Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Top 30 first-time film watches of the year

I never realized how much I liked older films until I started keeping track of what I watched. Of the 800+ films I've seen this year, for example, over 675 of them were more than 25 years old and 350 of those were filmed in black and white. While I did revisit some old favorites, the majority were first time watches. I think one reason I gravitate towards older cinema is the notion that there are great movies out there that have been sitting around patiently for decades waiting to be rediscovered. This year, I heard about or found some amazing stuff, some of which was from well known directors like Fritz Lang, Jean-Pierre Melville and Michael Powell, and some by more off-the-radar, but skilled craftsmen, like John Brahm, Duccio Tessari and Budd Boetticher. The discoveries range from low budget, obscurities to epic productions but the thing they all share is some surprising quality component like an outstanding script, original idea and/or stylistic execution that makes the films distinctive stand-outs. So without further verbiage, he are my top 30 discoveries of 2013 in descending order:

30. The Creation of the Humanoids (1962) Dir. Wesley Barry
Written by Jay Simms who also wrote the underrated Panic in the Year Zero! the same year, the film is a low budget, stage-bound production bit of retro-cheese that nevertheless succeeds due to the daring and intelligent script. Thematically, the film was far ahead of its time with a potent message about tolerance in general and mixed marriage in particular. Like all good science fiction, it veils its subtext with its futuristic setting but one could easily substitute any minority for the androids and be relevant in modern day culture. Some may have trouble getting past the cheap, world-of-tomorrow look of the film, but it's depth and dialogue truly resonate.

29. This Is Not a Test (1962) Dir. Fredric Gadette
Another low budget speculative fiction film from 1962 that's suffers from several deficiencies including poor editing and stiff acting but whose story idea is simple, tension-filled and extremely effective.

28. The North Star (1943) Dir. Lewis Milestone
Odd war-time film that got Samuel Goldwyn some grief from the House Un-American Activities Committee after WWII for its alleged pro-communist perspective. It's an unusual combination of musical and dramatic film with a high profile American cast playing Ukrainian peasants who must deal with the German invasion. Even though it's uneven and mainstream in a lot of ways, the film gets surprisingly dark and tense in its last two acts.

27. The Last Voyage (1960) Dir. Andrew L. Stone
Robert Stack struggles to rescue his family in a quickly sinking ocean liner with a little help from big Woody Strode. Fast-paced and set in a real ocean liner, this is a very engaging and intimate disaster film that commands attention throughout. George Sanders, who plays the captain of the doomed ship, appears multiple times on this list for good reason.

26. La Morte Risale a Ieri Sera (Death Occurred Last Night) (1970) Dir. Duccio Tessari
Another solid procedural giallo from Tessari, who also directed Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate (The Bloodstained Butterfly) and L'uomo senza memoria (Puzzle). Featuring strong lead performances by Raf Vallone as the distraught father of a kidnapping victim and personal favorite Frank Wolff as the jaded but still sympathetic and practical lead detective. The story effectively alternates between the two men's perspectives and is engaging throughout.

25. The Unsuspected (1947) Dir. Michael Curtiz
Being a fan of old time radio, this unsung little noir from the director of Casablanca was right in my wheelhouse. Claude Rains stars as a Welles-type radio show host who becomes involved with real life murder. Audrey Totter, who gets some of the best lines, is also a standout in a supporting role as Rains' greedy, acerbic niece. Definitely influenced by some other classic noir, like Laura, but that's not a bad thing at all.

24. Ill Met by Moonlight aka Night Ambush aka Intelligence Service (1957) Dirs. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Maybe it was low expectations, as this last Powell/Pressburger collaboration tends to get slammed even by the director, but I quite enjoyed the 'men-on-a-mission' and camaraderie aspects of the film. Dirk Bogarde is particularly charming, daring and cheeky as the British resistance leader and local legend "Philedem". Had this not been an "Archers" film with all the artistic quality implications, I think it would have gotten more respect as the good-natured action/adventure ride that it is.

23. Miranda (1948) Dir. Ken Annakin
Speaking of cheeky, there's no way this film would ever have gotten past code restrictions had it been made in the US. Even for a UK film, it's a little bold in its implied sexual attitude and ending punchline for 1948. Glynis Johns is devastatingly charming and not-so-innocently flirty as the man-crazy title character, plus the script is surprisingly intelligent and mature for a light comedy. The range-y Ken Annakin, who's directed everything from The Battle of the Bulge to The Pirate Movie, did a nice job on this one as well giving it a much classier look than most comedies of the time. It's one of the most enjoyable mermaid films I've yet seen.

22. Un esercito di 5 uomini (The Five Man Army) (1969) Dir. Don Taylor 
Euro-western with a familiar plot and characters, however, it's the execution and pacing that really impress along with the solid cast. Peter Graves, whose usually as stiff as a board, delivers one of his best performances as the team leader and it's always a pleasure to see Bud Spencer.

21. A Cold Wind in August (1961) Dir. Alexander Singer
It sounds tawdry as hell - a 17-year old boy hooking up with a mature stripper - but the film is surprising in its sensitive, intelligent and mature approach to the characters and their not-just-sexual relationship. Scott Marlowe and Lola Albright are very good in the lead roles, having more than a little chemistry together and Joe DeSantis is perfect as the young man's wise, likable father. There are a few flaws along the way, including a badly edited, poorly shot, unsexy strip tease, but the core characters and their relationships kept me involved throughout.

20. Nancy Drew, Reporter (1939) Dir. William Clemens
Bonita Granville is pluckiness personified in the lead role and Frankie Thomas is likable as her put-upon pal who once again gets sucked into her amateur crime-solving shenanigans. The movie is much more of an entertaining light comedy than serious mystery, and on that level, it succeeds well. I even loved the Adventures in Babysitting moment when everyone has to sing for their supper.

19. Winnetou 1. Teil aka Apache Gold (1963) Dir. Harald Reinl
I'd been curious about the Winnetou films for awhile as they share the same cast members, directors and crew as some of my favorite krimi movies. Also, a 60's German-made film about the American west sounds intriguingly weird to say the least. I expected the movie to be a groan-inducing copy of an old-fashioned American western but was pleased to find out it had its own unique perspective and style. What surprised me most about Winnetou I was the beautiful blue and green color pallet that was derived from shooting in the mountains and canyons of Croatia. Unlike Italian westerns that are mostly filmed in Spain to achieve the bleak, dusty American southwest desert earth tones, the German production is beautifully alive with bright blue skies, rich green hillsides and roiling rivers evoking the more northwestern regions of the States. Many of the exteriors are truly stunning and shot with surprisingly high quality cinematography. The story itself is more of a traditional 'white-hat' western but does contain some significant thematic differences in regard to the attitude toward the Native Americans and the exploitation of the environment. If you're a connoisseur of westerns, Winnetou 1. Teil deserves a place at the table.

18. Too Late for Tears (1949) Dir. Byron Haskin
All bets are off from very early on in this unpredictable thriller which features jaw-dropping plot twists that just don't stop. Lizabeth Scott plays a character so subtly cold-blooded and greedy that she manages to completely demoralize Dan Duryea's smooth-talking tough guy and just about destroy his soul. Yet Scott is anything but the typical man-eating femme-fatale, she's more subdued and tougher to get a bead on. Duryea's character starts out as the typical slick, cocky, smart-alecky guy he usually plays but becomes downright sympathetic when he finds he's met up with someone far worse than himself. It's not the best looking noir, owing to some drab, apartment interiors, and I wish De Fore's role had been played by Mitchum or Ryan, but what the film lacks in style and A-listers, it more than makes up for in character and story.

17. The Last Sunset (1961) Dir. Robert Aldrich
Kirk Douglas is perfectly cast and owns the screen in this western melodrama that features a very impressive cast right down to the bit players. Douglas plays a ne'er-do-well who shows up at old flame Dorothy Malone's hacienda in Mexico to try and rekindle their teen romance despite having lawman Rock Hudson on his tail and Malone now being married to Joseph Cotton. Even though it's not a typical action western, the melodrama really works thanks to Dalton Trumbo's screenplay, Aldrich's picturesque direction and Douglas' dark gray but extremely charismatic character.

16. The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) Dir. Jean Negulesco
The first of three underrated films made in the 40's teaming director Negulesco with Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Lorre plays a writer who becomes interested the history of a recently deceased master criminal named Dimitrios Makropoulos. Greenstreet is a mysterious man who befriends Lorre and shares his interest but won't disclose why. The film features two of the more substantial roles for Lorre/Greenstreet with the last twenty minutes epitomizing the incredible chemistry the pair have when playing off each other.

15. The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945) Dir. Robert Siodmak
Just prior to The Spiral Staircase and The Killers, Siodmak directed this odd, under-seen noir that starts out with George Sanders as the likable, titular character, Harry Quincey, living in the family manor with his two eccentric, grown sisters. Geraldine Fitzgerald plays the beautiful Lettie, who is chronically ill with the vapors and Moyna MacGill is the well-meaning flibbertigibbet sister, Hester. Strangely, Sanders plays an incredibly down-to-earth, Jimmy Stewart-like everyman for a change which he pulls off in convincing fashion. Everything is fine and kind of light-hearted early on until love comes to town for Harry in the form of a business associate played by Ella Raines. Family friction then ensues to say the least. What's bizarre yet great about the story and Sanders' character is just how dark they both get after starting out so pleasant and breezy. There's what feels like a code-mandated ending, but had the last two minutes of the film been cut, it would have had one of the most awesome, downer noir endings of all time. But as eye-rolling and forced as the tacked-on ending is, it brings the tone back to where it initially started. The ending doesn't feel entirely inappropriate, just a bit of a cop-out.  Seeing him play against type as an unconfident character was one of the pleasures of the film and Geraldine Fitzgerald was equally impressive in her character arc.

14. The Burglar (1957) Dir. Paul Wendkos
This low key, late-cycle noir works on every level - from the top-notch debut directorial efforts of Wendkos, to the tight self-adapted screenplay by novelist David Goodis to Duryea's defeated, hangdog performance, to a very surprising, serious turn by Mansfield who never came close to being this good or believable again in film. The second act slows down a bit as some necessary backstory is told, but the beginning of the movie starts out in a wonderfully unorthodox manner then gets right down to business. The carnival-set finale, which is laden with symbolism, pays off the story exceptionally well.

13.  The Damned aka These Are the Damned (1963) Dir. Joseph Losey

"Black Leather, Black Leather, Rock, Rock, Rock,
Black Leather, Black Leather, Smash, Smash, Smash, 
Black Leather, Black Leather, Kill, Kill, Kill,
You know leather love is way out of line..."

A distinctively odd mixture of seemingly disparate story components and characters that nevertheless come together quite nicely and blend thematically as well. It's a disturbing picture in more ways than one, and features a riveting, droog-like performance by young Oliver Reed and the repetitive, yet somehow still enjoyable, opening theme song, "Black Leather". But it's the script with its theme of toxic youth that is the film's greatest strength.

12.  California (1977) Dir. Michele Lupo
Maybe the last quality spaghetti western, it features one of Giuliano Gemma's finest performances, a dark post-civil war story with some surprising turns and a hatable villain in Raimund Harmstorf's antagonist. The film engages immediately with its atmospheric opening scene at a rain-soaked POW camp and features a great fist fight at its climax but the best component is the bittersweet emotional undercurrent embodied in Gemma's character.

11. The Tall T (1957) Dir. Budd Boetticher
Arguably includes the best cast of any of the Ranown pictures rivaled only by Ride Lonesome. I was particularly impressed with Richard Boone as the bad guy's ring leader who dislikes his own henchmen and prefers the company of captive Randolph Scott. The Elmore Leonard influence can be felt early on in a chilling moment involving a well which puts the audience on notice that this is anything but the sentimental, feel-good western it starts out as.

10. Le Doulos (1962) Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
Nothing makes me happier than being completely fooled by a story or character and this one pulls it off so beautifully it made me immediately re-watch the whole thing. The Melville adapted screenplay based on a Pierre Lesou novel is a seemingly simple slow-burn that nevertheless cleverly fakes the viewer out. Belmondo is superb in the lead role and Melville's direction is up to his usual high quality standards.

9. Three Strangers (1946) Dir. Jean Negulesco
After watching The Mask of Dimitrios, I immediately pulled the trigger on a blind-buy for this unusually-premised noir which re-teams Lorre/Greenstreet with Negulesco and throws in Geraldine Fizgerald and a script co-written by John Huston for good measure. Unlike Dimitrios, each of the three main characters have their own separate storyline with only a small amount of interaction between the principles at the beginning and end of the film. This is not a bad thing though as each lead gets to strut their stuff with interesting, self-destructive, darkly comic characters. Greenstreet puts in an enjoyably sweaty, desperate performance that's far from the bemused and reserved character he usually plays. Fitzgerald believably takes her character from charming and likable to obsessive and scary. Lorre gives the coolest, most charismatic performance as a flawed but likable guy who displays a relaxed, fatalistic attitude toward his situation while still caring for his friends. Although it doesn't have the intrigue, smoky atmosphere or gravity of Dimitrios, I think it's a much deeper film that amusingly wears its cynicism on its sleeve.

8. Je vous salue, mafia (Hail, Mafia) (1965) Dir. Raoul Lévy
French black-and-white Euro-crime with a story that feels very Melville-like owing to the Pierre Lesou source material. Although Lévy obviously doesn't possess the same skills as Melville, the film nevertheless works in the same existential, minimalist fashion. Silva and Klugman are interesting as the two disparate hit men, the monochromatic look accentuates the stark, bleak tone of the film and the ending is amazing in both story and execution.

7. On Dangerous Ground (1951) Dirs. Nicholas Ray, Ida Lupino
Classic noir with two powerhouse performances by Ryan and Lupino. Great contrasting settings to go along with the contrasting characters.

6.  Le Samouraï (1967) Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
Stripped to the bone, clean, simple, crime film that's somehow incredibly stylish without being distracting. Alain Delon is pitch-perfect in the lead role and the look of the film is spare but beautiful.

5. Billy Budd (1962) Dir. Peter Ustinov
I'm used to seeing Terence Stamp in cynical, tough guy roles so his performance was a revelation as the titular character of the Herman Melville classic. Stamp effectively plays the innocent ignorance of Billy while simultaneously conveying his perceptiveness and charm. Ryan is equally impressive as the evil and sadistic Master of Arms and even Ustinov, who can be a giant ham, is very restrained as the intelligent and practical ship's captain. Despite a 2-hour+ runtime and virtually no action scenes, the movie flies by while commanding attention all the while. And the ending, which I was afraid was going to cop out, was instead uncompromising, powerful, moving and well reasoned.

4. Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache aka Kriemhild's Revenge (1924) Dir. Fritz Lang
While part one of Die Nibelungen (Siegfried) is more of a lighter mythological tale, part two brings the operatic thunder and Shakespearean-like tragedy in bucketfuls. Kriemhild's Revenge centers on the princess character, who was little more than a contest prize in Siegfried, but comes on like Michael Corleone in part two. Margarete Schön who plays Kriemhild is outstanding as she rains down her furious vengeance and relentlessly attempts to wipe all her enemies out no matter what the cost. The final battle scenes fostered by the princess are incredible examples of organized chaos and imbue the epic saga with some much needed action.

3. The Glass Key (1942) Dir. Stuart Heisler
Just like Miller's Crossing with an even better cast and no weird black humor.

2. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Dir. Robert Wiene
The style is apparent early, the substance comes later in a brilliant, simple reveal that takes the film to a whole other level. Even with its artistic pretensions, it is still very accessible and awesomely creepy.

1. Hangover Square (1945) Dir. John Brahm
Brahm was a director who really excelled when making movies about obsessed, unbalanced people. Be it Anne Baxter's ornithophobic, Liebestraum-playing, master manipulator in Guest in the House, or Laraine Day's sociopathic kleptomaniac in The Locket, or Laird Cregar's brother-obsessed, floozy-hating, mysterious upstairs tenant in The Lodger, Brahm was at his best when dealing with mentally unhinged characters. In Hangover Square, Brahm is once again dealing with an unstable person in the composer played by Laird Cregar, but this time, the character is incognizant of his own insanity. Add to this, a gold-digging cabaret singer (Linda Darnell), a sympathetic sponsor (Faye Marlowe) and a Scotland Yard psychologist (George Sanders) and you have all the makings of a riveting movie. However, as engaging as the story and characters are, the film really succeeds due to Brahm's meticulous, superb direction which reaches it's apex at the final recital where he intricately blends Bernard Hermann's music into the plot's climax in a way I've never seen before. Even Hitchcock has never weaved Hermann's music into a scene so well. It's an incredible finale that makes the film a masterpiece.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Heavenly Creature from the Blue Lagoon

"Work all day, work all night
drink black rum, get real tight
me go home, fight with wife
never had such a happy life."

-Hubert Smith and his Coral Islanders

Lost Lagoon is an interesting little black-and-white oddity from 1958 about a middle-aged man who has a chance to get away from his failed career and loveless marriage and start anew in the Bahamas. What's distinctive about the film is the seriousness in which it treats the subject matter and characters despite being mostly an escapist fantasy. Initially, I expected the protagonist, Charlie Walker (Jeffrey Lynn), to be a bumbling, lovable loser type who meets up with some ethereal, fantastical female ala Mr Peabody and the Mermaid. But the script keeps it real and never veers toward lighter or supernatural aspects and plays out the story in dramatic fashion. Charlie Walker, although not lovable, is a likable enough everyman and the tale, while not whimsical, is definitely a middle-aged male's escape fantasy. 

The film plunges in quickly, thanks to some efficient script writing from Amicus co-founder Milton Subotsky, and sets up the Charlie Walker character's disappointing life in two quick dialogue scenes with his obnoxious brother-in-law, Millard. Charlie has come on a fishing trip to beg a loan from Millard to pay an expensive life insurance premium that his wife insists on since her first husband died and left her penniless with two children. Just as Charlie is about to receive the money, an unexpected storm capsizes the boat and Charlie is presumed drowned but actually washes up on Clarion Cay in the Bahamas along with his brother-in-law's cash. He's found and aided by the young, pretty, limping, island resort owner, Liz (Liela Barry), and promptly falls in love with the place.
I fell for the film for all the same reasons Charlie fell for Clarion Cay. First and foremost, Hubert Smith's calypso numbers are the highlight of the movie. Not only do they provide a lively Greek chorus at times, but add some much needed flavor and light fun. As happy as I was to see the film take the story and characters seriously, I really enjoyed it whenever the band showed up. In addition, Smith isn't just set dressing but an actual character with some pivotal scenes with Charlie aside from the musical merrymaking. I particularly liked the exchange between Charlie and Hubert when they discuss the disadvantages of being young versus old. It's one of the more potent, identifiable and character defining scenes in the film.

The island setting is another strength especially when a real beach and ocean is used as a backdrop. All too often in these low budget affairs, the audience is subjected to some painfully fake backdrops or mismatched stock footage, but that's not the case here. When a cast member goes into the ocean, it's actually the real ocean and a walk on the beach looks like an authentic walk on the beach. I only wish the exterior locations had been utilized even more as they tended to work the best at establishing the island paradise feel.

Finally, much like Charley, I fell a little in love with Liz myself. Leila Barry's first and last film role doesn't bring the house down, but she certainly has a photogenic quality, decent screen presence and an Audrey Hepburn-like look that makes her very appealing as the love interest. Giving her character a minor physical flaw in the form of a mild limp was a smart move on the filmmaker's part that made her seem that much more sympathetic and accessible. In a rare stylistic flourish, the director also shoots her framed against the clouds on several occasions to accentuate her ethereal, angelic qualities and beauty.

This may also be a rare instance of an actor's lack of experience and confidence creating a natural, naive, uncertain quality in the character that is actually engaging. This juxtaposed quite well with lead Jeffrey Lynn's mature, experienced but world-weary characterization. Lynn is easily the best actor in the film and although he's fairly average in most respects, he does a decent job eliciting sympathy for the character. In an early scene that's very on-the-nose but effective nonetheless, Charley comes back home to let everyone know that he didn't die only to find that his passing isn't being grieved too much. Faced with resuming his unsatisfying life at home and returning to the island where he has found happiness, he contemplates with himself in a mirror. It's not the most original cinematic convention but Lynn sells it well here.

Lost Lagoon was director John Rawlins last film. He worked as an editor in the 20's and 30's before graduating to directing where he worked on programmers and low budget B films with his best known being Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror in 1942. Coming from this background, it's understandable that his style is a pretty perfunctory mix of masters and close-ups with only the occasional camera movement in the form of a slow pan. This utilitarian aspect of his work is definitely on display in Lost Lagoon with the two notable style exceptions already mentioned. However, this is still one of Rawlins' better efforts and feels to me as if his heart may have been in it given that he adapted the screenplay himself and would likely identify very much with the Charley Walker character with whom he would share same age bracket. In the end, I think that's what differentiates the film from so many lighter efforts in the same vein, the fact that Rawlin's seems to feel sympathy for the character as he seriously contemplates the questions of self-fulfillment, happiness and responsibility. 

Score - 6.5/10