Film Review: The Black Cat (1934)

Also known as: The Vanishing Body
Release Date: May 7th, 1934
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Peter Ruric, Edgar G. Ulmer
Based on: The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe
Music by: Heinz Eric Roemheld
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, John Carradine (uncredited)

Universal Pictures, 65 Minutes

Review:

“You must be indulgent of Dr. Verdegast’s weakness. He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form. He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats.” – Hjalmar Poelzig

The Black Cat is a film that fits under the Universal Monsters banner, even if it was a one-off and not apart of their bigger series like Dracula and Frankenstein. But it does feature the stars of both those franchises: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

The film was also directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, a guy who wouldn’t reach superstardom in Hollywood but would direct some pretty notable pictures and make a few worthwhile film-noirs.

The best part about this film is it puts Lugosi and Karloff together and not as creatures or men in heavy makeup or prosthetics. They actually get to play off of each other as humans, Karloff being the mad man and Lugosi being a heroic doctor that still exudes his Count Dracula vibe.

The name of the film comes from an Edgar Allan Poe short story. Within the film, it is a reference to Lugosi’s character and his abnormal fear of cats.

Karloff plays Hjalmar Poelzig, a difficult name to pronounce. He is an Austrian architect. Once our heroes, a newlywed couple and Lugosi’s Dr. Werdegast meet on a train, they are stuck together for the rest of the film, most of which takes place at Poelzig’s lavish and futuristic looking home. In fact, the interiors resemble a film-noir set from the late 1940s. The cinematography is also similar and maybe this is what led to Ulmer directing film-noir a decade later.

The Black Cat isn’t a great film but it is a better than decent 1930s horror flick that stars the two biggest horror icons of the time. It is a pretty significant picture for films of the genre and the era.

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: It Happened One Night (1934)

Release Date: February 22nd, 1934
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Robert Riskin, Samuel Hopkins Adams
Based on: Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams
Music by: Howard Jackson, Louis Silvers
Cast: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert

Columbia Pictures, 105 Minutes

Review:

“You know, I had you pegged right from the jump. Just a spoiled brat of a rich father. The only way you get anything is to buy it, isn’t it? You’re in a jam and all you can think of is your money. It never fails, does it? Ever hear of the word humility? No, you wouldn’t. I guess it would never occur to you to just say, ‘Please mister, I’m in trouble, will you help me?’ No, that would bring you down off your high horse for a minute. Well, let me tell you something, maybe it will take a load off your mind. You don’t have to worry about me. I’m not interested in your money or your problem. You, King Westley, your father. You’re all a lot of hooey to me!” – Peter Warne

It Happened One Night is a motion picture that came out during the brief pre-Code era in Hollywood. In fact, it dodged the bullet of the Motion Picture Production Code by just a few months. Maybe that’s why this film got away with that “racy” hitchhiking scene that the film’s star Claudette Colbert thought was “unladylike”.

This film is a romantic comedy. Yeah, I’m not a big fan of the genre but some of the classics are pretty damn good and even in the modern era, one may sneak in once and awhile and surprise you (The Big Sick, for instance). It Happened One Night works really well because of the chemistry of its two leads, as well as its style of humor. Clark Gable delivers his lines like the pro he is and really gets to display his humorous side.

The story is pretty simple. A rich heiress wants to marry a guy her rich daddy doesn’t approve of so she runs off. The reporter keeps running into the girl and he promises to help her and not call her father if he gets an exclusive scoop. They end up traveling from Miami to New York together with a few wacky situations on the way. At a point, they get separated and then realize that they have fallen in love. Don’t worry, there’s always a happy ending in these old lighthearted movies.

It Happened One Night is considered a true classic by many and really, it is. There aren’t a lot of rom-coms that are worth a damn but this one exists on a level that the others do not. In fact, it is a good movie in spite of its genre. It actually shows that the rom-com thing has been poorly crafted and executed for decades, except for a few good pictures once in a blue moon. It Happened One Night is that “once in a blue moon”.

Film Review: The Girl In Lovers’ Lane (1960)

Release Date: January 1st, 1960
Directed by: Charles R. Rondeau
Written by: Jo Heims
Music by: Ronald Stein
Cast: Brett Halsey, Joyce Meadows, Lowell Brown, Jack Elam

Filmgroup, 78 Minutes

Review:

“Pa doesn’t know much about girls’ clothes.” – Carrie Anders

This movie is pretty damn horrible. However, it provided good fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000 in season five, as Joel Hodgson’s long run as the show’s host was winding down.

The Girl In Lovers’ Lane is a crime film that makes b-movie crime pictures look like big budget affairs. Even the worst of b-movie film-noir is a step up compared to this picture. Truthfully, if this was more of a noir than a low rent crime picture, it might be better.

The directing is nonexistent and the acting is about as bad as it gets. There is no real cinematography and no shots worth writing home about. It is a picture that is so basic and bland that it makes manila folders look like a trip to Six Flags.

The plot sees two drifters roll into the small town of Sherman. A girl is murdered and then a bunch of boring uneventful shit happens. It is the type of film that makes you want to smack yourself in the face with nunchucks. It is only remotely watchable as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Honestly, Joel and the ‘Bots are at least there to provide you with some good laughs, as they suffer through this dreck with you.

The Girl In Lovers’ Lane is completely forgettable. If it wasn’t for MST3K, no one today would even be aware of its sad and pathetic existence. It offers nothing worthwhile and has no redeeming qualities, whatsoever.

All that being said, it does deserve to be put through the Cinespiria Shitometer. So what we have here is a “Type 7 Stool: Watery, no solid pieces. Entirely Liquid.”

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: To Catch A Thief (1955)

Release Date: August 5th, 1955
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: John Michael Hayes
Based on: To Catch A Thief by David Dodge
Music by: Lyn Murray
Cast: Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis, John Williams, Charles Vanel, Brigitte Auber

Paramount Pictures, 106 Minutes

Review:

“For what it’s worth, I never stole from anybody who would go hungry.” – John Robie

This is a Hitchcock film that I had never seen and the best part is that I got to check it out on the big screen. It’s also no secret that I love Hitchcock, especially his films from this era. While this is a magnificent movie, it isn’t quite on the level of Rear Window, which came out a year earlier and also starred Grace Kelly. Still, it is a fine movie in every regard.

To Catch A Thief teams up Grace Kelly with Hitchcock favorite Cary Grant. Grant plays a famous retired jewel thief. As he pounces around the French Riviera, a new jewel thief appears and draws the ire of the law and the rich citizens of this old Mediterranean beach community. Grant wants to solve the mystery, as he is the prime suspect, and wants to continue on the straight and narrow path. Grace Kelly figures out who he is and we get a big mix up and a real whodunit mystery, as Grant races to uncover the truth behind the robberies.

While Hitchcock was a master of mise-en-scène, especially in his use of color, this is one of his more vivid looking pictures. The use of greens and the colorful flair was well executed. Hitchcock and his cinematographer Robert Burks outdid themselves in creating and capturing the majestic allure of the French Riviera. The fireworks scene is especially captivating.

The chemistry between Grant and Kelly was uncanny. Kelly is always pretty close to perfect in her work with Hitchcock and Grant was always a top notch Hollywood star that brought his charm, wit and gravitas to every role he played. The rest of the cast was also a lot of fun and had a good camaraderie with Grant and Kelly, especially Kelly’s mother, played by Jessie Royce Landis. I absolutely loved Landis in this picture.

The pace of the film is a bit shaky though. It moves along swiftly for the most part but there are a few areas in the film where it feels like the narrative is put on hold or stagnates. When you get to the end however, you realize the importance of some of these scenes. But the film does employ a lot of misdirection, which was done pretty effectively.

Compared to Hitchcock’s other work from this era, To Catch A Thief is a lightweight. It doesn’t cast a heavy and ominous shadow over the proceedings but that’s kind of what’s cool about it. The film is certainly one of Hitchcock’s funnest outings. At its core, it is a quirky romantic adventure filled with mystery and the geographical beauty of a James Bond picture. Ultimately, it is a fun and exciting movie with a lot of attractive things to be swept away by.

Film Review: Fallen Angel (1945)

Release Date: October 26th, 1945
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Harry Kleiner, Marty Holland
Music by: David Raksin
Cast: Alice Faye, Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, Charles Bickford, Anne Revere, Bruce Cabot, John Carradine, Percy Kilbride

20th Century Fox, 98 Minutes

Review:

“Then love alone can make the fallen angel rise. For only two together can enter Paradise.” – June Mills, quoting a book

Fallen Angel is another film-noir that re-teams Dana Andrews with director Otto Preminger. While it isn’t quite the picture that Laura was, it is still a much better than decent noir outing that greatly benefits from the inclusion of Linda Darnell and Alice Faye. John Carradine even makes an appearance as a famous fortune teller.

The plot of this one is pretty interesting but not too different from a typical noir scenario, except it does have a fairly happy ending.

Dana Andrews plays Eric Stanton, a drifter with bad luck that gets stranded in Walton, CA because he doesn’t have the bus fare to make it all the way to San Francisco. In a diner in Walton, Stanton falls in love with the waitress Stella (Darnell), as does every man that sees her. Trying to win her over and marry her, as the movie rolls on, Stanton works his cunning and attracts the wealthy June (Faye). He leads June to believe that he loves her and the two are quickly married. Stanton plans on ending the marriage and taking half of her fortune, so that he can impress and marry Stella. Of course, as these things go, there are twists and turns and some surprises.

Otto Preminger got the very best out of his actors, even if he was sometimes cruel to Linda Darnell. Somehow, his cruelty got great performances out of her and even though she legitimately feared the man, the two worked together on several pictures for the sake of their art and creating magic together. I can imagine that it was probably very similar to how Stanley Kubrick would work Shelley Duvall into a manic frenzy in order to get real reactions out of her in The Shining.

Fallen Angel feels a bit confined, at times, with tight and cozy sets but it adds to the film tonally. Even when the characters are outside, like the scenes with the beach in the background, things are always dreary and somber. As the picture moves on, the tale gets very dark but it is a noir where there is actually a light at the end of the tunnel and the despicable main character actually finds his right place in the world and becomes somewhat heroic. The ending feels as if the tight confining grip has now released itself over these characters and the world they were living in.

Preminger did a fine job managing the narrative and the style of the picture, which greatly enhanced the film as a whole and worked in a truly symbiotic way.