Archive for Joseph Calleia

Urban Gorilla

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2010 by dcairns

Well, I’ve got to admit, there are times when my mission to watch all the films depicted in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (a mission I have entitled See REPTILICUS and Die) has seemed a little… onerous. Not to say stupid.

But then comes a movie like THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL, and it’s all suddenly worthwhile. Gifford informs us that this Stuart Heisler flick was Paramount’s only B-movie monster film, to which one can only say, “Quel dommage!” Perhaps because they weren’t in the habit of making this kind of film, the studio seems to have showered largesse upon it, stuffing the cast with colourful character actors and assigning a decent, and apparently enthusiastic, director.

According to Gifford, the film is a remake of GO AND GET IT, a 1920 silent, a fact even the IMDb seems unaware of. The original, co-directed by Marshall Neilan and Henry Roberts Symonds, certainly shares the same plot synopsis:
“An intrepid newspaper reporter attempts to solve a series of murders committed by a gorilla carrying the transplanted brain of a human.” Although the 1941 version sidelines the journalist and basically turns the gorilla into protag.

We begin with Ellen Drew (ISLE OF THE DEAD), slouching out of the fog to bemoan her fate in a piece-to-camera speech that starts the film off in an arresting and unusual manner, before it dives into a courtroom drama in which her brother, Phillip Terry stands accused on a murder he didn’t commit. When Terry takes the stand, the first thought is that this must be some kind of hypnosis drama, since his delivery is so robotic and strange, but NO! He’s just a strange actor. I don’t want to say “bad” — it’s pretty interesting the way he invents a sort of MK-Ultra kind of zombified, yet pained, speech-making, like a constipated somnambulist. This is better than acting!

David Bordwell has noted that B-movies deployed faster cutting than prestige films, which maybe ties into modern patterns of fast editing, since modern studio pictures are essentially inflated Bs… anyhow, the cutting throughout this film is very pacy, with the courtroom disintegrating into a flickbook of glowering visages. Our stilted hero is railroaded to the electric chair, Ellen’s testimony that her husband seduced and abandoned her to a gang of sex traffickers, compelling her into a life of prostitution (this is all surprising stuff for a 40s genre film), and that the gang is somehow responsible for framing her unhappy brobot.

So far almost half an hour has gone by, and the movie is a perfectly acceptable proto-noir with a Cornell Woolrich style nightmare scenario of an innocent man wrongly accused. But now, without warning, George Zucco sidles into the story, asking to have Phil’s brain after he’s fried. Naturally, Phil agrees, no questions asked.

In Zucco’s surprisingly spacious lab (I guess Paramount didn’t have standard mad scientist’s lair stuff, so they’ve achieved something more original and exotic by starting from scratch) he and his assistant Abner Biberman (memorable as the “albino” hood in HIS GIRL FRIDAY) transplant the deceased patsy’s brain into a man in a gorilla suit (Charles Gemora, a man whose surname already suggests a giant besuited Japanese monster). The operation scene is accompanied by a wheezing accordion score, mimicking the movement of the oxygen respirator…

After a compelling flashback montage, the ape breaks free and goes on what you might call a vengeance spree, tracking down and bear-hugging (gorilla-hugging) his enemies to death, baffling the coroner by breaking every bone without leaving a single bruise. Is this even possible?

“I’m sick of murders,” complains a homicide detective. “Why can’t people just behave?”

Somebody has thoughtfully provided Gemora with a fantastic rogue’s gallery to get his arms around, starting with Onslow Stevens (HOUSE OF DRACULA) as the vicious DA, followed by Gerald Mohr and Robert Paige, neither of whom I was familiar with but both of whom were really good, deploying light leading man charm to oily, disturbing effect (it turns out I’d just seen Paige in SON OF DRACULA and entirely forgotten him), and then Marc Lawrence, Joseph Calleia and Paul Lukas. What a gang!

Through his bone-crushing escapades, Gemora is followed about by Skipper, his faithful dog, who is apparently able to smell his master’s brain through the casing of gorilla-skull now encircling it, and dutifully carries a hunting cap in hopes of being taken to chase squirrels. I was longing for the gorilla to actually put the hat on, but no dice. Still, the sight of the cheeky wee dog following an unsuspecting Lawrence through the street, like the world’s cutest harbinger of doom, was decidedly eerie, and Heisler’s high-angle shots showing the killer ape tracking his victim are really effective.

Check out this clip — it goes from comical to spooky, as you get used to the ape-suit, and then suddenly very comical again, as Gemora appears to sexually mount Marc Lawrence, perhaps repeating something he learned in the American penal system during his human days…

Believe it or not, this movie is dramatic, atmospheric, well-written and touching! Of course it’s not quite strong enough to overcome the monkey-suit element, nor is it so strong that you want it to: it’s the balance of silliness and effectiveness which makes it so watchable, along with the strange cross-genre stew of mismatched clichés, amounting to something curiously original: for instance, Zucco’s mad scientist survives the movie — how I wish Paramount had followed his future misadventures!

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“Between you and me and the lamppost…”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2010 by dcairns

The sailor suit — an important artifact in Woolrich’s personal iconography…

When Alexander Mackendrick was prepping the classic THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, he was anxious about the script. Partly because it wasn’t finished, of course. That never helps. But also because it seemed kind of… hammy. Screenwriter Clifford Odets reassured him —

“‘My dialogue may seem somewhat overwritten, too wordy, too contrived. Don’t let it worry you. You’ll find that it works if you don’t bother too much about the lines themselves. Play the situations, not the words. And play them fast.”

The  only trouble with Nicholas (OUT OF THE PAST) Musuraca’s cinematography is that I want to grab a still from every shot…

And so to DEADLINE AT DAWN (1946), adapted by Odets from a Cornell Woolrich yarn, the only feature directed by Broadway champ Harold Clurman. The combination of Woolrich’s flakey plotting and doom-laden mood with Odet’s florid phrase-making is an enticing one, and the cast is quite incredible — Bill Williams was the unknown factor for me, but he’s very good here, and in addition we have Susan Hayward, Paul Lukas, Joseph Calleia, Jerome Cowan, Stephen Geray, Al Bridge…

One thing that strikes you straight off: this is what happens if the director doesn’t follow Odets’ advice. The dialogue is slower and more emphatic than in Mackendrick’s film, and has more time to register as strange. Clurman’s direction occasionally lumbers, with stilted blocking and strenuous dramatics, a result of his inexperience in cinema, I guess. And the characters are not sleazy media jackals like those in TSSOS, they include a simple-minded sailor, a hard-bitten taxi dancer, an idealistic old taxi driver, a gangster, etc. So the verbal fireworks seem less plausible, and aiming for naturalism in the performances doesn’t make the issue go away. Odets’ “poetry of the streets” has nothing much to do with the way anybody really talks or ever did talk.

And yet — after marveling at the oddness of it for ten minutes or so, I got right into it and enjoyed the film excessively. It’s the lighter side of Woolrich’s world, with mostly appealing characters — even Calleia’s vicious hood ends up on the side of the good guys, sort of, and his energy and drive make him someh0w likable. And he never does anything terribly bad.

This is Woolrich’s No. 1 plot, where a web of circumstantial evidence enfolds an innocent person, and someone close to them must clear their name against a tight deadline — usually an impinging execution date. This serves Woolrich and his adaptors well in PHANTOM LADY, BLACK ANGEL and CONVICTED, and probably others. Here, the deadline is 6 am, when sailor Bill Williams should be catching the bus back to his naval base, so the whole situation seems less severe. However, Woolrich throws in one of his favourite devices, the amnesia blackout, so that Williams is not entirely certain he’s not after all guilty of murdering the floozy who picked him up earlier in the night.

The mental instability of the lead — he seems to be a bit punchy, and has a childlike naivety to go with his memory lapses — adds a touch of darkness to the tale, augmented by the nocturnal setting. This is a movie about running about desperate in the early hours of the morning, getting increasingly tired and increasingly hopeless. One of the most haunting moments is when a fugitive man with a mysterious box, a possible suspect, proves to be a janitor trying to get his sick cat to the vet. He’s too late.

Hayward: “Golly, the misery that walks around in this pretty, quiet night!”

Lukas: “June, the logic that you’re looking for, the logic is that there is no logic, but you’re too young to know it. The horror and terror you feel, my dear, comes from being alive. Die and there’s no trouble; live and you struggle. At your age I think it’s beautiful to struggle for the human possibilities — not to say, “I hate the sun because it don’t light my cigarette!” You’re so young, June — you’re a baby! And love is waiting outside any door you open! Some people say, “Love’s a superstition!” Dismiss those people, those Miss Bartellis, from your mind. They put poison bottle labels on the sweetest facts of life! You’re only twenty-three, June. Believe in love and its possibilities the way I do at fifty-three! Right now I hear in you the musical sounds of feeling for that boy, June! And no matter what else happens, that’s the real mystery tonight; how a casual, passing stranger can change your entire life! Am I understood? I think I am…”

Williams, for whom all seems lost, implausibly recruits dance hall hostess Hayward to his cause, and together they start following a series of unlikely leads in vain hope of catching the real killer. They’re discovered by Lukas’s philosophical cabbie (“Statistics tell us…”), who decides to help them rather than report them. When they’re investigation leads them to former mobster Calleia, the victim’s sister, he at first wants to kill Williams, but them, partially persuaded of the kid’s innocence, he joins them in their quest.

Basically, it’s like THE WIZARD OF OZ, only in Manhattan. No wait, that’s THE WIZ. And AFTER HOURS. But this is like that too, the way our wide-eyed hero picks up his ragtag band of helpers as the story goes on and the night darkens. Or else it’s like one of those Bertrand Blier films where the confused hero finds himself at the head of a growing crowd of equally misguided misfits.

Odets weaves a more upbeat yarn than Woolrich normally does, but the darkness glows through, which creates an exciting mix of tones. And there’s so much charm to its oddball mix of people and cunningly developed story. Premier noir.

Calleia!

“Just imagine, at my age, to have to learn to play a harp.”

Pinky and the Ape

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 13, 2009 by dcairns

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After the lo-fi shambling smear that was THE APE MAN, it was a relief to find that my DVD of THE GORILLA was sharp in picture and sound, and also that it was a plush production with something on nodding terms to a decent script. It’s one of those old dark house comedy-thrillers that can become a bit wearisome — and I’m thinking of THE BAT or, horror of horrors, SH(IT)! THE OCTOPUS rather than the actual, brilliant OLD DARK HOUSE here. But despite being festooned with hoary horror clichés and plywood characters, this simian romp actually delivers a lot of visual pleasure, a bare minimum of laughs, and some pert, yeasty performances from genre faves Lugosi and Atwill.

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First, Lionel “Pinky” Atwill, who gets to hone his enantiodromic skills, especially in scenes where flickering firelight illuminates the dark side of his visage. Atwill is thrown at us as such an obvious villain that we naturally assume he must be innocent. But then we look at him and think, no, he CAN’T be innocent. Of anything!

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Bela Lugosi meets a woman with a pork pie on her head.

Lugosi impresses considerably in a modest butler role. He doesn’t overact, he’s merely suave and charming like some kind of Hungarian person. He’s relaxed, calm, very much the man on form. Credit must go to director Allan Dwan, whose work I’ve tended to neglect: Lugosi was not easy to control.

I suspect taking THE GORILLA as a starting point for Dwan appreciation would strike most right-thinking cinephiles as grotesque, but the movie has definite merits from a directorial standpoint. Dwan manages the ambidextrous feat of wrestling Lugosi’s wayward talent to the floor and channeling it along the required course, while pulling off slick visuals including a wonderful introductory crane shot that traverses the front of the rainswept mansion-house like a devil bat sniffing out the perfume of death.

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And then there are the Ritz Brothers. What? What, exactly? What is the purpose of these brothers? It was interesting to see, I suppose, a triple-act of interchangeable doofus types, exuding the kind of broad schtick that other comics (I would say Jerry Lewis, for instance) individualise and make funny. With the Ritzes, there’s no REAL personality and certainly no individuality (they’re all alike, and also like every other vaudeville type ever), although there’s recognisable skill in their playing and mastery of a whole lexicon of double-takes, gurns and grimaces. They’re comedic or comical rather than being plain funny, because their tenth-generation mimickry has lost all resemblance to human truth.

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When comedy goes rhetorical…

Apart from all this, and the faceless romantic leads, there’s Joseph Calleia (hoo-ray!) and a misogynist gorilla (hoo-whaa???) — “He hates women!” and the usual number of secret passageways, twist endings and baloney. A good time-waster, worth it for the craziness of the opening newspaper montage, and Dwan’s suave moves.

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What an odd thing to say.