Film Review: I Walked With A Zombie (1943)

Release Date: April 21st, 1943 (New York City)
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray
Based on: I Walked With A Zombie by Inez Wallace
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway

RKO Radio Pictures, 69 Minutes

Review:

“I thought voodoo was something everyone was frightened of?” – Betsy Connell, “I’m afraid it’s not very frightening. They sing and dance and carry on. And then, as I understand it, one of the gods comes down and speaks through one of the people.” – Paul Holland

Hollywood producer Val Lewton had a pretty good stint at RKO, a studio that was instrumental in the development of film-noir. After Citizen Kane proved to be a financial dud for them, at least initially, RKO wanted to have a branch that focused on B-movies in the same way that Universal had done with their hugely successful monster franchises.

In came Lewton, a man that created some great horror pictures for RKO but unlike Universal, Lewton’s were more adult and more serious films. They were initially just viewed as B-horror pictures in the same vein as Universal’s work but over the years, the Lewton produced horror films at RKO started to get the recognition they deserve as something greater than just makeup and fur slapped on Lon Chaney Jr.

I Walked With A Zombie is the film that Lewton supposedly loved the most out of his horror work for RKO. The quality of this picture also has a lot to do with Lewton picking the right men for the job.

Jacques Tourneur was selected as the director and he did a few other pictures with Lewton for RKO: The Cat People and The Leopard Man, both of which were also really solid films. He would go on to do the film-noir classic Out of the Past and get back into horror with the underrated Night of the Demon and a couple Vincent Price pictures in the 1960s for American International.

The script was penned by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray. Siodmak had already written a bunch of scripts that got turned into monster movies by Universal. So Lewton grabbing him was probably a good way to try and emulate Universal’s success for RKO. Plus, Siodmak could write more mature horror features that were smarter than his work in the Universal Monsters franchise.

I Walked With A Zombie is a pretty great film for what it is. It has a sort of film-noir visual allure to it while being in a lush Caribbean setting. Also, it is a zombie movie, albeit not of the modern style, this is a subtle suspense thriller that has voodoo zombies (my favorite kind of zombie, actually) and is more of a tale about the religious island culture of the West Indies.

This is a rather short film but that was the norm with these Lewton produced horror flicks. Regardless, the story is solid, well paced and the actors do a good job with the material. Frances Dee feels like a real person in a real situation in a time when acting tended to be overly dramatic, especially in the horror genre.

I like this film a lot and it was cool discovering it now, as I got to see it without nostalgia playing a factor. Lewton, Tourneur and Siodmak turned out a very good picture that unfortunately, not a lot of people know about. But that’s probably because it doesn’t feature famous monsters and it isn’t overtly horror, despite the catchy title.

Film Review: Prince of Foxes (1949)

Release Date: December 23rd, 1949
Directed by: Henry King
Written by: Milton Krims
Based on: Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger
Music by: Alfred Newman
Cast: Tyrone Power, Orson Welles

20th Century Fox, 107 Minutes

Review:

“It is my belief that everything, even death, can be turned into profit.” – Cesare Borgia

Prince of Foxes re-teams director Henry King with his swashbuckling star Tyrone Power. It also adds Orson Welles to the mix as the famous tyrant Cesare Borgia. The fact that I get to see two of my favorite actors play off of each other, is the real treat of this film.

While the poster and the subject matter may make you think that this is a big swashbuckler (albeit in Renaissance Italy), there is very little swordplay and it is more of a historical war drama with a bit of romance and some swashbuckling elements just lightly sprinkled in.

Orson Welles is the perfect Cesare Borgia. While I didn’t live in 1500 and can’t compare the two men, Welles’ personification greatly embodies the spirit of what Borgia was, historically speaking. The power, the boldness, the heartlessness and the ability to conquer for the sake of ego and wealth. Orson Welles captures this and adds in his own cool and eloquent qualities. He also looks like a Renaissance era Sith lord.

Tyrone Power walks into the film with a smile and unrelenting charm but that is why he was a favorite to star in these sort of pictures. His acting chops and masculine presence are strong enough to stand in front of Welles’ Borgia and to hold his ground. While Welles typically outshines most, Power doesn’t lose his presence in the picture and it is still very much his movie.

The film, where possible, made use of accurate locations and historical structures in an effort to make Prince of Foxes as authentic as possible. The world truly feels real and lived in. It doesn’t feel as if these men are just on some Hollywood back lot or in a studio.

The cinematography is lush and lively, even for a black and white picture that came out in the film-noir 40s. The costumes are perfect, the sets are finely ornamented and the attention to detail is pretty astounding. The sound is also pristine, which must have been a challenge with the on location shooting.

Prince of Foxes is neither my favorite Tyrone Power or Orson Welles picture. However, it was still a film of high quality that brought these two giants together. It kind of holds a special place for me because of that. And I’ve always loved tales of the infamous Borgia family.

Film Review: Detour (1945)

Release Date: November 15th, 1945 (Boston premiere)
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Martin Goldsmith
Based on: Detour: An Extraordinary Tale by Martin Goldsmith
Music by: Leo Erdody
Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage

Producers Releasing Corporation, 68 Minutes

Review:

“Money. You know what that is, the stuff you never have enough of. Little green things with George Washington’s picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for. It’s the stuff that has caused more trouble in the world than anything else we ever invented, simply because there’s too little of it.” – Al Roberts

Historically speaking, this is mostly an unknown film. To fans of film-noir, however, it holds a special place among the great noir pictures of the 1940s.

On its surface, it is a b-movie. It wasn’t made by a major studio and was one of countless noir style pictures that were being churned out like ice cream cones at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

However, with so many of these movies being made, one of these b-pictures had to stand out. Granted, it isn’t the only b-movie noir to make some sort of impact but it is one of the most beloved by noir experts.

I never saw this picture. Reading about it in several places made me want to check it out and I’m glad that I did. Detour is an exceptional movie and a lot better than it should have been but the studios on “Poverty Row” had to fight hard to compete with the big studio system in Hollywood.

The script was really good but it was also adapted by the guy who wrote the novel that the film was based on. It’s an interesting story, well executed and a lot of the credit also has to go to the performances of Tom Neal and Ann Savage. They weren’t Oscar caliber performances but the two leads had a chemistry and Savage was dedicated in her commitment to the role of the unlikable and brutal Vera.

The film also makes the most out of very little and shows that ingenuity and heart can go a long way. I’m not sure if Edgar G. Ulmer, the director, intended to make something this good with the limitations of the production but he succeeded. He had experience in producing quality pictures though, as he did a pretty good job eleven years earlier at Universal with The Black Cat, a horror film starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and an uncredited John Carradine.

This is a relatively short movie but it tells its story and is quickly paced. The only real negative, is that you don’t seem to have enough invested in Tom Neal’s Al Roberts to care too much about his fate, even though he is an innocent guy that just stumbled into a bad situation.

Detour is still impressive. For fans of film-noir, it should be seen, as it is quite possibly the best of the b-movie noirs of the era and it stands above a lot of the films the major studios were putting out.

Film Review: The Corpse Vanishes (1942)

Release Date: May 8th, 1942
Directed by: Wallace Fox
Written by: Harvey Gates, Sam Robins, Gerald Schnitzer
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Luana Walters, Tristram Coffin, Minerva Urecal, Elizabeth Russell

Banner Productions, Monogram Pictures, 64 Minutes

Review:

“You should forget all that silly nonsense about those brides dropping dead.” – Alice Wentworth

Bela Lugosi fell on troubled times as he got out of the 1930s, which was the height of his career following 1931’s Dracula. By 1942, he was mostly relegated to making schlock. He tried to work as much as possible but even just a decade later, his Dracula had become sort of a caricature.

The Corpse Vanishes is one of his better known B-movies but that doesn’t mean it’s good. It is a film that would go on to be lampooned in the first season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and for several very good reasons.

The plot is awful, the script is worse and the acting is pretty horrendous. Even Lugosi couldn’t carry this picture and by this point, Lugosi always played Lugosi and was pretty one-dimensional. He was simply dialing it in, as were the crew and the other actors.

Lugosi plays the evil Dr. Lorenz, a mad scientist that sends a peculiar orchid to young women on their wedding day. The orchid has an effect that causes these women to drop dead at the altar. In reality, he is putting them into a form of suspended animation. He goes on to rob the “corpses” of the brides before burial and takes them to his evil lab.

While not too far outside of the box of what were normal plots for these sort of films, the premise is still pretty ridiculous.

The Corpse Vanishes is a disaster and it is sad to see how far Lugosi has fallen in a decade. Where Boris Karloff seemed to continue to get quality roles all the way up until his death in the 1960s, Lugosi wasn’t so lucky. But at the same time, Karloff was just a lot more versatile as an actor.

Out of respect for Lugosi, I’ll refrain from running this through the Cinespiria Shitometer.

Film Review: They Live by Night (1948)

Release Date: August, 1948 (London)
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
Written by: Charles Schnee, Nicholas Ray
Based on: Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson
Music by: Leigh Harline
Cast: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva

RKO Radio Pictures, 95 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll take steps a block long. Anyone gets in my way, I’ll stomp ’em!” – Chickamaw

While They Live by Night isn’t my favorite Nicholas Ray picture, it was the start of his career and was a much better film than most director’s first efforts.

The film is also a sort of prototype to Bonnie and Clyde, not officially, but it shares a very similar narrative about two lovers on the run from the law. However, the original novel could have been inspired by the real life Bonnie and Clyde, who met their demise in 1934, just three years before the novel Thieves Like Us was published.

The story starts with some prison escapees fleeing towards freedom in 1930s Mississippi. The men decided to rob a bank. One of them, a young man named Bowie, was wrongfully convicted of murder and feels that he can use the money from the bank heist to pay for a lawyer that can prove his innocence.

Things go sideways, Bowie is hurt and finds refuge with the daughter of a gas station owner. The two fall in love and plan to live an honest life away from all the crime and violence. Keechie, the girl, gets pregnant but at the same time, the two men from Bowie’s gang return, demanding his help. Of course, things go sideways again.

The film was well shot and very well directed and it even featured some innovations. For instance, the helicopter shot during the opening credits was pretty unique for 1948 and it kicked this film off with a lot of energy. Also, being a mostly noir picture, it leaves behind the genre’s typical tight interior sets and spends a good amount of time in the wide open spaces of the rural Mid-South, the same geographical region where Bonnie and Clyde committed their robbery spree. They Live by Night is a wide open picture compared to most of the films like it.

The starring duo of Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger were pretty much newcomers to the big screen but they held their own and their love for one another seemed genuine. O’Donnell was especially good and you feel nothing but sadness for her, as she is thrown into a heartbreaking and perilous situation.

They Live by Night is a very well made motion picture. There isn’t a whole lot that you can say about it that could be negative. It has a good director, nice cinematography, treads some original ground and has good acting. If you like Bonnie and Clyde, you’ll probably enjoy this too. Nicholas Ray would go on to make some better movies but this one still holds a special place.

Film Review: Framed (1947)

Also known as: They Walk Alone (working title)
Release Date: March 7th, 1947
Directed by: Richard Wallace
Written by: Ben Maddow, John Patrick
Music by: Marlin Skiles, Arthur Morton
Cast: Glenn Ford, Janis Carter, Barry Sullivan

Columbia Pictures, 82 Minutes

Review:

Glenn Ford is one of those old actors that I like a lot but haven’t spent enough time working my way through his work. He was on the television a lot when I was a kid in the 80s, as my mum pretty much had AMC on all the time and back then, it stood for American Movie Classics and showed nothing but actual American movie classics. Ford starred in a lot of these films.

Working my way through a lot of film-noir, as of late, I wanted to give Framed a watch. Plus, it was available on YouTube for free, as many of these old school noir pictures are.

Framed also stars Janis Carter, a woman who did not get a lot of high profile roles but was probably more deserving of them than a lot of the ladies that got to the heights of Hollywood. She was impressive as hell in this and it showed that her best work would come. Unfortunately, she only stuck around in pictures for five more years before finishing her career in some German language films.

Ford plays Mike Lambert, a mining engineer that takes a temporary truck job but finds himself in trouble as his brakes fail. He goes barreling into a small town but miraculously doesn’t hurt anyone and only slightly damages the truck. Lambert is then arrested for reckless driving but his $50 bail is paid for by the lovely barmaid, Paula Craig (Carter). The reason Paula intervened is because Lambert has the same height and build as her boyfriend Steve Price, played by Barry Sullivan. The plan is to kill Lambert and make the body look as if it was Price, faking his death so that the two can get away with the $250,000 that Steve embezzled from his bank job.

Janis Carter plays the typical wicked femme fatale with plans of her own and a sugary eye on the new man in town that has come into her life. We get the typical plot twists and deception and never really know where this thing is going until the end. Carter did a fine job in this role and she sort of takes over the picture when she’s present, which is what a femme fatale should do.

Glenn Ford and Barry Sullivan both carried their own but Carter was the highlight of the film for me.

Framed is far from a perfect film-noir but it works really well. The characters are interesting enough, the situation isn’t wholly original but it keeps you engaged and everyone does a good job of giving this picture some life. Plus, it is a short movie that speeds by quite quickly.

Film Review: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Also known as: The Gent From Frisco, The Knight of Malta (both were working titles)
Release Date: October 3rd, 1941 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: John Huston
Written by: John Huston
Based on: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Music by: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr.

Warner Bros., 101 Minutes

Review:

“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” – Sam Spade

I remember seeing the poster for The Maltese Falcon in a Hardee’s fast food restaurant near my house when I was a young kid. It was on a wall that was also decorated with posters from The African QueenCasablanca, Key Largo, The Big Sleep and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Whoever the franchise owner was, they must have been a big Bogart fan. Something about that Maltese Falcon poster just grabbed me though. I wouldn’t see the film until years later but I always remember eating breakfast in a dining room surrounded by Bogart’s manly mug.

As I got older, I too became a big fan of Humphrey Bogart. In fact, he is my favorite big wig actor alongside Orson Welles. The Maltese Falcon was also a film that drew me in and lived up to the hype of this poster that had a profound effect on me, as a kid just discovering his love of motion pictures.

The film features another actor I am a huge fan of, Peter Lorre. Seeing Bogart and Lorre together was a treat. While I was a fan of Lorre due to his later horror pictures, where he was often times playing opposite of Vincent Price, Boris Karloff or Basil Rathbone, seeing his work when he was younger, is still a lot of fun and he holds his own among the heavyweights.

The acting in this is some of the best put to celluloid but that is just about every Bogart picture. The guy just had an uncanny and almost magical way in which he commanded the audience’s attention and transcended the screen. With Lorre, their scenes in particular are some of the best in Bogart’s legendary career. Mary Astor, Gladys George and Sydney Greenstreet also add a certain level of quality to the picture. Elisha Cook Jr. also showed up with his best foot forward.

Most film-noir experts credit this picture for giving birth to this genre that no one realized was a genre for a few decades. It is distinctly noir in its twists and turns and its femme fatale. It uses a high contrast visual style, similar to what was seen in German Expressionist pictures of the 1920s. But there is just something pristine about this movie’s visual presentation. It has a silvery and majestic allure.

At the time of The Maltese Falcon‘s release, quality mystery films were most associated with British directors like Alfred Hitchcok and Carol Reed. This proved that Hollywood could hang with the genre and as was stated in the last paragraph, this was a film that birthed a storytelling and stylistic movement in American motion pictures.

Coming out the same year as Citizen Kane, these two films redefined how filmmaking techniques could evolve. Pictures would become more artistic and less straightforward. John Huston, like Orson Welles, gave the world something unique and new.

The Maltese Falcon is a near perfect picture. It falls short of Citizen Kane when looking at the best pictures of 1941 but in any other year, this could easily be the best film. It boasts technical prowess, dynamite acting and as cool as Bogart was, he was never as cool as he was here, as Sam Spade.