Blood Bath and Its Strange Clan

If you’ve been with me for any length of time, you know that I like to champion physical media. You may say that’s due to my not being able to afford robust broadband from any of the Great Satans currently controlling Big Cable, but the truth is it’s because we are living in an amazing age for boutique labels.

This week, I’m going to exclaim all over Arrow Films, who’ve been in operation in the UK since 1991, and recently branched out to America. There was a bit of a bobble in the distribution of their superb blu-ray of Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, resulting in the dusting off of my Amazon UK account and importing it myself. That is an extra mile I did not mind walking… except that after watching that gorgeous, candy-coated transfer, I immediately wanted more with a capital M.

BB boxA year later, I have finally gotten my more and it is as remarkable and complete as it is improbable: A box set of four films that quite literally share the same cinematic DNA, marketed under the best-known of its many identities: Blood Bath. Tim Lucas, one of the best genre film historians and critics around today, bears the likely blame for this: in the earliest issues of his essential magazine, Video Watchdog, there was a three-part article tracing the history of these odd, stitched-together movies. Lucas points to these articles as the probable genesis of his magazine, since no other publication would have considered devoting that many pages to such obscurities. Speaking personally, I read those articles and thought, I’m not alone in obsessing over junk food movies.

I’ll try to keep this brief, as the set covers a lot of ground. Roger Corman, wheeling and dealing internationally after the box office failure of The Intruder (and not incidentally trying to get out from under the thumb of AIP), makes a stop in Yugoslavia and agrees to help fund a crime movie, filmed in English, and provide two stars for the American market. That movie, directed by Rados Novakovic, is Operation Titian. Don’t bother looking for it on the IMDb under that name, you’ll give yourself a headache. It’s there under Operacija Ticijan.

Thank you, LetterboxdOperation Titian feels a lot like the krimi movies so popular in Germany at the time, but suffers from not having a script based on a Edgar Wallace novel. The macguffin is a Renaissance painting by Titian, supposedly lost during WWII. A certain Dr. Zaroni (Patrick Magee) arrives, meeting with a shadowy someone who passes him a key to the villa in which the painting is now hidden. Zaroni kills the old man living there and steals the painting, only to discover that it is a copy. That shadowy someone is the old man’s nephew (William Campbell), who has his own plotline about his old fiancee who is marrying a reporter. Said fiancee is also the sister of the policeman who is tracking down Zaroni.


“Where are you headed after this, Patrick?” “Yugoslavia. You?” “What a coincidence!”

There are several more complications and twists, in true krimi fashion. The local actors, performing in English, are quite good; the photography tends toward the pedestrian, but at times produces some exceptional nighttime sequences that benefit not only from the old world architecture of Dubrovnik, but also an obvious reverence for Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Corman, for his end of the deal, provided two actors who had been working in Ireland with some young turk named Francis Coppola on a horror movie called Dementia 13. Magee does his usual excellent job of playing alternately charming and quietly menacing, often in the same line. Campbell always does best when he is allowed to be a bit hammy, and he does eventually get that chance.

The pertinent point here, though, is that, after having read Lucas’ articles and knowing what eventually became of Operation Titian, I was pretty confident that I would never actually get to see it. And now I have.

How sad is it that I can recognize an Alpha Video box by sight alone?

How sad is it that I can recognize an Alpha Video box by sight alone?

Corman had some problems with Novakovic’s finished movie, and had it reworked for the American TV market into Portrait in Terror, the second movie in the box set. Portrait rearranges the sequence of events in Titian, and excises some pretty blatant travelogue footage (think Reptilicus without that time-wasting tour of Denmark). Titian introduced its characters in a lengthy scene at an airport, and it still didn’t do a very good job of it. Portrait almost starts in media res in comparison, and the viewer clicks with the cast much more quickly.

There are some puzzling additions, however. The murder of an extorting dancer, handled obliquely in Titian is now replaced by a bizarre stabbing scene in which only the slightest of efforts was made to match the actors – the costumes are close, but that’s about it (nice work is done finding similar architecture in Venice, California, though). The stabbing is followed by the murderer laboriously carrying the body down long stretches of stairs – in broad daylight – while the camera shows blood dripping on the steps. As the killer is supposedly wearing Magee’s white linen suit – which remains spotless – this becomes egregious rather quickly. He then loads the body into a rowboat and dumps the body in the middle of a crowded bay. It is still daylight.

In Titian, that scene ends with the dancer gasping as the white-suited figure approaches; a few seconds only. In Portrait, it’s closer to five minutes. In Titian, her corpse is discovered during a sports fishing competition; we find she was impaled with a fishing spear. In Portrait, it is much the same, except the scuba diving takes much longer, and as we all know, if a movie is moving slowly, there’s nothing like a scuba diving scene to bring it to a dead stop.

What is unusual is that Portrait runs 15 minutes shorter than Titian, but it’s not an improvement. Operation Titian has a very deliberate pace, it is true, but it has a definite rhythm. That rhythm is chopped up to jarring effect in Portrait in Terror and those strange ill-considered inserts scrub the proceedings of any tension that might have been built up.

Then you get to the next evolution of Operation Titian, and things start to get really weird, as we get into the movie whose name the box set bears: Blood Bath.

SPOILER: This is all you're going to see of Magee in BLOOD BATH.

SPOILER: This is all you’re going to see of Magee in BLOOD BATH.

Roger Corman, who should have been named Patron Saint of Film Recycling some time ago, tells Jack Hill that it’s his turn to make a movie; he doesn’t so much care what kind of movie, so long as he uses 30 minutes of Operation Titian footage (this is the same MO that resulted in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets). William Campbell balks, but is eventually brought back on to flesh out his character in Titian: this time his BloodBathArt1Antonio Sordi is a painter obsessed with his equally artistic ancestor, who was burned at the stake (along with his disturbing paintings) based on the testimony of his mistress. Sordi is also quite insane, believes he is being haunted by the ghost of that mistress, and keeps killing women at her behest, using their corpses as the models for his successful series of paintings called Dead Red Nudes, and then dipping them in a huge wax vat.

Please note that there is no blood bathing in the movie, except on the poster.

Now this is a fairly solid concept for a thriller; consult The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film and you’ll find half a dozen movies with a similar plot. Jack Hill does some interesting stuff, not the least of which is a surreal nightmare scene where the ghostly mistress torments Sordi. Hill also archly revives the satiric beatnik art milieu of Corman’s Bucket of Blood, with Sid Haig and Jonathan Haze drunkenly searching for the next “art thing” with skills that would make a third grader sneer.

Oh no! Beatniks!

Oh no! Beatniks!

Corman returns from shooting in Europe (Yugoslavia, again!) and once more has problems with the movie, but while Corman was wrapping his movie and Blood Bath was in limbo, Jack Hill has moved on to Spider Baby. Another Corman protege, Stephanie Rothman, gets the nod to “improve” the movie yet again. She does this by inserting a storyline that Sordi is actually a shape-shifting vampire – shape-shifting probably because Campbell rightly wanted more money to come back yet again, so hell, just turn him into another actor entirely. Rothman also manages to get another actor from Hill’s version, Karl Schanzer, as the guru of the art beatniks, Max. Schanzer is saddled by one of the worst fake moustaches in film history, but he also becomes one of the most improbable heroes in that same history.

Oh no! A vampire who looks nothing like William Campbell!

Oh no! A vampire who looks nothing like William Campbell!

Blood Bath is a surreal experience, to say the least; my main source of confusion is exactly where the hell this movie is taking place. I was quite comfortable assuming it was in California, given the Venice locations, and then Campbell starts talking about living in a clock tower active since the 11th century, so I guess we’re still in Dubrovnik? Really, the worst thing that can be said about Blood Bath is that it plays out as exactly what it is: three movies stitched together, and at least one feels like a deliberate intrusion on the others. Still, at a slim b-picture 62 minutes, it has little time to wear out its welcome.

62 minutes? That works for a double feature (it played on a double bill with Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood), but won’t do for TV syndication, where most movies are slotted in a two hour block. So, like the villain in a video game, Operation Titian mutates into its final form, Track of the Vampire.

Oh no! Another vampire who looks nothing like William Campbell!

Oh no! Another vampire who looks nothing like William Campbell!

The name of the game here is padding, so yet another actor becomes the black-clad vampire to chase yet another woman through California scenery to the tune of nearly ten minutes. There is, apropos of next-to-nothing, a lengthy dance scene on a beach, but most remarkable of all is the return of that extorting dancer from Titian and Portrait, and Patrick Magee – absent except for a freeze frame in Blood Bath. Campbell and Magee have been re-dubbed in these scenes to manufacture an entirely new subplot about cheating wives and avenging husbands. All this manages to bring Track up to the requisite 82 minutes, but it does the overall movie no favors whatsoever.

"If we use this fancy lens effect, no one will notice that it's padding!"

“If we use this fancy lens effect, no one will notice that it’s padding!”

Track of the Vampire is, sadly, the version I was most familiar with all these years, from several viewings on local horror movie slots – and the story never got any more comprehensible with repetition, let me tell you. That’s also where Lucas first picked up the thread, as he explains in the real jewel of the collection, a video essay titled “The Trouble with Titian – Revisited”, With all respect to Xan Cassavetes, it could have also been titled “Operation Titian: A Less-Than-Magnificent Obsession”.

If you’ve never watched a movie with a Tim Lucas commentary track, you’re in for a treat, and probably going to develop a bit of an obsession for them yourself. Track down any number of Mario Bava blu-rays (like the aforementioned Blood and Black Lace) with his work on them – Lucas literally wrote the book on Bava movies – and you will be amazed by the amount of information he can pack into less than 90 minutes. “The Trouble with Titian” represents such a magnificent visual expansion of that three-part article, along with new information he has gleaned over the years – it makes you wish every article he has written could be realized in such a form. Side-by-side comparisons of the different versions, freeze frames – a lot of time and care went into this supplement, and it shows.


Yay, garish blood-dripping version!

That disc also holds video interviews with Jack Hill and Sid Haig, and a gallery of around 30 pictures. A pack-in booklet has compact but fairly complete bios on Campbell, Magee and Haig, and there is a poster of the box cover art and the much more lurid theatrical poster for Blood Bath. It’s a nice bonus that labels like Arrow care enough to make reversible covers for the disc box itself, allowing me to indulge my more vulgar urges and swap that cover around for the garish, blood-dripping version.

As I said before, I never thought I would see Operation Titian in this lifetime, much less in the company of its strange, Frankensteinian descendants, and I certainly never thought I’d see them in such immaculate condition in 2K restorations! There is no reason for this box set to exist, and yet it does, and for that we should all be grateful. It traces, in great detail, the events in a very small but vibrant corner of the independent film industry, the creative arc of what were thought to be a series of disposable movies. But are any movies truly disposable?

Tim Lucas and I were not the only people struck by the strangeness of Track of the Vampire; chance cinematic encounters like this are just as likely to engender curiosity and passion as stumbling onto a viewing of an acclaimed art filmArrow Films once again has my respect for approaching movies that have long been the subject of fuzzy public domain discs, and treating them with the same reverence and respect as their much more hoity-toity, supposedly more “respectable” contemporaries.

Buy Blood Bath on Amazon




The Cinematic Life & Times of Professor James Moriarty

“He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized. Is there a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to be rifled, a man to be removed — the word is passed to the Professor, the matter is organized and carried out. The agent may be caught. In that case money is found for his bail or his defence. But the central power which uses the agent is never caught — never so much as suspected.”

Thus does Sherlock Holmes, the Great Detective, a man rarely given to fanciful language, describe his opposite, his arch-nemesis, his worthiest adversary: Professor James Moriarty. Outwardly an accomplished mathematician, author of the respected abstract The Dynamics of an Asteroid; in reality, a feared mastermind using his peerless intellect to create and control a criminal organization that controls London and stretches across all England.

Sidney Paget's illustration of Professor Moriarty

Sidney Paget’s illustration of Professor Moriarty

Moriarty as a concept first appears in the novel The Valley of Fear. Inspector MacAdams of Scotland Yard tut-tuts Holmes’ seeming obsession with the man, until Holmes points out that a professor earning barely £700 a year has a painting worth £4000 in his study, and moreover has no fewer than twelve bank accounts. Moriarty himself does not put in an appearance, though the machinations of his organization are present at the beginning and end of the novel.

Moriarty presents himself in the story for which he was truly created – “The Final Problem” – in which Holmes has proceeded with his investigation of the organization promised at the end of The Valley of Fear (while Watson is occupied with his marriage to Mary Morstan and a return to private medical practice). In fact, Holmes has uncovered enough information and evidence that Scotland Yard, in three days time, stands poised to arrest the Professor and his entire gang in one fell swoop, prompting a visit from Moriarty himself to 221-B Baker Street, a last warning to a respected adversary. Holmes proposes to Watson – whose wife is gone for the week – to come with him to the Continent, there to lose themselves until Moriarty is run to ground.

ChofkohUUAEJ_q_The raid is a success save for two things – Moriarty and his second in command, Col. Sebastian Moran, escaped. And thus does Moriarty confront his bete noire at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, where the two men apparently struggle and fall to their death. Moriarty thus fulfills the destiny for which he was created, to put an end to the Great Detective, whose creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, had long chafed under the burden of his most successful character. As Doyle said, writing to his mother, “He takes my mind from better things.”

Possibly the best known of the Holmes novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles, is in fact a flashback, a memory of a case recalled by Watson, and written by Doyle only because of the public outcry against Holmes’ death. Ten years after “The Final Problem” came “The Adventure of the Empty House”, in which Doyle gives up and claims Holmes faked his death at the Falls and has been working to bring down Sebastian Moran.

Jeremy Brett and Eric Porter

Jeremy Brett and Eric Porter

But if the Great Detective can be brought back to life, so, too, must the Great Adversary. Professor Moriarty has had an impressive afterlife, reappearing again and again, no matter how many times he meets his doom. An entire book could be written about his many appearances in diverse media (if one has not been written already), but for the sake of time and my sanity, I will be concentrating on movies alone, which is a bit of a pity. It is in the realm of television that we not only have the most faithful rendition of the character ever – by Eric Porter, in the justly-lauded Grenada series featuring Jeremy Brett; it is also in the contemporary reworkings of Sherlock and Elementary that the Great Adversary has undergone the most remarkable changes, equal parts intriguing and annoying.

Moreover, as this blog is my hobby and time is limited, I had to similarly limit the number of movies for this article; I will try to get into the whys and wherefores as we go along.

"Really now, Professor - don't be a dick."

“Really now, Professor – don’t be a dick.”

It was recently announced that the previously lost silent movie version of William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes had been found, and is currently being restored. For that reason, it won’t be considered here. Another reason is that it’s a film version of Gillette’s famous play, which did much to further popularize the character, solidifying the deerstalker cap and calabash pipe as iconic – but it’s an odd version of Holmes at best. Watson is a bland cipher, and Holmes even gets married at the end! As we will see, though, Moriarty (of necessity) becomes more pro-active in his schemes- after all, an antagonist who merely sits in the center of a web is not very interesting. This, too, can be credited to Gillette.

Bypassing another filmed version of this play starring John Barrymore, and several other attempts to put Holmes on the silver screen, we’ll start in a much more familiar place, with a pair of faces that came to be unshakably identified as Holmes and Watson – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Such a terrible poster. Who are these people?

Such a terrible poster. Who are these people?

For years I had thought this was the first of the 20th Century Fox Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock movies, but no, that would be the redoubtable (and more marketable) Hound of the Baskervilles, which was so successful this sequel was rushed out.

At this point, rather than allow it to become the elephant in the room, I should address the problem of Nigel Bruce.

If there is anything most Holmes fans can agree on, it is a near-unanimous hatred of this version of Watson as doddering, bumbling old man. There are two reasons to temper this hatred; one, as mentioned before, previous versions of the character had been as interesting as wallpaper. Then again, studio heads likely felt there needed to be some way to inject a bit of lightness into a series about grisly murders, and Bruce, a seasoned music hall performer, could do this sort of thing in his sleep. Watch the aforementioned Hound, in which – by Doyle’s intention, I am sure – Holmes vanishes for half the story, during which Watson is shown to be quite capable on his own – then Holmes shows up, and his IQ drops fifty points. Poor Watson. He has no idea he is rooming with a psychic vampire.

I’ve made my peace with Nigel Bruce’s portrayal. That doesn’t necessarily mean I enjoy watching it. It is simply the price one pays to watch Basil Rathbone, who truly is one of the great Holmes.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

adventuresofsh_moriartyholmesThough supposedly based on William Gillette’s play, there is very little of it evident. The movie opens with Professor Moriarty (reliable screen villain George Zucco) on trial for murder, or rather being declared Not Guilty for lack of evidence, though everyone, jury and judges included, don’t like it very much. Enter Sherlock Holmes with new evidence, only seconds too late.

As it is raining, Moriarty genteely offers Holmes a ride home in his cab. Holmes accepts, so we can have one of the best parts of these Holmes/Moriarty match-ups: a brief conversation, civil but heavily laden with menace.

HOLMES: You’ve a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I’d like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society.

MORIARTY: (cheerfully) That would make an interesting exhibit.

Then after a bit more back and forth –

MORIARTY: I’m going to break you Holmes. I’m going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you’ll never suspect it until it’s too late. That will be the end of you, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. And when I’ve beaten and ruined you, then I can retire in peace. I’d like to retire; crime no longer amuses me. I’d like to devote my remaining years to abstract science.

Moriarty, after terrorizing his manservant for letting an orchid die while he was in prison, sets in motion an appropriately byzantine plot. First, writing with his left hand, he sends the Constable of the Tower of London (Henry Stephenson) a letter threatening to steal the Star of India emerald, to be delivered in a few days in tribute to Her Majesty. Then, with Holmes suitably warned, comes another mystery that the Professor knows will be more likely to snare the Detective’s interest than an improbable heist of a jewel too large to fence: the Brandons, a young brother and sister (Peter Willes and Ida Lupino, no less!) have received a bewildering message. It is a drawing of a man with a sea bird tied around his neck, and a date: that very day. The kicker is their father was killed ten years ago, after receiving just such a note.

0912-advholmes3The brother is, in fact, murdered in the London fog by some devilish means that strangles him and crushes his head simultaneously. Of course, the next day, Miss Brandon receives another drawing, with another date, one which coincides with the night the emerald is to be delivered to the Tower. No problem, says Holmes, Watson will on hand to guard the emerald (the Constable receives this information with as much confidence as the audience).

While Holmes unravels this puzzle, Moriarty effects a disguise by the simple expedient of shaving his beard, then appears as one of three London policemen sent to augment the Tower’s guards. In a brilliant piece of misdirection, the fake policemen run off with the emerald, but drop it. Satisfied the emerald is safe, the room is locked once more – with Moriarty, hidden within, now able to purloin the Crown Jewels at his leisure.

Of course, after saving Miss Brandon’s life – at the last minute, equally of course – Holmes figures out what Moriarty is up to, and after a running gunfight up the Tower and a fist fight atop it, Moriarty – for the first time, and certainly not for the last – falls to his doom.

vlcsnap-2016-05-12-21h24m21s070Adventures doesn’t draw literally from any of Doyles’ stories, though the puzzle dangled in front of Holmes, having something to do with mining interests and ancient wrongs in Argentina years before, feels a lot like Doyle’s novels. A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four and The Valley of Fear all leave London about three-quarters of the way through, journeying to America or Injah for a complete re-telling of the mystery’s backstory. The problem is, Adventures never bothers with that bit of exposition; Holmes catches the killer, and that’s enough of that. Zucco, though, provides a nicely brainy Moriarty, with a nasty wit and a sense of drama to rival Holmes’. The double-blind scheme to discredit Holmes and steal the Crown Jewels is suitably twisted and ingenious, worthy indeed of the name Moriarty.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942)

secret weapon.kpgThere is a gap of three years between Adventures and the next Rathbone/Bruce team-up, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. The most likely reason is Doyle’s heirs seeking more money for the rights to the characters, and the bean counters at Fox doing the math and figuring out that the cost of producing such period pieces was bad enough. In any case, Universal finally picked up the rights (at a much lower price, one would assume), and brought the characters into the present day, allowing them to make a series of 12 more movies on basically B-movie budgets. Bringing them into the 40s also meant that Holmes could use his powers against those damned Nazis.

"Brilliant Disguise, Holmes!"

“Brilliant Disguise, Holmes!”

The Secret Weapon in fact opens with Holmes sneaking Dr. Tolbel (William Post, Jr.) out of Switzerland, under the noses of two Gestapo agents ready to kidnap him. This is thanks to Holmes’ Brilliant Disguise™ and double agent-ing. Also smuggled out: Tobel’s advanced and highly accurate bomb sight, which is what the Nazis really want. Once ensconced in England, Tolbel insists on doing things his own way, which involves breaking the sight into four parts and giving each one to a different scientist, and then poo-pooing the idea of guards so that he can be kidnapped by Nazi agents under the guidance of… you guessed it, Professor Moriarty (Lionel Atwill)!

"Brilliant Disguise, Holmes." "I didn't expect it to fool you, Professor." "Thank you."

“Brilliant Disguise, Holmes.” “I didn’t expect it to fool you, Professor.” “Thank you.”

Tolbel has left behind a message in a code consisting of stick figures (the only element left over from the credited source, “The Dancing Men”), but Moriarty has gotten his hands on that, too, leaving Holmes to use some pre-CSI scientific jiggery-pokery to create a duplicate message using the pad underneath the original (most people would have used powdered graphite or somesuch, but don’t stop the man when he’s on a roll). Holmes will essay two more Brilliant Disguises™, each time being captured by and condemned to death by Moriarty. The last time he manages to badger Moriarty into a particularly slow and fiendish method of execution, so Watson and Lestrade will have time to track him down. This method – bleeding him to death slowly on an operating table – gives Holmesians a nice Easter Egg, as Moriarty smiles and says “The needle to the last, eh, Holmes?”

shandsecretweapon3Secret Weapon is one of the best of the Universal Holmes movies, if only because, in the name of the war effort, Watson and Lestrade may continually be a step behind Holmes, but they’re not total bunglers; Watson recognizes the supposed doodles in Tolbel’s message to be a coded message, and Lestrade engineers the final raid in such a way to make sure the captive Holmes isn’t killed outright – and, in fact, shoots the gun right out of Moriarty’s hand before he can administer the coup de grace.

AtwillLionel Atwill was originally cast as Moriarty in Adventures, but for reasons unknown was replaced by George Zucco. After Zucco’s version, more than willing to get his hands dirty and personally involved, Atwill’s Moriarty is more in keeping with the Professor of the stories: guiding his minions but rarely placing his own person in peril. That he is willing to abandon his crime empire and native land to basically become a war profiteer diminishes the grandeur of the Great Adversary somewhat, but is necessary for the time – and it’s not the last occasion we’ll see the character in that light, either.

Most of the authorities – like Lestrade – consider Moriarty dead (as would anyone who had seen Adventures). At the end, seeking to escape, he falls victim to his own boobytrap, a trapdoor leading to a deadfall. Or so we are told – all the proof we have is a sound effect, not even a quick fade-out on a plummeting dummy. For some reason, I’m not convinced.

The Woman in Green (1945)

The_Woman_in_Green_-_1945_-_PosterThe War is over, and Holmes has to satisfy himself with more mundane crimes, though currently London is in the grip of a series of grotesque murders: four young women, all found with their forefingers cleanly severed, as if by a trained surgeon. As the death toll rises, Holmes perceives the seeming randomness of the murders, linked only by the severed fingers, to be part of some larger, sinister scheme.

It is, of course: a complex plot to blackmail rich men by having them hypnotized by the seductress of the title, Lydia Marlowe (Hillary Brooke). They awaken in a seedy rented room, with no idea where the night has gone, and finding, to their horror, a severed finger in their pocket. They then receive a visit from a man who has one of their personal items – a cigarette case, in the one instance seen – which he claims was dropped while the man was bending over a corpse with a knife. Who could have come up with such a diabolical scheme but the most ruthless intellect to walk the earth, Holmes surmises – Professor Moriarty!

tumblr_inline_mojclbKF6x1qz4rgpPshaw, pshaws Watson, everyone knows that Moriarty was hanged in Montevideo a year ago! (Which is a surprise to anyone who assumed he actually did fall through that trapdoor). Still, when Watson is called away on an emergency case, Moriarty (Henry Daniell, this time) walks through the door of 221-B Baker Street, because no writer can resist the delicious possibilities of a dialogue scene between the two.

HOLMES: And now, Professor Moriarty, what can I do for you?

MORIARTY: Everything that I have to say to you has already crossed your mind.

HOLMES: And my answer has no doubt crossed yours.

MORIARTY: That’s final?

HOLMES: What do you think?

Then, after a bit of cut and thrust, in which it is made clear that Watson will be killed if Moriarty doesn’t leave the room alive and free, Holmes escorts Moriarty to the door.

MORIARTY: We’ve had many encounters in the past. You hope to place me on the gallows. I tell you I will never stand upon the gallows. But, if you are instrumental in any way in bringing about my destruction, you will not be alive to enjoy your satisfaction.

HOLMES: Then we shall walk together through the gates of Eternity hand in hand.

MORIARTY: What a charming picture that would make.

HOLMES: Yes, wouldn’t it. I really think it might be worth it.

walkHolmes will eventually trace the hypnosis to Lydia, but only after a detour to a sort of Hypnotist’s Club where Watson acts quite the Grand Buffoon and gets hypnotized himself, all so the audience will know what is going on when Lydia eventually puts Holmes under. Moriarty uses this opportunity to make Holmes write a suicide note, then has him walk along Lydia’s balcony railing, telling him it is a broad garden path. But ha ha! Holmes is only playing for time – again – while Watson and Scotland Yard take their sweet time arriving – again. There is the usual bit of persiflage regarding Holmes switching out the drug that would make him more susceptible to hypnosis for another that “renders the subject quite insensible to pain” so he could pass the needle test to see if he was truly under (yeah, right). Then Moriarty attempts to escape, and falls to his death. (Again: yeah, right).

Though far removed from any of the actual Doyle stories, Woman in Green does filch an element here and there. The bogus call to Dr. Watson so Moriarty can have a private chat with Holmes is right out of “The Final Problem”, and the subsequent attempt on the Detective’s life by a hypnotized sniper recalls “The Empty House”. I suppose that really, those couldn’t be called stealing, more like… shuffling pages about in a large anthology?

wig514Henry Daniell is one of the great underappreciated screen villains. My immediate association for him was as the Goebbels substitute, Garbitsch, in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Daniell’s Moriarty feels younger than Zucco or Atwill’s portrayal (though he’s roughly the same age here as Zucco and only six years younger than Atwill), and he brings a certain reptilian malevolence to the role. His dialogue scenes are not as droll as those of his two predecessors; there is a harder edge here, and his Moriarty does in fact feel like a man on the run who is accustomed to much, much better circumstances.

 Universal would manage to chug out another three movies in the series, but Moriarty would disappear from the silver screen until the late 70s. We’ll be ignoring the deconstructionist take of 1976’s The Seven Per-Cent Solution, and likewise the previous year’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, mainly because I don’t care for that movie. I and my friends were bitterly disappointed when we saw it on its first release, and I gave it another chance a couple of years ago. I couldn’t make it past the twenty minute mark, remarkable because I enjoy and respect everybody involved in it. I do have fond memories of Leo McKern’s completely insane Moriarty, though.

No, if I am going to have the Great Adversary in a comedic milieu, I prefer a different version.

Without A Clue (1988)

clue posterWithout A Clue is the perfect antidote for Watson fans chafing under the weight of too many Nigel Bruce movies – it posits that the actual genius behind the deductions was actually John Watson, M.D.! In order to protect a possible appointment to a prestigious hospital, Watson (Ben Kingsley) created the character of Holmes, and hired a down-on-his-luck alcoholic actor Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine) to play that role. This allowed Watson to continue his investigating career, but when Kincaid starts improvising too much and generally tries to take advantage, Watson runs out of patience and fires him – only to discover that the Strand Magazine is not interested in the adventures of “John Watson – The Crime Doctor”. Moreover, his attempts at investigation are hindered by everyone expecting Holmes to be doing the detecting, and dismissing Watson out of hand. The two men must patch up their differences – “Just this once!” – to investigate a serious case beginning with the substitution of counterfeit five-pound plates at the Royal Exchequer.

without a clueIn the course of the investigation, when Holmes and Watson exchange hotel rooms at the Shakespeare Arms  (Kincaid is given the King Lear room, which brings up bad memories for the actor), Holmes falls into a deathtrap meant for Watson, which leads to another near-breakup of the duo, when Watson reveals the mastermind behind the plot must be… MORIARTY!

HOLMES: You didn’t tell me that bloody homicidal maniac was involved in this!

WATSON: Because I knew you’d behave this way!

HOLMES: It wasn’t YOU he tried to kill!

WATSON: Think man, think… Who was SUPPOSED to be in that room?

HOLMES: That’s right! You were!

WATSON: Moriarty knows… I am the only match for his evil genius.

HOLMES: You sure he’s not trying to kill me?

WATSON: Of course not. He knows you’re an idiot.

HOLMES: Oh, thank God!

Without-A-Clue-michael-caine-5337607-550-370However, when it seems that Moriarty has finally succeeded in killing Watson, Kincaid does rise to the occasion and manages to deduce that the Professor is hiding out in the Orpheum Theater (the site of his last, disastrous play). It then becomes incumbent on Kincaid and Mrs. Hudson to foil Moriarty’s plan to destroy the English economy. In fact, it is Kincaid’s stage training at the last, his fencing skills versus Moriarty’s sword cane, that cuts off the villain’s escape and saves the day. Moriarty apparently perishes in an explosion at the end, but as the faux Holmes reminds us, “Don’t assume. Never assume.”

freemanWithout A Clue is a solid romp, offering a story accessible to an audience even only slightly aware of the Holmes mythos. You have two Oscar winners essaying the leads (and quite obviously having the time of their lives) with good support from Jeffrey Jones (as Lestrade) and Lysette Anthony (as the Damsel in Distress). Moriarty is played by Paul Freeman, who is one of the Great Screen Villains of the modern age. The pity is, his screen time is sadly limited, robbing him of any real chance to make his Great Adversary unique – but he is a damn fine villain, and seems to be having just as much fun as the rest of the cast.

Lack of screen time isn’t going to be a problem for our next stop:

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

sherlock_character_banner5In this Sherlock-glutted age, it is hard to comprehend that Without A Clue  was the last Holmes movie for twenty-one years, until Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes. There were ripples of grumbling about a revisionist take on the character, but that really isn’t the case. Robert Downey Jr. (in another role like Iron Man‘s Tony Stark, allowing him to use his own experiences with addiction to bring depth to the character) is twitchier and more petulant  than most Holmes, while Jude Law’s Watson is very obviously a retired military man, with all the skills and capabilities that implies. All these qualities are in the stories. If one really wishes to bitch about something, it would be the strange decision to turn Irene Adler (Rachel MacAdams) – the only person to win in a battle of wits against Holmes, who would refer to her only as “The Woman” – into Catwoman.

The first movie created a very strong villain in Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, appropriately), a seeming warlock using some fringe science to create destructive magic. His final plot – to release a proto-nerve gas in Parliament – draws the attention of another shadowy figure, who kills a police guard to get the gas compound – Adler’s true employer, and I’m pretty sure we don’t need to tell you who that is. But he won’t show his face until A Game of Shadows.

12658When he does show up – barely ten minutes into the movie, too – he will turn out to be Jared Harris (yes, Richard Harris’ son). In a neat little bit, he meets Irene Adler – having lost her last delivery to the Professor thanks to on-again off-again boyfriend Holmes – in her favorite restaurant, crowded at tea time. But everyone in the restaurant works for Moriarty, and at a signal, gets up and leaves, until she is alone with Moriarty.

MORIARTY:I don’t blame you. I blame myself. It’s been apparent to me for some time that you would succumb to your feelings for him. It isn’t the first occasion that Mr. Holmes inconvenienced me in recent months. The question is: What to do about it? That is my problem to solve now. I no longer require your services.

At which point, her poison tea takes effect. Farewell to “The Woman”.

sherlock-holmes-a-game-of-shadowsA large portion of the first movie involved Holmes selfishly trying to undo Watson’s upcoming marriage to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly). This time, Watson refuses to postpone the ceremony to help Holmes finally unravel Moriarty’s master plan. Then Holmes has to force a detour in their honeymoon because Moriarty makes it plain that he intends to have the couple killed.

So once again Holmes and Watson head to the continent while Mary is left in the care of Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry). They must seek out a gypsy, Sim (Noomi Rapace) who has the key to the mystery. Now, I expect a certain amount of complexity in a Holmes movie plot, but A Game of Shadows is simply unwieldy.  As it turns out, Moriarty is using anarchist cells to bomb various events, ratcheting up tensions in Europe, because he – through financial means and assassination – has been buying up munitions factories and other concerns so that in the coming war he will “own the bullets and the bandages.” (He’s also apparently caused the submachine gun to be developed a couple of decades early) That’s pretty much the overarching plot in The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. and as a mystery it’s fairly… elementary.

jude-law-as-dr-john-watson-in-sherlock-holmesBut everything in this Holmes canon is perforce bigger, and travel all over the continent in the name of spectacle draws the movie out to over two hours, winding up at a peace conference in a luxury resort overlooking the Reichenbach Falls. A wounded Holmes faces off against Moriarty in a last game of blitz chess while Watson and Sim try to identify the assassin in the gathering who will start World War I.  This is the third scene the two men have together, and the first to really demonstrate the usual heady crackle of a Holmes/Moriarty scene. As Holmes delineates the steps he’s taken to disassemble Moriarty’s empire, they continue playing the chess match in their heads, barking out moves between lines. Holmes wins this match, but also knows that Moriarty will first murder him, and then the Watsons in “a most creative way.” As Watson barges onto the balcony to relay the successful thwarting of the assassination, Holmes grabs the Great Adversary in a two-handed wrestling grapple and hurls them both over the railing, into the Falls.

At least Watson gets to witness it, this time.

Sherlock-Holmes-A-Game-of-Shadows-Jared-Harris-10Jared Harris has the most screen time of any Moriarty to this point, and he gifts us with a believable, human adversary, with none of the studied grandiosity of Paul Freeman or Lionel Atwill, but all of the malice. This Moriarty is an opportunist and a sociopath. Very realistic – yet, sadly, somehow the less for that.

That won’t be much of a problem in our last movie:

They Might Be Giants (1971)

There are worse movie posters. But not many.

There are worse movie posters. But not many.

In my opinion, an unjustly neglected movie. That could be because I saw it at exactly the right time in my life. Or it could be because it is generally only available in a bowdlerized version. We’ll get to that later. In any case, this is the film project that editor-turned-director Anthony Harvey and screenwriter James Goldman created after the marvelous The Lion in Winter. It is based on an unsuccessful play script, and there are times it is so early 70s it hurts.

Justin Playfair (George C. Scott) is a respected jurist whose wife dies; he becomes so bereft with grief that he retreats into madness, believing himself to be Sherlock Holmes. His brother (Lester Rawlins), desperate to pay off gambling debts, seeks to have Playfair committed so he will become executor of his considerable estate; to this end he tries to pressure a psychiatrist (Joanne Woodward) into the diagnosis, only to find that the lady takes her profession quite seriously and her observation will take time. Oh, and the psychiatrist’s name is Dr. Mildred Watson. Holmes, of course, resists her presence until her name is revealed.

HOLMES: Good Lord, I know I’m the underdog, but… are you sure that is your name?

4131274At which point he begins dragging Watson all over 70s New York, because he is, of course, seeking out Moriarty, who he feels is the source of all the evil in the world. In search of his precious clues – which he always finds, often in the most unlikely places – he and Watson intersect several lives, often changing them. This Holmes has the knack of finding the outcasts, the misfits, and making their lives just a little better. Jack Gilford plays Peabody, a law librarian who has known Holmes since his Playfair days, and is the movie’s secret weapon, stealing your heart away while you’re not looking. He, for instance, dreams of being the Scarlet Pimpernel, in a beautiful speech.

DliIXWatson, of course, resists these adventures, and the very existence of Moriarty:

WATSON: You’re just like Don Quixote. You think that everything is always something else.

HOLMES: Well, he had a point. ‘Course he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be, well… All the best minds used to think the world was flat. But what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.

Yes, this is where the musical duo got their name.

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS, Joanne Woodward, George C. Scott, 1971The thing is, Holmes and Watson are both damaged human beings, who find in each other something they are looking for, without even knowing it. They begin to fall in love, and Watson even comes round to Holmes way of thinking, or embraces his madness, whichever way you wish to interpret it. So much so that late one fateful night, as Holmes feels the showdown with Moriarty is finally at hand, he gathers a small army of misfits, all of whom seem to feel some distant call to arms. And facing his troops, he addresses them:

HOLMES: I think… if God is dead he laughed himself to death. Because, you see, we live in Eden. Genesis has got it all wrong. We never left the Garden. Look about you. This is paradise. It’s hard to find, I’ll grant you, but it is here. Under our feet, beneath the surface, all around us, is everything we want. The earth is shining under the soot. We are all fools. Moriarty has made fools of all of us. But together, you and I, tonight… we’ll bring him down.

The problem is, nobody follows him and Watson into the sewer that takes them to the site of the final showdown: a supermarket. “I don’t blame them,” says Holmes. But Moriarty is not in the meat locker, as presumed; as they go back over Holmes’ clues, Watson deduces another location, and Holmes declares her now a detective – and they set out to the new rendezvous.

This is where things can go south on you.

tumblr_mwwnp5uUsV1ruqt0eo1_500In the version I first saw, Holmes and Watson exit the meat locker, and the head of Watson’s sanitarium, under pressure from Playfair’s brother, is there with a full complement of orderlies, butterfly nets and rubber hoses. This is when the army of misfits intervenes, giving Holmes and Watson their chance to escape (and also rescue their friends when the attending police try to arrest them). It is a wonderful scene, a victory for the forces of the disenfranchised, which in this movie are the forces of good. And this scene is cut out of Universal’s original VHS and current offering from their Made on Demand Universal Vault label. Its omission doesn’t necessarily kill the movie, but it certainly cuts out its heart and leaves it to bleed to death. The only version on home video which has this scene was an Anchor Bay DVD from back in the dawn of the medium. Thank God I scarfed it up back in the day, because it now fetches over $200 on Amazon. The butchered version is apparently the official one, as far as Universal is concerned – and honestly, I blame that for the movie’s failure at the box office. That and the fact that Universal’s PR arm had absolutely no idea how to market it (the trailer scrupulously avoids any mention of Holmes at all).

Because in their version, we go directly to the last scene, outside a riding school, where Holmes and Watson await Moriarty. Watson will have a brief moment of doubt about his existence… and then she hears the hoofbeats.

HOMES: There! Riding like a king!

WATSON: He’s everything you said he was…

HOLMES: He makes you proud, doesn’t he?


The hoofbeats grow closer. They hold hands

HOLMES: Let it be said… they found us very close together. In the light.

As the hoofbeats grow closer, and the music builds to a crescendo, they are consumed by bright light. After a quick fade to black, the words appear on screen: The human heart can see what is hidden to the eyes, and the heart knows things that the mind cannot begin to understand.

vlcsnap-2010-02-08-14h27m38s103That ending enraged me for years. Then I got older, and realized it was the only possible ending to a magical, fairy tale of a movie. Examining Holmes’ speech, and looking over the events of the movie, there is a Moriarty. That he could make us forget that we live in paradise, he could only be the one thing that drove Playfair into his madness and his crusade: Moriarty is, quite simply, Death. Riding a horse from man to man, the being that stole from him his beloved wife – but that was in another life.

FinalProblemStamp1993Thus do we come to the end of our rumination on Professor James Moriarty – from grandiose villain to unfeeling warmonger, to – finally – a literal apotheosis, an elevation to the rank of Cosmic Force. Moriarty the mathematician would scoff at the very idea, but Moriarty the villain – the concept, the Great Adversary – would no doubt be secretly pleased.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on Amazon

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon on Amazon

The Woman in Green on Amazon

Without A Clue on Amazon

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows on Amazon

They Might Be Giants (damaged version) on Amazon

This ridiculously long post is a part of The 2016 Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy, Silver Screenings, and Shadows and Satin

Singing Spies in a Stormy French Field (featuring James Brown)

Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942)

220px-VisiteursdusoirMarcel Carné is a French film director best known for his acknowledged masterpiece, Children of Paradise, which I will get to eventually this year, but I had long been intrigued by his previous movie, Les Visiteurs du Soir (English title The Devil’s Envoys), not only because of my interest in the fantasy genre but because somehow I had never frickin’ heard of it. Given how much film text I had read over the years, how was this even possible?

Towards the end of the 15th century, two minstrels ride into the castle of the recently-widowed Baron Hugues (Fernand Ledeux), who is celebrating the upcoming wedding of his daughter Anne (Marie Déa) to the rather brutish Baron Renaud (Marcel Herrand). The minstrels, Gilles (Alain Cuny) and Dominique (Arletty) are the envoys of the title, whose mission is to spread despair throughout the world. To this end they will use magic and their own beauty and wit to seduce the members of the wedding, and then suddenly leave their victims, bereft and heartbroken. This plan runs aground when the flawed Gilles – who doesn’t mind using his powers for an occasional good deed – confronted with Anne’s immaculately pure heart, falls in love with her and forsakes his mission.

06-alain-cuny-theredlistDominique works overtime seducing both the Barons, and the Devil himself (Jules Berry) arrives on the scene, disguised as a traveller seeking shelter from a sudden storm. By asking seemingly innocent questions, he sees to it that Gilles is imprisoned and the two Barons will duel to the death over Dominique – but then he, too, becomes infatuated with Anne’s incorruptible heart and love for Gilles, and must find a way to undermine it and make Anne his own.

visiteurs-du-soir-1942-03-gThis is a bit of a departure for Carné, who along with Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo were the main proponents of the somewhat nebulous Poetic Realism movement in French cinema. The major reason for this, though, is unmistakeable: the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. Declining to work for the German-controlled Continental Films, Carné, after several abortive projects, teamed with independent producer André Paulve. To avoid censorship, they decided on a purely escapist feature, set in the past, with no political content. The production shuttled between studios in Paris to the Free Zone in the South for the exteriors, which must have been difficult for the several Jewish crew members, working under aliases.

les-visiteurs-du-soirThe result was that Les Visiteurs du Soir was a rousing success in France, who really needed their escapist fare (and though Carné denied it, there were still whispers of political allegory). There would be several more medieval fantasies released to French screens in the coming years, arguably leading up to that form’s ne plus ultra, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast in 1946.

Les Visiteurs is a charming distraction in this day and age, well-acted and shot, with Jules Berry a definite standout as the chatty, fun-loving Devil. Not a bad way to spend an evening, at all.

Break out your dictionaires:

Buy Le Visiteurs du Soir on Amazon

A Field in England (2013)

A FIELD IN ENGLAND POSTER A3-1So why not then journey to another black-and-white fantasia of a time long gone, where mysterious forces play out against hapless human subjects?

During the 17th century English Civil War, three deserters from the battlefield (Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando and Richard Glover) fall in with another seeming deserter named Cutler (Ryan Pope), who, under the guise of taking them to a nearby alehouse, feeds them soup heavy with psilocybin mushrooms. This is a means of taking them hostage for his master, O’Neil (Michael Smiley), an alchemist who feels there is a treasure in this Field, and he needs people to find it and dig it up. Complicating matters is one of the deserters, Trower (Barratt) is seeking out O’Neil for stealing papers from their master – and Trower refused to eat the mushrooms.

A072_C001_1001IEThat’s the basic plot there. Now, what actually happens in A Field in England is open to interpretation. This is the work of prolific director Ben Wheatley, whose Kill List I found unique, daring and quite striking. He is challenging without being obscure; I find his work genuinely refreshing, and sometimes a little annoying. There is a lot of bizarre stuff to parse in A Field in England, some of it I’m not quite certain we’re ever supposed to understand, like the tendency of Glover’s character, Friend, to die and come back to life suddenly and unexpectedly. How much of the bizarre action in the film is due to the characters’ ingestion of hallucinogens, and how much is due to strange magicks that are unleashed? If Trower hasn’t indulged in the mushrooms, why does he keep having visions of a “bad planet” set to unleash its wrath upon them? It begs for an immediate second viewing, if not a third.

A_Field_In_England_review_featured_photo_galleryBorn of an idea (while Wheatley was travelling by train) to make a movie using a single field as a setting, and shot in only 12 days, Field is one of those technical exercises that bears unexpected dividends, and makes one look forward to whatever the director comes up with next (spoiler: it’s High Rise, and he has the chops to actually do J.G. Ballard justice).

Buy A Field in England on Amazon

Spies (1928)

poster1I continue to work my way through Fritz Lang’s silent days in the Weimar Republic. His previous film, the legendary Metropolis, nearly bankrupted the studio UFA (current estimates place the cost, adjusted for inflation, at 200 million dollars!), and for a time they considered releasing Lang from his contract. Instead, they placed severe budgetary restrictions on his next production, which yielded Spies.

I guess I don’t have to tell you that the movie is about spies, huh? The German secret service is having a bad time of it, with assassinations and stolen secret papers aplenty. This is the work of one mastermind running an efficient and widespread organization: Haghi (the ever-reliable Rudolf Klein-Rogge, once more playing a supervillain with a penchant for disguises). The good guys put their best man on the job, Agent 326 (Willie Fritsch), countered by one of Haghi’s best, Sonya Baranilkova (Gerda Marus). The major problem: 326 and Sonya fall in love.

haghiSpies‘ storyline is much more complicated with that, with additional plots concerning a secret treaty with the Japanese and the duplicity of an army Colonel; but the main thrust of the movie is that star-crossed romance and the increasingly jealous Haghi’s attempts to kill 326.

The climax of the movie, with cops and 326’s organization raiding the bank that houses Haghi’s organization, desperately seeking the secret entrance while the kidnapped Sonya and 326’s assistant Franz (Paul Höbiger) are fighting for their lives, is suitably suspenseful and exciting. The rest… not so much, though there are high points. My personal favorite is one of Sonya and 326’s dates, people in black tie formal at dinner tables arrayed around a boxing ring. Once one pugilist is knocked out, an orchestra strikes up and the patrons rise to dance around the ring. Weimar Germany, everybody!

No, the real problem isn’t that Haghi is a brilliant strategist – which he is – but that his opponents are such ninnies. Even the worst threat, Agent 326, is reduced to an idiot by love. Jerry Lewis would have had a better chance against Haghi. CONTROL, on its Maxwell Smart-est day, would at least have been trying. It’s just infuriating. The fact that is likely an accurate portrait of government bureaucracy is even more infuriating.

fritschStill, Spies was a resounding financial success. Willie Fritsch was an inspired bit of casting, being mainly known for playboy roles in light comedy. His against-type leading man turns in this, and Lang’s next movie, Woman in the Moon, ensured a long career for him. Making her film debut was Gerda Marus (also in Woman in the Moon), a stage actress.  Her casting is notable for her eventual placement in Lang’s heart, ending his troubled marriage with Thea von Harbou, who had written Lang’s most ambitious movies. (Admittedly, the fact that von Harbou would become an ardent supporter of the Nazi Party didn’t help. Lang was, after all, Jewish) Our three main actors are all quite remarkable in a pretty scattered film – the American version cut out all extraneous plotlines and got it down to a runtime of a little over 70 minutes – from two and half hours!

IMG_20160405_232926It should also be mentioned that the financial success of Spies ultimately worked against UFA, as Woman in Space saw Lang, flush with popular success, back to his old budget-busting ways. But that’s a movie for another time.

Now witness some divine overacting and great editing in the first two minutes:

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Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

singin-in-the-rainIt is no secret that I generally despise musicals. Don’t hate the music per se, I just have my doubts about inserting it into a story. This has been pointed out – with some truth, no doubt – that this is due to my absolute lack of talent in the singing and dancing arts. I will wrestle you two falls out of three in the realm of Shakespeare, motherfucker, but ask me to carry a tune or do more than the simplest dance step, and I’m out of the running.

(Yet I will admit no small amount of fondness for 1776. I am a mass of controversies.)

But if I am going to continue my self-education in the ways of cinema, I am going to have to face up to this genre. Singin’ in the Rain is held up as sheer perfection by many musical fans, so I marked it as a gateway into such things, and the fact that I found the DVD for 99 cents in a Library Sale helped, too. Then my frequent partner in cinema exploration, Rick, mentioned he had picked up the restored blu-ray, and if you are going to watch a Technicolor movie, you should make sure your eyes are taking in all the angstroms they possibly can.

001-Singin-in-the-Rain-1952-Don-Lina-and-Cosmo-at-Movie-PremiereThe movie starts out with a recap of the career of matinee idol Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), who with his partner Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) journey from vaudeville entertainers to silent pictures. Lockwood manages to parlay a stand-in for stunt work to leading man roles while Cosmo plays mood music during filming. Running from a pack of pre-Beatlemania clothes-ripping fans, Lockwood encounters Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds), who is so unimpressed with him that he has to immediately fall in love with her. The Big Twist is this is all in 1927, and a little movie called The Jazz Singer is about to change movies for good.

singin-in-the-rain-movie-still-660x330A lot of our plot, such as it is, is going to involve Lockwood’s co-star Lina Lamont (a pretty amazing Jean Hagen), hyped by the press to be a Burton-Taylor pair, except that Lockwood can’t stand her. Another problem is that Lamont has a voice like chalk squealing across a Brooklyn blackboard. An advance screening of their new romantic epic, The Dueling Cavalier, is a laughable disaster, at least partially due to the horrific on-set sound recording (“They need to invent ADR,” I muttered).

That evening, Brown and Seldon cheer up Lockwood by brainstorming that the actor should return to his roots and The Dueling Cavalier should become The Dancing Cavalier. After singing “Good Morning” to celebrate, Cosmo also invents ADR by figuring out that Kathy could dub in Lamont’s lines and songs in the new footage.

aieeeeThis will be the plot major thereon, trying to keep the secret of her new voice from Lamont and the repercussions when the plan is blown by a treacherous (and lamentably under-used) Rita Moreno (as “Zelda Zanders, The Zip Girl”). My major problem, as usual, is the damned musical numbers. I expect the number when Lockwood confesses his love to Kathy, no problem. “Good Morning” is a little harder to accept, as its impetus is the discovery that our three heroes have talked until after midnight. And worst of all is “Make ‘Em Laugh”, a number everybody loves but I always refer to as “Try Too Hard”. It’s there because Kelly rightfully thought that O’Connor deserved a solo number, but it feels incredibly shoe-horned in. Then you feel bad because you discover that O’Connor was smoking 4 packs of cigarettes a day, and filming the number put him in bed for three days. And then when he came, back, he found out somebody hadn’t checked the gate after his last take and he had to do it all over again.

singing-in-the-rain-5Even fans seem to have a problem with the big “Broadway Ballet” number (better known to us heathens as “Gotta Dance!”), because it has literally nothing to do with the movie’s story. It’s not a problem I share, because it has no reason to be there – it is so obviously something that Kelly wanted to do, they just stopped pretending and let him do it. Though at the end of the sequence – which is supposedly Lockwood describing it to the studio’s head (Millard Mitchell) – I did get to say, “Okay, Cosmo, now you’d better invent Technicolor, too.” It’s a great, dazzling number, costing almost $600,000 to produce, but my God! What is it doing there?

singin-in-the-rain-blu-rayNow “Singin’ in the Rain” is itself the direct opposite, the song and dance growing naturally out of the preceding scene. It’s become Kelly’s iconic number, all the more amazing because he did it while sick as a dog, with a fever somewhere south of 101 degrees. This movie really tried to kill its stars – Debbie Reynolds tap-danced until her feet bled. Literally. And Kelly still insulted her dance skills and re-dubbed all her taps himself.

O-Conner-Reynolds-and-Kelly-in-Singin-in-the-RainFor a movie with a lot of meta-textual jokes about Hollywood – when Kathy rescues Lockwood from his fans, she’s driving Andy Hardy’s jalopy – the most incredibly meta-textual stuff comes from behind the scenes. The best one involves Kathy’s re-dubbing of Lina Lamont’s lines in The Dancing Cavalier. The lines are actually being delivered by Jean Hagen herself in her natural voice, so it’s Jean Hagen dubbing Debbie Reynolds dubbing Jean Hagen. Then you find out that all of Debbie’s songs were actually sung by Betty Noyes, and you start wondering who Incepted you while you were sleeping.

Buy Singin’ in the Rain on Amazon

There are only two songs written specifically for this movie – the aforementioned “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes” (“Singin’ in the Rain”? Written in 1929), causing some to point to it as the first of the jukebox musicals, which rather ignores the next movie I was going to watch.

Stormy Weather (1943)

Stormy_weather_xlg“Stormy Weather”, the song, was written in 1933, before you ask. The movie is loosely based on the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who actually did lead a pretty interesting one. Only the broadest brush strokes are used in the first 45 minutes or so, as Robinson reads the current Theatre World  magazine, a “Special Edition Celebrating the Magnificent Contribution of the Colored Race to the Entertainment of the World During the Past Twenty-Five Years”, and telling the neighborhood children all the following flashbacks.

…Starting with his return from service in World War I, and his meeting with the fictitious singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne) at a dance for the returning troops. The following bits with Robinson working as a waiter at a bar run by Ada Brown with a band led by Fats Waller is necessary story folderol, as Robinson had a good career in vaudeville before joining the Army, but it provides a re-meet cute with Selina, who follows him after he’s fired for being too good in one show to another show on Broadway (in the 20s, there a brief vogue for all-black revues there). Their romance deepens, but Robinson wants a marriage and children, and Selina does not. She heads off to Paris to become a big star, and Robinson heads to Hollywood. They don’t mention for what, but we’ll get to that later.

horne-robinson-stormy-weather-1943Then who should drive up in his convertible than Cab Calloway, inviting Robinson to attend a show he’s throwing that night “for the troops.” “For the troops? I’ll be there!” And who should be at that show than Selina Rogers, singing the title song and having totally changed her mind about married life. She and Robinson have one more number, and then Cab takes us out with “Jumpin’ Jive” and an appearance by the Nicolas Brothers that will make all your joints and muscles ache just watching it.

lena and cabJukebox musical it is; Fats Waller – of course – does “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and Cab does another standard, “Geechy Joe”. There are, in fact, something like 20 musical numbers in a movie that is barely 70 minutes long. And this is not a B-movie rushed out by 20th Century Fox, either, this has prime talent behind the lens as well as in front, and a fair amount of money invested in big production numbers (though certainly not to the dizzying heights of MGM nearly a decade later for Singin’ in the Rain – the Broadway Ballet alone probably cost as much as five Stormy Weathers). That is amazing considering that in most of his other movies, Robinson is in standalone scenes so they could easily be edited out in the South. Hell, his best-known roles – in four Shirley Temple movies, where he served not only as Temple’s friend but her dance instructor – were similarly cut. Fox knew this wasn’t going to play in half of the country.

Screen-shot-2010-10-15-at-6.57.30-PMA major reason for its existence is in evidence from the first and last sequences – Robinson’s service and the proud introduction of “Cab Calloway Jr.” (actually Robert Felder), in uniform and ready to ship out for WWII. “I wish I had a son like him!” exclaims Robinson. As sure as the seal on the closing title urges you to Buy Liberty Bonds on your way out, this was telling the African-Americans in the audience that they were needed for the War Effort, and for the length of this movie, at least, Hollywood was behind them.

In 2001, Stormy Weather was enrolled in the National Film Registry, for a number of good reasons. It’s one of the few (only three I can think of right now) studio movies of the period with an all-black cast, and certainly the only one where the characters seem like actual human beings, with real desires, goals, and foibles.

stormy-weather-bill-robinson-lena-horne-1943You can’t say that race doesn’t exist in Stormy Weather, as it doesn’t shy from the minstrel show realities of Robinson’s early career. It’s pretty significant, and not a little subversive, that when a blackface comedy routine in that Broadway show is presented (and you should be wincing at the sight of two black men smearing burnt cork on their faces), there is no reaction from the audience until the curtain closes on it. It’s a pretty clever routine, too, lightning fast lines delivered at a staggering pace, and their disintegrating car deserved some applause – but nope. Silence. That’s a pretty sharp commentary right there.

fatsThis is Fats Waller’s final film appearance – he died too young of pneumonia just five months later. There’s also some typical Hollywood jiggery-pokery with the Robinson /Horne romance, too, since he’s 40 years her elder here. Doesn’t matter that much, though – once the man starts dancing, he’s ageless. This movie serves as a tribute to so much happy, seemingly effortless, pure talent that we should all be thankful it has survived so we can enjoy it today.

Buy Stormy Weather on Amazon

That should have been my last movie for this round (this has gone on long enough, hasn’t it?), but then an impromptu Internet poll determined I should watch one more, and it was a fairly fortuitous choice:

The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)

"First Annual". Right.

“First Annual”. Right.

Now this is a literal jukebox movie. Who the hell needs a story, anyway?

But the story is pretty interesting: After The Beatles’ landmark appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, this concert and film was put together by Bill Sargent, who had developed a technology he called Electronovision. An early bid to develop high-definition TV, the cameras sent a then-walloping 800 lines of video at 25 fps to tape, creating an image that could yield a reasonably good picture when transferred to 35mm and projected; it had been used once before for a Broadway production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton, that made the rounds of non-New York theaters. It was used to record this concert, and then only a handful of times, the most notable being a production of Harlow starring Carol Lynley.

Oh, but what a concert. Opening with Chuck Berry and “Johnny B. Goode” (I’m going to digress here to point out that another media landmark, the supposed Country Music icon Hee-Haw, also opened with “Johnny B. Goode”, though performed by Buck Owens), and then Berry and Gerry and the Pacemakers alternate for a while, then the Miracles (hi, Smokey!), Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, Jan and Dean (who also play hosts), The Beach Boys, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, The Supremes (hi Diana!), The Barbarians, James Brown and His Famous Flames, and The Rolling Stones.

Hai, Smokey

Hai, Smokey

That is two hours of incredible music, recorded and mixed live on the fly, apparently cut down from a five hour event (we are spared equipment moving and the like). This is pretty much the soundtrack of my youth, and I sat there with a dopey look on my face.

The Barbarians sing a medley of their hit.

The Barbarians sing a medley of their hit.

I had only thought I had seen The T.A.M.I. Show before; what I had actually seen was a mashup with a later, similar event called The Big TNT Show that had some of The T.A.M.I. Show cut in to be released as This Was Rock. It turned out that Burton had all the Electronovision versions of Hamlet pulled, and somebody in The Beach Boys organization decided that their performance needed to be pulled from all prints. That didn’t quite happen, fortunately, which is why these days we can watch Brian Wilson singing with The Beach Boys, something that would not happen again for 19 years; this was only a few months before his nervous breakdown.

vlcsnap-2016-05-02-14h39m35s495There’s other little festive things, too: the pack-in book for the DVD infers that assistant choreographer Toni Basil only appears in the opening credit montage, but I’m pretty sure I spotted her among the dancers (who are doing some OMG get-me-some-oxygen gyrations that would have impressed The Nicolas Brothers with their freneticism) but truthfully, I was looking for another dancer in the lineup, and I finally got a good look at her during the Supremes’ number: hai, Teri Garr!

Ladies & gentlemen - The Supremes! (and Teri Garr)

Ladies & gentlemen – The Supremes! (and Teri Garr)

And the legendary Jack Nitzsche on the left!

And the legendary Jack Nitzsche on the left!

If I have time to watch it again, I need to try to get a better look at that backup band, too: that is the legendary Wrecking Crew, which at the time included future stars like Glenn Campbell and Leon Russell.

Another telling bit concerns the last two acts: James Brown and The Rolling Stones. Sargent wanted The Stones to close the show, probably because they were the closest thing to The Beatles he could afford. The Stones didn’t want to follow Brown, and Brown wanted to close the show. Hell, everybody realized that Brown tamishow-2should have closed, except Sargent. So Brown proceeds to make The Stones wish they had never come to America with a set that threatens to melt your TV set. The Stones rise to the challenge, throwing in a bit more footwork than usual in their first song, “Around and Around”, but it doesn’t matter to the screaming teens; the two acts are really for different audiences, and in that one night, both audiences are there, and they are enjoying the hell out of each others’ music.

1315169718That’s the other big cultural landmark that happened in 1964: The Civil Rights Act, signed into law on July 2, outlawing discrimination and segregation. The thing is, The T.A.M.I. Show is an accurate depiction of the radio of my youth; we didn’t care about the color of the music, we cared about its quality, and I heard an astounding variety of music on my little transistor. Modern radio, categorized and pre-boxed and yes, segregated cannot compare, and we are honestly less for that.

Which makes me more glad than ever that Shout Factory has finally managed to put it out on home video, Beach Boys and all.

Please be advised I will not be held responsible for this video melting your computer monitor. Please! Please!

Buy The T.A.M.I. Show on Amazon – it’s currently dirt cheap

Hopefully you’ve now have enough of me for a while. I’m going to be spending the next couple of weeks on my Villain Blogathon entry, and as usual, I rue my choice and the work I have cut out for myself. See you in a couple.