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I watched SARATOGA again last night for the first time in years and still found it very depressing. It is so sad to watch Harlow, clearly weak and listless, playing each scene when you know how sick she is. And every time I saw her double Mary Dees’ back turned to the camera, all I could think was, “She was dead at this point.”

They wanted to recast the role and reshoot after Harlow died but fans overwhelmingly wanted her to stay in so they shot remaining scenes with doubles and rewrote other scenes to exclude her and brother does it show. What makes it stand out all the more is the fact that they clearly shot the movie mostly in chronological order because it is around the two-thirds point that she disappears and we start seeing scenes where characters tell us she’s resting in the other room or we see Mary Dees’ back.

I’ve tried several times now, but there’s simply no way for me to watch this movie and enjoy it. I always know from the opening shots that Harlow is at her last days and it just casts a pall over the whole movie.

Greg

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Embarrassed to say but I just watched Frank Borzage’s Man’s Castle for the first time this week.

Wow, what a movie!

Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young are both excellent but the way the movie plows headlong into the plight of desperate people during the despression is remarkable. There are some obvious hard cuts in the movie because when they re-released it a few years later, they cut out 9 minutes of stuff considered too offensive in the era of the production code. But, hell, what they left in is still pretty amazing.

And that ending! If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it.

Favorite line in the whole movie: “Murder? This ain’t murder. This is housecleaning.”

Great stuff.

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Every now and then I stop back in to look at some of the updated comments and I’m surprised, and gladdened, to see that there still are comments! Now, I no longer get paid to post here so this is just a “Hi, how are you?” to everyone who still comments here (so don’t freak out, Streamline, I’m still writing for you at tumblr – I won’t put this on the invoice).

I’ve missed talking with you guys quite a lot. Comments are difficult and burdensome on tumblr so most people just leave their comments on the twitter page. That would be, by the way, https://twitter.com/FilmStruck. My own twitter, if anyone wants to comment on my posts there, is https://twitter.com/fantomascinema . Please, feel free to stop by anytime.

So, this is going to be super informal since it’s not actually a paid post or anything.  Some movies I’ve seen recently:

PHANTOM THREAD. Thought it was excellent although I found it more visually beautiful to behold than dramatically captivating. All three leads (Day-Lewis, Manville, and Krieps) were exceptionally good.

BABY DRIVER. Wow! The sound mixing and editing really made this movie a showcase for what the cinema can do. I found it absolutely thrilling from start to finish. Terrific.

WONDER WOMAN. Right now, this may well be my favorite comic book movie yet. Also, I fully admit, I was pretty much gushing over Gal Gadot in every scene. Honestly think she could have gotten nominated. No emotional or dramatic theatrics, but she holds on tight to her character and never lets go.

LAST JEDI. Seen every STAR WARS in the theater, so I wasn’t going to stop here. Didn’t much care for it. Didn’t outright hate it, but I was pretty “eh” upon leaving the theater.

DUNKIRK. Liked it. Was hoping for more of a gut impact but didn’t get it. The evacuation, which is at the heart of the historic battle, takes a back seat to the drama of preparing for the evacuation instead. Works, but not as well as I’d hoped.

GET OUT. Fully pleased with this horror/satire. Fantastic work on everyone’s part and really happy that both Jordan Peele and Daniel Kaluuya got recognized.

Well, that’s it for now.  Talk to you again soon!

Greg

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On November 1, 2017 FilmStruck’s blog, StreamLine, moved to Tumblr.

This archive will remain active for anyone looking to access older content, but going forward our daily posts dedicated to cinema will appear on FilmStruck’s Tumblr page. See the the link below to be redirected to our new location.

http://filmstruck.tumblr.com/

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To view The Wedding Night click here.

The Wedding Night was doomed from the start. It was producer Samuel Goldwyn’s final attempt at making the Ukrainian actress Anna Sten into a Garbo-level star, and his persistence had become something of a Hollywood joke. The Wedding Night became known around town as “Goldwyn’s Last Sten,” but though it failed as a star-making enterprise, it was another sensitively directed drama from King Vidor, detailing an unlikely romance between a dissolute big city writer and a Polish farm girl.

The story by Edwin Knopf and script by Edith Fitzgerald concerns down-on-his-luck writer Tony Barrett (Gary Cooper), a former wunderkind turned hack (supposedly based on F. Scott Fitzgerald), whose latest cash grab novel was declined by his publisher. Swiftly running out of money, he moves into a derelict house he inherited with his wife Dora (Helen Vinson). It is there he meets the Novak family, Polish farmers who are putting up tobacco acreage as far as the eye can see. Their only daughter Manya (Sten) is due to be wed to local yokel Fredrik (Ralph Bellamy, of course).

Tony is inspired by the Novak’s work ethic, and begins to write a new novel. Manya takes on the role of sounding board, and once all of Tony’s servants quit and Dora heads back to the city, a romantic interest develops between the farm girl and the author. When Dora returns, Tony must make a decision – to upend Manya’s carefully controlled life, or remain with his wife to repair their tattered vows.

Tony Barrett is introduced at a society party in a bathroom, pitching his publisher on a book when, he says, “I know its tripe.” He still expects it to be published based on the fumes of his former fame, but is soundly rejected. Tony and his wife Dora seem perpetually soused – their biggest concern about the move was the safety of their box of scotch. But while rural life bores Dora, it begins to rejuvenate Tony, who finds a focus and work ethic he had formerly abandoned.

Vidor was unenthused with the assignment from Goldwyn, as he found both Cooper and Sten to have severe limitations, as Cooper kept mumbling and muffing his lines, while Sten’s thick accent was another hurdle altogether. Regarding Sten, Vidor wrote, “Her pantomime flowed quite easily and freely, but her dialogue was quite a different matter. Her words and syllables were never quite synchronized with her gestures. Rather than a director, I began to feel like a dentist trying to pull the syllables out of her mouth before the accompanying gesture had passed by.”

But once Vidor started looking at the rushes, he discovered that Cooper gave “a performance that overflowed with charm and personality…a highly complex and fascinating inner personality revealed itself on the projection room screen.” He was a performer who played well for the camera, not for the crew. Sten is unable to overcome a certain stiffness and formalism in her performance style, though it is appropriate for her character, a woman in a tightly-controlled patriarchal family unit who for the first time is granted a certain freedom of movement – inside Tony’s house. Sten’s buttoned-up coolness is an interesting contrast to Cooper’s anxious warmth and his puppy dog desire to be loved.

Tony re-ignites his will to write mostly due to his exposure to the Novak family, who have successfully avoided assimilation into the American way of life, for better or worse. They maintain something of an agrarian existence, living off the proceeds of the land, but treat their women like slaves and their children like servants. They are completely alien to him, and are a rich source of character detail for his novel. They are content for him to exploit.

Early on Tony is invited for dinner, and Vidor sketches out the power structure through his blocking of the characters, keeping the women on the periphery, rotating around the male Novaks, rarely puncturing the center of their frame. It is only on the night of her wedding that Manya stands in the center of the kitchen, isolated in dramatic overhead lighting as the other women work around her, sewing and cooking and preparing for her wedding party. Manya stands alone, more isolated than ever, miserable in the thought that she is being given this privileged moment, this space as the center of attention, only because she is to marry Fredrik, played with utmost buffoonery by Ralph Bellamy. The film was shot by the great Gregg Toland in a naturalistic, evenly lit style, though he is already experimenting with the deep focus that would get so much attention in Citizen Kane (1941)in the next decade.

Tony believes that Manya is aiding his work, but not through any muse-like inspiration from the gods, but simply for re-instilling in him a work ethic. She is out there milking cows every day, because otherwise the job would not get done. So he takes the same attitude toward his writing, putting up the following sign at his desk: “YOU MAKE YOUR LIVING AT IT – YOUR PEN IS YOUR PLOW, YOU BLANKETY BLANK!” Vidor presents writing as just another form of labor, and that practicality is refreshing for this type of romance. And the love that emerges between them seems realistic because of this practicality, it is love not of the spirit but of the flesh. And with the flesh comes fathers-in-law, and this particular one is none too pleased that Manya had been spending so much time with a married writer from the city. And neither, of course, is Dora, who returns to mend their broken marital bonds. There is no villain, no wronged party, just the messy stuff of living.

R. Emmet Sweeney

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To view Phantom click here.

It’s that time of year when Nosferatu (1922), F.W. Murnau’s interpretation of Dracula, appears on lists of recommended horror films. The oldest, existing film version of Bram Stoker’s novel, Nosferatu is likely Murnau’s most watched title. It’s eerie Expressionist style was a major influence on the American horror genre, but Murnau’s talent for mise-en-scène is evident in all of his films. I have been fortunate enough to see most of his movies, but one film, Phantom, eluded me until recently. Currently streaming on FilmStruck, Phantom (1922) was one of those thousands of silents that had been lost to the pages of history. However, in the early 2000s, a print of the film was found in an old theater in Germany. The film was restored through the efforts of several organizations, including the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation.

Phantom was released just eight months after Nosferatu. Despite the timing of its release and the title, this is not a tale of horror and the supernatural. Phantom is that specific type of melodrama popular in Germany during the 1920s dubbed kammerspielfilm. The stories focused on the plights of ordinary, good-hearted folks who are driven by poverty and desperation to cross moral lines into theft, prostitution, fraud, embezzlement and other illegal acts. Germany during the Weimar Republic and after was a society in shambles. Failing social institutions, from the economy to law & order to the medical establishment, resulted in the destruction of the working class and the decline of the middle class. Audiences could relate to these stories of characters in economic despair and moral crisis.

Phantom features a cast of prominent stars of the Expressionist cinema. Alfred Abel plays Lorenz, a poet who works as the town clerk. Unfortunately, he does not earn enough money to support his ailing mother and siblings. Cinephiles might recognize Abel from several Fritz Lang films: He played Count Told in the Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922) and the industrial magnate Jon Fredersen in Metropolis (1927). On his way to work one morning, Lorenz is struck down by a carriage drawn by two white horses. The carriage was driven by Veronika Harlan (Lya De Putti), the beautiful daughter of the town’s wealthiest family. The normally responsible Lorenz becomes obsessed with her. He not only daydreams about courting Veronika, but he begins to have unusual visions. He falls prey to his heartless aunt, a greedy woman who owns the local pawnshop. Believing that Lorenz’s poems will surely get published, she loans him money, which he spends on pursuing Veronika. When it is clear that Veronika is out of his league, Lorenz foolishly blows the rest of his aunt’s money on the shameless Mellitta (Lya De Putti), who looks exactly like his dream girl. Lya De Putti, who would soon leave for Hollywood to play vamp roles, costars as both Veronika and Mellitta. Meanwhile, Lorenz’s mother continues to decline while his sister leaves home to seek a better life only to fall into prostitution. The story unfolds in flashback as Lorenz writes down his life story at the urging of wife Marie, played by Lil Dagover who was the melancholy Jane in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

Murnau’s mastery of mise-en-scène is evident in the formal compositions, detailed set design and controlled lighting. An Expressionist style is reserved for Lorenz’s dream of his perfect day with Veronika. The pair descend on an exaggerated spiral structure in which a bicyclist endlessly circles, suggesting the delirium in Lorenz’s mind. The couple dance at a club, and the camera joins them on the dance floor, spiraling around them as Lorenz experiences his fever dream. An extreme high angle tells us that fate is looking down on Lorenz, predicting his downfall. The Lorenz family home is a dark hovel shot in low-key and high-contrast lighting. Their economic trap is reinforced through shots of family members composed in frames within frames.

Phantom was lauded at the time for its use of double exposures and other special effects. Murnau paid homage to Victor Sjöström’s Phantom Carriage (1920), a major influence in terms of double exposure and in-camera effects, with a scene in which Lorenz hallucinates Veronika racing through the streets in her carriage. Other effects include an Inception-like (2010) scene in which the city’s buildings seem to tip forward as Lorenz skulks down the street. Lorenz’s delusions and hallucinations give the film a dream-like quality, enhanced by the tinting. The most common colors are blue and amber, but green was used for the sequence at the city’s most expensive restaurant, while a hazy lavender tints a dreamy shot of Veronika in her bedroom.

Watching German films of the 1920s is a window into the era. In addition to chronicling the financial decline of the working and middle classes, the films reflect the demoralized state of the German people after losing WWI. Expressionist films often feature male characters, like Lorenz, Francis and Cesare of Dr. Caligari and Hutter of Nosferatu, who fall into a daze or delusion. The inner workings of their fevered minds are expressed in the distorted mise-en-scène. Like the shell-shocked veterans who came home from the war, the male characters in Expressionist films are emotionally fragile or mentally unstable. They exist in a kind of altered state, halfway between sanity and reality—not unlike the trench soldiers on the front driven into a stupor by the constant barrage of shelling week after week. These weakened male characters in Expressionist films are the real phantoms—not some ghostly, supernatural presence. Social institutions, including marriage, family, the law and the medical establishment do little to help these characters, just as they failed the German people in real life.

Watching Phantom on a small screen is not an easy viewing experience. The film is slowly paced, which is typical of Expressionist films. On a big screen in a theater, the mise-en-scène and deliberate pacing create an atmosphere and mood; on a small screen, these characteristics are diminished. But, patient viewers will be rewarded with an exquisitely crafted film that showcases popular stars of Expressionist cinema while capturing the bitter history of a defeated country.

Susan Doll

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To view A Bay of Blood click here.

A Bay of Blood (1971) shares something in common with Friday the 13th (1980), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Brazil (1985). The first commonality is obvious as A Bay of Blood was clearly a huge influence on Friday the 13th (director Sean S. Cunningham cribs Mario Bava’s murder-setups along with a forest-by-the-water landscape normally used to inspire a sense of idyll), leaving the second connection squarely on the shoulders of Carlo Rambaldi, a special effects master who could decapitate a person as easily for Bava as he could construct a small, amiable and home-sick alien with a penguin-like waddle for Spielberg. As to the third connection, I’d like to think that one would stump most. Here’s the answer: both A Bay of Blood and Brazil begin with the death of a fly. In Brazil it’s a big to-do, with a bureaucrat killing said fly such that it lands in a typewriter, causing a typo that sets in motion all the chaos to follow. In A Bay of Blood, around the two-minute-mark, a fly buzzes noisily in the night sky and then, seconds later, drops into the water with a soft “plop” and dies with barely a ripple. It will be the first death of many.

A quote from Psycho (1960) at this point would be apropos: “They’re probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching… they’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know, and they’ll say, ‘Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly…’”

I’d like to think the same of Bava, although in his case the insect in question is a beetle. According to the IMDB trivia page, “Mario Bava deeply regretted filming the scene where a bug is pinned alive.” Rebutting that assessment, however, is the following excerpt from the voluminous tome put out by Tim Lucas, Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark,wherein he discusses that same beetle:

“The appearances of Paolo Fossatti’s little friend Ferdinando, the black beetle, also entailed some special effects trickery. For the Fossatis’ scene with Renata and Albert, in which Paolo babbles embarrassing endearments to the bug, contained in a tiny clear plastic box, a fake beetle was moved from side to side by means of a slender filament secreted under the bandage on actor Leopoldo Trieste’s hand. While on the subject of Ferdinando, Ecologia del delitto (A Bay of Blood) contained one shot that caused Mario Bava considerable distress: the pinning of the beetle – a significant shot in that it echoes the earlier shot of Duke and Denise impaled in bed. The man at the helm of this riotous procession of homicides had such a profound respect for all forms of life that he later confessed to being unable to sleep the entire night before filming the shot. By looking at the shot closely, we can see that Bava’s sleeplessness ultimately resulted in life winning out over art: the beetle is not pinned straight through, but on its side – and just enough to hold it in place – with the angle of its body in relation to the camera selling the lie.

Norman Bates wouldn’t hurt a fly, but people? That’s a different matter. Mario Bava wouldn’t hurt a beetle, but characters in a giallo film? He’ll go through 13. It’s fitting that we should be thinking about Psycho in relation to A Bay of Blood because Hitchcock’s masterpiece of horror was a big influence on Bava and one of the original writers, Dardano Sacchetti. Again, I consult Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (aka: My Bava Bible). Spoilers ahead:

Bavaand Sacchetti set out to write a giallo in which everyone was the murderer, a story of wall-to-wall homicide that would leave everyone, likewise, a victim. It was a play on the shock conceit initiated by Hitchcock for Psyco (1960), in which he surprised the audience by killing off the lead character, played by Janet Leigh, one-third of the way through the story. “Thirteen characters, thirteen murders!” Bava laughed. “I was [also] interested in depicting a variety of ways to kill, in presenting a veritable catalogue of crime.”

Bava succeeds on his intended level, and much more. My own personal attachment to this film is a simple one: an idyllic landscape gets pitted against greedy developers, and the landscape wins. How many times does that happen? However, only a few days ago was I introduced to the very unsettling idea that perhaps there are more than Bava’s 13 bodies buried in that landscape. Adam Lowenstein (Italian Horror Cinema, Edited by Stefano Baschiera and Russ Hunter) suggests that there might be real ones:

Bava’s choice for the film’s most important setting, the bayside landscape, turns out to be a fascinating one: Sabaudia, a small coastal town on the Tyrrhenian Sea roughly 50 miles southeast of Rome (Lucas, 2007: 862, 849, 856).

Sabaudia came into existence in 1933 through the draining of the malaria-infested Pontine Marshes, one of fascist Italy’s most ambitious and significant public works projects. Indeed, Benito Mussolini’s ideology of bonifica (reclamation) was exemplified by the Pontine Marshes plan, so Sabaudia was prominently located within discourses of ideal fascist land for ideal fascist citizens.

Much like a Stephen King novel in which a fancy hotel gets built atop an Indian burial ground, Italy clearly has its share of haunted real estate. Special thanks to Sabrina Negri for alerting me to Adam Lowenstein’s essay within Baschiera and Hunter’s “Italian Horror Cinema” book (published 2016), as well as (of course) Tim Lucas for his astounding Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark.

Pablo Kjolseth

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To view The Westerner click here.

In 1940, immediately following his adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1939), William Wyler directed his first major full-length Western, The Westerner, starring Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan. Although he hadn’t yet made any Westerns for producer Samuel Goldwyn, this wasn’t Wyler’s first time working in the popular genre. In the 1920s, in the early years of his career working for Carl Laemmle at Universal, Wyler was a crew member on countless Westerns, eventually working his way up to director. Finally in the director’s chair and still under contract with Universal, Wyler only directed Westerns. It wasn’t until the 1928 comedy Has Anyone Seen Kelly? starring Bessie Love, that he was able to break free and experiment with other genres outside of the Western. Returning to the genre after a long absence gave Wyler a renewed perspective, allowing him to apply his artistic vision and constantly evolving camera techniques to something he was quite familiar with.

The Westerner tells a fictionalized account of the life of the infamous “Judge” Roy Bean (Walter Brennan), a man whose penchant for violence and corruption was used to enforce his vigilante ideas of “law and order,” resulting in unusually harsh punishments for those breaking his law. Over time, the legend behind the actual Roy Bean has reached tall tale proportions, with numerous accounts regarding his reputation as the Wild West’s most ruthless “hanging judge.” For this larger-than-life character, Samuel Goldwyn wanted to cast actor Walter Brennan. Goldwyn wasn’t always right when it came to casting, but having Brennan play Bean proved to be a brilliant choice.

For this particular tale of Judge Roy Bean, we are transported to a saloon in the town of Vinegaroon, Texas, where he is sole proprietor. Bean not only enforces the law, but he is the law. Bean unfairly dishes out punishments to those he perceives as guilty (meaning anyone who stands in his way or disagrees with his methods), refusing to give them a fair trial. For the residents of Vinegaroon and the surrounding area, getting on Bean’s bad side is a death sentence. In addition to the corruption from Bean’s self-appointment, there is a land war between cattle ranchers and the homesteaders. To protect their homes and crops, the homesteaders have put up fences to keep the livestock out. The ranchers, who have the unwavering support of Judge Bean and his cronies, insist that the fences are harmful to their cattle and keep them from accessing water. With the homesteaders legally occupying the land due to federal law, they attempt to fight for their rights. Unfortunately, with Bean in charge, their fight is a lost cause.

Enter wandering cowboy Cole Harden, played by Gary Cooper. Harden has been brought into Judge Bean’s “court” on the charge of stealing a horse. Harden claims to have bought the horse, unaware that the person who sold it was not the rightful owner. Bean sentences Harden to death, but delays the sentence when Harden comments on Bean’s impressive shrine to actress Lily Langtry (Lilian Bond). Picking up on Bean’s obsession with Langtry, Harden spins an incredible story about meeting the actress and receiving a lock of her hair. Intrigued, Bean asks to see the lock. Quick on his feet, Harden says the lock is in El Paso, but that he can get it if given the time. Fortunately, the real horse thief is caught, saving Harden’s life. But Bean naively believes Harden’s story and is insistent upon seeing the lock of hair. Despite the original circumstances of their meeting, Bean and Harden become unlikely friends. Bean respects Harden, treating him like a younger brother. Harden disagrees with Bean’s methods, especially his treatment of the homesteaders. But he also sees the good in the man, what little is left anyway, and he tries to encourage Bean to be a kind and fair person. Harden’s outlook on life, as well as his peace-seeking mentality, is very much needed in Vinegaroon. Harden’s outlook on life is sort of a novelty for Bean, who, despite Harden’s influence, ultimately fails to change his ways. Bean’s steadfast cruelty, selfishness and cynicism betrays Harden’s trust in him.

The Westerner is one of the most unusual Westerns ever made. Like most Westerns, we know who the bad guys and good guys are, but in this film, the characters are more complicated and nuanced than what regularly appears in this genre. Also, the feud between the ranchers and homesteaders is secondary to the plot, as is the romance between Gary Cooper’s Harden and the homesteading Jane Ellen Mathews, played by Doris Davenport. The film is ultimately about the friendship between Judge Roy Bean and Cole Harden. Their interactions are like what you would expect to see between two old friends or close brothers. Another thing that sets The Westerner apart from other examples is the humor. While the homesteader storyline is quite serious, the back and forth between Judge Bean and Harden, at least initially, is hilarious. This is no doubt due to the chemistry and rapport between Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan, who starred together in several films, including Meet John Doe (1940) and The Pride of the Yankees (1942, written about here). Another interesting observation about The Westerner is that it can be viewed as a subtle commentary on the then-unfolding events in Europe, prior to the United States involvement in World War II. Cole Harden represents the idea of neutrality and maintaining it at all costs. That is, until the horrific actions of one party against another party forces him to choose a side and fight for basic human rights. If you watch The Westerner through that lens, it proves to be a pretty strong argument for America’s involvement in World War II, as well as adding an interesting layer to an already incredible film.

Jill Blake

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To view The Blob click here.

The credits are Saul Bass lite. Different red shapes, blobby outlines, move forward on the screen while one of the great movie theme songs plays behind them. The song, “Beware the Blob,” performed by The Five Blobs (lead singer Bernie Knee) and written by Burt Bacharach and Mack David, is instantly singable upon one hearing. Finally, the title of the movie, in black surrounded by a glowing red outline, appears. And so begins the 1958 classic, The Blob, starring Steve McQueen in his first major film role (often credited as his debut when in fact he had done both movies and plenty of TV before). The Blob is often pigeonholed into the same category as any other low-budget sci-fi film from the 1950s that most people would now call “cult classics” but it’s actually a lot more than that and deserves better. Better treatment and better direction. It’s a frustrating mixture of all the right ingredients producing a less than optimal outcome but still showing enough promise that it’s a fascinating journey.

The opening scene of The Blob is damned peculiar. Steve, played by Steve McQueen (very convenient), is kissing Jane, played by my childhood crush from The Andy Griffith Show, Helen Crump, aka Aneta Corsaut. The camera swings from the right to the left and Jane pulls back. What follows is an oddly quiet and reflective conversation as Jane feels she has been lured here and Steve assures her she hasn’t. She seems genuinely distraught and their lines feel almost unrehearsed. It’s a quiet, tender moment followed by a meteor streaking across the sky and Steve determined to find out where it landed. As they rush to find it, an old man wanders out of his cabin to find a small, round meteorite, complete with its own set of tiny impact craters, making it look like an old moon model someone did for a science project. He cracks it open and a small gelatinous center leaps to his hand and begins consuming it. He runs to the road where Steve and Jane almost hit him and they take him to a doctor.

Eventually, the blobby mass consumes the old man, the doctor, and his nurse before going on a rampage across the town. Well, a slow, gradual rampage. As the title song suggests, it creeps and glides and slides its way around the town, killing off innocent citizens who, once consumed, allow the blob to grow larger. Finally, it invades a movie theater and engulfs a diner before they figure out what stops it, air conditioning. Or just plain old cold. Which actually makes sense, believe it or not. Traveling through the cold vacuum of space, it remains dormant and solidified. Once the meteor heats up upon atmospheric entry, it comes to life. It avoids the cold to avoid slipping back into dormancy.

The Blob looks great, both the movie and the title character. The movie is shot in widescreen Deluxe color and looks absolutely lush, the opposite of what one expects from a low budget sci-fi movie from the fifties. The creature itself, made from silicone and red dye, has a genuineness to it that many movie monsters lack. The very fact that it is so completely alien, and thus so completely unable to communicate with us, gives it all the character menace it needs. Even when it pours out of the movie theater near the end, and a large thumb print is clearly visible at its center, the magic isn’t lost. Hey, who knows, maybe the blob has fingerprints.

There are, of course, the usual elements of sci-fi at the time, a genre not exactly taken very seriously in the fifties, with very few getting the kind of treatment MGM gave Forbidden Planet. There’s the less than stellar dialogue, the not-so-convincing emoting, the teenagers who look old enough to be playing the parents. And there’s lackluster direction from Irvin Yeaworth who lets scenes just kind of sit there. When he should be coaching the actors to blaze through their lines, he seems content to sit back and let them slowly fumble through their lines until minutes of screen time have gone by to no avail. This movie, this very same movie, directed by someone like Howard Hawks, could have been amazing.

Still, it’s pretty damn good as it is. The score by Ralph Carmichael is impressive, the special effects work well, and Steve McQueen does a pretty decent job playing someone ten years younger than himself. The Blob could be better, yes, and served by a better director, it could have been great. But for sheer fun, and brightly colored menace from beyond the stars, few fifties’ sci-fi movies give me more satisfaction than The Blob. Let’s just say, it grows on you.

Greg Ferrara

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To view The Body Snatcher click here.

Director Robert Wise is widely regarded as a journeyman filmmaker with no defining traits or distinct talents. In The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968 critic Andrew Sarris famously labeled Wise’s output as “strained seriousness” asserting that the director’s “stylistic signature . . . is indistinct to the point of invisibility.” David Thompson parroted these claims in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film when he stated that Wise’s “better credits are only the haphazard products of artistic aimlessness given rare guidance” and complained that his filmography was merely a “restless, dispiriting search among subject areas.” While it’s true that Wise explored a variety of genres including horror, science fiction, noir, westerns, musicals and war dramas, his best films frequently share a gloomy nihilistic worldview and he possessed the extraordinary ability to elicit career-defining performances from many of the actors he worked with.

A few of the remarkable roles Wise nurtured and defined include Lawrence Tierney’s ruthless Sam Wilde in Born to Kill (1947), Robert Ryan’s down-and-out boxer in The Set-Up (1949), Michael Rennie’s peace-pursuing alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Susan Hayward’s doomed career criminal in I Want to Live! (1958), Rita Moreno’s spirited and vengeful Anita in West Side Story (1961), Julie Harris’s meek and melancholy Eleanor “Nell” Lance in The Haunting (1963) and Steve McQueen’s solitary sailor in The Sand Pebbles (1966). But my favorite acting feat in all of Wise’s directing oeuvre can be found in The Body Snatcher (1945). Currently streaming on FilmStruck, this classic Val Lewton production directed by Wise, includes Boris Karloff in what is arguably his most accomplished performance playing John Gray, a merciless grave robber with soul-piercing eyes and a bone-chilling grin.

The Body Snatcher is based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson that was inspired by the 19th-century crimes of Burke and Hare, two notorious body snatchers who committed multiple murders and then sold the victim’s corpses to The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh for dissection purposes. The film adaption broadens Stevenson’s tale of an accomplished doctor (Henry Daniell) and his loyal student (Russell Wade) who become entangled with a grave robbing cabbie named John Gray. It also ratchets up the horror quotient by magnifying the role of Gray as he commits one shocking atrocity after another to supply the doctors with much-needed specimens while gleefully lining his pockets with the ill-gotten gains.

Stevenson’s original text only contains a few words that describe the character of John Gray commenting on the “hang-dog, abominable looks” typical of grave robbers and singling him out as “a very loathsome rogue.” The screenplay, which was originally written by Philip MacDonald and revised by Val Lewton, reinforces the characterization describing Gray as “a man of middle years with keen, darting eyes set in a face lined and furrowed by an evil life. The quick play of his features as he talks or smiles can form a moving and deceptive mask.” These brief descriptions of Gray only scratch the surface of Karloff’s rich, multifaceted depiction of the sinister scoundrel but they are noteworthy stepping stones that demonstrate what little background the 58-year-old actor had to work with and how much he brought to the role.

Additional inspiration for Karloff’s interpretation of Gray most likely came from another Robert Louis Stevenson story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In The Body Snatcher, the dueling nature of man is represented by the noble, wisdom-seeking Dr. MacFarlane (also played brilliantly by Henry Daniell) while his evil alter-ego manifests as the capital-driven resurrection man. Even Karloff’s appearance in a worn top hat and long, cape-like coat is reminiscent of Hyde.

Karloff carries himself with a kind of willful arrogance, but his ragged clothes, stooped posture, deep-set eyes, heavy brows, unruly stubble and unwashed hair suggest a cadaver’s appearance. His John Gray is losing what’s left of his humanity with every swing of his shovel and Karloff wears the weight of the character’s deeds like a suit of rusty old armor. His crimes have become a grotesque badge of honor. He is the Grim Reaper or Charon of Edinburgh, driving a hansom cab through cobblestone streets instead of a ferry boat down the River Styx. He relishes the fear he ignites in the hearts of so-called ‘gentlemen’ who buy his profane wares, so they won’t have to dig around in rotting cemeteries during the dead of night and risk sullying their good names. But Gray is no mindless lackey and Karloff instills his character with a cutting wit and streetwise wisdom that suggest he is sharper than many of the well-read doctors he interacts with.

If I had to single out one standout acting moment in a film that contains many, I would point to Karloff’s final screen encounter with his longtime associate Bela Lugosi who also makes a noteworthy appearance in The Body Snatcher. Bela plays Joseph, a simple-minded and sympathetic janitor who cleans the doctor’s labs. When he becomes aware of John Gray’s nefarious money-making activities, Joseph decides to blackmail him but he isn’t prepared for the callous brutality that awaits him once he ventures inside Gray’s den of iniquity and their interaction takes a particularly macabre turn.

Val Lewton originally did not want to work with Karloff but producer Jack Gross convinced RKO to sign the “King of Horror” to a three-picture deal. Gross hoped the actor’s name would attract audiences but Lewton wanted to distance himself from Universal’s brand of Gothic horror. He was interested in creating modern thrillers with a subtler approach that didn’t rely on lots of monster makeup to terrify audiences. But according to director Robert Wise, once Lewton met Karloff, the two became fast friends and developed a respect for one another’s talent.

“Boris Karloff was an absolute joy . . . he was very well educated and well-read, a cultured man with fine manners–soft-spoken, and a gentleman in every sense. He was a delight to work with as an actor–very responsive, very professional. Boris was particularly keen about doing The Body Snatcher. He felt it was his first opportunity to show what he could do as an actor, a fine actor of great skill and great depth.” – Robert Wise, quoted in Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration by Gregory William Mank

When it was released in 1945, The Body Snatcher proved to be one of RKO’s most successful horror films and Boris Karloff went on to appear in two other Lewton productions, Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946). Karloff is exceptional in the three films he made with Val Lewton but in The Body Snatcher, he is a terrifying force of nature. Robert Wise, who was proud of his collaborative working relationships with actors, was able to encourage a truly spectacular performance from the aging horror star that rivals his iconic portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster. Karloff also had something to prove to these new purveyors of horror cinema who were not particularly interested in his antiquated skills, but they shouldn’t have worried. Karloff’s cadaverous John Gray is one of the greatest screen achievements of the 1940s.

If you stream one horror film this Halloween, I recommend The Body Snatcher but I suggest pairing it with The Haunting (1961) and Audrey Rose (1977). These chill-inducing movies were all made by Robert Wise and prove that the director was not only adept at eliciting great acting performances from his cast but he also knew how to scare the hell out of an audience.

Kimberly Lindbergs

Comment Policy:

StreamLine welcomes an open dialogue with our readers and we encourage you to comment below, but we ask that all comments be respectful of our writers, readers, viewers, etc., otherwise we reserve the right to delete them.

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