The Yin & Yang of Alfred Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (Warner Brothers 1951)


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Alfred Hitchcock , like many great artists before and since, was in a bit of a career slump. The Master of Suspense’s previous four films (THE PARADINE CASE, ROPE, UNDER CAPRICORN, STAGE FRIGHT) were not hits with either critics or audiences, and did poorly at the box office. Then came 1951’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and Hitch was back on top with this devilish mélange of murder, suspense, romance, and humor, featuring a stunning star turn by Robert Walker, cast against type as a charming sociopath.

Our story opens with two pairs of shoes (one two-toned, one staid brown loafers) emerging from two separate cabs, walking separately to catch a train and their date with destiny, as we cut to two separate train tracks merging together. Hitchcock’s playing with one of his classic themes: “the double”, or more importantly, duality. Even Dimitri Tiomkin’s score highlights the differences, as a jaunty…

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The Prey’s The Thing: THE PROWLER (Sandhurst Films 1981)


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While flipping through the channels late one Saturday night, I came across a title called THE PROWLER. It was not a remake of the 1951 film noirdirected by Ida Lupino and starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes, but a slasher shocker with a couple of noir icons in the cast, namely Lawrence Tierney and Farley Granger. Intrigued by this, I decided what the hell, let’s give it a watch! And though Tierney and Granger are in it, their screen time is limited, and I discovered the real star of this film is makeup/special effects wizard Tom Savini.

The plot is your basic “psycho-killer on the loose terrorizing coeds” retread, but the backstory was enough to hook me. We begin with newsreel footage of the troops returning home from WWII in 1945, and a graduation dance at a California college. Pretty young Rosemary Chapman, who wrote her soldier boy…

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Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing (dir by Richard Fleischer)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  How long is it going to take?  Forever!  For instance, she recorded 1955’s The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing off of FXM on February 1st and has now gotten around to actually watching and reviewing it.)

The story of Evelyn Nesbit is an interesting one, even if it is now a largely forgotten one.

In 1901, Evelyn Nesbit was a showgirl in New York City.  While she always claimed that she was 16 at the time, there are some historians that think it more likely that she was only 14.  One night, the beautiful Evelyn was introduced to Stanford White.  At the time, White was 47 years old and the most successful and prominent architect in New York City.  White was also a notorious womanizer and Evelyn soon became his latest mistress.  He moved her into one of his many apartments.  Years later, when the details of their relationship became public knowledge, people were shocked to hear that Stanford White kept a red velvet swing in the apartment and that he enjoyed watching Evelyn swing back and forth.  They would be even more scandalized by the news that Stanford also had a “mirror room.”  As Evelyn would later testify, she “entered the room a virgin” but did not come out as one.

Though Evelyn occasionally claimed that she and Stanford were truly in love, she never married him.  (Indeed, Stanford White apparently never married anyone over the course of his life.)  Instead, she ended up meeting and marrying Harry K. Thaw.  Harry was the heir to a 40 million dollar fortune.  He also had a long history of mental illness.  When he learned that, before meeting him, Evelyn had lost her virginity to Stanford White, he was outraged.

(It’s debatable how well Stanford and Harry knew each other.  Some historians claim that they were barely acquainted.  Other accounts claim that Harry and Stanford were business rivals even before Evelyn Nesbit arrived in New York.)

In 1906, Harry and Evelyn ran into Stanford White at Madison Square Garden.  Harry promptly pulled out a pistol and, in front of hundreds of witnesses, shot Stanford dead.

Harry’s subsequent trial was reportedly the first to ever be described as being “the trial of the century.”  Because hundreds of people had seen Harry Thaw shoot Stanford White and the Thaw family was adamant about not publicizing Harry’s history of mental illness, Harry’s defense team attempted to make the trial about Stanford White.  The defense attempted to portray Stanford as being such a depraved predator that Harry really had no other option but to shoot him in cold blood.  Evelyn took the stand and testified to every single detail of her relationship with Stanford White.  The details appeared in every major newspaper in America.

In the end, Harry was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to the  Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.  (Reportedly, due to his great wealth, he had the best room in the hospital.)  Meanwhile, Evelyn became one of America’s first reality stars.  Her notoriety led to her appearing in several silent films.  It’s a fascinating story, one that very much feels ahead of his time.  If Evelyn was a star in 1906, just imagine how famous she would be today.

The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing is about Evelyn Nesbit and her relationships with both Stanford White and Harry Thaw.  It’s a shame that the film isn’t as interesting as the real life story.  Ray Milland plays Stanford White.  Farley Granger is Harry Thaw.  Joan Collins is Evelyn Nesbit.  They all give good performances, especially Farley Granger.  But the film itself is just so bland.  Perhaps because it was made in the 1950s, it leaves out the majority of the sordid details that made the story so fascinating to begin with.  For instance, the red velvet swing appears but, in this film, no time is spent in the mirror room.  This true life story is pure tabloid material but The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing is way too respectful for its own good.  By refusing to come down firmly on the side of Harry Thaw or Stanford White, the film feels shallow and a bit empty.  (All good melodramas — even fact-based ones — need a good villain.)  And poor Evelyn Nesbit!  In real life, she was a savvy self-promoter who knew exactly how to manipulate the press.  In this film, she’s just an innocent ingenue.  Considering the facts of the case, the film version is unforgivably dull.

So, I don’t recommend The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing but I do recommend Paula Uruburu’s fascinating 2008 biography, American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, The Birth of the ‘It’ Girl, and the ‘Crime of the Century.’  It goes into all of the fascinating details that were left out of this film.

The Fabulous Forties #41: The North Star (dir by Lewis Milestone)


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The 40th film — wait a minute, I’m finally up to number 40!?  That means that there’s only ten more movies left to review!  And then I’ll be able to move on!  It’s always exiting for me whenever I’m doing a review series and I realize that I’m nearly done.

Anyway, where was I?

Oh yeah — the 40th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was the 1943 war epic, The North Star.  This is one of the many war films to be included in the Fabulous Forties box set and I have to admit that they all kind of blend together for me.  Since these films were actually made at a time when America was at war, there really wasn’t much room for nuance.  Instead, every film follows pretty much the same formula: the Nazis invade, a combination of soldiers and villagers set aside their individual concerns and/or differences and team up to defeat the Nazis, there’s a big battle, a few good people sacrifice their lives, the Nazis are defeated, and the allies promise to keep fighting.

It’s a pretty predictable formula but that’s okay because it was all in the service of fighting the Nazis.  Could I legitimately point out that the villains in these movies are always kind of two-dimensional?  Sure, I could.  But you know what?  IT DOESN’T MATTER BECAUSE THEY’RE NAZIS!  Could I point out that the heroes are often idealized?  Sure, but again it doesn’t matter.  Why doesn’t it matter?  BECAUSE THEY’RE FIGHTING NAZIS!

That’s one reason why, even as our attitude towards war changes, World War II films will always be popular.  World War II was literally good vs evil.

Anyway, The North Star was a big studio tribute to America’s then ally, the Soviet Union.  When a farm in the Ukraine is occupied by the Nazis, the peasants and the farmers refuse to surrender.  They disappear into the surrounding hills and conduct guerilla warfare against the invading army.  It’s all pretty predictable but it’s also executed fairly well.  It doesn’t shy away from showing the brutality of war.  There’s a haunting scene in which we see the bodies of all of the villagers — including several children — who have been killed in a battle.

The Nazis are represented by Erich Von Stroheim.  Von Stroheim plays a German doctor who continually claims that he personally does not believe in the Nazi ideology and that he’s just following orders.  When wounded Nazi soldiers need blood transfusions, he takes the blood from the children of the village.  His rival, a Russian doctor, is played by all-American Walter Huston and indeed, all the Russians are played by American stars, the better to create a “we’re all in this together” type of spirit.  When Huston tells Von Stroheim that he is even worse than the committed Nazis because he recognized evil and chose to do nothing, he’s speaking for all of us.

Unfortunately, before the Nazis invade, The North Star devotes a lot of time to showing how idyllic life is in the communist collective and these scenes are so idealized that they totally ring false.  Everyone is so busy singing folk songs and talking about how happy they are being a part of a collective (as opposed to being an individual with concerns that are not shared by the other members of the collective) that it’s kind of unbearable.  Not surprisingly, The North Star was written by Lillian Hellman, who wrote some great melodramas (like The Little Foxes) but who was always at her most tedious when she was at her most overly political.

(Watching the opening of The North Star, I was reminded that I would be totally useless in a collectivist society.)

So, I have to admit, that I was rather annoyed with the villagers at first.  But then the Nazis invaded and I realized that we’re all in it together!  As I said earlier, you can forgive your heroes almost anything when they’re fighting Nazis.

The North Star is an above average war film and a below average piece of political propaganda.  See it as a double feature with The Last Chance.

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 7: Film Noir Festival


Now that Lisa’s finished cleaning out her DVR, it’s time once again for me to clean mine, featuring five fabulous films noir:

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I first got my DVR service from DirecTV just in time for last year’s TCM Summer of Darkness series, and there’s still a ton of films I haven’t gotten around to viewing… until now! So without further ado, let’s dive right into the fog-shrouded world of film noir:

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RAW DEAL (Eagle-Lion 1948, D: Anthony Mann)

This tough-talking film seems to cram every film noir trope in the book into its 79 minutes. Gangster Dennis O’Keefe busts out of prison with the help of his moll ( Claire Trevor ), kidnaps social worker Marsha Hunt, and goes after the sadistic crime boss (Raymond Burr) who owes him fifty grand. Director Mann and DP John Alton make this flawed but effective ultra-low budget film work, with help from a great cast. Burr’s nasty, fire-obsessed kingpin is scary, and John Ireland as his torpedo has a great fight scene with O’Keefe. The flaming finale is well staged…

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Horror Film Review: The Prowler (dir by Joseph Zito)


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“A prowler has been seen around the campus and, well … he could be dangerous.”

— Miss Allison (Donna Davis) in The Prowler (1981)

Miss Allison was one of those largely ineffectual authority figures who always seems to turn up in slasher films from the early 80s.  It was easy to be dismissive of her and personally, I can’t get over the fact that she would actually show up for the big graduation dance wearing pantyhose with sandals.  But still, Miss Allison had a point here.  There was a prowler wandering around campus and was he ever dangerous!

Of course, this all could have been avoided if they just hadn’t had a graduation dance to begin with.  Eccentric old Maj. Chatham (Lawrence Tierney) understood that.  He remembered what had happened at the town of Avalon Bay’s graduation dance of 1945, how Rosemary (Joy Glaccum) and her new date where both killed by a pitchfork-wielding maniac.  Chatham had spent the last 35 years protesting any plans to hold another graduation dance.

However, in 1980, one feisty student named Pam (Vicky Dawson) finally convinced the town to allow them to hold a graduation dance.  It probably helped the Pam’s boyfriend, Mark (Christopher Goutman) was a deputy.  The morning of the dance, reports came in that someone had robbed a nearby store, murdered the store owner, and might be heading towards the town of Avalon Bay.

The sheriff (Farley Granger, who played Guy Haines in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train) reacted to this news by announcing that he was going fishing and leaving Mark in charge.  And, before the viewer could say, “Wait a minute — how does that make any sense?,” the sheriff was gone, the dance was on, and a maniac in a combat uniform was killing people with a bayonet and a pitchfork.

Yes, Miss Allison, the prowler was quite dangerous.

Having read that plot description, you might have a suspicion as to who the prowler actually was.  But you’re probably thinking to yourself, “No, that is way too obvious a solution!”  Well, no — it isn’t.  You will not learn the Prowler’s identity until the final few minutes of the film but you will have guessed it early on.

The Prowler is not going to win any points for originality.  It’s a slasher film from the early 80s, with everything that implies.  For people who know their horror history, it’s a time capsule of that brief period when slashers were still making an effort to be American gialli, before the genre became dominated by loquacious monsters like Freddy Krueger and postmodern snark.  As a character, the Prowler says next to nothing and really has no personality beyond a few questionable hobbies.  But he certainly does kill a lot of people and seems to truly enjoy it.

And, if you hate these type of films, you’re going to hate The Prowler.  But, that being said, The Prowler is actually one of the better examples of the early 80s slasher genre.  Much as he would do with both Abduction and Friday the 13th — The Final Chapterdirector Joseph Zito keeps the bloody action moving and, though they may be playing stock characters, he gets above average performances from his entire cast.  As opposed to a lot of slasher films of the period, you actually feel bad when these people meet their untimely end.

And finally, the Prowler himself is just scary!  The combination of the Prowler’s menacing appearance and Tom Savini’s relentless gore effects sets this film apart from other contemporary slashers, like Graduation Day.  Even by the standards of slasher psychos, the Prowler is cruel and sadistic.  It’s not just that he kills with a bayonet.  It’s that he obviously get so much enjoyment from doing it.  At its best, The Prowler is pure nightmare fuel.

Finally, on a personal note, I have to admit that it kind of freaked me out that one of the Prowler’s victims was named Lisa.  As I’ve said before, slasher films tend to scare me precisely because I know that there’s no way I’d survive one.  We always tell ourselves that people in slasher movies die because they do unbelievably stupid things but honestly, I think we all do a lot of stupid things every day.  After all, we all behave under the assumption that we’re not on the verge of being attacked by a knife-wielding maniac.  Hence, it’s easy to say, “Don’t go in that room!” but why shouldn’t someone go in that room?  After all, they’re not watching the movie.  They don’t know there’s a killer in that room.  Lisa in The Prowler certainly did some stupid things and what freaked me out was that I could easily imagine myself doing the same stupid things.

(True, unlike the film’s Lisa, I wouldn’t go out by myself in the middle of night, strip down to my underwear, and then jump in a pool but I’m planning on conquering my fear of drowning someday soon and who knows what might then happen!)

Seriously, people — be kind to the Lisas in your life.