There was a big push to get ahead on the letterboxd.com March Movie Madness event, because a) it was Spring Break, and b) weeks off always engender a Hell of Work To Catch Up On. This time is certainly no exception, as the Week of Hell is actually growing into a Fortnight of Hell. I have a 12 hour day coming up this Sunday which may kill me. Please tell my mother and my wife that I love them.
I’ve managed to claw a bit of free time out of the schedule, let’s see how far I can get:
Queen of Blood (1966)
One of the stranger cottage industries Roger Corman spawned in the early 60s involved buying the rights to Soviet science-fiction movies – which were pretty high-minded and had some great effects by pre-2001: A Space Odyssey standards – and then harvesting the effects sequences to plug into American-shot movies, since no red-blooded Amurrican would be caught dead watchin’ no Commie movie, anyways. Like a Comanche using every last bit of the buffalo, Corman and his crew got significant bang for the buck out of this strange vivisection – Planet of Storms is the basis for at least three movies, almost all with “Prehistoric Women” in the title, and The Heavens Call yielded Battle Beyond the Sun and this odd little Curtis Harrington movie.
In the far-flung year of 1990, Earth’s Space Institute receives a message from another planet, informing them that the alien race is sending an ambassador. Several weeks later, it is discovered that the visitor’s spaceship has crashed on Mars, and a hasty rescue mission is organized. Only one survivor is found (by accident), and gosh darn it, on the way back to Earth it’s discovered that she’s a vampire.
Queen of Blood is an entertaining enough sci-fi programmer. It rarely drags enough to relinquish your attention elsewhere, and even has some nice drama when it’s determined that one member of a two-man rescue ship will have to stay behind on the Martian moon Phobos to allow the surviving alien to take his place on the lifeboat that will connect with the ship already on Mars. The mechanics of the plot are well-considered, even if some of the science is not.
Harrington had worked with Dennis Hopper in 1961’s Night Tide, and brings him along for the ride – it’s actually kind of refreshing to see him in a cardboard sci-fi context. John Saxon is predictably solid, and the other breath of fresh air is Judi Meredith, who has a swell little genre resume along with numerous TV roles – she’s in Jack the Giant Killer, Dark Intruder and The Night Walker. Basil Rathbone is on hand as the urbane head of the Space Institute, probably because John Carradine was shooting six other movies that day.
As mentioned in my grumbling about Prometheus, I’m more sad about the tremendously advanced Moonbase we’re utilizing in 1990 than amused. The most fun to be had is watching the film grain and lighting change from the Soviet material to the American.
The Red Shoes (1948)
The quintessential backstage drama, which just happens to be about ballet. I’ll be frank and say that ballet, along with opera, are the two art forms I care very little about. I don’t hate them the way I loathe, say, most musicals, but I’d much rather spend my time watching something else. But they are still art forms, so I’m happy that both have more than enough fans that they don’t have to depend on me for their survival.
So I approached Red Shoes with a bit of misgiving, but I needn’t have worried. Art is art, performance is performance, and the act of creation is endlessly fascinating. The first section of the movie can get a little wearing, with two of our protagonists starting out at the bottom, and haha, those temperamental artists! But once events start to move, and we become invested in the rise of dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) and composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) under the direction of ballet impresario Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). This will lead to a triangle that has little to do with love, and everything to do with their arts. It’s a very different kind of passion at work here, and its tragic ending is almost inevitable.
At one point, during rehearsals for the new ballet The Red Shoes, Lermontov says to his set designer, “The audience will applaud in the middle!” He’s likely speaking for director Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, as the debut of the ballet, midway through the movie, is played out before us as a fantasia, heavily based on the paintings of scenic artist Alfred Roberts. It’s not meant to be a literal recreation of the ballet, which would require an impossible set on the world’s largest stage; it is more a representation of what is going on in the dancer’s and the audience’s minds, when, as Lermontov constantly proclaims, “The music is everything!”
The melodramatic plot and acting aside – all perfectly keeping with post-WWII standards, and none of it odious – The Red Shoes is an undeniable masterpiece. Which of course means that the Rank Organization thought it was pure rubbish and didn’t even bother to release it in its native England for several years.
And, just in passing, I guess I should mention I was largely on Lermontov’s side on the triangle. Both men are complete assholes at the movie’s end, but Julian’s insistence that Victoria give up her opening night in order to attend his is beyond the fucking pale, even for an artist.
The trailer gives you only an inkling of Jack Cardiff’s magnificent camera work, though the color, even faded, gives you some idea of the Technicolor glory of the restored print:
The Searchers (1956)
The Searchers may very well be the Perfect Western. It so solidly bridges the gap between the silent starched West of Tom Mix with the gritty, grimy hell of Unforgiven. It still has love for the vast sunny beauty of Monument Valley (filling in for Texas) and the pioneering spirit of the people who live there, but it comes from a much darker place than any previous John Ford/John Wayne collaboration.
Wayne is Ethan Edwards, a man who returns to his brother’s homestead after a three-year absence (some of it due to the Civil War), just in time for the family to be slaughtered by Indians and the two young girls taken hostage. A posse of Ethan, some volunteer Texas Rangers, and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter in his premiere) take off in pursuit. The posse is eventually winnowed down to Ethan and Martin, which is going to provide most of the conflict for the movie; Martin was rescued by Ethan from a similar Indian raid when Martin was a child. But Martin is also one-eighth Cherokee, and there is one thing Ethan cannot abide, it’s a half-breed. Ethan’s discovery of the older girl, raped and killed, cements his decision to find the younger girl, Debbie, no matter the cost.
As the search drags on for five years, Martin continues to accompany Ethan; the younger man’s role, he has come to realize, is to stop Ethan from killing Debbie once he finds her. By now the girl has been accepted into the tribe, and is in fact one of the wives of the war chief Scar, and as far as Ethan is concerned, that means she is no longer white, and better off dead.
We can all conjure up images of Wayne as the good ol’ righteous western dude – that’s most of his output in the 60s. But in his best roles, there’s an edge to the character, and in The Searchers he gets to be a complete and utter dick. Anyone who thinks Wayne wasn’t a good actor should watch The Searchers; there is one close-up – after Ethan and Martin have checked over the white captives of a tribe massacred by cavalry, only to find neither is Debbie and both are far worse for wear – a close-up of Wayne that combines such strong emotions, loathing, pity, simmering hatred… that it’s shocking.
But the movie is far from being a grim slog-fest. There are lighter moments aplenty, and good support from the Ford repertory company, like the always-welcome Ward Bond, and I was completely unprepared for KEN CURTIS – FRONTIER MACK.
Both movies – The Red Shoes and The Searchers – are highly recommended, especially on Blu-Ray. The Criterion Collection of Red Shoes is beautifully restored, and the VistaVision transfer of The Searchers – an awesomely affordable disc, these days – will knock your eyes out. And the trailer has a ton of fine Duke moments:
The Third Man (1949)
I think it was about a year back when a former colleague messaged me, saying he has just watched The Third Man, and could not figure out for the life of him what it was that made the movie so revered. What did he miss? Did I have any insights? As I had not seen it at the time, I couldn’t supply any. Well, now I’ve seen it. Still can’t supply any.
This is a well-made movie, make no mistake. It’s obvious writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed are both in love with Vienna. And it’s the Post-World War II occupation by four separate world powers and the burgeoning black market that make the story possible; it’s interesting to see the International Police Force at work, a cop from each occupying country making each call. The story just never grabbed me, and I’m at a loss to explain why. Perhaps I was poisoned by that year-ago question.
The Third Man is the tale of Western novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who arrives in Vienna at the behest of childhood chum Harry Lime (Orson Welles, eventually) promising work. Martins, however, arrives just in time for Lime’s funeral, as he was killed in an odd pedestrian accident across from the building where he lived. Odd because Martins finds conflicting stories about the accident, including a, yes, Third Man at the scene that the police know nothing about. Martins, of course, sets about investigating.
If there is one thing that bewilders me about The Third Man, it is the enduring popularity of Harry Lime. One of the things that Martins finds out, to his dismay, (okay, spoiler alert, even though there a statute of limitations on spoilers for movies that are 64 freakin’ years old) is that Lime was not only a black marketeer, but dealt in adulterated penicillin, resulting in the death and disability of many people, including children. Yet Harry Lime had his own radio show for many years (tales of Lime’s past, given the ultimate outcome of the movie), and by the time there was a Harry Lime TV show (starring Michael Rennie, if I recall correctly) Lime had been completely rehabilitated as a globe-trotting art collector.
I don’t get it. I shrug. I will say that my non-genuflection at The Third Man‘s altar should not be taken as a condemnation; as I said, it is a well-made movie that should be checked out, and if nothing else, has the best denouement of any number of noirs. You can make your own decision.
The Unknown (1946)
The Unknown is one of three movies based on the I Love A Mystery radio series. To be disarmingly cute about it, I love I Love A Mystery, especially in its later incarnation as a 15-minutes-a-day serial. I think – no time for research this time, mes enfants, sorry – that this hearkens to the older, half-hour incarnation of the show, when our detective agency was only two people, Jack Packard (Jim Bannon) and the laconic Texan, Doc Long (Barton Yarborough), both men repeating their roles from radio.
The Unknown is an old dark house, reading-the-will story, populated with strange characters and tangled sub-plots, so much so that Jack and Doc are practically guest stars in their own movie. There is an accidental death years previous that has completely twisted the family tree, a dead patriarch walled up in a fireplace rather than the family crypt, a will that keeps vanishing, and the ghostly crying of a baby in the night. Also the requisite secret passageways and cloaked killer, whose identity is perfectly obvious at the halfway mark, if not sooner. At a trim 70 minutes, though, it doesn’t have time to get truly tiresome, and does have at least one plot twist that surprised me.
It’s also so obscure there’s no trailer for it online. Instead, have the trailer for Larry Blamire’s parody of Old Dark House Reading of the Will thrillers, Dark and Stormy Night:
There. Bring on that 12 hour day.
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