Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Brahm's Concerto #1

The man above is the late movie and television director, John Brahm. In 1944, he remade a film originally done by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, called The Lodger. In 1998, director Gus Van Sant also remade a film by Hitchcock called Psycho. Most people have heard of Van Sant's remake. Most haven't heard of Brahm's or his amazing follow up, Hangover Square. That's a shame. 

I know I'm beating a dead horse, or more accurately, stomping on the cremated ashes of a syphilitic mule, but I was really irritated by the Psycho remake. Maybe it's because I'd since seen someone do a far superior job of remaking one of the Hitchcock's films, maybe it's because the movie was such a discordant attempt to simultaneously update and nostalgia-fy a classic, but whatever the case, the Psycho redux was a mess. There were basically three glaring flaws with Van Sant's redo. Most importantly, the decision to film in color instead of the original's black and white fundamentally changed its gothic horror feel and not for the better. It's surprising just how little any added color it takes to change the stark and moody atmosphere of the original. Van Sant not only changed it, but exacerbated the situation by turning the hue contrast up to 11. The technicolor-like wardrobe choices were especially distracting and wildly out of place. Secondly, the anachronistic qualities of the film were often disconcerting and lacked the original's timeless quality. This was not unexpected as Van Sant was simultaneously matching shots from a 60's film in a 90's world. But why does Lila Crane sport a 90's Walkman, Norman Bates wear an 80's Zubaz shirt, and the local sheriff's wife make a call from her modern home phone by picking it up and ringing a 50's switchboard operator Mayberry-style? Was Van Sant trying to do a Pulp Fiction-like retro nod? If so, it was a huge misfire and just as distracting as the color blitzkrieg. If not, it was an egregious blunder someone should have pointed out early on in the filmmaking process. The third bad decision was the cast. Filling an iconic role is a losing proposition at best if you're a mediocre screen presence and Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche are tired, bland smirk-iness personified. Even the ever reliable Viggo Mortensen and William Macy look like they'd given up and were just going through the motions. The only actor who looked the least bit interested and actually gives an original cast member a run for the money, is Julianne Moore in the Vera Miles role. She actually brought some energy and emotion to the role and occasionally kept me engaged. But her presence wasn't enough to hold my attention for long due to bizarre casting choices like Flea and James Legros whose odd presence took me right out of the film. Ultimately, all the errors in judgement should be placed squarely at the feet of Van Sant who seemed to paradoxically want an exact duplicate of Hitchcock's Psycho that was nevertheless significantly different from it. Subliminal images, were they in the original? Van Sant set himself up for this contradictory failure by playing it safe and following precisely in Hitchcock's footprints - except when he decided to throw in some trivial but irritating weirdness that did nothing but annoy.  The only correct move he made was to re-use the Bernard Herrmann score, which of course, John Brahm could have told him was the right choice.

What does Henry Bemis have to do with this discussion? Simple, if you look up John Brahm's name in Wikipedia, it will tell you he was known primarily for directing 12 episodes of the original Twilight Zone including the classic episode, Time Enough at Last with Burgess Meredith as the bespectacled bookworm. Brahm also directed one of the finest of the original Outer Limits episodes, The Bellero Shield, and one of the best Thriller episodes, The Watcher. In fact, most of  his latter career was spent directing TV including, not surprisingly, over a dozen episodes combined of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. And therein lay the irony, the man who remade a Hitchcock classic that was, by most accounts, better than the original, wound up directing TV episodes for the man he once bested. I wonder if Hitch would have let Gus Van Sant work on his shows...

The Lodger was originally a black and white silent thriller made by Hitchcock in 1927. It starred Ivor Novello in the title role as a mysterious man who rents a room from a London family at a time when a serial killer known as The Avenger is stalking blonde women in the city. Like many films of the era, it is quite melodramatic and stage-y featuring overly long reaction shots from the actors. Even conceding the early limitations of a medium in its adolescence, Hitchcock's original falls well short of Brahm's remake in many respects. First and foremost is the cast, particularly Laird Cregar in the titular role, who makes Novello's lodger character in the original look absolutely wimpy and safe by comparison. Cregar's bulky 6'3", 300 pound frame alone makes him more imposing, but add to that his striking visage, bulging eyes and a voice that's sounds like a cross between Vincent Price and Orson Welles, and it makes for one of the biggest character role mismatches in cinema history. Cregar's acting skills, whether speaking or not, are also far superior to Novello's. It's one thing to have the tools, another to employ them well, and Cregar does in a magnetic and subdued performance. The other players in the remake are made up of some great Fox all-stars of the time including Merle Oberon, George Sanders, Sara Allgood and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. This group complemented Cregar perfectly, especially Oberon who also blows her original counterpart, June, out of the water in terms of screen presence, sex appeal and acting skills. Secondly, the story was re-written by Barré Lyndon with Jack the Ripper himself as the serial killer, a character implied by the original's Avenger, but never expressly stated. It's sounds like a small change but that historical character brings much more gravitas then the near-beer, stand-in version of 1927. There are also major changes to Cregar's character that work much better in building suspense, and the story's ending is far superior to the original's upbeat, yet tepid, weak tea. The remake was professionally produced by Robert Bassler with elaborate studio sets that simulate nicely the foggy London streets. The Victorian era garb is exquisitely reproduced adding much to the atmosphere as well. Brahm's direction takes full advantage of all these elements, wisely emphasizing Cregar's physicality, but never forgetting to build atmosphere with many nice overhead and street level shots of the city's set. In short, it's a magnificent production that improved on numerous components of the original while keeping the basic story and upgrading the thriller aspects. The remake of The Lodger was such a large commercial and critical success that Fox essentially put the same team together including producer Bassler, writer Lyndon, stars Cregar and Sanders, and director John Brahm to make another film in a similar vein the following year. Brahm had just outdone Hitchcock, with Hangover Square, he topped himself.

With heavy elements of noir and gothic horror, Hangover Square (1945) was Brahm's somewhat tonal sequel to The Lodger. Laird Cregar returned to play another sympathetic but flawed protagonist, George Harvey Bone,  an up-and-coming, London classical composer who suffers from stress related, fugue-like blackouts triggered by auditory dissonance. The film again co-stars George Sanders, this time as a Scotland Yard M.D., who initially helps Bone but subsequently suspects him of murder. Linda Darnell plays a very manipulative, noir-ish femme fatale that takes advantage of Bone and Faye Marlowe plays the good girl/sponsor who introduces Bone to her symphony conductor father (Alan Napier).
The other major star of the film, which goes uncredited but gets more screen time than anyone, is fire. Most critics mention the three major blazes that break out during the film (two of which are phenomenal both in terms of the story and visually) but fail to mention what a ubiquitous character fire is from first frame to last. The opening shot of the film is the flame from a street vendor's chestnut roasting cart and there are gas lit streets outdoors and candle lit interiors. There's even a construction pit outside Bone's residence with kerosene lanterns ringing it like Victorian era traffic cones. It's no coincidence that Brahm uses, and indeed, emphasizes flame or fire imagery at every turn. Not only does this work thematically to remind the viewer of the hellishness of Bone's obsessions, it also provides some fantastic gothic/noir atmosphere in virtually every scene. 

Brahm must have done some meticulous storyboarding as each shot is beautifully framed and composed. Brahm made use of high contrast shots, shooting from overhead, ground level and even some nice sweeping shots to highlight the urban sets and maintain visual interest. Over and over again, an otherwise ordinary scene would be enhanced by an interesting camera point of view or movement.

The film was cinematographer Joseph LaShelle's next project after he won the Academy Award for Laura and his work here is peerless as well. The lighting had to have been a struggle but everything was photographed clean, crisp and well illuminated, even in a scene where Sanders is intentionally photographed in deep shadow with Cregar well lit. 

As in Brahm's version of The Lodger, Cregar again puts in a great, sympathetic performance and is strongly supported by Sanders, Darnell, and surprisingly, a 17-year old Faye Marlowe in her first role in which she shows some incredible poise for a newcomer among veteran actors. Cregar's believability as a composer is aided immeasurably by his ability to actually play the piano and Brahm takes full advantage with several shots of Cregar's hands on the right keys matching the score. Darnell is drop dead sexy especially in her first cabaret number and does some subtle acting considering her character's one dimensional scope.

What elevates the film to an unequivocal masterpiece, is the 11-minute concert at its climax. I have never seen anything approximating this sequence in film. Bernard Herrmann's brilliant composition is somehow woven seamlessly into the plot as Bone plays the completed concerto while the same music simultaneously comments on the finale's events. The composition being played is scored perfectly to the events that unfold despite a change in pianist - twice! It's tough to explain and really needs to be experienced to fully understand and appreciate what Brahm and Herrmann pulled off, but this is one of the greatest endings in cinema - beautifully conceived, shot, scored, acted, edited and executed. The movie elements are so varied and intricate in this final scene, yet Brahm smoothly puts them all together and makes them flow with the Herrmann score perfectly.

In 2009, some guy named Ansel Faraj did a remake of Hangover Square. I think I'll skip it.

Psycho (1960) - 8/10
Psycho (1998) - 4/10
The Lodger (1927) - 7/10
The Lodger (1944) - 8/10
Hangover Square (1945) - 9/10
Hangover Square (2009) - ?/10

Monday, July 8, 2013

Around the World with Cameron Mitchell (part II)

And now on with the Cameron Mitchell world tour...

South Africa

Highlights: ESP-y Cam, baggy-cide and shower curtain-fu.

OK, Part I of the trip ended with some high-fallutin' Swedish art house cinema, so let's change it up by moving on to a gritty South African slasher from 1981, Percival Rubens' The Demon. In it, our boy Cameron stars as a pillow-thrashing, seemingly constipated, irritatingly ineffectual clairvoyant. The story gets out of the gate very quickly with a giallo-like predator kidnapping a girl after attempting to take out her mother in disturbing fashion with a Glad sandwich baggy. Slightly unstable psychic Colonel Bill Carson (Mitchell) is subsequently called in by the missing girl's parents to track down the killer, or find their daughter - it depends on which parent you ask. Carson attempts to accomplish his tasks by immediately tearing up the missing daughter's bedroom pillow, because apparently, that's just how he gets the job done. The story then switches to two pretty nursery school teachers/cousins/roommates and follows them (as does the killer, sort of) while they go about their lives.
The most interesting thing about The Demon (also written and produced by Rubens), is the sub-genre and story conventions that it breaks. The killer is shot mostly in third-person and appears liberally throughout the film sans mask, although he does in fact own one, but oddly chooses not to dawn it until his battle with the final girl. Similarly, he does not wear his special pre-NoES metal fingernail gloves (as seen in the movie poster), until the last act but instead opts for his weapon of choice, the sandwich bag. Speaking of which, the final showdown is a pretty enjoyable head-scratcher as the heroine gets naked to distract the killer with her diversionary bathrobe and then gears up in a shower curtain and cap before going mano a mano with him. I don't think I've seen this strategy employed before but I rather liked it, inexplicable as it was. Another broader break with convention involves a darkly humored plot twist that abruptly ends a story thread I was certain would continue to the climax. It was a ballsy move by Percival on one hand, but on the other, it makes the entire plot line somewhat superfluous and stretches character believability beyond the breaking point. Nevertheless, it was these types of unusual choices that made the film more intriguing than the average slasher. Of course a lot of the sub-genre's tropes are present like the much welcome nudity of the two female leads who are far better looking than the typical 'some nudity required' actresses that usually show up in these things.
The main problem with the film was that the sporadic pacing, lackluster dialogue and the uninspired soundtrack often killed the momentum and atmosphere the filmmakers had initially struggled to build. The beginning and ending of the story moved right along as the killer attempted to commit bag-icide, but there were stretches in the middle with the lead girls, especially when with their respective boyfriends, that are yawn-inducing. They were decent enough actresses but I think the script left them floundering with mundane lines at times. Mitchell himself seemed stiff and uncertain about what he was doing which is odd because I've seen him with much more confidence in much worse films. The composed music was predictable, strictly by-the-numbers stuff and did nothing to create mood or unease. Even the pre-recorded songs were incredibly on-the-nose, like Lipps Inc's, Funkytown played in the local disco or The Sugar Hill Gang's Rapper's Delight that's overheard through the walls of an urban building.
Overall, the film is only slightly above average horror with a few interesting moments but an uncertain performance by Mitchell. I wouldn't recommend to any but ardent fans of slashers.



Next stop, Manila, where Mitchell plays Harry Dodd, a sea captain who attempts to ferry a holiday cruise liner filled with martial arts fans to a legendary island so scary even the Japanese army wouldn't occupy it during WWII. Raw Force, aka Kung Fu Cannibals from 1982, is a low budget cheese-fest that has a little of everything including Filipino cannibal monks, captive naked women, martial arts zombie/ghosts, a nagging, do-ragged yenta and Hitler's greedy cousin. The elements of comedy, action, soft-core, and horror change like the weather and give the film a somewhat enjoyable train wreck quality as it carelessly jumps from one genre to another at will. It's a dumb, fun romp that mandates viewers check their brains at the door for maximum enjoyment. And although writer/director Charles Murphy's opus lacks the polish of a film by someone like Andy Sidaris, it's not for lack of enthusiasm. Even Mitchell looks to be having a good time in this seat-of-the-pants trash-fest playing the crabby, cantankerous captain who is constantly sparring with the ship's whiny, female, uber-Jewish owner, Hazel Buck, played with gusto by Hope Holiday. Despite some rough editing and the shipboard blackout-like comedy scenes which tend to overstay their welcome, the film moves along quite nicely frequently shifting genres and characters before atrophy can set in. I was happy to see that Mitchell's Dodd and his harpy boss Hazel were along for the ride throughout the movie as they give it some much needed anchoring with their bickering presence and there's a nice payoff to their characters at the end. Though the film doesn't quite live up to the awesomeness or production value its poster would suggest, it's still an enjoyable whacky B-film.


We travel back to the west, in more ways than one, in the 1971 Mexican production, El sabor de la venganza (The Taste of Vengeance) aka An Eye for an Eye. Not to be confused with the similarly titled Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent Spanish western from 1966, this film follows the newer, darker stylistic trail set by Euro-westerns of the late 60's and early 70's.
The story gets out of the starting blocks quickly as a father and son are ruthlessly gunned down on their ranch by some bad hombres. It turns out, the son Judd, (Jorge Luke) was not killed and his vengeance-minded mother Sara (Isela Vega) subsequently grooms him to be a gunfighter with the help of a seasoned, world-weary killer. This sensei character is, of course, played by Cameron Mitchell in a role that seems tailor-made for him. Although I was expecting it to be just a walk-on part for Mitchell, he actually plays a significant role and is the conscience of the piece. Vega, as the Lady Macbeth-type mother, is really solid as well and even brings a nice bit of brutal payback down on a would-be masher ranch-hand early in the proceedings. In fact, the most surprising thing about the film was the violence which was harsh, unflinching and down right cold-blooded on more than one occasion. Oft-times, and fittingly, it was the vengeance-obsessed, protagonist Judd who was the most egregious at doling out the merciless violence even going to the extremes of committing rape and shooting an innocent man in the back. Judd's metamorphosis into a soulless killer is predicted by Mitchell's character early on when he warns the mother "you don't want him to turn out like me" and fits in quite nicely thematically speaking. The director, Alberto Mariscal, may have been a little heavy-handed in bringing his point home, but then again, Mexican cinema is not exactly known for its subtlety, and in this instance, the over-the-top, cold blooded aspect of the the lead character, Judd, was its strongest feature and really drove the point home. Unfortunately, Jorge Luke, is fairly average in screen presence so the character's change is not as chilling as it could have been. The villains are likewise nondescript which lessens the satisfaction of seeing them get their comeuppance. The look of the film is not bad, and though it lacks the style of its Italian counterparts, Mariscal occasionally pulls off a nice camera angle. The ultra-closeups favored by most Latin cinema are very present but happily aren't overused. I wish the soundtrack had been more present as the film really suffers from the absence of any mood-enhancing music. Overall though, the film was a better-than-expected, gritty and violent surprise with a decent turn by Mitchell. It's a bit tough to find, but worth a watch if you enjoy Euro-type westerns.


United States 

Finally, we're back where we started in sunny Cali- whaaaaat? Cuba? No, not really, it's actually Los Angeles doubling for Havana with a couple of well-placed Spanish-language signs in the 1959 slight error in political judgement called Pier 5, Havana. In this too-timely political/crime thriller, Mitchell stars as Steve Daggett, a Miami businessman who has come to post-Bastista Havana to find his friend who disappeared during the revolution.
While most modern day American filmmakers remain cautiously neutral when it comes to the internal political upheavals of other countries, B-movie king, Edward L. Cahn, had no such compunctions portraying the Castro revolution as a heroic liberation of the island from the Batista regime. The fact that the cartoonish-ly evil baddies in the story are hell-bent on overthrowing the new leader and restoring power to Batista exemplifies the movie's, largely de-facto, pro-Castro bent. It's an instantly dated point of view and amusing in it's naivety but ultimately forgivable considering the US's fair weather foreign policy. Also unintentionally humorous is the newly appointed, pro-Castro, police chief of Havana, Lt Garcia (Michael Granger), who seems to serve as yankee businessman Daggett's personal guardian angel. Garcia's entire job seems to involve waiting around for Daggett to get in over his head and then pulling his fat from the fire. Who knew Castro's cops would be so helpful to the Americanos?
As much fun as I had with the wonky politics of the film, they really take a backseat to the Daggett character's story which involves finding his friend, reconnecting with an old flame and fighting off those nefarious Batista-ites. The crime thriller aspect was the real crux of the film with the recent Cuban revolution more backdrop than anything else. In this respect, and taking into consideration the movie's low budget B-ness, it really works quite well. The pacing is quick, action is peppered throughout, the love interest angle is interesting and the political intrigue is engaging enough to hold attention throughout. Director Cahn, who worked on over one hundred low budget pictures was extremely competent and knew just what was needed to move a story along while still keeping it intelligible and digestible. Mitchell, as the lead, is at the top of his game with an action oriented, hard-bitten character who is both tough and vulnerable. B-movie goddess, Allison Hayes, is also very good as the old flame and adds an element of smolder-y-ness. The only real downside are the villains who are a pretty generic bunch with the exception of Otto Waldis who plays the appropriately named Schluss. All in all, the movie is a technically well-crafted, fun little 68 minute political anomaly with Mitchell and Hayes as the highlights.


I hope you enjoyed our trip around the world with Cameron Mitchell. The guy acted in some very entertaining and often off-kilter movies in some pretty disparate places. This and the previous post are just a small sample of his sizable filmography. If you want to continue the journey, I'd also recommend the following:

Blood and Black Lace (1964) M. Bava
Minnesota Clay (1964) S. Corbucci
Death of a Salesman (1951) L. Benedek
Monkey on my Back (1957) A. De Toth
Flight to Mars (1951) L. Selander (For lovers of fine quality cheese only)