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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Death Walks Twice: A Giallo Double Feature

dw10The fine folks at Arrow deserve applause for their diligent efforts to release a number of exceptional giallo films on Blu-ray in recent years. Some of the giallo titles you can currently purchase from them include the suggestively titled Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) and What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) as well as cornerstones of the genre such as Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964), The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1969) and Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) along with Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Bay of Blood (1971) and Deep Red (1975). Arrow discs typically boast beautiful packaging that rivals Criterion and they come loaded with extras including accompanying booklets, audio commentaries and video interviews with the film’s creators along with other industry professionals.

Their latest offering is a limited edition double disc Blu-ray box set titled Death Walks Twice that contains two outstanding examples of the genre, Death Walks in High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972). Both films were directed by Luciano Ercoli and feature Ercoli’s wife, actress Susan Scott (a.k.a. Nieves Navarro). Like many of the best Italian thrillers, these two budget conscious productions look more luxurious than their American counterparts thanks to the creative direction, exotic European settings (Milan, Paris, London and Catalonia) and their innovative use of period specific aesthetics and attitudes including the music, architecture, fashions, and shifting sexual mores of the times. Comprised of labyrinth-like plots inspired by classic Alfred Hitchcock movies and the best Film Noir, Arrow’s new Death Walks Twice box set should appeal to genre novices as well as seasoned giallo fans.

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The Winner Is. . . . The Lady Vanishes

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A few weeks ago, I solicited help from the Morlocks’ readers in deciding which early Hitchcock film to show in my advanced film history class. After weighing the suggestions and reading the comments, I chose The Lady Vanishes, the story of a British spy returning from a Balkan dictatorship with coded information important for England’s safety. Dame May Whitty stars as spry Miss Froy, who pretends to be a governess but is actually a capable secret agent. After she disappears while aboard the train bound for England, no one seems to remember her except for Iris, the young woman sharing her compartment. Was Miss Froy only a figment of her imagination?

A BEHIND THE SCENES SHOT OF ONE OF THE TRAIN CARS

A BEHIND THE SCENES SHOT OF ONE OF THE TRAIN CARS REVEALS THE CRAMPED SET.

Before asking for advice, I was leaning toward showing Sabotage because of the surprising scene in which tiny Sylvia Sidney wields a large carving knife. Also, I thought the creative use of the Disney cartoon Who Killed Cock Robin might be interesting to the animation majors. But I am glad that I changed my mind because it was clear that the class thoroughly enjoyed The Lady Vanishes. As one student noted, “This film is brilliant.”

In each of my classes, students fill out response sheets while watching the films. It’s a learning tool that forces them to be active viewers so they are better able to notice visual techniques, themes, or character types. With their permission, I thought I would share a few of their comments about The Lady Vanishes.

The limited setting received a lot of attention, particularly the idea that Hitchcock could squeeze so much action and suspense from what is essentially two main sets. The first third of The Lady Vanishes takes place in a small crowded hotel; one student remarked that the film seemed claustrophobic right from the beginning. She noted, “The environment seems just slightly too small for everything that is going on,” which intentionally enhances the claustrophobia. The characters fought over rooms, dined in tiny booths in a cramped restaurant, and hosted local dancers who clogged away in the confined space of the rooms. The train proved to be an even more limited setting, with the action intensifying into fights, chases, and kidnappings. Another student suggested that the train was like a microcosm of society, with all manner of characters interacting with each other. She felt that Iris entered this environ and experienced a life-altering adventure that was also a journey of self-discovery.

COMIC RELIEF FROM THE SOCCER-OBSESSED CALDICOTT AND CHARTERS

COMIC RELIEF FROM THE SOCCER-OBSESSED CALDICOTT AND CHARTERS

The suspense thriller is a genre that is no longer popular, so students are not always sure what constitutes suspense. I related Hitchcock’s adage about the bomb in the room. He always maintained that if he began a scene by showing the audience a bomb in the room and then clearly depicted where the bomb was in relationship to the characters, he would have the audience’s rapt attention for ten minutes. But, if he exploded the bomb as a surprise to the audience, they might be shocked out of their seats but he would have their attention for only ten seconds. Students rightly noticed examples of this technique in the scene in which we wait for Iris to notice the name “Froy” written on the window and during the scene in which Iris and Gilbert are about to ingest a spiked drink. The anticipation in both scenes created true suspense, and I think students came away with a better understanding of what that is.

The class seemed intrigued by the characters of Caldicott and Charters, the two cricket-obsessed friends who maintain their stiff upper lips no matter the situation. The students were surprised to learn that the pair proved to be so popular that they were featured in three later movies, Night Train to Munich, Crook’s Tour, and Millions Like Us. More than one wondered if the two were supposed to be gay, a logical assumption considering their depiction in the tiny hotel room. A perceptive student inquired if the two might be patterned after vaudeville archetypes of the day. Charters—or maybe it was Caldicott—got a big laugh from the class when he was shot in the hand but barely winced, keeping his stiff upper lip intact. We were charmed in the end when the two turn out to be courageous in the final gunfight with the pseudo-Nazis.

IRIS (CENTER) HAVING A LAST NIGHT OF FUN BEFORE RETURNING TO ENGLAND TO MARRY

IRIS (CENTER) HAS A LAST NIGHT OF FUN BEFORE RETURNING TO ENGLAND AS A SACRIFICE ON THE ALTAR OF MARRIAGE.

Several students found Iris’s ambivalence toward marriage amusing and fascinating. Iris leaves her friends to return to England to get married. She laments, “I’ve no regrets. I’ve been everywhere and done everything. I’ve eaten caviar at Cannes, sausage rolls at the dogs. I’ve played baccarat at Biarritz and darts with the rural dean. What is there left for me but marriage?” Later in the conversation, she complains about being an offering sacrificed on the altar of the church where she will be married. Some students suggested that the narrative had more to do with Iris’s internal conflict over marriage than it did with the spies’ goals; others noted a subtle condemnation of marriage as an institution that will clip the wings of those who say, “I do.”

A few students remarked about Hitchcock in general. Many were intrigued that deeper themes and meanings could be found beneath the entertaining surfaces of his films. Others revealed an appreciation for the director’s craftsmanship. For example: “It’s interesting that most films today have the shaky camera but Hitchcock’s methods work better.”

DAME MAY WHITTY AS SPRY MISS FOY, AN UNLIKELY-LOOKING SPY

DAME MAY WHITTY AS SPRY MISS FOY, AN UNLIKELY-LOOKING SPY

I had mentioned that Hitchcock was not considered an artist for most of his career; likewise, his films were not taken seriously until the members of the French New Wave sang his praises. This prompted one of my favorite observations: “It’s interesting that Hitchcock was underappreciated and that people didn’t get the meaning of his work. Usually that means that their work isn’t successful in its message, just like a painting or drawing. I think here it means that he was too good for his time and the people in that time.”

I find that those of us who love classic movies see their artistry and understand their cultural significance, but more importantly we realize that they carry an emotional impact that films from other eras simply can’t duplicate. We want younger generations to share in that experience, to understand the heart that these films can display. More often than not, conversations among film teachers do not focus on rare bits of history or esoteric discussions of subtext. Most of the time, we want to know: What did you show in class? How did it go over? There is an excitement when classic films are well received—like a victory for our common cause. I am gratified that The Lady Vanishes achieved such a victory and ever proud of my talented, perceptive students.

 

Still Not Safe To Go Back In the Water: ‘Jaws’ Returns to the Big Screen

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“TCM Presents: Jaws 40th Anniversary” swims its way to select theaters on Sunday, June 21, and Wednesday, June 24. The program, which is presented in conjunction with Fathom Events and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, includes the movie plus a filmed introduction by Ben Mankiewicz.

Jaws has long-since been a staple of the home-viewing industry—cable-TV, video, DVD, and expanded anniversary editions. The film has also been the subject of many books, articles, TV specials, and documentaries, mostly focusing on its troubled production. Over and over, director Steven Spielberg has recounted the problems with the mechanical shark, which was nicknamed Bruce, and the delays in production, which angered the studio. The behind-the-scenes stories and jokes about the shark are now part of movie folklore.

Jaws has been seen by most of the movie-going public; it’s a film that has become a part of the collective cultural consciousness. So, why watch it again? Because the best film experiences are often the ones in which a familiar movie is re-viewed under different circumstances.

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Two on the Run: DEADLY STRANGERS (1975)

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In case you haven’t noticed, Sterling Hayden is TCM’s Star of the Month and I’ve enjoyed catching up with the tall, blond and brawny actor’s filmography on Wednesday nights. Today Hayden is best remembered by film lovers for his memorable roles in a number of classic noirs and westerns that air on TCM regularly as well as subsequent standout parts in Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964), Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972) and Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (1973).

Late in life, Hayden also made a brief but notable appearance in an unusual thriller called DEADLY STRANGERS (1975), which I was compelled to revisit again over the weekend. Directed by the talented Sidney Hayers (CIRCUS OF HORRORS; 1960, BURN WITCH BURN; 1962, THE TRAP; 1966, REVENGE; 1971, A BRIDGE TOO FAR; 1977, Etc.) and starring Hayley Mills along with Simon Ward, this low-budget British horror effort may not rate as one of Hayden’s finest hours among his devoted fans but I think the film is worthy of reconsideration due to its smart direction and probable influence on beloved horror classics including John Carpenter’s original HALLOWEEN (1978).

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: The Last of Sheila

LAST OF SHEILA, THE

Film historians often proclaim the 1960s and 1970s to be one of Hollywood’s most creative eras. Dubbed the Film School Generation, or New Hollywood, directors, producers, and writers enjoyed a level of creative control in the film industry that few filmmakers have experienced before or since. Directors such as Scorsese, Coppola, Penn, Nichols, Bogdanovich, Altman, Lumet, DePalma, Kaufman, and others were influenced by the work of European filmmakers, inspiring them to experiment with form and content. The result is an era of original films that as a group challenge, entertain, and provoke.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: ‘Man in the Attic’

atticposterLast fall, businessman Russell Edwards announced that he had finally uncovered the truth behind history’s most famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper. Edwards claimed that DNA left behind on a victim’s shawl was used to identify the Ripper as Aaron Kosminski, long considered a primary suspect. As soon as the news was announced, DNA experts and Ripperologists came forward to denounce the findings based on doubts about the shawl’s provenance and the likely contamination of the evidence. And, so it goes with our fascination with the Ripper mythology: We want so badly to find out his true identity, but then again, we don’t.

The mystery behind Jack the Ripper’s identity allows filmmakers and writers to use him as a symbol or representative force. The Ripper has been part of cinema history since 1924, when he appeared in a nightmare sequence in the German Expressionist film Waxworks. Since then, a variety of directors have interpreted the mystery, adding to the rich folklore surrounding the historical figure. I recently caught a film version of the Ripper story released in 1953 called Man in the Attic, starring Jack Palance, Constance Smith, and Frances Bavier, and I was reminded of how potent a character he could be.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: Kind Lady

ethelopeningEver since reading Good Night, Sweet Prince, a biography of John Barrymore by his comrade in revelry, Gene Fowler, I have been fascinated with the Barrymore family. Handsome, tragic John has become my favorite Barrymore, because he was so flawed and yet so talented. Equally talented but not flawed was his older sister Ethel Barrymore. Next Saturday, February 28, at 9:15am, Ethel stars in Kind Lady, part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar programming.

Before noting Barrymore’s contribution, I would be remiss if I did not mention Kind Lady’s narrative pedigree. Originally a short story by Hugh Walpole titled “The Silver Casket,” it was turned into a beloved stage play by Edward Chodorov in 1935. The first film version was released in 1936 and starred Basil Rathbone as Elcott and Aline MacMahon as Mrs. Herries. The screenplay for the 1951 version, which was credited to Chodorov, Jerry Davis, and former Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, made changes to the original material. Characters were eliminated to streamline the story, a key murder was moved toward the end of the film, and an exciting climactic sequence was added (a Hitchcockian approach). The film was aided enormously by the direction of John Sturges, who has earned a place in the history books for his widescreen, Technicolor films that exploited spectacular outdoor settings (Bad Day at Black Rock, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape). Released in 1951, Kind Lady is a black-and-white thriller with a claustrophobic set, but Sturges seemed equally adept within these perimeters. He milked the limited setting to its full advantage to create tension while adding visual interest through camera movement.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: Eyes in the Night

eyesopenerTomorrow, January 27, TCM will celebrate Donna Reed’s 94th birthday by showing a selection of nine early films, including her first feature The Get-Away. My favorite film on the list is the crime thriller Eyes in the Night, which I have singled out as a Forgotten Film to Remember.

MGM signed Donna Belle Mullenger to a contract in 1941, just after she graduated from Los Angeles City College with a secretarial degree. During the production of The Get-Away, the studio fumbled around for a more marquee-friendly name. Donna Adams was trotted out for size until it was discovered that another actress was using the same name; someone suggested Donna Drake, but that was too close to big-band singer/actress Dona Drake. Even Donna Denison was considered, because the actress hailed from Denison, Iowa. Finally, MGM casting director Billy Grady came up with Donna Reed, a name the actress never really liked. When Eyes in the Night was released in October 1942, it was Reed’s eighth film appearance, more or less. (Two of her roles were uncredited and don’t always show up in filmographies.)

In many ways, Eyes in the Night is a typical b-movie from the Golden Age. Though b-movies are low budget and small scale, they tend to make good use of the skills and talents of the cast and crew, raising the level of the material. This stylish crime thriller is tautly directed by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon; From Here to Eternity; Julia) and benefits from a solid cast of rising stars (Reed), returning stars (Ann Harding), established character actors (Edward Arnold, Allen Jenkins, Reginald Denny), and a scene-stealing canine named Friday the Seeing Eye Dog.

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15 Favorite Films From 2014

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I know what you’re thinking. Another list?! Forgive me my trespass but as a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists I’m asked to compile a list of my favorite films each year and I wanted to share some of my viewing highlights with you. These are the films that have been occupying my thoughts in recent weeks and many of them haven’t gotten the critical attention that I think they deserve. What follows is an alphabetical list of my 15 Favorite Films from 2014 along with some comments. I had hoped to write more about them all and why I find them worth recommending but I managed to sprain my hand last week, which has limited my typing abilities so some films only get a sentence or two. That said, I hope you’ll find some of my viewing suggestions worth investigating further.

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