Thursday, July 25, 2013

Scarlet Street (1945) Fritz Lang & La Chienne (1931) Jean Renoir

These should probably be listed in reverse order but the original 1931 film was not seen in the U.S. until 1975, so most U.S. viewers had no idea "Scarlet Street" was a remake. The story is based on a 1930 novel by Georges de La Fouchardiere and although the story lines are similar, the movies ended up being quite different.
"Scarlet Street" opens in Fritz Lang style - dark city street, raining, complete with hurdy gurdy man with monkey - and moves into a smoked filled room with cigar chomping men gathered around a conference table, imbibing happily. They are celebrating 25 years of service by cashier, Christopher Cross (Chris Cross, played by Edward G Robinson), who receives a gold watch from the company president.

The evening is a success, Chris walks his friend Samuel Hinds to the bus stop in the rain (for no other movie purpose other than to have Hinds invited over Sunday afternoon that will introduce us to Chris’ home life). Chris then encounters Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea) slapping around Kitty March (Joan Bennett). He gives him a shove and then in such non-Edward G Robinson-form, flinches back, holding his umbrella up in defense. But Johnny doesn’t get up right away. Chris runs for a cop, Johnny runs off, Kitty tells the cop he went the other way, and Chris is smitten with Kitty, stopping for a drink together while walking her home.

Kitty leads Chris to believe that she is an actress, Chris lets her believe he is a wealthy artist (he is an amateur painter). Chris pursues her. She resists because she’s in love with Johnny, who is always looking for easy money and Johnny insists that she take Chris for all she (they) can take. Chris sets her up in an apartment where he also keeps his paintings due to his shrew of a wife (Adele) who berates him at every turn, and continually compares Chris unfavorably to her first husband, the late police sergeant who gave his life trying to save the life of a jumper.

Kitty lets Chris believe that Johnny is her roommate’s boyfriend. At one point Chris asks her who Johnny is and she freezes, whirls around, and stonily asks, “why do you ask that?” To support her, Chris steals money from his wife and from his employer

Johnny starts to doubt that Chris is a wealthy artist and takes a couple of his paintings to a vendor in Washington Square, where an art critic snaps them up. Johnny sees the money road and tells the dealer and critic, who later track him down, that Kitty is the artist. The art is a success, Chris’ wife sees the paintings in the dealer’s window, comes home and accuses Chris of being a fake because he’s copying the work of artist, Katharine March (Kitty’s full name).

Chris is surprisingly cool with this, still thinking that Kitty is in love with him and is doing this for the both of them. The art begins to rake in the money.

Here’s the big twist: someone asks to see Chris outside his office, and he meets Adele’s first husband, recognized from the large picture Adele has hanging in their living room. He is looking for money from Chris to stay away, not knowing that Chris would welcome his return so Chris can escape from Adele and be free for Kitty. Chris sets up a scenario that will bring Adele’s first husband back into their home for Adele to discover. Chris has his suitcase packed and leaves as he hears Adele screaming about the intruder. 

Alas and alack, when he arrives at Kitty’s apartment, he finds Kitty declaring her love for Johnny, drops his suitcase and leaves. Johnny is dismayed that Kitty talked him into staying and thereby blowing their money train and leaves her. Shortly afterward Kitty hears steps coming back and hopes it is Johnny, but it’s a drunk Chris is at the door. He declares his love and wants to forgive her but she is cruel and laughs at him, at which point he grabs an ice pick (conveniently loaded with Johnny’s fingerprints) and stabs her to death.
A drunken Johnny also returns but after Chris has done the deed. The cops come to Chris’ workplace and he thinks he’s caught, but it’s for the embezzlement not the murder. The tip was phoned in by Higgins (Adele’s first husband, taking his revenge). His employer won’t press charges but he’s lost his position. “Chris, it was a woman, wasn’t it.”

Johnny’s arrested for the murder of Kitty as he is found with many of her valuable possessions (“You cleaned her out.” "Well, why wouldn’t I? She didn’t have any more use for them, did she?”).

Witnesses at the trial are filmed by themselves, in a very effective black and white circle, while each gives a brief statement. The trial turns on whether Kitty could paint or if the work was by Chris. Chris denies that he could paint, thereby sentencing Johnny to death. This is what he wants but he ends up being haunted by the voices of Johnny & Kitty, tries to commit suicide, and ends up being a homeless man, treated as crazy when he continually tries to turn himself in for the murder of two people.

“My Melancholy Baby” plays throughout the movie, most poignantly in the room with Chris after Johnny’s execution, against an ominous drumbeat (telltale heartish) when he’s hearing the voices of Kitty and Johnny.

The very last scene shows the homeless Chris walking past the art dealer who is selling the portrait of Kitty, done by Chris, to a woman for $10,000.00. Chris is expressionless, the crowd disappears from our view, which was never in his, and he walks on, finally and completely alone. 

 La Chienne (1931) Jean Renoir
“La Chienne” was Renoir’s second sound film and in this original version, Kitty is now Lulu (Janie Mareze), Johnny is Dede (Georges Flamant), and Chris Cross is Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon).

It’s introduced by a puppet act, and after the third puppet beats down the first two (in deed and word), he states that this play “has no moral whatsoever and proves nothing at all...The three main ones (characters) are HE, SHE, and THE OTHER GUY, as usual.”

The opening company party is quite different than in “Scarlet Street.” It’s a general get-together not honoring anyone but seems to be a prelude to further night time activities. The group mocks Maurice because he doesn’t join in the frivolity and he’s referred to as a wet blanket and the “life of the party.” They try to get him to come along to the after party, just for laughs for them, but he poetically declines, and they dislike him even more.

As Maurice returns home, he comes across the same abusive boyfriend to girlfriend scenario but this time there is no cop called. Legrand grabs a cab to take Dede and Lulu home to their respective places, and Lulu freely admits that Dede is her boyfriend and they’ve been together three years. Apparently this doesn’t matter because Maurice is smitten. Lulu promises to write to him. Maurice then returns home to his very verbally abusive wife, Adele (the only name remaining the same in both movies), and takes what she dishes humbly and without much reaction. (The first husband this time was a sergeant who died in World War I.)

One month later, we find Lulu ensconced in an apartment funded by Maurice.  Once again, Lulu picked out the wallpaper so Dede would feel at home. Lulu still believes Maurice is rich, and he continues to get money from her (stealing from Adele and his employer). Lulu tries to keep as much of the money for herself as she can because if Dede finds out about it he’d “put the bite”on her to pay his own debts.

One clearly major difference between a movie made in France at this time and in 1945 Hollywood was the Hayes code. Renoir was much freer to frankly show the relationships between his characters. In “La Chienne” it is very clear that these two parties are sleeping together. In “Scarlet Street,” she barely lets him touch her.

Lulu’s girlfriend and Lulu: “Do you love your painter?” “I can’t say it disgusts me to do it with Maurice. It’s just nothing.” “So why do you do it with Maurice?” “Dede was broke.”

Shrew wife Adele continues to mock Maurice’s paintings (“Self-portrait, again?”) and throws her ownership of the apartment in his face (“Nothing here is yours.”), along with her first husband, Alexis (“He was a real man.”).

Lulu wants to leave Maurice, Dede tells her to stay with him for the money, and when Lulu claims to have no money for Dede today, he takes a couple of Maurice’s paintings off the wall. He shops them around to dealers where again, they are spotted by an art critic and appreciated by a dealer. Lulu, as Clara Wood, becomes the famous artist. 

This time Maurice himself sees the art in the dealer’s window and is not upset. Lulu explains that her brother took them to the dealer and once again, Maurice thinks she’s doing this for them but Dede is keeping the money.

After leaving work one evening, Maurice is met by none other than Alexis, the “dead” husband. Alexis tries the same ploy on Maurice as it becomes clear that neither man wants to be Adele’s husband. Alexis switched his papers with a dead pal in a POW camp to get away from his wife, not the army.
Maurice has much more fun with his plan than Chris did, however. Maurice gets home happy and drunk, looks at Alexis’ picture on the living room wall and tells Adele “I’d love to see your face if he came back.” The subsequent scene is much more creative than in “Scarlet Street” and too much to relate here.

Maurice takes off with his suitcase to Lulu’s apartment and at the door, hears Lulu making up excuses for as to why Dede is there: (“You’re my brother...I’m came to visit...hurry up and dress). Then as he faces them: “Sure, he’s my boyfriend. What about it?”

Maurice sadly leaves and Dede is angry with Lulu because she talked him into staying overnight. Now will be no more pictures for Dede to sell. He slaps her around a bit and she has no trouble taking it. But he’s finished with her. In a nice little twist from an earlier scene with Lulu and Maurice, Lulu asks: “Then, you’ll write me?”  “That’s right...I’ll write you.”

Next morning, Maurice is back, trying to be forgiving and understanding, but she’ll have no part of it and turns cruel “If it wasn’t for your money, I’d have dropped you like a hot potato.” But like Kitty, it’s the cruel mocking laughter that turns the tide. The scene moves from a letter opener, down to the street musicians below, and then back up to the third story window where we see Lulu’s bloodied body and Maurice still kissing her hand. 

The street crowd has grown around the musicians and no one sees Maurice leaving the building. But everyone sees the obnoxious Dede drive his large car right into the middle of the crowd before he goes upstairs and quickly comes back down. The trial goes very differently but the result is the same and we last see Dede being woken up on his last day on earth.

The epilogue gives us Maurice who randomly meets up with Alexis, both being vagabonds of a sort. Maurice cheerfully describes himself as having been “a junk man, hobo, drunkard, thief, and to begin with, a murderer.” We see Maurice’s self-portrait being put into a car, whose occupant throws 20 francs to the bum on the street. Maurice happily picks it up and says to Alexis, “Life is beautiful. Come on.” 

This is a very different ending than “Scarlet Street” and after having watched both movies, I can see why Renoir would not have appreciated the remake.  “La Chienne” sometimes moves stiffly but has some very effective camera work such as the aforementioned murder scene and a shot where the camera moves outside the bedroom window to watch Maurice first seeing Lulu and Dede in bed.

Both films are by master directors and therefore worthy in their own right. An interesting back story to “La Chienne” is that Michel Simon (Maurice) and Janie Mareze (Lulu) became real life lovers but Mareze was killed on the way to the movie premiere of “La Chienne” in a car driven by Georges Flamant (Dede).  Sad ending to a very short career. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Last Man on Earth - Omega Man - I Am Legend

Three movies have been made based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel “I Am Legend.”
Watching all three is an interesting study in contrasts and I would suggest watching them in chronological order, starting with the first, “The Last Man on Earth” from 1964, starring a somewhat miscast Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan.
A plague has wiped out most of the world’s population, and bodies not burned morph into zombie-like vampires. They’re slow and dull, and speak just a little when calling out to Morgan at night: “Morgan, come o--u--t. Come out of the h--o--use.” In a flashback we that Morgan/Price doesn't believe the proposed theory of metamorphosis until his recently buried dead wife turns up at his door.
Mirrors, garlic, and a flimsily boarded up home keep the vampires at bay at night. By day, Morgan drags dead bodies to a huge burning pit and searches for vampire lairs to drive stakes through their hearts. He’s been at it three years. “Another day to live through. Better get started.”
Almost all of his story is told through voice-overs and flashbacks but when he suddenly encounters a woman during the day, we find out why the plague didn’t take him.  He was bitten long ago by a bat in Panama. The bat had a vampire germ but by the time it entered Morgan’s blood, it has been strained and weakened by the bat system and he now has immunity. Plausible.

The woman is from a group, who exist somewhere between human and vampire (“we’re infected but alive”). They’ve found their own solution to the situation and they take umbrage at Morgan’s activities, in spite of the too late revealed fact that Morgan’s blood can permanently prevent them from going vampire. Although there’s too much sacrificial lamb in it, this movie ending is my favorite of the three films. 

The 1971 Omega Man stars an over-the-top Charlton Heston as scientist Robert Neville, and he’s holed up in a penthouse in Los Angeles, complete with a wine cellar and is well-stocked with Scotch. The movie opens stylishly with Heston driving around an abandoned LA with the theme from “A Summer Place” playing.

Instead of vampires, Heston has to contend with hooded mutants that cannot tolerate light, speak just fine, although a little archaically, and have retained more brain power than the previous vampires. They also move faster. Their goal seems to be destroying any remnants of the previous civilization, which includes Heston, “that creature of the wheel.” And we can understand their anger. It was civilization’s actions that made them what they are today. 
The mutant-causing fault this time lies with biological warfare between China and Russia. Symptom are as follows: choking, unconsciousness, death, mutant. Fortunately for Heston, he developed a trial vaccine that he administered to himself in the nick of time. Too late for the rest of the world, however.

Heston’s place is the Taj Mahal compared to Price’s abode. He has outdoor cameras and is comfortable enough with his handling and knowledge of the mutants to watch them at night through an open window. He plays chess with a bust of Caesar.

His days are spent “shopping”, and searching for the mutants and their leader, Mathias.  Like Price, he suddenly encounters a woman, whom he chases after to catch (Heston performing a little more effectively than Price). The “others” inevitably surface, dramatically saving Heston from a burning crucifixion death and rescue him via a crazy motorcycle chase/escape scene.
Again, Heston/Robert Neville’s blood holds the key to humanity’s survival and instead of the sacrificial lamb we get an actual crucifixion pose. Hokey. 

Will Smith’s “I Am Legend” modernizes the story which is now set in New York City. The scenes are great and include a from-the-top view ala “Side Street.” The cheesy 1970s music is gone and replaced by a mostly Bob Marley soundtrack. Smith doesn’t take his shirt off as much as Heston and does quote movie lines better (Heston - Woodstock; Smith - Shrek). 

His residence, again as scientist Robert Neville, is a veritable fortress and his “dark-seekers” are much more formidable. They do not speak, but only roar or scream. They cannot tolerate light of any kind, they climb and jump like monkeys, and move at lightning speed. You won’t see one until about 30 minutes into the movie, and they are angry and smart enough to strategize.
Flashbacks help to fill in the story and the movie opens with Dr. Alice Krippen (Emma Thompson) announcing a cure for cancer that was created with a genetically modified measles virus. Naturally, things go horribly wrong and the virus mutates. These creatures are the result. Smith spends his time working on a cure and testing it on infected animals and dark-seekers but so far to no avail. “The Krippen virus is ... elegant.”

Like Heston, Smith has conversations with mannequins as both men attempt to retain sanity. Also like Heston, Smith charts out the city and where he’s been.  

This version offers some visual strokes of genius: the evacuation of Manhattan; Smith sitting alone at South Street Seaport looking at the destroyed bridges; Smith hitting golf balls into NYC off an aircraft carrier; and stunning images of an abandoned, post-apocalyptic Manhattan. 
The bridges are destroyed but a woman and child show up and save Smith in his moment of distress. No reason is given to explain the immunity of Smith and the others to the virus. At one point Smith states that he is immune to both the airborne and contact strains, and canines are immune to airborne only. Reasons unknown. 

“I Am Legend” is much closer to “The Omega Man” than to “The Last Man on Earth.” In addition to the story line, both have great art on the walls of their homes. But both Smith and Price have to put down a dog that turns. Smith’s version is much more emotional and dramatic but the scene leading up to meeting the first dark-seeker is very long and drawn out. And although beautifully photographed, there’s a bit too much sentimentality thrown in.

And should I even talk about the alternate ending that completely ruins “I am Legend”? Moving from “typical human behavior is now entirely absent” to alpha male zombie exhibiting human characteristics by loving his zombie woman and the entire group sparing the lives of the humans when said woman is retrieved suspends zombie movie belief. Butterfly motif? Hugely expanded. Both endings result in people driving out of Manhattan (via what bridge?) so that logic stream is lost either way. 
Although all three movies are worth watching, “Legend” is the most visually satisfying, “Last Man” is the grittiest in black & white and interesting with its lame zombie-vampire combination, and “Omega” is notable for its intelligent and devious monkish-mutants. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Bad Seed (1956) Mervyn LeRoy

John Waters refers to this movie as being one of his early, artistic, negative influences and mentions these three characters as being his holy trinity: the Wicked Witch of the East, Captain Hook, and Rhoda Penmark.
If you don’t know or remember Rhoda, it’s time to watch this film. Considered a shocker in its day, the movie is an early entry in the creepy-kids-in-movies genre (followed by “Village of the Damned,” “The Omen,” “Children of the Corn,” etc., right up to 2011's “We Need to Talk About Kevin”).
Little Rhoda (Patty McCormack) is a picture perfect, adorable girl with doting parents. Her teacher and school chums don’t feel quite the same way, and the mentally-challenged and somewhat sinister handyman (Henry Jones as Leroy Jessup) thinks he’s onto her real personality.
The story slowly unfolds and we’re following along with Rhoda’s mother, Christine (Nancy Kelly) as various clues are dropped. Kelly’s acting is over the top and histrionic; at one point she pommels her abdomen when she suspects her heredity and increasingly fears her progeny. (Interestingly, she won a Tony for her Broadway performance and was nominated for an Oscar for the movie role.)
The landlady (Evelyn Varden as Monica Breedlove) is an affectionate, over-bearing woman, devoted to psychology, and to Rhoda. She heaps advice on Christine ("you need vitamins and sleeping pills") (“I know I shouldn’t take things into my own two capable hands but...”) and gifts on Rhoda while indulging her every whim. When Rhoda is chastised by her mother for being not just a little rude and greedy, Monica responds with “she knows what she wants and asks for it.” 
Monica’s conversations are laced with psycho-babble, and the encounter of Monica, Christine, and Rhoda with Leroy on the sidewalk is a classic:

“I’ve thought of you as emotionally immature, torn by irrational rages and a bit on the psychopathic side. But after this demonstration (he sprayed Rhoda’s shoes with the hose - remember those shoes), I think my diagnosis was entirely too mild. You’re definitely a schizophrenic with paranoid overtones.”
Monica hosts a dinner party that includes Christine (whose military husband has been called out of town), Monica’s brother (Jesse White), and noted criminologist, Reggie Tasker (Gage Clarke). Earlier, when reminded of the dinner Christine asks: “What do you feed a criminologist?” Monica responds:

“Prussic acid, blue vitriol, and ground glass; hot weather things...; he thrives on buckets of blood and sudden death.” This response holds great promise for the upcoming dinner but it, and the later cocktail party, which brings back Reggie and introduces Christine’s father, an ex-crime reporter, serves up rather stilted discussions of child criminals, nature vs. nurture, and also some surprising plot twists. 
Christine and her father (Paul Fix) are a little too weirdly affectionate and we sense there’s something unknown with that relationship; not sordid, just a little off. Rhoda is permitted to greet her grandfather but is then sent up to dine with Monica (when she leaves the room she flips her braid to her back and is in essence flipping off her mother and grandfather). Christine has an awkward talk with her father about her dreams/nightmares, which end up being her father’s secrets.

Jesse White’s role as Monica’s brother and as one inhabitant of the apartment building is very small but he has the honor of spewing out one of the weirdest lines of the movie: “Well, I’ll be a middle-aged mongoloid from Memphis.” We don’t see him again until someone is being burned up in the basement.

Eileen Heckart, playing the mother of a son who drowned at a school picnic, has two scenes, and she steals them both, earning her a nomination for Best Supporting actress. “I’m drunk and unfortunate.” She also introduces the theme of underclass vs. upperclass, and calls out the snobbery of the school teacher, “Miss-butter-wouldn’t-melt-Fern.”
The aforementioned handyman, Leroy, has been kept on by Monica because he has a family and although everyone mistrusts him, only he and Rhoda eventually see each other’s true identities. At one point, Leroy is watching Rhoda, and muttering about her, repeating the butter-wouldn’t-melt-theme. ”Lookin’ cute and innocent; lookin’ like she wouldn’t melt better; she’s that cool.” 
Leroy later tries to scare Rhoda with the threat of the electric chair: “They got a little blue chair for little boys and a little pink chair for little girls.” That leads into the Rhoda’s true colors scene: “Give me those shoes! Give me back my shoes!”
Just when you think you’ve arrived at the ending, there’s a surprise twist at a hospital and justice is subsequently meted out by the heavens (changing the plot of the novel and play). The players then appear for their credits (as they would on the stage), and a ridiculous spanking scene finally ensues that dissipates all of the drama. The film ends with this statement: 
One can’t leave this movie without mentioning the musical theme of “Au claire de la lune” by Jean-Baptiste Lully. It’s played on the piano by Rhoda, whistled by handyman Leroy, and featured prominently in the musical score by Alex North. 

The scene at the end by the water nicely dovetails with the opening credits, and the cinematography by Harold Rosson was Oscar-nominated. The entire film feels like a stage play but I love a movie that uses the word “specious,” twice, and made me look up “excelsior.” While the studio could have made the ending so much better, Patty McCormack rules in the child-horror movie genre, and if she asks you for her shoes, you'd be well-advised to give them to her.
“Now and then we get a twisted brain chemistry born to healthy, enlightened parents, but that’s one in a million.”


Sunday, June 10, 2012

From Hell It Came (1957) Dan Milner

This is an hour and ten minutes of stilted, idiotic dialogue and very poor acting that together end up hilariously funny, although not by intent.

We have scientists/doctors on a South seas island checking radiation fallout from an atom bomb and treating the native population for plague (“Let’s try Formula X37.”).  The scientists/doctors are very boring and talkative, and spend a lot of time explaining plot points.

The natives have just killed off one of their own, who vowed his revenge. “I shall come back from Hell and make you pay for your crimes!”  The very Caucasian-looking chief (nice conch shell ornaments) and medicine man (bear claw headband) have wrongly accused the murdered man of killing his father, the previous chief. (The current chief speaks with a New York accent and most of the natives speak in fractured English.)
The ex-chief’s son is buried in a stand-up wooden coffin, knife still in his heart, with a voodoo doll, 2 large bones, and some seeds thrown in on top. Then these words are spoken portentously, “breethee pooro capu, zumu clova negatoro.” No translation provided.

Soon enough we hear from Hell as a stump starts growing out of the grave site and turns into a tree, containing the same plunged in knife - and a heartbeat. The natives recall a previous Tabanga (Creature of Revenge) that grew out of a murdered man’s grave and was released from the ground by a bolt of lightning and went on a killing spree until it disappeared (probably in the quicksand).
The scientists are advised that the Tabanga should be destroyed before it gets loose and starts killing. But the medicine man has more sinister designs and creates a concoction that when applied to the roots will allow him to control the Tabanga and its killing. He’s too late, however.
The scientists are intrigued by the heartbeat and want to study this creature, so they cut it free from its roots and bring it back to the lab where it’s chained onto a table. The move doesn’t go well and the pulse weakens and suddenly death is imminent (“The pulse is weak! It’s dying!”). Tina Carver wants to save it while Tod Andrews wants to throw it in quicksand.  “Couldn’t we try to energize the adrenal gland with an electro-resister?” Classic cure.
Instead, the doctors set up an IV that pumps Formula 447 into the creature for 8 hours to revive it. One of my favorite small scenes in this movie is the brief camera panning of the laboratory after the scientists have left, with the IV in place. It scans the room as it is and moves to the clock which is at 10pm. The clock is then fast forwarded to 6am and the camera scans back over the laboratory revealing the results of the last 8 hours. Complete with a monkey on the loose and a snake on the overhead lamp, the room shows the effects of the IV drip.

The tree monster was not only revived but also had the strength to break out of his chains and reek havoc on the laboratory. Now they’ve done it. Tabanga is loosed upon the island. “I just wanted it to live, not to destroy!” Ah, too late.

Tabanga’s first activity is to break up the funniest cat-fight you will ever see and we watch his first revenge kill, death by quicksand. The next victim suffers death by squeezing, and the next by being branch-stabbed. All good stuff.
The movie draws to its inevitable conclusion with our damsel in distress needing rescue and falling in love with her rescuer, whom she had previously rebuffed, inconceivably not falling for his approach: “Don’t you want a husband and children, like other women?”
Tabanga is a lumbering tree stump that won’t burn, from which bullets bounce off, and has a face resembling a bull dog with the lower jaw constantly quivering. You don’t get to see him in motion until 47 minutes into the film, and it’s a thing of beauty to behold. He has suitable, eerie music to accompany his strolls. His visage and the quicksand deaths are very likely burned into the memory banks of 1950s children.
One final note is necessary regarding Linda Watkins who plays an Australian widow running a trading post. She is particularly annoying and I think all viewers wish Tabanga had thrown her into the quicksand before this 80 minutes of campy fun ended. This is a must-see for fans of 1950s-1960s "horror" films.