Movie stars & directors


FILM ILLUSIONISTS – Part Three: Henri-Georges Clouzot
by Walter Albert


   Since I seem to be in a retrospective mood, I will recommend as the best thriller of my recent experience a French film you’re not likely to see at your neighborhood theater or on late-night TV. It’s Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (The Raven), financed by a German producing company and released in occupied France in 1943. Movie-goers whose memories go back to the fifties may remember the great success of two of Clouzot’s films on the art-house circuit, The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diaboliques (1955), the latter with its unforgettable body-in-the-bathtub scene.

   Clouzot’s reputation had already been established in France with three films: The Murderer Lives at No. 21 (1942), based on a novel by Belgian writer André Steeman; Le Corbeau; and, one of my other favorites, Quai des Orfevres (1947), released in this country as Jenny Lamour and with a fine cast headed by Louis Jouvet, one of France’s legendary actor-directors.

   Le Corbeau was originally conceived by writer Louis Chavance in 1937 (effectively taking care of the later charge that the film was written to put the French in the worst possible light) and was based on an incident involving the writing of poison-pen letters in Marseilles. In Clouzot’s film, the anecdote which serves as the basic narrative thread is only a pretext to allow him to film a pessimistic study of provincial life in which everyone is hiding something and is a likely suspect for the writer who signs himself as “le Corbeau.”

   The initial letters expose a relationship between an idealistic doctor, Rémy Germain (played by Pierre Fresnay) and the wife of his respected elder colleague, psychiatrist Dr. Vorzet, but before the movie reaches its disturbing conclusion 850 letters have indicted what appears to be just about everybody of any importance in St. Robin.

   Clouzot has been compared to Hitchcock in his ability to play skillfully on the spectators’ nerves, but Clouzot has none of the wit of the British filmmaker, and the town seems to be tainted by a slow rot that even the exposure of the identity of the Raven will not remove. (Shadow of a Doubt is closest in tone to Le Corbeau, but the basic goodness of at least some of Hitchcock’s characters does not become suspect.)

   With his camera menacing every character’s movements, shadows mimic the black bird’s shape until, at the end, a veiled avenger, clothed in white, is costumed and photographed as a mocking parody of the bird of death.

   Two sequences deserve special note: a funeral cortege for the victim of the poison-pen letters, with superbly detailed close-ups of the townspeople silently watching the procession as the mourners step over and around a letter that has fallen from the hearse; and the flight of the chief suspect down empty streets invaded by the threatening shouts of an unseen mob, growing in intensity until glass shatters in her room where she has taken refuge and forces her to rush out into the arms of waiting authorities.

   And, in a scene which serves as a key to Clouzot’s intentions, the investigator-psychiatrist Vorzet uses a slowly swinging lamp to demonstrate to Dr. Germain our ambivalent demonic/angelic nature in a relentless alternating of light and shadow that is ironically descriptive of the director’s nightmare vision.

   Georges Méliès (in Part One), Tod Browning (in Part Two), and now Henri-Georges Clouzot: their methods may differ and they are not similar stylistically, but they are all accomplished directors,who use the camera to deceive and mystify audiences. Welles may be the first and, perhaps, the best of film magicians, but this marvelous theater of illusions that is film has many rooms, and who knows what delightful or terrifying furnishings we shall find behind the next door we open?

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 6, November-December 1982.


LE CORBEAU. Continental Films/Films Sonores Tobis, France, 1943. Pierre Fresnay, Ginette Leclerc, Micheline Francey, Héléna Manson, Jeanne Fusier-Gir, Sylvie. Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot.

FILM ILLUSIONISTS – Part Two: Tod Browning
by Walter Albert


   Méliès’ films [see Part One of this three-part essay] be thought of as marginal to films of mystery and detection, but not if one remembers the many writers and directors of mystery films who have either been accomplished magicians or interested in magic and who have made use of this in their films.

   Tod Browning was a director who used theatrical illusion in several of his best films, and the rarely seen Miracles for Sale (MGM, 1939), based on Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat, makes extensive use of magic in a suspenseful melodrama of stage magicians and psychic phenomena.

   Robert Young does a competent job as Michael Morgan, a re-named Rawson Merlini, who has unaccountably acquired a folksy father played by Frank Craven in his best Our Town style. (I wonder if MGM didn’t entertain some faint hope that this film might spawn a series with Young/Craven sharing in some of the popularity of the Ellery Queen father-son duo.)

   It’s a well-produced film in which Morgan, through damsel-in-distress Judy Barkley (played by Florence Rice), becomes involved in spiritualism and murder, but the spookiness of the premise is undercut by some conventional thirties’ farce.

   There is a seance that has some of the style — and chills — of Browning’s better work, and fanciers of such things will be interested to see Gloria Holden (the daughter of the underrated Dracula’s Daughter) in another of her frozen-face roles but with none of the sexual perversity that made her playing in the earlier film more interesting.

   Miracles for Sale comes off as a glossy, entertaining swan song for Browning, and it is unfortunate that most people now know his work through Dracula, which is his least characteristic film and far from his best.

   You will not find in Miracles for Sale the brilliance of Freaks (with its superb bridal party sequence), but it’s an accomplished bit of directing and should not be relegated to a footnote in a history of his career.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 6, November-December 1982.

MIRACLES FOR SALE. MGM, 1939. Robert Young, Florence Rice, Frank Craven, Henry Hull, Lee Bowman, Cliff Clark, Astrid Allwyn. Based on the book Death from a Top Hat, by Clayton Rawson. Director: Tod Browning.

FILM ILLUSIONISTS – Part One: Georges Méliès
by Walter Albert


   One of the “givens” of film history is that French director Georges Méliès, a magician who turned his talents from stage to film enchantments, is one of the great film innovators. In my surveys of French films, I have always dutifully shown Méliès’ Trip to the Moon (1902) and talked glibly of the importance of his work.

   I was only repeating standard film history, and I had no real basis for believing it until this past weekend when I attended an extraordinary event sponsored by the film section of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute.

   Méliès’ granddaughter, Madeleine Malthète-Méliès, came to Pittsburgh to present three different programs of his films with piano accompaniment by Eric Leguen. I was able to see thirty-one of the forty-seven films she screened, including four that were hand-tinted, and what I saw on those two rainy, chilly October evenings was a revelation.

   In the dozen years from about 1898 to 1910 that Méliès was producing and directing, he made over five hundred short films. His family has been able to assemble and restore only about 150, so the series we were shown represents about one third of the surviving films.

   Working before the era of the feature-length films that were to dominate world production after 1912, Méliès drew on his experience as a stage illusionist and his incomparable visual imagination.

   Disguises and transformations abound in his films, and he devised the dissolve, fade, and superimposed image to make his fantastic tricks possible. The prints are not always properly defined, and some of them are not complete, but the witty inventions from his apparently inexhaustible box of illusions are still a delight.

   What is particularly striking about Méliès’ films is their pacing, a perfectly choreographed comic rhythm that is most impressive when Méliès himself is performing.

   For director-producer-writer Méliès was also a comic actor of rare skill, with a good-natured pleasure in fooling an audience that is still infectious after eighty years. He was very fond of playing the role of the Devil, and the final film of the series, Satan in Prison (1907), was a perfect capstone to the screenings.

   In this dazzling film, the Devil-Méliès furnishes a bare cell out of his cape, complete to a lovely lady toasted at a candlelight midnight supper. When they are surprised by her jealous husband, she collapses into a heap of crumpled fabric in one of the most magical of Méliès’ effects.

   Then, in a furious reverse movement, the Devil strips the room and, disappearing behind the cape, leaps toward the rear wall where the cape suddenly hangs suspended from two nails and, when it is pulled down, exposes a bare wall.

   I mentioned to Madame Malthète-Méliès my pleasure in her grandfather’s good humour, and she replied — her entire face lighting up — that even after he had lost everything else, he never lost his humour and was always playing the prankster, pulling innumerable cigarettes out of her ear.

   In his last years (he died in 1938) Méliès operated a toy shop in one of the Parisian train stations, but what find most painful is the anecdote of the evening that Méliès burned all of his negatives in the garden of his Montreuil home. Fortunately, prints have survived, but those wasted years when he was eclipsed by a generation of gifted comedians — all of whom drew upon his routines and inventions — is, I think, one of the great tragedies of film history.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 6, November-December 1982.

THE POWELL TOUCH
by Walter Albert


   In 1935 and 1936, William Powell followed his 1934 starring role in MGM’s The Thin Man with two RKO comedy-mysteries, Star of Midnight and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, both of them directed by Stephen Roberts.

   In Bradford Jean Arthur is the ex-Mrs. Bradford who turns up at the beginning of the film to have physician Bradford (Powell) served a subpoena for non-payment of alimony; in Star, Ginger Rogers is Donna Manton, a social butterfly in love with lawyer Powell who claims to have more fun solving cases than trying them and whose friends consider him to be a combination of Charlie Chan, Philo Vance and the Sphinx.

   Bradford is a racetrack mystery and Star a Broadway mystery, both versions of the classic form of amateur detective considered by less-than-bright homicide detectives to be a prime suspect in a murder case.

   Bradford has the more original conclusion with the suspects invited to a meeting at which a film reveals the murderer’s identity, but Star is better paced and has some more polished acting in secondary roles, particularly by Vivian Oakland as a former girlfriend of Powell’s and Gene Lockhart as a somewhat unconventional butler who didn’t do it but is drafted for some ironic sleuthing.

   Arthur and Rogers, both fine actress/comediennes, are delightful foils for Powell’s stylish drollery and each has at least one scene that is a standout: Arthur in a brilliant closing sequence and Rogers in a comic tum as she foils Oakland’s play for Powell.

   Powell’s earliest appearance as an urbane amateur detective was in The Canary Murder Case, in which Jean Arthur also appeared, and by 1935 there was no more adept player of drawing-room comedy-mysteries.

   The actor is probably no less accomplished in Bradford and Star than he is in The Thin Man, but it is certainly debatable whether, as William Everson maintains in The Detective in Film (Citadel, 1972), The Thin Man is “almost” equaled by the two lesser known movies.

   The level of craftsmanship in all three of the films is very high, but I think that the decisive elements in the superiority of The Thin Man — and in its continuing popularity — are the inspired pairing of Myrna Loy, who matches Powell’s arch style with her own elegant delivery and movement, and first-rate scripting by Albert Goodrich and Frances Hackett, and directing by W.S. Van Dyck.

   Script, direction, and performance come together in an extraordinary tour-de-force that climaxes the film. The wrapup party sequence in The Thin Man still dazzles as Powell delivers what is in effect an extended monologue and it is this perfectly timed scene, a classic example of the “cosy” mystery denouement, that, for me, makes The Thin Man the success that Bradford and Star achieve only in part.

   Both actresses were on the verge of major stardom when they appeared with Powell. Loy would, of course, continue the role of Nora Charles in five sequels, and also appear in films like The Great Ziegfield, The Rains Came, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

   The Thin Man is usually seen as the one in which Loy escaped type casting as an Oriental temptress — most notably as the daughter of Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) — but non-Oriental roles in films like Love Me Tonight (1932), Topaze (1933) and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) suggest that her film roles were far more varied than they are usually thought to have been.

   An oddity in the casting of Arthur is that she had played in three Fu Manchu films (in 1929 and 1930) and in the early thirties was better known as an actress in melodramas than as the star of comedy/dramas as she was subsequently to be.

   By an equally ironic reversal, Rogers, after her dizzying success with Fred Astaire, would establish herself as a dramatic actress in the late thirties and forties, but with Astaire and with Powell she demonstrates an apparently natural comedic talent and a freshness that makes her performances with them among her most engaging.

   [Almost eighty years] after their original release dates, The Thin Man and the two “forgotten” films, Star and Bradford, are entertainments that largely defy the passage of time. In addition, all three films — and one must add to the list James Whale’s brilliant 1935 baroque send-up of the drawing-room mystery, Remember Last Night? — are a tribute to the popularity of the amateur sleuth mystery in the 1930s and to the professional and artistic integrity of this genre.

   The Thin Man gains some lustre in the context of related films but also should remind us that it operated out of a tradition that still gives pleasure for its wit and invention and, in particular, celebrates the career of one of the screen’s most distinguished player of amateur detectives, William Powell.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1986.


DANE CLARK CONFIDENTIAL, PART 1
by Curt Evans


BLACKOUT. Hammer Films, UK, 1954. Lippert Pictures, US, 1954. Originally released in the UK as Murder by Proxy. Dane Clark, Belinda Lee, Betty Ann Davies, Eleanor Summerfield, Andrew Osborn. Based on the novel Gold Coast Nocturne by Helen Nielsen. Director: Terence Fisher.

   Dane Clark (1912-1998) is one of those actors that you, if you are, as I am, in middle age, have almost assuredly seen on television earlier in your life, even if you don’t match the name with the face. I recall him playing an FBI agent in Season One of Angela Lansbury’s beloved mystery series, Murder She Wrote, the “Watson” in that episode to Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher. I don’t know why I remember this character, but I suppose I have to chalk it up to Clark’s acting skills, having seen some of his other genre film work of late. He’s good!

   Dane Clark was known in the 1940s as the “B-list John Garfield,” but I don’t believe this appellation does him justice. (It’s a bit like when the great Ida Lupino is dismissed as the “poor man’s Bette Davis.”) Dane Clark was his own man. Both John Garfield (born Jacob Julius Garfinkle in 1913) and Dane Clark (born Bernard Zanville in 1912) were Jews from New York City, but Clark came of much more comfortable circumstances than Garfield, graduating from Cornell and getting a law degree before ending up in acting (after stints in boxing, baseball, construction, sales and sculptor’s modeling — he had found lawyers weren’t doing too well in the Depression either).

   In 1941 Clark married the artist and sculptor Margot Yoder (a distant relative of my family) and the next year appeared in several films (uncredited): The Pride of the Yankees (“Fraternity Boy”); Wake Island (“Sparks”); and, most notably, Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key (“Henry Sloss”).

   By the end of World War II Clark was getting bigger roles, including that of the Bohemian artist in the Bette Davis identical twins melodrama A Stolen Life (1946); the escaped convict who has a desperate romance with Ida Lupino in Deep Valley (1947); and, in the Oscar-nominated film Moonrise (1948), the tormented Danny Hawkins, who is in love with gorgeous Gail Russell and has, most inconveniently, killed her fiancee (played, very briefly, by Lloyd Brides). Today Moonrise pops up on lists of greatest noir films though regrettably it’s not available on DVD (you can see on it Amazon instant video, however).

   If you look around, you should be able to find on DVD some of Clark’s work as a lead actor in late 1940s and 1950s crime films (when he really came into his own as an actor), including Without Honor (1949), Backfire (1950), Highly Dangerous (1950; screenplay by Eric Ambler), Gunman in the Streets (1950, with Simone Signoret), Never Trust a Gambler (1951), The Gambler and the Lady (1952), Blackout (1954; Murder by Proxy in UK), Paid to Kill (1954; Five Days in UK), Port of Hell (1954), The Toughest Man Alive (1955) and The Man Is Armed (1956).

   I’ve recently seen several of the above films, the first being, for the purpose of this review, Blackout.

   Blackout, as I have discussed on my own blog, is an English adaptation of Helen Nielsen’s Chicago-set hard-boiled crime novel, Gold Coast Nocturne (1951). Although transferring the setting from Chicago to London is slightly awkward, to be sure, overall I was really rather impressed with this film. It is quite faithful to the novel, even using some of the dialogue.

   As the beleaguered hero, Casey Morrow, an American out to solve a murder he wakes up to discover he’s suspected of having committed, Dane Clark is excellent, as are the two lead women, Belinda Lee (sexy blonde heiress Phyllis Brunner) and Eleanor Summerfield (wisecracking artist Maggie Doone). A couple crucial supporting performances could have been stronger, but overall I would quite recommend this film.

       TO BE CONTINUED


Editorial Comment:   This review first appeared in slightly different form on Curt’s own blog, The Passing Tramp.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THE FORTY-NINERS

THE FORTY-NINERS. Allied Artists / formerly Monogram, 1954. “Wild Bill” Elliott, Virginia Grey, Harry Morgan, John Doucette, Lane Bradford. Written by Daniel B. Ullman. Directed by Thomas Carr.

   But first a word about Wild Bill Elliott, born Gordon Nance, who started out his career at Columbia under the name Gordon Elliott as an all-purpose and mostly uncredited supporting player until he landed the lead in the 1938 serial The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, which led to a series of low-budget westerns at Columbia, billed as Wild Bill Elliott and sometimes playing Hickok in adventures that, as you might expect, had little to do with the actual James Butler Hickok.

   Many of these were a cut above average, and a few, directed by Joseph H. Lewis, even artistic at times, but in ’43 he left Columbia for Republic. There the budgets were bigger and the films generally more fun, but it was still a loss in prestige to go from the smallest of the Major studios to the biggest of the Minors, which was Republic’s place in Hollywood’s caste system.

THE FORTY-NINERS

   Republic even tried to lift Elliott out of the “B” ranks for a time, upping his budgets, offering more “adult” story lines and dropping the “Wild” from his billing, but eventually he returned to “B” status. His last film at Republic, The Showdown, was shot entirely on studio sets with back projection, reflecting Republic’s growing disinterest in the budget prairie film in general.

   At which point Elliott moved to Monogram, which was definitely a step down, but surprisingly his films here got even more interesting — not better made, but with distinctly off-beat characterizations and story lines.

Elliott himself, billed once again as “Wild Bill Elliott” smoked and drank, cussed now and then, and wasn’t above dealing out nastiness when called for. He even played an occasional outlaw, though reformed by film’s end, and in one movie he beats information out of a bad guy while holding him at gunpoint—hardly sporting, that, and unheard of in the better class of B westerns.

THE FORTY-NINERS

   In 1955 even Monogram tired of the low-budget western and moved Elliott into a series of detective stories, but Elliott had ended his sagebrush career with a flourish of sorts, as borne out in The Forty-Niners.

   This starts out with Dragnet-style voice-over narration, and when I say “Dragnet-style” I mean you can practically hear Jack Webb’s flat monotone in Wild Bill Elliott’s voice. Her gives dates and times, tosses in cop-comments like “It was a routine assignment” and even synopsises the outcomes in Court.

   The wonder is that writer Daniel Ullman (who made kind of a specialty out of detective/westerns) still wrought a perfectly fine western out of all this.

   Wild Bill plays a U.S. Marshall cold on the trail of the owlhoots who ambushed a fellow-lawman. His only lead is a gambler (played by Harry Morgan, who also featured in Elliott’s last Republic picture) who can lead him to the baddies as long as he doesn’t realize that’s what he’s doing. Morgan plays the kind of good/bad guy later personified by the likes of Arthur Kennedy, and he does it pretty well, grinning and joking as he cheats at cards and blackmails killers who are now comfortably ensconced as respectable citizens.

   His only weakness is a soft heart for the gal he left behind and an aversion to cold-blooded murder when that becomes necessary to eliminate Elliott, whom he’s come to respect and admire. It’s an interesting part in a movie that moves along at a brisk clip, with plenty of action and enough curves in the plot to keep you guessing, even as you realize the pre-ordained outcome dictated by the genre, and reflecting that as Wild Bill took his last ride into the sunset, he did it with a certain amount of style and the quiet dignity that becomes a western hero — even a cut-rate hero ending his days in the B-movies.

THE FORTY-NINERS

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


CALLING BULLDOG DRUMMOND. MGM, UK, 1951. Walter Pidgeon (Major Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond), Margaret Leighton, Robert Beatty, David Tomlinson, Peggy Evans, Charles Victor. Based on a story by Gerard Fairlie. Director: Victor Saville.

WALTER PIDGEON

   Back in the late 60s, when I decided I wanted to live a life of adventure, I was quite taken with a gaudy Universal James-Bond-Rip-Off called Deadlier Than the Male, with Richard Johnson as Bulldog Drummond and Nigel Greene as bis arch-foe Peterson. Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina were in it too, as scenery.

   I liked the gaudy color, kinky violence, and general comic-book look of the thing. Don’t try to catch it on television, though, because it was castrated for Network Release and to my knowledge has never been restored. (Yeah, like someone would take the time to put all the sex and violence back in to this.)

   Anyway, I tried the Drummond books and didn’t care much for the character in them at all, as he seemed something of a blow-hard bigot. Always liked the Drummond movies, though, including a B series from Paramount with John Howard, John Barrymore and lots of colorful baddies. And of course there was the great Colman film of ’29 which I viewed a wile back.

   So I was sort of looking forward to Calling B. D. and was disappointed. The plot features a gang of crooks who operate in Military Style, prompting Scotland Yard to call Colonel Drummond out of retirement because of his military experience.

WALTER PIDGEON

   I don’t know about you, but I have a little trouble swallowing the notion that England in the 50s suffered from a shortage of men with Military experience, and the Surprise Bad Guy is unfortunately portrayed by an actor who later became mildly famous, so his off-screen voice tips us off immediately.

   Add to this that Pidgeon seems to have taken his Dull Pills just prior to filming, and you have a very quiet movie indeed.

NICK CARTER, MASTER DETECTIVE. MGM, 1939. Walter Pidgeon (Nick Carter), Rita Johnson, Henry Hull, Stanley Ridges, Doctor Frankton, Donald Meek (Bartholomew), Milburn Stone. Director: Jacques Tourneur.

PHANTOM RAIDERS. MGM, 1940. Walter Pidgeon (Nick Carter), Donald Meek (Bartholomew), Joseph Schildkraut, Florence Rice, Nat Pendleton, John Carroll. Director: Jacques Tourneur.

WALTER PIDGEON

SKY MURDER. MGM, 1940. Walter Pidgeon (Nick Carter), Donald Meek (Bartholomew), Kaaren Verne, Edward Ashley, Joyce Compton, Tom Conway. Director: George B. Seitz.

   Pidgeon came off much better in a series of “B’s” from MGM in the late ’30s centered around a character called Nick Carter, though for all the care they took to recreate the old Dime Novels, they might as well have called him The Saint or Bulldog Drumond or V.I. Warshawski. Nick Carter Master Detective, Phantom Raiders and Sky Murder are all quite fun and you should see them if you ever get a chance.

   With that sonorous voice of his, Pidgeon always sounded like Gregory Peck’s older brother, but these films play against his tendency to stodginess and come out very light and fluffy. The first two were stylishly directed by Jacques Tourneur, but the best thing in them is the Comedy Relief played by Donald Meek.

WALTER PIDGEON

   The comical sidekick was as much a fixture of the B-Mystery series as he was in the B western, but Meek and the writers here lift the concept to dizzying heights. His Bartholomew is not the standard dim-witted clod of most B-Mysteries: he’s a dangerous madman, given to melodramatic fantasies and theatrical outbursts of classic,dimensions.

   He looks like the kind of guy who might bite you on the leg for no good reason at all, and given the chance to play something besides a timid fuddy-duddy, Meek indulges himself with a flair for wild-eyed comedy I’d never suspected in him. He is that rarity, a Comic Relief you actually look forward to seeing, and be adds immeasurably to the films. Catch these if you can.

Editorial Comment:   Mike Grost has some interesting things to say about the two Nick Carter films directed by Jacques Tourneur. Check out his website here.

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