Sunday, August 28, 2016

Boris Karloff Monster Mash: The Man They Could Not Hang, The Body Snatcher, Bedlam

Turner Classic Movies recently aired a day-long tribute Boris Karloff, the cadaverous horror star. His iconic roles as Universal's Frankenstein and The Mummy were merely popular highpoints in a five decade career. Today we'll examine three of his lesser-known roles.

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939, Nick Grinde)
"Always remember I offered you life, and you gave me death!"
The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) was the first of several cheapies Karloff made for Columbia in the late '30s and early '40s. Karloff does his best to sell a silly, insubstantial story.

Dr. Henryk Savaard (Boris Karloff) experiments with an artificial heart. Interrupted while reviving his assistant, Savaard is charged with murder and executed. Months later, the Judge (Charles Trowbridge) and others involved in the case attend a meeting, where they find Savaard has been revived by his device, plotting an elaborate revenge.

Competently directed by journeyman Nick Grinde, The Man They Could Not Hang makes little of its interesting premise. Grinde devotes nearly half of the film to Savaard's experiments and trial, with the doctor hectoring the idiots who don't appreciate his brilliant invention. Karloff relishes his florid, sneering speeches, along with his triumphant return later on. Movie scientists never grasp that lectures on morality work best when unaccompanied by murder.

Eventually, Hang settles into a Ten Little Indians format, with Savaard's victims murdered one at a time as the Doctor seals himself in an attic - a hiding place easily found by his daughter (Lorna Gray). This set-up creates a modicum of suspense, especially when a repentant Savaard tries using his device one last time, but few opportunities for terror. Eventually, Savaard destroys his mechanical heart; we fade to black, queering whatever message he intended.

The Body Snatcher (1945, Robert Wise)
"When we dislike a friend of ours, we dissect him!"
Karloff worked more fruitfully with Val Lewton, master of B movies. Aside from the stolid Isle of the Dead (1945), their collaborations are gems. The Body Snatcher (1945) is a classy period chiller that packs a lot into a 77 minute runtime.

Respected Doctor Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) runs an Edinburgh medical school circa 1830. Short of specimens for dissection, he enlists cabbie John Gray (Boris Karloff) to exhume recently interred corpses. Their ghoulish racket works swimmingly until MacFarlane's new assistant, Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), enters the picture. Fettes wants to cure a little girl's (Sharyn Moffett) spinal disease, prompting MacFarlane to seek bodies from any source...living or dead.

Director Robert Wise makes remarkable use of minimal resources. As always, Lewton and Wise use atmosphere over obvious chills, with tiny graveyard sets and shadowy streets effectively creepy. The most effective scene is a long shot of a foggy alley, with Gray stalking a street singer (Donna Lee). Her gay music plays over the scene, until he finds his target. A wild carriage ride through a rainstorm adds a more expansive set piece at the climax.

Using a Robert Lewis Stevenson story, Lewton and cowriter Philip Macdonald center their drama on intersections of class, science and morality. Gray is a proletariat monster who defiles graves for profit; he relishes the power he holds over "respectable" Dr. MacFarlane and threatens him with exposure. MacFarlane justifies his grave robbery as scientific progress, becoming blind to his patients' humanity. He can't connect with little Georgina Marsh anymore than corpses, a disconnect which ultimately drives him mad.

Boris Karloff is a gleeful creep, sublimating his plumy voice under a snarling Cockney lisp. He's equally assured murdering dogs or growling pleasantries at "Toddy." Henry Daniell's (The Sea Hawk) self-justifying anguish is equally effective. Russell Wade (The Ghost Ship) is a dopy non-hero with a clanking American accent, uttering half-hearted protests and fretting over his child charge. Bela Lugosi is wasted as an inarticulate helper who unwisely tries to blackmail Gray.

Bedlam (1946, Mark Robson)
Bedlam (1946) was Lewton's final horror movie, and quite a remarkable one. Another period piece, it uses an insane asylum to make a powerful social statement.

Headstrong Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is mistress to Lord Mortimer (Billy House), a nobleman in Georgian England. Disgusted by a visit to St. Mary's of Bethlehem, an asylum run by cruel Dr. Simms (Boris Karloff), Bowen falls out with Mortimer. Simms convinces Mortimer to commit Nell, who ends up in Bedlam. Quaker Hannay (Richard Fraser) learns of her plight and tries to free her with the help of radical John Wilkes (Leyland Hodges).

Lewton and Mark Robson fill Bedlam with unnerving content. Simms is a petty tyrant abusing his power, believing that "order" requires brutality. He forces them to perform for amused nobles and lie in filthy straw and restrictive cages. He maneuvers himself into Mortimer's favor through his niece (Lewton favorite Elizabeth Russell), who becomes the Lord's consort. Nell's kindness proves far more effective in helping the prisoners, endangering the foundation of Simms' fiefdom.

Lewton provides a hard edge which prevents Bedlam from lapsing into sentimentality. Nell's imprisoned for her broad-mindedness and tart tongue, something which unfortunately caused many real women to suffer similar fates. She becomes a political danger as well, appealing to Wilkes for reform and holding Mortimer to ridicule through a chatty parrot. Despite her muckraking rhetoric, she's still terrified of the inmates until Hannay pushes her towards Christian charity.

The inmates range from the lucid Sidney (Ian Wolfe), a pompous ex-lawyer, to the somnambulistic Dorothea (Joan Newton), who receives icky attention from Simms. Another (Jason Robards Sr.) is an alcoholic writer locked away by his family. Robson and Lewton present them as frightening and occasionally violent, which seems reaction to their ill-treatment as any mental illness. Slowly humanized by Nell's attention, they band together for well-deserved revenge, in a finale mixing Freaks with Edgar Allan Poe.

Robson makes skillful use of the asylum set, revealing the lunatics through a long crane, disquieting crane shots. Key scenes play with the inmate parroting dialogue and menacing arms reaching from shadows. A clever visual device uses Hogarth paintings and a character's doodles as exposition, allowing Bedlam to advance without. Robson shoots the inmates' trial with an Expressionist aplomb worthy of M, allowing even Sims to plead his case.

Karloff perfectly plays an amoral heel, wheedling in one scene, coldly menacing the next. Anna Lee nearly upstages him, getting a rare chance to shine as a haughty, compassionate proto-feminist. Richard Fraser provides friendly if bland complement, while Ian Wolfe and Jason Robards Sr. enliven the prison scenes.

Hopefully, we'll get a chance to revisit Karloff's work closer to Halloween. Until then, on to other, less frightful films.

Friday, August 26, 2016

1900 (Novecento)

"Never bite the hand that feeds you, as long as you need to be fed."
Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (1976) was a monumental act of hubris. Clocking in at 5 hours 16 minutes, it was butchered by distributors, released to mixed reviews and indifferent audiences, a colossal letdown after Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris proved an international smash. It's hard not to admire 1900, engrossing for all its preachy excess.

Alfredo Berlinghieri (Robert De Niro) and Olmo Dalco (Gerard Depardieu) are born simultaneously in 1901 to Italian landowners and peasants, respectively. Their childhood friendship's underscored by tensions between Alfredo's father Giovanni (Romolo Valli) and his workers. After World War I, Olmo becomes a Marxist, while Alfredo inherits the family estate, including fascist foreman Attila (Donald Sutherland). Their relationship grows strained, with Alfredo's wife Ada (Dominique Sanda) driving him to distraction while Olmo and Attila butt heads. After Mussolini falls, a reckoning's in order.

1900 has a luxuriant texture and craftsmanship more often associated with novels than cinema. Bertolucci employs a scope that Lean and Coppola could only dream about, covering 50 years and dozens of personages in engrossing detail. It's a Marxist national epic that pares agitprop with spectacle, a paean to mass action peppered with vivid characterizations. Periodic concessions to vulgarity lightly mar its high-flown pretensions.
Vittorio Storaro's photography lacks The Conformist's florid color scheme, instead employing painterly compositions and spellbinding long takes. Endless pastoral shots of Alfredo's estate give way to riotous imagery: a fog-shrouded showdown between Anita's (Stefania Sandrelli) socialists and mounted carabinieri, Alfredo and Ada's lavish wedding, a muddy massacre, Alfredo posing nobly against a Gone With the Wind-style sepia sunset, underscored by Ennio Morricone's ennobling music.

For many, 1900's politics are as trying as its length. Bertolucci contrasts the decadent Berlinghieris with the peasants, lice-ridden and starving in muddy hovels. Young Olmo catches a brace of frogs, which Alfredo's parents cook for dinner. Alfredo's senile grandfather (Burt Lancaster) putters around muttering profanities, Giovanni whines about his "sacrifices" while sister Regina (Laura Betti) grows unhinged due to her superfluity. Even Alfredo allows Attila to terrorize his workers, more concerned that he wipe his feet than not murder people.

Bertolucci lacks Luchino Visconti's sympathy for the passing aristocracy. 1900 ridicules the Berlinghieris, with the hunchbacked Rigoletto (Giacomo Rizzo) mocking the birth pangs of Alfredo's mother and Olmo's father (Sterling Hayden) refusing his wine. The peasants have a primal connection to the Earth that landowners can't grasp: they dance in the woods as the Berlinghieris fret about money. Alfredo values his friendship with Olmo but can't empathize with him, unable to transcend class barriers.
Bertolucci's edgier content serves the characters. Alfredo and Olmo have a threesome with a prostitute (Stefania Cassini) who suffers an epileptic fit, showcasing Olmo's sensitivity: he stays with her while Alfredo flees, treating her as human rather than a commodity. Ada's an eccentric, chain-smoking bourgeois corrupted by wealth. She feigns blindness, flirts with Olmo and drinks heavily, disgusting even Regina. They're gifted a horse named Cocaine as a wedding present, spotlighting her degeneration as Alfredo's consort.

Naturally, 1900 presents fascism as national neurosis, an alliance between the criminal and moneyed classes. Giovanni raises money for the Blackshirts in a church decorated with dead animals. Attila commits every sin from cat-killing to pedophilia, yet he's more convincing than The Damned's Nazi jackals. He evolves from harmless oaf to psychopath, emboldened by a regime promoting order at any cost. He awaits the day when he can turn from Communists to aristocrats.
Oddly, 1900 unravels when it should grow most engaging. The second half covers the fascist era, but focuses too narrowly on Alfredo and Ada's marriage. Mussolini's regime is felt only through Attila's escalating atrocities. Bertolucci concludes with a postwar show trial, punctuated with comic accordions and ending with a copout. Peasants wave a giant red banner and Olmo lectures the audience about Communism, in case things weren't didactic enough.

Robert De Niro gives a fine performance, playing Alfredo as both weak and willful, too complacent to court change. Gerard Depardieu plays fiery indignation well, but Olmo's the most one-dimensional character. Donald Sutherland is a frightfully compelling monster, matched by Laura Betti's depraved Lady Macbeth turn. Stefania Sandrelli's fiery schoolteacher is tragically short-lived, while Dominique Sanda transitions from vividly sensual to impenetrable melancholy.
Less impressive are Burt Lancaster and Romolo Valli, whose presence evokes The Leopard without making new impressions. Sterling Hayden proves inspired casting; his vulgar crustiness makes for a wonderful peasant. Alida Valli is a dowager victimized by Attila. Werner Brunns plays Alfredo's playboy uncle who grows progressively disgusted with him.

1900's central image has Alfredo and Olmo, first as children and later as old men, laying under an oncoming train. It's a striking metaphor for history passing them by: Alfredo as a doomed aristocrat, Olmo whose socialist dreams shatter in postwar Italy. Such is Bertolucci's achievement that this seems a fitting visual for a nation's traumatic 20th Century.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The FBI Story

J. Edgar Hoover used Hollywood to burnish his image for decades. Mervyn LeRoy's The FBI Story (1959) is the magnum opus of Bureau propaganda, a 149 minute paean to America's premier police agency. With James Stewart's help, it remolds a controversial organization into the benevolent defender of American freedom.

Chip Hardesty (James Stewart) abandons a promising law career to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. From 1924 through 1955, Hardesty becomes the FBI's top agent, battling bank robbers, fascist saboteurs, corporate crooks and the Ku Klux Klan. Hardesty suffers friction with his wife Lucy Ann (Vera Miles), who constantly nags Chip to leave the Bureau; he also mentors George Crandall (Larry Pennell), son of his slain partner (Murray Hamilton). In the '50s, Hardesty runs into America's most dastardly enemy yet: Communism.

Based on Don Whitehead's nonfiction book, The FBI Story feels like an extended TV pilot. Hardesty hunts nefarious mountebanks in self-contained episodes spanning decades, while dealing with treacly domestic issues. Lucy Ann repeatedly demands Chip quit the Bureau until she doesn't, persuaded by loyalty, her son's wartime death and a beanie that plays Yankee Doodle. She becomes a model housewife, encouraging Chip to sublimate his reservations to Hoover's holy crusade.

At their best, LeRoy and writers Richard L. Breen and John Twist provide engaging mini-procedurals. The opening vignette shows Hardesty tracking Jack Graham (Nick Adams), a real-life killer who bombed an airplane to collect on life insurance. The FBI sifts through evidence, with experts using chemical signatures and metal fragments to finger the killer. This shows the Bureau as Hoover's self-image: thorough, efficient, sophisticated crime fighters. We could almost swallow FBI Story's hagiography, if we're ignorant of Bureau history.

Hoover micromanaged the production, ensuring it painted his G-Men as squeaky clean heroes. There's no hint of Hoover's compiling dirt on media and political figures or firing agents over rumpled shirts and undue media attention. A super-agent like Hardesty was unlikely: his closest equivalent, Melvin Purvis, was sacked for stealing Hoover's spotlight. Showing the FBI battle the Klan especially sticks in one's craw, considering their later harassment of Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights leaders.
Anyone who's read Bryan Burrough's Public Enemies or seen its film adaptation knows Hoover exploited '30s bank robbers, both for media coverage and to expand Bureau powers, while ignoring organized crime. FBI Story follows the official line, staging the Kansas City Massacre, John Dillinger's ambush and Baby Face Nelson's demise in flattering fashion. The botched Little Bohemia raid is blamed on barking dogs rather than Bureau incompetence. Hoover really did arrest Alvin Karpis, but only after he'd been disarmed by other agents.

Later, Hardesty offhandedly justifies Japanese internment during WWII (oddly, considering Hoover opposed it in real life). After chasing Nazis across Argentina, Chip returns home to battle the Red Menace. Here Story descends into polemic, with Hardesty's narration damning the dastardly Commies infiltrating our institutions. At one point, Hardesty sneers that a Soviet spy won't be attending church on Sunday! Treason's bad enough, but atheism is unforgivable. At least it's not Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, which absurdly pretends Hoover hated Joe McCarthy.

James Stewart does his best to sell the propaganda through folksy charm and stentorian narration. Stewart, an avowed conservative, plugs the virtues of a benevolent, all-powerful FBI with conviction. Vera Miles is naggingly shrill, while other players are largely anonymous. Nick Adams makes a memorably shifty crook for his few scenes. Murray Hamilton, as Chip's idealistic partner, makes an impression before dying an hour into the movie.

The FBI Story's fitfully engaging but can't transcend its origins. Like any good American, Chip learns to fight crime, raise a family and trust in God, the United States and J. Edgar Hoover. If only John Dillinger, Alger Hiss and Stokely Carmichael had done likewise, America would be a better place.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Five Graves to Cairo

"We shall take that big fat cigar out of Mr. Churchill's mouth and make him say Heil!"
Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo (1943) offers a unique propaganda film. He couches a pro-Allied message in a compact thriller that relies more on storytelling than speechmaking.

Corporal John Bramble (Franchot Tone) is the sole survivor of a British tank crew. Bramble stumbles into a desert hotel owned by Farid (Akim Tamiroff) and Frenchwoman Mouche (Anne Baxter), which lies in the path of Erwin Rommel's (Erich Von Stroheim) Afrika Korps. Rommel and his staff arrive, plotting their offensive against Cairo. Bramble poses as a German agent, uncovering Rommel's war plans involving hidden arm caches.

Five Graves to Cairo opens with the arresting image of a derelict tank rattling through the desert. Wilder and Charles Brackett's script settles into a Hotel Imperial pastiche, with various self-interested parties converging on Farid's hotel. Rommel treats British prisoners chivalrously while spiting his Italian ally (Fortunato Bonanova). His humorless aide (Peter Van Eyck) fixates on Mouche, who seeks clemency for her brother, languishing in a POW camp. These rich characterization avoid the Kraut stereotypes expected from wartime propaganda.

Wilder makes effective use of the limited set, with John F. Seitz's gloomy photography heightening claustrophobia. There's an effective air raid/fight scene late in the movie, but mostly Wilder leans on tense dialogue and ingenious plotting: the "five graves" provide a deliciously clever Macguffin. Wilder hones his message by having Bramble asking Mouche to place the Allies' "million brothers" ahead of her own. This leads to a harsh ending, with Bramble's success coming at a cost. 

Franchot Tone makes a stiff lead, his expression rarely deviated from a befuddled rictus. He's bested by Anne Baxter, a haughty, pragmatic mademoiselle who takes Rommel's whip to her face without flinching. Erich Von Stroheim plays Rommel as an arrogant charmer, an evil twist on his Grand Illusion character. Peter Van Eyck plays Rommel's aide; Akim Tamiroff is uncharacteristically restrained. Only Fortunato Bonanova's opera-singing Italian skirts bad taste.

Five Graves to Cairo belongs in the upper tier of wartime war movies. Even high-end efforts like Hangmen Also Die! fall back on grotesque caricatures and stilted speechmaking. By focusing more on craft than jingoism, Wilder's film is far more palatable.