Diamond in the Rough: The Squeaker (1937)

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The Criterion Collection built its luxury brand on an expectation of quality, and its formidable library is stacked with international classics presented in exacting restorations. This is a model without room for beat-up prints of forgotten programmers, though they’ve found a way to smuggle some in through their streaming channel on Hulu Plus (it was just announced that Criterion has renewed their contract with Hulu, so their 800+ films will available on the VOD site for years to come). There are endless independent productions that have been poorly preserved, and are not famous enough to justify extensive restoration work. Hulu has allowed Criterion a place to distribute these orphan titles, those from directors too obscure to even put out in their more budget-conscious Eclipse line of DVD box sets.  As I was idly searching for Criterion titles only available on Hulu Plus’ subscription service, I scrolled upon William K. Howard’s The Squeaker (aka Murder on Diamond Row), a low-budget British mystery produced by Alexander Korda in 1937. Howard raises auteurist alarm bells because he was a favorite of legendary film historian William K. Everson, and was the subject of one of Dave Kehr’s “Further Research” column in Film Comment. A fleet, funny and noir-tinged detective yarn adapted from an Edgar Wallace play, The Squeaker is an unpolished little gem.

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The Brutal Truth Found In 12 Years a Slave

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On Sunday many of us will be glued to our television sets watching the annual Oscar ceremony unfold. At this time of year I tend to contemplate all the new releases I’ve seen in the past 12 months or more and linger over the films that have captured my imagination, awed me, inspired me or just made me think about old ideas and tired truths in new ways.

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Of Time and the Family: The Long Day Closes (1992)

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My memories are all knotted up with the movies. At times I fear I remember films more than reality. My first date with my future wife is nothing now but place names (Blue Ribbon Bakery, Film Forum) and an atmosphere of skittish anticipation. None of the words I spoke to her remain in my gray matter, though I recall the college fight song John Barrymore belted out in the B-Musical Hold That Co-Ed, the film which capped our evening. That tune imprinted itself, though not as much as that transformative parting kiss. No film captures the poetic arbitrariness of memory than Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes, released last week in a sumptuous Blu-Ray transfer from Criterion. Davies weaves together impressions from his mid-1950s Liverpool childhood in suggestive flashes, from the play of light upon a carpet to the audio of some of his favorite moviehouse memories (The Magnificent Ambersons and Meet Me in St. Louis feature prominently).  Davies claimed it was the happiest period in his life, set in the years after his father’s death, and before the crippling doubts of adolescence. The Long Day Closes is a rapturous experience, capturing the ebb and flow of sense memory in rich, tactile images, all underscored with the knowledge of their passing. These moments are gone and they will last forever.

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Adults Only: House on Straw Hill (1976)

lhIn the early 1980s British home video stores found themselves in the center of a storm when moral panic swept through the U.K. Religious leaders, parents and politically motivated individuals created what’s now known as the “video nasty” scare after discovering that stores were renting graphic horror films usually reserved for American grindhouses and indiscriminate drive-ins. Most of the objectionable movies were made in the U.S. or Italy where excessive violence and nudity had few problems getting past censors if it was properly rated but in Britain film censorship tended to be much more restrictive. Movies with explicit content and titles that often intended to shock such as CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980), THE DRILLER KILLER (1979) and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) caused widespread outrage throughout the U.K. that led to them being removed from video stores, criminally prosecuted or cut for British audiences. The only British film that was apparently singled out during the video nasty scare was James Kenelm Clarke’s THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (aka Exposé; 1976). For decades this notorious erotic thriller has had the reputation of being one of the sleaziest films ever produced in Britain during the 1970s, which made it difficult to see. Badly cut or edited video copies circulated among the curious but the quality was always questionable. Thanks to the efforts of Severin Films I recently had the opportunity to catch up with this infamous film on DVD but it didn’t exactly live up to its seedy status. Is it an unsung cult classic waiting rediscovery? Or is it one of the most depraved movies ever made? In truth it’s neither of these things but I’m glad that Severin has saved the film from obscurity and given it a new life on DVD.

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Diabolique vs. Scream of Fear

I was gonna call this week’s post “2 Girls, 1 Swimming Pool” but decided against it.  But inspired by TCM’s upcoming screening of one of my all-time favorite thrillers, Henri Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (AKA Les Diaboliques), I’m taking the opportunity to celebrate the twisted artistry of this gloriously macabre picture–and taking stock of one of its many knock-offs.

Clouzot’s is a dark and cynical cinema, devoid of hope and happy endings.  Which is unsurprising, since that is an equally apt description of Clouzot himself.  “All his work has been surrounded by an air of scandal and affront,” writes Roy Armes, “and the shooting of all his films is conducted in an atmosphere of bitterness and recrimination.  His own urge to dominate is perhaps reflected in his urge to dominate is perhaps reflected in his characters who seek outlets for their lust, hatred, and violence.”

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Oh Dear! What Can the Matter Be?

jsimmons“Oh dear! What can the matter be?
Dear! Dear! What can the matter be?
Oh Dear! What can the matter be?
Johnny’s so long at the fair.

He promised he’d buy me a fairing should please me,
And then for a kiss, Oh! He vow’d he would tease me;
He promised he’d bring me a bunch of blue ribbons,
To tie up my bonny brown hair. ”
– Author unknown, 1793

British director Terence Fisher is best known for his work with Hammer Films but before he started making movies for the studio that dripped blood, Fisher edited and co-directed a number of films for Gainsborough Pictures. One of his most accomplished early directorial efforts is SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950) starring a very young Jean Simmons and Dirk Bogarde. This absorbing thriller isn’t available on DVD in the US but SO LONG AT THE FAIR will air this coming Sunday (July 28th) on TCM at 7:15 PM PST and 10:15 PM EST. Fans of well-acted period dramas and good gothic mysteries should consider tuning in but the film will be of particular interest to anyone curious about the origins of modern British horror cinema.

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Arsenic & Ambiguity in David Lean’s Madeleine (1950)

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I planned on writing about a completely different film this week but something unexpected happened that caught me by surprise. I watched David Lean’s magnificent MADELEINE (1950) yesterday for the first time and I was so moved by this vastly underrated and utterly brilliant true crime drama that I just had to share a few of my thoughts about it with you. Proceed with caution because I indulge in spoilers that may lessen the film’s impact if you haven’t had the opportunity to see it for yourself.

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This is a Time for Ghosts

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I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, horror is my favorite film genre. But that doesn’t stop me from occasionally getting aggravated by some of the female stereotypes that populate it. From madwomen in the attic to resilient final girls and overprotective mothers, horror is a genre that rarely deviates from the tired and true tropes that have captivated audiences for decades. Enter Florence Cathcart (played by actress Rebecca Hall) in a new British horror film called THE AWAKENING (2012). Florence is a spunky science minded young writer who spends her days debunking séance-holding charlatans who prey on a grief stricken nation with promises that they can communicate with the dead. The year is 1921 and England is recovering from a world war that killed over a million British soldiers, including a young man who Florence once loved. Con artists masquerading as spiritualists thrived during the country’s postwar recovery and routinely targeted vulnerable individuals who wanted to reunite with lost loved ones. Florence, a proud atheist who’s just as comfortable in a pair of man’s trousers as she is a long skirt, is driven to expose these frauds and has just published a popular book about her exploits. Her professional occupation is buoyed by her unspoken desire to reconnect with phantoms from her own past and put them to rest. In simple terms, she is a ghost hunter on a personal mission. She also happens to be one of the most interesting and well-constructed horror film heroines I’ve encountered recently.

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Old Dogs, Older Tricks: The Wild Geese (1978)

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For as long as there are aging matinee idols looking for a quick paycheck, there will be commando movies there to pay them. While the painfully self-conscious Expendables movies brought this prestigious genre back into box office glory, it’s a format that has been cranking along for decades. Before Stallone, the most successful old man revitalizer was Andrew V. McLaglen (son of actor Victor), who cranked out fogey action flicks from the 60s through the 80s, after a long career in TV Westerns. Cult home video outfit Severin has just released The Wild Geese (1978) on Blu-Ray, which stars the leathery trio of Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore. McLaglen’s favorite among his films, it is a bloody imperialist fantasy in which a group of ex-Special Ops Brits parachute into Africa to rescue a deposed leader from a tyrannical despot. Fitfully released in the United States as its distributor was going through bankruptcy, it exudes more testosterone per film frame than Stallone’s pec-flexing opus.

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O Lucky U.S.!

One of many references in O LUCKY MAN! to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

Last night Alex Cox and I sat down for a private screening of O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson, 1973). Alex had met both Anderson and Malcolm McDowell back in the seventies, and had even presented Anderson with a script for a film that never got made (Scousers). At one point Alex, who had not seen O Lucky Man! in a very long time, couldn’t help but blurt out that “it’s even better than I remember!” Alex was also surprised by how certain sequences in the film had clearly influenced his own Highway Patrolman (1991), and we both marveled at how, despite being almost 40 years old, the film retained all its original power and packed a prescient edge. O Lucky Man! is even more relevant now to the U.S. because at the time of its release it was chronicling the nervous collapse of English society from an engineering country to a service country. It’s the same spasm that now grips the U.S. psyche. [...MORE]

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