Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Snake Pit (dir by Anatole Litvak)

The 1948 film, The Snake Pit, tells the story of a writer named Virginia Cunningham.

Virginia (Olivia de Havilland) is a patient at the Juniper Hill State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital that only treats female patients.  Some days, Virginia knows where she is and some days, she doesn’t.  Some days, she knows who she is and other days, she doesn’t.  Sometimes, she hears voices and other times, the silence in her head is her only companion.  Sometimes, she’s paranoid and other times, she’s quite lucid.

Virginia has been admitted against her will.  Her husband, Robert (Mark Stevens), visits frequently and sometimes, she knows him and sometimes, she doesn’t.  Through flashbacks, we see how Virginia and Robert first met.  Robert worked at a publishing house.  Virginia was a writer whose work kept getting rejected.  Robert and Virginia fell almost immediately in love but Virginia always refused to consider marrying him.  In fact, she even disappeared at one point, because things were getting too serious.  However, one day, Virginia suddenly declared that she wanted to get married.  Afterwards, her behavior became more and more erratic.

In the hospital, Virginia is treated by Dr. Kik (Leo Genn), who is depicted as being a compassionate and progressive psychiatrist, even as he puts Virginia through electroshock treatment.  (Remember, this film was made in 1948.)  With Dr. Kik’s guidance, Virginia starts to piece her life together and get to the cause of nervous breakdown.  Unfortunately, it often seems like every step forward leads to two steps back and Virginia still reacts to every bit of pressure by acting out, even biting one unhelpful doctor.

The hospital is divided into levels.  With each bit of progress that a patient makes, she’s allowed to move to a new level that allows her just a bit more freedom.  Everyone’s goal is to make it to the final level, Level One.  Unfortunately, Level One is run by Nurse Davis (Helen Craig), a tyrant who is in love with Dr. Kik and jealous of the amount of time he spends on Virginia.  Davis starts to goad Helen, trying to get her to lose control.  And what happens if you lose control?  You end up in the Snake Pit, the dreaded Level 33.  Being sent to Level 33 means being abandoned in a padded cell, surrounded by patients who have been deemed untreatable.

At the time that it was released, The Snake Pit was a groundbreaking film, the first major American studio production to deal seriously and sympathetically with mental illness.  Seen today, it’s still effective but you can’t help but cringe at some of the techniques that are used in Virginia’s treatment.  (Electroshock treatment, for instance, is portrayed as being frightening but ultimately necessary.)  The film works best as a showcase for Olivia de Havilland, who gives an absolutely brilliant and empathetic performance as Virginia.  Neither the film not de Havilland shies away from the reality of Virginia’s condition nor does it make the mistake of sentimentalizing her story.  For me, de Havilland’s best moment comes when she learns that she bit another doctor.  At first, she’s horrified but then she starts to laugh because the doctor in question was such a pompous ass that he undoubtedly deserved it.  de Havilland handles the character’s frequent transitions from lucidity to confusion with great skill, without indulging in the temptation to go over-the-top.  Arguably, The Snake Pit features de Havilland’s best lead performance.

(Olivia de Havilland is, at 103 years old, still with us and living, reportedly quite happily, in France.)

Olivia de Havilland was nominated for Best Actress but she lost to Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda.  (A year later, De Havilland’s won an Oscar for The Heiress.)  The Snake Pit was also nominated for Best Picture but ultimately lost to Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of Hamlet.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Quo Vadis (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)

The 1951 best picture nominee, Quo Vadis, is actually two movies in one.

The first movie is a rather stolid historical epic about life in ancient Rome.  The handsome but kind of dull Robert Taylor plays Marcus Vinincius, a Roman military officer who, after serving in Germany and Britain, returns to Rome and promptly falls in love with the virtuous Lygia (Deborah Kerr).  Complicating Marcus and Lygia’s relationship is the fact that Lygia is a devout Christian and a friend to Peter (Finlay Currie) and Paul (Abraham Sofaer).

Marcus’s uncle, meanwhile, is Petronius (Leo Genn), a government official who has a reputation for being a bon vivant.  In real-life, Petronius is believed to have been the author of the notoriously raunchy Satyricon.  You would never guess that from the way that Petronius is portrayed in Quo Vadis.  We’re continually told that Petronius is a notorious libertine but we don’t see much evidence of that, beyond the fact that he lives in a big palace and he has several slaves.  In fact, Petronius even falls in love with one of his slaves, Eunice (Marina Berti).

The second movie, which feels like it’s taking in a totally different cinematic universe from the adventures of Marcus and Lygia, deals with all of the intrigue in Nero’s court.  Nero (Peter Ustinov) is a giggling madman who dreams of rebuilding Rome in his image and who responds to almost every development by singing a terrible song about it.  Nero surrounds himself with sycophants who continually tell him that his every idea is brilliant but not even they can resist the temptation to roll their eyes whenever Nero grabs his lyre and starts to recite a terrible poem.  Nero is married to the beautiful but evil Poppaea (Patricia Laffan) and there’s nothing that they love more than going to the arena and watching people get eaten by lions.  It disturbs Nero when people sing before being eaten.  “They’re singing,” he says, his voice filled with shock an awe.

It’s difficult to describe just how different Ustinov’s performance is from everyone else’s in the film.  Whereas Taylor and even the usually dependable Deborah Kerr are stuck playing thin characters and often seem to be intimidated by playing such devout characters, Ustinov joyfully chews on every piece of scenery that he can get his hands on.  Nero may be the film’s villain but Ustinov gives a performance that feels more like it belongs in a silent comedy than a biblical epic.  Ustinov bulges his eyes.  He runs around the palace like he forgot to take his Adderall.  While Rome burns, Nero grins like a child who has finally figured out a way to outsmart his parents.  “You won’t give me more money?  I’ll just burn down the city!”

And the thing is — it all works.  The contrast between Ustinov and the rest of the characters should doom this film but, instead, it works brilliantly.  Whenever Ustinov’s performance gets to be too much, Robert Taylor and Leo Genn pop up and ground things.  Whenever things start to get too grounded, Ustinov throws everything back up in the air.  The conflict between the early Christians and the Roman Empire is perfectly epitomized in the contrast between Robert Taylor and Peter Ustinov.  It makes for a film that is entertaining almost despite itself.

Quo Vadis was nominated for best picture but lost to An American In Paris.

Italian Horror Showcase: A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (dir by Lucio Fulci)

The 1971 film A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin is a story of greed, love, lust, repressed desires, bloody murder, and two rather hateful hippies.  It’s a surreal tale that manages to combine LSD, politics, therapy, and a good old-fashioned whodunit.  It’s a film that clearly a product of the late 60s and the early 70s and yet, it’s also a film that is so shamelessly sordid and wonderfully strange that it feels timeless.

And not surprisingly, it was directed by Lucio Fulci.

Over the course of his career, Lucio Fulci was credited with directing 56 films and one television miniseries.  Though we tend to primarily think of Fulci as being a horror director, he actually worked in every genre.  He directed peplums.  He was responsible for some of the best and most violent spaghetti westerns ever made.  He even directed comedies and an adaptation of Jack London’s White Fang!

Still, it is for his horror films that Fulci is best-remembered and his non-compromising and frequently surreal style was perfect for the genre.  Though 1979’s Zombi 2 is frequently cited as Fulci’s first excursion into the horror genre, he had actually dabbled in it before with a set of stylish and violent giallo films that he directed in the early 70s.

For example, A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin deals with a horrific crime and features some of Fulci’s most striking and disturbing images.  The film deals with Carol Hammond (Florida Bolkan), who is the daughter of a politician (Leo Genn) and the wife of a wealthy attorney (Jean Sorel).  Carol is haunted by bizarre dreams involving her decadent neighbor, Julia Durer (Anita Strindberg).  In her latest dream, Carol not only has a sexual encounter with Julia but also stabs her to death immediately afterward!  It’s only after Julia’s dead that Carol realizes that she’s being watched by two hippies, who appear to be amused by the whole thing.

After telling her therapist about the dream, Carol learns that Julia Durer has indeed been murdered.  In fact, she was stabbed in exactly the same way that Carol saw in her dream!  Was it just a dream or did Carol really murder of Julia?  Or did someone find out about her dream (which she recorded in her journal) and then murder Julia in order to frame her?  But who would want to do that?  Could it be maybe her weaselly husband, who is having an affair with his secretary?  Or maybe someone looking to embarrass her father?

And what about the two hippies?  It turns out that they’re real and they have a story of their own tell….

The mystery at the heart of A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin is a convoluted one and while the film’s plot did hold my interest, this film is less about the story and more about the way that Fulci tells it.  Dealing with hippies, visions, LSD, and a potentially unstable protagonist gave Fulci whatever excuse he needed to turn Lizard In A Woman’s Skin into a surrealistic carnival ride of psychedelic images and sexually-charged dream sequences.  From Carol’s nightmares to the scene where an intruder chases Carol through a sanitarium, A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin is full of strange images that are designed to keep the viewer just as off-balance as Carol.  The film’s most shocking scene — which involves Carol coming across four dogs being used in a medical experiment — actually led to Fulci and special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi being taken to court and forced to prove that the dogs in the scene weren’t real.  (Fortunately, Rambaldi brought his dog props to court with him.)  It’s a shamelessly sordid film, one from which you will not be able to divert your eyes.

Florinda Bolkan gives a great and sympathetic performance was Carol while Antia Strindberg is properly decadent as Julia.  Penny Brown and Mike Kennedy plays perhaps the most hateful and callous hippies of all time and Kennedy especially makes a strong impression.  Trust Lucio Fulci to make a film where the hippies are just as frightening as the zombies who populated his later work!

A Lizard in A Woman’s Skin is a classic giallo and one of Fulci’s best.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Longest Day (dir by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald, and Darryl F. Zanuck)

As my sister has already pointed out, today is the 73rd anniversary of D-Day.  With that in mind, and as a part of my ongoing mission to see and review every single film ever nominated for best picture, I decided to watch the 1962 film, The Longest Day!

The Longest Day is a pain-staking and meticulous recreation of invasion of Normandy, much of it filmed on location.  It was reportedly something of a dream project for the head of the 20th Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck set out to make both the ultimate tribute to the Allied forces and the greatest war movie ever.  Based on a best seller, The Longest Day has five credited screenwriters and three credited directors.  (Ken Annakin was credited with “British and French exteriors,” Andrew Marton did “American exteriors,” and the German scenes were credited to Bernhard Wicki.  Oddly, Gerd Oswald was not credited for his work on the parachuting scenes, even though those were some of the strongest scenes in the film.)  Even though he was not credited as either a screenwriter or a director, it is generally agreed that the film ultimately reflected the vision of Darryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck not only rewrote the script but he also directed a few scenes as well.  The film had a budget of 7.75 million dollars, which was a huge amount in 1962.  (Until Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, The Longest Day was the most expensive black-and-white film ever made.)  Not only did the film tell an epic story, but it also had an epic length.  Clocking in at 3 hours, The Longest Day was also one of the longest movies to ever be nominated for best picture.

The Longest Day also had an epic cast.  Zanuck assembled an all-star cast for his recreation of D-Day.  If you’re like me and you love watching old movies on TCM, you’ll see a lot of familiar faces go rushing by during the course of The Longest Day.  American generals were played by actors like Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne.  Peter Lawford, then the brother-in-law of the President of the United States, had a memorable role as the Scottish Lord Lovat, who marched through D-Day to the sounds of bagpipes.  When the Allied troops storm the beach, everyone from Roddy McDowall to Sal Mineo to Robert Wagner to singer Paul Anka can be seen dodging bullets.  Sean Connery pops up, speaking in his Scottish accent and providing comic relief.  When a group of paratroopers parachute into an occupied village, comedian Red Buttons ends up hanging from the steeple of a church.  When Richard Beymer (who is currently playing Ben Horne on Twin Peaks) gets separated from his squad, he stumbles across Richard Burton.  Among those representing the French are Arletty and Christian Marquand.  (Ironically, after World War II, Arletty was convicted of collaborating with the Germans and spent 18 months under house arrest.  Her crime was having a romantic relationship with a German soldier.  It is said that, in response to the charges, Arletty said, “My heart is French but my ass is international.”)  Meanwhile, among the Germans, one can find three future Bond villains: Gert Frobe, Curt Jurgens, and Walter Gotell.

It’s a big film and, to be honest, it’s too big.  It’s hard to keep track of everyone and, even though the battle scenes are probably about an intense as one could get away with in 1962 (though it’s nowhere near as effective as the famous opening of Saving Private Ryan, I still felt bad when Jeffrey Hunter and Eddie Albert were gunned down), their effectiveness is compromised by the film’s all-star approach.  Often times, the action threatens to come to a halt so that everyone can get their close-up.  Unfortunately, most of those famous faces don’t really get much of a chance to make an impression.  Even as the battle rages, you keep getting distracted by questions like, “Was that guy famous or was he just an extra?”

Among the big stars, most of them play to their personas.  John Wayne, for instance, may have been cast as General Benjamin Vandervoort but there’s never any doubt that he’s playing John Wayne.  When he tells his troops to “send them to Hell,” it’s not Vandervoort giving orders.  It’s John Wayne representing America.  Henry Fonda may be identified as being General Theodore Roosevelt II but, ultimately, you react to him because he’s Henry Fonda, a symbol of middle-American decency.  Neither Wayne nor Fonda gives a bad performance but you never forget that you’re watching Fonda and Wayne.

Throughout this huge film, there are bits and pieces that work so well that you wish the film had just concentrated on them as opposed to trying to tell every single story that occurred during D-Day.  I liked Robert Mitchum as a tough but caring general who, in the midst of battle, gives a speech that inspires his troops to keep fighting.  The scenes of Peter Lawford marching with a bagpiper at his side were nicely surreal.  Finally, there’s Richard Beymer, wandering around the French countryside and going through the entire day without firing his gun once.  Beymer gets the best line of the film when he says, “I wonder if we won.”  It’s such a modest line but it’s probably the most powerful line in the film.  I wish The Longest Day had more scenes like that.

The Longest Day was nominated for best picture of 1962 but it lost to an even longer film, Lawrence of Arabia.

The Fabulous Forties #26: The Way Ahead (dir by Carol Reed)


The 26th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was the 1944 British film, The Way Ahead (or, as it was retitled when it was released in America, The Immortal Battalion).

Directed by Carol Reed (who was five years away from directing the great The Third Man), The Way Ahead is a British propaganda film that was made to boost the morale of both a weary British public and the army during the final days of World War II.  Usually, when we call something propaganda, it’s meant as a term of disparagement but The Way Ahead is propaganda in the best possible way.

The film follows a group of British soldiers, from the moment that they are conscripted through their training to their first battle.  (In many ways, it’s like a more refined — which is another way of saying “more British” — version of Gung Ho!)  As usually happens in films like this, the newly conscripted soldiers come from all sections of society.  Some of them are poor.  Some of them are rich.  Some of them are married.  Some of them are single.  In fact, when the film first begins, the only thing that they all have in common is that they don’t want to be in the army.

As they begin their training, they resent their tough sergeant, Fletcher (William Hartnell), and are upset that Lt. Jim Perry (David Niven, giving a very likable performance) always seems to take Fletcher’s side in any dispute.  However, as time passes by, the soldiers start to realize that Fletcher is looking out for them and molding them into a cohesive unit.  Under his training, they go from being a group of disorganized and somewhat resentful individuals to being a tough and well-organized battalion.

Though they’re originally skeptical that they’ll ever see combat, the battalion is eventually sent to North Africa.  However, their ship is torpedoed and, in a scene that remains genuinely impressive even when viewed today, the men are forced to abandon ship while explosions and flames light up the night sky.  By the time that they do finally reach North Africa, they are more than ready to fight…

The Way Ahead plays out in a semi-documentary fashion (it even features a narrator who, at the end of the film, exhorts the audience to stay firm in their commitment) and it’s a fairly predictable film.  If you’ve ever seen a war film, you’ll probably be able to predict everything that happens in The Way Ahead.  That said, The Way Ahead is a remarkable well-made and well-acted film.  The cast is well-selected (and features a lot of familiar British characters actors, some making their film debut) and David Niven is the perfect choice for the mild-mannered but firm Lt. Perry.  Even though I’m not a huge fan of war films in general, I was still impressed with The Way Ahead.

And you can watch it below!

The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: Frightmare (dir by Pete Walker)


Since I already reviewed one British film about cannibalism earlier today, I figured why not review another one?  Pete Walker’s film Frightmare was released in 1974, two years after the release of Death Line.  You have to wonder what was going on in British society in the early 70s that led to so many cannibal films.  When watched together, Frightmare and Death Line present a vision of a society that was devouring itself, both literally and figuratively.

Frightmare tells the story of Dorothy (Shelia Keith) and Edmund Yates (Rupert Davies).  Dorothy is a fortune teller who has something of a violent temper.  Edmund is her loving but abused husband.  However, Dorothy has more than just a temper.  She also has a taste for human flesh.  She’s just spent 15 years in prison, convicted of killing and eating a man.  However, she has now been “found sane,” (and that’s a term that is repeated, with increasing irony, throughout the entire film) and she has been released.  She’s even reading fortunes again!

Jackie (Deborah Fairfax) is Edmund’s daughter by his first marriage.  She’s devoted to her father and, at the same time, scared of her mother.  She doesn’t believe that her mother is truly sane, despite the fact that her psychiatrist boyfriend, the well-meaning but arrogant Graham (Paul Greenwood), continues to remind her that Dorothy has been “found sane.”  Jackie knows that Dorothy still wants to eat human flesh so, every weekend, she takes the train to Dorothy’s home and delivers meat.  Jackie tells Dorothy that it’s human flesh but, in reality, it’s just a placebo.  When Graham finds out what Jackie’s doing, he is outraged.  After all, Dorothy has been found sane!

Jackie, however, has other things to worry about.  Her younger half-sister, the rebellious Debbie (Kim Butcher), is living with her.  Along with dating an obnoxious biker, Debbie also resents the fact that Jackie is obviously Edmund’s favorite.  And, as quickly becomes clear, Debbie is as much of a sociopath as her mother…

Speaking of which, Dorothy may have been found sane but it’s obvious that she’s not.  (Throughout the film, no matter how erratic Dorothy’s behavior becomes, Graham continually assures us that she has been found sane.)  It also become obvious that Jackie’s placebos are not doing the trick.  Dorothy is once again murdering the random people who come to get their fortunes told.  And Edmund is helping her cover up the crimes, all the while pathetically telling anyone who will listen, “They said she was sane….they said she was sane…”

Frightmare is one of those films that you really do have to see in order to understand just how effective it is.  It’s an undoubtedly pulpy story and there’s not a subtle moment to be found in the entire film but it doesn’t matter.  Frightmare is properly named because it is pure nightmare fuel.  This is a film that work both as a family melodrama and a satire on the trust that people put into authority (the authorities said that Dorothy was sane so, everyone assumes, she must be) but ultimately, this is an intense and frightening little film.  That’s largely due to Sheila Keith’s ferocious performance.  She turns Dorothy into a force of cannibalistic nature.

Feel free to have a Death Line/Frightmare double feature.  Just don’t expect to have much of an appetite afterward…