The Black Cat (1934) Edgar G. Ulmer

    Hands down the best film in the  Bela Lugosi Collection. The Edgar Ulmer directed film, “The Black Cat” is an outright masterpiece of low-budget filmmaking. Influenced by the German Expressionist movement, the film contains an unremitting strange eeriness and a constant sense of looming danger. Financially, the film was a huge hit in 1934 claiming the title of the highest grossing film of the year for the studio. As with most films based on Edgar Allan Poe, it has little to do with its original source. Lugosi’s character Poelzig is supposedly based on satanic occultist Aleister Crowley. Ulmer threw everything in the pot, expressionistic lighting, art deco sets, stark black and white photography, classical music, Satanism, orgies, incest and other strange behaviors all rolled up, shaked and baked into an original work of psychological horror.

    We are in Hungary, on board the Orient Express, as we meet Peter and Joan Alison (Jacqueline Wells and David Manners), an attractive  young couple just married and on their Honeymoon. In what they at first believe is their own private compartment they snuggle together romantically as young lovers do. However, due to  a mix up, they are interrupted and are asked to share the compartment with Doctor Vitus Werdergast (Lugosi) who has just been released from a prisoner of war camp after 15 years. He informs the young couple that he is on his way to visit an ‘old friend.’ 

    The couple fall asleep. Werdergast stares at the young woman. He gently strokes her hair, her husband wakes up catching him. Werdergast begs the man’s understanding and explains to him how he had a wife and daughter he left behind and went to a prison few men ever return from.

    When they get off the train, the honeymooning couple share a bus ride with the doctor. The drive is treacherous, stormy weather has made the roads dangerous. The bus swerves off the road and crashes. The driver is dead and Joan is injured. The Doctor suggest they join him at his friend’s house, which is nearby so he can attend to the injured woman. 

    The house, or should I say mansion is a strange futuristic fortress belonging to Haljmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), a satanic worshipping mass murderer. The fortress rest upon the remains of Fort Marmorus and the many graves of dead soldiers. Werdergast accuses Poelzig, who commandeered the Fort during the war, of betraying the Hungarians to the Russians, leaving him and the others to die or be captured defending it. Werdergast also believes that Poelzig, during his incarceration took his wife and child, and that they are somewhere in the fortress. The film becomes a battle of wits including a chess match with the young couple as pawns in the game. 

    Poelzig wins the chess game and David is locked in a dungeon in chains. Joan is locked in another room to wait her faith; a sacrifice upon the altar during a satanic mass.

    And that’s not all folks! Before the film ends, we  will see embalmed women enclosed in glass displays that seem to be hanging in mid-air, including Werdergast’s wife who apparently died two years after his was imprisoned. Poelzig also informs Werdergast that his daughter, Karen (Lucille Lund) is dead but we soon find out she is alive and has replaced her mother as Poelzig’s wife. Strange enough? Wait there’s more! Incest, butchery, torture, necrophilia, and all other kinds of aberrant activities are tossed in before this dark perverse masterpiece is over.    

    The film was made just prior to the enforcement of the Production Code. Subsequently, the filmmakers got away with plenty, much more than they would have just a few months later when the guardians of celluloid sin would have come smashing down on their fiendish work. Still, one does have to wonder if there were scenes cut out considering the short running time of the film.  

The film can arguably be considered Ulmer’s greatest work as well as one of Universal’s best in the horror genre. Ulmer not only directed but co-wrote the screenplay as well. Assisted by the stark shadowy photography of John Mescall (The Bride of Frankenstein) and the futuristic sets creating sharp eerie geometric angles in Poelzig’s mansion, Ulmer gets the most out of it all with his expressionistic and stylish camerawork. In his early days in Germany, Ulmer worked for Fritz Lang in at least five films including  “Metropolis” and “M.” He also worked with F.W. Murnau on “Sunrise.”   

    “The Black Cat” was the first teaming of Karloff and Lugosi on screen and their best. Karloff and that wonderful voice of his has never been more menacing than he is here and Lugosi, with his overacting in check, gives a tension-ridden performance that may arguably be his best. While their styles differ, the two men are on a even playing field, part wise, here and they consume the screen with a passion.  

    While the film, as previously mentioned, was huge financial success, Ulmer’s career began to spiral downward toward poverty row hell. This was due to a love affair and eventual marriage to Shirley Castle Alexander who was married at the time to a nephew (and a producer) of Carl Laemmle, head of Universal Studios. Effectively blackballed, Ulmer and his now wife Shirley Ulmer moved to NYC and he spent some years working on low –budget independent productions making all black cast films (Moon Over Harlem) and Yiddish films (The Light Ahead, The Singing Blacksmith). In the 1940’s he would slowly make his way back  west but was resigned to poverty row productions with films like “Bluebeard”, “Strange Illusion” and the classic film noir “Detour.”

Beware, My Lovely (1952) Harry Horner

Produced by Collier Young, Ida Lupino’s husband at the time, “Beware, My Lovely” is an odd little thriller that will keep you on edge for all of its short 77 minute running time. Along with Lupino, the film stars Robert Ryan as Howard Wilton, a former World War 1 veteran, and schizophrenic handyman who we first see running away from his previous job after finding the lady of the house dead. He soon arrives in a new unnamed town where a sympathetic widow, Helen Gordon (Lupino) hires him; its Christmas time and she needs the help at her boarding house. It does not take long for Howard’s perceptions of reality to become twisted as the kindly Mrs. Gordon is soon viewed by Howard as suspiciously hostile, and soon becomes a prisoner in her own house. Howard, paranoid, delusional, has locked the doors, pulled the phone out of the wall, cutting off our heroine from any outside contact.

The film is simply constructed, yet engulfs the viewer with a creepy atmosphere primarily driven by Ryan’s outstanding off kilter performance. The film has some striking visual touches that contribute to the eerie mood. One outstanding scene has Helen, believing Howard has left the house, sitting down in a chair next to the Christmas tree, obviously exhausted by her recent ordeal. Suddenly we see a reflection from a couple of hanging Christmas ornaments, its Howard, slowly coming down the stairs unknown to Helen.

The talented Ida Lupino gives a wonderful performance as a hostage in her own home however; it is Robert Ryan’s performance as the emotionally disturbed handyman that is the real highlight. Lonely, confused, psychotic Howard Wilton is a template for many movie crazies yet to come. The couple work well together having just completed Nick Ray’s excellent “On Dangerous Ground.”

    With a strong screenplay and story by Mel Dinelli (The Window, The Spiral Staircase, Cause for Alarm), produced by The Filmakers, the company founded by Lupino and her husband Collier Young, “Beware, My Lovely” is a gripping thriller. Contributing to the atmosphere is the art direction by Albert D’Asgostino who creates a homey atmosphere set against the terror that is played out. The husband and wife team gave production designer Harry Horner the opportunity to direct, though Lupino did direct a few scenes when Horner’s wife was ill in the hospital. In many ways, the film does reflect Lupino directed films with its arresting camerawork and stark black and white photography. As most probably know. Lupino was already a fine director of low budget psychological thrillers like “The Bigamist” and “The Hitch-Hiker.” This film fits nicely into the same pattern. It is a shame Lupino’s movie directing career was short lived as she was soon regulated to directing television series. Her television work did include though Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller and a few Twilight Zone episodes. “Beware, My Lovely” is also helped greatly by cinematographer George Diskant who whose work includes “On Dangerous Ground”, “The Narrow Margin”, “Kansas City Confidential”, The Racket and Lupino directed “The Bigamist.”

When the “Beware, My Lovely”, opened in New York in September of 1952, the ever off the mark, New York Times critic Bosley Crowthers shrugged off the film as having “no other positive purpose than to send shivers chasing up and down the spine.” Well, it is a thriller, what else did he expect. It does the job admirably.

Black Friday (1940) Arthur Lubin

    “Black Friday” is an odd film for Universal to have included in the new ‘Bela Lugosi Collection’ recently released. This is mainly  due to the fact that Lugosi’s role in the film is small, blink and you will miss him.  The film really belongs to Karloff. Lugosi’s character, though he gets second billing is minor in the film and on top of that, Lugosi and Karloff do not even have one scene together.  Various sources have pointed out that Karloff was originally scheduled to do the dual role of Professor Kinsley and gangster Red Cannon with Lugosi as Dr. Ernst Sovac, the role eventually played by Karloff. Apparently, uncomfortable with the dual role, Karloff switched parts taking on the role of the mad scientist, a part he could play with one hand tied behind his back. Lugosi, for some reason, either chose or was regulated to the minor role of mob guy, Eric Marnay, instead of the larger and more appealing part of Kingsley/Cannon.

    Told in flashback, we meet Dr. Ernst Sovac (Karloff) as he walks the last mile to the electric chair for the murder of his friend, the mild mannered college professor, George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges). On his way to the chair, Sovac hands over his notes to the one newspaper man who has been kind to him. From here on the film goes into the past as the story unfolds.

    Eric Marney and some of his boys attempt to bump off mob boss Red Cannon. Cannon’s car swirls off the road severely injuring Professor Kingsley. At the hospital, we discover Kingsley has a brain injury and the hoodlum Red Cannon a severe spinal injury.  When Sovac learns that Cannon has $500,000 in stolen money hidden somewhere, he begins to think how that kind of money can be used to fund his scientific research.  He performs an illegal and dangerous brain transplant, taking Cannon’s brain and replacing it inside that of his friend, the Professor.    

   The experimental operation is a success and Kingsley soon recovers, almost. Now, I am no scientist but it seems to me that if it were even possible to do a brain transplant, the personality of the brain, no matter what body it was in, would not change, logically gangster Cannon’s brain in the Professor’s body would still act like Cannon. Well, not so fast in movie land… After the operation, the Professor seems to be just like his old self, the gentile mild mannered man he always was. Somehow, Cannon’s personality has been suppressed, at least for now.

   Sovac, convinced that Cannon’s brain knows the where bout’s of the half million dollars is going to force his personality to emerge. This should not be too difficult since the Professor’s brain is not there any longer to begin with! Sovac attempts to extract the information by taking the professor to  New York City to haunt the places Cannon was familiar with. Amazingly, Cannon’s personality begins to surface, only he is more interested in getting even with his hoodlum associates  and his former lover (Anne Nagel), than showing Sovac the money. One by one, Kingsley/Cannon is knocking off his former cronies including Marney, who suffocates in a small closet.

    “Black Friday” is a strange brew of sci-fi, mad scientist and small time gangsters.  Co-written by Curt Siodmak who seemed to have a thing for “brain” movies previously writing the novel, “Donovan’s Brain” which was adapted three times for the screen, (The Lady and the Monster (1944), Donovan’s Brain (1953) and The Brain, in1962). Siodmak also was the screenwriter for the low-budget 1955 film, “Creature with the Atomic Brain.”  The direction by Universal hack Arthur Lubin is uninspiring to be kind. Lubin is probably best known for directing  Abbott and Costello movies (Buck Privates, Hold That Ghost), Francis the Talking Mules movies and  the Nelson Eddy 1943 version of “The Phantom of the Opera.”

    By 1940, when this film was made Lugosi’s career had seen better days. While there was still a few good films coming (The Body Snatcher), some fair ones (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man) his filmography was becoming filled more and more with poverty row throwaways like “Ghost on the Loose”, “Spooks Run Wild” and “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla” with Martin and Lewis imitators Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo.  Stanley Ridges in the duel role of the kindly Professor and the gangster is the real star in this film with his Jekyll/Hyde transformation smoothly done. The change in character is primarily accomplished with voice modulation and facial mannerisms than with makeup. “Black Friday” is a bit messy, totally unbelievable yet remains fun to watch.

The Raven (1935) Lew Landers

    I recently purchased the just released Bela Lugosi Collection and the 1935 feature, “The Raven” was my first selection. Having previously seen the dark erotically charged and best of the lot, “The Black Cat”, I decided to start with the films I have yet to view.

    With a short running time of 61 minutes, the film waste no time quickly establishing its storyline. There is a car accident in which our beautiful leading lady Jean Thatcher ((Irene Ware) is severely hurt and in need of a precise and detailed operation. Jean’s father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S Hinds) pleads with retired doctor Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) to perform the operation. Vollin is an egotistical madman with an obsession for Edgar Allan Poe. He refuses to perform the operation until the pleading Judge mentions that the other doctors have admitted they cannot perform the delicate procedure and he is the only one capable of guaranteeing a successful outcome., they all admit, he is the best. After hearing this admission, Vollin and his oversized ego agree to perform the operation.

    The surgery is a success and Jean is ever grateful to the Doctor who has developed more than just doctor/patient feelings toward the attractive and engaged young woman. When Judge Thatcher notices the Doctor’s fondness for Jean he confronts him only to have Vollin admit his love. Vollin refuses to stay away from her, infuriated by the Judge’s response,  he comes up with a plan to seek revenge.

    When escaped murderer Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff) seeks Vollin’s help in transforming his face so he can live anonymously, Vollin only promises to give him a new face if he will agree to help in seeking his murderous revenge. When Bateman refuses, Vollin goes along with the facial operation but turns Bateman into a hideously disfigured ogre. He now promises Bateman that he will fix his face only if he helps him with his torturous vengeance driven plan.

    Inspired by Poe’s classic poem, screenwriter David Boehm created a story filled with Poe touches. The poem itself is used twice, early in the film we see Vollin recite it and later on, Jean performs an interpretive dance as the poem is read on stage, a performance she dedicated to the Doctor. Vollin’s Poe fetish is also seen in various torturous devices that he will use before the film ends such as a pendulum swinging  and  a shrinking room.

Though Karloff is given top billing, and supposely a higher paycheck, he does not appear until approximately 15 minutes or so into the short feature, subsequently this is really Lugosi’s film. His character dominates the proceedings, with mad insane delusions that he is a Godlike figure. Lugosi’s tendency to overact works well here considering that he see himself as superior to all.

    The film turned out to be too strong in its horror for the audiences of its day. The combination of disfigurement, torture, strong desires, and glee, to inflict pain apparently turned off the moviegoers.  Today, these elements are partially responsible for what holds the film’s interest to modern day audience. Karloff as the disfigured murderer Bateman comes off again as the most sympathetic figure in the film. A killer who does not want commit another crime, tragically left at the mercy of the revenge seeking mad doctor.

        While not in the same class as Edgar Ulmer’s “The Black Cat”, and none of the other entries in this collection are, “The Raven” is a nice minor piece of 1930’s horror that is well worth watching despite some obvious problems like the awfully quick operation and recovery of Bateman and some dated dialogue that is unintentionally humorous. The film contains many of the atmospheric standards of the horror film of its day, including  a strange eerie house, and stormy nights along with a nice Franz Waxman score. The ending is a bit too abrupt and does not contain the tense dramatic build up that it would have made it more satisfying. Still, this is a  decent  and entertaining film.

Mean Streets (1973) Martin Scorsese


Every serious film lover sees a film that once in awhile affects you so deeply that it changes your life. You look at the screen and you say to yourself, yes this is what it is all about, this is why I love movies; this is why I sit through so many crappy films searching for the one that moves me to high levels never reached before. “Mean Streets” is one of those films. It is not perfect. It is not Scorsese’s greatest film, it doesn’t have to be, it is what it is, a personal work by a young filmmaker that reflects a time and a place that connected with me deeply.

Robert-DeNiro_Mean_l   The first Martin Scorsese film I ever saw was “Who That Knocking at My Door” back in September 1969 at the Carnegie Hall Cinema, a movie theater located beneath the famed Carnegie Hall. At the time, the theatre showed mostly art house, foreign, independent and classic films. I was home Vietnam on leave, losing myself  in as many movies as I could. And if you want to lose yourself in movies, New York City is the best place to be other than maybe Paris.

I must have read a review of the film in a newspaper and the synopsis of a young Italian-American kid living on the streets of Little Italy struggling with life’s complexities (girls, Catholic guilt) appealed to me on a personal level.  The film was amazingly unlike just about any other I had ever seen. The fact that the filmmaker was this Italian-American guy, like me, and he wrote and directed the film made it even more enticing. My wildest fantasies were coming true, only it was Martin Scorsese who was living it.  I never forgot the film or the name Scorsese as I went off to Fort Polk, La. for four months and then thirteen months in Germany before being discharged and getting back to my real life, when in 1972, a Roger Corman produced film called “Boxcar Bertha came out and I noted the director’s name, Martin Scorsese. Hmm…  The film was typical King of the B’s Corman stuff, maybe somewhat better than most of his films filled with the prerequisite amount of violence and sex, all the good things low-budget filmmaking does best.

Then came October 1973.

Means Streets LC robinson    Scorsese wrote the script for “Mean Streets” along with his friend and fellow NYU student, Mardik Martin with whom he collaborated with previously on some of his short films. In his book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, author Peter Briskind states the two friends sat in Martin’s Valiant during a cold winter and wrote the script. Much of the story is from Scorsese’s own experiences growing up in Little Italy. During the filming of “Boxcar Bertha” Scorsese tried to interest Corman into financing his next film. However, Corman would agree only if Marty changed all the characters to black. Fortunately, for all he found other financing from Jonathan Taplin, then a road manager for the rock group, “The Band.”

Scorsese hired Harvey Keitel to play Charlie Cappa, in time to film the San Gennaro festival, which takes place every October in Little Italy. He then offered Robert DeNiro a choice of any of the other roles in the film. The two originally met when teenagers but did not hang out together, DeNiro the child of two artists, grew up in Greenwich Village though he spent much of his time in the Little Italy neighborhood next door. He had seen Scorsese’s first feature “Who’s That Knocking at my Door” and was impressed with the film’s accurate portrayal of life in Little Italy.  After some discussions and a meeting with Keitel, who suggested he play Johnny Boy, it was settled.

“Mean Streets” does not have much of a plot; it focuses on Charlie Cappa a small time collector for his Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), the local Don. Charlie also has taken personal responsibility for Johnny Boy, an anarchistic simple-minded hothead who is in debt some two thousands to local loan sharks. Charlie is also having an affair with Johnny Boy’s epileptic cousin Theresa (Amy Robinson).

scan0021    Part of what drives “Mean Streets” is the interaction between the two protagonists whose improvised street-wise dialogue has a free form jazz like quality. Just listen to the Joey Clams/Frankie Bones monologue between Charlie and Johnny Boy.  Scorsese encouraged his actors to improvise, much of it worked on during rehearsals, which contributes to the film’s tempo. It helped that along with Scorsese, DeNiro and Keitel, some of the others in the cast grew up in similar New York neighborhoods and were familiar with the type of environment portrayed on screen.

Little Italy and its inhabitants were an enclave unto themselves, living a mostly separate existence from the rest of the city, insulated from the rest of the world. Outsiders were foreign and not wanted.  Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” shows us a world mixed with the old country and the new, a hybrid that never fully integrated. This is evident even in the superb use of music where the soundtrack combines the old (Opera), the traditional (Italian) and the modern (Rock and Roll).

Early in the film, Charlie enters a local bar owned by Tony (David Proval), sharply dressed, confident; he is greeted like a king. He dances to the beat of The Rolling Stones “Tell Me”, shaking hands with associates and friends, swaying to the music. Gliding through the room, he makes his way to the stage joining two topless dancers. This is Charlie’s world, he is the center of attention, and he is a man in his element.

Yet, Charlie is conflicted; he needs to reconcile his Catholic upcoming with his outlaw life. “Taking care” of Johnny Boy is Charlie’s attempt at redemption for his lifestyle. He knows that praying his ten “Hail Mary’s” and ten “Our Fathers” every week after confession is useless. As the voice over (Scorsese) at the beginning of film says, “You don’t pay for your sins in church; you pay for them in the streets.  Charlie is also conflicted with the women in his life. He is attracted to the black topless dancer and arranges a date with her, only when the time comes he stands her up knowing that in his world he can’t get involved with a black woman. He is already involved in a delicate relationship with the epileptic Theresa, who his Uncle disapproves of, telling him she’s crazy. Charlie, like many of Scorsese’s men has a Madonna/Whore complex. He resents Theresa’s independence. He chastises her for her vulgar language, which he and his cronies use all the time. He gladly has sex with her but fears a lasting relationship and his Uncle’s wrath. Theresa is in love with Charlie and she wants out of the neighborhood. She wants Charlie to commit to her and wants them to move uptown away from the neighborhood and into the outside world. Charlie cannot commit and he certainly will not leave the neighborhood. For men like Charlie, the neighborhood is everything.  scan0019

Charlie’s relationship with Johnny Boy will lead to its inevitable violent ending. Johnny Boy’s disrespect to the local loan sharks like Michael (Richard Romanus) cannot be peacefully negotiated forever. While Charlie “protects” Johnny Boy, he will not go the distance, that is talk to his Uncle, who thinks Johnny Boy is a flake and dangerous, and is the only one who can ease the volatile situation with the loan sharks.

Scorsese shows us a world where violence can erupt at any moment as it does in the now well-known “Mook” scene. Here we see Charlie and his boys go to a local pool hall to make a collection. The owner is happy to pay until one of the guys calls another a “mook.” While no one is sure, what’s a “mook” they are sure it’s an insult and soon a brawl breaks out between the two groups as The Marvelettes “Please Mr. Postman” blast away on the soundtrack. Scorsese’s mobile camera is in the middle of the mix as we watch these guys battle each other, Johnny Boy jumping on a pool table swinging a broken cue stick and kicking wildly. The police break it up but are paid off not to press any charges. As the cops leave, the two sides agree to have a drink together; however before you know it, another fight breaks out.

Scorsese poured himself into this film; Charlie is Marty’s on screen surrogate. There are indicators throughout the film most obviously with the lead character’s name. Charlie was Scorsese’s father’s name and Cappa was his mother’s maiden name. Like Scorsese, Charlie likes movies, twice we see him in a movie theater. Also, Charlie’s struggle with religion versus his outside life reflects the young Scorsese’s own internal battle.

Influenced by the cinema verite documentary movement of the 1960’s, the French New Wave as well as by film noir of the 1940’s (Charlie’s Uncle watches Lang’s “The Big Heat” on TV) film critics greeted the film with warm open arms. Pauline Kael in The New Yorker called “Mean Streets”, “a true original of our period, a triumph of personal filmmaking.” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times,   “No matter how bleak the milieu, no matter how heartbreaking the narrative, some films are so thoroughly, beautifully realized they have a kind of tonic effect that has no relation to the subject matter. Such a film is Mean Streets…” “Mean Streets” premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1973 and opened two weeks later exclusively at the Cinema 1 theater on the upper East Side of Manhattan. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, the film did not do well at the box office, it may have been too New York, too isolated to the tribal rituals of Italian-Americans or too blue collar. Finally, the film is not so much a gangster film as a coming of age story.

Amazingly, most of this New York film was shot in Los Angeles for budgetary reasons. Scorsese only shot about six days of exteriors in New York, including the annual San Gennaro festival in Little Italy. In addition, the tenement building shots were filmed in New York because of their authenticity and atmosphere. In those six days of filming Scorsese crammed in a lot of Little Italy including the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral and even a drive by shot of the Waverly Theater (now the IFC) in Greenwich Village.

Unlike “The Godfather”, which deals with the upper echelons of the mob world and mythologizes the gangster lifestyle “Mean Streets” give you a view of small time marginal thugs living in Little Italy. As influenced as Scorsese was by those who came before, “Mean Streets” would go on to influence filmmakers of the next generation.

From the opening pounding beat of Ronnie Spector’s voice singing “Be My Baby” to the final bloody ending “Mean Streets” is one of the great rides in cinema. I love it.

The Lady Vanishes (1938) Alfred Hitchcock

Lady Vanishes - Title2

    The “Lady Vanishes” takes place in a fictitious European country, though it seems suspiciously similar to pre-World War 2 Germany. Possibly, in an attempt to pacify the Germans, the filmmakers did not want to mention the country by name as this was just year or so prior the start of the war. Whatever the reason, the villains act very much as if they are affiliated with the Third Reich. A group of passengers are delayed from boarding their train due a recent avalanche.  Among the passengers are Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) an attractive young woman, apparently financially well off, traveling with some female friends, who is on her way back to England to get married. Also on board is Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a musicologist, Miss Froy (Dame Mae Whitty), an elderly governess who is returning to England after spending some time abroad, Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Nauton Wayne), two Englishmen whose only concern is to rush back to England in time for a cricket tournament. Finally, there is the philandering Mr. Todhunter (Cecil Parker) and his mistress listed coyly as “Mrs” Todhunter (Linden Travers).   

Lady Vanishes- Still    The following day, the tracks have been cleared and all board the train heading for England. Just before boarding, Iris becomes acquainted with the elderly Miss Froy. As they talk, a flowerpot is purposely dropped from a second story window. Meant for Miss Froy the flowerpot hits Iris on the head.  On aboard, the still dazed Iris and the elderly governess share the same compartment along with three other people. Settled in Iris takes a nap hoping to relieve her headache. When she awakens, Miss Froy has disappeared. What’s more, no one seems to remember seeing her. Dr. Hatz (Paul Lukas), a fellow passenger suggest that Iris’ meeting Miss Froy is all an illusion, a result of her bump on the head. Iris meets up with Gilbert, who she previously encountered back at the inn. Though skeptical, he offers to help find the older woman. 

    Each of the passengers for their own reasons denies the existence of Miss Froy. Dr. Hatz and just about every other non-English passenger seem to be mixed up in a conspiracy to cover up the existence of the older woman (even the conductor and stewards are involved). The English passengers all seem to have their own personal reasons for denying Miss Froy’s existence. Charters and Caldicott are only concerned about getting back to England for the cricket finals and do not want the train delayed any longer than it already has been. Todhunter, and his mistress, want to avoid any attention being drawn to illicit affair. As a result,  they are unconsciously aiding the enemy in Miss Froy’s disappearance.

Lady Vanishes-LC    The young couple eventually discovers Miss Froy is being held prisoner by Dr. Hatz in a private compartment guarded by a “nun” wearing high heels. They free her and eventually find out she is a British spy carrying important information (the maguffin) back to London. As the Brits attempt to escape, a shootout entails with the enemy and ironically, the only Englishman to die in the battle is the pacifist adulterer Mr. Todhunter who is shot in the back as he waves a white handkerchief surrendering to the enemy.  

Lady Vanishes-insert    With a screenplay written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder based on a novel by called “The Wheel Spins”, the script is a devilishly funny suspenseful filled work brought to life by Hitchcock’s camera and his cast. Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave are a charming couple and both became stars as a result of this film. In many ways, they are a typical Hitchcock couple; at first, they do not like each other though eventually they fall in love. If made Twenty years later it is easy to picture Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in these roles. Nauton Wayne and Basil Radford as Caldicott and Charters provide many of the laughs as the cricket obsessed twosome whose only concern is “How’s England doing.”  There is a wonderful humorous scene at the beginning where the pair are forced stay in the maid’s room at the inn due to a full capacity. The room is small and the men have to share a single bed. When the maid enters to change her clothes, the men in bed together are unsettled by her openness changing right in front of them.  The two men look on somewhat bewildered, a scene very reminiscent of a Laurel and Hardy short (Geoffrey O’Brien in his excellent essay that accompanies the Criterion DVD also points this out). Overall, “The Lady Vanishes” though a thriller, contains a lot more humor than most of Hitchcock’s other works.  Basil Radford and Nauton Wayne would go on to portray Charters and Caldicott in three more motion pictures (Night Train to Munich, Crook’s Tour and Millions Like Us). In 1985, the characters of Charters and Caldicott would reappear in a British TV series appropriately named “Charters and Caldicott” portrayed by Robin Bailey and Michael Aldridge.

 Lady Vanishes-Hitch abd Lockwood   Hitchcock was already in negotiations with David O’Selznick to come to America when he began work on “The Lady Vanishes.” The original director was going to be Roy William Neill best known for the terrific series of Sherlock Holmes movies he directed with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. When filming was delayed, Neill left the project and Hitchcock looking for a film to help complete his contract so he could move on to America took over the direction. A few changes were made to the script, mostly in the beginning and the end. Hitchcock would go on to make one more film in England,  “Jamaica Inn” before coming to America.    

    Critics on both sides of the Atlantic greeted the film with rave reviews. The New York Times called it the best film of the year. Today, it is still considered one of Hitchcock’s great films from his English period and actually one of his great films overall. “The Lady Vanishes” is also one of the outstanding “train” films, which Hitchcock seems to favor himself having made “The 39 Steps”, “Strangers on a Train” and “North by Northwest”, all with significant scenes on a train.

The Steel Helmet (1951) Sam Fuller

The Steel Helmet- Title

This is a revised version of a review originally written for Halo-17

 He has been called guerrilla filmmaker, a primitive filmmaker and a tabloid filmmaker. Whatever title you want to label him with, Sam Fuller’s “The Steel Helmet” is a low budget masterpiece made for $100,000 in 10 days, and it may just be the most honest and brutal look at war ever put on film.  Produced, directed and written (he used his own diaries as source material) by Fuller, “The Steel Helmet” is the story of a battle weary Sergeant known only as Zack the sole survivor in his unit massacred by the North Koreans.  As portrayed by Gene Evans, a World War II veteran himself, Zack is cynical, bad-tempered and unemotional. The film opens with Fuller’s camera focusing in an extreme close-up of a bullet-ridden helmet. As the camera pulls back, we see the dirt filled face of an American soldier underneath. We not sure at first if he is alive or dead. He starts to crawl hoping to avoid any potential lingering enemies. Suddenly, we see a pair of legs in peasant pants with a rifle hanging down by his side. Like us, Zack is at first unsure who the legs and the gun belong to. Fortunately, they belong to a sympathetic young Korean orphan who will tag along with Zack as he tries to make his way back to safe territory. The kid is soon nicknamed Short –Round (Guess where Spielberg and Lucas borrowed the name for the young kid in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”).

 The Steel Helmet shortroundThe two make there way through the foggy terrain soon meeting up with a black American soldier, Corporal Thompson (James Edward), a medic, and escaped POW. Together they move on, eventually meeting up with a rag tag squad of American soldiers led by an arrogant, by the book, Second Lieutenant named Driscoll (Steve Brodie). Zack takes an instant dislike to the shake and bake officer. As a harden World War II veteran he resents Driscoll whose only credentials for being an officer are six months of training and an Act of Congress. When Driscoll ask Zack to lead his unit to a deserted Buddhist Temple, Zack refuses, telling them they’ll have to make it on their own. Zack does have his Achilles heel though, cigars. Offered a box of cigars, he reluctantly agrees to lead them. Once at the Temple, they set up an observation post, which they use to direct artillery attacks on the enemy. The North Koreans eventually zero in on where the American firepower is directed from and a vicious deadly battle takes place.

Fuller has filled the screen with brutal battle scenes presenting one of the harshest views of the realities of war. Bloody, horrific and deadly. The men are dirty and scared. There are no heroes and no cowards, just men trying to survive and survival is precarious.  Fullers Americans are multi-cultural, from different backgrounds, filled with misfits and offbeat characters. From John Wayne’s patriotic war films to Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”, we have seen the unit composed of the misfit, the hotheaded kid, the kid from Brooklyn, the kid from the mid-west, the pacifist and so on. What makes “The Steel Helmet” unique is a coarse quality that filters throughout separating it from the others. This coarseness is apparent in most of Fuller’s works and probably due to his tabloid newspaper background.     

The Steel Helmet fuller

Released while the Korean War was still going on, Fuller’s film, a financial hit, was no flag-waving piece of propaganda. The film pulls no punches in dealing with racial issues. In one scene, a captured North Korean Major tries to undermine Corporal Thompson, the black soldier, telling him he is fighting for America, yet back home he is forced to ride in the back of the bus. Later the major attempts similar type bait with a Japanese-American soldier who he tells is a fool fighting for America since during World War II many Japanese-American citizens were placed in internment camps. This stark honesty in dealing with racial issues was rare and shocking for its time, likewise was Fuller’s vision on the treatment of prisoners of war. When an enemy sniper kills Short Round, the young orphan, and the North Korean Major ridicules the boy’s death, Zack shoots and mortally wounds the POW. When Lieutenant Driscoll threatens Zack with a court-martial after the shooting, Zack grabs the dying North Korean being treated for his wounds by Corporal Thompson and yells at him “If you die, I’ll kill ya!”

Fuller’s tackling of sensitive issues like racial relations and the treatment of POW’s upset the U.S. Government to such a point the he was put under investigation, even though he served in the First Infantry Division (The Big Red One) during World War II seeing action in North Africa, Sicily and Omaha Beach on D-Day. Politically, Fuller’s film upset both the left and the right each side accusing him of favoring the other.  Despite all this, “The Steel Helmet” was a big hit at the box office.

SteelHelmet1Gene Evans, in his first starring role, gives an extraordinary performance as the tough, cold, cynical loner who does not let his emotions cloud his survivor instincts.  He survives because he shows no mercy and his only interest is in killing as many “gooks” as he can. Zack displays no political motivation, no discussion about whether war is right or wrong. This was Evans first role under Fuller’s direction. He would go on to make four more films with Sam, including “Park Row”, “Fixed Bayonets”, “Hell and High Water” and “Shock Corridor.” Also noteworthy is James Edwards who gives a great performance as the war fatigued black medic. “The Steel Helmet” was only Fuller’s third film as a director. This independent production, filmed partially in Los Angles Griffith Park was a financial success with film audiences making over two million dollars and bringing Fuller to the attention of Twentieth Century Fox.

TheSteelHelmet_zackIn 1998, soon after the American Film Institute announced their Top 100 American films, “The Steel Helmet” was included in noted critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Alternate Top 100 American Films list. Rosenbaum compiled his list as an alternative to the “lackluster” listing provided by the staid and corporate minded AFI. If you are interested in Sam Fuller and his work, a wonderful documentary called “The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera” is certainly worth seeking out.

The Walking Dead (1936) Michael Curtiz

The Waliking Dea poster

“The Walking Dead” is a blend of gangster film, horror with a touch of science fiction tossed in.  Directed by Warner Brothers’ stalwart Michael Curtiz, who previously dabbled in the horror genre with “Doctor X” and “Mystery of the Wax Museum”, this 1936 film, is an engaging oddity that should not be missed. The film stars Boris Karloff as John Ellman, a down on his luck ex-convict who innocently gets mixed up with some underworld characters. He is framed for the murder of a judge who just convicted one of their buddies to a long prison term.  Two young medical assistants, Nancy (Marguarite Churchill) and Jimmy (Warren Hull) are witnesses to Ellman’s frame-up but do not come forth and say anything until the last minutes before his execution. By the time, the Governor is reached to stop the electrocution it is too late. Dr. Evan Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn), who Nancy and Jimmy work for, wants Ellman’s body for his experiments in bringing people back from the dead. Beaumont’s experiment is successful and Ellman is brought back to life.

Though he is alive, Ellman is not quite the man he used to be. He cannot remember much except who framed him and that he has an affinity for wanting to spend time at the cemetery where he says he feels that this is where he belongs.  Zombie like, Ellman soon begins to go after each of the men responsible for his frame-up and one by one, they begin to die, though more from fright than from Ellman actually doing anything.walking

What makes the film exceptional is the cinematography by Hal Mohr. The film is gorgeously shot with eerie long shadows. Most spectacular is the buildup to Ellman’s execution, poignant cello playing, and shadows of the jail cell bars flowing dramatically across the floor. The film is worth seeing for this scene alone.

Along with Karloff, the film’s cast includes Ricardo Cortez as Nolan, the mob’s slime ball lawyer, Barton MacLane as one of the gangsters and Joe Sawyer as the shooter appropriately named “Trigger.” Edmund Gwenn, best known as the real Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street” is the research doctor who is more interested in what it is like to be dead than in saving Ellman’s life. As Ellman lays on the ground dying the Doctor drills him, “What’s it like to be dead…tell me!”  In his final words, Ellman begins to tell him, “After the shock, I seemed to feel peace and….” He never finishes the sentence.

Karloff of course has been resurrected from the dead more times cinematically than anyone has except for you know whom, I count at least four. He first rose from the dead as the monster in the 1931 James Whale classic “Frankenstein” (it’s alive! it’s alive! cried Dr. Frankenstein) followed by “The Mummy” in 1932.  In 1936 came this film, and since you cannot keep a good man down, or dead for that matter, he came back one more time in Columbia’s 1939 low budget “The Man They Could Not Hang” , a film with some similarities to this one.   With his hallow cheeks and mournful look Karloff makes an effecting brain dead zombie that will keep haunting you long after the film’s short running time ends.

No Man of Her Own (1932) Wesley Ruggles


Do not confuse this film with the 1950 Barbara Stanwyck film noir  “No Man of Her Own” directed by Mitchell Leisen. This 1932 release directed by Wesley Ruggles was the only celluloid pairing of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. (Technically, Gable and Lombard were in two other films, either in small roles or as extras. Both were silent films and both from 1925, “The Plastic Age” directed by Wesley Ruggles and “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, directed by Fred Niblo).

Made for Paramount, Gable on loan from MGM, the film is a light comedy-drama about a con man named Babe Stewart (Clark Gable) who needs to escape from the big city (New York) to a small town until things cool off with the law. While there, he meets a local librarian, a young and beautiful woman named Connie (Carole Lombard) who is board with the humdrum life of small town living and will do almost anything to  leave her dull surroundings. Babe spots her on the street and follows her to the library where she works, though Babe does not seem the type to frequent libraries. Babe pursues the attractive librarian, and Connie is willing to be caught despite a mother (Elizabeth Patterson) who keeps her on a short leash.

No Man of Her Own- Librry scence     On a flip a coin, Connie gambles not only her virtue but also her future. They get married and go back to New York where Babe plans to continue on his career as a con artist. They move into Babe’s luxurious depression free apartment. Connie, unaware of Babe’s real and illegal profession, believes he is working as a broker on Wall Street. With the move to the big city, the audacious Connie suddenly switches gears and goes from an adventurous young woman to spending the remainder of the film trying to reform Babe to the straight and narrow. When she discovers a pair of marked cards belonging to her husband, she realizes that he has been lying about his career and arranges the deck so Babe will lose. Upset with her chicanery, Babe at first wants to give her a couple of thousand and send her back to her mother. Then he decides to go to Rio de Janeiro with his partners to do some big time gambling, however realizing he loves her, he instead arranges to get himself arrested for a ninety-day jail-term. This so he can square himself with the law, while Connie living with her mother during this time, believes he is in South America. Of course, it all ends happily for the couple in the Hollywood tradition.

No Man of her own- publicity shot   Released at the end of 1932, this pre-code film is loaded with smart bright dialogue and racy pre-code scenes. We see both Lombard and Gable in separate showers scenes and we watch Lombard strip down to a bra and Victoria Secret style undergarments, running back and forth across a room when Gable unexpectedly knocks on her cabin’s front door. We then see her put on a pair of lounging pajamas, but not before the filmmakers make sure we know she is removing her bra. The most famous risqué scene in the film takes place earlier in the library when they first meet when Gable purposely request a book located high up on the top shelf. Lombard has to climb a latter and lean over just enough and at the correct level for Gable to admire her shapely legs. Today, this scene is not very provocative but at the time, it seemed to irritate the guardians of decency and became a symbol in the fight for cleanup of movies.

No Man of Her Owncarole-Gable still_03 There is quite a bit of sophisticated dialogue throughout the film, for example, early on Kay (Dorothy Mackaill), one of Babe’s partners and his mistress tells Charlie (Grant Mitchell) another cohort in the scheme that “next time you play my uncle, cut out those wet kisses.”  Later on Connie says “The girl who lands him will say no and put an anchor on it…But isn’t it tough when all you can think of is yes?”

Both lead characters are allowed to be adult and mature, unlike in most of today’s romantic comedies where the characters, male and female, seem to thrive on infantile behavior.

No Man of Her Own Gable, Lombard, MacKaillnormal_1 The rapport between Gable and Lombard is easily apparent. Both are young and extremely attractive, however they were not romantically involved off screen for a couple of years yet. On screen, their scenes sizzle. Just check how they look at each other in their love scenes. Gable was still married to Ria and heavily involved in an affair with Joan Crawford. In fact, one of the reasons, MGM lent Gable to Paramount was to get him away from Crawford in hopes of cooling off the romance. Lombard, at the time, was still married to the seventeen year older William Powell. At this point, Gable thought Lombard’s well-known salty tongue was a bit much, though later on he would say proudly that she could out curse any man he knew. Lombard’s feelings toward Gable at this point are best surmised by her parting gift after the shoot was over, a ham with a photo of him on it.  Various biographers tell the story that politically Lombard and Gable were at opposite poles, maybe. Lombard was a stanch Roosevelt democrat who hated Herbert Hoover and use to say so loud and clear. Gable, one day, came on the set wearing a Hoover button, which Lombard proceeded to rip off him and said, “You can shove this up Louis B. Mayor’s ass!” Mayor, an unwavering Republican insisted that his stable of stars all vote Republican. It’s not known for sure how Gable voted.

normal_caroleclark2    Before Gable was secured for the picture (in a trade that involved Bing Crosby going to MGM to co-star in a film with Marion Davies) George Raft was considered for the role of Babe. Miriam Hopkins was originally scheduled for the role of Connie but was upset about Gable getting top billing and refused to do the film. The supporting cast consists of Dorothy Mackaill, as Babe’s mistress Kay who he unceremoniously dumps early in the film, Grant Mitchell as Charlie, one of Babe’s “gang”, George Barbier and Elizabeth Patterson as Connie’s parents.

Gable’s name is the only one that appears above the title. Lombard, still a rising star and Dorothy MacKaill share second and third billing below the title. While Lombard was yet to reach the height of her star power, during the filming, Paramount was making a big fuss over her to Gable’s dismay. He considered her a bit of a prima-donna and gave a pair of ballerina slippers as a parting gift.

No mn of her onwnormal_carole-lombard-gable-ham The film seems to be sometimes mislabeled as a screwball comedy however, after watching it there is little to support that label. Screwball comedies usually contain farcical elements, fast-talking dialogue, and slapstick humor. Generally, the couples are mismatched and continually battle each other, none of which applies in to his film.  It is also generally considered that screwball comedy did not come to prominence until 1934 with Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night.”  Finally, Screwball comedies actually came about largely because of the Production Code that came into effect in 1934 which ended much of the pre-code delights in this and many other early sound films.

While this is no great classic, the film is enjoyable, with some sharp dialogue and pleasant performances and the only chance to see Gable and Lombard together as lovers on film.


Clark Gable: Tormented Star by David Brett

Clark Gable: A Biography by Warren G. Harris