Saturday, April 30, 2016

April Quick Picks and Pans – Mystery Month




Brick (2005) Writer/director Rian Johnson has masterfully distilled the tropes from classic noir to tell a tale of drugs, murder and greed, set around a high school milieu. Despite the modern setting, it could have easily taken place in the ‘40s, with a few minor tweaks. Joseph Gordon-Levitt channels Bogie and Mitchum as Brendan, an introspective fast-talking loner who’s trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together after his ex-girlfriend turns up dead. As he gets roughed up in the process of his investigation, he encounters many familiar genre characters: a kingpin, (aka: The Pin) played by Lukas Haas, the muscle (Noah Fleiss), and a femme fatale (Nora Zehetner). Modern audiences unaccustomed to the source material probably didn’t know what hit them, but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a rare high concept film that works.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

 
Jar City (aka: Mýrin) (2008) Baltasar Kormákur directed this somber, slow burn mystery/thriller from Iceland, about a world weary police inspector (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) on the trail of a murderer. He uncovers a small town’s secrets, dealing with suppressed memories, rape and a rare congenital brain disease. In the midst of the investigation, he must contend with a strained relationship with his troubled daughter. Jar City gradually reveals the pieces of an elaborate puzzle, set among a harsh, unforgiving landscape. The performances are uniformly superb, and the film’s pervasive moribund atmosphere will continue to stick with you, longer after the final scene.

Rating: ****. Available on Hulu


Think Fast Mr. Moto (1937) Okay, forget for a moment that Austro-Hungarian actor Peter Lorre is playing a Japanese character, and focus on his fine performance as the diminutive detective in this first of a series of films. Lorre (thankfully without the embarrassing makeup used in many similar productions of the era) immerses himself in the role, as an amateur detective who uncovers a diamond and drug-smuggling operation based in Shanghai. Moto befriends a playboy businessman (Thomas Beck) from a shipping firm, who becomes the unwitting pawn in the smuggling ring’s illicit activities.  Lorre does a nice job with what he has to work with. Given the material, he handles his character with dignity, keeping this from being an artifact from an unfortunate period in Hollywood history. His Moto is clearly the smartest guy in the room wherever he goes, proving Lorre could really carry a film.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

 
Murder in the Museum (1934) The mystery is the least interesting thing about this film, directed by Melville Shyer. But the opening setting in a freak show is worth the price of admission. After a prominent politician is shot, a snooping reporter and an inquisitive young woman (John Harron and Phyllis Barrington) try to discover the identity of the assassin. The ensuing police procedural and intrigue are nothing you haven’t seen before, but anyone fascinated (as I am) with freak shows will find much to enjoy in the first half. Henry B. Walthall is good as Professor Mysto, who performs feats of illusion.
It’s an amusing glimpse into a lost era as we observe the side show talker go through his spiel (“…for 50 cents, half-a-dollar!”).

Rating: ***. Available on DVD


The Bat (1959) This mildly entertaining throwback to the whodunits of yesteryear, which originated from the 1920 play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood, was already filmed twice before, as a silent and a talkie. $1 million in stolen bank funds goes missing, and a shadowy killer with a claw hand is on the prowl. Agnes Moorehead plays mystery novelist Cornelia van Gorder, who lives in a spooky mansion where the money is supposedly hidden. Meanwhile, as the victims add up, everyone, including the butler is a suspect (spoiler: he didn’t do it). Vincent Price received top billing, but doesn’t appear nearly enough.  

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu


You’ll Find Out (1940) What can go wrong with a spooky house mystery featuring Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi? Sadly, these film greats only appear in supporting roles, as charlatans attempting to swindle a young heiress and her eccentric aunt out of their family fortune. Most of the film involves big band leader Kay Keyser and comic personality/musician Ish Kabibble (ask your grandparents) in a series of musical numbers and unfunny comic routines. If you’re a big band aficionado you might find lots to like, but fans of Lorre, Karloff and Lugosi will probably be disappointed. Of the three, Lugosi fares the best with the flimsy material he’s given, as a fake medium who conducts elaborate séances. It might be worth a look, but be sure to lower your expectations.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Blood and Black Lace (aka: Sei Donne per L'assassino)




(1964) Directed by Mario Bava; Written by Marcello Fondato, Giuseppe Barilla and Mario Bava; Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner, Ariana Gorini and Mary Arden; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“He (Mario Bava) is a true renaissance man. He was one of the directors that actually did his own lighting, as well as making sure that the set and everything else was to his aesthetic taste, which was absolutely beautiful…” – Mary Arden (from 2000 interview)


Giallo (the name is derived from the covers of Italian pulp mystery novels) movies are typified by lurid storylines, stylish murder sequences, an unknown killer and deliciously imaginative titles. Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (also known by its Italian title, Sei Donne per L'assassino, or “Six Women for the Murder”), is widely credited with launching the enduring genre. Shot for the equivalent of $100,000, give or take a few lira, the multi-national co-production (from Italy, Germany and Monaco) was shot in English*/** to take advantage of the international market.

* Fun fact: According to Mary Arden, who appears as the third victim, the cast members spoke nine different languages. For consistency’s sake, she helped Bava re-write dialogue in colloquial English.

** Fun fact #2: According to Tim Lucas’ DVD commentary, prolific American voice actor Paul Frees was responsible for dubbing most of the male characters in the English language soundtrack.

 
Most of the action takes place inside and around a fashion house, run by the stern Countess Como (Eva Bartok) and her business partner Max Marian (Cameron Mitchell). After one of the models (Francesca Ungaro) is brutally murdered on the premises, a police inspector (Thomas Reiner) launches an investigation, and everyone’s an instant suspect. A faceless killer, clad in a trench coat, is killing off the models one by one, employing increasingly horrific methods. The chain of grisly murders* not only helped distinguish a new genre, but influenced horror filmmakers in later decades. Sean S. Cunningham of Friday the 13th fame (or infamy) acknowledged Bava as a primary influence. One of the most disturbing sequences involves a bathtub drowning (compare to a similar scene in Dario Argento’s 1975 film, Deep Red).

* While filming a scene where her “dead” body was stuffed in a trunk, Arden injured her nose, and nearly lost an eye when the trunk lid was slammed at the wrong time. To add insult to injury, she was never paid for her performance.


Bava, who started out in Italian cinema as a cameraman (borrowing a page from his father Eugenio, who was also a cinematographer), was involved in many aspects of the production, paying special attention to the lighting and appearance of each scene. He employed innovative techniques to achieve the desired results, including using a kids’ wagon for dolly shots. The Technicolor cinematography is more than just a pretty show, adding layers of symbolism to the scenes. Bold displays of color abound, not as random splashes, but as an intentional device to set the mood. In Bava’s skilled hands, the colors tell a story, frequently as a harbinger of evil or the death of innocence. While unpleasant to behold, the heavily stylized violence carries a visceral, yet ethereal quality, elevating the imagery above mere shock value.


Blood and Black Lace keeps the audience guessing until the final act, introducing several characters that could be plausible candidates for the murderer. The long line of suspects includes a dress designer played by Luciano Pigozzi (who bears a strong resemblance to Peter Lorre) and Marco (Massimo Righi), a drug addict. Even the models themselves are not above suspicion. Arguably, however, the characters play second fiddle to the lush atmosphere. With Bava, as well as his myriad giallo imitators, the style is the thing.


What does one say about Blood and Black Lace that hasn’t already been said?  From a modern perspective, it’s easy to be jaded, having seen it all before in numerous (mostly inferior) knock-offs, but that would be dismissing this film’s level of innovation and craftsmanship. More often than not, the modern filmmakers that followed could play the notes, but were tone deaf when it came to the music. Much of what would have been fresh to audiences from the 60s has been recycled ad nauseam, with little regard to appearance or subtext. Any fledgling filmmaker interested in reviving gialli (plural) has an obligation to study this film. While Blood and Black Lace might not be the most imaginative or sublime example of the genre, it’s important to acknowledge the huge debt of gratitude the genre owes to Mr. Bava.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Once Over Twice: The Mighty Quinn




(1989) Directed by: Carl Schenkel; Written by  Hampton Fancher; Based on the novel Finding Maubee by A.H.Z. Carr; Starring: Denzel Washington, Robert Townsend, M. Emmet Walsh, Sheryl Lee Ralph, James Fox and Mimi Rogers

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****½

“So here I am… Chief of police, on an island where the poultry inspector gets to be governor, and a guy who lies on his back smoking ganja and getting laid his whole lifelong gets to be a hero.” Police Chief Xavier Quinn (Denzel Washington)


Reggae and mystery are strange bedfellows that make beautiful music together in director Carl Schenkel’s underrated gem, The Mighty Quinn. The film was little more than a blip on the box office radar, but it deserved much better, with its irresistible blend of mystery, music and $10,000 bills amidst a colorful Jamaican setting. Hampton Fancher’s (Blade Runner) screenplay, based on A.H.Z. Carr’s 1971 novel Finding Maubee, derives familiar elements from 1940s detective potboilers, but makes everything appear fresh, thanks to a host of diverse characters and snappy dialogue.


Police Chief Xavier Quinn (Denzel Washington) is called to the scene when a prominent American businessman is found brutally murdered in a hot tub. Preliminary evidence leads to local troublemaker/hero (and Quinn’s childhood friend) Maubee. As Quinn probes deeper into his investigation, he begins to suspect it’s not quite the open and shut case it seems to be. Island politics, marital discord, and conflicted emotions intervene to complicate matters for the young officer.


Washington has one of his finest moments as the sharp-witted Quinn, who falls into a web of intrigue that goes beyond his island nation. He butts heads with a stuffy local resort owner (James Fox) and Governor Chalk (Norman Beaton), who want the case wrapped up as soon as possible. Meanwhile, he attempts to reconcile with his estranged wife Lola (Sheryl Lee Ralph), who can’t accept the man he’s become. Although he dresses the part, Quinn doesn’t quite fit into the mold of the straight-laced cop, torn between his allegiance to a childhood friend and sense of civic responsibility. He plows through the twists and turns of the plot, armed with an insatiable quest for the truth, and his dry wit.


While Washington’s multi-faceted performance is the soul of the film, Robert Townsend nearly steals the show as its heart, Maubee, a likeable rogue set up as the fall guy. While his friend Quinn went the respectable route, as an upstanding citizen and upholder of the law, he simply lives to play. Even when he’s on the run from the cops, he never forgets to have fun, leaving a trail of mayhem in his wake. He manages to bring out the less respectable, playful side of Quinn when they inevitably cross paths. One scene provides valuable insight into the ambivalent nature of their relationship when they ride around town in the governor’s stolen car, and they regress to a simpler time.


One of the many strengths of The Mighty Quinn is its stellar supporting cast. Venerable character actor M. Emmet Walsh plays Fred Miller, a shadowy investigator who’s arrived to tie up loose ends. He puts on an amiable, unassuming front, but he’s a viper, poised to strike. Beaton is also excellent as Governor Chalk. He’s the consummate politician who likes his cushy job, and doesn’t want to rock the boat (“The best thing we can do is stay out of the way.”). He’s more concerned about the negative PR caused by the murder, rather than helping solve the crime. Keye Luke is also great in a small but vital role as Dr. Raj, a coroner who examines the corpse of the murdered businessman. Carl Bradshaw provides some levity as Coco, a semi-permanent resident of a jail cell in Quinn’s precinct. Esther Rolle is also memorable as Ubu Pearl, the caustic local witch.


From the song in the opening credits (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” by Michael Rose), the soundtrack sets the tone for the entire film. The songs aren’t merely there as window dressing, but is one of the rate instances when music and setting are perfectly matched. It’s a delightful throwback to the films of yesteryear, when there was always time for a few lively musical numbers, even when the heat was on. The music is complemented by the cinematography and costume design, which captures the vibrant colors of the island setting.


In The Mighty Quinn, solving the mystery is secondary. Sure, you could pick apart the minutiae of the plot, but the mechanics of the whodunit are less important than the characters, their relationships, and the film’s atmosphere. A decent mystery is fun to unravel with its many convolutions, but a superior mystery builds a compelling world around those whodunit elements. The Mighty Quinn’s ebullient charm is infectious. I enjoyed spending time with these characters, and regretted seeing them go. It’s a smart and endearing production, not nearly as well-known as it should be, and deserves much more attention.  

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Watcher in the Woods




(1980) Directed by John Hough; Written by Brian Clemens, Rosemary Anne Sisson and Harry Spalding; Based on the novel by Florence Engel Randall; Starring: Bette Davis, David McCallum, Carroll Baker, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Kyle Richards and Benedict Taylor; Available on DVD

Rating: ***

“Sometimes there seems to be something out there. Sometimes I hear someone whispering in the wind.” – Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis)


A heart-felt “thanks” goes out to Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for inviting me to participate in The Bette Davis Blogathon, celebrating one of America’s most inimitable actresses. Today’s selection, The Watcher in the Woods, is one of the more obscure Disney films, as well one of the lesser-known roles in Ms. Davis’ illustrious career.*

* Fun fact: The Watcher in the Woods marked a milestone for Davis. During the film’s 1980 premiere it was touted as her 85th feature and 50th anniversary in movies (source: AFI website: http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=56715)


The Watcher in the Woods, based on Florence Engel Randall’s novel, was originally planned as a television movie, until Disney saw its potential as a feature film. Filmed in 1979, it experienced a troubled release history. After the 1980 premiere was poorly received, portions were re-shot, along with the ending (more on this later), and the movie was re-released in 1981. The Watcher in the Woods is best described as a supernatural mystery. The production has a gothic quality, which should be no surprise given the director John Hough, who helmed the underrated Hammer production Twins of Evil (1971), the Richard Matheson-penned The Legend of Hell House (1973), and the supernatural Disney family thrillers Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and Return from Witch Mountain (1978). Alan Hume’s atmospheric cinematography contributes to the gothic tone, casting the eponymous woods in shadow and ethereal light.


An American family Paul and Helen Curtis (David McCallum and Carroll Baker), along with their two daughters Jan and Ellie (Lynn-Holly Johnson and Kyle Richards), rent a secluded old house in the English countryside from its reclusive owner, Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis). Mrs. Aylwood takes an immediate shine to the elder girl, Jan, who has a passing resemblance to her long-lost teenage daughter Karen. Jan and Ellie possess a psychic link to the woods, and whatever strange phenomena may be linked to Karen’s disappearance nearly 30 years before. Meanwhile, some unseen presence is observing their movements.


Davis has a small, but vital role as the eccentric Mrs. Aylwood. She clings fiercely to the past, holding on to the belief that Karen is still out there, somewhere. She seems to perceive that Jan and Ellie might hold the key to Karen’s whereabouts. Davis lends gravitas to her character, setting the tone for the film, with her enduring grief over the loss of her daughter and fear of forces beyond her comprehension. Her underlying sadness and vulnerability brings much to an underwritten role, and serves as a sensitive departure from some of the domineering matriarchs that Davis tended to play in her later years.


Jan experiences strange visions of the missing girl, while her sister has premonitions that prove to be eerily accurate.* Poor Jan, however, doesn’t stand much of a chance, given her feeble support system. Outside of her sister and Mrs. Aylwood, no one wants to believe her. Her mother occupies the time-honored stereotypical role of the disbelieving parent, spouting lines such as, “I won’t have her filling your head with those far-fetched fantasies.”** Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, with one odd occurrence after another, Helen remains convinced it’s all in Jan’s head. Jan’s handsome (and rather bland) boyfriend Mike (Benedict Taylor), isn’t much better, believing she’s being absurd when she voices her suspicions about the strange events. It’s an exercise in frustration as she attempts to break the conspiracy of silence between three middle-aged town residents who participated in a secret initiation ceremony, which involved Karen.

* Too bad their psychic powers are ill-defined and inconsistent. We’re never sure if Jan and Ellie always had these abilities, or if the unseen “watcher” is influencing them.

** An odd choice of words from Helen, as an author of children’s books.


Frances Cuka and Ian Bannen are fine in their limited, one-note roles as two of the co-conspirators, but character actor Richard Pasco (a veteran of several Hammer films) steals the show as the third friend, Tom Colley. He’s a strange hermit who lives in a cottage on the edge of the woods, and spends his days rescuing animals from traps (“Awful things, traps. They hurt.”). Of all the friends who witnessed Karen’s last moments before her disappearance, he’s the only one who values compassion over saving his own neck.  


Alas, the mystery itself is better than efforts to explain its meaning. (SOME SPOILERS AHEAD) After the original ending was abandoned, following bad reviews and tepid screening audience reactions, the filmmakers hastily cobbled together a new conclusion,* which opted for a more prosaic, pseudo-magical explanation, instead of a more ambitious sci-fi twist. The Disney DVD provides a tantalizing glimpse into the original version, with two alternate endings that uncover what was watching from the woods, and where Karen spent the past three decades. Both endings cover similar ground, but I tend to favor the shorter of the two, which provides a nice balance between showing just enough, and permitting our minds to fill in the blanks. The longer alternate ending briefly whisks us away to an alien world, rendered with underwhelming special effects (which recall, but fail to reach the heights of similar, more impressive scenes in Forbidden Planet and This Island Earth).

* In the alternate endings, the role of Karen was credited to Katherine Levy, but in the theatrical release, the actress was not credited. Although, there’s no mention of a second actress, a casual comparison between Karen in the flashback sequences and the theatrical conclusion seems to suggest a different actor was cast for Karen in the ending that was re-shot.

 Image from Deleted Scene

As it stands, The Watcher in the Woods is moderately entertaining, but falls short of the classic it could have been. It features some terrific cast members, strong performances by Davis and Pasco, and a nice gothic atmosphere, but the rest of the film doesn’t quite hold up. It’s frustrating to witness the potential for something really special, instead of a curiosity in the Disney library and a footnote in Ms. Davis’ career.