Another Mess o’ Reviews

100Hey, remember when I said I was extremely busy? That hasn’t changed. Allow me to get on with the dispatches from the Movie Odyssey:

Rififi (1955)

du-rififi-chez-les-hommesThe Hollywood Blacklist keeps showing up in the backstory of movies I watch, with Jules Dassin one of the egregious examples. Like a lot of people in the Depression, he joined the Communist Party and its promise of a brighter future, but quit the party after the Soviet Union signed a pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, an unforgivable betrayal for a Jew.  Dassin was sent packing in 1950 after completing the shooting for Night and the City and didn’t direct another movie for four years. Practically penniless in Paris, he shot Rififi on a very low budget, with no stars and production personnel willing to work for lower wages just to observe a well-regarded director at work. The result is one of the first heist movies, and one of the best.

Rififi (we are informed this is French gangster slang for “trouble”) is largely the story of jewel thief Tony “le Stephanois” (Jean Servais) freshly out of jail after five years, having taken the rap for his younger protege, Jo the Swede (Carl Möhner), whose wife was pregnant at the time. Jo wants his old mentor to join him in a smash-and-grab job at a high-profile jewelry store. Tony’s response is they are instead going to burgle the jewelry store itself, considered a near-impossible job.

Rififi-1The four man gang then proceed to meticulously map out the store, and the ebb and flow of its neighborhood. The heist, when finally enacted, is the centerpiece of the movie, a half-hour sequence without dialogue or music, incredibly tense and exhilarating. It is almost the perfect crime, but the romantic inclinations of the imported Italian safecracker (director Dassin himself) will doom the entire group.

Dassin’s location shooting on The Naked City (inspired by the legendary New York photographer Weegee) stands him in good stead; the streets around the jewelry store become a character in themself. The loving attention to detail is apparent in the depiction of the seedier side of Paris and the criminal demimonde. Our merry band of thieves is likable, the opposing gang that sniffs out a chance for a big payday is vile, right down to kidnapping Jo the Swede’s young son, turning even Tony’s abused former moll against them.

In many ways, this is the proto-Thief, and well worth watching.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Sunrise_vintageDoing something like proclaiming you are going to watch a certain 100 movies doesn’t give you the sort of leeway you normally employ in your movie watching, like the time I watched Head to observe Davy Jones’ passing, or The Ruling Class for Peter O’Toole’s. But when somebody stole F.W. Murnau’s skull, I knew it was time to finally watch Sunrise.

This is Murnau’s first American movie, made directly after Faust. The “Two Humans” of the title are a farmer (George O’Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor, wearing a bad blonde wig, but not as bad as the one Barbara Stanwyck was forced to wear in Double Indemnity), whose marital bliss is undone when a vacationing Woman From The City (Margaret Livingstone), sweeps the Man off his feet with her sophistication. She convinces him to sell his farm and come to the City with her – after he murders his wife by staging an accidental drowning.

The Man can’t go through with the plan, and winds up pursuing his fearful wife into that City, where they rediscover their love on one adventurous, eventful day – but on the return home, their boat capsizes in a sudden storm, and the wife is swept away.

sunrise-murnau-o-brienLike an earlier, highly-regarded silent, The Phantom Carriage, this is some heavy melodrama, but it’s good melodrama. The extremeness of the melodrama in Sunrise is more than matched and countered by the beautifully well-observed humanity of the middle of the movie, where we see the love of the Man and Woman rekindle itself. We can’t help but be swept along their journey, falling in love with them a little ourselves, which only turns the screws tighter in the storm sequence and its aftermath.

This was the first movie to be released with Fox’s new Movietone process, which makes it the first movie with a prerecorded sync score and sound effects, extremely progressive while it was being made. There are two things that are going to lodge in your mind’s eye when you think over the experience, and both are in the City – not location shooting, but an actual, enormous set built by Murnau, and a huge entertainment complex with an equally huge music hall and restaurant attached. Again, a gigantic set built with all the trickery Murnau had mastered in the German cinema, employing forced perspective, midgets in the background to suggest scope, and a ton of extras.

sunrise-fox2.2Sunrise has risen in critical estimation in recent years, moving into Top 100 Movie lists and even cracking a few Top Tens. Why haven’t more people heard of it, then? A month before Sunrise opened, another movie – The Jazz Singer – opened, and suddenly nobody wanted to watch a silent movie. It was talkies or nothing, and Sunrise was a financial disaster.

Murnau would never again be offered the creative and financial freedom he experienced here, and this is a story we will encounter over and over again.  He would only direct three movies before his untimely death in an auto accident in 1931, and cinema is much lessened for that.

Dreadful picture quality on this trailer, but it does give you some idea of the technical artistry Murnau brought to this picture, which, despite its box office failure, won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture:

Then I watched a couple more movies you won’t hear about until October. Don’t worry, there’s still plenty left. Life is trying to crush me with deadlines (This month – July – is in fact going out with an increasingly grinding bang), so the only thing left to do was to go over to Rick’s and watch movies.

Watership Down (1978)

Movie_poster_watership_downRick had been curious about this movie for some time, having only heard about it. That’s not too surprising; although incredibly popular in England, it sank like a stone in its American release. I had only seen it because it had a midnight showing in my college town. I guess it wasn’t Disney, so it wasn’t worth seeing.

Yeah, it’s not Disney.

Based on the novel by Richard Adams, Watership Down is the tale of a group of rabbits fleeing the destruction of their warren, foretold by the Cassandra-like prophet bunny, Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers). Their leader, Hazel (John Hurt) turns out to be quite adept in his new role, and they eventually, after many adventures, take up residence on a high hill, content until they realize that they have no women, and the new warren will eventually vanish.

wd3Thus begins another thread of the tale where the largest of the fugitive rabbits, Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) infiltrates the warren of General Woundwort (Harry Andrews). If their former warren was a bit of a fascist outfit. Woundwort and his minions are absolute Nazis. Their captive population cannot reproduce because it is too crowded. Bigwig seeks out a feisty doe who has helped other rabbits escape, and a daring nighttime breakout ensues, aided by the errant gull Kehaar (Zero Mostel, in his final film role), and a boat, a man-made object that Hazel’s clever warren has learned to employ.

The story’s not over yet, but that’s for you to experience yourself. As you probably noticed, this is an adventure story where the characters all just happen to be rabbits. Watership Down is held up as a sterling example of how to adapt a novel to screen, rearranging events and deleting others for the sake of the movie’s general flow, while remaining largely faithful. It is also known as the most violent PG movie ever released – there is never any doubts as to the stakes being played for in the rabbits’ quest, and, well, there will be blood. I’m okay with that, a lot of parents with crying children were not. The British Board of Film Classification apparently was still receiving flak every year for giving it a “U” for “Universal” rating, the equivalent of a G.

Watership3-031115This begs the question as to how much about the brutal nature of life should children be shielded from, and for how long. My own childhood is still bright and terrifying with images of animals being slaughtered for the rural dinner table. That’s not an experience a lot of children went through, even in my childhood. In our increasingly urbanized existence, that number is likely even lower.

But we’re here to talk about movies, aren’t we?

watershipdown-01It ain’t Disney. Though it may look like it, with its multi-plane animation and watercolor backgrounds, it ain’t, and really, it’s much better for that. I’m going to go further, and grumble about the misconception that if it’s animated, it must be for kids, and kids alone, a misconception that endures despite all the boobies Ralph Bakshi and the Heavy Metal movies have plastered across movie screens.

Research also dug up this, which again makes the above mistake: the follow-up to Watership Down, also based on a novel by Richard Adams, The Plague Dogs, is a cartoon for children like Salo is a movie for high school history classes.

There was a second movie Rick and I watched, but you’re going to have to wait until October for that one. So we’ll just go on to:

Playtime (1967)

014-playtime-theredlistOur journey through Jacques Tati‘s oeuvre continued with this, generally acknowledged as his masterpiece. After the international success of Mon Oncle (my personal favorite), Tati used his resulting clout to make what would become the most expensive French film to date, about 2.5 million blooming to over 15 million – in 60s currency – over the course of a three-year shoot. This is the sort of movie-making legend where it is tempting to obsess over the production of the movie rather than the film itself.

Tiring of his M. Hulot character, Tati sought to de-emphasize him with more of an ensemble, a tapestry of characters we follow throughout. Hulot spends the first part of the movie trying to have a meeting with an elusive man in an ultra-modern labyrinth of an office building, eventually becoming swept up with a group of businessmen in an international product expo in another building entirely. His fate is shared by Barbara (Barbara Dennek), a pretty young American who wants to see the true Paris, but is swept along with her group of tourists into the same shopping expo.

playtime-main-reviewTati’s usual bemusement with problematic modern technology and consumerism is given full play here, leading up to one of his most complex and lengthy setpieces ever, possibly even in cinema as a whole: a pretentious restaurant called The Royal Garden, which opens even as the workmen are putting the finishing touches on, well, everything. The evening becomes ever more crowded and chaotic – practically every character introduced in the opening scenes shows up – even as the hastily-finished building begins to collapse around its patrons. It is only when the restaurant begins to fall apart, when the pretensions disintegrate, that the space becomes more perversely human, and the people inside begin to genuinely enjoy themselves.

This argument against overly-structured modern life is echoed in Hulot’s perambulations, where he finally meets the man he never managed to at the beginning, but only when that man is out walking his dog in the evening. That we later see the two part jovially at the beginning of the restaurant sequence, their business apparently concluded, is a rare moment of accomplishment for the perpetually unlucky Hulot.

playtime7Tati set out to make a movie where it was impossible to catch all the jokes at one viewing, that the wandering eye would see something in every nook and cranny of the scenes. It’s like those crowded panels of Mad, drawn by Bill Elder when it was still a comic book. You could fill a book with observations on Playtime, and still not be sure you got it all. As ever, the sound effects are practically half the movie: Tati’s soundscape renders every object onscreen alive.

Jacques LeGrange, Tati’s longtime collaborator, had advised Tati to build his own ultramodern office building for the filming, and then sell it afterwards for a profit. Tati did this, but rather than following his friend’s advice, built an entire complex on leased land that ensured his buildings would eventually be razed – before filming was completed. Besides two other natural disasters that stopped filming and required rebuilding, the process of filming was made laboriously slow by Tati himself, who proved to be such a control freak that Stanley Kubrick would have said, “Dude, chill out!”

playtime2Structurally – and trying to append a structure to Playtime is a mug’s game – it is most similar to Jour de Fete, a lengthy, multi-charactered lead-up to a frantic, hilarious third act, then a cooling-down sequence leading to a melancholy, but touching conclusion. It’s the lack of conventional structure – and probably the comparative lack of Hulot – that made the movie tank horrendously on its release, and Tati – in considerable, ruinous debt – saw his life’s work auctioned away. Like Murnau, he would only make two more movies in his life, and both of those were commissioned work for television. Never again would he have the free rein and freedom given him here, and whether or not that is a good or fair thing is not for me to judge.

With Playtime, Tati attempted to take his game to the next level, and produced a movie that is undeniably ahead of its time. The thing is, I don’t think that, even now, the world has yet caught up with Tati.

Crap of July: The 80s Strike Back

Once more, I survived working the City’s Independence Day festivities, with only slightly more than usual aches and pains afterwards. It was time for celebration, celebration that required little or no work from yours truly, ie., a Crapfest. (Click here for a visual representation of our gatherings, putting the “odd” back in “odyssey”)

Slightly lower attendance this go-round – Paul had a sibling’s party to attend, The Other Dave was recovering from what he described as “eating like Orson Welles for three days”, leaving us with host The Original Dave, Alan, Rick, Erik and myself. Mrs. Dave excused herself and got the hell out of Dodge. Like all of us, she had lived through the 80s, and unlike all of us, she had the sense to know that once was enough.

2278449962_89fbd266b3_oYou see, there was a motif that, unplanned, began to assert itself as the evening wore on, and past a point we stopped resisting and just went with it. And the 80s came, and had their way with us. Roughly.

Dave’s opening salvo was the motivational classic, Mr. T’s Be Somebody… or Be Somebody’s Fool, a direct-to-video outing from 1984 (the hot middle of the VHS boom, a time when something like this being successful in the video market was a real possibility). The intentions behind this are so good, it’s really kind of hard to be mean to it. If it has any weaknesses, it’s that it tries to cover 14 different topics like Peer Pressure, Shyness, Frustration and Styling (featuring “Zina and Zina from San Bernadina”), so it’s like every PBS morning and Disney kid’s show compressed into 52 minutes.

Oh, stop screaming.

T is very game in this whole enterprise, even if he looks very uncomfortable when visiting a street scene that is basically the Shaolin Temple of breakdancing (he does not make it past the first chamber). Guest stars like New Edition and a very young Fergie keep you watching for other possibly hidden details, and I have to say the rap Ice-T wrote for Mr. T is actually pretty good, delivering the message while playing to T’s vocal strengths. It was a fairly easy way to slide into the horrors of the evening.

Well, “fairly easy” gives way to “Necronomicon-level horror” when whatever file Dave has Mr. T residing in on his hard drive then flips over to the pilot episode of The Lost Saucer, a Sid and Marty Krofft monstrosity hailing from 1975 starring Jim Nabors and Ruth Buzzi as bumbling robots (Nabors is from “the Southern Cosmos”). As it was from 1975, it was purged somewhat speedily, but not before the theme song wormed its way into our brains:

Much easier for us to glom onto than T’s rapping, and it would pop up over and over for the next five hours.

We would need it.

A movie I had been trying to get on the agenda for over a year was The Miami Connection, a strange concoction concerning a group of five orphan tae kwan do black belts who are friends forever, as they will tell us in song. You see, they are also the rock group Dragon Sound, “a new dimension in rock and roll,” the bold new direction being that they dress in karate gis while pretending to play their instruments.

You can be sure that this number was the first time we used The Lost Saucer defensively. The scowling GI Joe with Kung-Fu Grip lookalike who’s so concerned about his sister is the leader of the improv street gang (all their dialogue is obviously – and poorly – improvised), who have some sort of affiliation with the Miami Ninjas, who are taking over the lucrative drug trade. The position of house band in this joint seems more than a paltry paycheck and unlimited well drinks, it must control trade routes from its lofty perch, or something, since the band replaced by Dragon Sound is willing to fight them for it, and when they get tired of having their asses handed to them by Dragon Sound, they employ GI Joe’s Improv Mob to get their asses kicked instead.

miamiconnection_poster-final__smallNone of that synopsis will help you with the horrible line delivery of star/co-director/writer Y.K. Kim, who is a good martial artist but a terrible actor (casting by Y.K. Kim). Two of the band members are similarly good at the kicking, not so hot on the emoting. The other two are the opposite, kind uhhhhhh adequate on the acting, not seen doing much on the fight scenes. They are: the black one (who actually does track down his father, with a shrill “Oh my Godddddd!”) and John Oates. As there is no girl on the band, John Oates is the de facto girl, getting kidnapped and held as bait.

We haven’t even gotten to the biker gang who shows up out of nowhere to provide us with our bare breasts for the R rating. And the final showdown with the Miami Ninjas, in a park that resembles the jungles of Da Nang (Orlando is truly a city of wonders). This movie got kicked around to various distributors, none of whom cared to even give it a video release, and mind you, this was in 1987, when anyfuckingthing could get released on VHS. One guy at Manson International (appropriately) finally agreed to pick it up if they changed the ending (the original, tragic ending required acting, and talk about trying to find water in the middle of a desert…).

Erik had been wanting to see this for a while, and he avowed that it was worth the wait. I was not prepared, however, for how much it hurt Dave, which was a lot. So much that he decided to forego his original planned entry, and also show something horrible and soul-shriveling from the 80s, locking in our course for the evening. And that something terrible was Where the Boys Are 84.

Where_the_Boys_Are_'84There is a fair amount of demented genius in this choice, mainly because I don’t think there was any way in Hell any of us had seen this movie, unless it was by accident while flipping through cable movie channels.

The premise is: you have four college co-eds (Lisa Hartman, Lorna Luft, Wendy Schaal and Lynn-Holly Johnson), who head to Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break, with no higher mission than to get drunk and laid. Lynn-Holly wants to screw “Conan the Barbarian” – whoever might fit that description – Lisa wants to make time with Camden (Daniel McDonald), the famous classical piano player cousin of the rich Wendy, and Lorna just needs a break from her jealous boyfriend, who will proceed to track her to Lauderdale. Got all that? It’s a sexy madcap romp! Or so we’re told.

It is! It's a sexy madcap romp!

It is! It’s a sexy madcap romp!

The movie itself is not too awful, though keeping track of all the subplots is sort of a full-time job (the tequila sunrises Dave kept bringing into the room didn’t help). A hitchhiker the girls pick up on the way is an itinerant musician named Scott (Russell Todd, leading to many unsaid Time Squad riffs), who is going to be Camden’s chief competition for Lisa’s attention. There’s a Stray Cats wannabe group that keeps cropping up – called, rather nakedly, The Rockats – ensuring that every five minutes I could ask, “Is that Brian Setzer?” no matter who walked across the screen.

The first night, when the girls go out to become, as they put it, “shitfaced” rapidly becomes very uncomfortable, especially when Wendy gets drunk and begins to do a striptease in the middle of the bar (to Rockats accompaniment). I swear to you, the scene was two camera setups away from becoming The Accused before Lisa intervenes.

Of course, if you really want uncomfortable, there’s always this scene:

This movie fails the Bechdel Test, fails it repeatedly and fails it hard. So hard there were probably smoking craters all over Lauderdale from repeated attempts. I will further postulate that its very title implies an impressive fail on that point.

Do I really need to tell you how the various plot threads play out? Lorna and her boyfriend will get back together. Conan the Barbarian turns out to be a tiny-dicked hustler. Wendy gets busted for DUI and starts dating the cop who busted her. (Spoiler: he’s married). Scott publicizes the snooty party Wendy’s mother is throwing for Camden’s big concert so he can crash Lisa’s alone time with Camden. The supposedly comic shenanigans that ensue also include the Rockats – of course – staging an impromptu concert of their own, and the string trio that was supposed to be entertaining the posh crowd start jamming with them. I really could have used more of that.

Camden is confessing that he is having trouble finishing his new suite because he can’t find “the proper phrase”. I suggested that the missing phrase might be “…THE LOST SAUCER!” but he ignored me. Scott bursts in and tells him what the phrase should be, saving his rival’s bacon. AS MOVIES TRY TO TELL US OVER AND OVER AGAIN, RICH PEOPLE SUCK AND ONLY POOR PEOPLE HAVE THE LIFE FORCE.

Oh, hey, was that Brian Setzer?

So how do we follow up that slice of drive-in fare (from an era with practically no drive-ins)? Is there any topping that, in a very real way finishing off the evening, like a blow to the head on the killing floor? Why, how about another movie from the 80s I had been trying to shoehorn into a Crapfest forever: Rock ‘N’ Roll Nightmare.

220px-RocknrollnightmareAs some of you may be aware, the movie’s original title was The Edge of Hell, which it retains on the Synapse Films disc I was using. This allowed me to pull the “Oh no! I brought the wrong movie!” bit for a while, never mind we had spent the last five minutes grooving to the 5.1 menu song of “Talkin’ ‘Bout Rock”.

So we have a rock group, The Tritonz, setting up shop in a remote (except you kept seeing car headlights on a nearby highway in the numerous night shots) farmhouse, where a family were mysteriously and supernaturally murdered years before. But this is the perfect place to finish our album! We built a state of the art recording studio in the barn! (The state of the art was apparently pretty sad in 1987, especially in Canada.) The Tritonz’ journey to the farmhouse in their non-custom van is pretty much accomplished in real time, the sure mark of a movie that came up short on running time. Interminable love scenes (and slow motion during same) is another clue.

(Speaking of love scenes, here’s some “fun” movie lore: the requisite breasts for an R rating were supposed to be provided by the groupies in one scene. Said breasts are even referenced in the dialogue. Their agent, however, told them to refuse on the day of shooting, and the ladies in the Tritonz were called upon to take up the slack. As it were.)

rocknrollnightmare2_05504ad066b68a611fbd6ab293425aa2The leader of the group, John Triton, is, as aficionados of crap cinema know, played by real-life rocker Jon Mikl Thor, who also wrote, produced, and provided the music. I actually like the music – very little LOST SAUCER needed, it provided its own riffs – but the story is plodding and pretty cliche. The drummer is even named Stig, for God’s sake. In any case, the forces of darkness -represented by rubbery cyclops puppets and the occasional decent makeup effect – pick off the band one by one, leading to a closing act that I still refuse to say anything about. It must simply be witnessed, with as little preparation as possible.

All online trailers seem to have gone bye-bye. Well, they all pretty much blew the surprise, anyway. Spoiler alert, and all that.

Another thing learned this evening: most 80s movie scores were written by rummaging through John Carpenter’s trash can.

The best part is I can now threaten Crapfest with the sequel to Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, Intercessor: Another Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare. But you know what? That is below even me.

With this particular Crapfest, though, it felt like we had finally hit our stride again, after the long time off. Is that a good thing? Or a bad thing? Given the Crapfest experience, it is probably a bad thing. And that’s good.

Right?

Hey… was that Brian Setzer?

 

 

 

 

Criminals and Their Code

100As I peck this out, it’s July 1. In two days, I’ll clock in for the most grueling day on my Day Job, covering the City’s July 3 Independence Day parade. Thankfully, this has gotten a little easier over the years, as the move to a location at the Stafford Centre provides better access to a place to get out of the Texas heat (and worse, the murderous humidity hereabouts) than was formerly the case. We used to set up in a field opposite the school complex, where there was a tree or two you could rest under. That field is now a parking lot.

So what I’m saying is I should bang something out before I die of heatstroke on Friday.

Poster - Monsieur Verdoux_01Continuing on with Chaplin’s later career, I watched Monsieur Verdoux last week, and I was more struck by the general oddness of tone than the controversial subject matter. This is, of course, the movie based on the career of Henri Landru, a notorious “Bluebeard” guillotined for the murder of ten women and a boy in 1922. Chaplin, as the title character, is a bank clerk who loses his job during a recession, and turns to the much more lucrative trade of wooing elderly women, gaining control of their assets, and then killing them. Oh yes, this is subtitled “A Comedy of Murders”.

Verdoux rationalizes that this is all business, so he is not necessarily a murderer. He has a wife, dating back to his bank clerk days; she is confined to a wheelchair, and some of his ill-gotten loot goes toward caring for her and his son. The rest is invested in the stock market, and as this is set in France in the early 30s, you know that is not going to turn out well at all. Verdoux is an ardent vegetarian, and lectures his son about not being cruel to animals – in fact, like a Buddhist monk, at one point Verdoux gently picks up a caterpillar from a garden path so it won’t be stepped on. You reflect upon the fact that a scene in the later French horror movie, Eyes Without A Face, had a scene excised in America showing its main villain caring for a child in his clinic with great care and empathy; we like our villains in starkest black and white, but this is only one of the reasons Verdoux was a failure in its US release in 1947.

2013-10-20The movie’s episodic nature works for it; its length ultimately works against it. Martha Raye has an extended role as a brassy lottery winner whose amazing luck means that she is the one victim Verdoux never quite manages to kill (as the French critic Andre Bezin points out, this is the one murder we want to succeed). Marilyn Nash similarly has a recurring role as a vagrant girl Verdoux picks up to test a new poison upon, then changes his mind after finding out she, too, once had an invalid spouse. Nash turns up one last time, her fortunes reversed since she has taken up with a munitions manufacturer who is making out like a bandit in Europe’s ramping up to WWII. “That’s the business I should have gone into,” moans a sad, diminished Verdoux.

Therein lies another reason the movie failed for an America coming off the Other Great War: in his trial, Verdoux does not necessarily defend himself, but he points out that his sins pale in comparison to the wholesale slaughter taking place every day in the political arena. “Numbers sanctify,” he tells a reporter seeking a moral to his story.

Intro_largeThe ultimate reason for Verdoux‘ box office failure on these shores: Chaplin was not playing the tramp. He had theoretically left the character behind in The Great Dictator, but the Jewish Barber is, essentially the Tramp with an actual profession. A desperate ad campaign with the tagline “Chaplin Changes! Can YOU?” didn’t turn the tide. It was a tide that had been flowing against Chaplin, seemingly orchestrated by J. Edgar Hoover, who was suspicious of Chaplin’s political views. Trials accusing Chaplin of violating the Mann Act (dismissed after two weeks and months of breathless media coverage) and a paternity suit in 1945 had tarnished his image. Honestly, as announcement to the world that there would be no more Little Tramp movies, Monsieur Verdoux is sterling. As a middle finger to that world, it’s even better.

This trailer doesn’t help the cause much, starting with a silhouette of the Tramp – but watch how Verdoux counts money. It’s inhuman, and I wonder how long it took Chaplin to master it – it’s a trick that’s pulled (with comic exactitude) three times during the movie. Also note the interplay between Raye and Chaplin, two old vaudeville pros who know exactly how to play off each other.

c7cdd1c5_CriminalCode-1931-Columbia-oneBEver since I’d re-watched Targets, I’d had a hankering to see the other movie quoted in it besides The Terror: The Criminal Code. It’s a lovely scene in Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff)’s hotel room, when the drunken director (Peter Bogdanovich) spots The Criminal Code playing on the TV. “That’s The Criminal Code!” says Bogdanovich. “I know,” replies Karloff. “Howard Hawks directed this!” “I know.

It’s a climactic scene playing out on the TV: the typically gaunt, menacing, knife-wielding Karloff stalking a cowering prison inmate. Good enough to file the title away for later seeking.

Not so easy, these days. Not for a 1931 penitentiary flick, in black and white and actually starring a bunch of people the average joe on the street would identify as “Who?” (The average joe on the street is a moron) Semi-luckily for me, Turner Classic Movies put out a box set of three movies Karloff made on the cusp of his sudden fame for Frankenstein. Luckily because I wanted to see The Criminal Code. Semi because I also had to buy The Guilty Generation and Behind the Mask. Maybe I’ll watch those some day.

Anyway, Criminal Code paints a pretty wide canvas. A young kid (Philips Holmes) kills a man in an incident District Attorney Mark Brady (Walter Huston) points out could easily be dismissed on extenuating circumstances, but he is bound by the Criminal Code (thumps law book) to try the kid for manslaughter. The kid’s lawyer, used to financial cases, is overwhelmed and the kid gets put away for ten years.

huston-in-yardAfter six years of working in the jute mill, the kid is about to break, although his two cellmates (one of whom is Karloff, playing a hardcase named Galloway) are oldtimers trying to help him cope. Brady, having lost an election for Governor, becomes warden of the prison as a consolation prize, and actually sets out to improve things somewhat. The Kid is rescued from the jute mill and made a trustee – Brady’s chauffeur, no less, which puts him in a prime position to fall in love with Brady’s daughter (Constance Cummings) and vice versa. The Kid’s third cellmate is killed in an escape attempt, and the blame for that death falls on the snitch Runch (Clark Marshall), whom Galloway knifes during a riot – the scene excerpted in Targets. The Kid sees Galloway leave the scene, then refuses to tell Brady anything, adhering to the Criminal Code of the inmates (ha! See what they did there?), even though his parole is on Brady’s desk, ready to be signed.

the-criminal-codeIt’s melodrama, but pretty decent melodrama. Hawks keeps thing moving even though the plot threatens to turn back and start eating itself a couple of times. This is Karloff’s first really significant film role, and he got it mainly because it’s based on a play that was having a successful run in Los Angeles when MGM had a surprise hit with The Big House. Columbia, considered a second-rate studio at best, scrambled for something to ride on its coattails, and here was a script already written (Hawks had it re-written at least four times, though). Karloff had played Galloway in that production, and was carried over to the movie. Karloff said in later years if a more prestigious studio had produced the movie, the role would have gone to an actor with a bigger name. It’s a supporting role, but vital.

Should you also seek out Criminal Code? If you’re a Karloff or Hawks completist, sure. Otherwise, you’ll sleep just fine tonight without having watched it. Here’s that scene used in Targets, if that helps you sleep better: