Targets (1969) Peter Bogdanovich

1968 was a pivotal year in the United States. There were the duel assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Kennedy’s death ended the dream of Camelot while King’s death resulted in riots, neighborhoods burning, and racial tensions reaching new heights of discontent. In Vietnam, troop levels went over 500,000. The Siege of Khe Shan and the TET offensive caused Americans to wonder if the war was winnable. Emotionally and politically dead, LBJ refused to seek or accept another term as President. In August, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was marred by violence between protesters against the war and the Chicago police force. Vietnam was the first television war, blurring the senses between real and fictional violence. Unlike today, audiences back then were not use to watching the 6 o’clock news and seeing the blood of American soldiers flowing in the mud…unless it was just a movie.

In August of that year, “Targets”, a small film directed by a young novice director named Peter Bogdanovich was released to generally good reviews and not so good business. The film contains two narratives, one about Bobby Thompson, a seemingly all-American young man and the second about Byron Orlok an aging horror movie star, whose paths will cross blurring real vs. fictitious violence in our society.

Bogdanovich was already well known as a film writer for Esquire magazine; a film programmer for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; a champion of such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Allan Dwan and many others, all of who, he helped bring back to the attention of  cineastes. Bogdanovich’s book, “Who The Devil Made It?” is a collection of interviews with these directors, and many others, is an essential read for film lovers.  Bogdanovich, along with his then wife Polly Platt, would soon leave New York for Los Angeles where he hoped to break into the film industry. He would meet Roger Corman at a film screening, and eventually was offered a job directing. His first jobs for Corman were on films like “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women” where he was given two Russian science fiction films and told to add some additional footage resulting in a new film.  “Targets” was his first film from scratch, well almost. According to Andrew Yule in his Bogdanovich biography “Picture Shows: The Life and Films of Peter Bogdanovich,” Boris Karloff owed Corman two days of work. Corman gave Bogdanovich the opportunity to make “Targets” if he incorporated about 20 minutes of outtake footage from Corman’s “The Terror.”  He would then be able to use Boris Karloff for approximately another 20 minutes of new footage and he could shoot an additional 40 minutes to fill out the feature, that way Corman had a new Karloff film.  Bogdanovich and Platt would write the story and screenplay (according to IMDB Sam Fuller had a hand in writing also) and direct. Corman sold the film to Paramount who purchased it for $150,000 netting Corman a profit of about $20,000. Continue reading

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.”

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.

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.

Scarface (1932) Howard Hawks

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    Howard Hawks “Scarface” follows the typical rise and fall of a gangster, similar to the two other gangster classics of the period, “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy” however, here the bodies pile up much quicker and a lot more violently. There is more action and shooting in the independently shot “Scarface”,  than in both of the studio system films combined. Even for a pre-code film “Scarface” is strong stuff. There is plenty of sexual innuendo, including a strong hint of incestuous interest by Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) toward his sister Cesca (Ann Dorvak). Tony is perversely possessive of his sister scaring off a boyfriend after catching them kissing. “I don’t want anyone puttin’ their hands on you!” he tells her. At one point during this exchange he even violently rips part of her  dress. Cesca however, is too free-spirited to accept being sheltered by the dominant Tony. She is well aware that he acts more like a jealous lover than a brother. This abnormal relationship will come back to haunt them both later in the film.scarface

   Tony however, does not mind hitting on someone else’s sister or mistress as we discover when he meets his boss Johnny Lovo’s (Osgood Perkins) mistress, Poppy (Karen Morley).  The first time they meet, Poppy is sitting at a dressing table in a flimsy dressing gown. When introduced by Lovo to Tony she cannot be bothered to cover up an exposed thigh from his wandering eyes.

   With all the bodies piling up and the sex, the censors came down hard on “Scarface.” Produced by Howard Hughes, “Scarface” was the last of the three seminal gangster films to released in the early 1930’s. Originally scheduled to be released in 1931 the film came out in March of 1932 due to a protracted censorship battle with the Will Hays Office and various State Film censorship boards including the powerful New York State Board. The censors felt there was too much glorification of gangsters in recent films like “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy.” scarfaceposter5They were demanding that the violence in “Scarface” be toned down and the lead character, Tony Camonte, be punished and condemned for his deeds. This  forced a second ending to be filmed long after the film wrapped. Muni and director Hawks were long gone by the time second ending was filmed. In this alternate version Muni is never seen (alternate ending is included on the DVD as an extra).  Additionally, a subtitle, “The Shame of a Nation” was added as well as an introductory text condemning the gangster lifestyle, blaming the government and demanding that something be done. Still after all this, some censors refused to let the film be released. Finally, producer Hughes scrapped the revised ending and released the film as originally shot in States with lenient film censorship boards. Subsequently, the world premiere was held in New Orleans. When the film was eventually released in New York, it was a censored version that both the critics and the public saw. In Chicago, the film was not released until 1934. Due its limited distribution and its late release toward the end of the first wave of the great gangster film cycle “Scarface” did well at the box office however, not as good as the earlier released films. About 1947, the film was pulled from distribution and became unavailable for public viewing except for some poorly chopped up bootleg versions floating around the underground market. In 1980, now owned by Universal, the uncensored version was finally shown in New York State at a special showing as part of the New York Film Festival. 

scarface1    While loosely based on the life of Al Capone (Capone was originally upset with the film’s likeness but eventually changed his mind and even had a personal copy of the film), the film’s realism was enhanced by screenwriter Ben Hecht’s familiarity with the Chicago underworld, and such real life Chicago mob figures as North Side gang leader, Dion O’Banion and Capone himself. Many scenes depicted in the film are based on actual events; the killing of “Big Louie” Castillo by Camonte (Paul Muni) was based the killing of boss “Big Jim” Colosimo.  Later on, Camonte has the North Side gang leader O’Hara killed in his flower shop mimicking the Capone ordered assassination of Dion ‘O’Banion his flower shop, and the resulting retaliation by the O’Banion gang when they shot up a restaurant where Capone was eating at the time, was recreated  by Hawks in its violent entirety. Still, there was much that was fiction also. The incestuous attachment Camonte has to his sister, screenwriter Ben Hecht used the Borgias, the infamous Italian Renaissance family as a blueprint, and the ending is pure imagination. Unlike the fictional Camonte, Al Capone died of syphilis and not by police bullets.  

    Looking at the film today, it still holds up as one of the most violent and best gangster films of its era. This is especially true if compared to “Little Caesar”  that today seems to move along at a creaky pace despite a strong performance by Edward G. Robinson.  What also contributes to the films modernity is Hawks use of the X motif, which shows up at various times during the film, mostly when someone is killed or about to be killed. The X, of course, looks similar to the scar on Camonte’s face. While parts of the screenplay are dated, the script contains a lot of dark and witty humor. Karen Morley as Poppy provides numerous sharp lines of dialogue mostly directed at Tony. 

    scarface2Paul Muni plays Tony as a not too bright thug, with an eye for the good things in life (power, gaudy clothes and women). Despite a bad Italian accent and a propensity for overacting Muni strikes the right balance as the crazed power hungry gangster with an unnatural attachment to his sister. The beautiful Ann Dorvak, who began an affair with director Howard Hawks during the filming, is vulnerable yet determined and sexy as Cesca, especially when she performs a seductive dance for Rinaldo (George Raft). Hawks would use her again in his next film, “The Crowd Roars.” Karen Morley portrays Poppy, Johnny Lovo’s mistress, with a cool sensual feistiness. For George Raft, this was well known territory. At one time the former ballroom dancer worked for real life bootlegger Owny Madden. The coin flipping that became his trademark and was parodied in Billy Wilder’s “Some Like it Hot” was actually, used as an attempt by Hawks to calm Raft’s nerves while filming. Boris Karloff who previously worked for Hawks in “The Criminal Code” got the small part of Gaffrey, the new head of the rival gang.        

    “Scarface” remains one of the most violent and provocative of all gangster films managing to overcome some creaky dialogue, chew biting performances, by Muni and Boris Karloff, and some unfortunate attempts at misplaced humor by Vince Barnett as Angelo one of Tony’s incompetent henchmen.

    “Scarface” was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry and is part of the film catalog in the Library of Congress.