A Forgotten Film to Remember: Night Must Fall

nighopeningIt is easy to assume that serial killers as a subject for crime movies is a relatively recent phenomenon, particularly those that delve into the unique psychology of the killer. After all, the term serial killer does not pop up in common usage until after Ted Bundy was incarcerated in prison, though it was coined earlier. Credit for the term is often given to FBI Agent Robert Ressler, who adopted “serial killer” and “serial homicide” in the 1970s. However, the phrase “serial murderer” goes as far back as the 1930s when director of police Ernst Gennat used it to describe Peter Kurten. I once read a passage by author James Ellroy in which he lauded Thomas Harris and his 1981 novel The Red Dragon as a watershed moment in crime fiction because of Harris’s detailed understanding of the psychology of the serial killer.

So, I am always surprised when I come across early pop culture depictions of serial killers that seem to accurately capture the demons that drive them. This Friday, February 7, at 6:30am, TCM will air Night Must Fall, a 1937 drama starring Robert Montgomery as a likable killer named Danny. The film is based on the 1935 play penned by Emlyn Williams, who originally starred as Danny on stage.  A working class Irish lad, Danny charms his way into the good graces of wealthy, cantankerous Mrs. Bramson, who exploits her age and presumed ill health to dominate the people in her household. The conniving killer discovers Mrs. Bramsom’s weakness for attention and quickly becomes the old lady’s primary caretaker. Mrs. Bramson’s niece, Olivia, is immediately suspicious of Danny. However, Olivia and her aunt are on such poor terms that Mrs. Bramson refuses to listen to her about anything. The killer’s identity is obvious from the beginning, which might frustrate those viewers who prefer a plot-twisting whodunit. Night Must Fall is not that kind of crime story. The tension derives from the interplay of the characters. It is disturbing to watch Danny worm his way into Mrs. Bramson’s heart, while the cat-and-mouse game between Danny and Olivia hints at her dark thoughts and desires.  I chose Night Must Fall as a forgotten film to be remembered for two reasons—the performance by Robert Montgomery as Danny and the insight into the sociopathic character by writer Emlyn Williams.

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Will the real Sherlock Holmes please stand up?

I’m going to wind up my exploration of pulp mysteries with the ultimate pulp detective of them all—Sherlock Holmes.  And for any of my regular readers, the fact that I’ve chosen Zero Effect with Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller instead of the more obvious selections like Hound of the Baskervilles shouldn’t be a surprise.  And, just like when we looked at Warren Beatty as an ersatz James Bond back in the discussion of Kaleidoscope, the only way we get to such unlikely casting is by examining an unauthorized project from the margins.

As it happens, it is that aspect of Zero Effect—its status as an authorized adaptation—that is the focal point of our story this week.  So—click to open the fold and let’s take a journey through the tangled jungle of Sherlock Holmes’ complicated rights issues.

zero-effect-1

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Edward Dmytryk vs. the Blacklist

“Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

Before you answer, please understand: this is not a Yes or No question.

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Remaking Ichikawa

Agatha Christie aficionados and detective fiction fans take note: Behind the deceptively bland title The Inugami Family lies a superb pulp mystery of the highest order–a cinematic classic that won awards, influenced a generation, and remains as thrilling today as when it was made.  Those of you who are inspired by this blog to rush out and track down an import DVD of this gem for yourself will discover that in fact, two movies with the exact same title, the same cast and makers, and pretty much the same running time and content exist.  Which makes telling the two apart a rather challenging task, to the newbie.  As with Detour recently, we are here to discuss a slavishly literal remake, only this time it’s a remake, thirty years to the day later, from the same director.  And therein lies our tale…

Inugami Family

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The Proliferating Fictions of Raúl Ruiz

“In true travel, what matters are the magical accidents, the discoveries, the inexplicable wonders and the wasted time.” -Raúl Ruiz, paraphrasing Serge Daney in Poetics of Cinema

No director wasted time more spectacularly than Raúl Ruiz, who passed away last week at the age of 70. The restively prolific Chilean, who fled to Paris after Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power, made over 100 films, and was working on two at the time of his death (the Australian film journal Rouge compiled an invaluable annotated filmography through 2005). Obsessed with the multiplicative nature of storytelling, his work branched narratives, opened up parallel worlds and rendered dreams more real than reality. They often feel like a serial drama happening all at once, the plot twists layered one on top of the other in a dissolve or superimposition. Raised on robust American trash like Flash Gordon, Ruiz’s films are overflowing with wild incident (he later wrote scripts for the brash anti-realism of Mexican telenovelas). He embraced their  irruptions of logical narrative order, and also found delight in the “mistakes” of higher-budgeted productions :

For years I watched so-called Greco-Latin films (toga flicks, with early Christians devoured by lions, emperors in love, and so on). My only interest in those films was to catch sight of planes and helicopters in the background, to discover the eternal DC6 crossing the sky during Ben Hur’s final race, Cleopatra’s naval battle, or the Quo Vadis banquets. That was my particular fetish, my only interest. For me all those films, the innumerable tales of Greco-Latinity, all partook of the single story of a DC6 flying discreetly from one film to the next.

Ruiz always followed the plane, that is, he let the image determine the story, rather than vice versa. If a plane entered the frame, that dictated that a new tale had to be written: “It [the image-situation] serves as a bridge, an airport, for the multiple films that will coexist in the film that is finally seen.”

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Elizabeth Taylor in Velvet

“I want it all quickly ’cause I don’t want God to stop and think and wonder if I’m getting more than my share.” – Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet Brown in National Velvet (1944)

A blur of thousands of words and pictures began to tumble out of every medium as soon as news of Elizabeth Taylor’s death at age 79 was announced on March 23rd. I know that the most noteworthy features of this performer’s life are the many adult roles she played with skill (on screen and off), her remarkable beauty, durable, often deliciously excessive glamour, the ups and downs of her not-so-private life, and ultimately, her pioneering charity work to assist those with AIDS. People will naturally mention her two Oscars. One was awarded for her tart with a heart in the often ludicrously steamy Butterfield 8 (1960)–making up for the Academy’s neglect for her fine work in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)–and her well-deserved Best Actress Award for the harrowing and truthful characterization in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

To me, however, Elizabeth Taylor is cherished in memory for her extraordinary work near the beginning of her career, when she gave herself completely and unselfconsciously to the role of Velvet Brown, a dreamer, whose love of horses seems to border on a pagan devotion deeper than civilized analysis can ever explain away. All of the entertaining blather surrounding this “last great star” falls away when watching National Velvet (1944), a beautifully crafted product of the studio era at its height. This role prompted the already accomplished rider (Elizabeth Taylor’s father had taught her to ride at the age of 4) to train rigorously each day and, with the guidance of her ambitious mother Sara, prompted the tiny girl to try to grow three inches to be an acceptable height for producer Pandro S. Berman (lifts in her shoes and some natural growth helped a bit).

Bewitched by the equestrian allure of the Bagnold story, Taylor plastered her room with horse-related images and paraphernalia. The slight girl also sustained a back injury during riding for this movie that would plague her for the rest of her life. Despite any of the background pressures, this film appears to be one of the last times that the then 12-year-old actress seemed so blissfully unaware of her own “rapturous beauty,” as critic James Agee acknowledged in his review of the film at the time of its first release. Perhaps the openness of Taylor‘s heartfelt performance in this movie was the result of careful tutoring or simply reflected her own well-documented love of animals, but I suspect that it may also have been because, as an outstanding part of a strong cast, she was treated for what she was rather than for how she looked, allowing her inner spirit to soar on screen. As an adult Taylor later tried to explain it, “National Velvet really was me.”

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Ann Harding: A Q & A with Biographer Scott O’Brien

“Looking at [Ann] Harding,” wrote film historian Mick LaSalle in his book, Complicated Women (St. Martin’s, 2001), “is like looking into clear, deep water. Nothing stands in the way. No stylization, no attitude, no posing. In fact, little about her technique could date her as a thirties actress.”

These are some of the words that inspired Scott O’Brien, author of Ann Harding – Cinema’s Gallant Lady (BearManor) in his research into the career and life of actress Ann Harding (1902-1981). For those who met her during the height of her Hollywood career, she left starkly different impressions. Laurence Olivier called her “an angel.” Henry Hathaway said that she “was an absolute bitch.” Myrna Loy found her “a very private person, a wonderful actress completely without star temperament, but withdrawn.” Ann Harding may not be as well-remembered as actresses whose stellar careers extended well beyond the pre-code era, such as Norma Shearer or Barbara Stanwyck. Her natural reserve means that her name does not automatically come up when particularly saucy favorites of the period like Ruth Chatterton, Joan Blondell or Dorothy Mackail are discussed. Powerful icons whose last name conjures something singular, such as Garbo, Dietrich and West, are better remembered. In recent years, in large part because of the rediscovery of her early films on Turner Classic Movies, occasional revivals of her movies and the work done by film historians reassessing the pre-code period, Harding has begun to captivate audiences again. Her lustrous beauty and surprisingly modern style of acting are only part of her appeal.

With the publication earlier this year of Scott O’Brien’s beautifully illustrated and well written biography, a balanced portrait of a skilled actress emerges, as well as some sense of the publicly guarded but privately intense woman behind her fame. Recently, I had a chance to ask the author of this meticulously researched and long overdue biography of Ann Harding about his interest in this unique, transitional figure in American film. Perhaps after reading this post a few more people who have yet to discover her work will pause next time one of her rarely seen films, such as Devotion (1931), The Animal Kingdom (1932), Double Harness (1933), When Ladies Meet (1933), The Flame Within (1935) or Peter Ibbetson (1935) emerges from the movie vault. This often surprisingly modern actress may intrigue and touch you with her presence. You might find yourself unexpectedly enthralled.
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So Big (1953) On Screen

“Always to her, red and green cabbages, were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.”~Edna Ferber in the novel, So Big

Please note: Some plot points of various movies are discussed in detail below

Hollywood has made over twenty films from Edna Ferber‘s stories, novels and plays. When TCM aired the third feature film version of Ferber’s  Pulitzer Prize winning 1924 novel, So Big (1953-Robert Wise) last month on Mother’s Day, I wondered if anyone read this author’s works anymore.  Once upon a time, Ferber, was a 5′ 2″ titan of publishing, with novels, short stories, and plays pouring from her pen and selling like today’s iPhones. The world seems to have passed her work by, without the respect accorded the work of other female American novelists, such as Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather, while her contemporaries, Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, are still read and appreciated, thanks to the universality of their themes and their incisive voice.

By contrast, Ferber’s prose, once likened by one of today’s more droll critics, John Lahr, to that of “a teenager on diet pills,” may have dated a bit, but her engaging stories, often dealing with thorny issues such as feminism, economic hardship and individual, racially diverse characters, gave classic movies the raw material for several memorable films. Though Ferber later dismissed her earlier efforts, I suspect that many people, even the gifted Mr. Lahr, might enjoy some of Ferber’s lively short stories, some of which are online here).  Along with the critically neglected Fannie Hurst and Zane Grey, a pair of other writers whose mass market appeal and lack of literary pedigrees never seem to garner them much respect, Ferber‘s snapshots of a time and place in American life may have been among the most ubiquitously adapted tales during the studio era.

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The Rising of the Moon (1957)

Tyrone Power introduces the first of three stories told in the film The Rising of the Moon (1957) with the wry comment that “This is a story about nothing, or perhaps about everything.”

For the director John Ford, this roughly 84 minute black and white movie, made in Ireland, which he did for free and “the sake of my artistic soul,” may be among his most personal films–even though today it is probably the least seen of this celebrated filmmaker’s movies from the sound era. As revealed in a piece by the New York Post’s film critic Lou Lumenick last year, even the director’s grandson, Daniel Ford, has only a videotape of this now rare movie, and the exact copyright ownership of the movie appears to be a bit mysterious. Preoccupied, as almost all of Ford’s movies were, with the inevitable dissolution of traditions, communities and ties, it was not a realistic movie, having about as much to do with “life as we knew it in the ’50s in Ireland as Prince Valiant did to life in the Middle Ages,” as one Irish-born friend pointedly told me once. The stories woven in this anthology film also feature magnificent casts, with Noel Purcell, Cyril Cusack, Donal Donnelly, Frank Lawton, Dennis O’Dea, Jack MacGowran and Eileen Crowe giving life to these off-hand tales.

The quirky The Rising of the Moon (1957) looked back nostalgically through Ford’s somewhat foggy, affectionate lens at an imagined world as it might have been or as the director wished it to be. Originally entitled The Three-Leaf Clover, (as well as Three or Four Leaves of the Shamrock, according to some sources), it tells a trio of stories, all related to the theme of personal freedom, in a loose-limbed way. Each of the segments adapted by longtime Ford screenwriter Frank S. Nugent for scale, unfolded, in their seemingly ramshackle way, and celebrate the rituals of comradeship, tradition, chaos, and wholesale blarney that underpinned Ford’s vision of Irish life. These casually told and seemingly rambling stories are all tinged with the melancholy that a child of immigrants might feel about a romanticized past he could never fully experience first-hand.

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Love Among the New Bohemians

If literary legend Jack Kerouac were still alive he would be celebrating his 88th birthday tomorrow. Unfortunately Kerouac left us much too early at age 47 but his work lives on. Often called the father of the Beat movement, Jack Kerouac’s jazz-fueled spontaneous writing style doesn’t easily lend itself to film adaptations. The most grievous example of this is the 1960 film adaptation of Kerouac’s short novel THE SUBTERRANEANS directed by Ranald MacDougall and produced by Arthur Freed for MGM. THE SUBTERRANEANS was the first full-length film adaptation of a Jack Kerouac novel and it’s not an easy movie to recommend. The film is badly cast and plays like a poorly misconstrued parody of the Beat Generation. It also takes extreme liberties with Kerouac’s original story. So why am writing about it? As a novice jazz enthusiast the movie appeals to the music lover in me and as someone who was born in the Bay Area, I find the San Francisco setting extremely enchanting.

THE SUBTERRANEANS
was originally a semi-autobiographical story written by Kerouac in just three days and published by Grove Press in 1958. It details the brief interracial romance between Leo Percepied (filling-in for Jack Kerouac) and a young African American woman named Mardou Fox. Some of the highlights of the book include Kerouac’s description of the clubs that he was frequenting at the time and an encounter with jazz legend Charlie Parker.

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