30 Days of Noir #7: The Sniper (dir by Edward Dmytryk)


Halfway through the chilling 1952 film, The Sniper, there’s a scene in which a woman is seen standing on the rooftop of a San Francisco apartment building.  She’s nonchalantly hanging laundry.  When she steps to the side, we suddenly see that there’s a man standing on the next rooftop over.  And he’s holding a rifle.

Fortunately, in this case, the man is a policeman.  He’s one of several cops who have been ordered to stand on rooftops with their weapons drawn and to keep an eye on the city below.  There’s a killer on the loose and the city is demanding that the police capture him.  And yet, even with a city that’s caught in the grip of fear and even with heavily armed men watching everything going on in the streets, life goes on.  People go to bars.  People go to work. Couples stroll in the park.  And one woman hangs her laundry to dry on the rooftop of an apartment building.

Suddenly, the policeman spots someone on another rooftop, a man who isn’t supposed to be there.  He’s a young guy, carrying what looks like a rifle.  The police quickly rush to the rooftop where they arrest the young man.  Have they caught the sniper who has been terrorizing San Francisco?

The police think that they have their man but we know that they don’t.  We know that the sniper is a guy named Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz).  Eddie is a delivery man.  He’s handsome but, from the minute we first see him, we can tell that there’s something off about him.  He stumbles through life, keeping his head down and rarely speaking to anyone.  The few times he does attempt to smile, it’s painfully awkward.  He’s someone who is struggling to convince the people of San Francisco that he’s one of them but the more he tries, the more of an outsider he seems to be.  In fact, the only time that we see Eddie truly happy is when he goes to a carnival and comes across a dunk tank.  Over and over again, he throws a baseball and cause the woman inside to be submerged in cold water.

At first, Eddie tries to deal with his bad thoughts by deliberately burning his hand on an electric stove.  When he goes to the emergency room, he asks the attending doctor why he would do something like that but the doctor is soon distracted by another patient.  With his hand bandaged, Eddie goes on a shooting spree, targeting brunette women.

This dark film is fairly evenly divided, between Eddie, the cops that are trying to catch him, and the psychiatrist who tries to explain him.  Not surprisingly, the cops, led by the appropriately named Lt. Kafka (Adolphe Menjou), aren’t particularly interested in what makes the sniper tick.  They just want to get him off the street.  However, Dr. James Kent (Richard Kiley) is convinced that the only way to stop not only this killer but others is to understand what’s going on inside of his mind.  The differences between Kafka and Kent’s approaches are most obvious in a scene in which every registered sex offender in San Francisco is paraded into a squad room full of jeering cops.  While the detectives taunt the offenders that they know, the offender that they don’t know prepares to kill yet again.

The Sniper was directed by Edward Dmytryk, who previously directed the Oscar-nominated (and superficially similar) Crossfire.  This was Dmytryk’s first film after his career was temporarily derailed by his refusal to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee.  (He later changed his mind and named names while testifying about his time as a member of the Community Party.)  Interestingly enough, top-billed Adolphe Menjou was one of the leaders of the anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a prominent supporter of the blacklist that Dmytryk had narrowly escaped.

Filmed in a black-and-white, documentary style, The Sniper is a chilling and disturbing film.  When Eddie stalks through the city at night, the dark shadows that he casts against the walls of empty alleyways and closed storefronts serve to remind us that men like Eddie could be lurking anywhere, unseen and unknown.  During the day scenes, the harshly bright lighting reminds us of just how vulnerable we are.  If the night provides too many places to hide, the day provides too few.  Arthur Franz gives a disturbingly credible performance as Eddie.  While he plays Eddie as being obviously troubled, he also suggests how someone like Eddie has managed to survive without getting exposed.  Menjou is properly cynical as the world weary Kafka while Richard Kiley brings some needed passion and anger to the film’s most talky scenes.  The film ends on a note of melancholy ambiguity, leaving it to us to make up our own mind about how to deal with the Eddie Millers of the world.

Horror Film Review: Invaders From Mars (dir by William Cameron Menzies)


The aliens have arrived!  They landed one night in the middle of a thunderstorm and now, they’re hiding underground in a sandpit.  Only David McClean (Jimmy Hunt) was awake to witness their arrival.  He was supposed to be asleep but who could sleep through all that thunder and lightning?  (Not to mention the sound of the flying saucer!)  Unfortunately, no one’s going to believe David because he’s only 12 years old!

That’s the premise at the heart of Invaders from Mars, a nicely surreal science fiction film from 1953.

In order to humor David, a few people do go to the sandpit to look for this supposed UFO.  They include his scientist father (Leif Erickson) and a few local cops.  They all return saying that they found nothing.  They also all return in a really bad mood.  David’s formerly loving and humorous father is suddenly distant and rather grumpy.  And he no longer speaks like himself.  Instead, he is now rigidly formal, like someone still getting used to speaking a new language.  Maybe it has something to do with the strange mark on the back of his neck….

David goes into town and soon discovers that several townspeople are acting just like his father.  It’s almost as if something is controlling them!  Well, what else can David do but go to the local observatory and get the U.S. Army involved!?

Invaders from Mars may be disguised as a children’s film about a flying saucer but it actually deals with some very adult issues.  What do you do when you know that you’re right but no one is willing to listen to you?  Do you stubbornly cling to what you believe or do you just become a mindless and unquestioning zombie like everyone else?  Do you remain independent or do you get the mark on your neck?  Of course, it should also be pointed out that Invaders From Mars was made at a time when people were very much worried that America was being invaded from within by communists and subversives, all of whom would rob Americans of their individual freedoms just as surely as the aliens in David’s town.  Invaders From Mars came out two years before Invasion of the Body Snatchers but they both deal with very similar issues.

What sets Invaders From Mars apart is that it’s told from a child’s point of view.  It plays out like a nightmarish fairy tale.  The film was directed by the famous production designer, William Cameron Menzies and he gives the entire film a nicely surreal look.  The town is just a little bit too perfect while the inside of the spaceship is a maze of corridors, all overseen by a ranting head in a crystal ball.

The film’s ending was probably chilling to audiences in 1953.  For modern audiences, it’s a bit of groan-inducing cliché.  Still, the ending itself makes sense when viewed in the context of the entire film.  (It’s literally the only ending that makes sense.)  Still, ending aside, Invaders From Mars is a classic sci-fi film and one well worth watching this Halloween season.

 

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Caine Mutiny (dir by Edward Dmytryk)


Mutiny_0

It’s the 1940s and World War II is raging.  The U.S. Navy is model of military discipline and efficiency.  Well, except for the U.S.S. Caine, that is.  The Caine is something of a disorganized mess, where no one takes his job seriously and sailors have names like Meatball (Lee Marvin) and Horrible (Claude Akins).  The men love Lt. Commander DeVriess (Tom Tully), largely because he has given up on trying to enforce any sort of discipline.  However, DeVriess has recently been relieved of his command.  As he leaves, Meatball gives him a new watch, a gift from all the men.  DeVriess admonishes them, snapping that the gift is violation of Naval regulations.  He then puts the watch on his wrist and leaves the ship.

DeVriess’s replacement is Captain Francis Queeg and, at first, we have reason to be hopeful because Captain Queeg is being played by Humphrey Bogart.  Surely, if anyone can get this ship into shape, it’ll be Humphrey Bogart!  From the moment he arrives, Queeg announces that he’s going to enforce discipline on the Caine and if that means spending hours yelling at a man for not having his shirt tucked in, that’s exactly what Queeg is prepared to do.  However, it also quickly becomes apparent that the awkward Queeg has no idea how to talk to people.  He is also overly sensitive and quick to take offense.  Whenever Queeg makes a mistake (and he does make a few), he’s quick to blame everyone else.

the-caine-mutiny-deck

Realizing that the men are turning against him, Queeg even begs his officers for their help.  He asks them if they have any suggestions.  They all sit silently, their heads bowed as Queeg somewhat poignantly rambles on about how his wife and his dog both like him but the crew of the Caine does not.

Queeg’s officers are a diverse bunch, none of whom are quite sure what to make of Queeg or the state of the Caine.  Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis) is a wealthy graduate of Princeton University who, at first, likes Queeg but quickly comes to doubt his abilities.  On the other hand, Lt. Steve Marsyk (Van Johnson) has doubts about Queeg from the start but, as a career Navy man, his natural instinct is to respect the chain of command above all else.

And then there’s Lt. Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray).  Keefer is a self-styled intellectual, a novelist who is always quick with a snarky comment and a cynical observation.  (If The Caine Mutiny were remade as a B-horror film, Lt. Keefer’s name would probably be Lt. Sardonicus.)  From the minute the viewers meet Lt. Keefer, our inclination is to like him.  After all, he seems to be the only person in the film who has a sense of humor.  If we had to pick someone to have dinner with, most of us would definitely pick the erudite Tom Keefer over the humorless and socially awkward Francis Queeg.  As such, when Keefer starts to suggest that Queeg might be mentally unstable, our natural impulse is to agree with him.

It’s Tom Keefer who first suggests that it may be necessary to take the command away from Queeg.  And yet, when it comes time to take action, it’s Keith and Marsyk who do so while Keefer stands to the side and quietly watches.  And, once the Caine arrives back in the U.S., it Keith and Marsyk who are court martialed.  Will they be found guilty of treason or will their lawyer, Lt. Barney Greenwald (Jose Ferrer), prove that Queeg was unfit for command?

the-caine-mutiny-ferrer

Made in 1954 and based on a novel by Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny is one of those big and glossy 1950s productions that holds up a lot better than you might expect.  The film has its flaws.  In the role of Keith, Robert Francis is a bit on the dull side and a subplot in which he courts May Wynn feels unneccessary and only serves to distract from the main story.  But, for the most part, it’s an intelligent and well-directed film.  Humphrey Bogart turns Queeg into a pathetic and lonely figure and you can’t help but feel sorry for him when he talks about how his dog loves him.  Van Johnson also does well as Marsyk, effectively portraying a well-meaning character who is in over his head.  Jose Ferrer gets a great drunk scene at the end of the film and, of course, you can’t go wrong with Lee Marvin as a smirking sailor, even if Marvin only appears for a handful of minutes.

Fred MacMurray The Caine Mutiny

But for me, my favorite character (and performance) was Fred MacMurray’s Tom Keefer.  Technically, Keefer is not meant to be a likable character.  He’s totally passive aggressive.  He’s pretentious.  He’s smug.  At times, he’s rather cowardly.  And yet, Tom Keefer remains the most memorable and interesting character in the entire film.  He gets all of the good one-lines and MacMurray delivers them with just the right amount of barely concealed venom.  (“If only the strawberries were poisoned…” he says as he considers dinner aboard the Caine.)  It’s a great role and Fred MacMurray gives a great performance.  And you know what?  I don’t care how bad a character he may have been.  I still want to read Tom Keefer’s book!

The Caine Mutiny was nominated for best picture of 1954.  However, it lost to On The Waterfront.

Horror on the Lens: Sisters of Death (dir by Joseph Mazzuca)


Sisters of Death, which is included in a countless number of Mill Creek box sets, is not necessarily the greatest film ever made but it is a personal favorite of mine.

This 1977 film opens with a very baroque sorority initiation that ends with one of the sisters being killed in a game of Russian Roulette.  A few years later, the surviving sisters are invited to an isolated and lavish estate where it turns out that the dead girl’s father (well-played by Arthur Franz) is looking for revenge.  This film is predictable and a lot of the plot depends on people refusing to use any common sense but Sisters of Death is such a fun little melodrama that I can’t complain too much.  The film plays out like a surprisingly violent Lifetime movie and it has one of those wonderfully cynical 1970s endings.

Enjoy!

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #30: The Sweet Ride (dir by Harvey Hart)


The_Sweet_Ride_FilmPosterThe 1968 film The Sweet Ride takes the audience on a ride through Malibu and reminds us all that, in many ways, the 1960s sucked.

The Sweet Ride opens with actress Vicki Cartwright (Jacqueline Bisset) losing her top while swimming in the ocean.  While Vicki panics and tries to figure out how to get back to the beach without anyone seeing her breasts, she’s spotted by a surfer named Denny McGuire (Michael Sarrazin).  Denny hands her a towel and then leads her back to the beach house that he shares with aging tennis player Collie (Anthony Franciosa) and stoned musician Choo-Choo (Bob Denver).

The rest of the film is a 90 minute tour of California beach life in the late 60s.  Despite Collie’s cynical warning against falling in love, Denny does just that, despite the fact that Vicki refuses to tell him anything about her past or even where she lives.  Meanwhile, Collie spends his time hustling on the tennis court and the married Choo-Choo pretends to be gay in an attempt to get out of being drafted.  (Choo-Choo probably could have gotten out of the draft by pointing out that he appears to be 40 years old but the filmmakers decided to have him walk around with a poodle and speak in falsetto.  Just in case you had any doubt that this film was made in 1968…)  It’s a mix of comedy, romance, and drama and it’s features footage of some real bands performing in actual Malibu nightclubs and that’s a good thing for all of us history nerds.

And, since The Sweet Ride was made in 1968, the whole film gets progressively darker as it reaches its conclusion.  Choo-Choo does get drafted and it’s hard to believe he’ll survive a day in Viet Nam.  Collie’s perfect life is revealed to be an empty facade.  Denny realizes that his friends are all immature losers.  And Vicki ends up getting assaulted by a high-power studio executive (Warren Stevens).  It all leads to more violence, disillusionment, and general ennui.

For some reason, The Sweet Ride shows up on FXM fairly regularly.  It’s a strange film because it doesn’t really work and yet it’s also compulsively watchable.  It tries to be about everything and, as a result, it often feels like it’s about absolutely nothing.  And yet, somehow, it remains compelling…

Why is the film compelling despite itself?  It’s not because of the main characters, that’s for sure.  The boys in the beach house are probably some of the least likable film protagonists in cinematic history.  Anthony Franciosa gave some great performances in his career (check him out in A Face in the Crowd and Tenebrae) but Collie is such a smug jerk that you find yourself hoping that someone will just punch him in the face.  Meanwhile, Denny tends to come across like a weak-willed and obsessive stalker and Choo-Choo — well, Choo-Choo often seems to be a character in a totally different movie.  As for Vicki, her character pretty much exclusively exists to be victimized.

Ultimately, I think The Sweet Ride is watchable because it is such an imperfect time capsule.  If I wanted to know what it was like to be alive in the 60s, The Sweet Ride is one of the films that I would watch.  It’s not the best film ever made but it is a chance to look into the past.

(Incidentally, The Sweet Ride was directed by Harvey Hart, who also directed the underrated Shoot.)

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #28: The Carpetbaggers (dir by Edward Dmytryk)


The_Carpetbaggers_1964_poster

The 1960s was apparently a bad time for talented old school Hollywood filmmakers getting sucked into making big budget, excessively lengthy films.  Joseph L. Mankiewicz spent most of his career making movies like All About Eve and then, in 1963, he ended up directing Cleopatra.  Elia Kazan went from A Face In The Crowd to The Arrangement.  John Huston went from Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen to directing not only The Bible but Reflections in a Golden Eye as well.

And then there’s Edward Dmytryk.  Dmytryk may not be as highly regarded by modern critics as Mankiewicz and Huston but he still directed some of the best film noirs of the 1940s.  His 1947 film Crossfire was nominated for best picture and probably should have won.  In 1952, he directed one of the first true crime procedural films, The Sniper.  His 1954 best picture nominee, The Caine Mutiny, featured one of Humphrey Bogart’s best and most unusual performances.

And yet, in 1964, he somehow found himself directing The Carpetbaggers.

The Carpetbaggers tells the story of Jonas Cord (George Peppard).  Jonas is the son of the fabulously wealthy Jonas Cord, Sr. (Leif Erickson).  At the start of the film, father and son do not get along.  Senior resents that Junior is more interested in piloting airplanes than in learning the family business.  Junior is angry that Senior has married Jonas’s ex-girlfriend, actress Rina Marlowe (Carroll Baker).  In fact, as far as Jonas, Jr. is concerned, Nevada Smith (Alan Ladd) is more of a father to him than his actual father.

Nevada Smith is Jonas, Sr.’s best friend and occasional business partner.  He’s a former cowboy who, we are told in a lengthy bit of exposition, is legendary for tracking down and killing the three men who killed his parents.  (As we listen to Jonas, Jr. tell the entire lengthy story, we find ourselves thinking, “Okay, so why not make a movie out of that story?”  Well, they did.  Two years after the release of The Carpetbaggers, Steve McQueen starred in Nevada Smith.)  Nevada’s also a film star whose career is in deep decline.

Speaking of deep decline, Jonas, Sr. ends up having a heart attack and dramatically dropping dead before he can get a chance to disinherit his son.  Jonas, Jr. inherits the Cord fortune and the Cord business and proceed to spend the next two and a half hours abusing everyone who gets close to him.  He even mistreats his loving and neurotic wife, Monica (Elizabeth Ashley, giving the only really memorable performance in the entire film).

Yes, there’s really no reason to have any sympathy at all for Jonas Cord, Jr. but the film insists that we should because he’s the main character and he’s played by the top-billed star.  We’re also told that he’s a brilliant aviation engineer and I guess we’re supposed to admire him for being good at what does.  We also discover that Jonas believes that his mother was insane and that she passed down her insanity to him.  He fears that he’ll pass the crazy gene to any of children that he might have so that’s why he pushes everyone away.  Just in case we don’t understand how big a deal this is to him, the camera zooms in for a closeup whenever Jonas is reminded of his mother.

(In the 60s, all mental instability was represented via zoom lens.)

However, Jonas isn’t just into airplanes!  He also buys a movie studio, specifically because Rina Marlowe is under contract.  Soon, Jonas is directing movies his way.  Jonas also finds himself falling in love with another actress (Martha Hyer) so, of course, he starts treating her badly in an effort to push her away.

What can be done to save the tortured soul of Jonas Cord?  Maybe he just need to get beaten up by Nevada Smith…

The Carpetbaggers was based on a novel by Harold Robbins.  The novel was apparently quite a scandal when it was originally published.  People read it and they wondered, “Who was based on who?”  Well, if you’ve ever seen The Aviator, it’s not that difficult to figure out.  Jonas Cord, eccentric movie mogul and obsessive pilot, was obviously meant to be Howard Hughes.  Rina Marlowe was meant to be Jean Harlow, a fact that can be guessed just by looking at the last names.  And I’m guessing that Nevada Smith was probably based on former President Warren G. Harding because … well, why not?

I suppose that, by the standards of 1964, the film version of The Carpetbaggers would have been considered risqué.  For a modern audience, the main appeal of something like The Carpetbaggers is to see what was once considered to be shocking.  The film is overlong, George Peppard doesn’t exactly figure out how to make Jonas into the compelling  rogue that he needs to be, the clothes and the sets are a lot more interesting than any of the dialogue (but not interesting enough to carry a nearly 3 hour movie), and the film’s pacing is so off that some scenes seem to go on forever while others are way too short.  But, as a cultural and historical artifact, The Carpetbaggers does hold some interest.

The Carpetbaggers was made at a time when Hollywood felt it was under attack from both television and European cinema.  With a film like The Carpetbaggers, the studios were saying, “See!?  Television will never be able to make a film this long and big!  And those Europeans aren’t the only ones who can make a movie about sex!”  Of course, as so often happened during this time, the studios failed to take into account that size and length don’t always equal quality (and ain’t that the truth?).  As for the sex — well, we hear a lot more than we actually see.  The Carpetbaggers is one of those films where everyone talks about sex, largely because showing sex wasn’t really an option.  (And it should be noted that most of the sex talk is delivered in the language of euphemism.)  As a result, The Carpetbaggers feels incredibly tame by today’s standards.  As a result, your main reaction to The Carpetbaggers will probably be to marvel at what was considered daring and shocking 50 years ago.

(And before we get too cocky and quick to dismiss those who came before us, let’s consider how our current films will look to movie audiences five decades from now…)

As far as biopics of Howard Hughes are concerned, The Carpetbaggers in no Aviator.  However, it is an occasionally interesting historical artifact.

Now Showing On The Shattered Lens: Flight to Mars (dir by Lesley Selander)


Flight_to_mars

Are you lucky enough to have an extra 70 minutes free today?  Why not spend them watching an entertaining little B-movie called Flight to Mars?

First released in 1951, Flight to Mars is reportedly the first American film to ever be made about traveling to the red planet.  At the start of the film, a rather phallic spaceship is launched into space.  Aboard the ship are cynical reporter Steve (Cameron Mitchell), brilliant scientist Jim (Arthur Franz), token female scientist Carol (Virginia Huston), and a few other scientists who all kind of blend together.  Steve is attracted to Carol but Carol is more interested in Jim.  However, Jim isn’t interested in anything other than his work.  When the spaceship does reach Mars, it turns out that Mars is a lot like Earth and the Martians are a lot like us.  The main difference between humans and Martians appears to be that Martian women wear miniskirts.  Among those Martian women is Alita (Marguerite Chapman), who falls in love with Jim.  The rest of Mars, however, is not quite as infatuated with their intergalactic visitors…

Flight to Mars is definitely a product of its time.  This is one of those films where the men are all blatantly sexist and the women are usually just happy to be noticed.  Carol, for instance, is overjoyed to discover that they have kitchens on Mars and, while the men spend all of their time making plans, Carol usually just stands in the background, eating Martian snacks and pining for Jim.  Of course, Jim only has eyes for Alita, who, upon meeting the virile males of Earth, has absolutely no problem betraying her entire planet.  Beyond the sexist attitudes, Flight to Mars is also distinguished by presenting space travel as being the equivalent of a long flight on a small airplane.  This is definitely a low-budget B-movie that has absolutely no relation to science fact (or, for that matter, any other type of fact).

And, to be honest, that’s why I like the film.  It truly is such a time capsule that just watching it will make you wonder if Eisenhower is still in the White House.  I’ve always felt that the best way to learn about history is to experience it personally and one of the best ways to do that is to watch a movie that could only have been made during a certain period of time.  And trust me, Flight to Mars is pure 1951.  As for the film’s low budget — well, this film proves that you don’t need CGI to create an alien world.  Sometimes, cardboard and colorful costumes work just as well.  And, as for the film’s science — well, facts are boring.  That’s one reason why good people have often turned to science fiction.

So, if you’ve got 70 minutes to kill, why not experience Flight to Mars?

Enjoy!