Blues On The Downbeat: ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (United Artists 1959)


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Desperate men commit desperate acts, and the three protagonists of ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW are desperate indeed in this late entry in the film noir cycle. This is a powerful film that adds social commentary to the usual crime and it’s consequences plot by tainting one of the protagonists with the brush of racism. Robert Wise, who sharpened his skills in the RKO editing room, directs the film in a neo-realistic style, leaving the studio confines for the most part behind, and the result is a starkly lit film where the shadows of noir only dominate at night.

But more on Wise later… first, let’s meet our three anti-heroes. We see Earle Slater (Robert Ryan ) walking down a New York street bathed in an eerie white glow (Wise used infra-red film to achieve the effect). Slater’s a fish out of water, a transplanted Southerner drifted North, a loser and loose cannon…

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Film Review: The Hindenburg (dir by Robert Wise)


80 years ago, on May 6th, 1937, the Hindenburg, a German airship, exploded in the air over New Jersey.  The disaster was not only covered live by radio reporter Herbert Morrison (whose cry of “Oh the humanity!” continues to be parodied to this day) but it was also one of the first disasters to be recorded on film.  Looking at the footage of the Hindenburg exploding into flame and sinking to the ground, a mere skeleton of what it once was, it’s hard to believe that only 36 people died in the disaster.  The majority of those who died were crew members, most of whom lost their lives while helping passengers off of the airship.  (Fortunately, the Hindenburg was close enough to the ground that many of the passengers were able to escape by simply jumping.)

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of speculation about what led to the Hindenburg (which has successfully completed 63 flights before the disaster) exploding.  The most commonly accepted explanation was that it was simply an act of God, the result of either lightning or improperly stored helium.  Apparently, there was no official evidence found to suggest that sabotage was involved but, even back in 1937, people loved conspiracy theories.

And really, it’s not totally implausible to think that the Hindenburg was sabotaged.  The Hindenburg was making its first trans-Atlantic flight and it was viewed as being a symbol of Nazi Germany.  One of the ship’s passengers, Captain Ernest Lehman, was coming to the U.S. in order to lobby Congress to give Germany helium for their airships.  With Hitler regularly bragging about the superiority of German industry, the theory was that an anti-Nazi crewman or passengers planted a bomb on the Hindenburg.  Since no individual or group ever stepped forward to claim responsibility, the theory continues that the saboteur must have perished in the disaster.

At the very least, that’s the theory put forward by a film that I watched earlier today, the 1975 disaster movie, The Hindenburg.

A mix of historical speculation and disaster film melodrama, The Hindenburg stars George C. Scott as Col. Franz Ritter, a veteran of the German air force who is assigned to travel on the Hindenburg and protect it from saboteurs.  Ritter is a Nazi but, the film argues, he’s a reluctant and disillusioned Nazi.  Just a few weeks before the launch of the airship, his teenage son was killed while vandalizing a synagogue.  Ritter is a patriot who no longer recognizes his country and George C. Scott actually does a pretty good job portraying him.  (You do have to wonder why a seasoned veteran of the German air force would have a gruff, slightly mid-Atlantic accent but oh well.  It’s a 70s disaster film.  These things happen.)

Ritter is assigned to work with Martin Vogel (Roy Thinnes), a member of the Gestapo who is working undercover as the Hindenburg’s photographer.  Tt soon becomes obvious that he is as much a fanatic as Ritter is reluctant.  Vogel is a sadist, convinced that every Jewish passenger is secretly a saboteur.  Thinnes is chilling in the role.  What makes him especially frightening is not just his prejudice but his casual assumption that everyone feels the same way that he does.

And yet, as good as Scott and Thinnes are, the rest of the cast is rather disappointing.  The Hindenburg features a large ensemble of actors, all playing characters who are dealing with their own privates dramas while hoping not to burn to death during the final 15 minutes of the film.  Unfortunately, even by the standards of a typical 70s disaster film, the passengers are thinly drawn.  I liked Burgess Meredith and Rene Auberjonois as two con artists but that was mostly because Meredith and Auberjonois are so charming that they’re fun to watch even if they don’t have anything to do.  Anne Bancroft has one or two good scenes as a German baroness and Robert Clary does well as a vaudeville performer who comes under suspicion because of his anti-Nazi leanings.  Otherwise, the passengers are forgettable.  Whether they die in the inferno and manage to make it to the ground, your main reaction will probably be to look at them and say, “Who was that again?”

Anyway, despite all of Ritter and Vogel’s sleuthing, it’s not much of mystery because it’s pretty easy to figure out that the saboteur is a crewman named Boerth (William Atherton).  Having seen Real GeniusDie Hard and the original Ghostbusters, I found it odd to see William Atherton playing a sympathetic character.  Atherton did okay in the role but his attempt at a German accent mostly served to remind me that absolutely no one else in the film was trying to sound German.

Anyway, the main problem with The Hindenburg is that it takes forever for the airship to actually explode.  The film tries to create some suspense over whether Ritter will keep the bomb from exploding but we already know that he’s not going to.  (Let’s be honest.  If you didn’t already know about the Hindenburg disaster, you probably wouldn’t be watching the movie in the first place.)  The film probably would have worked better if it had started with the Hindenburg exploding and then had an investigator working backwards, trying to figure out who the saboteur was.

However, the scenes of the explosion almost make up for everything that came before.  When that bomb goes off, the entire film suddenly switches to black-and-white.  That may sound like a cheap or even sensationalistic trick but it actually works quite well.  It also allows the scenes of passengers and crewmen trying to escape to be seamlessly integrated with actual footage of the Hindenburg bursting into flame and crashing to the ground.  The real-life footage is still shocking, especially if you’re scared of fire.  Watching the real-life inferno, I was again shocked to realize that only 36 people died in the disaster.

In the end, The Hindenburg is flawed but watchable.  George C. Scott was always at his most watchable when playing a character disappointed with humanity and the real-life footage of the Hindenburg disaster is morbidly fascinating.

Oh, the humanity indeed!

Halloween Havoc!: THE HAUNTING (MGM 1963)


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“No one will come in the night… in the dark!”

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There’s nothing like a good haunted house movie, and 1963’s THE HAUNTING is one of the best ever. Producer/director Robert Wise cut his filmic teeth on Val Lewton shockers like THE BODY SNATCHER  and noirs such as BORN TO KILL  before graduating to mainstream movies like I WANT TO LIVE! and WEST SIDE STORY. In THE HAUNTING he returns to his dark roots to create a nightmarish vision of Shirley Jackson’s eerie novel The Haunting of Hill House.

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“Scandal, murder, insanity, suicide” have plagued Hill House for close to 100 years. The cursed Crain family were its original inhabitants, designed by eccentric Hugh Crain. The house is a darkly foreboding Gothic structure with oddly tilted angles both inside and out. Dr. John Markham, a paranormal investigator, visits proper Bostonian matron Mrs. Sanderson, the house’s current owner, asking to take a lease…

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Bloody Pulp Fiction: THE SET-UP (RKO 1949)


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The seedy worlds of professional boxing and film noir were made for each other. Both are filled with corruption, crime, and desperate characters trapped in situations beyond their control.  Movies like CHAMPION, BODY AND SOUL, and THE HARDER THEY FALL expose the dark underbelly of pugilism. One of the best of this sub-genre is THE SET-UP, Robert Wise’s last film for RKO studios. He doesn’t fail to deliver the goods, directing a noir that packs a wallop!

THE SET-UP follows one night in the life of aging, washed up fighter Stoker Thompson ( Robert Ryan ). Stoker’s 35 now, ancient in boxing terms, but still has delusions of making the big time. Wife Julie (Audrey Totter ) is tired of going from one tank town to the next, and fears for Stoker’s safety. She refuses to go to tonight’s fight, a matchup with up and coming young contender Tiger…

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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.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #25: West Side Story (dir by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins)


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Nearly two weeks ago, I started on something that I call Embracing the Melodrama, Part II.  For the next month or so, I will be reviewing, in chronological order, 126 examples of cinematic melodrama.  I started things off by reviewing the 1927 classic Sunrise and now, 24 reviews later, we’re ready to start in on one of my favorite decades, the 1960s!

And what better way to start the 60s than be taking a look at the 1961 best picture winner, West Side Story?

Being a lifelong dancer, I have to admit that I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen West Side Story.  If you love to dance, this is one of those films that you simply have to see.  Of the various musicals that have won best picture, West Side Story is arguably the best.  Based on a hit Broadway show (which was itself rather famously based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), West Side Story was co-directed by the great choreographer Jerome Robbins and it features some of the greatest dance numbers ever filmed.  If you don’t get excited while watching the Sharks and the Shark Girls arguing about America, then there’s really no hope for you.  Tonight Quintet, Somewhere, A Boy Like That, Maria … even Gee, Officer Krupke, has there ever been another musical score that just leaves you wanting to sing as much as West Side Story does?

(I mean, I’ll be the first admit that I absolutely love the theme song from Santa Claus Conquers The Martians but it can’t even compare to West Side Story!)

What’s funny is that, in between viewings of the film, I always seem to forget just how good West Side Story actually is.  (Fortunately, this also means that I’m pleasantly surprised every time I watch the movie.)  In theory, this is an easy film to joke about.  It tells the story of street gangs who are apparently just as good at dancing as they are at fighting.  The all-white Jets snap their fingers and tell us that when you’re a jet, you’re the best.  The Puerto Rican Sharks are moving in on the Jets’s territory.  The two leaders of the gangs — Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and Bernardo (George Chakiris) — want to settle thing with a “rumble.”  And it’s easy for contemporary audiences to laugh because “rumble” is such an old-fashioned way of saying things that it’s now one of those terms that’s only used when one is trying to be ironic or snarky.

(For instance, I was with some friends at the movies and the people sitting behind us kept talking.  One of my friends told them to shut up.  One of the loud people replied that we were the ones who need to shut up.  As the insults escalated, I finally said, “Y’all — do we really have to have a rumble right now?”  Unfortunately, everyone was too busy arguing to appreciate my pitch perfect delivery.)

Riff’s best friend is Tony (Richard Beymer).  Tony was a co-founder of the Jets but now, he wants to move on from the gang.  He meets a girl named Maria (Natalie Wood) and the two of them fall in love.  However, Maria is Bernardo’s younger sister.  Her best friend, Anita (Rita Moreno), is Bernardo’s girlfriend.  Loving Tony, in other words, is prohibido.

And, since West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet, you can probably guess to what type of tragedy all of this leads.

Now, before I heap too much praise of West Side Story, I do need to admit that, in the role of Tony, Richard Beymer does not exactly radiate charisma.  He’s handsome enough but you never quite buy that he was former member of the Jets.  Since Tony’s singing voice was dubbed by Jimmy Bryant, you do believe everything that he sings.  But otherwise, Richard Beymer comes across as being stiff and rather awkward.

And it doesn’t help, of course, that he’s acting opposite Russ Tamblyn who, in the role of Riff, is a whirlwind of unstoppable energy.  Tamblyn is the one who you remember at the end of the film, followed by George Chakiris.  Compared to those two, Richard Beymer’s performance is just dull.

Fortunately, there’s Maria (played by Natalie Wood with Marni Nixon doing the singing).  Natalie Wood is one of my favorite of the classic Hollywood actresses.  She’s certainly one of the actresses with whom I most idenitfy.  With Richard Beymer sleepwalking through the role of Tony, it falls on Natalie to provide some true emotion to the film’s love story and that’s exactly what she does.  Every time I see West Side Story, I want to be Natalie Wood and I want to have a best friend like Rita Moreno and I want to meet someone like Riff…

Sorry, Tony.

West Side Story is one of the best musicals ever made.  If you’re not dancing and then crying and then dancing while crying as you watch West Side Story, then you’re doing it wrong.