The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 10 – Shadow of a Doubt – A Classic Movie Review

Hitchcock gives us a crime drama wrapped in a family reunion.  Charles Oakley, played by Joseph Cotten, is being investigated by the police in the northeast United States as one of two suspects in the “Merry Widow” murders.  Three wealthy widows were strangled by an acquaintance.  Charles sends a telegram to his married sister, Emma Newton in California saying he wants to come visit her and her family.  Emma is married to Joseph Newton and they live with their three children Charlotte (Charlie), Ann and Roger. Emma dotes on her baby brother and in her eyes, he can do no wrong.  Her husband Joseph (played by Henry Travers) works at the local bank and is a quiet man who, along with his neighbor Herbie Hawkins (played by Hume Cronyn) enjoys reading and discussing the murders committed in detective novels. Ann and Roger are small children who intersect with the main story only obliquely.  But Charlie is a high school graduate who feels stifled living in the small town of Santa Rosa.  She is named after her mother’s brother, the legendary Uncle Charlie.  And right before word of Uncle Charlie’s arrival reaches them, she has been bemoaning the boredom that is their life and has decided to send a telegram to Uncle Charlie and ask him to visit them.

When Charlie hears that her uncle is coming to stay with them, she is overjoyed.  She takes the coincidence of his plans and hers as fate and is sure that his presence will add excitement and life to her stultified family.  But strange things begin happening and Uncle Charlie’s presence becomes a strange mystery for Charlie to solve.  He surreptitiously rips a page out of the family’s copy of the newspaper and when she tells him that she knows he did it he reacts violently and wrenches the paper from her hand, hurting her in the process.  When the next day two men request and get permission from Mrs. Newton to interview and photograph the family as part of some national survey, Uncle Charlie berates her for her foolishness and tells her that he refuses to be interviewed or photographed.

The survey takers are actually police detectives Jack Graham and Fred Saunders attempting to get a photo of Uncle Charlie to allow witnesses to identify him.  Jack asks Charlie if she would show him around town as part of his survey and she agrees.  During their walk Jack reveals to Charlie what they are really doing and that if the identification is positive, they will arrest Uncle Charlie.  Charlie is in a panic.  She doesn’t know what to believe but all the strange behavior of her uncle leads her to believe that it could be true.  She runs to the library and finds the newspaper article her uncle was hiding.  It is a description of the Merry Widow murder case.  One of the women who was murdered turns out to have the same initials as the inscription in a ring that Uncle Charlie had recently given her.

She confronts him and tells Uncle Charlie that the police are getting ready to arrest him.  She reveals what she found out about the ring and throws it back at him.  Uncle Charlie begs her to let him escape and spare her mother the shock of knowing her brother is a murderer.  She agrees.  But before anything else can happen news comes that the other suspect in the murders was killed trying to escape capture.  Now the detectives are no longer after Uncle Charlie.  We also learn that Jack Graham is in love with Charlie and tells her that he will return to ask her to marry him.

Uncle Charlie decides that he will stay in Santa Rosa but now he comes to the conclusion that Charlie knows too much about him.  He plans to have her die by an apparent accident.  In the first event she almost breaks her neck when an outdoor stair step breaks off under her foot and she barely catches hold of the handrail.  Later on, she finds that the step had been sawn almost through.  Next, Uncle Charlie arranges for her to go into a garage where a running car motor had filled the building with exhaust fumes and the key was removed from the ignition so the engine could not be stopped.  And just as she tried to exit the garage the door slammed shut and was jammed tight so she couldn’t escape.  Luckily Herbie Hawkins happened by and heard her cries and allowed for her rescue by, of all people, Uncle Charlie.  He deftly kicked the shim from the jammed door and put the key in the ignition as he turned it off.  Then he carried the unconscious Charlie into the fresh air where she revived.

Now convinced that she had to get Uncle Charlie to leave she used her uncle’s absence at a party to find the ring in his room.  Seeing it on her finger Uncle Charlie announces that he would be leaving the next day for San Francisco.  But while seeing him off at the train Charlie is maneuvered by him onto the departing train and by sheer brute strength, he drags her over to an open door on the end of a train car and prepared to throw her off the train as soon as its speed is sufficient to kill her.  But at the last second Charlie wrenches herself free and in doing so causes Uncle Charlie to lose his balance and fall off the train directly onto the tracks of an oncoming train.

In the next scene Uncle Charlie’s funeral is going on in the church and Charlie is outside explaining to Jack Graham why she didn’t turn her uncle in to the police.  They both agree that they will keep Uncle Charlie’s secret away from the people of Santa Rosa.

Most critics think that Shadow of a Doubt is one of Hitchcock’s best works.  I tend to agree.  Allowing Charles Oakley to give his feelings about society in general and about his victims at the family dinner table and during a fraught conversation with his niece at a seedy dive bar hits the right notes in this strange juxtaposition of normal family life and antisocial psychosis.  The tension between Charlie’s desire to spare her mother and even in a sense her uncle from the consequences of his crimes and her horror at what he actually was see-saws the movie right to the end.  There are many nice touches from the supporting cast.  I especially enjoy Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers arguing over the advantages and disadvantages of poisoned mushrooms over blunt force trauma as a murder weapon.  It shows that Hitchcock had already embraced his reputation for graveyard humor and didn’t mind letting the audience in on the joke.

And it was fun to see Joseph Cotton as a psychotic killer.  Cotton always seems to show up as the honest, likable hero.  It must have been a relief for him to get to play a monster for once.  He was very good.

If you are a fan of Hitchcock and haven’t seen Shadow of a Doubt do yourself a favor and see it.  And even if you’ve never seen a Hitchcock film, I can highly recommend this one.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 11 – The Lady Vanishes (1938) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

This was Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie filmed in England before leaving for Hollywood.  The plot involves a train somewhere in central Europe with some British citizens on their way back home.  An old English lady named Miss Froy is involved in some kind of espionage.  She befriends a young woman named Iris Henderson who is going home to marry a rich man she doesn’t love.  When Miss Froy disappears from the train and all the other passengers and crew swear she was never there Iris recruits Gilbert Redman to help her solve the mystery.  There are comic touches that involve a pair of friends named Caldicott and Charters who are obsessed with reaching England in time to watch the National Cricket match.  In fact, the comic bit they did in this film was so popular that the actors, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford respectively, reprised their characters in a number of films for many years afterward.

Hitchcock builds up the characters with plenty of background and personal details in scenes that take place before the train ride and once the young couple begin delving into the mystery it is obvious that a criminal conspiracy is taking place to kidnap Miss Froy, although no apparent reason exists.  On the train is a noted brain surgeon and he tries to convince Iris that a serious blow to the head that she sustained just before getting on the train is the source of her delusion about the missing Miss Froy.  Later on, we find out that he is the ringleader of the plot.

Finally, Miss Froy is freed and she reveals to Iris and Gilbert that she is a British spy and she must flee the train and go cross country to return to England.  But first she teaches Gilbert a musical phrase that is code for some top-secret information.  The adventure comes to a climax in a gun battle between the storm trooper and the English passengers as they attempt to take control of the train and flee over a border to a non-hostile country.  After several casualties they escape and return to safety.  When they reach England, Iris decides to forsake her rich loveless bridegroom and go off with Gilbert.  But first they head for the British foreign office to give them the musical code message.  But just as they reach the office Gilbert realizes he has forgotten the music.  But then hears the tune being played on a piano in the room they are about to enter and they see Miss Froy playing the tune.

This all sounds like a ridiculous jumble and in a way it is.  There are all kinds of odd things going on as there always are in a Hitchcock film.  A homicidal magician complete with a booth for making women disappear.  A mysterious burn victim with bandages that cover her face who is brought on the train well after Miss Froy disappeared.  There’s a deaf-mute nun in high heels.  A platoon of storm troopers that I guess are supposed to be German.  An avalanche, a murdered singer, clog dancers, a comedic Italian innkeeper who promises things he can’t deliver in four or five languages and scantily clad women.

But it’s actually highly entertaining.  All the little details of the story are well done and diverting.  The various characters are given enough development and even the villains are well rounded characters.  I thoroughly enjoy this movie and highly recommend it.

They Drive by Night (1940) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

This story about truckers back in the depression era is described as a film noir but I think I’d call it a melodrama.  George Raft and Humphrey Bogart are brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini.  They are partners in a long-haul trucking business.  They are owed money by the scheduler who assigns them loads and relatedly they owe money to the guy who sold them their truck.  We see them dealing with both sides of this debt relationship.  We also see how dangerous driving at the edge of exhaustion can be when their friend crashes his truck on the road in front of them because he fell asleep at the wheel.  And finally, it catches up with the Fabrinis.  Paul falls asleep at the wheel and drives off a slope.  The truck is totaled and because of his injuries Paul has his right arm amputated.  Joe breaks the news to Paul’s wife Pearl and she admits she is almost relieved that his disability will keep him from driving trucks ever again and at least spare his life.  Feeling responsible for what has happened to Paul Joe goes to an old friend of his Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale) who has a trucking company and obtains a driving job which will allow him to support Paul and Pearl.  But it won’t pay enough to allow Joe to marry his new girlfriend Cassie Harley (Ann Sheridan).  But there is a complication.  Ed’s wife Lana (Ida Lupino) is infatuated with Joe.  She talks Ed into making Joe the scheduler so that he’ll be around the garage and therefore easier for her to fraternize with.  But Joe refuses to go behind his boss and friend’s back with this unfaithful wife.  Finally, after being rejected categorically by Joe because of her status as Ed’s wife Lana goes crazy.  She drives Ed home from a party and after parking the car in the garage she leaves him drunk and passed out in the car and closes the garage door with the car engine on.  She explains the asphyxiation to the police as Ed sleeping drunk in the car as he often did and him somehow waking up, starting the engine and then falling back asleep.

With Ed gone Lana brings Joe into the business as a partner.  But now she finds out that Joe is engaged to be married.  She becomes enraged and tells Joe that she murdered Ed for him and won’t be separated from him for any reason.  Joe rebuffs her and walks away shocked.  Lana, now consumed by bitterness goes to the police and confesses that she murdered Ed but swears that Joe forced her to do it against her will.  Now there is a trial in which the circumstantial evidence provided by Lana makes Joe’s position very bad.  But when Lana finally testifies at the trial she has become totally unhinged through guilt.  She claims that she was compelled to kill Ed by the presence of the automatic garage door mechanism.  And she is dragged out of the courtroom laughing hysterically that it was the door that made her do it.

And so, we get the happy ending.  Joe owns the trucking business, Paul is his scheduler, the truckers admire and like Joe for his honest treatment and now Joe has the money to marry Cassie.

This movie is a product of the Hays Code.  Criminals have to be punished so we know that Lana is going to get her comeuppance and because Joe is a stand-up guy, he’ll end up okay.  And because this is a Warner Bros. studio production it has a lot of the character actors that were around at that time.  Alan Hale, Roscoe Karns and Charles Halton were some of the more memorable faces you see.  Karns has a relatively minor part as one of the truck drivers but he steals several scenes with his goofball manner and his fascination with playing the pinball games that seem to be in every diner that the truckers frequent along their routes between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  The camaraderie between the truckers and the diner personnel is a substantial portion of the movie and some of the more interesting dialog.  But the movie belongs to Raft and Lupino.  Her ill-fated infatuation for him powers the plot, such as it is.  As I said, I consider this a melodrama and not a great movie.  But the Raft’s interaction with the rest of the cast other than Lupino makes this movie an interesting slice of life from the depression era and full of human interest.  This is not a great movie but it’s fun to watch. I recommend it on that basis.

The Petrified Forest (1936) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Petrified Forest was adapted from a stage play of the same name that had also starred Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart.  Howard play Alan Squier a down on his luck writer who has lost faith in his life.  He has hitchhiked his way into the Petrified Forest region of Arizona and shows up at a diner where Gabrielle Maple, played by Bette Davis, and her grandfather are running the business while Gabrielle’s father is out with his band of vigilantes trying to track down notorious bank robber Duke Mantee and his gang.  The gang has killed six men and is known to be in the general vicinity.  Alan takes a liking to Gabrielle because of her artistic bent and she finds him both mysterious and attractive because of his cultured manner and his knowledge of the world.

There are several other characters, a rich couple and their chauffeur, a gas attendant at the diner who is infatuated with Gabrielle and some lawmen looking for Mantee.  But the story comes down to the occupants of the diner being held hostage by Mantee and his gang until they are ready to leave.  At a certain point Alan decides that he will take advantage of the situation to give Gabrielle the chance to fulfill her dream of going to France and becoming an artist.  He writes his $5,000 life insurance policy over to her and gets Mantee to agree to shoot Alan before he leaves the diner.

Eventually the law finds Mantee and Alan forces a reluctant Mantee to shoot him before he departs.  Then Alan dies a long talkative death in Gabrielle’s arms.  Then she recites some French poetry while still clutching the corpse.  Yikes.

There are some scenes in the movie that are amusing.  The early part of the movie where Alan is talking about his early life and where he discusses art and life with Gabrielle are pretty good.  But the whole world-weary artist tired of living and anxious to die in a noble gesture is absurd and extremely ridiculous to watch.  Also, Bogart’s Mantee is a laid on a little bit too thick for my liking.  How he got from Brooklyn to Arizona seems odd.  Gabrielle’s grandfather is played by Charley Grapewin who was Dorothy’s Uncle Henry in the Wizard of Oz.  He is quite entertaining as the grizzled old survivor of the old west.

Some people might be interested in this film as a period piece showing what a stage play was like during the Great Depression and some might be interested to see an early Bogart role.  But I can’t recommend it in good faith.  It’s just too hokey.

Pitfall (1948) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

In this film noir Dick Powell is John Forbes, a married man who works as an adjuster for an insurance company.  He lives in the suburbs with his pretty wife Sue, played by Jane Wyatt and his young son Tommy.  Based on the domestic scenes, we see that Forbes is bored with his humdrum existence of work and tame suburban monotony.

One day an insurance investigator, J.B. MacDonald (played by truly creepy Raymond Burr) comes to Forbes with a case that requires him to interview a woman, Mona Stevens played by frequent femme fatale actress, Lizabeth Scott.  Her fiancé, Bill Smiley, has passed along to her gifts paid for with money he fraudulently obtained against his insurance.  During his meeting with Forbes MacDonald indicates that he is lusting after Stevens and will be making a play for her while her boyfriend is in jail.  We can tell that Forbes despises MacDonald but in order to maintain a working relationship with the investigator ignores the crudity of MacDonald’s plan.

When Forbes meets Mona Stevens at her apartment he blandly and uncaringly requires her to surrender her engagement ring and other gifts given by Smiley.  She upbraids him for his callousness and just to show her disdain for his power she tells him about an asset he didn’t know about, a small speed boat that she loves more than anything else.  Now Forbes feels remorse for being such a heel and while going out to see the boat he apologizes and tells her he’ll buy her a drink to show her that he has nothing against her.  The couple go to the dock and at her invitation they go out on the boat and she even allows him to drive it.  They both enjoy the ride and each other’s company.  Afterwards they go to a bar and have some drinks and Forbes tells Mona that he won’t include the boat in his report.  During the scene sexual attraction is on display on both sides and afterwards they head back to Mona’s apartment.  Meanwhile we are shown MacDonald skulking around watching them.  In the next scene Forbes is shown arriving at his home very late in the night and he sneaks into his bedroom where his wife is asleep.  His guilt over betraying her is plain to see on his face.

The next day MacDonald shows up in Forbes’ office and tells him he doesn’t want Forbes interfering with his play for Mona.  Also, he informs Forbes that he has added the speed boat to the list of assets that Mona must relinquish.  Forbes tells MacDonald to stop annoying Mona and not to interfere with his actions either professionally or personally.  Forbes meets with Mona and tells her about the speed boat and MacDonald’s part in it.  Mona volunteers that MacDonald has been annoying her.  When Forbes gets home that night MacDonald is waiting for him in front of his garage and administers a serious beat down on Forbes.  Forbes tells his wife and the police that he had been robbed by strangers.  His doctor tells him he’ll have to stay in bed for a couple of weeks and Forbes tells his job that he has a bad cold.

When Forbes doesn’t show up for a few days Mona calls his office and is informed that he is home sick.  She drives to his house with some soup and there discovers that Forbes is a married man.  She actually speaks to his wife in front of the house claiming that she is looking for a house on a different street.  When Forbes finally gets well, he goes to speak to Mona and she tells him she has discovered his secret.  Forbes admits his deception and apologizes.  Now Mona tells him that Macdonald is pressing his demands for a relationship, hounding her at work and is threatening to tell her fiancé in prison that she is having an affair with Forbes.  Apparently, MacDonald who is a former policeman has connections in the prison.  Forbes promises to fix the situation.

Forbes goes to MacDonald’s apartment and administers a beating that at least matches the one he got from MacDonald.  And he warns him to stay away from Mona and Forbes’ family.  Time passes and Smiley will be getting out of jail.  MacDonald has been visiting him in jail and filling his mind with stories that Mona is having an affair with Forbes.  Smiley shows up at Mona’s apartment drunk and armed with a pistol that MacDonald gave him.  He accuses her of infidelity with Forbes and says he’s going over to his house to settle things.  Mona phones Forbes and warns him.  Forbes arms himself and when Smiley arrives, he pulls the gun on him and tells him to leave or be shot.  Smiley leaves but as soon as Forbes goes back in his house Smiley smashes through a large window in the living room and enters the house.  As soon as he steps foot in the house Forbes shoots him several times.  Forbes pretends that the man is a prowler in his statement to the police.

Meanwhile MacDonald is at Mona’s apartment and listens on her radio to the police channel where they hear about the shooting at Forbes’ address.  When the radio reports add homicide to the message MacDonald calls a friend at the precinct and learns that Forbes has killed Smiley.  MacDonald then informs Mona that with Smiley dead and Forbes entangled with his death and Macdonald’s connections with the police, Mona will have no choice but to go away with MacDonald and be his girlfriend.  As he starts packing her clothes her face becomes bleak and she reaches into a drawer, pulls out a pistol and puts several bullets into MacDonald.

Back at Forbes’ home he is racked with guilt and confesses to his wife his relationship with Smiley’s fiancé and the reason for the break in.  He then wanders off into the night preparing himself for the consequences of his actions.  He ends up at police headquarters and makes his statement to the district attorney and there learns that Mona has shot MacDonald and depending on whether he lives will be indicted for either murder or attempted murder.  No charges will be brought against Forbes but the DA rebukes him.  He says that Forbes’ attempt to conceal his infidelity is responsible for the shootings.  Otherwise he could have called the police and prevented the incidents.  As Forbes is leaving the building, he sees Mona being led away by the police.

As he leaves the building, he sees his wife Sue waiting for him in their family car.  He gets in and as she is driving him home, they discuss their situation.  Forbes is contrite and assumes she will want a divorce.  Sue admits that she has considered it but isn’t sure that is what she wants.  She does think they will have to move to another town and suggests that he asks for a transfer from his company.  When he asks her how she will take up her life with him after the betrayal she admits that things will not be the same but says she is willing to give it a chance.

I find this movie interesting for a number of reasons.  The fact that the adulterous husband avoided all legal consequences and might not even lose his wife was a very atypical ending in 1948.  The Hays Code required that the guilty be punished and that included moral offenses that might not have a jail sentence specified.  Also, the reality of a pillar of the community being bored with his “American Dream” existence was sort of heretical.  But the reality of post-war America is a fitting subject for a realistic appraisal of how men would adapt to a world that no longer needed war heroes but rather expected a boring but dependable “Father Knows Best” husband and dad.  Interestingly, Jane Wyatt who played the wife is best known for her part as the loyal, dependable wife in that show Father Knows Best.  The crisis and resolution of John Forbes’ transgression is handled in a more realistic and nuanced way than what would have been seen in the 1930s and early 40s.  Forbes breaks the accepted boundaries of morality but instead of paying with his life or his freedom he is stuck with his conscience and the knowledge that his wife can no longer believe in him.  One man is dead because of him and an innocent woman will go to jail.  This is much more like what life is really like.  Lots of gray, not so much black and white.  Flawed people living with the consequences of their mistakes and hopefully learning from them.

And on a personal basis, I find the fact that Mona filled Raymond Burr full of lead very satisfying and admirable.  It shows the right attitude.  Interesting movie with nuanced characters and lots of things to think about.  Highly recommended.

Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

This was a British production based on the stage play of the same name by George Bernard Shaw.  It is a fictionalized account of Julius Caesar’s actual campaign in Egypt during the Roman Civil War.  Caesar had defeated his former ally Pompey in a battle at Pharsalus and pursued him into Egypt.  The Egyptians inform Caesar that they have assassinated Pompey and so he is left with the task of deciding whether Cleopatra or her younger brother Ptolemy will be the ruler of Egypt.

The play presents Cleopatra as a childlike woman who combines vivacity, intelligence and cruelty in equal measures.  As opposed to the actual sexual relationship between the historical Caesar and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar is presented as an avuncular figure trying to teach Cleopatra how to grow into the responsibilities of a queen.  And over the course of the stories she does grow.  We see her go from a selfish child into a shrewd player who uses her relationship to Caesar to destroy her enemies and get what she wants.

Claude Rains as Caesar is remarkably amiable and if the real Caesar had been as pleasant you could imagine him having avoided all those daggers in the Senate that day in 44 B.C.  G.B. Shaw’s script gives him any number of wonderful lines and speeches.  They combine wit, philosophy and humanity.

Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra is charming both to look at and to listen to.  She is given free rein to indulge herself and the audience with the spectacle of a child who thinks herself a goddess and a beast.  And she portrays both.  She can be delightful and winning or she can be a heartless murderess dripping venom from her fangs.

The supporting cast surround us with the spectacle of a “swords and sandals” epic with Roman legions and Macedonian phalanxes squaring off in the sands of Egypt.  We see the burning of the Library of Alexandria and cavalry charges across the desert.  The gruff but powerful Roman soldiers are contrasted to the cultured but ineffective Egyptian nobles.

Caesar and Cleopatra are still immortal names that stand for power, strength and passion.  Their story can’t help but fire the imagination.  But it’s also clear that G.B. Shaw is using the Romans as a stand in for the British Empire of his day.  The dynamism of the Romans is shown to be the reason for their dominance of the older, more cultured but less powerful nations that surround them.  And Caesar, the confident, competent and intelligent man is the prime example of this power.  But we know that in just a few years Caesar will be dead and the Roman world will be plunged into civil war.  The comedy of Caesar and Cleopatra will become the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra.  But that is no different than the First and Second World Wars that obliterated the British Empire in the modern world.  And it doesn’t prevent us from marveling at the courage and daring that planted the British flag on every continent and archipelago on this planet.

Shaw has given us this sunny story of court intrigue, war and a pretty girl.  It is amusing and diverting and allows us to enjoy his witty script and the considerable acting skills of Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh.  Recommended for those who enjoy history, the stage or both.

Island of Lost Souls (1932) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

This movie is a cinematic retelling of H. G. Wells’ novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” As opposed to the majority of the creature features and horror flicks this film has a very substantial actor involved. Charles Laughton plays Dr. Moreau. He’s a scientist who was chased out of the civilized world for the experimentation he was doing on animals. So, he lives on a small island in the South Pacific and a boat skipper delivers a cargo of live animals once a year. As the story opens up the boat picks up a survivor of a shipwreck. This survivor, Edward Parker, is headed for a nearby island but he gets into a beef with the captain and gets dumped into Moreau’s launch as it is transferring the animals to the island. When he arrives there, he notices that the island is inhabited by the strangest looking people imaginable. Most of them resemble apes in pants. Later on, when Parker walks out in the jungle he is accosted by a group of the natives and has to be rescued by Moreau. Moreau sounds a gong and the natives assemble and to the accompaniment of Moreau’s cracking bullwhip they recite their creed.

Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law (SOTL): Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?
Moreau: What is the law?
SOTL: Not to eat meat, that is the law. Are we not men?
Moreau: What is the law?
SOTL: Not to walk on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men?

Incidentally, The Sayer of the Law is Bela Lugosi but his face is so completely covered with fur that the only way to tell is by his unmistakable voice. Parker is confused by all that’s going on and in the next scene he hears agonized screams coming from Moreau’s laboratory. Breaking in he thinks he is witnessing Moreau vivisecting one of the natives without anesthesia. And now Moreau explains to Parker the truth about the natives. They are actually animals that Moreau has modified through biochemical and surgical modifications. The laboratory where Moreau performs these modifications is called by the patients, for obvious reasons, “the house of pain.”
Moreau uses a subterfuge to keep Parker from leaving the island because he wants to carry out an experiment on him. He has manufactured a woman out of a panther named Lota and he wants to test whether she reacts like a woman when brought into contact with a man, Parker. This experiment is a success until Parker notices that Lota’s fingernails have reverted to panther’s claws.
And just at this point Parker’s fiancée, Ruth, arrives at Moreau’s island to bring him home. But Moreau cancels his Lota plan and instead plans to test his male creatures by having one of them kidnap Ruth. When this plan is thwarted Moreau orders one of his creatures to murder the ship captain who is helping Ruth to free Parker. But when the creature realizes that Moreau has ordered him to break the law by spilling blood he goes before the assembly and tells them that the law is no more. And then they figure out that since the captain is like Moreau and since they can kill the captain then by the transitive law of monster logic, they can kill Moreau. And that’s just what they get ready to do. While Parker and Ruth are escaping out the back door to safety on the boat, the creature mob catches up with the whip wielding Moreau and back him into his compound. Finally, in desperation when he has reached the wall, he reminds them that they are at the house of pain. The Sayer of the Law makes one more imaginative leap and has the mob drag Moreau into his laboratory and using his own surgical instruments they gleefully vivisect him to the rousing accompaniment of his screams.
I get the feeling that Laughton enjoyed this part. He played the part with great verve. He endowed Moreau with humor and perverse curiosity in the details of his cruel experiments. And like all good mad scientists of the 1930’s he does mention to Parker that he knows what it’s like to be God.
From a special effects point of view, the creature costumes are pretty cheesy. More interestingly it does appear that certain of the actors playing creatures had facial and other anomalies that could not have been simulated. But even if the special effects were rudimentary this is an interesting plot. Moreau’s relationship with his creatures is nuanced. Their obvious investment in the concept of their humanity is pitted against the fear and hatred they feel toward their creator. Moreau is a cruel god but he is completely absorbed in the wonder of his ability to create people. He doesn’t realize his peril when he provides the forbidden fruit of knowledge to his creatures by breaking his own law and by demonstrating that regular humans are mortal. Good story, fun horror movie, good work by Laughton. Recommended.

The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

I have to admit I have mixed feeling about calling this a classic movie review.  Even though it falls within the “Golden Age” of Hollywood time period “The Beast with Five Fingers” is hardly a masterpiece.  But a rose by any other name would smell as sweet and vice versa.  Warner Bros. still had Peter Lorre on the payroll from his days in Casablanca and other more mainstream titles so it made sense to have him as the bug-eyed maniac in this little gem.

The story takes place in a small town in Italy circa the year 1900.  Francis Ingram is a rich man who until recently was an acclaimed concert pianist.  He had suffered a stroke that left all but his right arm extremely weakened so that he needed a wheelchair to get around his house.  With him at the time of the story are a circle of people that assist him in various ways.  Conrad Ryler is a friend who has agreed to transcribe music into notes that can be played on the piano with one hand.  Hillary Cummins (played by Peter Lorre) is Ingram’s manservant.  He has attended to Ingram’s household chores for years in exchange for access to Ingram’s library of books on occult studies.  He is more than a little nuts.  Julie Holden is a recent addition to the household.  Since his stroke, she has been Ingram’s nurse.  She has been extremely kind to him in his illness for which he is extremely grateful.  But she has become terribly worn by the job and wishes to leave.  She and Conrad are also in love and planning to leave the town to get married.  Ingram’s lawyer is also in house, a man named Duprex who has just finished drafting Ingram’s new will.  All the above residents of Ingram’s home are there to witness his new will.  But this crystalizes in Julie’s mind the need for her to leave Ingram’s employ and she and Conrad go out into the garden to plan their departure.  Hilary overhears their plans and communicates them to Ingram.  But Ingram flies into a rage believing it to be jealousy at Julie’s preferred status with the master.  He grabs Hilary by the throat with his good hand and practically strangles him to death before Hilary escapes his grip.  Ingram fires Hilary and tells him to leave the next morning.

But that night there is a wild storm outside and the sound of the wind and banging shutters wakes Ingram and he manages to get into his wheelchair by himself and heads into the second-floor hall looking for Julie to help him.  Somehow, he becomes disoriented and ends up falling down the long staircase in his wheelchair and breaks his neck and dies.

The local police chief or as he is titled “Commissario” Ovidio Castanio (played comically with a Chico Marx Italian accent by J. Carrol Naish) investigates the death and declares it an accident.  The will is read and it turns out that Julie is the heir to all of Ingram’s property.  At this point Ingram’s relatives, his brother-in-law and nephew, Raymond and Donald Arlington show up and are unhappy about the new will.  They feel that the will is debatable.  They make it clear that they want to get possession of the estate and liquidate it for cash.  When they mention selling the library Hilary becomes unhinged and says that the books were bought for him and no one will take them away.  We find that he believes that esoteric knowledge found in these books will allow him to possess untold powers over the mysteries of the universe, or something.  Anyway, he’s really incensed at the Arlingtons.  They on the other hand take practical steps to gain possession of Ingram’s estate.  They cut a deal with the lawyer Duprex to have him use his legal acumen and his knowledge of Ingram’s mental state to have the will overturned in return for a third of the value of the estate.

But a funny thing happens that night.  A light is seen shining in the mausoleum where Ingram is interred and later on Duprex is murdered, strangled by a powerful hand that leaves the same kind of marks that Hilary got from Ingram.  Upon examination it is discovered that Ingram’s corpse in its tomb is holding a knife in his paralyzed hand and his good hand has been cut off and is missing.  A small broken window and hand prints on the ground out side the mausoleum makes it scientifically certain that the dead man cut off his own hand and that the dead hand is navigating about and strangling people and also by the way playing the piano in the Ingram house.  Well sure.

Commissario Castanio investigates the murder and confirms that fingerprints on the throat of the dead man and several other places are of Ingram.  Later on, Donald Arlington is unsuccessfully strangled, allegedly by the hand and the whole household is starting to get spooked enough to want to bail on the house for safer lodgings.  At about this time Hilary witnesses the hand playing the piano and after capturing it he nails it to a piece of wood to slow it down somewhat.  Not everyone believes him.  But when Donald Arlington recovers and opens up his uncle’s safe, he finds the hand nailed to the board.  He panics and runs out of the house with Conrad in hot pursuit.

Meanwhile Julie confronts Hilary with proof that she has that he was the one who strangled Duprex and Donald in order to keep them from getting possession of his precious books.  Now we learn that Hilary is guilty of the crimes but he really does believe that the hand he cut off of Ingram is animate and committing the murders.  But Julie’s clear portrayal of his actions convinces him he must kill her too.  He attempts it but she fends him off and locks herself into her bedroom.  But of course, there is another door and for whatever reason she was too stupid to lock it.  As he gets ready to stab her this time, she convinces Hilary that she can hear the hand playing the piano downstairs.  Hilary snaps back into his crazier persona and promises to save her from the hand.  He heads downstairs whereupon Julie locks both doors and throws herself on her bed and has a breakdown.  Now why she is sure there isn’t a third door is unknown to me.

At this point we get to watch Lorre’s Hilary go completely bonkers.  He sees the hand at the piano and grabs it and starts grappling with it.  Eventually he throws it in the fire place and tries to keep it in there with a poker.  But for some reason eventually he just sort of sits there with his bulging eyes and does nothing while the hand crawls up his shirt, grabs him by the throat and strangles him to death.  Loser.

The next day Commissario Castanio shows Conrad the string that Hilary used to trigger a recording of Ingram playing the piano that everybody attributed to the hand.  Everything else could be explained by Hilary walking around with the severed hand and strangling people.  Julie decides to give the estate to the Arlingtons and she and Conrad get exit visas from the Commisario to start their new lives together elsewhere.  At the very end of the film a servant girl starts screaming because she sees a glove on the staircase.  The Commisario picks up his glove and puts it on and says how silly to think a hand can move on its own.  At which point in the close up shot we see a hand coming up to his throat.  Pulling the shot back we see it’s his hand.  Hilarity ensues.

This thing is almost silly enough to be an Abbott and Costello horror movie.  But I would say Peter Lorre’s disturbed manner, voice and face adds just enough creepiness to make it interesting.  Your mileage may definitely vary.  Let’s call it mildly fun.

In a Lonely Place (1950) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

“In a Lonely Place” is a less well-known film in Humphrey Bogart’s catalog but the plot and character combine to play very well to Bogart’s strengths.  In the story Bogart is a Hollywood screen writer named Dixon “Dix” Steele who has been down on his luck of late.  And in the first scene we also discover that he has an explosive temper that easily leads him into physical altercations.  Steele is at a restaurant where he meets up with some colleagues and other movie making types, producers, agents and actors.  A producer who is somewhat obnoxious makes a crack about an alcoholic actor that happens to be Steele’s friend and Dix physically assaults him and has to be restrained.  During the evening we learn that Dix ix supposed to read a novel for his agent to see if it is suitable for a movie treatment.  Because he is too tired and hung over, he asks the hat check girl, Mildred Atkinson, who has read the book to accompany him back to his apartment and recite a summary of the book for him.  She agrees and we see her enthusiastically summarize the book to Dix who is obviously unimpressed with the plot.  When she finishes, he explains that he is too tired to drive her home and gives her a generous amount of cash to catch a cab around the block on her own.  At one point in the scene Dix is looking out the apartment window and he sees a woman standing on her balcony.  The two of them stare at each other for an extended moment and Dix is obviously interested.  The scene ends with Dix sending Mildred on her way and catching another look at the neighbor woman who is in the apartment courtyard.

The next morning Dix is awakened by a ring at his doorbell.  An old army pal of his Brub Nicolai is calling.  Brub is now a police detective and his boss, Capt. Lochner, wants to talk to Dix.  Dix had been Nicolai’s commanding officer in WW II and their relationship is presented as casually friendly.  At the police station Dix is unemotional and seemingly unconcerned to hear that Mildred was strangled to death after leaving his home the night before.  Lochner is noticeably suspicious of Steele’s seemingly callous disregard for the girl’s murder but when the neighbor woman who had shared the glances with Dix the night before, Laurel Gray, comes into the police station and in front of Dix confirms the fact that Mildred left Steele’s apartment alone, the police let Dix go home.  Interestingly on his way home Dix pays a florist to have two dozen white roses sent to Mildred Atkinson’s home.

The setup after this is two tracks.  Dix and Laurel fall in love and we see the relationship vitalize Dix.  Notably his screen writing work benefits enormously.  He is happier than he has been in years.  The other track is Capt. Lochner pursuing evidence of Steele’s guilt in the Atkinson murder.  He instructs Nicolai to socialize with Dix and Laurel.  Nicolai and his wife invite them to dinner and go out on the town with the couple.  These get togethers serve to only increase suspicion of Dix.  He really does have a violent and slightly disturbed personality.  And finally, Capt. Lochner calls Laurel in to discuss Steele’s long and troubled history of violence.  This plants the seeds of doubt about Dix deep into her mind.  And it is the catalyst that eventually destroys her trust in him.  When Dix and Laurel are at the Nicolais’ home one night it comes out that Laurel had met with Capt. Lochner without telling Dix.  Dix flies into a rage and storms away and Laurel barely catches up with him before he drives off into the night like a madman.  Driving at seventy miles an hour around winding mountain roads he barely avoids numerous accidents but finally sideswipes a car at an intersection.  The driver angrily insults him for damaging his car and Dix pummels him into unconsciousness on the side of the road.  But when he is about to brain the helpless man with a large rock Laurel screams at him and brings him back to his senses.  They drive off and Dix relates how he’s been in a hundred fights like this.  Laurel asks if that makes it better.  He tries to justify himself based on the verbal taunt the other driver made.  She reminds him that all the guy called him was a “blind knuckle-headed squirrel.”  He becomes slightly contrite and lets her drive them home from there.  The next day after reading of the attack in the newspaper Dix goes to the post office and sends three hundred dollars to his victim in the name of Joe Squirrel.

But now Laurel is so shaken by the knowledge of Steele’s murderous temper that she even doubts whether he is innocent of Mildred’s murder.  She cannot sleep and begins taking sleeping pills.  Sensing that things are slipping away Dix tells Laurel that they are going to get engaged that day and married that night in Las Vegas.  Too afraid to refuse him she agrees but secretly makes plans to run off on a flight to New York City.  She confesses to Steele’s agent Mel that she is leaving him.  Mel tells her it will crush Dix and counsels her to give Dix a consolation victory by allowing Mel to have the script approved by the studio before she leaves him as this will soften the blow to his ego.  This sets up a scene at the “engagement party” at their favorite restaurant where a call comes in from the studio revealing that Mel gave the script to the studio without Dix’s permission.  Dix slaps Mel viciously in the face breaking his glasses.  Dix goes into the bathroom to apologize to Mel but by the time he returns to the table Laurel has fled.

Dix confronts Laurel in her apartment and all his suspicions that she is leaving him are on display.  She has taken off his engagement ring and is hiding her preparations to flee the state.  Finally, a call from the travel agent reveals all and as she tries to placate him Dix grabs Laurel and starts to strangle her.  But before it’s too late he comes to his senses, lets her go and starts walking away.  The phone rings again and it is Nicolai and Lochner calling to apologize to Dix and Laurel.  Mildred Atkinson’s boyfriend has confessed to her murder.  Dix lifelessly passes the phone to a still visibly choked and groggy Laurel who listens to Lochner’s apology with vacant eyes.  She mentions before she hangs up that a day earlier this news would have meant a great deal more.  The movie ends with Laurel watching from her open door as Dix walks dazedly away to his apartment.

This movie comes at an interesting point in the transition from the studio system of the golden age of Hollywood to the aftermath with independent production companies struggling to get movies financed and made.  Bogart’s production company was able to capitalize on the talents of the actors, directors and production people available at that point to give the film the polished Hollywood look but he was stepping way from the safe plot devices and social conventions that wouldn’t have allowed a big star like Bogart to steer so far onto the dark side.  But this is what Bogart was looking for.  Earlier in his career he could be the psychotic gangster but after Casablanca and The Big Sleep he would have to be at least nominally a good guy.  This restriction to his choices was against his interests and so he sought out a film noir like this that gave the audience what they wanted.

And it is very effective.  Gloria Grahame as Laurel is very interesting to watch.  She performs the varying stages of her relationship with Dix in a convincing and entertaining way.  The supporting cast is good.  But it is Bogart who performs the tour de force.  He is given a very good script and he plays it to the hilt.  There are nice little touches throughout the movie that actually endear Dix to the audience.  He really is a very personable madman.  All his friends really do like him even after he beats them up.  Bogart’s work in this film compares very favorably to any of his better known and critically praised roles.  And the ending is wonderfully dissatisfying.  If Bogart had been cleared a day earlier none of his crazed actions would have happened and Laurel never would have doubted his innocence or his sanity.  At the same time we see that Steele is a dangerously violent man with the potential to kill in the heat of the moment.  A very nice dilemma for the audience to digest.

Highly recommended.

Dead of Night – An OCF Classic Movie Review

“Dead of Night” is a 1945 British film that consists of a group of characters thrown together in a home and each tells a supernatural story.  Then these characters turn out to be the subject of another character’s dream.  And finally, the whole story turns out to be part of an endless recursive dream nightmare, a dream within a dream, within a dream like the images produced by two mirrors facing each other.  The only actor I recognized was Mervyn Johns who played Bob Cratchit in the 1951 movie Scrooge.

The stories include a young girl meeting the ghost of a boy who was murdered a century ago in the old house where the girl is visiting.  Another story involves a race car driver who while recovering from a crash has a vision of a hearse driver inviting him into the coffin.  Later he sees the same man as a bus conductor inviting him to board the bus.  He backs away and as he watches the bus drive off and crashes killing everyone aboard.  A third story involves a bedroom mirror possessed by a murderous spirit.  The fourth story is a comical golf ghost story.  And the final story is about an evil living ventriloquist dummy.

Back in the underlying scene the character who recognizes the other characters from his dream commits a murder and then somehow finds himself inside the five stories we have just witnessed in a mish-mash of the stories until finally he awakes in his own bedroom.  His wife consoles him for having another nightmare.  He then receives a phone call that sends him to the house where the earlier story takes place.  And the whole thing circles round to the introductory scene.

Despite the theatricality of some of the scenes the movie works.  Of course, it’s all ridiculous but the atmosphere of the movie is claustrophobic enough to produce the requisite discomfort in the audience that makes a ghost story work.  Admittedly the golf story is a bit of a distraction from this mood but there are enough creepy moments and characters to make this movie a success.  I’ll have to say that the fact that the cast look like ordinary people and lack the movie star good looks of an American production actually goes a long way to aiding the illusion we are inside the story with them.

Like many British films from the middle of the 20th century the story had to depend on a good script and competent actors instead of expensive sets and special effects to immerse the viewers in the story.  And because of that this movie still works as well today as it did back then.  And it stands up after repeated viewing.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  The British love a good ghost story and this one has several.  Dead of Night probably won’t work for those who depend on comic book special effects to tell a supernatural story.  But if you have an imagination you may like this one.