The Color of Horror

100Tim Lucas starts out his typically excellent audio commentary for the recent Arrow Films restoration of Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace with an anecdote about Ernst Lubitsch. Apparently the director told a visitor to the set of Heaven Can Wait that Technicolor worked best with musicals and comedy, and should never be used for drama or mysteries. Lucas presents Blood and Black Lace as the prime exhibit that Lubitsch’s reasoning is incorrect. With the synchronicity that runs my life at this juncture, I watched another movie afterwards that also contested it, only earlier.

babl2Blood and Black Lace has followed me around all my life, it seems. It was released in the US in 1965, which would put me at eight years of age, already a veteran reader of Famous Monsters of Filmland; it made enough of a splash that I determined that this was something I needed to see. A bit of confusion led me, a few years later, to watch a late night TV showing of Blood and Roses (and talk about being even more confused later – I was much too young for Vadim, even edited for TV). So it’s actually taken me something like half a century to see this movie, and watching just the opening credits unfurl, all ravishing color and dark wit, lets me know the wait for this version was worth it. (This sequence was replaced for the American release with one by Filmation, included on the disc as an extra. Macabre, but much less colorful. Much.)

I almost didn’t get to see it. This was supposed to be a high profile release from the new Arrow Video USA branch, but apparently the rights weren’t cleared up before the release was announced, and the title is on the “Indefinitely Delayed” list. Possibly as a cost-saving measure, though, the concurrent British release of the blu-ray was pressed for both Regions A & B, and I have this account with Amazon UK that proves very useful at times like this…

I think the difference in cost was like three bucks. The extra dough and extra wait were proven to be worthwhile in the first five seconds of the menu, which quotes the above-mentioned title sequence.

blood-and-black-lace-09Blood and Black Lace involves a series of murders decimating the models of a high fashion house in Rome. This may not be the first giallo movie (that title usually goes to director Mario Bava’s earlier, black-and-white The Girl Who Knew Too Much), but it is the one that codifies much of what would become the hallmarks of giallo: a series of sadistic murders, a black-gloved (and in this case, literally faceless) murderer, and innovative and stylish camerawork.

The murders are extremely sadistic, though we don’t see a lot of gore; the victims are models, and the killer always seems to take special care to disfigure his victims. Bava started out as a lighting cameraman, and his ingenuity shines through, especially for such a low-budget movie. Unable to afford an expensive camera dolly and track, his artful, sweeping moves are accomplished with a child’s toy wagon. And the color! The phrase “color you could eat with a spoon” is a silly metaphor, but amazingly apt for this picture. It’s been plagued with substandard video releases to date, and small wonder, as the reds Bava employs would eat its way through any standard VHS tape.

blood-and-black-lace-stillLest one should think the color is a gimmick, Bava cagily uses the lack of it in his daytime scenes, always involving the police, who (as they must be in any giallo) are of very little help, hidebound in their dull little colorless world of procedures and guesswork. Killers and victims exist in a darker yet brighter world, candy-colored and fluorescent. Color is the province of the flamboyant, be they artists or madmen, and both revel in the night.

Blood-and-Black-Lace-8Bava’s casting is also magnificent; Cameron Mitchell (who seems unrealistically young, at this far remove!), Eva Bartok, Luciano Pigozzi (whose full name should really be “Luciano Pigozzi, the Italian Peter Lorre”) and a number of remarkable women as the models, like Mary Arden (who had a remarkable life after), and my favorite, Harriet Medin, whose even more remarkable life Lucas expounds upon in the commentary. Here, she plays a housekeeper with some important red herring information. I instantly recognized her as Thomasina Paine in Death Race 2000.

The mystery itself plays fair with the viewer for the most part, although there is one bit when a character does something so inexplicable, it is almost certainly something Bava threw in to muddy the waters for the viewer. It’s not just a red herring (appropriate in this brightly colored milieu), it’s a big slab of what the hell that still leads to one of the most effective scenes, so we’ll just let it lie. Pondering the movie afterwards does provide a rationale for it, but it does require pondering. A very minor quibble to have this movie in such a bewitching presentation.

This is a very good disc, is what I’m saying. I’ve watched it twice so far, once to experience the movie, once to listen to Lucas’ commentary, and I’m trying to find time for a third run, this time with the English dub so I can enjoy Paul Frees being all the male characters. Does he voice Luciano Pigozzi The Italian Peter Lorre with an actual Peter Lorre? I need to know.

So I followed Blood and Black Lace up with another movie about sadistic murders, Peeping Tom, which could not be more different in tone, but no less artistic.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREPeeping Tom is largely famous for completely destroying the already sinking career of director Michael Powell, who is justly famous for movies like Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. These are all amazing, well-loved movies (and some would point out, made during his fruitful partnership with Emeric Pressburger). Peeping Tom is such an about-face from this earlier material, it seems almost an act of madness itself; that its initial withering critical reception and failure would, decades later, turn into rediscovery and reverence, is now a familiar, tragic tale.

In a reverse from Blood and Black Lace, we know who the killer is from the start: it’s Mark (Carl Boehm), a camera-obsessed, soft-spoken young man who A) works as a cameraman in a movie studio (giving Powell a chance to lampoon some of his friends/enemies over the years); B) Shoots pornographic photos, or in the parlance of the time, “views”, for a local newsagent; C) Rents out the rooms of his father’s spacious home; D) kills prostitutes while filming their death throes, using a camera tripod leg with a knife at the tip.

peeping-tom2There’s one facet of the murders that Powell hides from us until the very end, relying only on the police exclaiming over the look of extreme terror on the victims’ faces; we will see Mark is obsessed with fear, as he shows the nice young girl on the first floor, Helen (Anna Massey), the films his own father made of him when he was a child – his father awakening him in the middle of the night with lizards or bright lights, or forcing him to stand next to the dead body of his mother. This has created the monster he is today, watching the movies of his victims dying late at night, the footage he’s taken surreptitiously of the police investigations.

The repulsion of the public to the movie may zero in on Boehm’s portrayal of Mark – though not wholly sympathetic, it is a quiet acting job, a damaged individual moving through a world that still confuses him on many levels. Anna Massey is quite remarkable as Helen, refreshingly unglamorous and real; her growing relationship with Mark offers an impossible rehabilitation, a normalcy he can hope for, but never truly achieve. When, after spending time with the bubbly Helen, we encounter more typical, idealistically beautiful movie women (and Mark’s chosen victims), they seem alien creatures, rare birds flitting through his world.

Peeping TomOne of these is Vivian, the stand-in for the vacuous star of the vapid comedy movie Mark is working on, who stays after hours to do a bit of film with the cameraman that she hopes will finally garner her the attention she needs to progress beyond stand-in work. Vivian is played by Moira Shearer, the star of Powell’s earlier The Red Shoes, and it’s hard not to read into her subsequent death the possibility of Powell murdering his own career. But that’s the sound of a guy putting way too much thought into his movie watching.

peep-killPeeping Tom, in keeping with its themes of voyeurism, is also one of the, if not the, first movie to give the audience the killer’s Point Of View during the murder scenes. They are seen, as by Mark, through the viewfinder of a camera, but that is not a fourth wall audiences of the time were expecting to crumble, or even wanted.

Peeping Tom opened in 1960, a few months before Psycho, a similar movie which is no less disturbing (and yes, there are parts of Peeping Tom that are legitimately hard to watch). Hitchcock recieved no such blowback from his seedy little horror movie. Is it because he was Hitchcock, a director who had never made a movie like Tales of Hoffman or A Matter of Life and Death? Or was it because Psycho was in black and white?

2043_597bLike Blood and Black LacePeeping Tom is in Eastmancolor, and though not as lurid as the op-art palette of Bava, this is still the director who manipulated color so brilliantly in Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. The color here is lush and realistic, giving the world an unmistakable texture; it is no mistake that Mark’s murder movies are shot in black and white. Realistically, it’s a process he can perform in his own home darkroom, but in the world of this disturbed young man, it is also easily managed, stark. It allows him to concentrate on the fear of his victims, undistracted. And as I believe Hitchcock himself once stated about Psycho, black and white can be distancing, a reminder it’s only a movie. Or maybe it was Kubrick, talking about shooting Lolita in monochrome.

I think Lubitsch’s point was Technicolor (or as seen here, Eastmancolor) is actually a hyperreal process; the colors it produces are gorgeous, but unrealistically vibrant, a method put to good use in lighthearted fare, fantasy. That is true for the most part, certainly true for Lubitsch and his works; but it is the role of artists to ignore such strictures. Without that defiance, we would never have any art at all.

The real kicker is neither of these movies is really available (in the forms I viewed) in the US. Blood and Black Lace for the reasons I mentioned above, and Peeping Tom… well, the rights currently belong to Studio/Canal, and all Amazon offers are Marketplace links to a Chinese blu-ray. A sad state of affairs for lovers of the beautiful… and the horrible.

The ABCS of March 2014 part three

Previously on Yes, I Know: A through E;  F through J.

K: Kuroneko (1968)

KuronekoIt’s a setting we’re used to in Japanese movies: a time of civil war. A ragged, wandering troop of samurai, thirsty and starving, come upon a remote farmhouse and two women. Men being the animals that they are, the women are raped and killed. The cooking fire runs amok, and the house is consumed, leaving only one survivor: the black cat.

Soon after, at the nearby Rajomon Gate, samurai are being lured to an equally remote house where two eerily familiar women entertain them, and the men’s bodies are found the next day, their throats torn out. The man of the farmhouse who was missing at the beginning was conscripted to fight in the wars; he returns a hero, and is made a samurai. His first task: to find whatever is killing men in that grove and destroy it. In point of fact, the two are the spirits of his missing wife and mother, who had made pacts with dark gods to kill samurai and drink their blood until the end of time, or the end of samurai, whichever comes first.

Thus an old Japanese folk tale is complicated by familial ties, as man and wife, desperate to see each other, take to nightly trysts in an attempt to regain what they lost in the war. This causes the wife to renege on her pact, and she is sent to Hell – willingly, for the week she is allowed to spend with her husband. Then the man must face down his mother, or pay the consequences of failure.

goblin catKaneto Shindo has a remarkably varied filmography, but he is likely best known in the states for Onibaba, another tale of ghostly skullduggery during this tumultuous era. Shindo’s family was agrarian, so it’s small wonder that he always sides with the farmers in his period pieces. His samurai are vile dickweeds, make no mistake, and the mere fact that the protagonist’s inclusion into this class places him in mortal danger from his lost family is no mere plot twist: it is subversive in the extreme, given the revered status of samurai in most Japanese movies.

Kuroneko also includes the line, “You’ve slain a 1000 year-old goblin cat the size of a cow,” which I am going to try to work into polite conversation as often as possible.

Kuroneko on Amazon

L: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

600full-the-life-and-death-of-colonel-blimp-posterIn which we discover just how educational exercises like this can be.

First of all, being a Yank, I had no idea of the cultural significance of the title until I was going through the supplements in the gorgeous Criterion blu-ray of the restored print. Colonel Blimp, I discovered, was a satirical newspaper comic character by David Low, famous in Britain in the 30s and 40s. Wikipedia describes it succinctly: “The cartoon was intended to portray attitudes of isolationism, impatience with the concerns of common people, and a lack of enthusiasm for democracy.”

These days, he would be re-cast as a member of the Tea Party. blimp_comic2He was always in a Turkish bath, towel-bedecked, and red-faced. Which explains the opening sequence, and our introduction to the character, who is never, ever referred to as “Colonel Blimp”.

Which is good, because none of that prepares you for the genial, affecting, downright human story that will unwind before you in the next two hours and forty-five minutes. Three hours that will flash by like three minutes.

the-life-and-death-of-colonel-blimp-2The surrogate for Blimp is Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), a decorated military man whose story begins in the Boer War. Through a determination to do the right thing, he almost creates an international incident and has to fight a duel in Germany; both participants wind up scarred (Candy’s causing him to grow the trademark moustache), but also results in the friendship that will last his entire life, with the German officer chosen to represent their Army, Theo (Anton Walbrook, here far more sympathetic than his turn in The Red Shoes). As the story progresses through World War I, Candy seeks out his embittered friend at a prisoner of war camp; Theo will also flee to England from Nazi Germany, only to find himself classed an Enemy Alien.

Blimp_Film_Page_originalThe further you dig into Colonel Blimp, the more complex it becomes; Candy’s relationship with Theo echoes the partnership between directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who created some genuinely classic films as “The Archers”: A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red ShoesDespite working on many propaganda movies during the War Effort, Pressburger remained an Enemy Alien, required to adhere to a curfew and carry his “papers” with him at all time. Theo has a very moving speech about this that you know came from Pressburger’s heart. and doubtless with his co-director’s urging and blessing.

I haven’t even mentioned Deborah Kerr, who plays three separate roles as the women in Candy’s life (an amusing conceit commenting on Candy’s constantly surrounding himself with versions of his unrequited love, younger than himself). Kerr, only 20, is luminous in the three roles; she had her work cut out for her, sharing the screen with veterans like Livesey and Walbrook, and she rises to the challenge.

The-Life-and-Death-of-Colonel-Blimp-(1943)---Roger-Livesey,-John-Laurie-790944I find it incredible that this movie almost did not get made – Winston Churchill wanted it scotched completely. no cooperation was given by the Ministries of War or Information, which should have been the kiss of death. Yet, here it is, and thankfully so, as I find it the most quintessentially British movie I have ever seen. What some saw as a critique against a certain kind of patriot, I see as an ode to everything I love about Old Blighty (perhaps with a viewpoint just as jaundiced as its detractors): kindness, a belief in fair play, and just out-and-out decency. Candy admits he may be a bit of a laughable fool for believing in such things in modern times, but honestly – we could use a great many more fools like that.

Highest possible recommendation.

The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp on Amazon

Ah, the French. When they make a trailer, they know to get out of the way and let the movie speak for itself:

M: The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)

MPW-53767Kind of hard to leave wartime Europe behind, it seems.

Except that Mask of Dimitrios, the fifth of eight movies in which Sidney Greenstreet appeared alongside Peter Lorre, rather studiously ignores the thorny problem of World War II, instead taking place between the wars. Based on an Eric Ambler novelMask is the tale of Cornelius Leydon (Lorre), a successful mystery writer, who is told by an ardent fan (and police chief) about Dimitrios Makropoulos, a monstrous international villain and occasional spy, whose murdered body washed up from the Bosphorus that morning.

Intrigued by the possibility of writing about such a character, Leydon travels Europe, investigating Dimitrios’ former haunts and interviewing people inevitably screwed by this blackest of curs, and learning about the destroyed lives he left in his wake. Eventually the equally shadowy Mr. Peters (Sidney Greenstreet), who has been tailing Leydon, makes himself known, and Leydon finds himself neck-deep in schemes and counter-schemes.

EpdAIThe largest part of Dimitrios is told in flashback, as each interviewee details Dimitrios’ foulness in a number of arenas. You’ve got the usual formidable array of Warner’s supporting cast with standout performances by Arthur Francen and Zachery Scott as Dimitrios, in his film debut. Scott holds his own against Lorre and Greenstreet, which is no small feat; the Texas-born actor went on to have, if not a flashy, star-making career, a steady one lasting up until his death in ’65… a true trouper in every sense of the word.

Greenstreet provides his usual eloquent menace and Lorre is charming and affable. This is the sort of movie that Warner Brothers did so well, for so many years, and cheers to Warner Archive for dragging it back out into the sun.

The Mask of Dimitrios on Amazon

Alas, no trailer, but here’s a little Lorre and Greenstreet to tide you over:

N: Night Tide (1961)

night_tide_poster_01This one’s considered a classic of indie horror; it’s remarkable it’s taken me this long to see it.

Young sailor Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper), on leave in sunny California, meets and eventually falls in love with Mora (Linda Lawson), an enigmatic young lady who earns her living pretending to be a mermaid in an “amusement pier” attraction.  Strange occurrences seem to indicate she might actually be some sort of legendary sea creature, doomed to eternally lure men to their death, especially when Johnny finds out his new love has had two boyfriends in recent months – both of which drowned.

This is the shamefully under-rated Curtis Harrington’s first feature-length movie, and it makes bountiful use of existing locations at Santa Monica and Malibu. Dennis Hopper, who could rightfully be considered a veteran at this point, plays the guileless innocence of a young man who joined the Navy to see the world very well. Linda Lawson is the proper mixture of exotic and down-to-earth. So much of the movie’s success rests on these two – Johnny is in almost literally every shot – that Harrington must have felt he hit the jackpot when he got them. Luana Anders is also on hand as a more normal girl interested in Johnny’s welfare, and acts as a winsome linchpin to the real world.

night-tide-8Night Tide provides us with a Scooby-Doo ending in which everything is seemingly explained rationally,  but is canny enough to make sure that some of it rings false, leaving the door open for speculation long after the movie has ended. For me, the most unexpected moment was when Johnny finally goes to a psychic who has been urging him to have a tarot reading… and it turned out to be one of the best such scenes I had ever witnessed in a movie, actually casting the cards not as an oracle, but a series of symbols allowing one to isolate and examine the tangled threads of life. Hearing the Hanged Man put in proper context was almost as shocking as the movies’s pivotal moment when an apprehensive Johnny goes scuba-diving with the possibly murderous Mora.

Night Tide on Amazon

O: The Orphanage (2007)

the-orphanage-poster-800This was originally going to be On the Waterfront, but it was late at night and I didn’t feel like something that raw (there will be another Challenge later this year based on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, and doubtless this Elia Kazan movie will get its return match). Several people had been talking up The Orphanage, I had gotten a copy from the SwapaDVD Club, so… here we go.

Laura (Belen Rueda) comes back to the orphanage where she spent much of her childhood, intending to re-open it as a Home for Children with Special Needs. She and her husband (Fernando Cayo) are familiar with this; he’s not only a doctor, but their adopted son Simon (Roger Princep) has HIV. Before you can say “Don’t buy that spooky old mansion,” Simon is talking to, and about, his new invisible friends and things proceed to go south from there.

Now, I’m admittedly a hard sell for ghost stories. I don’t know why this is, since if they’re done right, they deliver some of the creepiest moments in the horror genre. But I am, and I eventually reached a point in The Orphanage when I was considering turning it off. I had just seen everything they were doing so many times before. “Okay, movie,” I muttered. “You need to step up your game. Give me a reason to keep watching.”

OrphanageAnd it did. And it continued to do so every time my interest began to wane.

Simon vanishes after a hurtful fight with his mother and stays vanished through most of the movie. Unraveling the mystery of the orphanage’s haunting becomes instrumental in his recovery, and the central trauma causing it is so extraordinary, so horrific, it’s unreasonable the police seem to know nothing about it, but perhaps that’s my grumpy critical mindset over-ruminating on details. There’s a very nice paranormal research segment featuring Geraldine Chaplin as a medium, and I’ll always like a movie that approaches ghosthunting with a bit of respect, like Legend of Hell House and The Conjuring. Certainly more respect than it accords itself in a half-dozen “reality” TV shows that clogged the airways a few years back.

So I’m glad I gave the movie its ultimatum and it listened. The Orphanage does draw you in and keep you off-kilter with tragedy after tragedy, until its unexpectedly bittersweet ending, with more of an emphasis on the bitter. Not the best ghost story I’ve seen, but a good one.

The Orphanage on Amazon

The ABCS of March, Part Five

There was a big push to get ahead on the March Movie Madness event, because a) it was Spring Break, and b) weeks off always engender a Hell of Work To Catch Up On. This time is certainly no exception, as the Week of Hell is actually growing into a Fortnight of Hell. I have a 12 hour day coming up this Sunday which may kill me. Please tell my mother and my wife that I love them.

I’ve managed to claw a bit of free time out of the schedule, let’s see how far I can get:

Queen of Blood (1966)

queenofbloodOne of the stranger cottage industries Roger Corman spawned in the early 60s involved buying the rights to Soviet science-fiction movies – which were pretty high-minded and had some great effects by pre-2001: A Space Odyssey standards – and then harvesting the effects sequences to plug into American-shot movies, since no red-blooded Amurrican would be caught dead watchin’ no Commie movie, anyways. Like a Comanche using every last bit of the buffalo, Corman and his crew got significant bang for the buck out of this strange vivisection – Planet of Storms is the basis for at least three movies, almost all with “Prehistoric Women” in the title, and The Heavens Call yielded Battle Beyond the Sun and this odd little Curtis Harrington movie.

In the far-flung year of 1990, Earth’s Space Institute receives a message from another planet, informing them that the alien race is sending an ambassador. Several weeks later, it is discovered that the visitor’s spaceship has crashed on Mars, and a hasty rescue mission is organized. Only one survivor is found (by accident), and gosh darn it, on the way back to Earth it’s discovered that she’s a vampire.

A color-corrected Florence Marly in this lobby card.

A color-corrected Florence Marly in this lobby card.

Queen of Blood is an entertaining enough sci-fi programmer. It rarely drags enough to relinquish your attention elsewhere, and even has some nice drama when it’s determined that one member of a two-man rescue ship will have to stay behind on the Martian moon Phobos to allow the surviving alien to take his place on the lifeboat that will connect with the ship already on Mars. The mechanics of the plot are well-considered, even if some of the science is not.

Harrington had worked with Dennis Hopper in 1961’s Night Tide, and brings him along for the ride – it’s actually kind of refreshing to see him in a cardboard sci-fi context. John Saxon is predictably solid, and the other breath of fresh air is Judi Meredith, who has a swell little genre resume along with numerous TV roles – she’s in Jack the Giant Killer, Dark Intruder and The Night Walker. Basil Rathbone is on hand as the urbane head of the Space Institute, probably because John Carradine was shooting six other movies that day.

As mentioned in my grumbling about Prometheus, I’m more sad about the tremendously advanced Moonbase we’re utilizing in 1990 than amused. The most fun to be had is watching the film grain and lighting change from the Soviet material to the American.

The Red Shoes (1948)

redshoesThe quintessential backstage drama, which just happens to be about ballet. I’ll be frank and say that ballet, along with opera, are the two art forms I care very little about. I don’t hate them the way I loathe, say, most musicals, but I’d much rather spend my time watching something else. But they are still art forms, so I’m happy that both have more than enough fans that they don’t have to depend on me for their survival.

So I approached Red Shoes with a bit of misgiving, but I needn’t have worried. Art is art, performance is performance, and the act of creation is endlessly fascinating. The first section of the movie can get a little wearing, with two of our protagonists starting out at the bottom, and haha, those temperamental artists! But once events start to move, and we become invested in the rise of dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) and composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) under the direction of ballet impresario Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). This will lead to a triangle that has little to do with love, and everything to do with their arts. It’s a very different kind of passion at work here, and its tragic ending is almost inevitable.

At one point, during rehearsals for the new ballet The Red Shoes, Lermontov says to his set designer, “The audience will applaud in the middle!” He’s likely speaking for director Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, as the debut of the ballet, midway through the movie, is played out before us as a fantasia, heavily based on the paintings of scenic artist Alfred Roberts. It’s not meant to be a literal recreation of the ballet, which would require an impossible set on the world’s largest stage; it is more a representation of what is going on in the dancer’s and the audience’s minds, when, as Lermontov constantly proclaims, “The music is everything!”

red-shoesThe melodramatic plot and acting aside – all perfectly keeping with post-WWII standards, and none of it odious – The Red Shoes is an undeniable masterpiece. Which of course means that the Rank Organization thought it was pure rubbish and didn’t even bother to release it in its native England for several years.

And, just in passing, I guess I should mention I was largely on Lermontov’s side on the triangle. Both men are complete assholes at the movie’s end, but Julian’s insistence that Victoria give up her opening night in order to attend his is beyond the fucking pale, even for an artist.

The trailer gives you only an inkling of Jack Cardiff’s magnificent camera work, though the color, even faded, gives you some idea of the Technicolor glory of the restored print:

The Searchers (1956)

searchersThursday night was a good night; it started with The Red Shoes and ended with The Searchers.

The Searchers may very well be the Perfect Western. It so solidly bridges the gap between the silent starched West of Tom Mix with the gritty, grimy hell of Unforgiven. It still has love for the vast sunny beauty of Monument Valley (filling in for Texas) and the pioneering spirit of the people who live there, but it comes from a much darker place than any previous John Ford/John Wayne collaboration.

Wayne is Ethan Edwards, a man who returns to his brother’s homestead after a three-year absence (some of it due to the Civil War), just in time for the family to be slaughtered by Indians and the two young girls taken hostage. A posse of Ethan, some volunteer Texas Rangers, and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter in his premiere) take off in pursuit. The posse is eventually winnowed down to Ethan and Martin, which is going to provide most of the conflict for the movie; Martin was rescued by Ethan from a similar Indian raid when Martin was a child. But Martin is also one-eighth Cherokee, and there is one thing Ethan cannot abide, it’s a half-breed. Ethan’s discovery of the older girl, raped and killed, cements his decision to find the younger girl, Debbie, no matter the cost.

searchers1As the search drags on for five years, Martin continues to accompany Ethan; the younger man’s role, he has come to realize, is to stop Ethan from killing Debbie once he finds her. By now the girl has been accepted into the tribe, and is in fact one of the wives of the war chief Scar, and as far as Ethan is concerned, that means she is no longer white, and better off dead.

We can all conjure up images of Wayne as the good ol’ righteous western dude – that’s most of his output in the 60s. But in his best roles, there’s an edge to the character, and in The Searchers he gets to be a complete and utter dick. Anyone who thinks Wayne wasn’t a good actor should watch The Searchers; there is one close-up – after Ethan and Martin have checked over the white captives of a tribe massacred by cavalry, only to find neither is Debbie and both are far worse for wear – a close-up of Wayne that combines such strong emotions, loathing, pity, simmering hatred… that it’s shocking.

actingBut the movie is far from being a grim slog-fest. There are lighter moments aplenty, and good support from the Ford repertory company, like the always-welcome Ward Bond, and I was completely unprepared for KEN CURTIS – FRONTIER MACK.

Both movies – The Red Shoes and The Searchers – are highly recommended, especially on Blu-Ray. The Criterion Collection of Red Shoes is beautifully restored, and the VistaVision transfer of The Searchers – an awesomely affordable disc, these days – will knock your eyes out. And the trailer has a ton of fine Duke moments:

The Third Man (1949)

third_manEventually I was going to find a classic I just didn’t care for.

I think it was about a year back when a former colleague messaged me, saying he has just watched The Third Man, and could not figure out for the life of him what it was that made the movie so revered. What did he miss? Did I have any insights? As I had not seen it at the time, I couldn’t supply any. Well, now I’ve seen it. Still can’t supply any.

This is a well-made movie, make no mistake. It’s obvious writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed are both in love with Vienna. And it’s the Post-World War II occupation by four separate world powers and the burgeoning black market that make the story possible; it’s interesting to see the International Police Force at work, a cop from each occupying  country making each call. The story just never grabbed me, and I’m at a loss to explain why. Perhaps I was poisoned by that year-ago question.

The Third Man is the tale of Western novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who arrives in Vienna at the behest of childhood chum Harry Lime (Orson Welles, eventually) promising work. Martins, however, arrives just in time for Lime’s funeral, as he was killed in an odd pedestrian accident across from the building where he lived. Odd because Martins finds conflicting stories about the accident, including a, yes, Third Man at the scene that the police know nothing about. Martins, of course, sets about investigating.

org third man13711If there is one thing that bewilders me about The Third Man, it is the enduring popularity of Harry Lime. One of the things that Martins finds out, to his dismay, (okay, spoiler alert, even though there a statute of limitations on spoilers for movies that are 64 freakin’ years old) is that Lime was not only a black marketeer, but dealt in adulterated penicillin, resulting in the death and disability of many people, including children. Yet Harry Lime had his own radio show for many years (tales of Lime’s past, given the ultimate outcome of the movie), and by the time there was a Harry Lime TV show (starring Michael Rennie, if I recall correctly) Lime had been completely rehabilitated as a globe-trotting art collector.

I don’t get it. I shrug. I will say that my non-genuflection at The Third Man‘s altar should not be taken as a condemnation; as I said, it is a well-made movie that should be checked out, and if nothing else, has the best denouement of any number of noirs. You can make your own decision.

The Unknown (1946)

iloveamystery2Is he really going to do five movies this time? Yes, and five the next, if I survive tomorrow. Then this whole thing will be over, and we can get back to our normal anarchy.

The Unknown is one of three movies based on the I Love A Mystery radio series. To be disarmingly cute about it, I love I Love A Mystery, especially in its later incarnation as a 15-minutes-a-day serial. I think – no time for research this time, mes enfants, sorry – that this hearkens to the older, half-hour incarnation of the show, when our detective agency was only two people, Jack Packard (Jim Bannon) and the laconic Texan, Doc Long (Barton Yarborough), both men repeating their roles from radio.

i-love-a-mysteryThe Unknown is an old dark house, reading-the-will story, populated with strange characters and tangled sub-plots, so much so that Jack and Doc are practically guest stars in their own movie. There is an accidental death years previous that has completely twisted the family tree, a dead patriarch walled up in a fireplace rather than the family crypt, a will that keeps vanishing, and the ghostly crying of a baby in the night. Also the requisite secret passageways and cloaked killer, whose identity is perfectly obvious at the halfway mark, if not sooner. At a trim 70 minutes, though, it doesn’t have time to get truly tiresome, and does have at least one plot twist that surprised me.

It’s also so obscure there’s no trailer for it online. Instead, have the trailer for Larry Blamire’s parody of Old Dark House Reading of the Will thrillers, Dark and Stormy Night:

There. Bring on that 12 hour day.