Posted by Moira Finnie on January 23, 2008
No, my parents weren’t Bolsheviks or Troskyites who weaned a “red diaper” baby, they were thoughtful Americans who, after a World War Two marriage, and four kids in almost as many years, simply tried to keep a few American ideals and a sense of humor alive in our household. Consequently, when they discovered us huddled in front of a flickering t.v. image seemingly enthralled with Frank Lovejoy confessing that I Was a Communist For the F.B.I. (1952) or bringing home a now forgotten artifact from our parochial school such as Treasure Chest comic books, (which were chock full of depictions of life under the boot of “godless Communism”), they leavened the heavier fear mongering with large doses of faith in American ideals such as freedom of speech and encouraged us to explore the free marketplace of ideas, where we might hear all sides of every issue.
Still, if you ever took part in a nuclear fallout drill at school, there’s probably at least a shadow on your soul and maybe a bit of skepticism in your outlook on life. Oh, yes, and a certain fascination with an odd group of films that laid claim to at least part of your imagination. When a certain Congressman Nixon exhorted a non-plussed Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer that Hollywood had “a positive duty” to make anti-Communist movies, most moguls, including the fairly liberal minded Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox, took this exhortation to heart.
Though I really don’t have personal memories of the McCarthy era, the sight of a diagram on the front page of our local newspaper showing how easily a nuke could be tossed up to our small town from Cuba is one of my first memories. Even as recently as 1973 the most ludicrously paranoid of all McCarthy era movies, My Son John (1951), which sprang from the fevered brow of formerly light-hearted comic director Leo McCarey, was shown on the American Broadcasting Company as a primetime movie. This now forgotten 1951 paean to panic about the corruption of a fine American youth (Robert Walker, sadly, in his last role) by Communists may have been the most melodramatic example of this type of film, and seems to be locked away in Paramount’s vault, perhaps out of embarrassment. Despite or because of this “larger than life” quality, this and the other films of this period still loomed large in my consciousness as a kid and teenager. The sheer hyperbole of these movies, which, given the revelations of the KGB files that have come to light since the fall of the U.S.S.R., wasn’t all that exaggerated, made them a bit hard to swallow, if strangely entertaining. Maybe as a result of all this, movies about commies continue to fascinate me, even while offering an interesting glimpse at an earlier “long twilight struggle” in our country’s history.
Yet just when I think I have the films of William Wellman neatly tucked away in a mental safe deposit box, marked “W” for “Wild Bill”, the guy throws me a curve. As demonstrated in a recent TCM tribute to William Wellman, the range of this sometimes overlooked director, and the sheer variety of his films over the decades makes any tidy pigeon-holing of his style nearly impossible. Adventure, war, comedy, and even a musical or two dominated his career. Visually, his films are full of movement and Wellman seems to enjoy taking us on one hell of a ride. Over time, he took his audience from that seat in the cockpit of a fragile World War One biplane in Wings (1927) to that liberating flight of an anonymous farm woman’s life from oppression in So Big (1932), to the upheaval of a teenager’s nightmarish journey on the rails in Wild Boys of the Road (1933) to that most incisive examination of the consequences of a mindless rush to judgment in the brilliant The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).
Still, one of the aspects of his movies that I find most engaging is his ability to remind me that large current events have an impact on individual, highly fallible human beings. This side of Wellman‘s range was illustrated by such brutally realistic movies as the Pre-Code story of a drug addicted veteran (Richard Barthelmess) in Heroes for Sale (1933) and the strange, often amusing yet squirrelly metaphysical mixture of the compelling and the trite in a unique film, The Next Voice You Hear (1950), which attempts to show how “Joe Smith, American” (James Whitmore) reacts to a direct word from God in the midst of his not so quietly desperate life.
One seemingly forgotten Wellman movie, The Iron Curtain(1948), which is not on vhs or dvd, and was not part of the TCM retrospective, is one of those films that takes a break from all this breathless commotion. An odd movie, even for one of the first in that dour, hysterical sub-genre, the Cold War picture, it gains a kind of rough hewn poetic power by stopping to examine the bleak prospects for one man in a gray post-war world. If you expect a rousing adventure tale from Wellman, think again. What made this film quite moving was the director’s refusal to exaggerate the inherent dramatic qualities in the story and kept it on a human scale, not a geopolitical one. He chose to mute the details of what hyperventilating posters screamed was “the most amazing plot in 3300 years of recorded espionage!!”
The Iron Curtain is based on the actual 1945 case of Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko, (Dana Andrews with a brutally short, just-back-from-the-Eastern-Front haircut), who, after careful training, was assigned to the U.S.S.R. Embassy in Ottawa, Canada in the midst of World War II. Eventually, Gouzenko defected with 109 pages of material implicating several high level Canadian officials, outlined the steps taken to secure information about the the details of the nuclear bomb via numerous sleeper cells established throughout North America. The scandal that resulted when details of this case were publicized by American columnist Drew Pearson in early 1946 involved Canada, Britain and the United States. As dramatized by Wellman in this movie, it becomes more than a tense story of international intrigue, but a depiction of a man who may have lost his moorings as well.
From the first words of Reede Hadley‘s sonorous narration we know that we are in semi- documentary territory. This stark landscape is often devoted to examinations of the criminal underbelly of American society, (The Street with No Name-1948) or an exciting rehash of previously classified material about the recent “unpleasantness” in Europe, (13 Rue Madeleine-1947). Teeming with hearty undercover heroes upholding firm values at considerable sacrifice to themselves, their narrative power is rooted, at least in part, in the validity of the institutions that they seek to protect. Interestingly, in the muted Wellman film we are shown a man who embarks on a deliberate, menacing journey from the familiar toward a void of uncertain loyalties. This uneasiness is reinforced in the distinctive black and white cinematography of Charles G. Clarke, whose Ottawa locations are shot in the austere half-light of a Canadian winter.
Casting the leading character with Dana Andrews as Gouzenko was also fortuitous. Initially, he appears to be a finely tuned apparatchik who takes a certain savvy pride in doing his job of deciphering and formulating coded messages in the Ottawa embassy. Arriving at the Canadian embassy in 1943, (when America & the Soviets were united against the Nazis), Andrews is accompanied by the doctrinaire Colonel Trigorin (Frederic Tozere), a true believer in the Soviet way of life, and a cynical, dissolute son of a Soviet hero, Major Kulin (Eduard Franz), who creates an impressive if somewhat unwieldy portrait of a flashy character in only his second film role. Franz is a drunkard and a haunted witness to the ruthless sacrifices of the Soviet people made during the war. His ramblings are indulged because of his connections, but he also is the only character who tells the truth loudly and all the time. As such, Eduard Franz has to voice the film’s indictment of Stalin’s totalitarianism and the repression of Soviet society, but this is surprisingly free of what would seem to be McCarthy-style cant. Because Franz and other characters are presented as human beings, not caricatures spouting simple slogans, the viewer is allowed to recognize their flaws and virtues as similar to our own. By contrast, Andrews‘ character initially appears to be a most efficient bureaucrat.
As we are shown the daily duties of the cipher clerk, and in the process introduced to another cog in the machine, the hulking Cipher Lt. Vinikov (Peter Whitney), he explains that loud music must be played at all times in and out of the immediate vicinity of the deciphering room to prevent eavesdropping by anyone–giving us a blast of Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Aram Khachaturyan and Dominik Miskovský–and an opportunity for Dana to show us a hairline crack in his facade by the effort he shows to prevent himself from registering his discomfort on his face. One of the most interesting abilities of Andrews as an actor is his ability to appear almost robotic, yet suggest an underlying unease. As an appreciative observer, film analyst David Thomson, once described, it is as though Dana Andrews “did not quite trust or like himself, and so a faraway bitterness haunted him.” Andrews‘ Grouzenko is a tough customer, not apparently given to introspective brooding about his role in life, but the seams in his spirit do show some strain.
Even when a comely comrade at the embassy, played by June Havoc, who teems with frustration, (most of which I suspect the actress may have channeled from her career path at Fox), lures him to her small apartment in Ottawa away from the pressures of work, he resists her attempts to have him let down his guard. He turns the tables on this blonde babe’s assignment to discover his vulnerabilities, though his interest is definitely piqued by what he seems to regard as a lavishly appointed apartment, which she has–shockingly to him–all to herself.
Andrews‘ character also displays a certain lack of seriousness as he unbends in his new job, eventually even displaying a degree of playfulness as he sloughs off a comrade’s probings by telling him that “I’m a very important person, with all kinds of important secrets. Listen, I’ll tell you one: my wife is very beautiful.” Gradually, as the dehumanizing elements of their jobs take a toll on the penned up embassy workers, the story of some characters unfold. We learn that one reason for Dana Andrews sales resistance to Havoc‘s pitch is that he loves his wife, played by his frequent screen partner and fellow Fox contract player, Gene Tierney. She soon arrives from Moscow, and Tierney, who sometimes seemed overwhelmed by some of her more complex characters, is given a warmhearted, relatively straightforward role to play. Despite his joy in creating a small home in a decent apartment away from the tense embassy in Ottawa with Tierney, Andrews warns her repeatedly against forming any attachments to “others”, i.e. ordinary Canadians. This is particularly true of a neighbor, played with just the right note of easily misinterpreted bustling concern for the couple by Edna Best. As Dana explains to his increasingly westernized spouse, “We’re simple people, Anna, we can’t understand everything, we must have faith in our leaders.”
Soon, Tierney reveals that she is happily pregnant, and, though Andrews is delighted and concerned for her well-being, his compatriots seem to regard it as an inconvenient “intrusion of the personal” on their real purpose in Canada. That purpose, as far as this movie is concerned, is embodied by Berry Kroeger, as the aptly named “Mr. Grubb”. Kroeger, who was discovered on the Broadway stage and cast in this, his first movie, by William Wellman, plays a suave, even smug contact between the embassy personnel and the sleeper cells that have been established throughout Canadian society. As he would in numerous film noirs, Kroeger manages to be one of the most repugnant yet fascinating actors who’ve ever stepped in front of a camera. His character’s intellectual arrogance is matched only by his ruthlessness as becomes clear.
When Andrews’ son is born, and the deepening and dangerous despair of Eduard Franz becomes unmanageable, Gouzenko (Andrews) slowly begins to realize that he’s on the wrong side. This realization is most dramatically evident in the scene when Dana Andrews and his co-workers discuss the power and horror evidenced by the first atom bomb dropped by the U.S. at Hiroshima. Andrews’ superior is riveted by the thought of acquiring such knowledge and power. As a new father and a man whose ties to life have been reawakened, Gouzenko is deeply disturbed. Gradually, he comes to the realization that he and his family will not return to Russia, in part because he does not want his newborn son to grow up to fight in another war, especially one that might possibly fought with nuclear weapons.
When Andrews learns that he will shortly be sent back to Russia, he decides to take an irrevocable step. He steals important documents tracing the ties of his countrymen to the ring of American and Canadian citizens who have provided the Soviets with secrets related to nuclear weaponry. As he becomes more committed to defecting, (despite what will happen to his unseen family back home in the Soviet Union), he develops a rather half-baked idea that handing this vital proof over to the Canadian Justice Department will be easy and earn him a welcome from the Canadians. It becomes a race against time to get the documents into the right hands as well as save his family, even if he can’t save himself. The anxiety and tension that is created by the director as we see the rather naïve Gouzenko traipse from bureaucrat to bureaucrat in Ottawa, trying to convince someone, anyone, of his sincerity and the gravity of the information that he has to give them. With his wife and baby bringing up the rear in much of this segment, there’s something Kafkaesque about Andrews hapless trek around the dingy, snowy streets of Ottawa, (which can’t have looked all that different from Moscow at times). Eventually exhausted, gazing stonily ahead as only Dana “Master-of-the-Thousand-Yard-Stare” Andrews can, afraid to go back to his apartment for fear of interception and knowing that his disappearance has been noted by his colleagues by now, he practically stumbles into the bustling office of The Ottawa Journal newspaper. Just as the viewer assumes that freedom of the press might win the day, (à la the seventies’ Three Days of the Condor), Andrews is given the proverbial bum’s rush by a harried, disinterested night editor. Returning to the family flat, he secretes his wife and baby with the neighbor, and waits alone in the dark for the inevitable knock on the door.
Long story short, once someone sensibly realizes that Gouzenko‘s evidence proves that Stalin was actively trying to steal nuclear secrets and that previously unpublicized concepts such as “sleeper cells” becomes known, this event helped trigger the Cold War. In reality, these events led to the indictment of a total of 39 suspects, of which 18 were eventually convicted, including the only Communist Member of the Canadian House of Commons and the national organizer of the CP in Canada. The far-reaching leads given the authorities stemming from this case have also been tied to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case in the U.S. and the Cambridge Five (Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean and John Cairncross), in the U.K.
An epilogue to all this real life was intrigue was that, according to Henry Luce‘s more conservative Time Magazine lukewarm review of the film (their anonymous reviewer seemed to feel that the movie was not sufficiently melodramatic) in its May 17th, 1948 issue, “Red-front groups did whatever they could to obstruct shooting in Ottawa. Now that the picture is finished, they are voluminously protesting to Hollywood and the press, murmuring of libel suits, threatening to boycott Manhattan’s Roxy Theater for a year if the picture is shown there. But 20th Century-Fox intends to open it simultaneously in 500 U.S. theaters. The film tells much less—in quantity—about Communist spy activities than the daily press has already told. Yet the alarm and breast-beating of the opposition are an understandable tribute to the enormous and unique power of motion picture propaganda in general, and of this film in particular.”
A movie history addendum: One scholarly examination of the McCarthy era noted that as Hollywood’s explicitly anti-Communist films rose from three in 1948 to thirteen in 1952, Communists “were characterized in the gangster tradition as tough men who rule with an iron hand and use violence as their primary weapon. They were, in effect, B pictures, the successors to Bulldog Drummond and Boston Blackie”…”though conservatives in both Hollywood and Washington believed that a vast public hungered to see anti-Communist movies, none of them made any money”…”perhaps [proving that] the conventional wisdom was right, that nobody wanted message pictures anyway.”
Right: The real Igor Gouzenko
Posted by Richard Harland Smith on January 22, 2008
I began to see movies from a very early age but family visits to the cinema were still few and far between even by the late 1960s. Television helped to some degree (particularly public television, through which I had my first exposure to Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa) but by and large I had to first read about a lot of movies before I saw them. Sometimes the gap between reading about a particular title and actually seeing it could be a decade or twenty years, even thirty. All of this to say that, in those days, there was a lot of room to wonder, especially if you had a couple of images from a particular movie to stare at and brood on.
1. Blow-Up (1966, above). I'm pretty sure I first saw pictures from this Michelangelo Antonioni film in Lee R. Bobker's Elements of Film. The book was published in 1969 and I'm not sure where I got my copy but if I saw the still pictured above circa 1970 or 1971 then I had to wait over thirty years to see the actual movie. The half nudity probably impressed me but it was nudity different from what I saw in my Dad's Playboy, whose pictorials laid a woman out like a luncheon spread. There's coyness and mystery involved in the still pictured above and an equanimity shared by the man and the woman (who at the time I'm not sure I knew as David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave, even though I'd seen them both in Camelot). It was this very kind of wondering what was going on that got me hooked on the movies.
2. Fox and His Friends (1974). I'm guessing I first saw this still in John Willis' Screen World annual. I don't know what it is about this fairly simple set-up that intrigued me but I'm sure it had to do with the intimacy of the two subjects and the fact that, while the man is fully dressed and wearing a leather jacket, the woman is in lingerie. It would be another ten years before I learned about the prolific West German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder and I had only a couple of years to enjoy him before he died. I didn't see Fox and His Friends until I attended a Fassbinder retrospective at the old Bleeker Street Cinema in 1990.
3. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). I don't remember where I saw my first production stills from this classic of the silent era but every one was a winner. It was less the grotesque characters (and none came more bizarre than Cesare, the Somnombulist) in the pictures than those sets, all labyrinthine and warped like the human mind. The mise en scene is as theatrical as it is cinematic but I loved the tension between the two. As much as I would come to love the naturalism of British 60s and German 70s films, I never lost my fondness for the fantastic and dreamlike.
4. When I first saw pictures from it in film rental catalogs that my father brought home for me, I knew that Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960) was an "old" movie… and yet there was something so fresh and immediate about Jean Seberg and I think my love of cinema was sparked by its ability to capture and preserve something and keep it alive over the years.
5. Horror of Dracula (1957). I didn't know much about Hammer''s Dracula (called Horror of Dracula in the US) apart from the fact that it was rated "X." I didn't know then that the British rating system was different from the American, where the classification of "X" distinguished pornographic films or adult cinema brokering sexual content, and so I really had to study these pictures and wonder what went on in Horror of Dracula that earned it an X-rating. My imagination ran wild and, while no movie could ever hope to live up to the expectations of a slackjawed 10 year-old, it didn't disappoint when I finally caught up to it many years later.
6. Persona (1966). This image is probably one of the most famous in the annals of motion pictures in the second half of the 20th Century. One of the things I got about Ingmar Bergman right away was how he understood the electric dead space that existed between people and the power of the slightest gesture, of kindness or of cruelty. Those silences, those looks… even at the age of 10 I understood that loneliness. It's what brought me to Bergman, based on photos like the one above, and the reason why I stayed with him through his long and celebrated career.
7. Vampyr (1932). When I was very young, my father told me some story about The Grim Reaper, who haunted the highways with his scythe and stopped at road accidents to claim the victims. I suppose I was thinking of this story when I first spied the image above, in the pages of Ivan Butler's Horror in the Cinema, which I bought with my own money at my grade school book fair. There were a couple of evocative stills from Carl Dreyer's creepy little vampire story but this one stuck with me and it remains one of my favorite cinematic images. There's a rawness and a reality to it that contrasts nicely with the mythic/folkloric figure of the Boatman. I've seen the movie many times and read about it – but I've never learned the name of the actor who played the Boatman. And I don't want to know!
8. Horror in the Cinema also gave me my first glimpses of Japanese supernatural cinema. The book boasts beguiling photos from a number of key titles, including Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan (1964) and Kaneto Shindo's Kuroneko (1968) but this one from Shindo's earlier Onibaba (1964) set the cogs inside my brain to turning. This picture promised a life-altering mix of eroticism and primal fear and Onibaba, when I saw it a quarter of a century later, did not disappoint.
9. I spent a lot of years looking at this dead French guy in the bathtub before I came to know why it had to be. This is one of many startling images from Henri-Georges Clouzot's Diabolique (1955), a primer in slowly escalating tension.
10. The first stills I saw from Georges Franjau's Eyes Without a Face (1960) were under its American release title, The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. The obvious poetry of the images from the film were at odds with its garish alternative title; this was plain to me even before the age of 10 and I couldn't wait to see which was closer to the truth, the film's title or my entirely subjective impressions. I'd have to wait for over twenty years until Eyes Without a Face was re-released in America in the mid-1990s and I caught a showing at the Village Cinema. Turns out I was right after all – this was no grindhouse geek show of acid vats and dangling skeletons but a far more upsetting and even at times beautiful parable on why we look and what we think we see.
Posted by medusamorlock on January 21, 2008
With the death this past Saturday of actress Suzanne Pleshette at the age of 70, Hollywood has lost a terrific comic actress, one whose greatest success came from her work in television but who also had a consistently interesting career on the big screen. A native New Yorker, Suzanne burst upon the entertainment scene at twenty years of age in 1957, and didn’t miss the mark in any of her work.
After some NY stage work, including replacing Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker — she must have been magnificent, too — and a little TV work, Suzanne made her movie debut in 1958’s The Geisha Boy, opposite Jerry Lewis. Her next screen role, after dozens of guest-starring appearances in a wide variety of TV series, came in 1962 with the Troy Donahue romance Rome Adventure, and she would appear opposite him again in 1964’s western feature A Distant Trumpet, legendary director Raoul Walsh’s last movie. It wasn’t only onscreen that Pleshette and Donahue seemed to have an appealing chemistry; the two were married in January of 1964, a union that lasted all of nine months, though she retained an affection for Troy and said that he was the person who had “taught her to laugh,” and that’s one of the nicest things anybody could say about someone, isn’t it, really?
Suzanne had perhaps her most famous movie role in 1963 as schoolteacher Annie Hayworth in director Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary The Birds. It was a darkly sympathetic portrayal of a semi-mysterious character, the small town elementary teacher who carried a torch for the dashing Mitch (Rod Taylor), but who also seemed fascinated by the luminous blonde Melanie, played by Tippi Hedren, who came to visit him, lovebirds in tow. Looking far sexier than most teachers any of us ever knew, and lazily sharing a cigarette break with Melanie, Pleshette and her interpretation of the spinster Annie had (at least to some film scholars) an interesting lesbian vibe and she made a vivid impression, even — or especially — in death lying on that sidewalk. She also had a small role in the Ralph Meeker drama Wall of Noise the same year.
1964 brought two more movie roles for Suzanne, opposite Glenn Ford in the airline crash investigation drama Fate is the Hunter, and co-starring with James Franciscus in the adaptation of Herman Wouk’s novel Youngblood Hawke. The next year Suzanne had a breakout role in the lead of A Rage to Live, the movie version of John O’Hara’s steamy novel about a well-to-do nymphomaniac and the men she craves. Although it certainly capitalized on her sultry good looks, playing the sexpot didn’t seem to be in the cards for Suzanne, whose next movie role would be in the Disney comedy The Ugly Dachsund with Dean Jones. From that family comedy she went back to drama with the intense Steve McQueen western Nevada Smith in 1966, and the amnesia-themed mystery Mister Buddwing starring James Garner. All through these years she was also making frequent TV appearances — The Fugitive, The Wild Wild West, Run for Your Life, Dr. Kildare — interspersed with her movie work. Next up were two more Disney comedies, the rollicking western comedy The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin starring Roddy McDowall in 1967, and Blackbeard’s Ghost with Peter Ustinov the next year.
Pleshette made a crazy science fiction drama in 1968, producer George Pal’s telekinetic thriller The Power, with George Hamilton. More TV, then back to comedy for the light If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, about a group of American tourists abroad. Suzanne was the love interest, Brit Ian McShane her Romeo, and a bunch of U.S. comic character actors like Michael Constantine, Norman Fell, Peggy Cass, Marty Ingels, Pamela Britton and Sandy Barton were along for the ride. Another couple of comedies followed, 1970’s Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?, and then Support Your Local Gunfighter in 1971 with James Garner. In 1972, Suzanne got the role of Bob Newhart’s TV wife on The Bob Newhart Show, and her reputation was finally made. She wasn’t just a good comic actress, she was a great one, a perfect foil to Newhart’s dry absurdity, and the series lasted until 1977. In the meantime she made another Disney film — The Shaggy D.A. — and after the series worked continuously in TV movies and sometimes on the big screen, in movies like Dom DeLuise’s directorial effort Hot Stuff and Oh, God! Book II with George Burns.
She had a couple of series of her own — Nightingales, Suzanne Pleshette is Maggie Briggs — and made a big splash playing hotel magnate Leona Helmsley in the TV movie Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean in 1990. She reunited with Bob Newhart to help him close out his second series Newhart with a clever nod to their former show together, and also played again opposite previous co-star James Garner in the re-working of the series 8 Simple Rules after the death of John Ritter. Her last TV roles were in a trio of appearances in the comedy Will & Grace.
Suzanne Pleshette was a prolific and hard-working dramatic actress, an able comedienne who could trade quips with the best of them, a talented stage performer, a frequent and delightful talk show guest, and one of Hollywood’s classiest dames. She also was, unfortunately, a smoker, which may have contributed to her too-early death from lung cancer. In addition to her early marriage to Troy Donahue, she was also wed to Tom Gallagher (until his death) and enjoyed a late-in-life romance and marriage in 2001 with fellow actor Tom Poston (whom she first met back in 1959 in the Broadway play Golden Fleecing), who died in April of last year, leaving her a widow again.
Suzanne Pleshette, January 31, 1937 – January 17, 2008.
Posted by highhurdler on January 20, 2008
As part of TCM’s Martin Luther King Day marathon on Monday, the channel is showing The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), one of the earliest of so many "last man on earth" sci-fi dramas that have been produced for the big screen or as "movies of the week" for television over the years. The first one that I can remember seeing was The Omega Man (1971), featuring Charlton Heston (in the title role) as Robert Neville, and last month I saw Will Smith play this Richard Matheson character in I Am Legend (2007); both follow Vincent Price in the original adaptation (The Last Man on Earth (1964)). There’s something innately fascinating about the concept of being the last person alive on an empty planet earth, which is probably the reason that writers and film-makers keep revisiting the topic.
Of course, "end of the world as we know it" or "beginning of the end of civilization" themes have been popular entertainment since Orson Welles’ hour-long Halloween War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938. World War II and the advent of the nuclear age added reality to the equation and postwar audiences’ fears were exploited by Hollywood in the 1950's with an explosion of films which spawned the science fiction genre. These sci-fi (primarily) B-movies not only included a plethora of Martian-based plots or visits from otherworldly aliens, but also featured an entirely new set of "monsters": mutations wrought from our own atomic activities, like oversized insects! The Cold War’s MAD (mutually assured destruction) standoff between the United States and Russia beget higher budget productions with more serious (or blackly humorous) examinations of the then thought inevitable apocalypse. Over time, many of these movies devolved into less cerebral disaster flicks featuring expensive computer generated imagery (CGI). Directors have been seduced by this technology with limitless possibilities – there seems to be something irresistible about blowing up or otherwise destroying well known buildings and institutions, like in Will Smith’s first blockbuster Independence Day (1996). Even Steven Spielberg, no stranger to the genre when he chose to direct The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) sequel as his first film after finally winning Academy Awards for Schindler’s List (1993) admitted that he couldn’t resist adding the "dinosaur reeks havoc in San Diego" scenes to the end of Michael Crichton’s novel. More recently, the director revisited CGI-enabled civic destruction in his War of the Worlds (2005) remake, and the post 9/11 exploitation continues: if you haven’t seen the latest New York City landmark decapitation in Cloverfield (2008), then you probably couldn’t escape its trailer in theaters or on television. Personally, I prefer the ways that Alfred Hitchcock utilized our national monuments (the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur (1942), Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959)) in his thrillers.
But none of these other sci-fi disaster films have captured my imagination as much as the post civilization stories found in the "last man on earth" dramas. The circumstances by which the character ends up being (or at least thinking that they’re) the last one on the planet are varied: nuclear, biological, pick your favorite WMD. Though I’ve not seen the feature being shown tomorrow, I watched the trailer in TCM’s media room and saw Jeff’s article. Put simply, the channel’s schedule summarizes: "A black man (Harry Belafonte), a white woman (Inger Stevens) and a racist (Mel Ferrer) are the only people left alive after a nuclear disaster." The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) was one of only a handful of films directed by the Oscar nominated writer Ranald MacDougall (Mildred Pierce (1945)). From the trailer, one sees the requisite images and elements: empty NYC streets with newspaper and other litter being blown by wind across vast acres of deserted concrete landscape among canyons of skyscrapers – like tumbleweed in a Western ghost town, a vacant Times Square – always the money shot, even in non-apocalyptic thrillers like Vanilla Sky (2001), a lonely and frustrated (black) man shouts and then shoots his gun into the air hearing only echoes in return (a nearly identical scene is found in I Am Legend (2007)), and the survivor’s appreciation for the finer things, whether they be paintings stolen from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, music, wine or even lines from Shrek (LOL!). It’s been too long since I last saw The Omega Man (1971) with Heston, who became one of the genre’s icons (nearly 30 years before Smith) by appearing in the original Planet of the Apes (1968) and its first sequel, so I won’t attempt a detailed comparison. I do recall that Heston’s Neville had to match wits with his "opponents", or at least their leader (Anthony Zerbe) was a thinking man, versus the ill-defined mutant zombies that Smith battles. Otherwise, I think that the latest version – which I just had to see as soon as it was released given my fascination with the concept presented by its predecessor – contains some compelling scenes that should entertain most moviegoers, particularly to those who haven’t read Matheson’s novel (or aren’t bothered the differences). However, to paraphrase part of Roger Ebert’s review, the more one thinks about the movie after the fact, the bigger the nonsensical plot holes become.
In any case, these movies make me wonder what I would do if I were (or thought I were) the last man alive after some manmade holocaust. Besides the usual – cursing at the culprits, searching for other people, and trying to find a ready supply of uncontaminated foodstuffs (how long do canned foods last anyway?) – I think that I’d try to figure out a way to travel, instead of staying in one place. One problem would/could be all the abandoned vehicles strewn along the roadways, if I was lucky enough to find a workable form of transportation (with a renewable energy source) for myself. Traveling increases the possibility of finding others (food, water, etc.), but there would be risks like running out of fuel (or ammo) and into mutants. The ability to fly a small plane would be a terrific skill to have, but doing so would be fraught with even greater hazards, and maintenance would be critical! I think that several of these issues were addressed in a made-for-TV movie I watched decades ago, not The Day After (1983) but Where Have All the People Gone (1974), which was remade as Night of the Comet (1984). Instead of a nuclear war, it was a solar flair or comet’s tail that caused most of the world’s population to disintegrate into powder – leaving only their clothes behind – right on the spot where they’d been exposed. Despite their flaws, these two latter movies – and the more recent Armageddon (1998) – hold a certain attraction when compared to the others that I’ve included in this article: they aren’t based on the tired guilt trip premise that man will be the cause of his own demise.
Posted by Jeff Stafford on January 19, 2008
Sometimes you’ll be watching a film and a minor supporting player will suddenly appear and command your attention in a way that is more powerful and immediate than the leading actors. It could a physical gesture they make or a line of dialogue uttered in an unusual way or simply the look of their face or body or both. Milton Reid is one of those actors. His credit is likely to be down toward the bottom of the cast list with the designated role of “The Executioner” or “The Bodyguard” or “The Club Bouncer” or “The Big Pirate” but it’s his mug that will stick in your memory long after the film fades. He appears to be of Asian descent though one biographical reference intimated that his ususual features were the result of Turner syndrome which is incorrect because that rare genetic disorder only affects about 1 out of every 2,500 FEMALE births. But it’s possible that his exotic look was the result of something other than being the son of an Irish father and Indian (as in Bombay) mother.
Strangely enough, my introduction to this imposing character actor wasn’t in a movie but in a series of trading cards issued by Universal in 1963 known as “Spook Stories” which stuck silly captions on stills from the studio’s horror films (here’s a link to an article on Monster trading cards – http://www.monsterwax.com/terrortour.html). There were two images of Mr. Reid from the 1962 Hammer film NIGHT CREATURES that conjured up all kinds of crazy scenarios in my mind of who this character was. (The original British title of NIGHT CREATURES was CAPTAIN CLEGG which was a remake of the 1937 British feature; Walt Disney remade it in 1963 for television where it was broadcast in three parts on “The Wonderful World of Disney” as “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” and Patrick McGoohan played “The Scarecrow” aka Dr. Syn.)
When I finally caught up with NIGHT CREATURES years later Mr. Reid does indeed pop out of the screen during his brief scenes as “The Mulatto,” a huge mountain of a man whose tongue is cut out because of his treachery to the pirate Captain Clegg. He is later used by the relentless Captain Collier (Patrick Allen) to sniff out the incognito Clegg who is behind a smuggling operation in the village of Dymchurch. The film is a rousing and highly atmospheric period thriller with some wonderful visuals (the appearance of the marsh phantoms), and spirited performances (Peter Cushing, Patrick Allen and Oliver Reed have fun with their roles). But Milton Reid’s larger than life presence is mesmerizing. He’s like a caged wild animal here, grunting, growling and desperate, and though his part is relatively small, it’s of crucial importance to the story and leads to Clegg’s undoing.
NIGHT CREATURES, however, is probably an exception to most of the films Reid made where his on-screen time was barely more than that of an extra. And he rarely had dialogue because with a face and body like that who needs it? But even in one scene appearances or minor supporting roles you couldn’t miss the guy. He stands out the way Tor Johnson does in the Ed Wood films. You can’t look at anything else. You might not have known his name but you’ve probably seen him many times – he was the Japanese executioner in THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND (1958), the big pirate in Walt Disney’s SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON (1960), a guard working for DR. NO (1962), the strong man in BERSERK! (1967), the mute dog handler in THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (1971) which will be shown on TCM’s Underground franchise on 3/28, Biederbeck’s man servant in DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972), he played Sabbala in THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT (1977) and Sandor in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977).
According to a biography for Reid posted on IMDB by Jim Marshall, Reid was born in Bombay, India in 1917. He moved to London in 1936, married fashion illustrator Bertha Lilian Guyett in 1939 and made his first film appearance in the British propaganda film THE WAY AHEAD in 1944. Then the bio gets extremely interesting: “After the war he trained as a wrestler, turning professional in 1952, firstly as a Tarzan-like character called Jungle Boy wearing leopard skin trunks. He also continued to play small parts in films, usually as a tough guy or bodyguard, often as a cruel henchman such as the Japanese executioner in THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND (1958). His break-through came in 1959 when he was required to shave his head for the role of Yen the pirate in FERRY TO HONG KONG. He remained shaven-headed for the rest of his career, also changing his wrestling image to that of “The Mighty Chang,” an oriental giant. On stage he played in pantomime at the London Palladium as the Slave of the Lamp…However, most people remember Milton Reid as the bodyguard sorting out pretty girls for his boss in a long-running pipe tobacco commercial. In 1964 Milton challenged “The Great Togo” (aka Harold Sakata) to a wrestling contest to decide who would play the coveted role of Odd-Job in G0LDFINGER. Unfortunately, Milton had already been killed off in the first Bond movie Dr No (1962), so the producers were forced to pick Sakata and the “eliminator contest” wasn’t needed.”
Reid’s film career began to wind down in the late seventies and some of his last roles were in such sleazy softcore features as CONFESSIONS FROM THE DAVID GALAXY AFFAIR (1979) and QUEEN OF THE BLUES (1979), his final credited screen appearance. According to a poster on the www.britmovie.co.uk forums, there is an article on Reid in the book KEEPING THE BRITISH END UP, a survey of British softcore sex comedies. However, Reid’s story becomes much more unusual after 1979. Jim Marshall’s IMDB bio states that “Milton decided to try his luck in “Bollywood” and in 1980 returned to India. However, various problems arose and in 1981 he was arrested by Indian police for “trespassing, damaging furniture and disconnecting a telephone.” The trouble started when he visited his mother and sister in Bangalore, and there was a dispute with tenants at his sister’s bungalow. Police also complained of violence and abuse when they tried to detain him, and there were accusations of a manservant being assaulted. The following year Milton was stated by some reference works to have died from a heart attack, but that was incorrect. The actor’s son (same name) was still receiving correspondence sent by his father from Bangalore up to December 1986. Significantly, nothing was heard after that date, and the present assumption is that Milton Reid died in obscurity somewhere in India during the early part of 1987, although no death certificate or confirmation has been received by the family. Sadly, Bertha died in England in 1997, at the age of 90, still not knowing what had become of her husband. However, research continues.”
Despite the above information, some internet biographical sources have maintained that Reid died of a heart attack in London in 1982 but offer no explanation or evidence of their research. Reid’s grandson, Ian Reid, in fact, has challenged this fact in a web posting that read “I would be very interested to find out where the information about his death came from as this does not agree with how my family and I believe his life came to an end. His death and the location of his death are in fact a mystery. Therefore I would be interested to hear about any proof that backs up the claim that he died in London of a heart attack in 1982.”
We may never know what happened to “The Mighty Chang” but at least we can marvel at his unique presence in more than fifty films.
Posted by Richard Harland Smith on January 18, 2008
We all have our stories. Some of us are Gone with the Wind people, some The Sun Also Rises people or The Catcher in the Rye or The Prophet or Jonathan Livingston Seagull people. While we will throughout our lives read, be touched and be influenced by many books, there are some that reach us at an early age and help define who we are. For me, such a book was Agatha Christie’s murder mystery And Then There Were None, aka Ten Little Indians.1 First published in 1939, the book remains not only Christie’s best selling work but also (John Grisham be damned) the best selling mystery novel of all time. My sister Cheri read the book when I was about 10 and told me about its shocker of an ending, which I won’t reveal. If you’re new to the story, get to it with minimal foreknowledge and you’ll be rewarded with a deeply cynical but entertaining read. I mean, if you like that sort of thing. I don’t know why Ten Little Indians made such an impact on me, especially because I didn’t actually read the book until years later. I suppose the Indians had something to do with it.
Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; One choked his little self, then there were Nine.
So goes the deliciously morbid rhyme that ten guests summoned to an island off the coast of Devon discover, along with a queer little objet d’art… a table centerpiece consisting of a circle of porcelain Indians in various poses. When one of the guests dies (how else?) mysteriously, the survivors discover one of the Indian figures has been broken off. Then another guest dies and another figure is destroyed. And so it goes, on until… well, I won't say.
Armed with my sister’s thumbnail synopsis, I tracked film adaptations of Christie’s novel as they appeared on television. I enjoyed seeing the different casts and the various ways the films changed the particulars of the murders (while still making sure they hewed to the rhyme). There were interesting variations both in character and setting but one thing remained constant… every movie version of the book changed its ending. It was Christie herself who came up with the alternate coda, while adapting the book for the British stage in 1943. The production ran in London’s West End at the St. James Theater for 260 performances and only stopped when the theater was bombed by the Nazis! The play continued in London and ran on Broadway for 425 performances through the duration of World War II. That same year, René Claire’s And Then There Were None was first adaptation for cinema.
The Paris-born Claire made And Then There Were None while he sat out the Nazi occupation of Paris in Hollywood. His walk-through the Christie book is such a charming confection that it’s easy to forget the story’s grim dimensions as a body count thriller, the precursor in its own way to Friday the 13th (1980) and its many imitators. Charming South Africa-born leading man Louis Hayward leads a pedigreed cast of expat thesps, including Irishman Barry Fitzgerald, Brits C. Aubrey Smith, Roland Young, June Duprez (who made her film debut in an adaptation of a novel by Agatha Christie’s rival in the whodunit game, Edgar Wallace) and Richard Haydn (immortalized decades later as Uncle Max in The Sound of Music), Aussie Judith Anderson, American stage and screen player Walter Huston (father of John, of course) and Russian actor Mischa Auer. Reviewing the film recently, critic Nathaniel Thompson noted: “Despite the potentially morbid and creepy subject matter, the film remains balanced thanks to the pitch-perfect performances all around… and a general atmosphere of jovial mystery. Not an easy task to pull off with lines like "He brought the axe down and split the cranium in half."
Claire’s And Then There Were None set the tone for all future English language versions of the story. As would the disaster films of the 1970s, the key was to bring together a cast of “names” – not necessarily the most famous or most fashionable of actors but recognizable faces whom audiences were unaccustomed to seeing die like trapped rats… thus giving Ten Little Indians (as most film versions were subsequently called) an ambiance of train wreck magnetism.2 British producer Harry Alan Towers acquired the rights to the Christie novel and didn’t let go for thirty years. His first stab at the story was Ten Little Indians (1965), shot in Dublin but set in the Austrian Alps. Directed by George Pollock (an assistant director on many David Lean films, Pollock was coming from having overseen MGM's Miss Marple mysteries, starring Margaret Rutherford), this version starred rugged American actor Hugh O’Brien and Goldfinger girl Shirley Eaton as hero and heroine and Wilfred Hyde-White, Dennis Price, Leo Genn, Stanley Holloway, Daliah Lavi and pop star Fabian as some of the other “guests.” With a sex factor considerably higher, this spin also staged its murders more or less onscreen; while paranoid butler Richard Haydn had been hacked to death offstage in the 1945 version, here Swiss actor Mario Adorf dies when the ropes with which he is rappelling are cut with a hatchet (thus fulfilling the fourth Indian prophesy). Ten Little Indians also distinguished itself by providing audiences with a three-minute “whodunit break” allowing audiences to draw their own conclusions before proceeding with the same cheating conclusion that Christie had cooked up twenty years earlier.
Less than a decade later, Towers took another turn with the property, going back to the And Then There Were None title and filming in pre-Ayatollah Iran. Oliver Reed and Elke Sommer take the leads in this trashy (but irresistible) retelling. Made with German, Italian, Spanish and French money, the production pulled in ringers from all those countries: Gert Frobe, Adolfo Celi (like Frobe, a memorable James Bond villain), Charles Aznavour, Alberto de Mendoza, Herbert Lom, Richard Attenborough and even Towers’ Viennese wife, Maria Rohm. British director Peter Collinson was at the helm for this international slum-fest, filmed in its entirety at the Yassi Gabbay-designed Shah Abbas Hotel. While this go-round is routinely shortlisted as not only the worst version of Ten Little Indians but the worst-ever adaptation of any Agatha Christie novel, I can’t resist the great Euro-sleaze casting (where was Telly Savalas?) and the special vocal appearance of Orson Welles. I wish this were more widely available.
Towers tried the material again in 1989, with Frank Stallone and Sarah Maur Thorp lamely taking the leads, Brenda Vaccarro and Donald Pleasance larding out the ranks of the doomed and Herbert Lom returning to the material, albeit this time around as another character entirely. Towers had intended this version to be more faithful to the original novel… until he realized it would be cheaper to film on the South African Transvaal and that it would be more commercially marketable to stick with the more upbeat ending. See it for yourself – no, really… I won't watch it with you.
Italian film director Mario Bava was given the Christie property in the late 60s and, even though he professed to hate the book with a passion, both 5 Bambole per la luna d'agosto (5 Dolls for an August Moon, 1970) and Reazione a catena (Bay of Blood, 1971) bear the unmistakable stamp of the Christie cynicism. 5 Dolls is also a rare take on the novel to stage its slaughter as Christie had depicted it, against a gleaming modernistic setting. I have yet to see the Russian language Desyat negrityat (1987), shot in the Crimea by Stanislav Govorukhin, who also penned the exceedingly faithful (apart from a bit of rough sexplay between the two leads) adaptation. I have seen, though, The Beast Must Die (1974), in which a handful of disparate characters (among them Michael Gambon and Peter Cushing) are summoned to the British estate of a wealthy adventurer because one of them is a werewolf. This amusing little shaggy dog story even features a werewolf break, clearly patterned after the whodunit caesura in Ten Little Indians. I have often wondered if the producers of the successful reality TV series The Apprentice were fans of And Then There Were None.
I’d love to write a big Hollywood version of this famous Agatha Christie mystery. I could even stomach a cast full of the oversaturated likes of Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Ben Stiller, Cameron Diaz, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston… and why not even Paris Hilton… if I got to knock them off one by one until there were none.
Posted by medusamorlock on January 17, 2008
Probably everybody has read by now about the findings of a recent study over in Britain which confirms something that many of us have known instinctively for as long we can remember — that children don't particularly like clowns and in fact are often downright scared of them. This is probably no big deal, except think about those poor kids in hospitals who are subjected to visits by hyped-up adults dressed as clowns (which is more about the adults liking…really liking… to dress up as clowns than the kids wanting to be entertained by them, probably) and how that's the last thing you'd prefer to see before you went under the knife for some scary operation.
Although what this new study is saying is that any clown is pretty much a scary clown, movies have frequently used clearly creepy clowns to great effect in horror movies, including that overly cheery and therefore extremely creepy clown doll in the little boy’s bedroom in the original Poltergeist. Of course a clown done up in spooky makeup is going to be doubly horrifying, but even the kind-hearted clown has a touch of the ooky about him. And I’m even going to include probably the nicest and most humane screen clown played by the one of the screen’s greatest actors — James Stewart — in C. B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth.
As Buttons the clown, Stewart stays in make-up throughout the entire picture, so we get to see him as a clown with a funny clown hat and also in a fedora, which is equally entertaining (probably more so). We find out that he’s being sought by the police for murder for his involvement in the mercy killing of his terminally ill wife. Clearly he’s the nicest guy you could ever meet, and one hell of a doctor, as he proves time and again during his time under the Big Top, so we surmise that his wife really was in bad shape when he did her in. Buttons even meets with his little old lady mother — while in make-up, of course — when she comes to a performance to watch her dear son the only way she can.
I don’t exactly mean to make fun or belittle the role (exactly), it’s just that clown thing. Stewart isn’t outwardly scary, of course, nor is famed real-life clown Emmett Kelly who appears a couple of times in the film. Clowns really don’t even have to do much more than look mournful to start those weird vibes going, and when they start into one of their tortuous routines — squeezing into itty-bitty cars, being mock-blown-up, spritzed, or whatever — well, there’s no turning back. It’s been said, by genuine clown boss Glen Little of the real The Greatest Show on Earth traveling circus, that there are seven kinds of clown blow-offs which they can use to cap a gag, namely fire, water, smoke, explosions, slaps, falls, and surprise. Any one of those, on top of that crazy make-up, and you’ve got one scary proposition.
I think my favorite truly weirdo clown is actually from a TV show, an episode of the old mystery anthology One Step Beyond, called “The Clown”. In it, actress Yvette Mimieux has a mute clown admirer named Pippo, and Pippo goes all supernatural on her. Pippo is also one of the unintentionally freakiest clowns around, undoubtedly supposed to look sweet and vulnerable but he comes off completely the opposite. You can actually watch the episode online here if you dare!
What are some of your favorite — or least favorite — clowns in entertainment? They may be creepy as hell, but they’re wonderful, aren’t they?
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on
It’s Wednesday, January 16th – almost midnight – and I leave for Sundance tomorrow. I have an industry pass, which limits my choices to the screenings going on in three locations, but I just went through the catalog and will share here with others my plan of attack. Below are the films I hope to catch, along with an excerpt from the catalog:
Up the Yangtze
Fear(s) of the Dark
Love Comes Lately
Just Another Love Story
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Quentin Tarantino Presents Hell Ride
On a side note, and as a cat lover, I must say that I am very, very bummed to miss one particular film that falls on the day that I leave:
Beginning with the opening photo montage of a man, his cat, and the scratched-out face of his soon-to-be ex-wife, Goliath ripples with insights into the human condition—specifically, the condition of a man working in a dead-end job, going through a divorce, and coping with a missing cat. The crappy job and the divorce he can take, but the absent cat is too much. He focuses his frustration on broadening his neighborhood search, posting flyers, offering a reward, even seeking out the assistance of a private investigator. When his worst fears are confirmed, he snaps—but realizes in the end where happiness can be found.
The plot of the film is secondary, however, to the comical moments sprinkled throughout. Finding humor in the trimming of a moustache, the signing of divorce papers, and the inane lunchroom banter of coworkers, brothers David and Nathan Zellner show they are as perceptive as they are funny. With three prior shorts at the Festival, they return with a feature that is simultaneously deadpan, stark, strange, realistic, and amusing. Goliath further establishes their comedic talent and distinctive vision.”
Posted by Moira Finnie on January 16, 2008
Sometimes it seems that I learn more from looking at the losers in history—even Hollywood history—than I do from the lives of those who seem to be victors in life’s competitive struggle. The triumphant, who are usually perceived that way at a distance, are feted anew in biographies and compendiums of a period’s highlights. The also-rans are sometimes given the affectionate sobriquet of “beautiful losers”. Their foolish, noble or flamboyant failings may be most fondly remembered by those who never knew them. Well, here’s a small toast to a less than beautiful loser, a woman whose brief and tragic life has only been seen through the somewhat romanticized prism of several other celebrated lives.
Mayo Methot (1904-1951) is usually referred to as a colorful, if sad chapter during the “wilderness years” of movie icon Humphrey Bogart‘s long apprenticeship at Warner Brothers, following his promising breakthrough role in The Petrified Forest (1936) opposite his friend, Leslie Howard. As Bogart‘s third wife, Methot‘s descent into alcoholism, tempestuous marriage, possible mental illness, spousal abuse and inevitable obscurity are well documented. What seems less well known are her occasionally noteworthy appearances on screen. [...MORE]
Posted by Richard Harland Smith on January 15, 2008
Maybe because The Leopard Man (1943) has long been considered one of Val Lewton’s lesser efforts I’ve always liked it best of the nine films he produced for RKO between 1942 and 1946. By the time I got to them, so many of Lewton’s other titles in that great series of horror films (initiated by RKO to compete with the lucrative monster rallies of rival studio Universal) felt over-considered and untouchable, like fragile objets d’art safeguarded under glass. As “classics,” the relative assets of The Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Curse of the Cat People (1945) were set in stone and my own hotheaded defense of The Leopard Man was I suppose my way of claiming it as my own, as I had picked 13 for a lucky number because no one else would want it. The Leopard Man was the first Lewton film I bought on video cassette, I own it now as part of the Lewton box set, and it always seems to be the one I find myself rewatching on Turner Classic Movies. Something about the film brings me back to it again and again.
It took me a number of years and a number of repeat viewings of The Leopard Man to appreciate it as a study of misperception, both on a personal level as a denial of driving emotions, and also on a broader level in the way that people see (or fail to see) one another. Lewton and Tourneur set the tone for misperception right away with a camera move that brings us from the opening credits to a view of a woman we assume will be a principal player… only to have that POV yanked to one side, where we are introduced to someone else entirely. As our angle on Clo-Clo (Mexican actress Margo), the Flamenco dancer whose castanets cut the night air like a sidewinder’s rattle, shifts to her performing rival Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks, who went from this to The Seventh Victim), Lewton and company are at once tipping us off-balance to maintain an aura of uncertainty and supporting the film’s theme of human interconnection. This bit of cinematographic legerdemain also reflects the reality that most of Lewton’s RKO horrors employed a bait-and-switch, luring moviegoers in with the lurid promise of a gaudy title only to offer them something far more sophisticated and even poetic.
This first scene has barely begun when we experience yet another unsettling jolt in the appearance of a leopard in Kiki’s dressing room. Kiki screams and jumps up onto her make-up table as the leopard enters… on the end of a leash held by Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe), her agent and lover. In "a tough town for blondes," Jerry has rented the animal from a local man to help give his fair-haired client an edge over the more exotic Clo-Clo. But as no good deed goes unpunished, the leopard breaks loose from its leash and escapes from the nightclub into the night… setting The Leopard Man in motion with a series of savage killings in and around a small New Mexico town.
As The Leopard Man is only 66 minutes long, the notion that the string of subsequent killings of women may not attributable to the escaped leopard but to a psychopath masking his crimes by making them look like the work of a wild animal comes early on, as a theory of Jerry to ease his guilty conscience for having started the whole mess (although Clo-Clo, whose castanets startled the animal, bears some part of the blame as well). The identify of the real killer won’t be too hard to figure out, principally because there just aren’t that many suspects, but The Leopard Man is as far from being a simple whodunit as The Cat People is from being a spookshow. Lewton, Tourneur and scenarist Ardel Wray are less interested in the pathology of murder or in amateur detectives than they are in isolating the social structures that leave people vulnerable and make serial murder not only a possibility but an inevitability.
This early serial killer story eschews the easy out of having its villain be a Hannibal Lector-style super-predator, making him instead a pathetic and lonely man whose impulse to do harm is sparked by the very thing that has prompted the callous showbiz hero and heroine to accept their own part in the tragedy… acknowlegement of the suffering of others. What makes The Leopard Man ahead of its time is its refusal to lay responsibility solely at the feet of the murderer. Victims die here not only because a killer is on the loose but because they have been let down by others, because people lack faith, because they give up on one another. The film is unabashedly class conscious. First victim Teresa Delgado is as much a victim of poverty and her mother's misplaced house pride as she is of the leopard. Second victim Consuela dies because she must meet her lower class lover on the sly and is left isolated and vulnerable to attack; third victim Clo-Clo dies because she must leave the safety of her home to retrieve a lost bank note, a gift from a kind older man (overcompensating for the loss of his own daughter's affection) who hoped to ease the burden of this single mother but instead seals her doom. Surrounding each death is a chain of shared responsibility, making it not so difficult to understand why the film was a bitter pill for World War II era audiences and critics.
Beyond these heady interpretations, there’s much to love about The Leopard Man, from its irreverent sense of humor (I love the transition from a sad funeral parlor scene to what seems to be a Catholic Madonna… who then lifts a cigarette into the frame and takes a drag) to its meandering narrative, which leapfrogs from character to character (like a kind of Typhoid Mary, Clo-Clo passes her bad luck onto others before she ultimately falls victim to “the death card” slapped down by local fortune teller Isabel Jewel) in a way that indie pics such as Slacker (1991) and Pulp Fiction (1993) claimed to invent fifty years later. The spare score by Roy Webb and expressive cinematography of noir specialist Robert De Grasse (Born to Kill, Follow Me Quietly) make the film distinctly pleasurable to watch, like a dream you can actually stop and appreciate while you’re in the middle of it.
For too long The Leopard Man has been judged for all the things it isn’t and needs to be reevaluated for what it does do very well. Even if you’ve watched the movie before, I ask you… have you seen The Leopard Man?
This post is my belated contribution to the Val Lewton Blog-a-Thon hosted by Michael Guillén's The Evening Class film blog, comemorating the release of the Martin Scorsese-produced documentary Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows. There are a lot of contributions and many more takes on The Leopard Man, so get busy!
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