Jun 24, 2015

On DVD: Bette Davis and Warren William in The Dark Horse (1932)

In a bit of political maneuvering gone awry, dimwitted Zachary Hicks (Guy Kibbee) is nominated as an unlikely candidate for Governor at a Progressive party convention. The insanity that follows often does not see far removed from the current political landscape. This new release from Warner Archive is like a Frank Capra film with noble sentiment excised, to be replaced with gleeful cynicism.

As Hicks is clearly unlikely to win the election, secretary Kay Russell (Bette Davis) is easily able to convince party leaders that her boyfriend, Hal S. Blake (Warren William) is the campaign manager who can lead them to success. She manages this despite the fact that he needs to be sprung from jail for missing alimony payments.

Blake confidently takes the reigns from Kay once he gains his freedom. He coaches Hicks to a win by working with his idiocy to make him look smarter. With every movement plotted like the script of a play, he approaches politics as a performance.

William and Kibbee are perfectly cast. The pair were members of the consistently reliable stable of Warner Bros players in the pre-code years and they play their familiar character types with confident ease. Buoyed by a sharp script by the famously witty Wilson Mizner and the snappy efficiency of the studio's best early talkies, they fall comfortably in its familiar and consistently successful formula for comedy.

A very young Bette Davis plays what would probably have otherwise been the Joan Blondell role. While Blondell might have brought it a bit more zing, Davis is lots of fun to watch. She isn't the larger-than-life "Bette Davis" yet, but you can see her emerging. The budding actress already has the brisk, proud walk, those sweepingly expressive eyes and her voice is building up to that legendary grandeur.

Often Davis was the flirtatious, sexy and essentially sweet blonde in her early roles; here she is more powerful. Already, she could command a room. While she isn't the center of attention, she has plenty of opportunity to give a preview of what was to come.

This is a happy diversion for fans of the leads, lovers of pre-code movies and those who like their politics with a side of acid.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Jun 22, 2015

On DVD: Crime and Intrigue in Once a Thief (1965), The Secret Partner (1961) and Signpost to Murder (1964)

I recently watched three very different takes on the 1960s crime thriller now available on DVD from Warner Archive. Once a Thief (1965), The Secret Partner (1961) and Signpost to Murder (1964) tread similar ground, from bleak situations to twisty plots, but each film has its own unusual character.

French star Alain Delon and Ann-Margret as a couple? That's all I needed to draw me to Once a Thief. That pairing, and an unusual cast including Jack Palance, Van Heflin and John Davis Chandler as an incredibly creepy, subhuman thug, are what bring distinction to this otherwise routine take on a former convict who struggles to stay honest after serving eighteen months for armed robbery.

Director Ralph Nelson (Lilies of the Field [1963]) sets a good scene, with friendly, if scrappy teens hanging out on a city stoop, and stores, streets and nightclubs that feel real. A laidback Lalo Schifrin score, more jazzy than his typical groovy vibe, gives the drama a cool feel. You know what's going to happen though--Delon's going to be drawn back into crime, it's not going to go well.

So you are left with Delon and Ann-Margret, who are pretty hot together. They're married, with a kid, but they can barely wait for the little one to drop off to sleep before they launch into foreplay in the doorway. Ann-Margret can go a bit over-the-top when she gets angry, but for the most part, you feel her dilemma as a woman who knows she's married a man who is bad for her, but wants him so bad she can't leave him.

I had trouble watching Delon as an English-speaking character, he seems meaner, and less erotic when not speaking his native tongue. It struck me how the much older and less conventionally handsome Heflin as a detective almost seemed sexier than him sometimes, just by the force of his charisma. 

The action in The Secret Partner is preceded by a dying marriage, and the film has the same cold fish feel as a fizzling love affair. Stewart Granger stars as a shipping executive who is being blackmailed by his dentist because of a crime in his past. He is then framed for another theft, all while his wife (Haya Harareet) leaves him because she thinks all his payments are funding extramarital trysts.

This is a slow-moving, but attractive production, also with a fine jazzy score. I was struck by some of the unusual angles that Basil Dearden used to heighten the sense of dread and peril. However, there isn't much of interest to enliven the pretty feel of it. 

Most of the cast is effective enough, and there are some novel twists, it's just not terribly exciting. It's easy to see why Harareet (Ben-Hur [1959]) didn't have much of a film career. She's attractive, but so lacking in interest she's almost a void onscreen.

That said, the film held a muted appeal for me. Its twists were just novel enough to surprise me and keep my attention to its bitter end, where I wondered if there was anyone worth rooting for.

I enjoyed seeing Stuart Whitman take on a rare starring turn in Signpost to Murder. He's an unusual star, not exactly handsome leading man material, but not quite a character actor either. With his slender waist, high shoulders and square chest, even his appearance seems to defy categorization.

Here Whitman stars with Joanne Woodward, in a nearly house-bound film that clearly shows its roots on the stage. He's Alex Forrestor, a man who has been committed to a mental institution for the murder of his wife. 

The hopeful, and seemingly cured convict breaks out when a doctor tells him of an old law which grants a new trial to escapees who can elude capture for two weeks. His hiding place: Molly Thomas' (Woodward) house, which is down the road from the institution.

And what a bizarre house it is. Filled with oddly placed chairs and couches, all of them seeming to discourage any sort of interaction between guests, the most unusual feature is a creaky old mill wheel which is visible through a large window in the living room and the bedroom on the floor above. The drippy squeaks of this odd feature punctuate the film's soundtrack for almost the entire running time and you can't help but wonder how Molly keeps from going crazy.

Though she is at first understandably reluctant to harbor a fugitive, Molly becomes attracted to Alex very quickly. You can only guess that she's got a taste for bad boys, or maybe the rush she gets from fear. 

Police detectives, her maid, even the local pastor tromp through her house, looking for Alex and trying to comfort her over the murder of her husband in the woods the day of Forrest's escape. Though the man hiding in her bedroom could have made her a widow, she never thinks to give him up, even though she easily could.

Whitman and Woodward are an uncomfortable match. It isn't easy to accept them as irresistibly attracted to each other, but they commit to the convictions of their characters with fascinating intensity.

It doesn't all quite come together as it should, but these people are so strange, so off-center in their behavior, that the film is fascinating in an unsettling way. There were a few twists that surprised me, even though in retrospect I couldn't believe I didn't see them coming. It was almost as if I had been sold on the character's odd sense of logic.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Jun 15, 2015

On DVD: Wallace Beery in Viva Villa! (1934)

The MGM version of the life of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa takes the expected liberties with the truth, but it doesn't plunge too far into fantasy. On DVD now available from Warner Archive, Wallace Beery leads a strong cast through this rousing pre-code epic.

Remarkably polished for its era, Viva Villa makes excellent use of its Mexican locations. The chaos and violence of the revolution comes through in the clouds of dust pierced by sunlight and the busy crowds of fighting men. The big studio gloss and sentimentality are less potent here, as the hangings, whippings and injustice against the peons are presented in brutal detail.

Attacking the role of Villa with his typical gusto, Beery can play it a bit broad on occasion, but his big persona fits the role. He makes some odd choices: scrunching up his face to almost comic effect, often closing one eye like he's a bit drunk and tending to play the revolutionary like he wasn't the sharpest tool in the drawer, which given his accomplishments is highly unlikely. Still, he is never less than mesmerizing and he manages to tap into the complexities of a man who is crude and violent one moment, gentle and generous the next.

The biopic touches on the major events of his life: bearing witness to the murder of his father, his days as a bandit, his recruitment by Francisco Madero to fight officially as a soldier for the new Mexico and the fall out from his successful, but highly controversial methods.

Villa is often accompanied by American reporter Johnny Sykes, played by Stuart Erwin (it is always clear that this role was originally meant for Lee Tracy). The working relationship between the two is fluid; sometimes Sykes reports on Villa, sometimes Villa alters his reality to accommodate what the journalist has already written. I thought that was an amusing comment on the way we view, and sometimes create, our heroes.

Fay Wray is another stand out in the cast, playing a glamorous Mexican socialite. She seems a lightweight presence at first, but in a surprisingly violent scene with Beery, she demonstrates why her talents were greatly underused in Hollywood.

There's plenty of action to get the blood pumping, though many of the battle scenes can be disturbing as it is clear that several horses were seriously hurt during the making of the film. Despite this unfortunate, real brutality, the MGM machine chugs along efficiently here--this is big studio epic making at its most assured.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Jun 12, 2015

Beach Party Blogathon: The Beach Girls and the Monster (1965)

Take a beach party movie a la Frankie and Annette, mix it with the creature from the Black Lagoon, and shake it till it loses most of its brain cells and that's The Beach Girls and the Monster (1965).

Far from his heyday playing hunky leading man to Dorothy Lamour and Maria Montez, John Hall directed and starred in this low budget stinker which would also be his last film. With a hip surf score courtesy of Frank Sinatra Jr. and lots of dishy looking youngsters, this is nevertheless a long hour that feels padded despite its short running time.

Still, it's got some goofy moments that have to be seen to be believed and a simultaneously irritating and amusing surreal sense of just about everything.

I thought I'd missed something, but no, this is exactly how the movie begins

The movie starts abruptly with a bevy of girls in bikinis bopping for dear life on the beach. Apparently they were real go-go dancers, so it isn't shocking that no matter what happens, those kids keep bopping away like Energizer bunnies.

No need to worry about the build up of suspense here, the beach monster makes his first appearance mere minutes into the film. After tossing a fistful of sand into her boyfriend's face, a beach girl trots up the beach, and takes sudden interest in a dark cave. Apparently the monster has been hanging around in this dank alcove, waiting for the opportunity to snag a go-go dancer.

As he waddles out of his hiding place, the monster looks a lot like the tin woodman draped in seaweed. When you finally get a glimpse of his face, you don't feel fear, but rather, nostalgia for those old bathtub toys that squirted water out of the mouth hole when you squeezed them. Silly as he looks though, this guy is a killer and he strangles the curious girl.

Everyone is mildly concerned, the police are called and the teens keep right on dancing. They even continue to have weenie roasts and sing-a-longs on the beach at night. Despite the fact that their friend has been murdered and the killer is still on the loose.

This nonchalance about the threat of murder greatly irritates Hall, who is Dr. Otto Lindsay an oceanographer who lives in a house on a hill above the beach. He hates the beach parties and tells a policeman that "The boys are a bunch of loafers and the girls are little tramps." His son Richard is one of those loafers and it angers him that he has given up his work alongside him in the lab.

Hall, not in his prime, but still a handsome older man
Junior is taking some time to find himself though. After surviving a car wreck where he was driving and his friend Mark (Walker Edmiston) was crippled, he decides to live it up a bit and take some time to appreciate the beach girls. An aspiring sculptor, Mark lives with father, son and Lindsay's young wife Vicky (Sue Casey). This sexy stepmother attempts to seduce Richard and failing that, wedges herself into a tight dress and goes on the town.

Mark sculpts the doomed temptress Vicky
The killings continue, and so do the beach parties. Seeming to grow tired of the teens though, the monster kills Vicky after one of her illicit dates. Mark becomes suspicious, and finds a monster head in a locked closet. Could the doctor be the killer?

Yes! Dr. Lindsay manages to slip into his extra monster costume and strangles Mark, but he is caught by Richard and his girlfriend. The frantic doctor takes off in his tiny convertible, wearing half the monster costume and driving like a maniac until he plummets off a cliff.

How anybody manages to survive in this flick is beyond me. No one seems capable of taking the most basic self-protective measures. 

I mean, if you're going to keep partying on the beach all night, at least take some kind of a weapon? But no, instead they bring a guitar, and a decapitated puppet head called Kingsley the Lion (which was created by Edmiston, who was also a puppeteer and children's television host) who serenades the group of dippy teens. The constant barrage of gags in this scene seem very much the desperate efforts of the filmmakers to give the scene wacky charm. It's almost endearing.

Kingsley croons
So that's The Beach Girls and the Monster. It doesn't make any sense, the characters are mostly idiots, long scenes of dancing and surfing footage make the hour-long film feel twice as long, but the music rocks and it's not without its lame-brained charm.

This post is my entry in The Beach Party Blogathon, co-hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. To read more posts, take a look at the submissions for day one, twothree and four.

Jun 9, 2015

HUAC Tension in Guilty by Suspicion (1991)

The communist witch hunt of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the resulting blacklisting of several Hollywood talents, is one of the darkest episodes of the studio age. It destroyed careers, friendships and families, and created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. 

Guilty by Suspicion, recently re-released on DVD by Warner Archive, attempts to capture the tone of the times, and occasionally it does, though the results can be uneven.

Robert De Niro stars as David Merrill, a Hollywood director based on real life blacklist victim John Berry. He is liberal, and all but apolitical, but when his friend Larry Nolan (Chris Cooper) names him as a Communist sympathizer while testifying before the committee, he is suddenly the focus of HUAC himself. His offense: attending a few meetings out of curiosity in his youth.

Merrill resists testifying, knowing that he will also be asked to name names. His independent-minded ex-wife Ruth (Annette Bening) stands by him, while everyone else he knows falls away, fearful of scandal. Finally giving in to the pressure, he testifies, only to find that he cannot influence the committee as he had hoped.

Guilty By Suspicion is a glossy, expertly-conceived Hollywood product. It looks good, the actors are slick and it glides through its story with a fair amount of ease. Something about it rubs me the wrong way though. It felt so calculated, so performed rather than felt. I could see the gears turning in the actors' heads. I wondered if a lower budget and a little added grit could have given it more authenticity.

Part of my irritation was with De Niro, who would drag out a version of his "you talkin' to me?" Taxi Driver speech every time he got angry. He'd repeat himself with the same cadence and in the same tone. It was distracting. I kept seeing De Niro, not Hollywood director David Merrill.

In an interesting contrast, Martin Scorsese steals his few scenes as director Joe Lesser (based on Joseph Losey), who chooses European exile over testifying. I'm glad that Scorsese focused his career on directing, but can't help wishing he'd devote a little more energy to acting. He's always an exciting presence on the screen, charismatic, natural and full of the verve you'd find in a classic Hollywood character actor.

Overall, I felt like most of the film could have been about most any kind of scandal affecting an individual. It was almost too personal, focusing so much attention on Merrill that the larger picture suffered. I don't know how much meaning it would have had for me if I didn't already know so much of the real story.

It is only in the last scene, where Merrill testifies, that I fully felt the frustration and fear imposed by HUAC. The bullying tactics of the committee, and the director's futile attempts to reason with them, or even to be heard, get your blood boiling. You can see how rotten the whole process is and how nothing good could come of it. If only the rest of the film felt this intense and painfully real.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Jun 8, 2015

SIFF 2015: Serge Bromberg, Flaming Nitrate and a Program of Archival Gems

When you think of a producer expert in film preservation and restoration, the image of an entertainer does not come to mind, but that is exactly what Serge Bromberg is.

He has made a career of digging through flea markets, attics and the like to find films that would otherwise be lost and forgotten and bringing them to an audience again. According to the SIFF website, his collection of nitrate film has about 120,000 reels. His Paris production company Lobster Films has restored and released collections celebrating the work of pioneering artists like Méliès, Chaplin and Charley Chase.

Last Tuesday, which was coincidentally the thirtieth anniversary of Lobster, Bromberg presented a fascinating program of film shorts, many of which he accompanied himself on the piano, called Saved From the Flames - A Trip to the Moon and Other Trips Through Time and Space. The charismatic Frenchman totally captivated the crowd. He is the kind of person who could tell you the most horrid thing in the world and you would find him utterly charming.

Bromberg talked about his work finding lost reels. He said his goal has always been, "finding those films, restore them and show them." Then he grinned at the audience and said, "and a lot of those films are bad." Fortunately, he spared us the duds.

One of the most popular aspects of Bromberg's presentations is his demonstration of the extreme flammability of nitrate film. I'd seen lots of photos and videos online of him setting a strip ablaze, with the tiny strip disappearing in a flash. I was so excited to see this in person that I could barely take photos, but I did get a couple of decent shots.

Here Bromberg lights, or rather attempts to light a piece of modern safety film to show how difficult it is to burn:

Then he lights the nitrate!

It was an exciting way to begin the program. 

Then Bromberg settled into MC mode, providing a description of each film with historical context, bits of information about the format and tinting and often an amusing fact or two about the short.

I have shared full videos or clips of the films where available to give an idea of how the evening unfolded, but keep in mind that these do not all have the tinting or soundtrack as experienced in the theater.

Trip on Market Street (1906)

A camera attached to a streetcar records ten minutes of life on a busy San Francisco street. Capturing the chaos of early car traffic, curious kids who seem to already know how to ham it up for the camera and a life that seems much simpler and more innocent, it is a film that has become more valuable with time. It is also a bit difficult to watch knowing that it was made three days before the earthquake that devastated the city.

San Francisco After the Disaster (1906)

This two minute Pathe film shows the damage after the quake. While it was difficult to watch, I found these first two shorts to be a fascinating pairing.

The Metamorphosis of the Caterpillar (1904)

Educational movies are as old as cinema itself, as can be seen in this color-tinted demonstration of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. The punchline: instead of a real butterfly, the rapidly flapping wings are simply the costume of a showgirl who reveals herself in the final moments.

The Acrobatic Fly (1907)

I'd seen this bizarre three-minute clip before, and it was even more odd to watch on the big screen. It is essentially a fly, sometimes with a partner, manipulating different objects while apparently pinned in place. 

An Eye for An Eye (1906)

Keeping with the insect theme, this amusing short tells the story of a group of butterflies who take revenge on the enthusiasts who attempt to capture them. In one shocking moment, a collector is pinned to a stump, just to get a taste of his own medicine. This lovely film was hand colored using a stencil process.

Flirting on the Train (1902)

The title just about says it all. A well dressed lady and gentleman do flirt in a train compartment, but a meaningful quick cut which then goes back to the couple rearranging their clothes indicates that a lot more than flirting was happening between them.

After the Ball (1897)

In the rare Georges Méliès film where the director does not make an appearance, a lady completes her toilette after a night out. This includes flashing a bit of derriere and being showered with a pitcher of black water that Bromberg guesses was colored so that audiences could actually see the liquid. It has been claimed that this is the first erotic film.

Gwalior (1907)

This Pathe travelogue of the Indian city of Gwalior was one of my favorites on the program. I loved getting a glimpse of the people and way of life in this growing metropolis, which was at the time still under British rule.

Japanese Acrobats (1907)

The astonishing feats of this team of so-called Japanese acrobats are the result of obvious trickery, but that doesn't make this amusing film any less entertaining.

Caruso impersonator (1912)

One of the few sound films on the program, this hilarious German short features an actor lip synching to a Enrico Caruso recording. I didn't manage to get the full name down, and I really wish I would have, because this was one of my favorites.The humor in it is that it is a painfully awkward performance. Our pretend singer moves chairs and bottles around with forced nonchalance, never looking directly into the camera and becoming even more awkward when the song ends and he doesn't know what to do with himself. Apparently exhibitors could dupe audiences into thinking this was a Caruso film by saying it contained his music.

Balloonland (1935)

I loved that Bromberg showed this delightfully surreal cartoon about a land of balloon people and the Pin Cushion Man who menaces them. It's hard to describe the thrill of seeing  a well-made 'toon in a theater. After hours of watching them on TV, being able to see one in that much detail is an almost overwhelming experience.

The Love Nest (1923)

This was a lovely restored version of Buster Keaton's last silent short. While it was necessary to use a few less than satisfactory pieces to complete the restoration, the overall result is beautiful and it's a really funny film.

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

I love this groundbreaking George Méliès film, clearly--just look at my banner, but I can't recall ever finding it more entertaining than I did for this screening, in which Bromberg read the original narration with verve and great humor. Having taken the lead on a decade-long restoration of the color-tinted version of the film himself, Bromberg clearly has deep feeling for the film, and it showed in his performance. Rather than using the new soundtrack by the French band Air, he chose the more traditional Robert Israel score, which I felt suited the tone of the program.

Gertie the Trained Dinosaur (1914)

While we had all been told the program would be over after A Trip to the Moon, Bromberg had a surprise for us. He stayed at his place in front of the screen and narrated this early animation film featuring a very obedient dinosaur. I've always found the movie a bit boring, but it was impossible not to enjoy Bromberg's high-spirited performance, which included a whip and a icebox watermelon as props.

It was an amazing evening, mostly due to Bromberg, who knew exactly how to please his audience. If you ever get the chance to see one of his presentations, grab it, and get ready for a memorable performance and brilliantly curated films.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.

Jun 5, 2015

SIFF 2015: Separated by Decades--Cave of the Spider Woman (1927) and The Cave of the Silken Web (1967)

Last night was one of the most delightfully unusual nights I've experienced at SIFF 2015. 

I saw a pair of films separated by forty years: one a silent film long though lost and another an eye-popping 1960s spectacle of song, martial arts and sorcery. Both are based on an episode in the Ming dynasty fantasy classic novel Journey to the West. Cave of the Spider Women (1927) is the first screen version of the tale, while The Cave of the Silken Web (1967) is the colorful Shaw Brothers take on the story (the first has a long lost sequel, while the remake is part of a trilogy).

When I arrived at the SIFF Uptown, the scheduled theater for the films, I was given a flyer directing me to the SIFF Film Center a couple of blocks away for the Cave of the Spider Women screening. The venue change was good news, because now the movie could be shown in its original 18 frames per second format. The theater is also a wonderfully intimate place to see silent films when the only accompaniment is a keyboard, as it would be this evening.

The film of this Chinese fantasy story was thought lost for over ninety years. It was found in an unmarked can in a Norwegian film archive, restored and presented to Chinese authorities in April 2014. As the intertitles were in Norwegian and Mandarin, it was most helpful to have SIFF Director of Programming Beth Barrett along to read from a translated script.

My favorite silent film accompanist Donald Sosin provided the music. As usual, he produced the most astonishing sounds from his electric keyboard. I used to find these instruments so cheesy, and dreaded any screening where they would be used to provide soundtrack. Sosin has proved me wrong. He is a confident, inventive artist. I loved the way he mixed lush classic sounds with unusual effects and flourishes.

Though the presentation was only an hour, and the first reel was missing, watching Cave of the Spider Women was lots of fun. It's the story of a Buddhist monk on a quest for a sacred text with his traveling companions, including Pigsy, Monkey and a Dragon Prince. The bumbling group is lured into the cave lair of a deadly group of women who are really spiders in disguise. Somehow these ladies have learned that eating the flesh of a monk will make them immortal, so they set out to make a meal of their captive.

I don't know if I would have understood much of what was going on without reading up on the film beforehand, and I don't think I would have cared either. This playfully vicious fantasy is full of action, humor and great visuals. The spider ladies are always amusing to watch. They're glamorous, tough and cheerfully amoral, which must have been empowering for ladies who viewed the film upon its initial release.

When the film was over, the audience was encouraged to walk back over to SIFF Uptown to watch the Shaw Brothers version of the tale, The Cave of the Silken Web (1967). This sexier, glossier take on the tale was a sort of musical, with characters singing about their desires. It was most unusual to see the scantily dressed spider ladies dancing together while crooning about their plans to eat the monk's flesh.

While there's not quite as much martial arts action as in your typical Shaw production, there's enough to keep the blood pumping. The mix of location filming and elaborate cave sets worked better than I would have expected, and I'm sure this is partly because the whole production is so outlandish that you're willing to accept almost anything. 

The film looked great, stretched across the screen in gorgeously colorful Shawscope. I also loved the elaborate costumes and the monkey character's very monkeylike make-up. He actually seemed like an animal to me.

This was such a fascinating night. I enjoyed the inventive way SIFF programmed the event, providing value and great contrasts for its audience.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.

Jun 4, 2015

On DVD: James Whitmore in Face of Fire (1959)

The devastating, but beautifully filmed Face of Fire stars James Whitmore as a handyman whose face is burned beyond recognition when he rescues a young boy from a house fire. I had this DVD release from Warner Archive for quite a while before I had the nerve to watch it; it looked unbearably bleak to me, but it is a fascinating movie, with great performances and an unusual look.

Whitmore stars as Monk, the charming and popular employee of small town doctor Ned Trescott. The happy handyman strides around in overalls during the day, caring for horses, doing odd jobs around the house and taking neighborhood kids fishing. 

At night, he becomes a sophisticated, well-dressed gentleman, beloved by all the ladies in town and admired by the men. He visits his fiancée and her mother, and they adore his friendly conversation and impeccable manners. In his story, The Monster, upon which the film was based, Stephen Crane writes, "no one would have suspected him of ever having washed a buggy."

Then one night some of the dangerous chemicals Trescott uses in his experiments ignite his lab and the house is soon engulfed in flames. Monk runs into the blaze and saves Trescott's son, while he collapses on the lab floor. Before the townspeople can rescue him, he is badly burned--his face all but erased and his mind reduced to that of a child.

Suddenly, Monk is a figure of fear. The once beloved gentleman is now looked upon as a "half-witted freak." Dr. Trescott remains loyal to the man who saved his son though, and he tries to find a way to protect him.

In the opening titles of Face of Fire, the characters in Crane's stories are referred to as, "neither evil nor saintly, but all too human beings." That about sums up the way the townspeople react to Monk after his accident. When they are away from him, they are sympathetic and sorry for the fate he has suffered. Once he shows his face though, they are repulsed, their every action driven by fear.

The man who once charmed the town is now being chased by men with guns and pitchforks. When he approaches the ladies who once adored him, they run in fear. In any of those scenes you could turn off the sound and not be able to tell if a drama or horror film is playing.

I found it curious that Monk was played by a white actor, rather than the African American in Crane's story. It would have been interesting to address the racial element. However, I also appreciated the way the film had a tighter focus, because the results of the accident are the only thing influencing the townspeople.

Filmed in Sweden, there's a lovely eerie light to the outdoor scenes. Everyone seems to be floating in their own brilliant halo. The inside scenes are also remarkably lit, with the clean, composed look of a classic painting. Director Albert Band only helmed a dozen films in his career, and it's a shame, because he has a novel way of staging his scenes, playing with perspective in ways that reveal the emotions of his characters.

I can understand why a film with such a downbeat subject would be a hard sell for audiences (the inaccurate horror flick look of the poster doesn't help), but this really does deserve classic status. It's always compelling and fascinating to look at, and infused with just enough compassion and kindness to keep it from being too bleak.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Jun 1, 2015

SIFF 2015: In Tribute to Stewart Stern, Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

I'd was already looking forward to seeing Rebel Without a Cause (1955) at SIFF 2015, particularly because screenwriter and Seattle local Stewart Stern recently died and I wanted to pay tribute, but the experience was much more touching than I'd expected. The film was presented at the Egyptian Theater this past Sunday and it was glorious to see that gorgeously colorful Cinemascope image stretch all the way across the screen.

My feelings about the film that night were strongly influenced by Brian MacDonald's introduction. A faculty member at The Film School in Seattle, he was also a close friend of Stern. In a meticulously executed speech, he shared his thoughts about this writer and teacher who was beloved in the Seattle film community. His first memory was of Stern looking out the window of his hospital room in his last days and saying, "What an amazing city. What a wonderful city."

MacDonald told stories about Stern's life demonstrating his kindness and compassion. As a child, he refused to take part in a snipe hunt at camp, because he didn't want to harm another creature, even though the whole activity was an exercise of the imagination. He killed a German soldier in World War II so that a younger American soldier wouldn't have to and have the death on his conscience. When he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, he was ostracized by locals for his support, but never turned away from his convictions.

This string of memories was an excellent way to introduce Stern's most famous movie, which despite its rough tone, is all about the need for love and compassion. The screenwriter wanted to tell a story in which he attempted to understand teenagers, rather than demonizing them, as in the recent sensation, The Blackboard Jungle (1955). Rebel Without a Cause was a perfect counterpoint to that film.

While James Dean looked a bit long in the tooth to play 16-year-old Jim Stark, he captured the vulnerability and confusion of a teen struggling to find his place in the world. He moves into a new town, with a long history of trouble behind him, only to find that he still can't seem to stay clear of drama. By the end of his first day of school, he has been threatened, wounded and a witness to death.

In the midst of all this turmoil, he meets a pair of soulmates: Judy (Natalie Wood) a girl starved for affection and Plato (Sal Mineo) an imaginative loner who lives with his absent parents' maid. 

Both of Stark's new friends become intoxicated by his kindness to them and the comforting confidence he seems to have in himself. Though he is merely friendly to Plato, the lonely teen dreams that he might long for him the way he does. Where Judy is concerned, she initially needs to be won over, but when she realizes Jim will give her the attention her father no longer will (he is deeply unsettled that his daughter is now a woman), she clings to him.

The three deliberately form a family. Though they play at homemaking as they hide out in an abandoned mansion, you can see that the trio truly delights in the discovery of their bond. Any outside trouble: from parents, police or gangs, is forgotten until they are forced to recognize that there is still an outside world to be dealt with.

It can be a difficult film to watch, because while just about everyone feels lost and isolated, no one seems to know how to deal with it. The characters have backed themselves into a corner emotionally because they feel they must follow certain codes of behavior. 

Gang members put on a menacing act, but fear and uncertainty flicker behind their eyes (in a supporting role as one of the toughs, young Dennis Hopper is particularly vulnerable). Parents are concerned, but distant, doing what they feel is their duty, but also fearful that they are not doing enough for their children. The rules they make for themselves cause them constant turmoil. Jim, Judy and Plato reject them to build their own world.

I got a bit emotional watching Dean, Wood and Mineo standing together at the end of the infamous chickie run scene. They peer over a cliff, watching their classmate burn to death, not one of them aware that they too will also die young and in a similarly horrifying fashion. Perhaps that can give Rebel a haunted feeling, but it also makes me all the more grateful that these talented actors were able to play so harmoniously together in this exciting, but also deeply moving film.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.