Film Review: Susan Slade (dir by Delmer Daves)


Shortly after this 1961 film begins, 17 year-old Susan Slade (Connie Stevens) announces, “We’ve been sinful!”

She’s talking to her first lover, Conn White (Grant Williams).  You would think that anyone — even someone as unbelievably naive and innocent as Susan Slade — would know better than to ever trust someone named Conn White but no.  From the minute that Conn and Susan met on an ocean liner heading from South America to California, it was love at first sight.  In fact, Susan was so sure of her love that she spent the night in Conn’s cabin, fully knowing that it would mean surrendering her status as an Eisenhower era good girl.

Conn laughs off her concerns about sin.  He also tells her that it makes perfect sense for her not to tell her parents (played by Dorothy McGuire and Lloyd Nolan).  “When we’re married,” he asks, “are you going to tell your mother every time that we make love?”

Wow, Conn still wants to get married even though he’s already had sex with her!?  And he’s also extremely wealthy and stands to inherit control of a multinational corporation!  He sounds like the perfect guy!  Way to go, Susan!

Unfortunately, it turns out that Conn does have one flaw.  He really, really likes to go mountain climbing.  In fact, he’s planning on scaling fearsome old Mt. McKinley.  While Susan and her family settle into life in Monterey, California, Conn heads up to Alaska.  He promises Susan that he’ll keep in touch but, when she doesn’t hear from him, she fears the worse.  Has he abandoned her?  Was he lying when he said he wanted to get married?  Then one day, she gets a call from Conn’s father, informing her that Conn fell off the mountain and died.  Susan’s almost father-in-law tells her that Conn’s body cannot be retrieved from the mountain.  Though it’s neither confirmed nor denied by the film, I decided that this was because Conn faked his own death to get out of having to spend any more time listening to Susan talk about sin.

Anyway, Susan’s single again but, fortunately, she does not lack for suitors.  For instance, there’s the spoiled Wells Corbett (Bert Convy), who is kind of shallow and arrogant but who has a lot of money.  And then there’s Hoyt Brecker (played, in reliably vacuous style, by Troy Donahue), who is poor but honest and who is also an aspiring writer.  “Someday,” Susan declares,”they’ll say that Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and Hoyt Brecker wrote here!”  Who will Susan chose?  The sensitive artist who loves her unconditionally or the arrogant rich boy who smirks his way through the whole film?

Complicating matters is the fact that Susan is …. pregnant!  That’s right, this is another one of those movies from the early 60s where having sex outside of marriage always leads to an unplanned pregnancy.  And, because this movie is from 1961, the only solution is for the Slades to move down to Guatemala for two years, just so they can fool the people on Monterey into believing that the baby is actually McGuire’s and that Susan Slade is not an unwed mother but is instead an overprotective older sister.  Will either of Susan’s two suitors be waiting for her when she and her family return to California?

Now, please don’t get me wrong.  I do understand that there’s a big difference between 1961 and 2019 and that there used to be a lot more scandal attached to sex outside of marriage and unwed pregnancy.  In fact, I guess that difference is really the only thing that makes Susan Slade interesting to a modern viewer.  As soon as we see that this film was directed by Delmer Daves (the poor man’s Douglas Sirk) and that it stars Troy Donahue, we know who poor Susan is going to end up with so it’s not like there’s any real surprises lurking in the film’s plot.  And none of the actors, though Connie Stevens sometimes to be trying, seems to be that invested in the film’s story.  Instead, Susan Slade is mostly useful of a time capsule of the time in which it was made, a time when sex outside of marriage was unironically “sinful” and the only possible punishment was either pregnancy, death, or both.  Indeed, Susan Slade is less concerned about the hypocrisy of a society that would force Susan to lie about her new “brother” and more about whether bland lunkhead Troy Donaue will still be willing to marry Susan even if she’s no longer eligible to wear white at their wedding.  The film seems to be asking, “After being sinful, can Susan Slade become a good girl again?”  As a movie, it’s fairly turgid but as a cultural artifact of a time in which everyone was obsessed with sex but no one was willing to talk about it, Susan Slade is occasionally fascinating.

Poor Susan Slade!  If only she had gotten pregnant in a 1971 film instead of one made in 1961, her story could have been so different.  But no, she was sinful in the early 60s and that means she’ll be have to settle for Troy Donahue.

 

Film Review: The Fountainhead (dir by King Vidor)


I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Gary Cooper look as miserable in any film as he did in the 1949 film, The Fountainhead.

In The Fountainhead, Gary Cooper plays Howard Roark.  Roark is an architect who we are repeatedly told is brilliant.  However, he’s always has to go his own way, even if it means damaging his career.  At the start of the film, we watch a montage of Howard Roark losing one opportunity after another.  He gets kicked out of school.  He gets kicked out of the top design firms.  Howard Roark has his own vision and he’s not going to compromise.  Roark’s a modernist, who creates sleek, powerful buildings that exist in defiance of the drab, collectivist architecture that surrounds them.

Howard Roark’s refusal to even consider compromising his vision threatens the rich and the powerful.  A socialist architecture critic with the unfortunate name of Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas) leads a crusade against Roark.  And yet, even with the world against him, Roark’s obvious talent cannot be denied.  Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal) finds herself enthralled by the sight of him working in a quarry.  Fellow architect Peter Keating (Kent Smith) begs Howard to help him design a building.  Newspaper publisher Gail Wynard (Raymond Massey) goes from criticizing Howard to worshipping him.

Have I mentioned that Howard Roark doesn’t believe in compromise?  If you have any doubts about this, they’ll be erased about halfway through the movie.  That’s when Roark responds to a company altering one of his designs by blowing up a housing project.  Roark is arrested and his subsequent trial soon turns into a debate between two opposite philosophies: individualism vs. collectivism.

So, let’s just start with the obvious.  Gary Cooper is all wrong for the role of Howard Roark.  As envisioned by Ayn Rand (who wrote both the screenplay and the novel upon which it was based), Roark was meant to be the ideal man, a creative individualist who has no doubt about his vision and his abilities.  Cooper, with his down-to-Earth and rather modest screen persona, often seems to be confused as to how to play such a dynamic (some might say arrogant) character.  When Roark is meant to come across as being uncompromising, Cooper comes across as being mildly annoyed.  When Roark explains why his designs must be followed exactly, Cooper seems to be as confused as the people with whom Roark is speaking.  It doesn’t help that the 47 year-old Cooper seemed a bit too old to be playing an “up-and-coming” architect.  In the book, Roark was in his 20s and certainly no older than his early 30s.  Cooper looks like he should be relaxing in a Florida condo.

Who, among those available in 1949, could have been convincing in the role of Howard Roark?  King Vidor wanted Humphrey Bogart for the role but if Cooper seemed to old for the part, one can only imagine what it would have been like with Bogart instead.  Henry Fonda probably could have played the role.  For that matter, William Holden would have been an interesting pick.  Montgomery Clift and John Garfield would have been intriguing, though Garfield’s politics probably wouldn’t have made Ayn Rand happy.  If Warner Bros. had been willing to wait for just a few years, they could have cast a young Marlon Brando or perhaps they could have let Douglas Sirk make the movie with Rock Hudson and Lana Turner.  (Or, if you really wanted to achieve peak camp, they could have let Delmer Daves do it with Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee.)

If you can overlook the miscasting of Gary Cooper, The Fountainhead‘s an entertaining film.  King Vidor directs the film as if it’s a fever dream.  The film’s dialogue may be philosophical but the visuals are all about lust, with Pat Neal hungrily watching as a shirtless Gary Cooper breaks up rocks in the quarry and Vidor filling the film with almost fetishistic shots of phallic Howard Roark designs reaching high into the sky.  If Cooper seems confused, Neal seems to be instinctively understand that there is no place for underplaying in the world of The Fountainhead.  The same also holds true of Robert Douglas, who is a wonderfully hissable villain as the smug Ellsworth Toohey.  Interestingly, the film ends with a suicide whereas the novel ended with a divorce because, under the production code, suicide was apparently preferable to divorce.  I guess that’s 1949, for you.

Because America is currently having a socialist moment, there’s a tendency among critics to be dismissive of Ayn Rand and her worship of the individual above all else.  Rand’s novels are often dismissed as just being psychobabble, despite the fact that, in some ways, they often seem to be borderline prophetic.  (Barack Obama’s infamous “You didn’t build that!” speech from 2012 could have just as easily been uttered by Ellsworth Toohey or one of the many bureaucrats who pop up in Atlas Shrugged.)  Here’s the thing, though — as critical as one can be of Rand’s philosophy, there’s still something undeniably appealing about someone who will not compromise their vision to the whims of the establishment.  It’s goes beyond politics and it gets to heart of human nature.  We like the people who know they’re talented and aren’t afraid to proclaim it.  (Modesty, whether false or sincere, is a huge turn off.)  We like the people who take control of situations.  We like the people who are willing to say, “If you don’t do it my way, I’m leaving.”  In a way, we’re all like Dominique Francon, running our hands over architectural models while trying to resist the temptation to compromise and accept something less than what we desire.  We may not want to admit it but we like the Howard Roarks of the world.

Even when they’re played by Gary Cooper.

Horror on the Lens: The Spiral Staircase (dir by Robert Siodmak)


For today’s horror on the lens, we have the 1946 suspense film, The Spiral Staircase!

In this film, Dorothy McGuire plays Helen, a young mute woman who has been hired to serve as a caretaker for wealthy old Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore, who was nominated for an Oscar for this film).  At the same time, someone is murdering women in the same town.  Are they all connected?  Of course, they are!  The fun of the movie is discovering how they’re connected.

I was introduced to The Spiral Staircase by my friend and fellow member of the Late Night Movie Gang, Chris Filby.  It’s a gothic murder mystery, full of atmosphere and menace.  I think you’ll like it so, if you have 80 minutes to spend on it, please watch and enjoy!

Horror on the Lens: The Night Stalker (dir by John Llewelyn Moxey)


For today’s horror on the lens, we have a real treat!  (We’ll get to the tricks later…)

Long before he achieved holiday immortality by playing the father in A Christmas Story, Darren McGavin played journalist Carl Kolchak in the 1972 made-for-TV movie, The Night Stalker.  Kolchak is investigating a series of murders in Las Vegas, all of which involve victims being drained of their blood.  Kolchak thinks that the murderer might be a vampire.  Everyone else thinks that he’s crazy.

When this movie first aired, it was the highest rated made-for-TV movie of all time.  Eventually, it led to a weekly TV series in which Kolchak investigated various paranormal happenings.  Though the TV series did not last long, it’s still regularly cited as one of the most influential shows ever made.

Anyway, The Night Stalker is an effective little vampire movie and Darren McGavin gives a great performance as Carl Kolchak.

Enjoy!

A Movie A Day #244: Death of a Gunfighter (1969, directed by Allen Smithee)


At the turn of the 20th century, the mayor and the business community of Cottonwood Springs, Texas are determined to bring their small town into the modern era.  The Mayor (Larry Gates) has even purchased one of those newfangled automobiles that have been taking the country by storm.  However, the marshal of Cottonwood Spings, Frank Patch (Richard Widmark), is considered to be an embarrassing relic of the past.  Patch has served as marshal for 20 years but now, his old west style of justice is seen as being detrimental to the town’s development.  When Patch shoots a drunk in self-defense, the town leaders use it as an excuse to demand Patch’s resignation.  When Patch refuses to quit and points out that he knows all of the secrets of what everyone did before they became respectable, the business community responds by bringing in their own gunfighters to kill the old marshal.

Death of a Gunfighter is historically significant because it was the very first film to ever be credited to Allen Smithee.  The movie was actually started by TV director Robert Totten and, after Widmark demanded that Totten be fired, completed by the legendary Don Siegel.  Since Totten worked for 25 days on the film while Siegel was only on set for 9, Siegel refused to take credit for the film.  When Widmark protested against Totten receiving credit, the Director’s Guild of America compromised by allowing the film to be credited to the fictitious Allen Smithee.

In the years after the release of Death of a Gunfighter, the Allen (or, more often, Alan) Smithee name would be used for films on which the director felt that he had not been allowed to exercise creative control over the final product.  The Smithee credit became associated with bad films like The O.J. Simpson Story and Let’s Get Harry which makes it ironic that Death of a Gunfighter is not bad at all.  It’s an elegiac and intelligent film about the death of the old west and the coming of the modern era.  It also features not only one of Richard Widmark’s best performances but an interracial love story between the marshal and a brothel madame played by Lena Horne.  The supporting cast is full of familiar western actors, with Royal Dano, Harry Carey, Jr., Larry Gates, Dub Taylor, and Kent Smith all making an impression.  Even the great John Saxon has a small role.  Though it may be best known for its “director,” Death of a Gunfighter is a film that will be enjoyed by any good western fan.

Horror Film Review: The Curse of the Cat People (dir by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise)


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So, you can add the 1944 film The Curse of the Cat People to the list of films that made me cry.

And I know that you’re probably going to point out that it’s already a very long list and I know that some people believe that I cry at every movie that I see.  (Listen, if I cried every time that I watched a movie, that would mean that not a single hour would pass without me shedding tears and … well, anyway, lets move on…)  But seriously, The Curse of the Cat People is a wonderful and heartfelt film.

Technically, it’s a sequel to the original Cat People.  Oliver (Kent Smith) and Alice (Jane Randolph) are married now and they have a six year-old daughter named Amy (Ann Carter).  Irena (Simone Simon) does return but we’re never quite sure whether she’s a ghost or if she’s meant to be a figment of Amy’s imagination.  There is no mention of Irena being cursed, though a hissing cat does make an appearance at the beginning of the film.  In the original Cat People, Elizabeth Russell played a mysterious woman who asked if Irena was her sister.  In The Curse of the Cat People, Russell appears in a different role but, interestingly enough, she’s still linked to the memory of Irena.

Instead, The Curse of the Cat People is about Amy.  Amy is a shy girl who spends most of her time daydreaming and Ann Carter (who was 8 years old at the time) gives a very real and very authentic performance, one that is totally the opposite of the type of performance that we often expect from child actors.  I was a shy child myself (I was famous for always hiding behind my mom whenever I saw a stranger approaching) and, from the minute Amy appeared, I knew exactly how she felt and what was going through her mind.

While Alice feels that Amy’s daydreaming is harmless, Oliver worries about her daughter.  At one point, he says that he fears that she’ll never leave her fantasy world and that she’ll grow up to be like Irena.  (Interestingly enough, this line suggests that Oliver still doesn’t believe that Irena was actually a cat person.)  Amy, meanwhile, has a vision of Irena standing in the backyard and soon, the two of them are best friends.

At the same time, Amy has also become friends with Julia Farren (Julia Dean), an elderly woman who lives in the neighborhood.  Just like Amy, Julia lives in a fantasy world.  She treats Amy like her own daughter.  Meanwhile, Julia refuses to acknowledge her true daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), accusing Barbara of being a spy and saying she is only pretending to be her daughter.  Barbara grows more and more resentful of Amy and that resentment leads her to consider doing a truly terrible thing.

I guess it’s debatable whether or not The Curse of the Cat People can truly be called a horror film.  While it does have elements of the horror genre, The Curse of the Cat People is ultimately both a coming-of-age story and a plea for adults to allow their children to be children.  It’s all so heartfelt and so wonderfully performed by Ann Carter, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Elizabeth Russell, and Simone Simon that I couldn’t help but cry at the end of the film.  The Curse of the Cat People is a great film to watch in October or any other month.

Horror Film Review: Cat People (dir by Jacques Tourneur)


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The 1942 horror classic Cat People is often described as being a horror film where, up until the last few minutes, the monsters are mostly psychological.  And there is some definite truth to that.  The title creatures remain a mystery for the majority of the film and, up until those final minutes, the audience would have every right to wonder whether or not they actually existed.  This is a film that seems to take place almost totally in the shadows, a film noir without detectives or gangsters but featuring a memorable and compelling femme fatale.

However, I would argue that there is a monster who is present on-screen long before the audience first sees the shadowy form of a cat person.  That monster is named Louis Judd and he’s the true villain of this story.  As played by Tom Conway, Louis Judd is a psychiatrist and, from the minute we first see him, we know that he’s not to be trusted.  He’s far too smooth for his own good and his soothing tones barely disguise the arrogant condescension behind his words.  If his pencil-thin mustache didn’t make him sinister enough, Dr. Judd also keeps a sword concealed inside of his walking stick.

Irena Reed (Simone Simon) is one of Dr. Judd’s patients.  A fashion designer from Serbia, Irena has recently married an engineer named Oliver Reed (Kent Smith).  Despite the fact that she loves Olivier, she cannot bring herself to be intimate with him.  As Dr. Judd discovers, Irena fears that she has been cursed and, if she ever allows herself to become aroused, she will be transformed into a panther.  Dr. Judd repeatedly tells her that her belief is just superstition and that her fears are the result of repressed trauma from her childhood.  When Irena refuses to accept his diagnosis and continues to insist that she is cursed, Dr. Judd assumes that he can prove her wrong by forcing himself on her.  (Big mistake.)

Meanwhile, Oliver loves Irena but her refusal to consummate their marriage is driving him away.  He finds himself growing more and more attracted to his co-worker, Alice (Jane Randolph).  At first, Irena is upset to discover that Oliver has been telling Alice about their problems.  But eventually Irena realizes that all she can do is watch as Oliver and Alice grow closer and closer.  Irena knows that she can’t give Oliver what he desires but the confident and outspoken Alice can.  As Irena grows more and more jealous, Alice starts to feel as if she’s being watched and followed.  She starts to hear growls in the shadows and when she’s at her most vulnerable — swimming alone at night — she is shocked when Irena suddenly appears and demands to know where Oliver is.

And really, that’s what makes Cat People such a great film.  It’s not necessarily a scary film, at least not to modern audiences.  Sadly, we have seen so much graphic real-life horror and have become so jaded by CGI that we’re no longer scared by the mere cinematic suggestion of a monster.  But the film still works because we can relate to both Irena and Alice.  When I look over my relationships, I can see times when I’ve been both the insecure Irena and the confident Alice.  For a film where the word “sex” is never uttered once, Cat People is a penetratingly honest look at relationships, love, and sexuality.

And it also features a truly memorable monster.

Seriously, that Dr. Judd is the worst!

Netflix Noir #4: The Mugger (dir by William Berke)


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For my final Netflix Noir, I watched The Mugger, a film from 1958.

The Mugger is a police procedural.  Taking place in an unnamed city, it stars Kent Smith as Dr. Pete Graham.  Pete’s both a psychiatrist and a cop and, needless to say, he has a lot to deal with.

For one thing, his girlfriend, Claire (Nan Martin) is also a cop.  In fact, she’s apparently the only female cop on the entire force!  (“Woman cops?” another detective is heard to say, “Do we really need them?”)  Claire spends most her time working undercover on the dance hall circuit.  Pete wants to get married.  Claire wants to solve a few more cases before making that commitment.  Pete says that’s okay, as long as her plans “include me, a home, and children.”

Pete has also been forcefully recruited to counsel a Jeannie (Sandra Church), the sister-in-law of a local taxi driver.  As the driver explains it, Jeannie is “about 18 and is she built!”  Pete replies, “You shouldn’t get excited about a kid who wants to have a good time,” which seems like an unusually progressive attitude for a cop in the 1950s.  Still, Pete agrees to try to encourage Jeannie to be a little bit less rebellious.  Jeannie, by the way, is my favorite character in the film because she is never in a good mood and she gets to dismiss her older sister’s concerns by saying, “Maybe she’s getting a little old, a little jealous.”

It also turns out that Jeannie’s neighbor, Nick Greco (George Maharis), has a crush on her and apparently, just hangs out in her house all day.  While this seemed rather creepy to me, the film seemed to suggest that this was just normal 50s behavior.  Apparently, since nobody bothered to lock their doors back then, it was also totally appropriate to just hide in someone’s house and listen in on private conversations.

Peter’s other big problem is that there’s a mugger who is robbing women and cutting their cheek with a knife.  I have to give the film some credit here because it doesn’t shy away from discussing the sexual subtext to these attacks, which I imagine was quite daring for a film in the 50s.  Pete comes up with a detailed profile of the attacker, the sort of thing that would make the cast of Criminal Minds jealous.  Claire goes undercover to catch the mugger and there’s a great scene where a drunk sailor tries to harass her and she threatens to shoot him in the knee caps.  Again, this is not the sort of thing that we typically associate with a 50s film…

Which is not to say that The Mugger is not clearly a product of its time.  For one thing, just check out the police force in this city, which is all white, all middle-aged, and — with the exception of Claire — all male.  As well, this is one of those old movies where any woman who walks down a street will be leered at by every guy she passes, including the film’s heroes.  One of the reasons why it was so great to see Claire threaten to cripple that soldier was because it came after 50 minutes of watching Pete and every other man in the film do a double take whenever she entered a room.

Clocking in at a little over 70 minutes and obviously low-budget, The Mugger is an undeniably obscure film.  Checking with the imdb, I discovered only two reviews that had been previously written for this film and one of them was in Turkish!  When I went onto YouTube to look for a trailer, I found nothing.  The Mugger is forgotten and hardly a lost classic but I still enjoyed watching it.  What can I say?  I love my history and, if nothing else, The Mugger is definitely a time capsule.

Watch it on Netflix while you can!

The Mugger

Horror on TV: Night Gallery 3.13 “Whisper”


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For tonight’s televised horror on the lens, we have another episode of the Night Gallery.  In Whisper, a mentally unstable woman played by Sally Field believes that she can talk to ghosts.  Her husband, played by Dean Stockwell, spends all of his time driving her to cemeteries and allowing her to commune with the dead.  Is he merely humoring her or does he believe as well?

You’ll have to watch to find out!

Whisper was originally broadcast on May 13th, 1973.