor for Cold War-era fears.) Released on a double bill with the incredibly-titled Creature With the Atom BrainIt Came From Beneath the Sea grossed more than ten times its $150,000 budget. Just as importantly, the film marked the beginning of a partnership, as Schneer would produce eleven more films for Harryhausen.

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Plot Introduction: While on its maiden voyage, a state-of-the-art nuclear sub collides with an unknown, highly radioactive object in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The vessel’s captain, Commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey), investigates the incident, recruiting marine biologists John Carter (Donald Curtis) and Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) to analyze a piece of organic tissue found on the submarine’s exterior. The marine biologists discover that undersea nuclear testing has completely disrupted the Pacific ecosystem, causing giant octopi to leave their deep-sea trenches in search of food. After a superfluous romantic subplot between Joyce and Mathews, the Octopus finally arrives at San Franciso, climbing up the Golden Gate Bridge and attacking the Embarcadero. After soldiers push the creature back into the water with flamethrowers, Mathews and Carter destroy it with a radioactive torpedo.

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My Thoughts: In his autobiography, Ray Harryhausen makes it clear that he thinks of his stop-motions creations as creatures, not monsters, and that he tried to give every one of them a sense of pathos. Of all the diverse creatures in his vast bestiary, the giant octopus comes closest to a monster: as a one-dimensional killing machine, it’s certainly not a tragic figure like the Rhedosaurus. I can think of two major reasons why this is. First, he didn’t come up with the idea, didn’t design the character (besides cutting off two of the tentacles), and didn’t have a fantastic short story by his lifelong friend to base its personality on. The personal touch that makes so many of Harryhausen’s creations memorable just isn’t there.

Second, octopi are so far removed from human beings that they become truly hard to relate to. Harryhausen’s best work always involves bringing creatures that have a major presence in our imagination – creatures from myth, the distant past, or other worlds – to life. (What kid goes through a phase where they’re fascinated with mollusks?) With one or two exceptions, real-life animals were never his forte. In It Came From Beneath the Sea, the special effects shot invariably focus on the tentacles, which prevent us from making eye contact and add one more barrier to any kind of emotional investment. I know that the creature is so wantonly destructive because it’s a metaphor for the bomb, but the bomb is impossible to sympathize with.

The unsympathetic octopus, however, is fascinating to look at. Apart from an underwhelming finale, where it truly does look like a rubber model holding onto a toy submarine, Harryhausen does very good work on a shoestring budget. The clear highlights are the creature’s attacks on the Oakland ferry and the Embarcadero. Harryhausen, who animated the tentacles as if they had eyes, has them crush humans, smash through windows, tear down buildings, and generally terrorize the Bay Area. Building on his previous experience, he mattes everything together very well: it’s very hard to tell where the Golden Gate Bridge ends and the miniature model begins.

Unfortunately, the stop-motion effects don’t appear as often as they should. The first hour of this 79-minute film has about two minutes of octopus screentime, which is simply unacceptable for a Harryhausen flick. While Harryhausen built his career around using very limited resources in creative ways, this might be the one time where the low budget got the better of him. As you probably surmised from the plot summary, this is almost a beat-for-beat remake of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms with a few of the details changed. The combination of budget constraints and slavish devotion to its predecessor means that It Came From Beneath the Sea does pretty much everything worse than Harryhausen’s first film. Besides the creature, which is a clear downgrade, the human story has also taken a turn for the worse: as perfunctory as the characters were in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, having a proto-Fox Mulder as the protagonist is a decent hook.

The hero of It Came From Beneath the Sea, however, is a completely generic naval officer. Kenneth Tobey (who had a supporting role in Harryhausen’s debut) plays it woodenly and adds nothing to a badly underwritten character. However, I can’t really blame him or the other cast members because of the rushed production and the directors refusal to shoot multiple takes unless someone flubbed their line. Good performances simply don’t come from those conditions. Because of this, the romance that takes up much of the film’s screen time is completely uninteresting.

The only live-action scene that works is the opening where the submarine crew first encounters the octopus. Shot in an actual submarine, the sequence’s claustrophobic visuals, editing, and sound design come together to create a tense atmosphere. While watching the rest of the movie, I could help but play armchair writer and think about how this would be a much better direction for the film: instead of having Harryhausen copy his previous work, he should have worked on making the underwater scenes convincing and It Came from Beneath the Sea should have been about subs hunting giant octopi in the Pacific.

I’ve been harsh on this film, but that’s because I have a great love for Ray Harryhausen and things beyond his control really hampered him here. Fortunately, his celebrated career was only getting started.

The Stranger (1946)

stranger_xlgBackground: Despite their privileged place in the film canon, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) underperformed at the box office, causing a rift between Orson Welles and RKO. The studio put the multi-talented enfant terrible on a tight leash for his third film as director: Welles, who beat out John Huston for the job, was barred from making changes to the script and had to pay for any cost overruns out of his own pocket. Although Welles feuded with producer Sam Spiegel during the production, he did – for the first and probably last time in his career – manage to complete the project on time and on budget. The Stranger, which received an Oscar nomination in the now-defunct category of “Best Story” (i.e. treatment), did better business than Welles’ previous two efforts and became his first financial success as director. His struggles with the system, however, were just beginning.

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Plot Introduction: Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is a Nazi hunter, a UN special agent tasked with bringing Germany’s most notorious fugitives to justice. His current target is the infamous war criminal Franz Kindler, the man who orchestrated the Holocaust and the Third Reich’s scorched earth tactics. Tracking the Nazi to Harper, Connecticut, Wilson poses as an antiques dealer and gathers intelligence on the inhabitants of the seemingly idyllic small town. He realizes the Kindler has taken on the identity of Charles Rankin (Welles), a respected teacher at a prestigious local prep school. Wilson tries to convince Kindler/Rankin’s wife Mary (Loretta Young) of her husband’s true identity, but she refuses to believe that she could have married a Nazi. After the teacher’s behavior grows increasingly erratic, Mary becomes suspicious, causing the war criminal to plot her death. Kindler lays a trap at a local church bell tower but Wilson intervenes and finally ends Kindler’s reign of terror.

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My Thoughts: As if there was any doubt, Russel Metty’s cinematography and Welles’ mastery of atmosphere show that the film noir was in full bloom by 1946: The Stranger teems with shadows. Metty – who would later win an Oscar for his work on Spartacus (1960) – shoots seemingly normal locations from just the right angle and with just the right low-key lighting to make them seem desolate and alien. The Stranger finds its horror in deserted high school gyms, family dinners, and small-town churches.

There’s something very Hitchcockian about the whole endeavor and I was immediately reminded of Shadow of a Doubt (1943), another film that creates suspense and black humor by placing a psychopath in Norman Rockwell small-town America. Like that Hitchcock flick, The Stranger has a lot of fun contrasting undeniable evil with the kind of quirkiness that one would expect from The Andy Griffith Show. In a comedic scene, Robinson’s g-man jokes that a local general store owner (a character right out of a sitcom) is a high roller because he gambles 25 cents on a game of checkers; the Nazi hunter is clearly amused by the banality that now surrounds him. Even Kindler himself has a mundane, unexplained obsession with clocks.

The basic premise – a genocidal Nazi disguised as a pillar  of the community – remains a very solid idea for a film, a concept perfect for the mid-century noir style. While probably not an auteur vision like Citizen Kane, The Stranger proves that Welles could do what a director was asked to do in the studio era: oversee the translation of a good script into a good movie.

He also makes a major contribution as an actor. Welles plays Kindler/Rankin with a great deal of intensity, particularly in a scene where the German betrays his identity during a heated discussion of the Nazi mindset. He’s simply fantastic here, throwing out references to Germanic paganism, Wagner, and the Teutonic Knights in an extended, scenery-chewing monologue. Fortunately, this is as over-the top as Welles gets in The Stranger; he would reach much greater levels of hamminess later in his career. I’m also thankful that Welles opted for his normal accent instead of an affected German one, as I remember his Irish brogue in The Lady From Shanghai (1947) being one of that film’s weaker aspects.

Edward G. Robinson does a decent job as the protagonist, playing him in the same no-nonsense way as many of his other roles. While I totally buy him as a tough g-man, I didn’t get as much from his performance as I did from films like Scarlet Street (1945) or Key Largo (1948), or Soylent Green (1973) for that matter. The problem, I think, is the script: while we know that Wilson is a competent man of action, that’s about the only thing we know about him. We never even learn his first name. Because the script gives Robinson so little to work with, the character seems a bit generic, and the story would be stronger if they developed him more, gave him some relationship or quirk or personality trait that makes him seem like a real person. Mr. Wilson is really no match for a genocidal Nazi.

Kindler/Rankin’s wife Mary doesn’t fare much better. Although I know that she was a respected, Oscar-winning actress in her day, Loretta Young’s performance falls kind of flat for me. Of all the characters in The Stranger, she has the most drastic arc; it can’t be easy to learn that your spouse was behind the Holocaust. The script, unfortunately, tells us as much about her as it does about Edward G. Robinson’s character. The film’s minor characters provide a bit of local color and not much else.

Without a doubt the screenplay (allegedly featuring uncredited contributions by Welles and Huston) is light on character development. However, that is to be expected from a 95-minute thriller and, besides, The Stranger focuses on other things. While it has its flaws, the film also has four or five truly awesome, truly memorable scenes; I’ve already mentioned Welles’ Nazi monologue at the dinner table. Kindler’s meeting with a former comrade is another highlight. As the two men walk through the depths of a New England forest, Meinike (Konstanstin Shayne) tells Kindler about his religious conversion and asks him to confess his many, many sins. The Nazi then kills Meinike and buries his body in the woods, his coverrup of the murder eventually leading to his downfall.

Like all good thrillers, The Stranger ends with a suspenseful finale. Wilson and Kindler’s fatal confrontation atop the church bell tower is simply awesome, a set-piece worthy of Hitchcock. Welles and company taking one of the most enduring cinematic tropes – Roger Ebert calls it “the fallacy of the climbing villain” – and run with it, crafting something truly memorable. So much of this scene’s effectiveness comes from its sound design, from the clicking and whirring of the clock gears that ratchet up the tension. The editing (by Ernest J. Nims) is fantastic as well, providing an almost textbook example of how to cut a suspense scene. Welles’ over-the-top death – Franz Kindler is impaled on the sword of a statue and falls from the tower – is the perfect ending.

In a broader historical context, The Stranger is one of several 1946 thrillers about Nazi hunters; we’ve already scene a comedic Marx Brothers take on this genre. It’s not hard to see why, as the discovery of Axis Powers atrocities must have been on everyone’s mind in the postwar period. Of all these films, this one is probably the most thought-provoking because of its Nazi hiding in plain sight: members of the Third Reich really did live double lives as upstanding citizens.

 

Ray Harryhausen Retrospective: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

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Background: In my life, I’ve had the honor of meeting two late science fiction legends, special effects master Ray Harryhausen and visionary writer Ray Bradbury. The two Rays shared a lifelong friendship, bonding in their late teens over a mutual love of dinosaurs. (When Harryhausen finally received a lifetime achievement Oscar, Bradbury presented it to him.) On a DVD special feature, the two old men sit down and reminisce about the old days when they drove around L.A. to see screenings of King Kong (1933) and spent hours discussing space travel. Professionally, however, their paths only crossed once, on this 1953 monster movie.

After a decade spent making short films and apprenticing under King Kong animator Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen accepted an offer to work on a low-budget feature film. (Producers Hal Chester and Jack Dietz were so tight with money that Harryhausen had to pay for many expenses out of pocket.) Although he needed the job, he voiced his problems with the script treatment – then called “Monster From Under the Sea” – and suggested improvements. Because the production was so small, Harryhausen essentially created the visual effects by himself, designing a fictitious dinosaur called a “Rhedosaur” and developing ways to matte it into live-action footage.

Meanwhile, Ray Bradbury had a prehistoric experience of his own. While walking along Venice Beach, the author saw the ruins of an abandoned roller coaster and imaged them to be the skeleton of a dinosaur that died of loneliness. Inspired, he wrote a short story about a fog horn that awakens a dinosaur from a millennia-long slumber at the bottom of the sea; the dinosaur believes the sound to be another of its kind. The creature then discovers that the lighthouse is not a member of its species and destroys it. Bradbury sold the story to the Saturday Evening Post.

After its publication, Chester and Dietz bought the rights to Bradbury’s story, using its title – the short story is now known as “The Foghorn” to avoid confusion – and adapting it into one of the film’s best scenes. Helmed by veteran French art director Eugène Lourié, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms grossed five million dollars on a $210,000 budget and established Harryhausen’s creatures as a box office draw.

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Plot Introduction: A top-secret nuclear test in the Arctic Circle frees a dinosaur from the icy prison that held it for millions of years. When nuclear physicist Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) encounters the creature, it buries his friend in an avalanche and seemingly disappears; authorities dismiss Nesbitt’s dinosaur sighting as a “traumatic hallucination” and place him in a psychiatric institution. Anxious to prove his sanity, Nesbitt enlists paleontologists Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) and Dr. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) to help him investigate reports of sea monsters. He is eventually vindicated when the Rhedosaurus lands on Manhattan Island and rampages through the city. Because it has radioactive blood, the military cannot kill the creature with normal weapons: any break in its scaly skin would cause an outbreak of disease. The humans finally stop the Rhedosaurus’s reign of terror at Coney Island, where a sniper shoots it with a radioactive isotope that causes its body to break down.

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My Thoughts: To be perfectly honest, the beginning of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms feels like something you’d see on Mystery Science Theater 3000: stentorian ’50s narration over military stock footage, questionable science, cheesy rear projection. Mike and the robots would have had a lot of fun mocking a secret project called “Operation Experiment.” Although the film gets much better, it’s important to remember that Ray Harryhausen spent the early part of his career in the same b-movie world as Roger Corman. (They really should have collaborated – I’m sure Vincent Price would have loved to play opposite a Harryhausen creature.)

The film improves immediately after the bomb explodes, as our protagonist goes out onto the ice to investigate a (beastly) radar anomaly. The production never went close to the Arctic, but the combination of sets and actually well-composited backdrops works much better than it has any right to. I was reminded of Han Solo searching Hoth’s frozen wastes for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. (Lucas is a huge Harryhausen fan, after all.) When the beast first appears in the middle of a blizzard, it’s a legitimately atmospheric sequence.

I’ve gotten into The X-Files lately, and this film’s main character is a lot like a ’50s version of Fox Mulder: a traumatic, paranormal experience causes him to become obsessed with cryptids and travel hundreds of miles to hear sailors tell tales of sea serpents. Authority figures mock Nesbitt – who compares himself to Galileo – with jokes about leprechauns and the Loch Ness monster. In one very X-Files scene, Nesbitt tries to identify the creature he saw by looking at many, many sketches of prehistoric animals. Although his accent slips in and out, Swiss actor (the script infers that people don’t believe him because he is foreign) Paul Christian gives a decent performance, as does Paula Raymond as the obligatory love interest. The most entertaining cast member, however, is Cecil Kellaway, an actor who I’ve previously discussed in my review of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Kellaway’s paleontology professor is so cartoonish that Nesbitt meets him next to a reassembled Brontosaurus skeleton.

Despite budget constraints, first-time director Lourié does a solid job. (Maybe he learned a thing or two about directing from his collaborations with Jean Renoir.) In his autobiography, Harryhausen recalls that he and Lourié worked very well together; he also praises the Frenchman for designing sets that look like the cost much more than they actually did. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms began a second career for Lourié, as he spent the next decade directing three more monster movies.

Of course, Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus far outshadows any of its human costars; It’s remarkable that one man using very simple technology could have accomplished all of it. While the rear projection is obvious in a few shots, he mostly finds a way to seamlessly integrate his creature into the live-action footage. Even at this early stage in his career, Harryhausen’s work on The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms contains some of his best setpieces: the Rhedosaurus demolishes Bradbury’s lighthouse, rocks a ship back and forth on the water, crashes through a New York building, swipes at power lines, and dies in agony surrounded by a burning roller coaster. (In his book, Harryhausen mentions his belief that “every creature should die on or near a landmark.”)

Drawing from his friend’s short story, Harryhausen gives the dinosaur a real characterization. As the world’s biggest King Kong fan, he would return again and again to the idea of his creatures as victims of a world that does not understand them. The Rhedosaurus, after all, is only trying to return to its own stomping grounds, which happen to have been paved over and covered with skyscrapers. “The Foghorn” is all about the dinosaur’s loneliness, and Harryhausen breathes such life so much life into it that the viewer truly gets emotionally involved. Besides being a spectacular showcase of visual effects, the creature’s death at Coney Island is a truly dramatic (and even tragic) moment. In the past, I’ve praised filmmakers for getting good performances out of actors; I’m covering Harryhausen because he gets good performances out of rubber models.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is both one of the most entertaining 1950’s b-movies and one of the most influential. Science fiction always taps into its zeitgeist’s fears; Harryhausen’s atomically-revived dinosaur resonated with a post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki world, inspiring Godzilla (1954) and a whole subgenre of giant monster movies. Eight years later, director Eugène Lourié helmed Gorgo (1961), a film that can be best described as “Godzilla in London.” (if you enjoy watching guys in rubber suits destroy model cities, Gorgo is one of the better films in that genre.) From the start, Harryhausen’s work had an impact on other filmmakers, as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is a pioneering summer blockbuster.

Anna and the King of Siam (1946)

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Background: The story of Anna Leonowens – a 19th century Anglo-Indian governess who taught the many children of King Monkgut of modern-day Thailand – has been the subject of four feature films, including both live-action and animated version of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical The King and I. The very first adaptation, however, was this dramatic film, based on the Margaret Landon novel of the same name which was in turn based on Leonowens’ memoir. Legendary Fox mogul Daryl F. Zanuck invested a tremendous amount of time and money into the project, an effort that paid off at the 19th Academy Awards: Anna and the King of Siam won Oscars for its art direction and cinematography as well as three other nominations.

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Plot Introduction: In 1862, Anna Owens (Irene Dunne; the name was changed for the film) arrives in the Kingdom of Siam and is shocked by what she finds there: King Mongkut (Rex Harrison) has fathered almost seventy children with harem women and demands that his subjects grovel at his feet. Anna is initially refused an audience with the king by the royal minister Kralahome (Lee J. Cobb) due to her ignorance of Siamese etiquette. The two finally meet and begin a somewhat contentious working relationship as the governess educates the king, his wives, and his many children about the western world. Anna gains King Mongkut’s trust and becomes an important personal adviser, helping him impress foreign dignitaries and establish western consulates. After the king dies, his successor continues Anna’s legacy by implementing many of the social reforms that she had campaigned for.

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My Thoughts: I know that 1946 was a different time. I know that it’s unfair to judge the past by the moral standards of today. I know that political correctness can often be a dangerous thing. This is 2014, however, and there is something I can’t overlook: watching white actors darken their skin, squint their eyes, and speak in broken English to play Asians is weird and uncomfortable.

As an art history student, I’m familiar with the genre of 19th century painting known as Orientalism, which – long story short – illustrates romantic western notions of the “mysterious east.” This concept was certainly present in Hollywood: just think of Doug Fairbanks swashbuckling his way through an Arabian Nights-style Middle East in The Thief of Bagdad (1924), or that film’s 1940 remake, or the “exotic” India of Black Narcissus (1947), or the fanciful architecture of Grauman’s Egyptian and Chinese theaters. One can certainly see why this concept (and this film) would be appealing in postwar America, as the country was in the process of occupying and westernizing another Asian empire. From the prologue, which describes Thailand/Siam as “that strange and still half-barbaric country,” it’s clear that Anna and the King of Siam is a second-hand view of Asia.

A perfect example of this exoticism is that the three main Thai characters are played in different but equally stereotypical ways. This was Rex Harrison’s first American film and he barely attempts to hide his native accent; he plays the King like a Monty Python version of a fey, upper class British man, giving campy readings of lines like “How can king be wrong and woman be right?” Veteran actor Lee J. Cobb darkens his face and plays Kralahome with the stoic delivery and broken sentences of a Hollywood Native American. Finally, Gale Sondergaard’s Oscar-nominated (!) turn as courtesan Lady Thiang comes closest to modern stereotypes of Asian speaking patterns. (I was pleasantly surprised that no one pronounces their l’s as r’s or vice versa.)

Dated racial attitudes aside, Anna and the King of Siam is a well-furnished if slow and stagey period piece. (I can’t see what AMPAS saw in Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson’s screenplay.) I’m not familiar with the work of director John Cromwell (who, incidentally, is the father of character actor James Cromwell), but he doesn’t do much to help the film’s stilted atmosphere. Because the vast majority of actors and actresses in this film are badly miscast, suspension of belief never happens: the viewer is totally aware that they are watching made-up actors in costumes.

In some ways, that’s the point. Just like today’s CGI spectacles, the Hollywood costume drama is all about production values. Anna and the King of Siam succeeds on that particular front, as the Oscar-winning art direction (by Lyle Wheeler, Thomas Little, William S. Darling and Frank E. Hughes, who have fifty-eight nominations between them) is lavish, 19th century Thailand by way of King Kong’s Skull Island; the film’s sets took up ten acres of the Fox lot. Had they given out awards for costuming in 1946, this film would have won an additional Oscar. Arthur C. Miller received an Oscar for filming all of this, but I can’t say I was greatly impressed with his cinematography. Miller’s work on How Green was My Valley (1941) is a much better indication of his talent. Finally, Bernard Herrman – arguably Hollywood’s greatest composer – contributes a suitably brassy and “exotic” score that doesn’t rank among his best.

At the center of all this property and manpower is, of course, Irene Dunne as Anna Owens. If you’re like me (or like most viewers, I would imagine), you probably know Dunne as Cary Grant’s leading lady in a couple of excellent romantic comedies. Unfortunately, this Oscar bait-ish role isn’t her best performance, as much of her charm is lost under a British accent and a big Victorian-style dress. Part of the problem is that the character itself just isn’t very interesting: Anna Owens (I can’t comment on how faithful this is to the book or to actual history) is mostly one-note, a dutiful exporter of western though to the east. There are a few comedic sparks, however, including a wonderfully awkward scene where Dunne’s child asks her what a harem is.

Anna and the King of Siam just isn’t for me: it’s a slow-moving costume drama with mostly uninteresting (and, to many people, offensive) characters. I can’t imagine that modern viewers would find it interesting in a non-sociological way, although you might find it helpful if you ever find yourself writing a paper about portrayals of Asians in American media.

Dressed to Kill (1946)

dressed to killBackground: After playing Sherlock Holmes for fourteen films, Basil Rathbone was utterly typecast as the great detective. The frustrated actor decided to move on with his career, making Dressed to Kill the final film in the series; it was also the last bow (pun intended) for Nigel Bruce as Watson and for director Roy William Neill who died in December 1946. The script is not based on a Conan Doyle story but shares vague plot similarities with “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Six Napoleons.”

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Plot Introduction: An old friend of Dr. Watson (Bruce) arrives at 221B Baker Street and presents Holmes (Rathbone) and Watson with a mystery: a burglar broke into his home and stole a cheap music box, leaving the rest of his possessions untouched. Holmes and Watson investigate, discovering that the music box is one of three identical pieces crafted by an incarcerated thief. Holmes deduces that the music boxes are coded clues to the whereabouts of some hidden counterfeiting equipment. The detective and doctor race to finding the remaining music boxes, the efforts often thwarted by the scheming Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morrison) and her goons. After acquiring the last of the boxes, Holmes cracks the code and spring a trap for Courtney.

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My Thoughts: A franchise surviving to its fourteenth installment with the same lead is such a rare occurrence that I racked my brain trying to find a comparison. Take another British icon, James Bond. His fourteenth film, A View to a Kill (1985), was the last of the Roger Moore era before a darker, grittier Timothy Dalton reboot. I know it’s not directly comparable because the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes became a series of twice a year b-movies, but still: imagine Craig’s Bond or Downey’s Iron Man making it to the double digits in appearances.

As with any long-running franchise (I’m thinking particularly of Roger Moore as James Bond), the final Rathbone and Bruce Sherlock Holmes film enters camp territory: would any other version of Doctor Watson cheer up a kid by quacking like a duck? Bruce’s Watson – who uses the term “old boy” so often you could make a drinking game out of it – is now a parody of Arthur Conan Doyle’s good doctor, played for a fool by the villainess. There’s a fun, meta running in-joke where this Watson writes fictionalized versions of Holmes’ cases for The Strand magazine.

A character referenced multiple times throughout the film is Irene Adler, who clearly serves as the inspiration for Hilda Courtney. (I don’t know why they didn’t just use the same character name.) The idea is a good one: one could craft a great script around Sherlock Holmes facing off with his female equivalent, each setting complicated traps for the other. However, Dressed to Kill is just too short (72 minutes) to develop this properly. We learn absolutely nothing about Courtney’s past, her motivation, etc. This, unfortunately, is an example of economical b-movie storytelling completely at odds with the story itself.

Holmes is a genius, of course, but Dressed to Kill takes his mental abilities to ridiculous extremes. Not only is he the world’s greatest detective, but this version is also a musical genius, able to perfectly memorize and reproduce any song he has heard once. I find this farfetched, even for Sherlock.

The last Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes isn’t a bad film, but franchise fatigue has definitely set in.

A Night in Casablanca (1946)

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Background: From vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood, the Marx Brothers were on of prewar America’s premier comedy acts. By 1946, however, they had been out of the movie for five years; the brothers only reunited for this film to pay off Chico’s gambling debts.

A Night in Casablanca is more remembered for a publicity stunt than for the film itself. After Warner Brothers allegedly threatened the Marxes with legal action over the word “Casablanca” in the title, Groucho responded that they had advertised themselves as “Brothers” long before Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner.

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Plot Introduction: Shortly after World War II, Nazi officer Heinrich Stubel (Sig Ruman) escapes to North Africa with a cache in stolen art. Hiding out in the Hotel Casablanca, Stubel kills three consecutive hotel managers in order too keep a secret. This creates a job opportunity for Ronald Kornblow (Groucho), an unsuspecting hotelier who quickly becomes Stubel’s next target. Valet Rusty (Harpo) overhears this plot and teams up with Kornblow and shifty camel driver/part-time bodyguard Corbaccio (Chico) to bring the Nazi to justice. A few comedy bits and musical interludes later, the trio faces off with Stubel in a rear-projection action sequence involving a plane racing down a runway.

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My Thoughts: The above plot summary was actually hard to write because Marx Brothers movies are never about plot: what story there is only exists to link comedy routines, sight gags, and musical numbers together. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo will adopt silly character names but inevitably play themselves. Even though the boys (especially Groucho with his receding hairline) are getting a bit long in the tooth, A Night in Casablanca is cut from the same cloth as their previous efforts. (The penultimate Marx Brothers movie is also the penultimate film of director Archie Mayo; I’ll be taking a look at his last in a few weeks.)

At times, this works very well. My favorite scene involves Chico attempting to figure out Harpo’s incredibly convoluted charades. Groucho’s older brothers remain fantastic musicians, providing two more highlights with their piano and harp playing. (I’m fascinated by Chico’s flashy vaudeville-style performance on the keys.) Sig Ruman (who I remember playing a somewhat similar role in 1942’s To Be Or Not To Be) makes for a fun, over-the-top villain: if you ever find yourself in the 1940’s, never trust a German with a dueling scar.

Although I have a few qualms with Nazism and Marxist zaniness in the same film, A Night in Casablanca mostly works on a conceptual level as well. I like the idea of setting the Marx Brothers loose in the land of golden age Hollywood exoticism. The best films in the brothers’ ouvre are always about them turning orderly worlds upside down – high society in Animal Crackers (1930), international diplomacy in Duck Soup (1933), the theater in A Night at the Opera (1935.) Unleashing them in the romanticized North Africa of Casablanca  or Pépé le Moko seems like a worthy continuation of this theme.

Unfortunately, A Night in Casablanca feels tired much of the time. All the comedic element – Harpo’s slapstick, Groucho’s one-liners, Chico’s ridiculous puns – are there, but none feel as sharp as before. The manic energy of classic Marx just isn’t there: Groucho throws out many zingers but very few of them actually land. Everyone’s just going through the motions.

Although released by United Artists, the film has many of the same problems that reviewers identify in the late Paramount Marx Brother films; I’ve already mentioned the thin story (script by Joseph Fields and Roland Kibbee.) This film is very short (85 minutes), but it devotes a good quarter of its running time to mostly irrelevant subplots, like a pair of bumbling Casablanca cops in fezzes and pith helmets. Just like the Paramount films, A Night in Casablanca attempts to counterbalance the trio’s craziness with a pair of young lovers, in this case American-accented French pilot Pierre and his girlfriend Anette. This story goes nowhere. I know it’s a concession to Middle America, but the impulse is wrong: I watch Marx Brothers movies for the Marx Brothers, period.

I really like Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, but their second-to-last film just isn’t up to par.

Ps. Until the end credits, I thought that Chico’s character was called “carpaccio,” which would be very much in the tradition of silly Marx Brothers names.

Bedlam (1946)

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Background: Released in May, Bedlam is the third and final collaboration between two of Hollywood’s masters of horror. Boris Karloff, I believe, needs no introduction: when you think of Frankenstein’s monster, it’s inevitably his iconic take on the character that comes to mind. Val Lewton, on the other hand, has kind of faded away from public consciousness. That’s a shame, because Lewton wrote and produced some of the best and most atmospheric horror films of his era. (Kirk Douglas’ character in 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful is based in part on Lewton.) Unfortunately, Bedlam would prove to be the producers’ final film, as he suffered from health issues and ultimately died at the young age of forty-six in 1951.

Besides Lewton and Karloff, the film also features three other major contributors to ’40s RKO horror: cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, composer Roy Webb, and director/editor Mark Robson (the latter would graduate to more “prestigious” films and garner two Oscar nominations.)

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In 18th century London, Apothecary General Sims (Karloff) is the abusive head of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum. Besides his regular salary, Sims makes extra money by exploiting his “lunatics” as a freak show for wealthy Londoners. An inmate dies during one of these performances, leading Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) to campaign for asylum reform. Afraid of losing his position, Sims has Nell declared insane by a kangaroo court and imprisons her in the asylum. After a harrowing experience in Bedlam (a corruption of “Bethlehem”), Nell escapes and brings about better treatment of the mentally ill while Sims is put on trial by his former victims.

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Horror films come from many sources: books, mythology, video games, other films (quick: name a ’70s/’80s slasher that hasn’t been remade in recent years), man’s fear of technology and of himself. Very rarely, however, do films in this genre have roots in fine art. One of those rare cases is Bedlam, which claims to be based on the 1733 William Hogarth painting you see above. (The artist is given a writing credit on a film released almost two centuries after his death.)

For those not studying art history, Hogarth is probably best known for his sequential prints that many see as important precursors to modern comics. (My teenage self was haunted by his The Four Stages of Cruelty.Bedlam (script by Robson and Lewton) is supposedly an adaptation of the painter/engraver’s most famous work, A Rake’s Progress. Despite this claim, the film’s only real connections to A Rake’s Progress is its meticulous recreation of the painting as seen above and a few Hogarth prints used to link scenes.

Instead of Hogarth’s tragic tale of a man’s self-destruction, Lewton and Robson build their film’s plot around a thinly fictionalized version the notorious Bethlehem Royal Hospital. (Hogarth’s protagonist is only committed to the asylum in the 8th and final installment in the series.) This is probably a good idea because the then-active Production Code would have never allowed a faithful adaptation of A Rake’s Progress to be released.

Besides, asylums can be some of the creepiest places in fiction and are a perfect environment for a horror movie. Cinematographer Musuraca does very good work replicating the shadows of Hogarth’s painting with low-key lighting in the film’s interior scenes. Also contributing to the sense of atmosphere is the film’s sound design (by Hollywood veterans Terry Kellum and the aptly-named Jean L. Speak) which stands out in an era marked by flat, monaural sound recording. In one key scene, a roomful of “loonies” repeat words they hear over and over again; the echo sounds truly eerie and unnerving.

One would expect that Karloff – as the head of this madhouse – would play a cackling mad scientist-type, as he played this role again and again in his film career. Instead, the script gives him a very different (and somewhat more interesting) character to play. Apothecary General Sims is a shameless social climber who thinks of himself as a poet and spends much of his time flattering his social superiors. Rather than a diabolical villain, Sims comes across as just a pathetically self-serving man. Karloff’s performance is strong, especially during a chilling monologue where he compares inmates to various animals.

Considering the film’s historical context, I wonder if this character was intended to be a Nazi analogue. The parallels are definitely there: the Apothecary General incarcerates both political prisoners and the mentally ill in his hellish facility, subjecting the latter to cruel and dangerous “jests” for his and others’ amusement. (One of these “jests” involves killing a man by covering his entire skin with gold paint; I wonder if Ian Fleming saw Bedlam.) When he finally has to face his victims, Sims’ explanation for his actions is basically “I was only following orders.”

Regardless of whether his character was intended to be read in this way, Karloff plays and awesome villain and his scenes in the asylum are clearly the best parts of the film.

Unfortunately, our heroine isn’t committed until about halfway through Bedlam and the action outside of St. Mary’s is not exactly compelling filmmaking. Anna Lee, an actress I’m not familiar with, doesn’t do anything interesting with a badly underwritten character; both she and the script do a poor job of communicating her fairly generic character arc (from haughty society girl to ardent social reformer) to the audience. Much of the film feels like an typical  Hollywood period piece, which I guess is a compliment of sorts, as Lewton worked with much lower budgets than your average costume drama. To the credit of all involved, this b-movie never looks cheap.

The film’s lack of a strong protagonist is compounded by another equally noticeable problem: Bedlam kind of compromises its own message in order to work as a horror film. Although the film’s obvious message is that the real “lunatics” are those running the asylum, it’s conflicted between advocating for better treatment of the mentally ill and exploiting the mentally ill as something scary. The scenes at St. Mary’s are filled with the usual tropes of insane asylums in fiction: deranged inmates speaking gibberish, hands reaching out of cell bars to grab passers-by. The film’s finale involves the inmates getting their revenge on Sims, giving him a fate straight out of Poe.

While a decent movie, I wouldn’t say that Bedlam offers the best introduction to Val Lewton’s ouvre. I’d give that title to 1943’s I Walked With a Zombie, which remains an eerie and unnerving experience to this day.