Thursday, 1 December 2016

Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Tarzan and His Mate is one of the most notorious of all Hollywood pre-code movies. In fact it was considered so brazen and shameless at the time of its release in 1934 that it became one of the main reasons for the tightening up  of the Production Code. Until fairly recent times it’s only been available in a savagely cut version, with all that pre-code naughtiness removed.

It’s also possibly the best of all the Tarzan movies, and one of the greatest of all jungle adventure films. You could almost say it’s the Citizen Kane of jungle adventure films! Even now it still seems remarkably fast-paced and action-filled. There’s a considerable reliance on stock footage (in fact quite a lot of the footage is from an earlier MGM movie, Trader Horn) and on rear-projection. The process shots don’t seem very realistic today, but back in 1934 this movie offered spell-binding excitement. In fact even today it’s pretty exciting.

The plot is somewhat involved for a jungle movie, with an old flame of Jane’s setting out on an expedition to find the fabled elephants’ graveyard and the enormous cache of ivory it contains. He wants the ivory, but the real prize that he seeks is Jane. Harry is a decent sort of chap really but his partner is another matter. He’s motivated purely by greed, but disguises these base motives under an exterior of charm and affability. To reach the elephants’ graveyard these two mismatched explorers will need the help of Tarzan.

Johnny Weissmuller gives his standard performance as Tarzan, and it works. While he can’t really act he does manage to convey a certain sense of fun which makes Jane’s decision to share his jungle life reasonably understandable.

The supporting cast is quite adequate. Neil Hamilton is very good as Harry, a decent fellow really but we know that he’s not likely to be able to win Jane away from Tarzan. Paul Cavanagh as Harry’s partner Martin makes an effective, very sneaky and very caddish, villain.

The real highlight though is Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. Wearing very little clothing (one of the reasons the movie is so controversial) she’s feisty and sexy and charming and bubbly and generally adorable.   

There’s a staggering amount of sexual innuendo in this movie. The combination of Maureen O'Sullivan’s overtly sexy performance as Jane and the extraordinary skimpiness of her costumes this would have been enough to get the moral watchdogs of the day in a lather. And then there’s the infamous nude swimming scene. As Jane dives into the water, her dress catches on a branch and is ripped off. There’s an extended underwater sequence in which none of Jane’s charms are left to the imagination (although in fact a body double was used).  If you don’t think 1930s American movies can be erotic then you haven’t seen this one. White it is erotic, it’s also playful and oddly innocent.

It’s probably worth pointing out that the movie is not quite as immoral as it seems. It’s made quite explicit that Tarzan and Jane consider themselves to be married.

It’s also an exceptionally violent movie, at some points quite disturbingly so. 

Tarzan the Ape Man had made an enormous amount of money for MGM in 1932 and for the follow-up movie, Tarzan and His Mate, the studio was prepared to be very lavish in the budgetary department. The action scenes are quite spectacular. The climax, with Jane along with Harry and Martin facing an entire army of lions, is certainly memorable. The elephants’ graveyard is another visually impressive sequence.

I caught this one on cable TV here in Australia but there have been several DVD releases.

If you’re only ever going to see one Tarzan movie, this is the one to see. It remains highly entertaining, and its notoriety makes it a must-see. Highly recommended.

Monday, 21 November 2016

The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929)

Paramount’s 1929 The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu did not mark the film debut of the great super-villain. He had been featured in a series of shorts during the early 1920s but The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu was the first feature film based on Sax Rohmer’s immensely successful thrillers.

The title role is played by Warner Oland who would go on to much greater fame in the Charlie Chan movies.

This particular movie is interesting because it attempts to give us a backstory to explain Fu Manchu’s motivations. The movie opens with a sort of prologue. It is China in 1900 and the Boxer Rebellion has broken out. Europeans in Peking are under siege in the foreign legations. A small child, a girl named Lia, is sent by her British father to the house of Dr Fu Manchu. The famous scientist and physician is loved and respected by both the Europeans and the Chinese so she will be safe there. Or so her father assumes. Tragedy is however about to strike. Snipers have taken shelter in the courtyard and Fu Manchu’s house comes under artillery fire from British troops. Fu Manchu’s wife and child are killed. Fu Manchu vows to exact vengeance upon the senior officers of all the European troops involved.

Dr Fu Manchu is in fact a kindly and gentle man who has been driven to violence and hatred by his personal tragedy. It’s an intriguing idea and if it doesn’t quite make Fu Manchu a sympathetic character it at least gives us some understanding of him as a man.

On the other hand it also has the effect of making him the kind of relatively straightforward revenge murderer one might encounter in a murder mystery rather than the diabolical criminal mastermind of Rohmer’s novel’s. It also downplays the single most interesting thing about Rohmer’s villain - the fact that Fu Manchu is not actually evil but rather sees himself as fighting on behalf of civilisation. It is of course oriental civilisation on whose behalf he is fighting and he is the deadly enemy of western civilisation but he is nonetheless an idealist rather than a mere evil madman.

The movie also downplays a very important aspect of Fu Manchu’s character that Rohmer always stresses. Fu Manchu is a man of honour, a man whose word is his bond. He is as much a gentleman as his nemesis, Sir Nayland Smith. So what we get is a less complex Fu Manchu.

After the prologue in China we jump forward to London in the 1920s. Several distinguished senior military officers have been murdered in various countries, all in mysterious circumstances. What they all have in common is that they were present at the siege of the foreign legations in Peking in 1900. Now Inspector Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard has reason to believe that the elderly General Petrie will be the next victim. He also suspects that the general’s son, Sir John Petrie, and grandson, Dr Jack Petrie, may be in danger. But he has no way of knowing how and when the murderer may strike nor does he, at this stage, have any certain knowledge of the identity of the man behind these murders (although he has his suspicions).

The audience already knows that Dr Fu Manchu is behind the killings and we also know that the instrument he has chosen to carry out his revenge is the little English girl (now an attractive young woman) who had been entrusted to his care in 1900.

It goes without saying that Fu Manchu’s plans to wipe out the Petrie clan are fiendishly ingenious and imbued with a certain ironic cruelty.

The plot is pure melodrama but it’s spirited and entertaining melodrama.

Rowland V. Lee was a somewhat underrated director and he handle the material pretty well. This is of course a very early talkie and very early talkies have a reputation (only partly deserved), due to the technical problems initially posed by sound, of being terribly static and creaky. Some of the camera setups here are a little static but Lee makes sure there’s plenty going on within the frame. The slight creakiness isn’t a great problem - if anything it enhances the melodramatic nature of the tale. The sets are impressive with a hint of German Expressionism and there are some nice visual moments. The slightly static camera setups make the movie at times slightly reminiscent of the Old Dark House movies of that era.

One might have expected Warner Oland to be a bit too warm and likeable to be an effective super-villain. This is in fact a slight problem but Oland does the best he can and his performance does work - his natural warmth makes him a smooth and deceptively harmless-seeming villain. For the character of Fu Manchu to work really well he has to have both menace and dignity, the qualities which Christopher Lee the greatest of all screen Fu Manchus in movies like The Face of Fu Manchu. Warner Oland isn’t as effective  as Lee and he’s not as outlandishly megalomaniacal as Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu but he is an intriguingly different Fu Manchu.

Nayland Smith is played with the right degree of noble heroism by O.P. Heggie while a very youthful Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon from the Batman TV series) gets to do the romantic lead stuff as the young Dr Jack Petrie. Jean Arthur does a good job as the unfortunate Lia, the girl used as an unwitting tool by Fu Manchu.

All three of Paramount’s Warner Oland Fu Manchu movies survive but they’re not easy to find, and it’s an even bigger challenge to find a decent print of The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (although you can watch an atrocious print on youtube). On the whole this is an enjoyable slice of melodramatic villainy. It’s a slightly unusual take on Fu Manchu and it’s worth a look.

If you haven't read them I also highly recommend Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books such as Daughter of Fu Manchu which I've reviewed at Vintage Pop Fictions.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

The Incredible Shrinking Man, released by Universal in 1957, is generally regarded as one of the masterpieces of 1950s science fiction. Director Jack Arnold made many of the most respected of 50s sci-fi flicks, including The Creature from the Black Lagoon (one of the most lyrical and sensitive of all monster movies). And there’s certainly much to like and admire in The Incredible Shrinking Man.

With a screenplay by Richard Matheson (certainly one of the greats of science fiction and horror screenplay writing for both film and TV) based on his own novel the movie achieves a genuinely epic quality. Epic not in the sense of money spent, or length, or spectacular effects, but epic in a true sense. It presents a struggle for survival that has mythic overtones.

Scott Carey is just a regular guy until a chance encounter with a radioactive cloud (this was 1957, when radioactivity explained absolutely everything) changes his life forever. He finds that he is slowly but surely getting smaller. Pretty soon he’s only three feet high. And although some clever scientist chappies manage to arrest his shrinking for a while, pretty soon he’s shrinking again. His wife has to find new housing for him - in a doll’s house! Unfortunately the family cat discovers there’s this cute little man in the doll’s house who would be such fun to chase. In the process of being chased, he falls into the cellar.

Being only a few inches high he has no means of escape. The cellar becomes his universe. He’s like a prehistoric man, alone in a vast and threatening world and forced to rely on his wits fir survival. And he has a deadly enemy. A spider. A spider that is several times bigger than he is.   

The special effects hold up remarkably well, and his war with the spider is like the struggle of a hero in a Greek myth to overcome a deadly and malignant giant. It’s played totally straight, and Jack Arnold resists any impulse to go for laughs at any stage. The approach works. Grant Williams as the hero also plays the role completely straight, and gives his character real dignity. 

This movie is nothing if not ambitious, and it’s aiming at making nothing less than a major philosophical statement about the nature of existence, our place in the universe, and the Meaning of Life. That’s where it all falls apart, for me at least. The ending had me cringing in embarrassment.  But other people like the ending, so maybe it’s just me. I have the same reaction to The Day the Earth Stood Still, and I seem to be in the minority on that one as well.

Whatever you think about the ending this is a supremely well crafted film and it’s definitely worth seeing.

The Incredible Shrinking Man has had several DVD releases and is readily available in most markets.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

St Ives (1976)

J. Lee Thompson’s 1976 crime thriller St Ives is notable for featuring a fairly amiable Charles Bronson.

Bronson plays Raymond St Ives, a very successful crime reporter turned not-so-successful novelist. With an ex-wife bleeding him dry and a gambling habit to support St Ives jumps at the chance to earn $10,000. Wealthy eccentric Abner Procane (John Houseman) wants to buy back some journals that were stolen from him and he wants St Ives to act as the go-between. It seems like easy money but the exchange doesn’t go smoothly. And then people start getting killed and they keep getting killed.

Abner Procane is not quite what he seems to be and obviously those journals contain something very valuable. Something worth killing for.

The other members of Procane’s household are definitely a curious lot. Firstly there’s his live-in psychiatrist Dr Constable (Maximilian Schell). Like most psychiatrists he seems a good deal odder than his patient. And then there’s the beautiful Janet Whistler (Jacqueline Bisset). At first we assume she’s Procane’s mistress but she isn’t.

The number of corpses that seem to keep appearing wherever St Ives goes causes him a few problems with the police but they are never able to pin anything on him.

There’s a lot of money changing hands, some but not all of it directly related to those journals. There’s another much bigger crime behind all this than a simple burglary and St Ives seems likely to get caught right in the middle of it.

While there’s a bit of a film noir vibe to St Ives it’s really more of a caper movie. And despite the body count it’s a fairly lighthearted movie. This being the 1970s even what should have been a lighthearted caper movie has to have a lot of corpses.

Raymond St Ives is a tough guy but he’s a long way from the dark and brooding Bronson character of movies like Death Wish. He’s tough but only when he absolutely has to be and on the whole he’s a pretty easy-going kind of guy who regards the world with a certain degree of amusement. Bronson proves himself to be quite adept in the role, playing it with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. He was always more versatile than he was given credit for.

Jacqueline Bisset looks lovely but doesn’t quite have the acting chops to pull off a femme fatale role. She does her best and she’s OK but one can’t help thinking that a more accomplished actress could have done a lot more with this role.

John Houseman is splendid as the fundamentally gentle and romantic if not especially honest Procane. Maximilian Schell gives a gloriously overripe performance as the creepy psychiatrist. It’s always great to see Elisha Cook Jr in any movie even if his character does  spend much of the film sleeping. Look out for Jeff Goldblum in a tiny role as a hoodlum - exactly the same role he played in another Bronson flick, Death Wish, a couple of years earlier.

Thompson was an experienced and very competent director and does a fine job here.

The movie reaches its climax in a drive-in movie theatre. It’s great setting and it’s surprising that drive-ins weren’t featured more often in thrillers.

St Ives was paired with another Charles Bronson thriller, Telefon, in a double-header DVD release (with the two movies on one double-sided disc). Telefon is an excellent movie so it’s a pretty good value-for-money release.

St Ives is by no means a great movie but it’s solid entertainment and Bronson is as watchable and magnetic as ever. Buy the two-movie set for Telefon and give St Ives a watch as well.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Fiend without a Face (1958)

I know that Fiend without a Face has the reputation of being something of a horror classic, but I’m afraid it’s a classic that left me sadly underwhelmed.

It is interesting in that it’s a 1958 British movie that seems like a 1958 American sci-fi/horror movie. While Hammer did make a couple of superb science fiction movies around this time (the Quatermass movies) this one has very much of an American monster movie feel to it. It’s set at an American air force base in a French-speaking part of Canada, which adds to the unsettling transatlantic feel that doesn’t seem quite right. The interactions between the air force people and the villagers suddenly makes one feel like one has wandered into a 1950s British Ealing comedy.

The American air force base is being used for experiments in atomic-powered radar. This was the 50s, so atomic power could be used for anything! The atomic power is beamed from ground stations to an aircraft in flight. Yes, I thought that bit was pretty silly too, but this movie is going to get a lot sillier than that. Strange events are occurring in the vicinity of the base. People are dying in inexplicable ways. The locals, being simple country people, think the atomic reactor at the air base is responsible even though the air base commander assures them that nuclear power is completely safe. Eventually permission is obtained to cary out autopsies on the dead, and it is discovered that their brains and spinal columns have been sucked out through two small puncture marks at the base of the skull! This merely confirms the suspicion of the villagers that atomic radiation is the culprit.

Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson) has the task of investigating the deaths and calming the local people. He’s inclined to think that the mysterious Professor Walgate may be connected. He is after all a mad scientist, working in the area of psychic phenomena and thought control. You know he’s a proper movie mad scientist because he has a beautiful female assistant (standard equipment for mad scientists in those days).

And of course Major Cummings and the beautiful female assistant start to fall in love, especially when he lets himself into her house to find her wearing nothing but a towel. This is the movie’s one sexy moment and they played it up for all it was worth on the posters!

Naturally if the villagers hadn’t been ignorant superstitious bumpkins they’d have realised at once that they were dealing with an invisible brain-eating monster. Oddly enough even the air force chappies take a while to figure that one out. As long as the monsters stay invisible the movie has a chance, but once a way is found to make them visible all is lost. If you have very silly looking monsters and very bad special effects, show your monsters as little as possible. Sadly the makers of this film ignored this golden rule. The stop-motion effects undoubtedly required considerable effort, but they look ridiculous. I generally have a very high tolerance for crude social effects, but this movie exceeded my tolerance by a considerable margin.

The movie has lots of other problems as well. For one thing, although there’s a germ of a good idea in there the plot is full of gaping holes. The acting is very unexciting, and the direction and the cinematography are lacklustre. So the elements that could compensate for the plot deficiencies and the general silliness of the premise are lacking. It’s not the plot or the monsters that sink this film, but simply the fact that it’s dull and lacks suspense. It’s an interesting historical oddity and if you really really love 50s sci-fi monster movies you might enjoy this movie. It’s definitely not my idea of an entertaining movie, although the 1950s jet fighters look rather spiffy and will appeal to aircraft geeks.

Fiend Without a Face has had numerous DVD releases including a typically expensive one from Criterion. I personally wouldn’t shell out big bucks for this one. Maybe worth a rental.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Demons of the Mind (1972)

Demons of the Mind is in many ways typical of what Hammer Films were doing in the early 70s - trying to stick to what they knew best and had had the most success with while also trying to vary a formula in real danger of becoming stale. So it’s a gothic horror movie, but it’s psychological rather than supernatural horror.

The setting is the familiar Hammer generic middle Europe, presumably towards the end of the 19th century. There have been murders and disappearances, and murmurings among the local peasantry about demons. There are in fact demons that are responsible for these horrors, but they are demons of the mind. There is a curse, but it’s the curse of insanity rather than the diabolical kind. It’s an inherited disorder of the mind, but not in the usual sense. It’s the type of madness a parent passes on to a child, but not through the blood (or through the genes as we’d see it today). 

The Baron Zorn has two children, twins, a girl and a boy, both now on the cusp of adulthood. The Baron and his sister along with Klaus, a faithful family retainer bearing at least a passing resemblance to a part-time hoodlum, are keeping the twins Elizabeth and Emil under lock and key and under heavy sedation. They have escaped more than once, and the baron has cause to believe that their minds are tainted with the Zorn family’s predilections for murder and blood. There is also reason to suspect an excessively close attachment between brother and sister, with definite sexual undertones. The last time Elizabeth almost got away she stayed in a hut in the woods with a nice young man with whom she became very very friendly indeed. She was retaken however, although the young man will reappear in the story.

In desperation the baron has called upon the services of the modern equivalent of the witch-hunter, the psychiatrist Falkenberg (Patrick Magee). But psychiatry at this point in history is little more than hocus pocus and theatrics, and even by the standards of 19th century medicine Falkenberg has a reputation as a charlatan. But where else is there to turn to? To add the necessary degree of complication to the plot a crazed wandering preacher (Michael Hordern over-acting outrageously) arrives, warning of devilry. 

For a late Hammer production this film looks handsome and classy. The atmosphere combines dark secrets, incest, insanity, bloodlust, sexual anxiety and aristocratic decay and does it effectively and with style. Director Peter Sykes provides a competent hand at the helm. 

And the cast is potentially extremely strong. Patrick Magee plays Falkenberg with his usual mix of frenzied and maniacal excess. The main task confronting Gillian Hills in the role of Elizabeth was to be sweet, innocent, sinister and completely loopy all at the same time, as she succeeds admirably. She has little else to do, but little else is necessary. Shane Briant as her brother Emil displays much the same characteristic but with added creepiness. His performance is less successful, but it’s perfectly adequate. Michael Hordern is great fun. Robert Hardy as the baron has a more complex and ambiguous part to play and he doesn’t quite nail it, but it’s a valiant attempt.

The script has weaknesses if you’re inclined to probe deeply enough, but if a horror movie has energy and style and gets the mood and feel right a few problems with the script don’t really matter and this movie has the requisite qualities. Being the early 70s, there’s some gore and some nudity. The film is both intriguing in the ideas it plays with and also very entertaining and there isn’t a great deal more than one can ask. A surprisingly interesting but oddly neglected movie which I thoroughly recommend.

Demons of the Mind is readily available on DVD.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

The Valley of Gwangi is one of those lost worlds where dinosaurs still roam movies. While these movies tend to follow a fairly standard formula, this one is a little unusual in being a cowboys and dinosaurs movie. It also has stop-motion animation effects by Ray Harryhausen, which is sufficient reason in itself to make it worth seeing.

The movie, made in 1969, is set somewhere around 1900. Tuck Kirby is a somewhat shady cowboy/conman/impresario who turns up in the town where his old girlfriend, the beautiful T. J. Breckenridge, is the star attraction in a Wild West show. Her act is to jump from a high platform into a pool of water surrounded by fire while on  horseback. Not the easiest way to make a living one would have thought. The show is run by her father, and it isn’t doing too well, but T. J. has come up with a new attraction which should turn the show into a veritable goldmine. One of the cowboys has found a living eohippus, the so-called dawn horse, the ancestor of the modern horse. It’s about the size of a large rabbit. She’s going to stage an act in which the miniature horse rides on the back of a full-size horse. 

There’s also a paleontologist working in the area, and when he finds out about the living eohippus the stage is set for a struggle between the scientist wanting to exploit the discovery in the interests of human knowledge and on the other hand T. J. and Tuck wanting to exploit it to make lots of money. Since T. J. doesn’t trust Tuck one little bit there are really three parties all competing for ownership of the little horse. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out that where there one eohippus there must be more, so they set out for the forbidden Valley of Gwangi, despite the dire warnings of catastrophe by the local gypsy wise woman. The valley contains more than just miniature horses - it also boasts living dinosaurs including a Tyrannosaurus rex, which of course would make an even better attraction in the arena than a bunny-sized horse. They set out to trap themselves a dinosaur (in one of the most stunning stop-motion sequences Harryhausen ever staged). 

Of course anyone who’d watched a few science fiction movies could have told them that trying to use a full-sized Tyrannosaurus rex in a circus show was an idea bound to lead to all sorts of destructive mayhem but they didn’t have science fiction movies in 1900 to warn them of such dangers. And naturally the expected mayhem does in fact occur.

The acting is reasonably proficient, with James Franciscus charming and thoroughly untrustworthy but terribly brave as Tick and Gila Golan doing a competent job as T. J. Laurence Naismith contributes a fairly standard but still entertaining performance as the dotty paleontologist. There’s a romantic sub-plot between T. J.  and Tuck, there are problems caused by the superstitious fears of the locals, and overall the far-fetched plot provides a good deal of fun and excitement.

Harryhausen’s creature effects are the real stars, and as always he delivers the goods.

The movie is available on DVD just about everywhere. The region 4 DVD includes a very short and completely worthless documentary which consists of very little besides modern special effects “wizards” gushing about what a genius Harryhausen was. He certainly was a genius, but this brief doco contributes remarkably little in the way of actual information about the man and his methods. 

The movie itself though is a very enjoyable romp which never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. And by sticking to a running time of just over 90 minutes it also (unlike so many modern movies of this type) avoids the danger of wearing out its welcome. Highly recommended.