The Amazing, Amazing Mr. X (1948)

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As a lifelong classic film fan who has seen more movies than she cares to remember, it’s easy to become a little jaded. However, every year I manage to come across an old film that becomes a new favorite. This year that film is the amazing, Amazing Mr. X (1948), a low-budget supernatural thriller also known as The Spiritualist in Britain.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: Patterns

blogbook“The patterns of which this piece speaks are behavior patterns of little human beings in a big world—lost in it, intimidated by it, and whose biggest job is to survive in it.” So said Rod Serling about his 1955 tele-drama Patterns, which was adapted into a feature film the following year. The quote by Serling is from the Bantam paperback version of the narrative, which was published in 1957. The story was produced in three separate mediums—television, film, and written fiction (left)—suggesting that it hit a nerve with audiences during the 1950s.

The film version, which airs on TCM this Saturday, September 24, at 10:15pm EST, differs from the tele-drama primarily in the casting of movie star Van Heflin as protagonist Fred Staples. Industrial engineer Staples and his wife, Nancy, played by Beatrice Straight, relocate from friendly Mansfield, Ohio, to cold-hearted Manhattan after Fred takes a job with Ramsey & Co. He and veteran vice-president Bill Briggs, played by Ed Begley, hit it off until Fred learns from company president Walter Ramsey that he was hired to replace the older man. Everett Sloane costars as Ramsey, who brow-beats Briggs in meeting after meeting, hoping to force the older executive to resign or retire. Caught in the middle, Staples struggles with his conscience. Though he protests the unfairness of Ramsey’s tactics, he stops short of making any real sacrifice on his friend’s behalf.

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John Alton: Painting with Light in The Big Combo

blogmarqueeIf you like your noir lean and mean, catch The Big Combo on TCM this Thursday, June 9. The minimalist plot pits volatile police detective Leonard Diamond, played by Cornel Wilde, against a morally bankrupt racketeer known as Mr. Brown, played by a cold-hearted Richard Conte. Not surprisingly, the two have a corrosive history, and their long-standing animosity revolves around their interest in the same girl, Susan, played by Wilde’s real-life wife, Jean Wallace. Detective Diamond is as agitated and twitchy as Mr. Brown is cool and collected, their contrasting demeanors underscoring their positions on the opposite side of the law.

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Barrymore Best: The Spiral Staircase (1946)

ss17Ethel Barrymore & Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (1946)

This month Turner Classic Movies is spotlighting “The Best of the Barrymores.” The Barrymore family regularly appears on TCM but every Monday evening throughout April viewers can tune in and catch a selection of films featuring one or more of the Barrymore siblings in some of their best roles. Next Monday (April 18) the TCM spotlight will shine on Ethel Barrymore and one of the films scheduled to air is The Spiral Staircase (1946) at 10 PM EST/7 PM PST.

The Spiral Staircase is a longtime favorite of mine and the film has been hailed as a prototype for many of the best giallo; the Italian genre films that I touched on just last week in a piece titled Death Walk Twice: A Giallo Double Feature. With thoughts of murder and black-gloved killers still running through my mind, it seemed like a good time to revisit this classic thriller that features an Academy Award nominated performance by Ethel Barrymore as the bedridden matriarch of a wealthy family that is concealing some unsavory secrets.

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Hitchcock’s One Set Wonders

Today, TCM runs one of Hitchcock’s biggest hits of the forties, the suspense wartime thriller with Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, and John Hodiak, Lifeboat.  Lifeboat is notable for taking place entirely on one confined set, the lifeboat that all of our characters are aboard for the duration.  I can’t even imagine the story board sessions for a movie like this but it would be a daunting assignment for any director to undertake a movie where the setting just doesn’t change.  At all.  Fortunately, Alfred Hitchcock was at the helm so everything worked out just fine.  Indeed, Lifeboat is one of my favorite one set wonders, though admittedly, I don’t have many.  A film that takes place at the same location from start to finish needs to have crackling writing, enthusiastic and energetic acting, or virtuoso cinematography or all three.  Otherwise, it’s going to be a long two hours.

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Douglas Slocombe: A Tribute

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You can enjoy some of Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography tomorrow, February 26, when TCM airs Close Encounters of the Third Kind at 5:30 PM EST/2:30 PM PST.

Douglas Slocombe, the brilliant British cinematographer, died earlier this week at the ripe old age of 103. Slocombe’s filmography reveals that the skilled camera operator with a keen eye for composition worked on some of the best-looking films produced in the U.K. beginning in the 1940s at Ealing Studios until he retired following the completion of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989. During his long and impressive career, Slocombe was nominated for numerous honors including 3 Oscars, 10 BAFTAs and was awarded 6 times by the British Society of Cinematographers. Today I thought I would take a brief look back at the man’s life and celebrate his achievements with a gallery of images that showcase his talents.

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deliver us from sleepless nights, one day at a time

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Two weeks ago, shortly after finishing my last post, I read the obituary for Haskell Wexler, who received five Oscar noms and two wins. The one for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Mike Nichols, 1966) was to be the last Oscar given out for a black-and-white film. A week later I was reading the obituary for Vilmos Zsigmond, another Oscar-winning cinematographer legend who first blew me away in 1971 with McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Deliverance. They say death comes in threes, but I don’t remember reading anything about the grim reaper adding vocations to his deadly lottery numbers. Should I worry about Christopher Doyle and Emmanuel Lubezki? My fears were, of course, unfounded, as the third showbiz obit for me to read came last Friday, and it was for Pat Harrington Jr., aka: Schneider on One Day at a Time. They all made their contributions in the field of entertainment, and each NYT obit had its surprises. [...MORE]

When Technicolor Was Spectacle

colordorianSpectacle and the movies fit like a hand in glove. Ever since Georges Melies innovated a few camera tricks in his charming turn-of-the-century fantasies, the cinema has used spectacle to attract viewers to the theater with the promise of seeing something larger than life—something out of the realm of the ordinary. Today, spectacle in films is equated with elaborate, large-scale action sequences generally enhanced by computer-generated imagery (CGI). I recently caught Mad Max: Fury Road, and though director George Miller claimed to have kept the CGI to a minimal 20%, the non-stop barrage of chases, crashes, and explosions was just as NOISY as any CGI-laden comic-book film.

I had been looking forward to Mad Max, because The Road Warrior is one of my favorite movies, and I was pleased that director George Miller had returned to reboot and rework his concept and characters. While the film was better directed than most action blockbusters, there were so many racing vehicles, bizarre, nightmarish characters, and fiery crashes that I was numb from the spectacle, not thrilled. The heavy-metal guitarist chained to the front of a truck and pounding away at his futuristic instrument was the last straw—it was the proverbial “kitchen sink” that Miller tossed in after including every distorted vehicle and twisted human in his imagination.

Thoughts of spectacle in the movies were still on my mind when I noticed that The Picture of Dorian Gray is scheduled to air on TCM this Saturday, June 27, at 8:00pm. The Picture of Dorian Gray is an example of movie spectacle from another era—a time when glorious Technicolor was considered special, or sensational.

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William Mortensen in Hollywood

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William Mortensen in his studio with a photo of Jean Harlow.

Last Month my husband, a fellow photography buff, gifted me with a copy of American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen for Valentine’s Day. The book contains a compilation of work by William Mortensen (1897–1965), a brilliant, innovative and visionary photographer who once worked in Hollywood snapping glamorous and exotic portraits of actors on set and in his studio. Mortensen’s unconventional methods and propensity towards grotesque, esoteric and erotically charged imagery compelled his peers, such as photographer Ansel Adams, to label Mortensen the “Antichrist” and in the following decades critics attempted to minimize his artistic contributions and erase Mortensen’s name from history books.

Thankfully they didn’t succeed and today we have the opportunity to reevaluate Mortensen’s work in two recent books published by Feral House that piece together the man’s fascinating life and career. Mortensen’s a complex individual with many different facets to his personality but the years he spent in Hollywood should be of particular interest to classic film fans.

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Artist, Activist & Star-Maker: Photographer Eliot Elisofon

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Kim Novak & Eliot Elisofon (self-portrait; 1958)

When I first started writing about Hollywood glamor photography here at the Movie Morlocks one of the photographers I was particularly keen on featuring was Eliot Elisofon. His captivating images of numerous Hollywood stars have mesmerized me for decades but back in 2010 there was very little information about the man available online. This year that changed significantly thanks to the Smithsonian museum, which launched the first retrospective of Elisofon’s photography at the National Museum of African Art. The exhibit is titled “Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon” and it features an extensive selection of photographs Elisofon took for Life Magazine between 1947 and 1972 as well as pieces from his African art collection that were donated to the museum after his death in 1973 at age 61. The exhibition comes to an end on November 16th but since its debut nearly a year ago it’s received extensive media attention and sparked a renewed interest in Elisofon and his work. In an effort to keep interest in Eliot Elisofon alive I thought I’d finally delve into his fascinating career in Hollywood where he helped make Marlon Brando and Kim Novak household names and worked on a number of films including MOULIN ROUGE (1952), BELL BOOK AND CANDLE (1958), THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965) and KHARTOUM (1966).

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