Scream of Fear (1961) Selt Holt

Scream

Hammer studio was known for reinvigorating the horror film with its revisionist versions of Universal icons Frankenstein and Dracula along with providing a gaggle of sexy semi-dressed female vampires. But Hammer was more than just horror. The studio also made a series of suspense/crime films one of which is the 1961 thriller, “Scream of Fear.” Directed by Seth Holt with a script by Hammer main stay Jimmy Sangster the film contains its share of shocks closer in style to a Hitchcockian suspense thriller than Hammer’s better known blend of monsters and vampires. I first watched this eerie atmospheric film years ago on a beat up rented VHS tape and finally got to watch it again recently thanks to a copy I found at a local library. (1)

The film opens with a prologue prior to the opening credits. It takes place in Switzerland; the police dragging a lake for a body, a woman is soon found and identified as Emily Frencham.  We later find out she was traveling with  her friend Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg), together on vacation, when Emily, for reasons never explained, left her hotel during the night and ended up dead in  the lake.  Sometime later we meet Penny, a wheelchair bound young woman who returns, for the first time in ten years, to the creepy looking villa of her father on the French Riviera. Her father left England years ago moving to France after divorcing Penny’s mother. After her mother’s recent death and with her father remarried to a woman named Jane (Ann Todd), Penny comes to France meeting her step mother for the first time. Continue reading

Return From the Ashes (1965) J. Lee Thompson

Return Poster

The opening scene in this 1965 J. Lee Thompson film sets the pace and the mood for this interesting thriller. We are on a passenger train; a young boy of about 10 is banging on a door in the compartment. His mother attempts to get him to stop by bribing him with chocolate. The door suddenly bolts open and the boy flies out the door falling off the train to his death. The other passengers in the compartment are all in shock except for Michele Wolf (Ingrid Thulin) whose face remains an emotional blank sheet. The camera then focuses on her arm revealing the tattooed numbers forever burned onto her skin. Continue reading

Short Takes: Cagney, Dodsworth and Scream of Fear

Each DawnEach Dawn I Die (***1/2) It is Cagney versus Raft in this classic 1939 Warner Brothers prison drama. Directed by William Keighley, Cagney is Frank Ross an investigative reporter who exposes a political candidate’s corrupt association with a construction company. After the article is published, Ross is snatched by some goons right in front of the newspaper building. He’s knocked out, soused with alcohol and tossed into a speeding car resulting in a car accident which kills three innocent people. Framed for the murders, Ross is sent to prison where he meets big shot Stacey (George Raft). At first, they get off on the wrong foot with Ross continuing to claim he was framed and innocent, all falling on deaf ears. The two become pals when Ross saves Stacey’s life from an attempt by another prisoner to kill him. Continue reading

The Apartment (1960) Billy Wilder

The Apartment Title Card

Office politics has changed a lot over the years but sex in the workplace, in one form or another, is alive and well. Billy Wilder’s superb comedy/drama is a time capsule look back at one man’s struggle on how to succeed in business by lending out his apartment to four middle level company executives on various nights for their extramarital liaisons. In exchange, the four executives praise our antihero at work, writing glowing reports on him to senior management, including putting in good words with Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) the top dog at personnel.

C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is the original lonely guy, an actuarial, crunching out numbers for a major insurance company. Baxter works at a drab grey desk in a large corporate office building, populated by faceless individuals all working at hundreds of other drab grey desks.

Baxter’s home life consists of frozen dinners, watching TV and cleaning up the empty liquor bottles left over from the night’s escapades, bottles which he leaves outside his apartment door for garbage pickup, suggesting, to his neighbors, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) and his wife, that Baxter leads a wild life of swinging parties. Continue reading

The Horror of “The Birds”

I don’t really like to complain about multiplexes showing classic movies on the big screen. It’s rare enough that we movie lovers have the opportunity to watch great classics in a theater environment. However, and isn’t there always a however, after the last experience recently at a local Regal Cinema (Citrus Park Mall in Tampa), the real life horror was the theater experience itself, more so than Hitchcock’s excellent film.

I arrived at the theater about twenty minutes before show time. As I headed to theater five as it stated on the ticket, other patrons are all filing out mumbling about a change in the theater. “The Birds” they were told will now be showing in theater nine.  So like a wandering herd of sheep we all went strolling over to theater nine only to discover “Finding Nemo 2″ was already in progress. The manager, now on the scene, was as perplexed as the rest of us. He gets on his handy dandy intercom and promises to straighten this out. A few minutes go by and we are told to head over to yet another theater on the opposite side of the lobby. The sign reads 2016 (shorten for the documentary “2016 Obama’s America”). For many of us it felt like it may be 2016 before we find the correct screening room. Happily, this was the right theater, as the pre-show entertainment i.e. advertisements on the screen were TCM related. Continue reading

Short Takes: Eyes Without a Face (1960) Georges Franju

A brilliant, creepy, unsettling film about a crazed doctor who kidnaps a series of beautiful women, surgically and methodically removing their faces in hopes of transplanting successfully one on to the deformed face of his daughter. Just as you squeamishly hope director Georges Franju will move his camera away from the procedure, he stays securely in place forcing the audience to watch the complete removal of the face as if it were a delicate mask being lifted off, soon to be grafted on to the head of his deformed daughter, Christaine. It’s an unsettling scene, and an amazingly graphic one, considering the film was made in 1960, a year that historically has turned out three master works of horror, Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” being the others.

In some ways the film is reminiscent of many other horror films, the mad doctor, obsessed with playing God, think Dr. Moreau, Dr. Jekyll, and Dr. Frankenstein to name a few. In this case, it is Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) whose beautiful daughter was severely injured in a car accident for which he was responsible. Being a good father, he wants to help his daughter to look beautiful again. Thus begins a series of kidnappings of pretty young things as the doctor attempts to remove the facial skin of his victims and in an extreme case of plastic surgery graft the removed victims face on to his daughter’s. Each attempt has been a failure, as one expects the bodies of missing young women are beginning to pile up.

The doctor is assisted by his loyal and attractive assistant Louise (Alida Valli) whose has had some work done herself. The film opens with Louise driving in the dark of the night to a secluded spot to dump the body of the doctor’s latest victim. Sadly, each experiment fails, leaving the Doctor’s daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) deeper and deeper in despair.

The film is based on a novel by Jean Redon, adapted for the screen by Redon, Claude Sautet, who also was Assistant Director, and the team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Boileau and Narcejac are best known for their novels “D’Entre Les Morts” and “Celle qui n’était plus” which themselves are better known by their film titles, “Vertigo” and “Diabolique.”

Director Georges Franju avoids the standard modus operandi of many horror films, the quick cuts, the tense music that builds up with a calculating beat that something dreadful is about to happen. Instead we get some magnificent eerie, moody photography creating a foreboding atmosphere of dread and fear, also an early music score by Maurice Jarre that is at times almost circus like, adding a strange macabre mood to it all.  Do not misunderstand, Franju does not shy away or forget he is making a horror movie. As mentioned, the film contains some of the most disturbing and unflinchingly graphic scenes to ever appear in a horror film from this period, in fact, if you about to undergo cosmetic surgery in the near future you may want to avoid this film.  Even today these scenes remain very disturbing.

The film was originally released in the United States in 1962. Back then horror films did not receive any respect from the art house/intellectual film audience and when released in a dubbed version as part of a double bill with “The Manster,” another film about a crazed doctor and his strange experiments, the film sank quickly. Even changing its title to “The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus” did not help. But over the years, “Eyes Without a Face” has risen from the “B” film grave and has gained the respect it has been denied. In 1995, the film was released in a new 35MM print and played at the Cinema Village in New York and a few other cities.  In 2003, during the Halloween season, the film appeared again, in another new print, for two week engagement at the Film Forum in New York.

“Eyes Without a Face” is a masterpiece of horror, an imaginative, nightmarish, poetic dream that you will soon not forget.

The Organizer (1964) Mario Monicelli

“The Organizer” is a tough film to describe. Is it a tale of exploited textile workers fighting for better working conditions? A dark comedy? A human drama of class warfare? Well, the answer is yes to all. Set in very early years of the twentieth century in Turin the story focuses on the laborers in the town’s textile factory where the working conditions are harsh and the hours long. They arrive at 6 AM and leave at eight that night with only a half hour for lunch. The machines are dangerous, and there are certainly no health benefits in case of an injury. The workers slave for fourteen hours a day for a minimum wage. When one of the workers is injured in an accident the co-workers collect money to help out the family though they hardly have enough for themselves. Frustrated, the men and women stage a walkout but fail miserably when they neglect to support Pautasso (Folco Lulli), one of the leaders, who is suspended for two weeks. The others are penalized for the time taken off during the strike; they will now have to work on the job with no pay. Continue reading

Peeping Tom (1960) Michael Powell

Voyeurism and the movies go hand in hand. After all what is looking at movies other than peeping into the lives of other people. The subject has been explored in many films, “The Conversation,” “Sliver,” “Blow-Up,”  and more so with directors like Brian DePalma in  “Hi Mom!, “Blow Out,” “Body Double” and with Alfred Hitchcock in “Rear Window” and  “Psycho.” More recently films like “Disturbia”, “Alone with Her” and “Vacancy’ have explored the topi c. However, no film connects voyeurism and film more than Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom.”

Powell is best known as one-half of “The Archers”, the other half being Emeric Pressburger. Powell and Pressburger , produced, directed and wrote or any combination thereof some of the classiest British films of the 1940’s and 1950’s including “49th Parallel”, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, “Black Narcissus”, “The Tales of Hoffman” and “The Red Shoes.” Therefore, when this ‘nasty’ psychological thriller called “Peeping Tom” was released it came as a shock to both the critics and the public that this film was directed by Michael Powell. Reaction from the media and the public was so hostile, (the London Tribune said “The only really satisfactory way to dispose of ‘Peeping Tom’ would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the sewer, even then the stench would remain”), the film was pulled from movie theaters in Britain quickly. When the film was released in the U.S. in May of 1962, it was a sliced and diced aborted version that did little business and died a quick death. Powell’s career was all but ruined. He managed to make a few more films, in Australia, which included “Age of Consent” with James Mason and a young Helen Mirren, but for all intent Powell’s career was ruined and pretty much over. Continue reading

The Cincinnati Kid (1965) Norman Jewison

By 1965, Steve McQueen was a star with hit films like “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape” already behind him. Yet, McQueen still had not proven he could carry a film, films where he alone was the big name. “The Honeymoon Machine,” “The War Lover” and “Hell is For Heroes” did little at the box office no matter what their quality. McQueen was still chasing the one actor who he saw as his rival, Paul Newman. With the release of “The Cincinnati Kid,” Steve would be on a cinematic roll pushing him through the stratosphere for the next few years equal to that of his screen rival.

I first saw “The Cincinnati Kid” in 1965 at a little theater in Downtown Brooklyn called the Duffield. Back in those days, this area of Brooklyn was a sort of mini Times Square with the boroughs largest and fanciest movie palaces all within walking distance. The Loew’s Metropolitan, RKO Albee, Brooklyn Fox and Brooklyn Paramount were all large grand scale theaters, each seating more than 3,000 people. The Duffield, on the other hand, was a small theater, approximately 900 seats, located on a side street (Duffield Street) just off Fulton Street, the main thoroughfare. McQueen was cool, as Eric Stoner, aka The Cincinnati Kid, his screen persona in full bloom. He had the walk and the look. He doesn’t talk too much but McQueen was always at his best when playing the silent type, it was all in his face and his body language. In truth, I was always more of a Paul Newman fan, but in this film McQueen was it, total sixties cool. Continue reading