Film review: The Shock (1923)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Lambert Hillyer. Writer: Charles Kenyon , based on a story by William Dudley Pelley. Starring: Lon Chaney, Virginia Valli, Jack Mower, William Welsh, Christine Mayo, Henry A. Barrows.

This review contains spoilers.

Crippled crook Wilse Dilling (Chaney) is sent by crime queen Ann Cardington (Mayo) to a small town to supervise her revenge plans against a banker (Welsh) who once put her in jail. Dilling balks at those plans when he falls in love with the banker’s daughter Gertrude (Valli).

This is not a horror film, and although Chaney plays his part on crutches and in a wheelchair, he uses his own face rather than one of his elaborate makeups, so The Shock isn’t perhaps what one expects from a Chaney movie of this title. No harm done, however, because it’s a highly entertaining crime melodrama with a truly epic finale.

We’re told at the beginning that Dilling is regarded as a dangerous criminal, but we’re never told in which way, since all we see him do is have a drink and a cigarette. Then we cut to him having already acclimatized to life in the small town, where he has become a friendly, smiling neighbour having tea with good Christian Gertrude. There is deep pathos, of course, since this is a Lon Chaney character: he is sad about his more or less useless legs, all the more so for being in love with Gertrude, who is engaged to a scamp of the first water, Jack Cooper (Mower).

Chaney’s performance is varied and rich, hitting each emotional note splendidly, but the scene where he swears to stand by Cooper if he treats Gertrude right and to go after him if he hurts her, promises things the script doesn’t deliver on – it does indeed imply that Dilling can be very dangerous when crossed, but the way things transpire he then shows himself to be one of the most ineffectual movie heroes I’ve seen. When he tries to save Gertrude’s father from Ann Cardington’s vengeance, he gets knocked out and the father instead saves himself. Instead of defusing the dynamite involved in this situation, Dilling makes good his escape, so that Gertrude instead gets injured in the blast. And then, when Cardington decides to get her revenge through Gertrude instead, Dilling’s failure to save her should be put to music under the title “Fiasco in Three Stages”.

Luckily for him and his bumbling, the climax is set in San Francisco in 1906, so just when all seems lost a massive earthquake comes to his assistance and sorts the good guys from the bad guys. These scenes (the titular “shock”, one assumes) are spectacular and suitably chaotic, using superb special effects, sets and miniatures to present the sheer scale of the disaster. It’s a grand finale quite in line with the melodramatics that have gone on before it.

The Shock is decently well structured and has a vigorous plot. The earthquake is not foreshadowed in any way (we’re not even told in which year the film is set) and is of course too convenient a Deus ex machina device, but it does work thematically and is impressive, so why grumble? One could wish that Dilling had at least almost accomplished something resembling a partial result, as a reward for all his struggling, but at least his heart is in the right place, and again: Chaney’s performance is excellent and shows that he didn’t need to turn himself into a deformed freak to do quality acting.

Fun movie where one shouldn’t expect subtlety or anything low-key where big emotions and big effects will do.

Rating: 6 of 10.

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Film review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Wallace Worsley. Writers: Edward T. Lowe Jr., Perley Poore Sheehan, based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Starring: Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry, Brandon Hurst, Ernest Torrence, Nigel de Brulier.

In 15th Century Paris, several people’s lives are affected by attractive Gypsy girl Esmeralda (Miller): Captain of the Guard Phoebus (Kerry) falls in love with her, evil Jehan (Hurst) falls in lust with her, and hunchbacked Notre Dame bell ringer Quasimodo (Chaney) develops a doglike devotion to her after she has shown him kindness. Esmeralda’s insurrectionist foster father Clopin (Torrence), the king of the criminal rabble, is not a fan of all this male attention.

This is a perfectly good film, and often an impressive one, but the 1939 version is far superior, and there is no chance in hell any film can capture all the bustle and sprawl of Hugo’s immense novel. The book is essentially about the Notre Dame cathedral and Paris itself (as evident from its original title Notre-Dame de Paris), which are protagonists too huge to cram into a screenplay.

Even so, better attempts have been made, and the 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame comes off as a relatively shallow experience. No great attempt is made to add depth to the selection of Hugo’s characters it chooses to focus on, and in fact a couple of annoying changes have been made. To placate the Catholics, the highly interesting priest villain Claude Frollo has been turned into a paragon of virtue completely lacking in other personality traits. In his stead, his non-priest brother Jehan – at best a secondary or tertiary character in the novel – is pressed into service as a civilian villain. We don’t even get to know what he does when he’s not skulking in dark alleys or hanging around Notre Dame, and we get no sense of why Quasimodo is initially so devoted to him. We also miss out on all the sinister alchemical experiments Frollo used to conduct in his monk’s cell. So, with the main antagonist turned into a typically lascivious moustache-twirler, we’re left with Clopin, whose motives remain fairly complex (his fatherly love for Esmeralda and his revolutionary ambitions), which is why it’s sad that he’s played by a horrible actor such as Torrence (billed as Torrance in the film). Beyond that, the ending has been changed so that it turns into convenient cliché rather than the powerful conclusion of the book.

For all of this, Hunchback of Notre Dame is a hard movie to dislike. It’s rightly famous for its grandiose Parisian sets, Notre Dame itself being the centerpiece, left standing for years and used in several other films. I’ve seen the real Notre Dame, and the fake one constructed for the film is an amazing replica. Other parts of Paris, like Miracle Square and further grotty places in the slum, as well as magnificent indoor sets, are equally extraordinary in their own way.

The film’s other famous visual treat is Chaney’s grotesque Quasimodo makeup, pictures of which still turns up in all kinds of contexts (just like his Phantom of the Opera and London After Midnight ones) and is a brilliant accomplishment from an age where special effects makeup wasn’t the science it is today. Despite the wig, teeth and layers of collodion cotton, Chaney’s face remains eminently expressive and allows him to give an emotional performance. Although some of the more obviously dangerous stunts were handled by a stand-in, Chaney shows himself to be quite acrobatic and athletic, which makes his interpretation of the character all the more dynamic. It’s a shame that Quasimodo and Esmeralda don’t have any of the scenes where they get to know each other, because I always thought those moments were the emotional core of the story. Even so, Chaney’s hunchback comes alive through makeup, gesture, bearing (or lack thereof) and facial expression, and as in most versions Quasimodo becomes easily the most memorable character.

The big action finale of Hunchback of Notre Dame is of course Quasimodo vs. Every Single Lowlife in Paris, and the movie delivers this sequence effectively, albeit not perfectly. It’s a large-scale, brutal siege event, and the hunchback’s anger and despair are at the centre of it as it should be, but the editing leaves the whole business somewhat less exciting than could have been the case. Again, I can’t help comparing it to its riveting counterpart in the 1939 version, a comparison that makes 1923 look like the lesser year for mass attacks on Notre Dame. The scene works, though, and is powerful enough to make one sit up straight.

It would be unfair not to mention that the only version available nowadays is one that was edited down by ten or fifteen minutes. There is every possibility that scenes fleshing out the characters, including the ones of Quasimodo’s and Esmeralda’s friendship, were present in the original cut.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1923 is not the definitive film version of Hugo’s novel, but it is fine viewing, where the sets and Chaney’s characterisation make up for many of the shortcomings.

Rating: 7 of 10.

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Film review: Night Life of the Gods (1935)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , on April 21, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Lowell Sherman. Writer: Barry Trivers, based on the novel by Thorne Smith. Starring: Alan Mowbray, Florine McKinney, Peggy Shannon, Gilbert Emery, Ferdinand Gottshcalk, Raymond Benard (Ray Corrigan), George Hassell, Robert Warwick.

Loopy scientist Hunter Hawk (Mowbray) invents a gadget that can turn flesh into stone and vice versa. One drunken evening he meets leprechaun woman Meg (McKinney), and the two decide to use Hawk’s invention to turn statues of the Greek gods into their real, live selves to give them a night on the town.

Not a bad fantasy screwball movie, if you disregard an idiotic framing device. It’s an absentminded movie, wandering aimlessly from set piece to set piece, and the staging of the comedy isn’t all that sharp-minded either, but it is bonkers enough to maintain interest just through being so odd.

There is nary a normal moment in Night Life of the Gods, one scene of lunacy following the next, which is a good thing – one serious scene can be enough to kill a silly movie such as this. The material is hit or miss throughout, but it’s anchored by a couple of funny performances by Mowbray and Emery. The former is a grandiose maniac incapable of taking life seriously, whereas Emery’s unflappable butler may be a cliché, but one well played.

The actors playing the gods could perhaps have been more carefully selected, as Hassell gets a little too much as Bacchus after a while, and Corrigan … well, he was really a stuntman and no one was ever going to sue him for having an unfair excess of acting ability. There is a funny running gag starring Hebe (goddess of youth and cupbearer of the gods) and her monomaniacal obsession with cups, but most of the successful humour comes, as stated, courtesy of Mowbray and Emery.

It would be unfair to say that there’s any proper story here, just Hawk’s vague wish to prove that the Greek gods will be unable to handle modern society. He’s vindicated in his opinion in the end, but we don’t really see the gods overwhelmed, just running amok like drunken children all over town. Structure-wise, Night Life of the Gods is a mess, but then again that rather suits the madcap tone of the movie, so perhaps it’s intentional. It’s not the same level of genius insanity displayed in the better Marx Brothers films, but perhaps a more dimwitted country cousin.

Night Life of the Gods came out in 1935, but feels like a Pre-Code movie, because it’s often quite risqué in word, deed and image, so there’s probably a story behind how it got away with being that way. The lewdness certainly spices things up and makes the movie seem rather more mature than the childish romp it really is.

A few laughs and plenty of craziness. This film should be remembered at least among the lesser screwball comedies, but apparently it isn’t.

Rating: 6 of 10.

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Film review: Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Charles Lamont. Writer: John Grant, based on a story by Lee Loeb. Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Marie Windsor, Michael Ansara, Dan Seymour, Richard Ansara, Eddie Parker, Chandra Kaly and His Dancers.

A group of criminals are trying to find the treasure of an ancient Egyptian princess, but it is protected by a cult and their animated mummy Klaris (Parker). Abbott and Costello get dragged into the schemes when they come into possession of a medallion that reveals the location of the princess’ tomb.

In 1955, Abbott and Costello looked around the graveyard of Universal’s classic monsters, and found that there was one left standing that they hadn’t disgraced yet: the Mummy. So, for their last horror spoof (and their penultimate film together) they decided to leave their footprints all over Egypt. The result is bubbly low-brow comedy along the usual lines.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy is by no means a high budget picture, but I still wish Universal had lavished this kind of money on the actual mummy pictures they made in the 1940s (The Mummy’s Hand and its sequels). It’s an attractive-looking film with a wide variety of nice sets, from Egyptian temples to night clubs to the Egyptian deserts, and even Klaris looks better than long-suffering Lon Chaney Jr. did in the Kharis sequels. Other types of production values are rather splendid too, notably the three dance performances (none of which features Abbott and Costello): there’s a rather funny one at the start, and later on there are two ritualistic temple dances that would normally bore the hell out of me, but which are so amazingly performed by Chandra Kaly and His Dancers that I found myself enjoying them despite myself

As is often the case in the Abbott and Costello horror comedies, the horror element is played relatively straight, and since any film has me at the word “mummy” (no, I don’t have issues), I would have been gleefully happy about watching this picture if we’d gotten to see more of the monster and if it had been played by someone a little more subtle than arm-waving stuntman Eddie Parker. Parker doubled for Chaney in the Kharis films, but I think I appreciate Chaney’s performance more now that I’ve seen just how far over the top Parker went when left to his own devices. Yes, this is a farce, but since Klaris is clearly intended to be scary, director Lamont should have toned down Parker’s performance. On the other hand we only get brief glimpses of the mummy before the suitably frantic last fifteen minutes. Instead, the meat of the story consists of the cult and the criminals scheming and sneaking around to get the amulet, which as presented here would have become boring rather quickly, so for once I’m grateful for Abbott and Costello’s presence.

Their comedy had become fairly predictable by now, and amidst all of Costello’s double takes and whimperings they even find time to perform a variation of their classic old “Who’s on Next?” skit (this time dealing with shovels and picks). If you’ve seen one or two of their previous movies, particularly the horror spoofs, you will see very few new jokes here, although energy levels are high and there’s an intentionally tacky ending that comes as a funny surprise.

And so silence falls across the Universal sound stages. Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and the Mummy have all been shamed into submission, and Abbott and Costello, mission complete, retreat from their victorious film career. Luckily, Hammer Films were just around the corner to repair the damage done.

Rating: 5 of 10. For once, I’m not sure you’d give it much more if you’re an A&C fan, because then you will have seen it all before in their earlier films.

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Film review: The Great Impersonation (1935)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , on April 20, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Alan Crosland. Writer: Eve Green, based on the novel by E. Phillips Oppenheim. Starring: Edmund Lowe, Valerie Hobson, Wera Engels, Murray Kinnell, Esther Dale, Spring Byington, Frank Reicher, Dwight Frye.

This review contains some spoilers.

On the dawn of World War I, Austrian Baron von Ragostein (Loew) encounters his dissipated English doppelganger, Sir Everard Dominey (Lowe), in Africa, whereupon he concocts a plan to assume Dominey’s identity and work as a spy and saboteur to cripple Great Britain’s munitions manufacture should they decide to join the war effort. He finds, however, that home life on Dominey’s estate is more bizarre and sinister than he could have imagined.

Old Hollywood was no more a stranger to remakes than new Hollywood is. The Great Impersonation was first made into a motion picture in 1921 (now a lost film as far as I know), and following the 1935 version, Universal made yet another one in 1942. Despite all of these movies being more or less forgotten now, it’s easy to see the appeal, for rarely has a story taken such a deck of clichés and reshuffled them into something so interesting.

You’ve got the doppelganger motif, you’ve got the undercover spy, you’ve got the Old Dark House, you’ve got the insane lady of the manor locked away, you’ve got the gloomy and doomy housekeeper, you’ve got the unresolved murder that happened years ago, and you’ve got the legend of a haunting.

How do you put all these components together? In the case of The Great Impersonation, the answer is that you don’t. The movie basically tells two unrelated stories, connected only by Dominey being involved in both of them, and they’re resolved separately. This shouldn’t work, particularly since the spy story and the spooky mansion story are so very different in tone and genre, but somehow it all works out into a rather intriguing little film with one of the more talented twist endings I’ve come across in some time.

That is not to say that this is a consistently brilliant piece of work. We never see Dominey’s wife (Hobson) behaving very crazily once she makes her proper entrance; in fact she more or less snaps out of it the moment she’s reunited with Dominey, and perhaps that is just as well, since I never credited Hobson with much acting ability. Another spot of laziness comes in shape of the truth behind the alleged haunting/murder: it’s more or less what you’d expect, only with the addition of poor old Dwight Frye as another cackling lunatic. This time we barely see him, and he’s not even credited in the cast list. Finally, in the denouement, it would have been ever so useful having a line or two clarifying certain things about Lowe’s character(s). On the whole, the spy story works better than the haunted house one, but it’s really the oddball combination of the two that makes the movie so engaging.

The cast isn’t all it could have been. Lowe does good work, but one could have wished for a more charismatic actor in the role, and both Reicher and Frye are underused. Dale as the brilliantly named housekeeper Mrs. Unthank is no doubt the most darkly entertaining presence.

For Universal fans it’s fun to note sets reused from Frankenstein and, fittingly, The Old Dark House.

The Great Impersonation is quirky enough to gain one’s interest early on and retain it till the clever ending. In fact, I’m rather interested in taking a look at the 1942 version to see if they were able to oil some of the creaky joints.

Rating: 6 of 10.

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Film review: Dressed to Kill (1946)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Roy William Neill. Writers: Leonard Lee, Frank Gruber, based on the characters by Arthur Conan Doyle. Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Patricia Morison, Harry Cording, Edmund Breon, Holmes Herbert, Frederick Worlock, Ian Wolfe, Mary Gordon, Olaf Hytten.

Fourteenth and final film in the Sherlock Holmes series beginning with Hound of the Baskervilles 1939.

Three plain little musical boxes are sold at auction, and before long someone is trying to steal them from their owners, even going so far as to murder one of them. Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) is intrigued and decides to get to the bottom of the affair.

The last outing for Rathbone’s and Bruce’s Holmes and Watson has a good story, but one that feels cobbled together from the previous movies: a trio of villains, a femme fatale, a perplexing code, a number of objects bought by innocent people and inexplicably desired by the antagonists. It all works rather well, though, and the loot everyone is after is revealed to be rather original and worth all the fuss. The script also offers some cunning behaviour on the part of Holmes and his opponents, which is always fun to see, and there are a few scenes of proper suspense keeping us alert.

There is barely even an attempt at Holmesian atmosphere in Dressed to Kill: it’s squarely set in the modern day, brightly lit and no-nonsense. That it still feels at least a little like a Holmes story is due to the allusions to Conan Doyle’s stories, the interplay between Rathbone and Bruce, and the somewhat familiar plot, which echoes Holmes tales of yore.

The lack of shadowy ambience is disappointing, but at least Dressed to Kill doesn’t look as cheap as Pursuit to Algiers and Terror by Night: here there are numerous locations on display (even though they’re sure to be refurbished pre-existing sets), and there’s a fair bit of running about in London to open up the scope.

You wouldn’t know from Rathbone’s performance that he was tired of Holmes and preparing to move on. He’s as sharp and energetic as ever, going out in style. Bruce, of course, has perfected his befuddled bumbling and is as lovely/annoying (depending on your view of him) as always. The supporting cast makes a good showing of themselves, although it’s really only Morison who has any real material to work with.

With Rathbone having decided to quit and the series’ guiding light Roy William Neill dying at the end of 1946, there was really no likelihood of the franchise going on. It did on radio, where Tom Conway took over as Holmes to Bruce’s Watson, but only for 39 more episodes; Rathbone and Bruce had done about 200.

Dressed to Kill is a decent, workable finale to the series, but considering the slow but palpable downward trend of the last three or so movies, this was perhaps a good place to stop. And what a show they put on: even the weakest entries of the series are worth watching, and the best are close to sublime.

Rating: 6 of 10.

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Say goodbye to the boys.

Say goodbye to the boys.

Film review: Terror by Night (1946)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Roy William Neill. Writer: Frank Gruber, based on the characters by Arthur Conan Doyle. Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Alan Mowbray, Dennis Hoey, Renee Godfrey, Frederick Worlock, Mary Forbes, Skelton Knaggs, Billy Bevan, Harry Cording. Gerald Hamer.

Thirteenth film in the Sherlock Holmes series beginning with Hound of the Baskervilles 1939.

Famed diamond the Star of Rhodesia is to be taken by train from London to Scotland, and the owners hire Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) to ensure that it gets to its destination, since one attempt has already been made to steal it.

The budget cuts to these movies start becoming very noticeable with Terror by Night. Like its immediate predecessor Pursuit to Algiers, it takes place in a confined setting, but instead of a sumptuous luxury liner, here we get a train and nothing but a train: the story starts at a station and ends at another one, and all we see in between are train compartments and stock footage of trains and models thereof. Since the interiors, too, were no doubt built for some other film, it’s difficult to conceive of a cheaper Holmes movie, except by imagining Universal recasting Holmes and Watson with unknown actors.

It’s to the credit of Neill and screenwriter Gruber, then, that Terror by Night is as engaging as it is. Despite being even more limited in scope than Pursuit to Algiers, this is a far more thrilling film. There’s a proper mystery this time – Holmes knows who the culprit is, Moriarty’s old henchman Colonel Sebastian Moran, but he doesn’t know what the man looks like, and there’s no shortage of suspects aboard the train. As a viewer, one soon starts leaning in the right direction as to the culprit’s identity, but it’s still a well-wrought mystery, and certainly no less so for all the surprises sprung along the way.

Holmes is attacked, creepy little Skelton Knaggs appears out of nowhere, Lestrade (Hoey) shows up “under cover”, an unnerving method of murder is employed, and we’re never quite sure where the real diamond is. To top all this off, Terror by Night sports one of the more startling and fun resolutions of the entire franchise, one in which – believe it or not – both Lestrade and Watson make themselves useful.

Action and suspense aside, there are also other things to enjoy here, such as Watson’s comedic confrontation with a bad-tempered Math professor (Worlock) and his banter with old friend Duncan-Bleek (Mowbray). For the record, I agree with Watson on the most important component of a good curry.

The movie is filled with fine actors in parts large and small, the one bad apple in the basket being Godfrey, whose inability to act almost plumbs the depths of her colleague Acquanetta. Luckily, Godfrey only has a couple of scenes of note, so she doesn’t succeed in ruining the film, which she could have done with one arm tied behind her back if she’d had a more important role.

Terror by Night is quite good Holmes, even if it is short on environmental variety, and even though it lacks the pseudo-Victorian ambience of the best films in the franchise. It has a solid story, some thrills and surprises, and a (mostly) good cast. That will do nicely.

Followed by the final film in the series, Dressed to Kill 1946.

Rating: 6 of 10.

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