Film Review: The Mad Monster (1942)

Release Date: May 8th, 1942 (premiere)
Directed by: Sam Newfield
Written by: Fred Myton
Music by: David Chudnow
Cast: Johnny Downs, George Zucco, Anne Nagel, Reginald Barlow

Producers Releasing Corporation, 77 Minutes

Review:

“Gentlemen, I wish you were here to see the proof of my claim that the transfusion of blood between different species is possible. Perhaps you will change your mind one day soon when Petro tears at your throat.” – Dr. Lorenzo Cameron

More often than not a studio from Poverty Row would remind the world why they were a studio on Poverty Row. It’s not to say that they were incapable of quality, they made some good stuff now and again, but when you don’t have the finances or the nice studio to compete with the big dogs in the old Hollywood era, every project was an attempt to make chicken salad with chicken shit.

The Mad Monster looks and feels like a Poverty Row film. It’s poorly filmed with bad sound, bad camera work, bad acting and a script that didn’t need refinement, it just needed to be thrown out.

I’d imagine that this gem of awfulness would have been completely forgotten by this point, had it not been featured in the first nationally televised season of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Because of that, it found new life and will always exist, as that show’s die hard fans won’t let anything die.

It should go without saying that the effects are terrible, the acting is dog shit and the monster is cheesier than a Philly steak sandwich buried under Velveeta nachos. But there is an endearing quality to it because of those things.

Sadly, the film is pretty damn boring for the most part and relies on the same small swamp set over and over. The film feels confined, cheap and barely has any redeeming qualities other than the fact that a monster was created by a transfusion of a dog’s blood into a man’s body.

So as is customary with movies like this, I have to run it through the Cinespiria Shitometer. The results read, “Type 3 Stool: Like a sausage but with cracks on its surface.”

Rating: 2.25/10
Pairs well with: The Monster MakerThe Corpse Vanishes and The Vampire Bat

Film Review: The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Also known as: Amy and Her Friend (working title)
Release Date: March 3rd, 1944 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise, Gunther von Fritsch
Written by: DeWitt Bodeen, Val Lewton (uncredited)
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Ann Carter, Eve March

RKO Radio Pictures, 70 Minutes

Review:

“Children love to dream things up.” – Miss Callahan

This motion picture has the strange distinction of being a non-horror sequel to a horror film.

The Curse of the Cat People is a followup to the 1942 film Cat People. Where the original was a story about a woman who was a werecat, this one is about her spirit becoming best friends with a little girl. This really has nothing to do with cats or werecats. Although, there is a black cat briefly in a scene.

This was one of the films produced by Val Lewton when he was making horror pictures for RKO in an effort to capitalize off of the low budget horror films that Universal had great success with. This could have been its own movie without the Cat People element even added in but I guess it served its marketing purpose, which was to piggyback off of the previous film’s success for RKO.

Simone Simon, the werecat from the first film, returns to play the ghost of her character. Her ex-husband, played by Kent Smith, is also in this. So there is an actual character link to the previous film.

Amy, a little girl, has a hard time connecting to other kids socially and is sort of an outcast. She also has a vivid imagination. When Simone Simon’s Irena appears to befriend the girl, no one wants to believe Amy.

Like other Lewton produced features for RKO, this one has beautiful cinematography and a sort of enchanting allure. It is a magical picture and you do get wrapped up in the proceedings, even though they are very simplistic and straightforward.

Ann Carter, who plays the young Amy, was very good in this and proved to be a child actor with much more skill than most of the kids of that era. She had to carry the picture and she did a fine job. She was lovable, sweet and sad. But she wasn’t chirpy, didn’t over-act and felt right at home alongside a cast of adults.

The film was directed by Robert Wise, who did several horror pictures for RKO, as well as the great boxing noir The Set-Up, the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still and dozens of other movies.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Other Val Lewton produced films for RKO: Cat PeopleI Walked With a ZombieThe Leopard ManThe Seventh VictimThe Ghost ShipThe Body SnatcherIsle of the Dead and Bedlam.

Film Review: Stranger On the Third Floor (1940)

Release Date: August 16th, 1940
Directed by: Boris Ingster
Written by: Frank Partos, Nathanael West (uncredited)
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Charles Waldron, Elisha Cook Jr.

RKO Radio Pictures, 62 Minutes, 67 Minutes (longer cut)

Review:

“I want a couple of hamburgers… and I’d like them raw.” – The Stranger

Stranger On the Third Floor is a film-noir released a year before the experts say that the genre/style began. The Maltese Falcon is widely considered the first, even though it isn’t. But like that film, this one also features the remarkable Peter Lorre.

Maybe Stranger On the Third Floor isn’t considered “the first” noir because it came and went without making much of a bang. It was a low budget, short, crime drama that didn’t boast any big stars. Lorre certainly wasn’t the legend he would become and even though it did have Elisha Cook Jr., who also appeared a year later in The Maltese Falcon, he was never more than a character actor that popped up in mostly limited roles.

Stranger On the Third Floor has come to garner some respect and admiration over the years, however. Once film-noir was sort of defined and the date of its genesis was given to 1941, many film aficionados wanted to go back and look for the films that influenced the style. Sort of proto-noir pictures, if you want to call them that. Funny that Lorre was at the forefront of two of these proto-noirs: this film and 1931’s German masterpiece M. I guess his film with Hitchcock, 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, also shares some similarities to the style.

There are two really strong things about this picture.

The first is Peter Lorre’s performance. Sure, it’s similar to his other early roles and almost the same as his character from M, well not the child killer part, but the killer part, along with the mannerisms, the predatory movements and his icy glare. Lorre isn’t an actor that needs to say much of anything, he conveys things through his eyes and his body language that is as expressive as the greatest silent film era stars. That moment where Lorre opens the apartment door and slithers out like a reptile is chilling to the bone, even 78 years later.

The second is the cinematography. The lighting and the camera work are both exceptional. The film uses a lot of shadow in the same vein as the look of darker German Expressionist films. Although, the rest of the visuals aren’t all that surreal. But the high contrast chiaroscuro look gives the picture a haunting quality and it seems to most come alive in the scenes surrounding Lorre’s character, as the rest of the film looks pretty standard where he isn’t present. Well, except for that execution dream sequence that is a combination of surrealism, Expressionism and minimalist set design: all used to great effect.

The finale of the film plays more like a horror picture in how Lorre carries himself, how the film builds tension and dread, as well as those final moments before the killer meets his demise and that last line he delivers. In a way, the film shows a sort of link between Expressionism, horror and noir.

Stranger On the Third Floor is a unique motion picture that was more trendsetting than its lack of initial success would have you believe. Even if it didn’t inspire most noir directors of the era, it featured a lot of people, behind the scenes, that would go on to create the worlds of more notable film-noirs.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Other film-noir-esque movies with Peter Lorre: MThe Maltese FalconThe Man Who Knew Too MuchThree StrangersBlack Angel and Quicksand.

Film Review: The Naked City (1948)

Also known as: Homicide (working title)
Release Date: March 4th, 1948
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Albert Maltz, Malvin Wald
Music by: Miklós Rózsa, Frank Skinner
Cast: Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor

Mark Hellinger Productions, Universal Pictures, 96 Minutes

Review:

“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” – Narrator

The Naked City is a really important film in history for how it popularized the police procedural story in fiction. It’s not the first but it is the most popular of the procedural films at the time. The genre style was alive in the literature of the time but it hadn’t quite taken off in film before this picture. Plus, this sort of marries the police procedural drama with film-noir.

Directed by noir giant Jules Dassin, who was also behind the camera on Brute ForceThieves’ HighwayNight and the City and Rififi, this is probably his best known picture. In fact, it’s popularity spun off into a television series. It even went on to inspire some DLC content for the 2011 video game L.A. Noire, seven decades later.

The movie is partially told in a semidocumentary style, similar to noir pictures like T-Men and He Walked by Night. This helped with the police procedural narrative and kept things feeling pretty authenitc and real, well as authentic and real as a Hollywood picture could be at that time.

In this film, we follow around a veteran cop and a young cop, as they try and solve the murder of a young model. We go through all their procedures and see how they use their intuition, science and detective skills to catch the killer.

While this is probably the most highly regarded of Dassin’s films, it’s not my favorite. I actually prefer Brute Force and Night and the City more. I also think that Thieves’ Highway is on par with this, if not slightly better because of how good the performances were. The Naked City is still darn good, however.

The cinematography is exceptional, especially in regards to how New York City was shot. I was really impressed with the scene where the two men ride the construction elevator up the side of a building, as the backdrop of the city behind them drops. There is a lot of energy just from how certain things in this film were captured when it would have been much easier for Dassin and his cinematographer, William H. Daniels, to have shot things much simpler or on closed sets. They really brought New York City alive, though. In the end, they won the Academy Award for Black and White Cinematography.

The Naked City is a pivotal film in history because it popularized a narrative style that might even be at its strongest now, in the 2010s. How many procedural cop shows are there now? Many of them have been on for over a decade and had spin-offs and spin-offs of their spin-offs.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: Other Dassin film-noirs: Brute ForceNight and the City, Thieves’ Highway, etc. Also T-Men and He Walked by Night.

Film Review: Black Narcissus (1947)

Release Date: April 24th, 1947 (London premiere)
Directed by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Written by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Based on: Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden
Music by: Brian Easdale
Cast: Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, David Farrar, Flora Robson, Sabu, Jean Simmons

General Film Distributors, Universal-International, 100 Minutes

Review:

“Remember, the superior of all is the servant of all.” – Mother Dorothea

I’ve heard about Black Narcissus throughout the years, as it was a milestone film in cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s career. He won an Academy Award for this film, as did Art Director Alfred Junge, who was another guy at the top of his game when this was made.

The film is a magnificent piece of moving and living art. Cardiff’s cinematography is absolutely incredible in this film but it goes hand in hand with Junge’s attention to detail, style and the world he helped craft in order for Cardiff to capture real magic. From a visual standpoint, this movie is a prefect example of how two artists, deeply and genuinely on the same page, occupying the same space, can plant a seed that blossoms into a mesmerizing and perfect flower.

Black Narcissus, is hands down, one of the best looking films I have ever seen.

The rest of the film is pretty good but the look of this world that everyone is acting in, overshadows the rest of the picture. Not to say that the acting or the story were bad, they were much better than decent and the subject matter was very interesting but I just couldn’t stop myself from getting lost in the enticing and magnetic allure of the glamorous environment.

The story deals with a group of young Anglican nuns who open up a school and hospital in the Himalayas, close to Darjeeling. They are confronted with an unfamiliar culture and have to deal with the feeling of extreme isolation. This isolation leads to major challenges and tests for the nuns. One nun succumbs to the sexual sensuality she feels for a local British man, which then leads to a severe nervous breakdown.

The highlight of the film from an acting standpoint, at least for me, was seeing Indian actor Sabu in a role where he is older than what I’m familiar with. Growing up, I was a fan of his childhood films Jungle BookElephant BoyArabian Nights and The Thief of Bagdad. All old school classics that my grandma always had in rotation on her television when I was young.

Black Narcissus is a film that fans of art direction and cinematography have to at least see once in their lives. I’m sure it is something I will revisit again, just because the visuals are one of my favorite things about motion pictures. The matte paintings alone are incredible. It is amazing what top craftsman could accomplish, more than half a century before CGI became the norm.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Other films where the cinematography is handled by Jack Cardiff, most notably The Red Shoes and Stairway to Heaven.

Film Review: The Strange Woman (1946)

Release Date: October 25th, 1946
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Hunt Stromberg, Edgar G. Ulmer, Herb Meadow
Based on: The Strange Woman by Ben Ames Williams
Music by: Carmen Dragon
Cast: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward, Alan Napier

Hunt Stromberg Productions, Mars Film Corporation, United Artists, 100 Minutes

Review:

“[Giving a sermon, quoting from Proverbs 5:3] The lips of a strange woman drip honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil… But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword!” – Lincoln Pittridge

I’ve really come to enjoy Edgar G. Ulmer as a director. As I’ve been watching a lot of film-noir, in recent months, I was thoroughly impressed with his film Detour and also really enjoyed his earlier pictures The Black Cat and People On Sunday, which was a collaboration with other German and Austrian born noir directors, Robert Siodmak and Billy Wilder. Also being a fan of Hedy Lamarr, as an actress and a person, I had to give this film a shot.

It also stars George Sanders and Alan Napier has a small role in it too.

While this does fall into the realm of film-noir, it is very much a character study that showcases the bizarre behavior and traits of Hedy Lamarr’s Jenny Hager, a conflicted and complex woman who at first seems mean, selfish and irrational but you see her portrayed in such an honest and intimate light that you get the feeling that she isn’t always in control of her actions, as if some uncontrollable force is driving her. Nowadays, we call this stuff “mental illness”.

The film and the character of Jenny work so well because of how damn good Hedy Lamarr was in this role. She humanized a person that could have easily just been a monster or a one-dimensional femme fatale. Despite her wickedness, you feel something for her and like George Sanders’ John Evered, you want to help her. It’s easy to see why the men in the film get so wrapped up in her despite her natural beauty. I really need to work my way through Lamarr’s work again but this is my favorite performance she ever gave us.

Ulmer had a talent for taking something as common as a noir picture and giving it a little something extra. Detour was a harsh and high octane noir that is unique and exceptional. This film sort of does the same thing but it is less “in your face” about it. It’s got this underlying darkness that you don’t quite understand until the narrative evolves into something more personal and complex. But where Detour is like a wrestler in a no holds barred cage match to the death, The Strange Woman is more like a pretty girl that gives you a kiss but you don’t know you’ve been poisoned by her until its too late. Both are rough and brutal but in very different ways. Regardless, the end result is still pretty effective and final.

The Strange Woman isn’t the best film-noir and I do like Ulmer’s Detour more but it is still an intimate experience and a wild ride through a crazy woman’s mind. It’s well shot, stupendously acted and offers up something more than a typical noir picture.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Other Hedy Lamarr film-noirs, most notably Dishonored Lady.

Film Review: Act of Violence (1949)

Release Date: January 22nd, 1949 (New York City)
Directed by: Fred Zinnemann
Written by: Collier Young, Robert L. Richards
Music by: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Mary Astor, Phyllis Thaxter

Loew’s Inc., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 82 Minutes

Review:

“Sure, I was in the hospital, but I didn’t go crazy. I kept myself sane. You know how? I kept saying to myself: Joe, you’re the only one alive that knows what he did. You’re the one that’s got to find him, Joe. I kept remembering. I kept thinking back to that prison camp. One of them lasted to the morning. By then, you couldn’t tell his voice belonged to a man. He sounded like a dog that got hit by a truck and left him in the street.” – Joe Parkson

The more I watch of Van Heflin, the more he becomes one of my all-time favorite actors. The first few times I saw him, I wasn’t too keen on the roles he had. He always seemed to be a sort of scuzzy character. But since my first few experiences, I’ve seen him play a whole myriad of character types and he just lures me in. Act of Violence is one of my favorite performances I’ve seen of his. And really, I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh here, as well.

In this noir tale, we see ex-POW Frank Enley (Heflin) being honored as a war hero. At home, he is just a young family man just trying to live a normal life. However, a strange character (Ryan) starts showing up and pursuing him. The mysterious man even tries to murder Enley while he is fishing on a lake. Enley gets wind of something awry and is pretty sure he’s in trouble. A car starts stalking Enley and his wife (Leigh) by parking in front of their house. As the tale progresses, we learn that there is something dark that Enley is hiding and maybe this mysterious stranger isn’t actually the bad guy.

This is a simple and straightforward noir without a lot of extra twists and turns. The story has some layers to it but not so much that it is difficult to recall all the details as more present themselves. Some classic noir pictures got bogged down in swerves and overly elaborate details, Act of Violence is actually refreshing in that it does not.

Ultimately, this is a film about a cowardly man redeeming himself through a last act of heroism. You think its a basic revenge story but it isn’t, it’s deeper and more genuine than that.

Van Heflin and Robert Ryan were great opposites in this and both men also had great exchanges with Janet Leigh. The acting is very good for all the main parties involved.

Act of Violence is a better movie than I expected it to be. The scene on the lake was suspenseful and actually pretty breathtaking from a visual standpoint. It is a good mixture of nice cinematography, a good story and talented actors.