Friday, October 15, 2021

Cat People (1942)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; produced by Val Lewton

Barge-designer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), passing time at his city’s zoo, meets young Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a fashion-designer sketching a panther. They strike up a romance, hesitantly on Irena’s part, that quickly leads to marriage. What Reed doesn’t know is that Irena fears an ancestral curse: that she will transform into a large, predatory cat when she and he become intimate. Reed must confront Irena’s beliefs, and hope they are nothing more than superstition.

Cat People seems to be a movie better known for its reputation than for being seen. It certainly has much to recommend it, but also much that detracts from those recommendations. Two of the problems are the lead actors. Smith’s performance is average at best, while Simon, though she manages to convey a waif-like innocence half the time and a rather menacing coyness the other half, both elements needed and effective, her acting seems almost affectatious.

Better work is given by Jane Randolph, as Reed’s friend, and Tom Conway (George Sanders’s look-a-like brother) as Dr Judd, a psychiatrist with dubious ethics.

The characters brought to life by the actors reflect the performances. Reed has to be one of the dimmest bulbs to darken a storyline. He seems lost much of the time as to what to do, or even as to what is occurring; at other times, he is insensitively dismissive. Irena is an appealing girl, but nonetheless does not involve the audience in her plight, and her actions leave viewers wondering if they should sympathise with, or condemn, her actions. Alice Moore (Randolph’s character), on the other hand, is smart, sophisticated and loyal, and Judd is, despite his moral lapses, certainly interesting.

Acting and characters are not the only element of Cat People to have a dual aspect. The script, by DeWitt Bodeen, is similar. The story is an intriguing one, but isn’t developed enough. The background is indefinite. We are told that when Serbia was occupied by the Mamelukes (Turks? The Mamelukes never made it to Europe), Irena’s village turned from God to worship Satan. After “King John” liberated Serbia, he destroyed the village for its wickedness, though some of its inhabitants fled, and these took with them the curse Irena fears.

But is it a curse, or a symptom of their dark religion? If a curse, who placed it upon them, and why that particular affliction? There are clues that it might be hereditary: Irena’s father was reported as killed in the woods (by her cat-creature mother?) before she was born. As well, the final scene leaves some doubt as to the course the curse’s effects take, since the transformation to and from cat seems to be arbitrary at the end.

The direction is very good in parts but, again, sometimes works against itself. The use of light and shadows, the ambivalence of images, is often attributed to Val Lewton, a first-time producer here, who became a great influence in Hollywood, though he died young and most of his work was low-budget. But credit for what is good in Cat People must go, in at least equal parts, to director Tourneur.

There are some excellent scenes in the film, in particular the two instances when Alice is stalked. Vague images are well utilised, as is silence, punctuated by footfalls or screams that are all the more startling for coming amid the quiet.

Yet, later in the film, there is a more obvious threat to Reed and Alice, and, though effective elements of the supernatural appear to be included, the danger is tangible. This is not only less effective than earlier scenes, but works against their implications.

Cat People has come to be seen as influential in its genre, and certainly contains a number of enjoyable elements. It could not be considered a wasted time at the movies. But in its uneven acting, writing and directing, it leaves the viewer thinking it could have been much more.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Directed by Preston Sturges; produced by Paul Jones (associate producer)

The king of Hollywood comedies, John Lloyd Sullivan (Joel McCrea) wants to make a movie more meaningful than his usual work. He has, in fact, partially filmed the depressingly meaningful O Brother, Where Art Thou, complete with its discouraging ending, in which Capital and Labour destroy each other. His producers (Robert Warwick, Porter Hall) are aghast. They try to dissuade him; instead, they inadvertently show him that he knows nothing of human misery. As a result, Sullivan decides to impersonate a moneyless tramp and wander the back-roads, in search of truth. His journeys from homeless shelter to chain gang, from strangers to a beautiful girl (Veronica Lake) who won’t go away, bring him more truth than he can manage.

Sullivan’s Travels is probably the best of Preston Sturges’s varied accomplishments. A comedy, it also has a message, expressed not just in the laughs but in the unexpected drama. It cannot be called typical Sturges fare - being his best - nor typical 1940s American film-making, yet it embodies much of what would be found in those categories.

The script, by Sturges, is top-notch. The dialogue moves between fast and furious and slow and muttered, whatever works for a situation. The mood of the story varies just as much: we are treated to screwball-comedy-type word-play and even slapstick - the ‘land-yacht’ chase is hilarious - and to melancholy pathos.

The genius of the writing is that neither extreme is left unflavoured by the other. When Sullivan first tries on his hobo’s clothes, it is played for humour, but not so his butler’s admonition on the evils not only of poverty, but of slumming. There is poignancy in a southern U.S. black congregation offering accommodation to a party of convicts, when the church-goers themselves might have been wearing chains a generation or two previously. Yet even this is leavened by laughter.

Casting could not have been better, with Sturges’s frequent collaborator McCrea as the protagonist. He is one of the 1940s most naturally-acting performers, and the lines he speaks sound as if he is simply contributing to a conversation. But McCrea has the ability to play both funny and serious, which is priceless in a movie such as Sullivan’s Travels.

Veronica Lake, in her first credited part under that name - ironically, her character’s name is never revealed - was but nineteen in 1941, but fulfills the female lead role well. She manages the difficult feat of standing out in a movie that could have been dominated by director, script and star. She provides the foil, in some ways, and not just the love-interest for Sullivan.

A host of familiar faces, a number of them Sturges ‘regulars’ appear, and all provide distinct personalities to their characters, even if they aren’t fully developed. Among those of note are the aforementioned Warwick and Hall, who play Sullivan’s Hollywood colleagues; they are quite sympathetic to our hero, even being rather wiser than he. They are interesting contrasts to the usual treacherous people viewed in movies about movies. One wonders if Sturges’s experiences were different than others in the business.

Sturges has an eye for unusual or particularly expressive faces, especially on the homeless men we see. Some seem to belong to long-time tramps, while others may be the visages of stock-brokers and salesmen who lost their luck. This would be in keeping with an aspect of the film that suggests anyone could fall on hard times, even film-producers.

(And you can see Sturges’s own face, as he puts himself in the background of a scene with Lake.

The direction runs along with the script, sometimes frantic, other times slow and studied. Sturges, as both writer and director, is in a happy position to accommodate himself. But at no time does he limit himself as to the type of movie he is making.

One of the most interesting things about Sullivan’s Travels is that Sturges, who usually has something subtle but acidic to say about aspects of the human existence that reflect poorly on our race - corrupt politics, hero-worship, selfish relationships - says something quite hopeful, in the end. Like the clouds that can’t quite cover the sky even during a storm, the film provides sunshine amid the darkness, and heart among the bile. That is likely its greatest achievement.

(The title of the fictional novel that Sullivan was hoping to adapt was later used for a real movie, which also featured convicts and chain-gangs. It was also the title of a fictional play, described as the ‘worst ever written’, in the tv series Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.)

Friday, October 1, 2021

The Web (1947)

Directed by Michael Gordon; produced by Jerry Bresler

Bob Regan (Edmond O’Brien) is a small-time but conscientious attorney, rather resigned to taking on unambitious cases for poorer people. One brief, however, brings him into contact with the rich and powerful Andrew Colby (Vincent Price), who is in fear of his life. Colby offers Regan a huge sum for an unorthodox task: to be his bodyguard. Admitting that he could use the money - and because the position would bring him closer to Colby’s beautiful secretary, Noel Faraday (Ella Raines) - Regan accepts the offer. Little could he guess that within twelve hours, he would exercise his duties as bodyguard, and be pitched into dangerous waters quite over his head.

The Web provides a pretty good premise, and an adequate plot. What it doesn’t give the audience is a main character that it can care about. This is not because Regan is unlikeable; quite the opposite. He is a decent man who genuinely cares about his clients, little people who can’t get help from any other source. He’s a cocky man with the ladies, but is fully aware that, as Churchill described Attlee, he is a modest man with much to be modest about.

The trouble is two-fold: Regan, despite being a good fellow, isn’t very interesting. Colby, with his machinations, Noel, with her sharp mind and Lieutenant Damico, the cop on the case, involve one more in the story. Secondly, everyone appears smarter than Regan. Colby is the spider at the centre of the web of the movie’s title, while Damico has a magician’s mind behind the face of a pugilist. Noel may not catch on to every ploy her boss uses, but once she does, she’s smarter than Regan in guessing what will happen next. The viewer might express more frustration with Regan than sympathy.

While the script inadvertently damages the main character’s appeal, there is nothing wrong with the performances that bring its words to life. O’Brien is always watchable, whether as a secondary character or a lead; hero or villain.

In films such as this, Price reminds us that he was not always stereotyped in horror movies. Indeed, his height and handsomeness could have steered him into the role of romantic lead, while his charm added a less obvious villainy than could be found in his later parts. Raines usually does well projecting a strong, smart personality.

The surprise is William Bendix as the detective. Not normally playing the brainy type, here he is the antithesis of most of his roles, the policeman who, if only in retrospect, may be seen always to be thinking. He uses his words carefully to goad others when necessary; he spends his evenings in a small restaurant playing chess.

The depiction of Bob Regan was indubitably intended by the writers, meant to show a man whose ambitions, even as limited as they are, could get him into trouble. But if it introduces a unique approach to a rather standard story, it also has its disadvantages. The Web is certainly not a bad movie, but neither is it outstanding in its genre.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Contraband (a.k.a. Blackout) (1940)

Directed by Michael Powell; produced by John Corfield

It’s the very early days of the Second World War, and the freighter “Helvig”, from still-neutral Denmark, is brought to an English port by the Royal Navy to be examined for contraband. Its captain, Andersen (Conrad Veidt), is annoyed at the delay, but accedes to the inevitable. What annoys him far more is that the pair of shore-passes the British authorities gave him and his first officer (Hay Petrie) for an evening in London, are stolen by two passengers, the superior Mrs Sorensen (Valerie Hobson) and the obnoxious Mr Pidgeon (Esmond Knight). Sneaking ashore in angry pursuit of the thieves, Andersen finds himself caught up in kidnapping, assault, treason and espionage, as well as romance and an exceedingly fine dinner.

This was the second collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger (who wrote the story and screenplay); the first, 1939’s The Spy in Black, also having starred Veidt and Hobson. The Archers’ (as Powell and Pressburger came to be called) Contraband starts off rather slow and, while interesting, does not really become entertaining until about a third of the way along. But it is worth sticking with, as the movie becomes a fun, light adventure drama, with good comic touches.

Veidt would certainly not be cast as a leading man - never mind a romantic hero - these days. Tall, spare and quite unhandsome, his performance is very good. He endows his character initially with a chilly outward persona; we believe it when we see him open up about his life and loves. Hobson, too, manages to make the alteration to her character - really an alteration in what we see of the character - credible. These are two actors pretty much forgotten these days (Veidt, in particular, because of his early death at fifty) but, like many of their contemporaries, often pioneers in cinematic acting, they deserve to be remembered.

The other actors are also good; a number of them recurred in Powell and Pressburger’s movies. Knight first worked with Powell as early as 1931; his rather odious Pidgeon has about five seconds to show a different side as he leaves his club in one scene and manages to convey it. Hay Petrie, another ‘semi-regular’, has a dual role as brothers; he could have been used as strictly comic relief, but there is usually more even to a minor character in an Archers movie. Leo Genn, Torin Thatcher, Peter Bull, Bernard Miles and Milo O’Shea (the last in his film debut) all have small, uncredited bits.

The story could be called a good yarn, the sort popular in the 1930s and deserving of popularity now: the merchant navy officer, an amateur but highly capable, is caught up in intrigue and adventure. The script is excellent; the settings of the story - the examination of shipping for contraband, and England’s war-time black-out - are both interesting and significant. There is fine use of the minutiae for which the Archers were known: note the clever opportunist selling electric torches (flashlights) in the midst of the war-time black-out, or the two creeps waiting in a motor-car for a woman unable to find a taxi, both elements undoubtedly taken from real life.

Small moments change the direction of the story and the attitude of the characters, such as when a brief description of Mrs Sorensen reveals her to be quite different than she depicts, and thus raises Andersen’s interest in her.

There is some good, and unlikely, action, including a brawl involving the staff of a dodgy night-club, a party of drunken but game servicemen and a gang of Danish waiters, the last roused to battle by Andersen’s cry of, “If you’re Danish, you won’t need a reason to fight!”

After a sluggish start, Contraband becomes an enjoyable caper-film, as improbable as a serial from “The Boys’ Own Paper”, but more fun.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

The Black Swan (1942)

Directed by Henry King; produced by Robert Bassler

The famous privateer Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar) has been made governor of Jamaica, with a commission to impose peace on the Caribbean in the wake of a treaty between England and Spain. Some of his old comrades are reluctant to give up their piratical ways, so Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power), one of Morgan’s best captains, is given the task of bringing them to heel. Complicating matters is a treacherous nobleman (Edward Ashley) and a beautiful woman (Maureen O’Hara).

Inspired, rather than based, on the book by Rafael Sabatini (a polymath so adept at languages he chose to write in English, which he learned only as an adolescent), the prolific writer of historical fiction, The Black Swan possesses a script by Ben Hecht and Seton I. Miller; the story is a good one. Ample scope is given for sea-battles, sword-play and romance.

The performers are equal to the authors, with popular leading players Power and O’Hara, with excellent support from Cregar and Thomas Mitchell (in an unlikely role as Waring’s first mate). And yet The Black Swan is not quite a satisfying movie. Why not?

I think one of the problems is Tyrone Power. It’s not that he isn’t a fine actor. His many rôles demonstrate that he was always more than a matinée idol. In fact, I have found that he is better in heavier drama (such as The Razor’s Edge) than in lighter work, like The Black Swan. As well, his dark, brooding appearance, always giving the impression of something troubling him, lends itself better to the former genre than the latter. A comparison may be made to Errol Flynn, who was cast in two other screen adaptations of Sabatini’s work, The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood. In each of these, there is the typical Flynn devil-may-care attitude to the character, which is missing in Power’s Jamie Waring. In short, Waring is simply not an engaging character.

O’Hara, too, gives a strong but almost unsympathetic performance. (She and Anthony Quinn, who plays a Leech’s first mate, re-united almost fifty years later for Only the Lonely (1991).) More interesting are Cregar’s Morgan and George Sanders as Bobby Leech. The remarkable Laird Cregar, who died at thirty-one but always seemed cast as much older men, gives an excellent performance as the erstwhile privateer. As interpreted by Cregar, Morgan strives to achieve something loftier than mere battle and pillage, to justify society’s new faith in him, but always with an eye to happier days. This is the most intriguing character in the movie.

Sanders is unrecognizable in red curls and a full ginger beard, playing an atypical role as a privateer who was never far from piracy. His Leech is a world away, yet just around the corner, from most of the villains Sanders otherwise portrayed. As the hero’s adversary in The Black Swan, Sanders, too, added to the picture.

Another disadvantage is the script, rather than the story. Though written by two of the best screenwriters in Hollywood, it nonetheless omits much of what could have made the lead characters sympathetic, especially Power’s. The first we see of Jamie Waring, he and Leech are destroying a Spanish colonial town, carrying off gold and women as prizes. Unlike Flynn’s Peter Blood, there is no regret in Waring, no remorse for his misdeeds. Further, we know nothing of his past. At one point, he starts to relate his history but progresses only a few sentences before he is interrupted.

In its favour, The Black Swan has some fine action, though this is slow to work its way to the screen. The 1930s and ‘40s seemed to contrive realistic and exciting film from the combined effects of models and live-action that computer-graphics certainly can’t match. And the inevitable sword-fight between Waring and Leech is conducted so vigorously that their blades can barely be seen.

Even so, The Black Swan, for its high-powered stars, vibrant colour (for which O’Hara’s red hair and green eyes could have been made) and exuberance is missing something that other pirate movies seemed to find almost by default. As entertainment, it can’t quite rise above adequate.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Uninvited (1944)

Directed by Lewis Allen; produced by Charles Brackett (associate producer)

During their holiday on the north coast of Cornwall, brother and sister Rick and Pam Fitzgerald (Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey) find and fall in love with an old, vacant house. Despite its excellent condition, rumours of ‘disturbances’, which forced out the previous lease-holders, keep the sale price relatively low, and they buy it from the aloof owner, Beech (Donald Crisp). It isn’t long before the Fitzgeralds themselves experience disturbances, and find themselves caught up in a supernatural drama involving scandal, sudden death and Beech’s naïve and conflicted granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell).

One of the earliest ghost stories to be filmed, The Uninvited is also one of the best. It is not a shocker, and won’t have you jumping from your seat (or trying to hide in it) like The Haunting (1963), or sweating bullets like the entirely earthbound Duel (1971), but The Uninvited is very effective nonetheless. As is often the case with successful films, different elements contribute.

The story is a good one, in that it has some substance to it. There is as much mystery as supernatural to it, as Rick and Pam, aided by the local doctor (Alan Napier), dig into the past, finding reticence and confusion as they investigate what happened at Windward House seventeen years previously.

The tale is adapted from the novel Uneasy Freehold by Dorothy Macardle (I think you’ll agree that the change of title from what may have been thought an essay on real estate to something more foreboding was a good one) and is well-written. Though the climax makes certain the nature of the villainy, there is doubt through much of the movie.

There is a certain light-heartedness that runs through the story, which contrasts with the darkness of possible murder and sinister danger that is also present. That light-heartedness, however, comes not from attempts at comedy-relief (though there is a short episode of that on a small sailboat), but from the characters, specifically Rick Fitzgerald.

He is an easy-going young man who finds humour in everything. This bright and breezy personality is essential to his relationship with Stella; as well, it works, ironically, with the seriousness of the story. Rick attempts more than once to dispel dread - and the possibility of ghosts - with humour. The fact that this humour comes across as awkward at times is due entirely to his realisation that the situation is not a funny one.

Without the talent to bring them to life, these characters would have been two-dimensional, of course. Just a couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Alias Nick Beal, also starring Ray Milland, and wrote then that I couldn’t imagine seeing that actor again without his Nick Beal colouring other performances. I was wrong, which shows what thespian skill can do. Milland is entirely the good-natured Rick Fitzgerald, who would know exactly what to do with the likes of Nick Beal.

Crisp, who is able to change a whole personality with a tone of voice, makes the chilly Commander Beech into a real person, while Cornelia Otis Skinner’s character makes her implied fate credible. (Remarkably, Skinner’s memoirs of her girlhood, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, were made into a movie and released in the same year as The Univited; Skinner, as an adolescent, was portrayed by none other than Gail Russell.)

If there is one criticism to The Uninvited, it is Russell’s performance. Though this was the third motion picture role of her tragic career, her talent was still developing, and doesn’t approach Milland’s or Hussey’s. To compensate, however, she possesses here an innocence and youth that her character demanded, and Russell’s inclusion in the cast is not deeply injurious to the movie.

The direction is first-rate. As mentioned, there are no moments of outright fright, but a number in which the goose-bumps do rise. The cheap thrills in what passes for scary films of today - something leaping from a closet to loud, sudden strains of music - are completely absent, and the worst violence is caused by a squirrel nipping Rick’s finger.

What is found are a number of eerie scenes and images, a successful use of light and shadows, and implication, rather than expression. There are some good depictions of Stella, who comes to stand at the centre of the drama, moments that reinforce the puzzle that surrounds her.

A partnership of direction and production conjures up what many lesser horror stories fail to accomplish: atmosphere, not just of fright, but of situation and place. Though probably filmed on a back-lot, there is an authenticity to the setting. The initial placement of the story is fixed with evocative scenes of the rocky Cornish seashore, and the sets that comprise Windward House itself surely must have been based on a real building, as the exteriors and interiors match, and seem entirely realistic.

The Uninvited combines many stereotypes of the ghost-story - the haunted house, the innocent victim, the mystery from the past - which, of course, were not stereotypes at the time, and provide an almost genteel treatment of what might have been a lurid tale. This is an excellent movie, and should not be missed.