PAST LIVES: THE SHE-CREATURE (1956)

September 1, 2015

she_creature_poster_02In 1956 the hip new fad was past life regression, thanks to the story of Bridey Murphy. In Colorado, amateur hypnotist Morey Bernstein had been experimenting his craft with Virginia Mae Morrow, who claimed to have died in Ireland in 1864, when she was known as Bridey Murphy. The story was reported in the Denver Post, and then published as a best-selling book authored by Bernstein in 1956, The Search for Bridey Murphy. It was briefly on everybody’s lips, with the New York Times reporting, “there were Bridey Murphy parties (‘come as you were’) and Bridey Murphy jokes (parents greeting newborns with ‘Welcome back’).”  Hollywood wanted to cash-in on the craze while it was still relevant, so Paramount rushed their official adaptation of The Search for Bridey Murphy, starring Teresa Wright, into production. It was released on October 1st of 1956. American International Pictures worked a little quicker, cranking their past life regression monster movie The She-Creature (1956) out in nine days, and getting it into theaters on July 25th. Though beset by casting troubles and budget restrictions, The She-Creature manages to create an atmosphere of voluptuous dread, aided by Paul Blaisdell’s insectoid creature design and efficient direction from bargain basement king Edward L. Cahn.

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Wanting to profit while past life regression was still all the rage, AIP president Jim Nicholson assigned Lou Rusoff to put together a treatment for a film with hypnotism as its theme. The project didn’t have a clear shape until Nicholson and producer Alex Gordon were at a party where local exhibitor Jerry Zigmond mentioned The She-Creature as a possible title that could sell the Bridey Murphy hook. With the title in place, Rusoff then built the story around a prehistoric female monster, the endpoint of a past-life regression that goes back to the beginning of time. Andrea (Marla English) is the suggestive woman under the power of carny mesmerist Dr. Carlo Lombardi (Chester Morris), who is able to take her back through all of her past lives back into a primordial creature. The power of this hypnotic trance is so strong that the monster gains physical form,  killing socialites on the California beaches with its thudding she-claws before disappearing back into the ocean. Lombardi builds his psychic reputation by predicting these murders, and starts to make millions with his business patron Timothy Chappel (Tom Conway). The one skeptic is Dr. Ted Erickson (Lance Fuller), a strait-laced academic who studies psychic phenomena. He is out to debunk Lombardi and free Andrea from his thrall.

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The budget was $104,000 and the shoot was set for nine days. Director Edward L. Cahn had just completed Girls in Prison (1956) for AIP, and rolled right into The She-Creature, on which he wrings a lot out of abandoned beaches and double exposures – representing all the souls of Andrea’s past.  Gordon wanted to get Peter Lorre for the Carlo Lombardi part, and Edward Arnold for Chappel. Both actors had worked together before in Josef Von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment (1935). But Lorre backed out after reading the script, and Arnold died soon before shooting was set to begin. So they scrambled and hired Chester Morris and Tom Conway. Morris, best known for his starring role in the Columbia Boston Blackie series, was an experienced amateur magician, and brought an enthusiasm for prestidigitation to the role. His wide-set eyes and rumbling voice made for convincing hypnotics, even when he’s trying to mesmerize a dog. Tom Conway had his own series, as The Falcon for RKO, and looks to be having fun in deploying his plummy British accent in service of a scummy exploitation entrepreneur making a fortune off of Lombardi’s morally dubious act – not unlike how AIP was cashing in on the whole Bridey Murphy affair. This might have been an in-joke on Rusoff’s part (he was executive producer Sam Arkoff’s brother-in-law). Lance Fuller (This Island Earth) was another last-minute addition to the cast, and he looks jet-lagged and morose throughout, the dead space in an otherwise well-acted film.vOsaE

The she-creature herself is doubled as Marla English in the human present, and Paul Blaisdell in the foam rubber suit as her prehistoric avatar. English was a San Diego beauty queen, whose career, at the age of 21, was already over. Previously signed to Paramount Pictures, they dropped her contract after she refused a lead role in The Mountain alongside Spencer Tracy, either due to falling ill from a smallpox vaccine, orbecause they would not cast her boyfriend Larry Pennell, causing her to quit in protest. She would retire from acting soon after shooting The She-Creature, and she looks ready to leave Hollywood for good, dazed but distantly beautiful — appropriate for a character in a hypnotic trance for most of the film’s running time. There is something elemental about English’s connection to the creature, depicted in double exposures as a foggy excrescence on the ocean until it takes physical form, her thoughts taking shape. It is an embodiment of the rage she has suppressed, her loss of power diverted into the creature’s superpower. And though Lombardi guides Andrea to call this being to life, it is not his creation – so he cannot control it. The most affecting moment in the film occurs when the monster, after scaring off one of Chappel’s rich regression parties, kneels worshipfully next to Andrea, as if in some kind of  mind meld, sharing each other’s pain.

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The monster itself is another remarkable creation by Paul Blaisdell, the unsung hero of 1950s science fiction (read Randy Palmer’s Paul Blaisdell, Monster Maker for the full story – it is the main source of information for this post). Blaisdell was a creature designer and builder for AIP who made something out of next-to-nothing, working in close concert with his wife, Jackie. They designed monsters for The Day the World Ended, It Conquered the World, Invasion of the Saucer Men, It The Terror From Beyond Space and many more. The She-Creature was “the best one I’ve ever done”, Blaisdell said. He built the creature on a pair of old long-johns, with the body a jigsaw puzzle of foam rubber made to look like the seabed floor. Its chest was made of “sea hooks” which could be used for disemboweling, its arms were clubbing crab-like claws built around a pair of welding gloves, while the face is a cat-lizard-insect combo with stringy blonde hair made for man-devouring. The compressed time schedule kept Cahn from utilizing all of the creature’s capabilities (swinging tail, chewing sea hooks), but it is a striking, unearthly creature that somehow has a spark of humanity in it. Blaisdell built the costume to fit his own body, he literally knew it inside and out, so there was no better person to give the She-Creature life.

WHEN ALIENS ATTACK: IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958)

June 2, 2015

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The “It” in It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) is a lumbering thing, a slow-footed creature from a Martian lagoon terrorizing the crew of a rescue ship returning to Earth. Despite his violent blood-sucking tendencies, “It” is a lovable sort, blundering about in the spacecraft’s engine room with the stunned and disoriented gait of a medicated mastiff. Under the rubber suit was a soused Ray “Crash” Corrigan acting in his final film, a former serial adventure star battling alcoholism, the pathos of his performance pouring out his pores and through the mask designed by Paul Blaisdell. The human crew is less sympathetic, a slickly Brylcreemed group of technocrats who leave each other to die with nary a second thought. This efficient, vulgar, and remarkably suspenseful film was directed by Edward L. Cahn (one of his five 1958 credits). Once a promising director of high-toned genre fare for Universal in the 1930s (see: Afraid to Talk (crime), Law and Order (Western), Laughter in Hell (chain gang)), he descended the ranks at the studio to short subjects until he landed in 1950s B-pictures with independent producer Robert E. Kent.  It! The Terror From Beyond Spaceis their first and most famous film together, since screenwriter Dan O’Bannon lifted its scenario for use in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). And now it is the first Kent-Cahn movie to reach Blu-ray, thanks to Olive Films. It! The Terror Beyond Space should be more than a footnote in Alien oral histories, though, as it stands on its own as a resourcefully relentless scare flick.

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Robert E. Kent was a screenwriter who bounced back and forth between Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers from the late 1930s through the 1950s. His credits run from the “adaptation” of the Bela Lugosi comedy Zombies on Broadway to the same credit on Max Ophuls’ prestige drama The Reckless Moment. He started his own production unit in 1957 (going by various names: Vogue Pictures, Peerless Productions, Harvard Film Corp.), and landed a distribution deal with United Artists. Kent must have met Edward L. Cahn on the set of the immortal The Gashouse Kids in Hollywood (1947), a PRC feature for which Kent wrote the screenplay and Cahn directed. Cahn was respected for his speed and reliability, and Kent surely remembered and filed that away. So Cahn was brought on to direct It! The Terror From Beyond Space for Vogue Pictures, the first of 32 features they would make together in the next four years.

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The original screenplay was written by Jerome Bixby, his first. So he likely came cheap, a priority for Kent’s nascent production unit. But Bixby was building a resume as a prolific Western and Science Fiction author, having already published “It’s a Good Life” in 1953, which would later be adapted into the evil psychic kid Twilight Zone episode of the same name. His story has echoes of A.E. Van Vogt’s story “Black Destroyer”, but it’s also influenced by the locked room monster mystery The Thing From Another World (1951). Col. Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson) is the only surviving member of an original nine-person Mars mission. The United States Space Commission orders that a rescue ship led by Commander Van Heusen (Kim Spalding) be sent to bring the surviving members home. Upon arrival to the red planet, Van Heusen suspects that Carruthers murdered the rest of his crew, and places Carruthers under ship arrest until they arrive back to Earth, where he will be court-martialed. It is not long before the Colonel is cleared, as a scaled, lizard-like monster picks off the crew one-by-one, sucking them dry of blood (the working title was It, the Vampire From Beyond Space). The surviving crew keeps barricading doors and moving up in the ship until there’s no place left to run.

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At a high-speed 69 minutes, there’s not much time for characterization, but sub-Hawksian attempts are made at a group breakfast. The crew debates Carruthers’ guilt and reminisces about life at home. Commander Van Heusen is adamant that Carruthers is a murderer, and treats him with barely disguised contempt. The female officers are more sympathetic, especially Ann Anderson (Shawn Smith), a combo nurse and waitress (the gender politics are not, let’s say, progressive) who grows closer to Anderson with each passing corpse. The narrative is simple and irresistible, and the higher the crew climbs, the slimmer their chances of escape. The geography of the ship (thin and skyscraper tall) limits their movement, and the monster will just keep tearing through the locked bay doors until it can get to the tasty liquid coursing through their circulatory systems.

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The key to the whole frightful operation is the creature design by Paul Blaisdell, a refugee from American International Pictures. An artist for Science Fiction magazines, he was drafted into monster making by Roger Corman, who paid him a pittance to design The Beast With 1,000,000 Eyes (1955). Totally self-taught, he would go on to create a dizzying bestiary of monsters for AIP and others before the Sci-Fi boom trickled out, and he retreated to a career in carpentry. Blaisdell was friendly with Bixby, recalling to biographer Randy Palmer that “Jerry Bixby wrote a hell of a script, in my opinion, and we had no problems figuring out what a Martian lizard-man should look like.” Palmer writes that Blaisdell “wanted to give the lizard-man an expanded, barrel-like chest to suggest the enormous lung capacity a living being would need to survive in the thin atmosphere.” And because it was a carnivore, he gave it needle like teeth. The flat nose and flaring nostrils were added, one assumes, because it looked cool. The problems arose with the casting of Ray “Crash” Corrigan. Blaisdell had almost always played the monsters he designed, fitting them to his own physique. But Ed Small thought Corrigan would add some name value to the marquee, as well as being an act of generosity to a struggling actor. But by all accounts Corrigan was in the midst of a terrible bender, and he never showed up to the costume fitting with Blaisdell. On a tight schedule, Blaisdell couldn’t wait, so he modeled the head on his own, which caused trouble later on, because Corrigan’s enormous sozzled melon stretched out the mask, to the point where his chin is visible in some shots in the movie. Blaisdell was also annoyed with Robert E. Kent and UA executive producer Edward Small, who kept giving him contradictory information about how they wanted the eyes to appear. After many revisions, he was able to please them both, but the experience was a frustrating one (for the full, sad story of his life, read this article by Vincent di Fate for Tor.com).

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Blaisdell’s friend and collaborator Bob Burns recounts similar stories, but also reveals how the set worked as organized by Cahn:

I think it was shot in about 12 days. It had a longer shooting schedule than most of the films Eddie worked on. He also knew the limitations of Crash [brought on by his drinking], and so he kept that in mind. Eddie Cahn, I’ve got to say, was probably one of the best directors I’ve ever seen work —and especially with those short shooting schedule things, where he didn’t have any time. He did his homework every night. He came in and he knew exactly what set-ups he wanted. And, if possible, he could do forty set-ups in a day. He’d just move on. He was even better at it than Roger Corman. Of course, he’d been around a lot longer. He used to do a whole lot of those “B” westerns.

It was an intense workload for the entire production team, which Cahn had to orchestrate under extreme time constraints while juggling the demands of an obstreperous lead monster. Corrigan began his career as a fitness instructor to the stars, climbed to become a leading man in spectacular serials and B-Westerns  (Undersea Kingdom, The Painted Stallion), but ended up in ape suits (Captive Wild Woman, Nabonga, White Pongo) and  one final “It” suit. One can understand his anger.  Through it all, Cahn’s organizational vigor, the strong narrative and geographic line of Bixby’s script, and the stretched-but-still-scary monster design of Paul Blaisdell contribute to a creature-feature that that retains its bite.

FILM DISCOVERIES OF 2014

December 23, 2014

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Let the proliferation of year-end lists wash over you with a resigned calm. And let me add another one to the ocean of opinion. Today I’m presenting my top ten new-to-me movies of 2014. That is, older films that I have seen for the first time. They are the backbone of any movie-going year, whether it’s catching up to acknowledged classics (for me, The Best Years of Our Lives) or going trawling for obscure auteurist gems (Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, Edward L. Cahn’s Redhead).  It’s a way to draw attention to a wider range of filmgoing possibilities, so you don’t have to read about Boyhood for the bazillionth time (though, if you do, my appreciation is over here). All credit goes to prodigious blogger Brian Saur from Rupert Pupkin Speaks, who collects “Favorite Film Discoveries” from writers, programmers and filmmakers every year, and asked me to contribute once upon a time. I found the exercise invigorating, more so than the usual end-of-year recycling, so you have him to thank or blame.

The films are presented in alphabetical order

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, directed by William Wyler)

I had been indoctrinated in aversion to Wyler, from half-remembered slams by Andrew Sarris. This is not Sarris’ fault but my own, as he was a persistent re-evaulator, trying to undermine his own biases. But now that I’m here, my goodness what a movie. Wyler was a serviceman for three years, and knew who these men were and how they lived. The deep focus cinematography by Gregg Toland is justly famous, but it’s the gestures inside of it that make it work so beautifully. The orchestration of glances as the family silently reacts to Homer’s amputation isolates him even as he’s surrounded by well-wishers.

On Blu-ray from Warner Brothers

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Broken Lullaby (1932, directed by Ernst Lubtisch)

Lubitsch’s only non-comic sound film is a post-traumatic post-WWI drama about a shellshocked vet who seeks penance for bayoneting a German soldier in the trenches. He travels to atone to his victim’s parents, but when he arrives, he can’t bring himself to admit his guilt. Instead he falls in love with their daughter. Like in many of Lubitsch’s comedies, it’s about a man who fakes his life so beautifully he almost makes it come true. It opens with a blast of dialectical montage, cutting rhythmically between a Paris belfry’s bells and a battlefield cannon, the drums of the soldier’s homecoming parade sliced in with a wounded vet’s screams. It is as potent a three minutes as anything Eisenstein concocted. But then, a stylstic shift into daring long takes and a subdued, declamatory kind of acting. There is an unbroken two-minute take of two mothers grieving over their sons that is devastating in its quietude.

Unavailable on home video or VOD

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Carnival of Souls (1962, directed by Herk Harvey)

This miraculous motion picture is a dip into the Midwestern uncanny, ghosts haunting the long flat highways and abandoned amusements. It’s one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, undoubtedly aided by viewing it on July 4th weekend, where bottle rockets were popping off behind my head every five minutes. I was too gripped to turn around and look at the firecracking kids outside, for fear I would see that face reflected in the window.

On DVD from Criterion (I watched it on Hulu Plus)

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The Clockmaker of St. Paul (1974, directed by Bertrand Tavernier)

Tavernier’s debut feature is a subdued adaptation of a Simenon novel about a habit-minded watchmaker whose estranged son is wanted for murder. Shot in Tavernier’s hometown of Lyon, it traces the father’s ritualized walks through his city as he grapples with this rupture in his life. The outdoor photography is hushed and autumnal,the death of summer framing the father’s unspoken struggle over his son’s situation, which rouses the communist factory workers at which his son worked, as well as the accusatory owners. The father’s motivations and inner being are kept opaque, his inner workings as unfathomable as his clocks are understandable. So when his decision arrives, it is with the gathering force of a thunderbolt.

On Region 2 DVD from Optimum

 

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Forgotten Faces (1928, directed by Victor Schertzinger)

The undisputed highlight of this year’s Capitolfest in Rome, NY, this is a visually extravagant crime melodrama. The story is a convoluted stew  involving gentlemen thieves, orphaned daughters, scheming mothers, and a devoted sidekick named Froggy (William Powell). Not memorable material, but the clarity and elegance of its late silent film style are often overwhelming. There are elegant tracking shots, provocative use of off-screen space, and complicated spiraling sets that are split in half and filmed in a Wes Anderson-esque dollhouse style. It’s enough to make one shake a fist at the sky and rue the coming of sound.

Unavailable on home video or VOD

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Good Sam (1948, directed by Leo McCarey)

I am morally obligated to write about every Leo McCarey movie someday, so this year it was Good Sam, a complicated moral fable about the unintended consequences of doing good. Gary Cooper is Sam, an inveterate do-gooder whose charity consistently leads to troubles, whether its debt, permanent visitors or missing cars. The film’s central theme is the impossibility of saintliness in a consumer society – one in which Sam becomes an object of ridicule (by his boss, his wife and the world at large), rather than lauded for his selflessness. Cooper is appropriately skittish and perpetually aghast, but the real star is Ann Sheridan as his put upon wife. Her acerbic realism cuts the sweetness of Sam’s saintliness, and she provides the greatest laughs in the film – especially when she busts out cackling at Sam as he uncharacteristically runs down a neighbor (who happens to be sitting right behind him).

On Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films

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The Long Day Closes (1992, directed by Terence Davies)

Note perfect reminiscence about growing up lonely and growing up in the movies, usually the same thing.

On DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection

 

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Mongo’s Back in Town (1971, directed by Marvin J. Chomsky)

A relentlessly downbeat telefilm noir starring Joe Don Baker as the titular Mongo. Mongo is a beast intent on destroying his hometown. His milquetoast brother summons him back to San Pedro, CA in order to knock off a local competitor, but instead Mongo brings the whole criminal edifice down around everyone’s heads. Baker is gruff and relentless, an analogue to Lee Marvin’s Walker in Point Blank (1967). Nothing will sway Mongo from his own disgust. The rest of the cast includes Telly Savalas, Martin Sheen and Sally Field, all dumb witnesses to Mongo’s clumsy, bloody vengeance.

On MOD-DVD from CBS Films

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Redhead (1941, directed by Edward L. Cahn)

I am contractually obligated to write about 10-12 Edward L. Cahn movies this year, and this one was my favorite (When the Clock Strikes finishing a close second). It’s a downbeat suicide comedy about a pair of mismatched lovers(one rich, one poor) who meet each other both on the precipice of leaping off a cliff. They save each other instead, opening a roadside diner and learning how to live on modest means. It’s death-driven, class-conscious comedy only possible in the dark, delightful world of Cahn.

Available to stream on Amazon Instant Video

 

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A Touch of Zen/The Valiant Ones (1969/1975, both directed by King Hu)

One of the major events in NYC was the BAM Cinematek’s King Hu retrospective. I was only able to make it to these two, but they are jaw dropping spectacles. I preferred the relentless logic of The Valiant Ones, in which the intricately choreographed battles are mapped out on chess boards, and each faction is eliminated with unforgiving procession. The earlier Touch of Zen is more inside the head than the hands, a Buddhist fable of enlightenment in which blood turns into told and only through self-abnegation can come glory.

Both are out of print on DVD

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Utamaro and his Five Women (1946, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi)

Wherein the life of an artist (here woodblock print portratist Utamaro) is presented as one of continuous battle, in which everyone suffers, his models most of all.

Available on Region 2 DVD from Artificial Eye

CAHN ARTIST: EDWARD L. CAHN’S REDHEAD (1941) AND WHEN THE CLOCK STRIKES (1961)

June 10, 2014

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Whenever I have a spare sixty-five minutes, I try and watch a movie by Edward L. Cahn. While he started out making well-regarded Westerns and crime films for Universal Pictures in the early  1930s, he was eventually demoted to short subjects for reasons unknown, and ended his career cranking out one-week quickies for producer Robert E. Kent, distributed through United Artists. He made eleven features in 1961, many of which were shot in his split-level home to save money. He passed away in 1963, reportedly from complications due to his diabetes. But over the course of his thirty-year career he directed 71 features and innumerable shorts, leaving behind a grimly deterministic body of work, evident even before he slid out of Universal’s favor. The bellboy murder witness in  Afraid to Talk (1932, aka Merry-Go-Round)  and the escaped convict in Laughter in Hell (1933) are doomed from the first shot – the rest of their movies are a low-lit explication of their inevitable fate.  His movies are best described from a line in When the Clock Strikes (1961). They are “like a door closing behind you, and you have to go on all the way.”

Cahn has received a bit more attention these days thanks to Dave Kehr’s column in the November/December 2011 issue of Film Comment magazine, and Wheeler Winston Dixon’s fascinating article on When the Clock Strikes for the Film Noir of the Week blog. Those should be your starting points if you wish to study the Edward L. Cahn sciences. I am taking a more patchwork approach at Movie Morlocks, writing up his features whenever I have a spare moment to watch them (I previously wrote about Laughter in Hell, You Have to Run Fastand a grab bag of noirs and Westerns). Many of the films Cahn made with Robert E. Kent are streaming in cropped versions on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. Watching his movies in dodgy samizdat prints seems somehow appropriate to his checkered, cheap and vibrant career. Last week I sampled a feature Cahn romantic comedy, Redhead (1941, on Amazon Prime), and one of his bleaker noirs, When the Clock Strikes (1961, Hulu).

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While he was churning out short subjects for MGM in the 1940s, Cahn found time to make a cheap romantic comedy for Poverty Row studio Monogram. It was an adaptation of Vera Brown’s 1933 novel, Redhead, which Monogram had adapted once before with director Melville Brown in 1934. Amazon lists Cahn’s version as 1934 (and IMDb has Cahn making the 1934 AND 1941 versions), but the authoritative American Film Institute catalog clearly indicates that Cahn directed only the 1941 iteration. The story is appropriately grim. Dale Carter (June Lang) is a former showgirl acquitted of murder, who is introduced peering over a cliff, contemplating suicide. It is only the drunken interjection of the newly disinherited playboy Ted Brown (Johnny Downs) that keeps her from making the leap. Ted had embarrassed his father one two many times with his inebriated escapades, and has been cut off from receiving family funds. He and Dale try to con his father out of some cash by faking a marriage, but instead the dad pays Dale to domesticate Ted. If she can make a man out of him, he’ll pay her ten grand.

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Cahn’s films are filled with false identities and histories, and he had much experience in re-inventing himself after he was mysteriously booted from his Universal contract. His characters are always trying the escape their true selves. Both Dale and Ted would prefer to forget themselves, so they build an entirely new life together. They buy a rundown roadside diner, building a business from the ground up. Ted gets a job as a steelworker to help pay the bills and drum up lunchtime business. Dale acts the contented housewife living the American dream. If they fake it long enough, their idea goes, maybe it will become real. Cahn captures a true sense of community between Ted, Dale and the factory town they serve. Ted’s former butler Digby (Eric Blore) is made an equal partner to help out behind the counter, flattening the class system that gave Ted his wealth. It’s the only real functional society in Cahn’s features, and it’s instructive that this is only possible because the main characters repress their pasts and invent their future. The truth is a waste of time.

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No one is who they seem in When the Clock Strikes (1961), but unlike in Redhead, these facades are built not for a society but for individual greed. It was made for one of Robert E. Kent’s numerous production companies, this one called Harvard Film Corporation. Written by the improbably named Dallas Gaultois, it follows the guilt-wracked murder witness Sam Morgan (James Brown), who believes may have fingered the wrong man. Driving to implore the warden to halt the execution, he picks up a storm-soaked blonde by the side of the road. She turns out to be Ellie Pierce (Merry Anders), the wife of the convict headed for the noose. A tree falls and blocks the way to the prison. All they can do is wait at a seedy hotel, called Cady’s Lodge, and wait for the inevitable. Then there is the matter of a suitcase full of money, which twists everyone’s loyalties a little bit more.

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In the elemental opening, Sam and Ellie are inside his car, under a wavering light meant to represent reflected rainfall. They speak in tortured existential argot, awaiting death. “-Are you lost or something? -Aren’t we all?” After the tree falls, blocking the path to the prison, Ellie utters the line about the “door closing behind you, and you have to go on all the way.” Their entire existence is posited as a forced march towards oblivion. And even more explicitly, Ellie says to Sam: “You sound like a man headed to the electric chair. -Aren’t we?” These exchanges, occurring beneath the undulating artificial light, have an uncanny alienating effect, as if the rest of the film is a foregone conclusion, and all that matters is the life-awaiting-death of this nightmarish car ride.

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The film continues anyway, and suffice it to say Ellie isn’t who she claims to be, Sam will hit the bottle, and the proprietor (Henry Corden) of Cady’s Lodge is some kind of sociopath. “Everyone sets their watches to Cady’s clock”, the sheriff says, because Cady’s main business is in the execution trade. People swoop in on those evenings and drink to the killing hour, whether friends, enemies or lovers. Cady calls them “specs”, for spectators, and hovers over Ellie and Sam like a vampiric vulture, ready to feed off of their guilt and regret. There are plot twists and turns a plenty, repeated in mechanistic fashion. These are human husks with all emotion drained out of them. The ostensible happy ending is an absurd shift in tone that at first viewing nearly undermines everything that came before. But as Dixon writes in his appreciation of the film, their “positive” moral action occurs only out of self-preservation. A second before they were gleeful thieves. In the final shot they are back in the car, in a climactic clinch. But their embrace is awkward and posed, as if two embalmed corpses had their faces wrenched into a grin.

THE CAHN FILM FESTIVAL

April 30, 2013

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As May approaches, the film world turns its eyes to the Cannes Film Festival, which will host world premiere screenings from the likes of Jia Zhangke and Alexander Payne at its Grand Théâtre Lumière. I, however, will be celebrating the Edward L. Cahn Film Festival, taking place on my mustard stained IKEA couch in Brooklyn. No accreditation was necessary aside from an active Netflix account, and travel time was limited to trips to the bathroom. Cahn, born in Brooklyn, was a promising director of incendiary corruption dramas at Universal (Afraid to Talk, Laughter in Hell) before spinning his wheels for MGM short subjects in the late ’30s. He re-emerged as a pathologically prolific director of B-Westerns and gangster films in the 1950s, at AIP and the various companies of Robert E. Kent. Seventeen of these grim 1950s features are available to stream on Netflix, but all are due to expire from the service tomorrow [UPDATE: only OKLAHOMA TERRITORY and IT, THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE expired, the other 15 were renewed], along with almost 1,000 other titles. So I attempted to watch Cahn’s films with as much speed and urgency as he made them.

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I began with The Music Box Kid (1960), a thinly veiled bio of Dutch Schulz, mob boss of the Bronx in the 1920s and 30s. Here he’s called Larry Shaw, and played by professional handsome man Ron Foster, who would later land a recurring role on the soap Guiding Light. He exaggerates his natural vanity into a monstrous maw of need, his hawk-like features pecking approval out of people. He tells his wife he is an insurance salesman, one of many double-lives led by Cahn characters, who are constantly throwing up false identities. Interior lives are more colorful than exterior ones in his movies, which take place exclusively in under-furnished office spaces and living rooms, this result of low budgets emphasizing the transitory nature of these thugs. Each room looks newly moved into, and just as easily could be left.

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Foster plays a similar character in Cage of Evil (1960), although he starts out on the right side of the law. Scott Harper is an aggressive detective assigned to a jewelry robbery, first seen beating an innocent witness for his spotty memory. A chain-smoking skittish type, his cigarettes seem to act as vents to keep him from blowing his top. After he’s passed over for a promotion, even the smokes can’t temper his anger and he flips, drawing up a scheme to snag the jewels for himself and the impassive blonde he’s been investigating (Patricia Blair). More unstable than Larry Shaw, Harper is incapable of maintaining his double life for long, resorting to panicked spasms of violence that inevitably boomerang against his own vulnerable body.

Mamie Van Doren is the duplicitous vulnerable body in Vice Raid (1960), a Detroit prostitute flown into NYC to entrap a Vice cop (Richard Coogan). Van Doren was a Marilyn Monroe clone who had descended the Hollywood ladder from star player with Universal all the way down to Poverty Row and Kent’s Imperial Pictures. She was joined by former ace studio DP Stanley Cortez, who had gone from lensing the deep focus marvels of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons to the flat planes of Vice Raid and, later that same year, Dinosaurus!. The first meeting between Van Doren and Coogan is the purest representation of Cahn’s films in this period. Vice cop Coogan is undercover as a photographer in a dingy hotel room, hoping to lure her into making an indecent proposal. Van Doren has an act of her own, as the faux-innocent whore waiting to get collared so she can later accuse him of abuse. It’s a roundelay of false fronts, their characters as fake as the flimsy hotel set.

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As Dave Kehr wrote, where Cahn’s crime films are personal, his Westerns are perfunctory, but strange continuities still emerged in my marathon viewing. One of the haunting set-pieces of Laughter in Hell (1933) is the death-by-hanging of a group of Black prisoners, and lynching recurs as a theme, although in the post-code 1950s, racial difference has been eroded from view. There is a thwarted lynching in the rote courtroom drama Oklahoma Territory (1960), but it becomes the central image of Noose for a Gunman (1960). Case Britton (Jim Davis) is introduced as destined for hanging. The first shot is of a noose in extreme close-up to the left, with Britton riding slowly into focus at the right. As he passes by there is a sign nailed to the tree, “Reserved for Case Britton”. The town has marked him for death, the latest in Cahn’s corrupted cities. This one is controlled by rich landowner Carl Avery (Barton MacLane), who had Britton’s son killed five years before. By the end the town is overrun by outlaws and close to dissolution. Only Britton and his friend Jim (Harey Carey, Jr.) can save it from oblivion. In one offhand moment, as the friends are gathered by a hotel door, Carey grabs his left bicep with his right. It is the same gestural tic that his father performed as a silent Western star, and made famous by John Wayne at the end of The Searchers. Here it is just a silent tribute from son to father, in a programmer lost to history but found in Netflix.

Cahn’s reputation will never fully revive until his 1930s work is made available, but his Robert E. Kent productions are addictive, relentless exercises in deglamorization. America becomes a succession of drab flophouses and emptied out apartments, populated by shadows eager to erase their selves for a shot at the good life. Hope to see you next year at the Cahn Film Festival 2014. I can comfortably seat three, and it looks like Amazon Prime still has plenty of his work on offer. See you then.

FLOP OF 1933: LAUGHTER IN HELL

March 5, 2013

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For the past month, Film Forum in New York City has been screening a dazzling variety of Hollywood movies from eighty years ago. 1933 was the final flowering of the anything goes pre-code period, before the Production Code Administration was established a year later. While I was grateful to see masterful standbys like The Bitter Tea of General Yen on 35mm, the beauty in series like these is the forgotten films, ones that through chance or neglect haven’t survived into the home video era. I was particularly looking forward to one hard-to-see title: Edward L. Cahn’s Laughter in Hell. Although reported lost in a few publications, it was patiently sitting in the Universal Vaults and had screened in Los Angeles and San Francisco before making it to NYC. It is a nightmarishly violent fable inconceivable after the code that managed to exceed my unrealistic expectations.

Laughter in Hell was another entry in the thriving chain gang genre following the success of Laughter-in-HellWas A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (WB, 1932). Forced convict labor had become a national political issue when a New Jersey teenager named Arthur Maillefert was found hanging from his own chain  in June of 1932 at the Sunbeam Prison Camp in Florida. The camp’s captain and one of its prison guards were charged with first degree murder. The story became a sensation, and calls for reform spread throughout the country. The movies were quick to pick up on it, and Universal Pictures attempted to cash-in on the trend by securing the rights to hobo-novelist Jim Tully’s book Laughter in Hell. Tully was a vagrant-turned-writer whose Depression scarred narratives became bestsellers. His writing was first adapted to the screen in 1928 by William Wellman, who directed Tully’s loosely autobiographical Beggars of LifeLaughter in Hell was released on January 12, 1933 to poor reviews. Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times wrote that, “Where ‘I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang’ was real and dramatic, this current contribution is clumsy and doleful. It is scarcely the type of picture to appeal to audiences during the holiday season.”

Laughter in Hell’s downtrodden inmate is Barney Slaney (Pat O’Brien),  a Tennessee train engineer whose well-ordered life collapses when he catches his wife playing footsie with long-time enemy Grover Perkins (Arthur Vinton). He reacts indelicately, and is sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor. He is imprisoned in what looks like zoo animal cages, and the work camp’s director turns out to be Grover’s’ sociopathic brother Ed, so Barney wisely plans an escape.

It starts as pastoral and segues into nightmare. The rural Southern town of his youth is initially presented as a nurturing Laughter in Hellcommunity, cycling kids up the economic ladder from the mines to the trains. Barney is introduced as a soot-covered scamp working in a quarry when he receives word of his mother’s passing. Work is closely intertwined with death from the start.  His loss is mourned by the whole town, easing him back into civilization. Director Edward L. Cahn emphasizes this early unity by utilizing long shot pans of the quarry, taking in the groups of workers as they shout at each other to look for Barney. His childhood is a series of bumptious comedy following his initial loss, with old coot Civil War vets decrying technological advances (recorded discs of music) and his awkward shy guy routine winning over his sexually liberated wife Marybelle (Merna Kennedy).

Barney becomes increasingly paranoid about his wife’s erotic adventures, to the point of mental breakdown. Director Edward L. Cahn visualizes this breakdown in a series of complicated, almost experimental shots. He employs a hallucinatory montage of superimpositions during one of Barney’s train runs to convey his fracturing psyche. When he discovers his wife in flagrante delicto, Cahn uses repeated disorienting zooms to eliminate Barney from his surroundings. His violent actions have separated him from the community, and the film enters a somnambulistic state from here on out.

The actors begin speaking in foggy monotones, and the death drive takes over in some of the most despairing scenes in Depression-era cinema. His father promises to kill Barney in the courtroom if he is given the death penalty, but a life of hard labor is not a merciful fate. Barney’s pain is revealed to be just a drop in the oceanic horrors of the chain gang. It is the Black prisoners whose terror runs the deepest. Upon arriving, Barney witnesses a state-sanctioned lynching of four Black men. As the guards beat the other Black prisoners who are kneeling in prayer, Cahn begins a sLaughterInHell268eries of extreme close-ups of pug-faced White convicts who get one word each of these phrases in quick succession: “Ah, let ‘em pray,” “Yeah, it’s their religion.” Their faces blend together in a rictus of revulsion at the inhumanity of their captors. The final composition is of kneeling penitents in front of dangling legs, lead weights pulling them closer to the earth.

This pull of flesh towards the earth continues when the chain-gang is moved to a town stricken by the yellow fever. Their job is to dig a mass grave. Cahn picks out detail like the raised pickaxes and shuffling feet of the inmates, ritualized movements of the damned. Ed Perkins glowers at Barney and pal Abraham (a somber Clarence Muse), spitting at them that he’ll make them dig graves until they’re dead. In this literal pit of despair, the prisoners revolt, and Barney escapes into a kind of afterlife. On the road with a girl, he says he feels like a newly hatched eagle. That girl, Lorraine (Gloria Stuart), is also marked by death, her whole family having been killed by the fever. So they light out for the state line, with the assistance of a gimpy farmer who has no use for  Lincoln or Jefferson Davis. He is another unmoored soul, though one who has found a kind of groundedness in this borderland. It ends in mud and rain and a hope for a new beginning.

It is a fearfully intense and angry film, its revulsion with abuse of power and racism manifesting in Cahn’s unsettling use of zooms, extreme close-ups, and unorthodox framing. Its dreamlike atmosphere and violent, fable-like story continually reminded me of Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955). Both are journeys from darkness into light that seem far more attracted to the former, the lure of obliteration only assuaged by the presence of saintly women who prove that the light is worth pursuing. Edward L. Cahn is mainly known as a prolific purveyor of no-budget 1950′s genre fare (It: The Terror From Beyond Space, 1959), but with Laughter in Hell and the equally astonishing corruption noir Afraid to Talk (aka Merry-Go-Round, 1932), he is clearly an urgent subject for further research.

EDWARD L. CAHN’S YOU HAVE TO RUN FAST (1961)

April 10, 2012

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Edward L. Cahn directed 11 films in 1961, and You Have to Run Fast was one of them. MGM recently released it on their DVD burn-on-demand service in a crisp transfer, making it easy to appreciate the thriller’s tight construction and  open-air location shooting. The AFI Catalog lists no production dates but it was undoubtedly completed in a week or two before Cahn and producer Robert E. Kent moved on to the next programmer (17 of which are now streaming on Netflix). I was tipped to Cahn’s work by Dave Kehr’s “Further Research” column in the November/December 2011 Film Comment, where he says, “Cahn…seemed to embrace the aesthetic of speed with a passion and personal commitment not always apparent in the work of his more feverishly productive Poverty Row peers.” Cahn reportedly filmed “an astonishing 40 setups a day”, but as You Have to Run Fast clearly shows, they flow with an ironclad visual logic, and establish a moral equivalency between a mob boss and the innocent he is tracking down.

Dr. Roger Condon (Craig Hill) is at the wrong place at the wrong time, although that tends to happen when you run a private “Day and Night” medical service. Two goons dump a pummeled detective at his feet, who then dies moments later. Condon is now the only eyewitness to the two killers, whom he IDs to the police. Unwilling to be put into protective custody and close down his practice, a guard is assigned to him, who is promptly gunned down in the next sequence (see top images). Accurately appraising the skill of the cops, Condon changes his identity and leaves town. Authorities rarely come off well in Cahn’s work – an entire city is for sale in Afraid to Talk (1932) – resulting in what Kehr describes as Cahn’s worlds of “cruelty and callousness”. Condon shaves his ‘stache and turns up as “Frank Harlow” in quiet Summit City, where he counts down the hours before killer kingpin Craven (Grant Richards) tracks him down.

Not as fatalist as the Depression-scarred Afraid to TalkYou Have to Run Fast offers the possibility of starting anew. In Summit City (shot somewhere in woodsy Northern California) Condon forms a makeshift family with wheelchair-bound Colonel Maitland (Willis Bouchey) and his smitten daughter Laurie (Elaine Edwards). The Colonel is a Korean war vet who lost his legs from a mine and is eager to be useful again, while Laurie is going stir crazy as a pacifist in a hunting town. Condon allows the Colonel to exercise his hibernating machismo (rifle lessons), while offering Laurie some much-needed intellectual (and the possibility of physical) stimulation.  As Craven has trouble finding Condon, he notes matter-of-factly that, “there are a lot of guys hiding out in this country”. Condon is part of a nation of dissemblers hoping their next lie will lead them to the land of milk and honey, and he, for the moment, has found it.

As Craven hides from the police, Condon hides from Craven, and Cahn merges them closer together visually through match cuts. Both men are entrapped by events and enclosed in spartan accommodations.  Cahn rhymes images of them pensively reading the paper and snapping at their respective lady friends, and Condon is shown spying on the thugs who  spent the previous scene trailing him. Regardless of how they began on the moral spectrum, they become more and more alike. They are only “hero” and “villain” by the necessities of the plot; character-wise Cahn flattens their differences as much as possible, even having Craven apologize to Condon in the final shootout, in which they wear matching plaid hunting gear.

Cahn’s instinct for upending genre archetypes leads him to create the most entertaining characters in the film, Craven’s bumbling hired goons Bert (Shepherd Sanders) and “Toothpick Stan” (John Apone). Instead of sadistic mercenaries, they are an inquisitive if dense kind of comedy duo, with Bert playing the epicene straight man and Stan the mealy-mouthed punchline. Stan works his cheeks like a bellows before squeezing out lines like, “Why would the doc pick a jerkwater burg like this to hide out?” Bert then has to explain the whole concept of “hiding out”, his pinched gerbil face overactive at the effort. When they exchange their dunce parlance You Have to Run Fast becomes a downright light-hearted escapade, with Cahn’s dark worldview only peeking back in with the main narrative line.

The finale wraps up every little thematic nugget in resoundingly efficient fashion. The Colonel is tasked to return into action with his sniper rifle, Condon declares his love for Julie, and Craven is magnetically attracted to his double, arriving in Summit City and inevitably breaking down the door of the Maitland’s cabin, finally occupying the same diegetic space as Condon (who is hiding in the basement below). Obviously only one of these men can survive, now seeming like split parts of the same personality, and the big gunfight is framed in an abstracted long shot, the men dots in a  pointillist frame. When they finally converge, in the backseat of a sports car, Condon is the one holding the gun, so he gets to play the hero, get the girl and occupy center stage. In Cahn’s universe though, a hero is just a villain with an assumed name (and vice versa), giving this black & white cheapie an unsettling worldview that is assuredly shades of grey.

NETFLIXING: SHOWTIME’S REBEL HIGHWAY (1994)

November 8, 2011

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In one of the stranger experiments in cable television history, Showtime’s 1994 Rebel Highway series commissioned ten filmmakers to remake a 1950s exploitation movie. It was the brainchild of Lou Arkoff (the son of American International Pictures founder Samuel Z. Arkoff) and Debra Hill (producer of Halloween). They gave directors $ 1.3 million and a 12 day shooting schedule, to roughly approximate the original shooting conditions (modified for inflation). Unlike the ’50s cheapies, though, they were given final cut, and could choose their own screenwriter, editor and director of photography. This proved irresistible to the (mostly) impressive list of talents who signed on: Robert Rodriguez (Machete), John McNaughton (Wild Things), Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary), Allan Arkush (Rock ‘N’ Roll High School), Joe Dante (Gremlins), Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused), John Milius (Conan the Barbarian), William Friedkin (The Exorcist), Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) and Uli Edel (The Baader Meinhof Complex).

All of the filmmakers, except for Rodriguez, were old enough to have lived through the era of the film they remade, engaging the aesthetics and politics of the originals in strikingly different ways, alternating between affection and parody often in the same film. Since its original airing, the series has completely disappeared from cultural memory, but Netflix Watch Instantly, that haphazard repository of moving image detritus, is now streaming every entry, and it’s well worth sampling the project’s eccentric film-historical time travel. Below, some thoughts on my favorites.

Joe Dante’s Runaway Daughters, an adaptation of Edward L. Cahn’s 1956 AIP production, is one of the few entries to completely stand on its own as a feature. It is a companion piece to Matinee, Dante’s loving evocation of a 1950s movie-huckster, modeled on William Castle, that he made the previous year. Both films were written by Charlie Haas, and share a tone of gentle satire, about the paranoia brought on by the threat of nuclear war and the space race, respectively. Runaway Daughters follows three high school girlfriends who chase down the no-good boy who loved and left.  Working class Holly (Mary Nicholson) thinks she’s pregnant, and is convinced by rich girl Angie (Julie Bowen from Modern Family) and middle-class Laura (Jenny Lewis, who later formed indie-rock band Rilo Kiley) to track the dog down. So they steal a car and hit the road, intercepting the cad before he signs up for the Navy.

Dante opens the film with an irony-drenched  found footage montage set to “Let the Good Times Roll”, from a jubilant Eisenhower and Nixon, to the NAACP hung in effigy, and closing with the repressed sexual longings of I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), the title character getting hairy while watching a stretching gymnast. The longing on-screen enters the narrative, as the trio of not-so-repressed girls is watching Werewolf at a drive-in, necking with impunity and ignoring the metaphors on screen. One of the neckees is Paul Rudd in one of his earliest roles, playing Angie’s bad boy squeeze, Jimmy Rusoff (named after the original screenwriter, Lou Rusoff). Dante gifts Rudd with the catch phrase from Speed Crazy (1959, a major part of Dante’s mash-up Movie Orgy (’68)), “Don’t crowd me!”, which Rudd dishes with appropriate petulance to his greasy gearhead Dad (played against type by Fabian, a late ’50s teen idol).

From this opening scene, it’s clear the girls are more mature than the films representing them, although the Red Menace makes them shaky just like everyone else. Bob (Chris Young) gets in Holly’s pants by waxing poetic over Sputnik, which has just launched into space. For the rest of the movie, though, the phalluses fail. On their journey, the girls run into drunk cops and a gang of flaccid anti-commies, the only sympathetic voice brought by an uncredited cameo from Cathy Moriarty. The lone competent male is played by Dante-axiom Dick Miller, a crusty private detective with a reflexive disdain of the young and their newfangled perversions. He asks the girls’ parents if they ask their kids “about the strange night world of twisted kicks, of weird rituals and equipment? Of whips and chains and rubber balls and dildos and handcuffs?” In this world, it is clear the ladies have to take the world into their own hands, and so they do.

***

Robert Rodriguez’s Roadracers (adapted from the immortal Arthur Swerdloff version of 1959) lacks any of the historical identifiers of Runaway Daughters, taking place completely in Hollywoodland. The most stylized entry in the series, Rodriguez has no interest in interrogating the period, only in refining his style, which at this point was still potently kinetic, coming right after El Mariachi. It stars David Arquette as cynical greaser Dude (in an appropriately mannered performance), who cruises around town with his girl Donna (Salma Hayek) and his fidgety buddy Nixer (John Hawkes). The overriding mood is provided by Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is playing at the local cinema, and which Nixer returns to ritualistically. Dude doesn’t have to see it to know his town has been co-opted by evil. He’s chased by a sadistic cop (William Sadler) and his moderately sadistic son (Jason Wiles). Rodriguez institutes a rhythmic editing style, set up in the opening when he intercuts a rockabilly band and a car chasematching the downbeat with screeching turns. This tempo is maintained throughout, accessorized by swaggering slow-motion and low-angle anti-hero close-ups. As Dude grows more certain of the town’s rot, the images get more delirious and the action more violent, ending in a farrago of gleeful self-annihilation.

***

The most jaw-dropping part of the series is provided by the pen of Sam Fuller, who with his wife Christa provided the script for Girls in Prison, which was directed by John McNaughton (adapted from the 1956 Edward L. Cahn film). An overheated women-in-chains movie, it is graced by an opening of transcendent pulp paranoia. It  sets up the back-stories of the eponymous girls, in three bloody tales: a red-baiting newscaster gets bludgeoned to death with a hammer; a budding screenwriter (Ione Skye) mounts an Off-Broadway play, “The Witch Hunt”, that drives her father insane and leads her to savage a bigot with a broken bottle; and a budding country star (Missy Crider) is framed for the brutal stabbing of a abusive producer. Filmed with canted angles and looming shadows, it’s a wild and terrifying hallucination of a society spiked with a insatiable need for vengeance. It is impossible for the rest of the film to live up to this fever dream, but it goes through the rest of dramatic motions with enough pep and smarminess (including a deliciously vampy turn from Anne Heche) to make it a worthwhile sit.

***

Shake, Rattle and Rock is a joyful and reflective evocation of 50s rock musicals, this one a remake of the ’56 Edward L. Cahn movie about a town that tries to ban Rock ‘n’ Roll (for more on Cahn, check out Dave Kehr’s profile in a forthcoming Film Comment).  Directed by Allan Arkush in bright pastels and a wall-to-wall soundtrack of pop hits (from Fats Domino to Eddie Cochran), it is the most culturally precise movie in the series, along with Runaway Daughters. Renee Zellweger takes the lead as the rock aficionado whose parents just don’t understand. She first appears as a bouncing blur, singing along to Little Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It” (also used in the great Frank Tashlin film of the same name) in her bedroom, her addiction not outed to her parents until she appears dancing again on a local American Bandstand-type TV show, hosted by Danny Klay (Howie Mandel). Once Zellweger’s mom (Nora Dunn) sees this horrible gyrating, she gathers her sewing circle (including P.J. Soles from Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and a wonderfully bitchy Mary Woronov), to shut down the show and ban the music. There is also a subplot involving a black acapella group, “The Sirens”, who are trying to break through the town’s color barrier and hit it big, and who Zellweger teams up with to protect the town from her mom’s crew.

Arkush elicits effortlessly appealing performance from Zellweger, a perky ball of cashmere with a fierce sense of her personal rights. The director also has a light, and very funny, ironic touch in presenting the parents’ retrograde attitudes, but intimates that these comical buffoons are not a plot point to be overcome but the avatars of an entire culture. Instead of the expected ending of a bridged age-gap, it concludes on a note of muted despair, with freedom reluctantly deferred. It is unexpectedly the most political film of the series, robbing its characters of the young people’s bill-of-rights stated by Florine in Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme: “To be twenty years old, to be right, to keep hope, to be right when your government is wrong, to learn to see before learning to read.” For Zellweger, there is nothing to see and nothing to read, her only hope an escape to parts unknown.

For more information, please read Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of the series, in which he compares it to the French one produced by Arte, Tous les garcons et les filles de leur age.

TO SAVE AND PROJECT: THE MOVIE ORGY (1968) AND AFRAID TO TALK (1932)

October 25, 2011

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For nine years running, MoMA’s To Save and Project international festival of film preservation has showcased the latest celluloid surgery jobs by archives the world over. It’s the one place where film stock is still a fetish, each new print ogled with the entitled leer of a sozzled Miss Universe judge. So I was sent to my oft-used fainting couch when it was announced that a digital restoration would open this year’s fest (which runs through Nov. 25th).   This prestigious pole-position was granted to Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy (1968), a delirious mash-up of pop culture detritus, from psychotic b-movies to baffling Bufferin commercials.

Dante and Jon Davison edited the entire feature by hand, splicing in new scenes when intriguing material passed their way. Eventually the project ballooned to 7 hours, but with its broad humor, broads, and critique of the military-industrial complex, it toured college campuses under a Schlitz beer sponsorship. By the end of its run the print had more stitches than Frankenstein’s monster, without the salve of Karloff’s soulful stare. It would be unlikely to survive another trip through a projector. So Dante shoved the benighted thing through a film-to-tape transfer, and after some screenings on the West coast has finally brought his beast to the East. Now at a svelte 4 1/2 hours, it’s a marvel of gonzo editing. It contains an actual narrative, collapsing the apocalypses  of a bunch of sci-fi/teen rebel/horror cheapies into one mega-Armageddon, while finding time for mini-comedies and grace(less)-notes in between.

For this main narrative, I spotted the following titles: Speed Crazy (1959), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), Teenagers From Outer Space (1959), College Confidential (1960), The Giant Gila Monster (1959), Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), and Beginning of the End (1957). There are many more I couldn’t identify, but these images of nuclear paranoia are spread throughout, until Dante and Davison edit them together in a blaze of melodramatic parallel editing that would make D.W.  Griffith a little nauseous.

W.C. Fields, George Burns and Groucho Marx act as a bemused chorus during the chaos, used in reaction shots in response to whatever absurd travail Dante places before them (maybe Peter Graves gunning down locusts or Andy Devine singing “Jesus Loves You” with a cat and a gerbil). It’s the Kuleshov effect used for juvenile laughs, which I fully endorse. Dante uses this gag in other forms, once in an Eisenstinian montage, cutting from a dog training short to one for the Marines, or equally bluntly, from kids setting up a projector to a striptease. Dante is in full control of the editing-as-joke mechanism, and he wrings some hilarious bits out of it. Another routine worked through multiple variations is condensing an entire feature into a descriptive one-shot. In a B-dog-movie called (something like) “Rusty Comes Home”, he shows one scene of a dog running to a boy. “You came back!”.  Cut to “The End” credit.

Then there are the insane commercials, including a mind-melting series from Bufferin, in which a military recruiter sends a kid to war and a landlord evicts an elderly couple. Both use the pill to ease their guilty consciences. In the latter a building implodes behind the landlord as he pops his aspirin. These play more like parody than ad copy. The true star of Dante’s opus though, is Brett Halsey, the star of Speed Crazy (1959). Under the sensitively absent direction of William Hole, Jr., Halsey furrows his brow and strangles out his motto, “Don’t crowd me!”, thousands of times. Whether he’s chatting up a gum-smacking dame (in which crowding would seem to be the point) or stabbing a square authority figure, he repeats the phrase incessantly, as if Halsey forgot the rest of his lines. But he had already appeared in 20 movies, the absurdity of his repetition a likely result of compressed shooting times and a thin script. By the end, the audience was erupting in scattered cheers whenever Halsey appeared on-screen, as I would like to do for this entire low-brow masterpiece. Because of its endless copyright infringement, The Movie Orgy will never appear on home video, so rush to see it if it ever plays near you.

***

The other highlight of the festival for me was Edward L. Cahn’s Afraid to Talk (1932), a brutally despairing corruption drama, based on the play Merry-Go-Round by Albert Maltz and George Sklar. Made during the depths of the Great Depression, it exhibits a totalizing distrust of authority, with Chicago city officials displayed as more comprehensively criminal than the gangsters they are ostensibly supposed to pursue. Jig Skelli (Edward Arnold) kills kingpin Jake Stranskey (Robert Warwick) to take over his racket. When he’s rousted for the crime, he simply flashes Stranskey’s records, which implicate every major  Chicago official as on the take, from the DA’s office to the Mayor’s. Needing a scapegoat, the cops pin the murder on bell boy Eddie Martin (Eric Linden), almost beating him to death to force a confession.

Cahn and DP Karl Freund (Metropolis) visualize the back-scratching corruption of the government through shifting group shots. At police chief Frank Hyers’ (Ian Maclaren) well-appointed pad, the top officials often gather around the table to pop champagne and talk jubilantly of their double dealings. Hyers is framed to his left by the Mayor (a red-faced Berton Churchill) and Assistant DA Wade (Louis Calhern). On the right District Attorney Anderson (Tully Marshall) and a rotating cast of underlings. They are framed in long shot, with a receding hallway behind them. Down that hallway comes an indistinguishable mass of Fedora’d newspapermen, walking in lockstep, resigned to regurgitate the party line.

This grouping of power is contrasted to configurations of weakness, specifically in the initial interrogation of Eddie, who is the point of a triangle between Wade and Anderson. Later in this sequence Eddie’s wife Peggy (Sidney Fox) is subjected to an intensely close two-shot, in which Wade leans over her prone body as she rests her head in her hands. These different figural arrangements reach a climax in Eddie’s second interrogation, when his confession needs to be forced. There the cops, after flicking the overhead lamp to tick-tock over their heads, converge to make an airtight boundary around him, the image just one hulking mass of black wool suit. In this shot all of Eddie’s subjectivity is erased, to be halfway restored in the still-pessimistic conclusion. The governmental pack is thinned out, but the structures that allowed for Eddie’s blotting out are still firmly in place, as the news ticker trumpets another mission accomplished.