Archive for Matinee

Insect Asides

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2010 by dcairns

THE RETURN OF THE FLY — I thought maybe I’d seen this, but when I stuck it in the Panasonic and was surprised to find it was in b&w, I knew I hadn’t. And since it appears in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, and since I’m sworn to see every film illustrated in that green-tinged tome, I had to see Edward Bernds’s sequel.

We begin at a funeral, and I assume this to be that of the protag from Film 1. “He died as he lived, with a massive insect head on his shoulders…” I imagine a coffin with a massive bulbous bit at one end, and another tiny coffin next to it, for the “help me” fly-guy. But no! This is the funeral of Mrs Fly, who died of grief some years later. Now her adult son has returned to continue dad’s work in teleportation, rather like Eric Stoltz in THE FLY II.

Again the setting is, pointlessly, Montreal (or is there an assumption that if you lived in Montreal you’d HAVE to invent the telepod just to get out?). Again, Vincent Price is on hand as a gloomy best friend, rather a waste of his horror movie talents, but Uncle Winnie is always welcome. Here, he has to explain how Mr Fly Snr wound up with a fly’s head and arm (arm?). I have to admit I’m curious about how this will play out — he can’t just get ANOTHER arthropod in his telepod, and ANOTHER fly head stuck on his neck, can he? And yet, if a fly isn’t involved somehow, it’s rather a cheat on the title, isn’t it?

Whizzkid Brett Halsey has a morbid horror of houseflies, we soon learn, which is reasonable enough considering his family history. Soon he’s disintegrating rats and leaving them whirling about as disembodied molecular streams overnight, but his lab assistant, a shifty Cary Elwes type Englishman, is plotting to con him out of his invention. At this point, I start to hope we’re going to get a human-rat fusion, and when an unwelcome snooper gets disintegrated and then reintegrated, we do!

Horror upon horror!

What director Bernds lacks in vowels, he makes up for in truly fucked-up imagery. I think I’m in love.

Disgusted with his new-born rodent detective, the proto-Elwes disposes of the man-handed rodent by stamping savagely upon its little furry torso (and we actually see it BULGE beneath the pressure!), but the dead detective with the giant joke-shop paws can’t be gotten rid of so easily. Bundling the furry-fisted flic into the trunk of a gigantic finned monstermobile, he arranges the proverbial watery grave for both man and Merc’.

But! What seems like mere seconds later, wunderkind Brett Halsey (a no-name actor who literally HAS no name, just a series of random syllables) is roundly pummeling the bad guy — only to get knocked unconscious and placed in the transportation booth. Adding bio-insult to injury, the villain deliberately picks a fly out of the sugar bowl and casts it into the booth with young Halsey, consigning the pair to a conjoined future. Poor Halsey, hoist by his own telepetard.

The bad guy flees, shooting Uncle Winnie in the nearest spleen, and then the cops arrive and start shooting at Halsey-fly, who runs away into the grounds, catching his vast head on overhanging branches. Perhaps as a side-effect of having a fly’s leg, he runs like a man carrying an Olympic torch clenched between his buttocks. The sight of the fly-headed man clambering over a low fence is inexplicably hilarious (inexplicable that it should be any funnier than him just walking).

Meanwhile, a housefly with the head of Brett Halsey is buzzing about, going “Help me!” Why do man-headed flies always say that? Maybe, like Roald Dahl’s vermicious knids, they only know how to say one thing. More importantly, why have I never seen this film before? It’s like THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE made by a talented director who cares, rather than a fast-fading Roy Del Ruth, staving off extinction by perambulating a muppet through a mock-up everglade. And yet it’s exactly as bad as THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE. Which is amazing! Orson Welles was right — it has no limitations!

The human-head is represented at first by what looks like a real fly wearing a tiny Don Post Studios mask, then by a cheap superimposition, with a translucent Halsey visage shimmering where a set of mandibles ought to be. Either approach is aces with me, as long as he gets more to do than cry “Help me!” in a Mickey Mouse falsetto.

OK, so now fly-head is off on a mad quest for vengeance against people who, as a transplanted insect, he has no possible knowledge of, gamely maneuvering his space-hopper cranium through doorways, clanging it against metallic ceiling lamps, and pincering everyone in his path. Bernds’ script, hitherto a model of Holmesian logic, now falls at the hurdle of imagining “the murderous thoughts of a fly.” Not only is he attacking his body’s enemies, he knows how to open doors, something I never saw a fly do. Fiona suggests maybe flybody and flyhead are each sharing one hemisphere of the scientist’s brain, and this is slightly borne out by the romantic interest the big fellow shows in nubile Danielle de Metz. I never saw a fly do that, either. Yet the good guys still hope to persuade him back into the pod so his various bits can be jumbled back together.

In one way, fly-guy shouldn’t be funny at all — with his outsized head, big hand and misshapen, dragging foot, he has the proportions of John Merrick. But the filmmakers seem somewhat sensible to his comedy potential — time and again his physical awkwardness is highlighted, as when he has to nudge his big clawed foot to get it over a bannister he’s climbing, or when his enormous head gets caught in some net curtains. Throughout his bug-eyed ordeal, he remains neatly dressed in a natty suit, an unbuttoned collar his only concession to comfort (I can imagine Groucho’s response: “A trained scientist, running around open at the neck? With a fly’s head? The idea!”) At times, the effect puts me in mind of the late Frank Sidebottom.

Bernds eschews the multi-faceted fly-eye POV shots which are a principle distinguishing touch in Kurt Neumann’s original, presumably considering such playfulness beneath his dignity. Have another look at that guinea pig and see if you think his concern is justified.

A happy ending! Even for the fly! Next came CURSE OF THE FLY, which I saw ages ago. British-made, it has a really striking opening with a woman smashing through a window and running in slomo through the woods… and then it gets a bit dull. Dependable journeyman Don Sharp directed, Brian “Quatermass” Donlevy plays another member of the ill-starred Delambre family of scientists, and the movie was British-made.

I should investigate the world of ’50s Twentieth Century Fox sci-fi horror — there does seem to be an interesting, crazed camp sensibility going on. Meanwhile, I can’t leave the subject without a nod to MANT! ~

From MANT! directed by the fictitious Laurence Woolsey, from MATINEE, directed by the factual Joe Dante.

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A State of Violence

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2010 by dcairns

To say that REIGN OF TERROR, (Anthony Mann, 1949), AKA THE BLACK BOOK, is like a comic strip version of history is not to insult it, I feel, but to compliment and define its particular wild brio. To put it another way, as Fiona did after watching the first few minutes, “This film is nuts!”

Screening the film at home after seeing it for the first time in New York at the Film Forum (bought the T-shirt), I was struck anew by the Jack Kirby forcefulness of everything — this is a three-auteur movie (discounting the writers, as everyone always does), and all three of them are perfectly in synch and turned up to eleven: William Cameron Menzies designs and John Alton’s cinematography alike stress the bold, graphic and simple, with Anthony Mann adding a particularly extreme form of his choreographed aggression and thrust.

Why liken it to a comic book? One obvious clue is the film’s relentless Americanism — the celebration of Frenchness and democracy, and the incessant hammering at tyranny make it feel like a leftover WWII project, although the show-trials and talk of citizenry and revolution no doubt made it resonate among anti-communists at the time. The dialogue, by the prolific and sometimes brilliant Philip Yordan and the less-familiar Aeneas McKenzie (a Scottish islander who wrote for Borzage, Dieterle, Wellman, Dmytryk, Curtiz and DeMille, specializing in historical and military subjects) is fearlessly pulpy and Americanized, and the delivery backs it up. There’s not a single English accent to add spurious “class” and “verisimilitude” — it’s ridiculous to suggest that Arnold Moss’s crisp Brooklynese (“Whyncha eat yer bun?”) is any less authentic than the plummy tones of Michael York in THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Tout le monde aurait parlé français.

(When I met Glenn Kenny for dinner and mentioned what I’d been seeing, he greeted this title with an immediate cry of “Don’t call me Max!” echoing Robespierre’s funniest line. Robespierre, not normally a funny guy.)

Apart from the visuals, which really blur the distinctive styles of the three main contributors — chiaroscuro single-source expressionism from Alton, bulging closeups, aggressive symmetry and violent displacement upwards and downwards courtesy of Menzies, and punching and swiveling movements from Mann — there’s the narrative style, which seems to transfer the crazed twistiness of Hitchcock’s espionage stories to a historical setting — true cloak and dagger. The strategies and counterplots barely make sense and could never have been implemented in the film’s breathless hurtle through 24hrs of intrigue and assassination, but as long as there’s a reversal, suspense sequence, chase or new disguise adopted every five minutes or less (and there is, at least for the first and last half hours) the impossibility is judged irrelevant.

The cast is so amazing here that it can afford to squander Norman Lloyd (a veteran Hitchcock plotter) as a sympathetic agent, and Charles McGraw as a thug with barely a line (McGraw’s beard softens his chiseled weapon of a face, and the lack of lines robs us of his unique voice, which he must have got from having to introduce himself so often: “McGraw,” sounding both gravelly and raw, is exactly like his throaty utterances. You can’t SAY his name unless you drink some flaming whisky first).

In first place, we have Robert Cummings, or the Terror of Strasburg”, as I’m now going to start calling him. Cummings is probably nobody’s favourite Holywood leading man these days, if he ever was, but he’s pretty good here, especially in his spiteful sparring with Arlene Dahl. His character has had some kind of ill-defined CASABLANCA-style falling-out with the former cheesecake model prior to our story’s start, expressed in some spicy GILDA sexy-hatred dialogue and hot snogging.

With those two (especially her) filling the conventional roles, the rogues’ gallery occupies most of the rest of the cast, and here things get seriously interesting. Richard Basehart is an interesting fellow (in Joseph Losey’s sluggish FINGER OF GUILT, Basehart essays what may be cinema’s first John Huston impersonation — see also Sterling Hayden in THE FINAL PROGRAMME, Clint Eastwood in WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART and D-Day-Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD) and here he plays Robespierre as a dry, sexless-yet-somehow-perverted plutocrat and psychopath, a fanatic who uses his verbal skills and air of authority to conceal from everybody, including perhaps himself, his designs on power.

Jess Barker as the dangerous Saint Just is almost colourless by comparison, but scores with the way he disintegrates when things suddenly turn against him. But the real heart of the film, modern, campy and exuberant, is Arnold Moss as Fouché. Looking like the depraved elder brother of Adrien Brody, all hooded eyes, pointy, hooked chin and nose, a Mr Punch with a permanent erection, he sidles his way into our affections with his louche, droll demeanour and self-confessed treachery. When Cummings, playing up his cover story as a torturing swine, remarks that the guillotine is too mercifully swift, he suddenly finds himself in a flirtatious conversation about torture in which Fouché looks about to jump on his bones.

“Why aren’t there Arnold Moss Clubs all over the world, celebrating his greatness?” asks Fiona.

Sinister homosexual villains are a staple of Mann’s films, so much so that it’s tempting to assume some inner psychological component is on display, and not necessary simple (if it ever is simple) homophobia. Villains were the only male characters really allowed to step outside the ordained standards of masculinity, after the Production Code nixed out the comedy sissies of the early thirties, so having fiendish sexual inverts as bad guys would be one way to explore the subject (directors like Leisen and Cukor found other ways, but they weren’t making two-fisted men’s adventure stories).

Saw the movie in New York with Jaime Christley, who suggested that Mann’s enthusiasm for violence is what breaks through the beautiful mix of sensibilities. I mean, you can trace every aesthetic component of the film to Mann’s sensibility — all the visual tricks and tics displayed here recur in his work — but they’re also very much Alton and Menzies’ style. So the savagery (characters shot in the face at close range, the effect achieved by spraying them with stage blood) and sexual ambiguity is how Mann asserts himself. There’s a line from Robespierre about France existing in ” a perpetual state of violence,” and Mann takes that as his cue for the whole film. Even fluttering doves fly into shot as if fired from a sling.

The middle of the film, where Cummings and Dahl’s relationship has become boringly civil, and we escape the turmoil of Paris for a rural pursuit, is frankly less enticing than the hurlyburly machinations of Act 1, but a change of pace was probably necessary lest the narrative frenzy shake the cinemas apart like Lawrence Woolsey’s Rumble-Rama in MATINEE. The ending, a bloodbath followed by an ironic historical joke, is splendid, and it’s nice to see Arnold Moss survive: the Production Code would probably have insisted he die for his wickedness, but the historical record dictated otherwise.

Fat Man and Little Boy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2009 by dcairns

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Two atom-age ubermensch fantasies came my way in quick succession this week — I’m just lucky that way. THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE is kind of a hiccup in my growing appreciation of Allan Dwan, because it’s really not very good. Petulant gangster Ron Randall, escaping the gas chamber, is caught in an A-bomb test, and the experimental nuke causes him to absorb steel into his cellular system (or something), making him bulletproof. Out to get the guys who framed him for a crime he sort of did commit, anyway, RR stomps through dingy locations in a plodding series of sequences served up by Dwan with a sort of weary efficiency, like a cook dispensing mash with a ladle.

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The two headed-monkey — really a sort of monkey-gonk cross — is the film’s only arresting image, and best actor. Maybe it’s going to split in two, like a monkey version of THE MANSTER — a “mon-ster,” if you will.

My copy was fuzzy and degraded, which is kind of how I felt after watching it, but I don’t think a cleaner image would dispel the bleak, stark blankness of the visuals, which is kind of the film’s best feature. I’m sure Debra Paget would look better though — they should restore her and leave the rest as it is. The crummy dialogue, which practically comes encased in speech balloons, or maybe wooden overcoats, occasionally gets bad enough to make you sit up — as when the doughy scientist offers Randall the chance of a cure:

“Cure? Is that even a word for what I’ve become?”

Better yet, a discombobulating moment as RR throttles his arch-enemy. The A-E doesn’t want to ‘fess up and clear RR because that would incriminate himself, nor does he want to have his neck snapped by Randall’s steely arms, so he blurts — “We could run away together — just you and me!” Not so much a case of homoerotic subtext, I think, as a writer typing so fast he forgets to even consider which cliche he’s using.

Much much better is WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST, a sequel by the Notorious Bert. I. Gordon (Kenosha’s most famous son! Or maybe not) to his own muscular B travesty, THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN. A handy flashback encapsulates the earlier film, saving me the bother of watching it, though I might anyway. I had to watch this one as part of my mission to See Reptilicus and Die.

In this one, Colossal returns, having been bazooka’d off the Boulder Dam in Part One, only now he has a disfigured skull-face and seems to have suffered brain damage — he’s lost the power of speech, and “communicates” with a strange bellowing that sounds something like a yak farting into a megaphone. Quite scary, actually.

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I recalled some Medved-type worst movies show including a clip of the scene where Colossal is tackled by a couple of guys with a giant syringe and a loudhaler, which almost seemed too comical to be true, and in fact the whole sequel has that kind of pitch-perfect straight-faced parody aspect. If you were going to make a spoof of atomic monster movies, you really couldn’t beat this. In MANT, Joe Dante’s film-within-a-film from MATINEE, there’s some fantastic stuff and a real affection for the material, but it’s obviously a comedy. ACM never tips you the wink, as if B.I>G. had written it as comedy but never told his cast. I mean, can this really be intended as po-faced melodrama? ~

“He started growing at a rate of eight to ten feet a day. You may have read about him.”

*

“This creature’s presence there would constitute too great a police problem. That applies to every other large downtown building including the Coliseum. Have you considered the Hollywood Bowl?”

“We can’t leave him exposed to the weather — even if he IS a giant!”

*

“He ought to be in a hospital, getting treatment.”

“They don’t make hospitals that big, Joyce.”

*

“I’m afraid the world doesn’t think of a sixty-foot man the way a sister does.”

*

“We’re going to try to stimulate your brother’s mind… with various ideas.”

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Part of the comedy is simply examining the idea of a sixty foot man and dealing with the consequences. You would, after all, NEED a giant syringe to give him a shot. It’s reasonable. But that’s how comedy works too, by following an illogical idea to its logical end. They say you shouldn’t explain a joke, but I quite like unpicking the logical assumptions in a gag, uncovering more layers of absurdity. It’s not as instantly gratifying as the first burst of laughter, but it’s a real, quiet pleasure, akin to what I feel when I see a giant man in a nappy crawling out of an aircraft hangar.

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In addition to all the laffs and yocks, there’s a generosity towards the audience, contrasting with the impoverished, grudging feel of THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE and all too much exploitation cinema (audiences, remember: it’s YOU that’s being expolited!) — B.I.G. wants you to have a good time, and he’ll pull out at least some of the stops to make that happen. He’s budgeted for maybe 45% of the stops.

So at the end, when Colossal (I call him Colossal) zaps himself on a pylon, the film goes colour, flashing and changing hues in an electric rainbow of death, and then Colossal just fades away, in a totally inexplicable fashion, and one that leaves at least some possibility open for another sequel. It’s not too late, Bert! I for one will be there for that, front row centre.

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Thanks to Douglas Noble for His Colossal Beastliness.