Archive for Crane Wilbur

Monkey, Karloff, or Bust?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 6, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-05-23-01h22m55s189From THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND.

But I have nothing to say about that film. Instead I’m going to talk about our Boris Karloff/John Farrow/Crane Wilbur double feature.

Wilbur scripted and Farrow directed THE INVISIBLE MENACE in 1938 — a murder mystery set on an island military base, in which Karloff’s casting at first seems like an absurdity — how can you have a whodunnit with Boris lurking about? But in fact it’s a moderately clever story, and Boris is agreeably used against type. All the characters are jerks, which is sort of interesting.

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“There was no invisible menace!” Fiona complained at the end.

“Maybe there was,” I suggested. “It just chose not to declare itself.”

This leads me to my new theory, which is that every movie contains an invisible menace, it’s just that usually they are content not to do anything. Eventually, this theory will supplant that one about the auteurs.

Was hoping for some of John Farrow’s trademark tracking shots, and there was some decent work, but most of it was as unobtrusive as the titular menace.

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WEST OF SHANGHAI is more problematic, given the casting of Karloff and Vladimir Sokoloff as Chinese generals. But Hollywood really had no choice but to indulge in such creative casting — the one thing everybody knows about the Chinese, of course, is that there just aren’t enough of them. If they were as numerous as, say, the Irish, movies could fill their Chinese general roles with real Chinese, maybe even with real Chinese generals. Instead, we have one Russian and one Anglo-Indian with a Russian name. Also Ricardo Cortez, an American of Austrian Jewish origins with a Spanish name, if that helps.

Most places are west of Shanghai, come to think of it, aren’t they? A film with such a title could easily be set in Lewisham.

Karloff is required to speak pidgin English, which he does with impeccable diction (albeit a thlight lithp), which doesn’t work at all. The character is meant to be a thug, something Boris could only manage in his younger days. Dignity, always dignity — knowing that the film is bunkum and he’s ludicrously miscast, he just does his own thing, playing a loutish warlord waging revolution like a bemused vicar wondering why the crusts haven’t been cut off his cucumber sandwiches.

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Hey Presto

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2009 by dcairns

Mad Magician web classic poster

THE MAD MAGICIAN is the second of Vincent Price’s horror flicks, after HOUSE OF WAX (factor in SON OF SINBAD and Uncle Vinnie must be one of the most persistently three-dimensional of actors, for reasons I can’t quite fathom), and despite boasting a story by Crane Wilbur, who scripted the earlier film, and direction by John Brahm, who had brought expressionist/noir chiaroscuro stylings to two Laird Cregar shockers (THE LODGER and HANGOVER SQUARE), it’s easy to see why it doesn’t have the same killer rep as Andre De Toth’s wax museum penny dreadful.

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Obviously shot on a lower budget, MM is black and white, but a slightly gray and washed-out kind, not quite up to the usual standards of Brahm or ace cinematographer Bert Glennon. I suspect the technical difficulties of the 3D resulted in over-lighting, or something. I can’t think of any b&w 3D movies with outstanding cinematography, actually. And Brahm doesn’t do too many of the great off-balance compositions and slow advances that made his Cregar movies deliciously spooky — I suspect Price’s physog just doesn’t inspire him the way lovely Laird’s bloated kisser obviously did.

The plot has compensations — Price may be the only killer in screen history to frame his first victim for his second victim’s murder, and he attempts to repeat the trick with a third target. The gimmick is rubber masks, which Price has developed as part of his job designing tricks for magicians (imagine if the BBC’s Jonathan Creek went bad — and not in the sense of slowly running out of ideas and charm and droning on endlessly with a mounting sense of desperation, because obviously that couldn’t happen). He also uses lethal tricks such as a buzz saw and a crematorium to dispose of his enemies, although ex-wife Eva Gabor is despatched via simple strangulation. Which is odd — you’d think she was the kind of person who could inspire a far more creative homicide.

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Actually, the film’s most surreal moment is when the script requires Price to slap Gabor, something he just can’t do with conviction. Price is an ungainly actor, a brilliantly athletic face mounted atop a stiff, bumbling frame, with a bandy lope of a run — only his hands seem to obey his mind, forming beautiful flourishes in the air. They might wield a whip or pull a maleficent lever, but slapping a face is something they draw the line at.

The whole thing is reasonable fun, slightly unpredictable, vestigially original and worth watching for the Brahm completist, which is me. It’s interesting that Brahm really got his mojo back on TV, where some of his Twilight Zone episodes are even more visually inventive and striking than his best movies. In this he was not alone — Jacques Tourneur, whose late features are largely a sorry bunch, whether compared to his 40s and 50s masterpieces or to run-of-the-mill studio pablum, managed a terrific Zone episode, Night Call, which I recommend to all his admirers, and Mitchell Leisen’s The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine, with Ida Lupino, could serve as his epitaph.

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We watched THE MAD MAGICIAN flat. A guy with a paddle-ball routine turns up, as in HOUSE OF WAX, and the buzz saw looks like it would be fun in 3D, spitting splinters and sawdust in our faces. With Brahm at the helm, it seems likely that some of the more interesting effects are less obvious and can only be discussed after an “in-depth” viewing.

Hooray! Some clips —

And actually that does look a lot more interesting than the flat version would suggest… (You might have to double-click the image to call up an anaglyph version.)

Bats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2008 by dcairns

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My Mad Scheme to see all the films pictured in Dennis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies — a scheme also known as See REPTILICUS and die! — continues apace with the last of the book’s frontispieces, which depicts Vincent Price in THE BAT. This movie is easily available on cheapskate DVDs, but I’d always resisted because I’d been reliably told it sucked, and hard. Still, it’s an excuse to revisit the previous films of this particular play, Roland West’s THE BAT and THE BAT WHISPERS.

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Scandal first, movies later. West, who had a busy career directing Lon Chaney thrillers and the like, was married to Thelma Todd, a comedienne who co-starred with Laurel & Hardy (numerous times) and the Marx Brothers (twice). One day she was found gassed in the garage. The rumour-mill has ground out theories about mob hits, spousal homicide, suicide and accident. At one point a servant surfaced with the story that the whole tragic affair had been triggered by a badly botched blow job in the West car (I’m picturing, no doubt erroniously, a Laurel & Hardy Model T Ford) — after the drunken Todd inadvertently bit down, West stormed off and slammed the door, forgetting that the engine was running, and Todd fell asleep. Putting aside the unlikeliness of the scenario (it requires more explaining than drunken suicide, anyway), I have to ask, bearing in mind Kenneth Anger’s description of the death of Murnau, why is it that when anyone dies in the western United States, it’s always due to oral sex? I guess this firm mental marriage of b.j. + mortal peril maybe stems from the fact that, as Chaplin discovered, it was illegal in California back then (I believe it’s compulsory now).

Anyway, asides from maybe killing his wife, West directed a silent and a talking version of a somewhat creaky comedy-thriller called The Bat. His first go-round, titled simply THE BAT, is super-stylish, with amazing camera moves across a miniature city and up a skyscraper, which seem to have inspired Tim Burton’s similar views of Jack Palance’s penthouse in his BATMAN. It’s an erudite piece of homage, since West’s films apparently inspired the creation of the caped crusader by Bob Kane. Another movie, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, was a major influence on the creation of Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. The twist being that West’s Bat is a criminal, not a crimefighter, and Conrad Veidt’s anguished grinner is a hero, not a villain.

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West’s remake is even better, for THE BAT WHISPERS has not only sound but w i d e s c r e e n  — an early process which didn’t catch on at the time: the talkies were still relatively novel and a further gimmick was surplus to audience requirements. The elongated frame shows off West’s expressionistic sets and lighting admirably, and a slow, silent moment when the bat crouches and unfurls his wings benefits enormously from the extended frame. Unlike the only other ’30s W.S. epic I’ve seen, THE BIG TRAIL, the effect is mesmeric, enchanting — as if 1930s filmmakers had travelled forward thirty years and come back with scope technology. (Raoul Walsh in THE BIG TRAIL seems somewhat paralysed by the additional width — he holds the camera as far back as possible then, when the shot can’t possibly be sustained any longer and a closeup seems essential, he cuts to even further back. I kind of feel that widescreen, when it finally caught on in the ’50s, had a similarly disabling effect on Walsh.)

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And then there’s the wild and crazy performance of Chester Morris. Unmasked as the titular fliedermaus, he hisses and grimaces, lit from below like a Halloween kid with a flashlight, hamming up a storm. Why was Chester Morris never ever interesting apart from this scene? He had entire decades before and behind him of failing to elicit the slightest moment of surprise or curiosity in an audience, but here he’s electrifying: that crackling sound you hear is NOT the old soundtrack, it’s the sparks flying from Chester’s tingling skin! “The Bat always flies at night… and always… in a straight line!” What does that even mean? It doesn’t seem to matter.

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Flash-forward to 1959 — never mind World War Two, you can go back for that later — and we find Vincent Price and (joy!) Agnes Moorehead in a remake helmed by screenwriter Crane Wilbur, who has some pretty good credits as scribe. I’m very fond of his B-thriller THE AMAZING MR. X, directed by Bernard “Mad” Vorhaus, and one sees that he also wrote the story for SOLOMON AND SHEBA (didn’t that already exist?) and was one of a small army deployed on André DeToth’s CRIME WAVE (more writers than actors, nearly). Intriguingly, he also collaborated with Roland West on a Lon Chaney vehicle called THE MONSTER. It’s not terribly good, but its weird mismatch of surgical horror and daft comedy anticipates Antony Balch’s grim-n-sick HORROR HOSPITAL.

Wilbur’s BAT entry starts off with a title ZOOMING at us, accompanied by blaring stripper music, a wildly inappropriate and therefor quite welcome choice. Such dynamism lasts only as far as the first 30 frames of the titles, however, and we soon settle down to the plodding exposition of your standard Saturday-night comedy thriller play. Enlivened, it must be said, but the presence of not one but two GAY COUPLES.

The first G.C. we meet is Agnes Moorehead and her Comic Maid, Lenita Lane. Agnes is Cornelia van Gorder, crime writer, “Please don’t call me ‘Corny’ when referring to my books,” and she’s just moved into a dark, scary, mysterious model shot. The model shot is a welcome point of connection with the previous versions, but sadly no stylistic unity is achieved, since all the other exteriors are life-sized, including the log cabin where we meet this delightful pair:

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They’ve gone out “hunting” “deep in the woods” we’re told. The bank manager is cleaning the guns while the doctor, Vincent Price, does the dishes in a fetching mini-apron. The scene takes a surreal turn when the bank manager confesses, casually, to embezzling a million bucks from his own bank. He needs the doc to certify him dead so he can abscond, or something. The doc obliges, shooting his pal dead on the spot so he can pocket the cash. Now he has to collect the money from a hidden vault in the dark, scary, mysterious model shot. Cue plot.

At this point, any residual interest wanes. The comings and goings are rather flatly written and directed, although veteran Joseph Biroc lights it all elegantly and atmospherically, and whenever master-criminal The Bat shows up, in his featureless black mask, things have an additional creep factor. With his no-face look and snazzy hat, he’s a clear precursor to the masked murderer of Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, and his Freddy Krueger finger-blades are a welcome touch, though I miss the unfurling black cape of earlier bats.

The film’s biggest drawback, as well as its most interesting trait — in theory — is its old-fashioned air of pre-Scooby Doo bogus mystery. By 1959 audiences were ready for stronger meat, and were starting to get it…

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