2013 CAPA Summer Movie Series (Columbus, OH)

It’s my favorite time of year in central Ohio, or nearly. CAPA, our local arts organizing group, has announced its lineup for the 2013 Summer Movie Series held in Downtown Columbus’ historic Ohio Theatre. For those of you unfamiliar with this seasonal gem, the June 28 through Aug. 25 series features a plethora of classic movies shown in the theater that was originally built as a movie house and is now used for concerts, ballets, etc.

Among this year’s offerings are two Hitchcock movies, which you know delights me. The wonderfully amusing The Trouble with Harry, To Catch a Thief and the Jimmy Stewart rendition of The Man Who Knew Too Much will certainly be on my schedule.

Other prize showings include An American in Paris, Grand Hotel, Citizen Kane, Bonnie and Clyde, The Thin Man, 1974′s The Great Gatsby, and Touch of Evil.

I have been notoriously bad about achieving all the CAPA Summer Movie Attendance goals I have set in years past, and I won’t pretend this year will be any better. I do hope to at least catch the Hitchcock flicks, but I’ll admit The Man Who Knew Too Much won’t be at the top of my list.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Gasser

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

The Abominable Dr. Phibes can only receive this mediocre rating if you conclude that you are meant to be laughing at certain points. Like Phantom of the Paradise, it blurs the line between horror and comedy. Although it is about grotesque murders, it also is full of humorous dialogue that one cannot help but conclude is meant to make us laugh. Other instances of absurd plot points and bad acting make us laugh for unintentional reasons.

Vincent Price stars as Dr. Phibes, a man who is thought to have died in a car accident following his wife’s death on the operating table. The man is very much alive, however, though horribly disfigured. He pastes on a false face to hide his scars and is able to talk only via a cord attaching his neck to a speaker. When it comes to eating/drinking, he seems to do that via a hole in the back of his neck (cue laughter).

Dr. Phibes lives in an old mansion with a beautiful young woman  (Virginia North) who also fails to utter a word and whose relationship with the doctor is never explained. The man plays an organ and directs a “mechanical” orchestra while also taking time out to waltz with the woman. It all seems to be part of a ritual that leads up to the duo hitting the road and murdering surgeons.

Investigating the crimes is Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey), who is assisted by the head doctor on Mrs. Phibes operation, Dr. Vesalius, played by an older Joseph Cotton. The two discover in their inquiries that the murders –via means such as bats, rats, and bees– are all related to the 10 plagues that preyed upon the Pharaoh of Egypt. The crime-fighters fail to avert any of the deaths, however, until we reach the final plague: death of the first-born. Dr. Vesalius, with a teenage son, is the recipient of that torment. He is forced to operate on the boy to save his life and in a manner that could have inspired the modern Saw movies.

Even the brutal deaths in The Abominable Dr. Phibes seem to employ a degree of comic timing. Having just located one doctor, the authorities lead him out of a building only to have a brass unicorn head catapult through the open door and impale the victim. A concentrated brussel sprout syrup entirely coats the head of a sleeping nurse, whose sleeping pills keep her unconscious during the eating of her face.

Jeffrey, whom I remember as being equally comical in The Return of the Pink Panther, certainly lightens the mood throughout by being fairly incompetent –leaving the critical thinking to Dr. Vesalius– and prattling off humorous lines here and there. Cotton, meanwhile, gives a superbly appropriate performance. A reader commented last week on the post about Cotton’s Walk Softly, Stranger that he has never seen the man give a bad performance. I cannot agree more. Like Bette Davis, Cotton was not immune to appearing in a bad movie, but he always gave a great show, here avoiding the melodrama Price tends to bring to his parts. I think it’s safe to say we expect a certain degree of camp from Price, however, and he certainly delivers that here.

Walk Softly, Stranger

Gasser

Walk Softly, Stranger (1950)

Despite the variety of films Joseph Cotton made, his persona such as that in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons are the ones that stick with me. It is for that reason that I always find myself surprised to see him playing a bad guy; although it was not an uncommon part for the star. Between attempting to murder Marilyn Monroe in Niagara and “allegedly” killing old women in Shadow of a Doubt, he played the nice guy with a sinister undercoat quite well.

In Walk Softly, Stranger we again find a likeable Cotton playing a criminal. He is re-teamed with Alida Valli (or in this billing, just Valli) known to audiences from The Third Man made with Cotton the year prior. This was a selling point used in the poster to the right. Cotton’s “Chris Hale” arrives in a small town and wanders up to a house where he tells the old woman within that he ran away from the home as a boy. This Mrs. Brentman (Spring Byington) shows the boy around the home and takes an instant liking to the man, therefore accepting his invitation to be her first tenant.

We know despite Hale’s convincing manner that something is not kosher. When he arrived at the house, he glanced at a note that indicates the home is occupied by a single old woman. His next activity sends him to a party at a mansion where he runs into Valli’s Elaine Correlli. He tells her that he was in love with her as a girl, also revealing details about his days working as a caddy at the country club. We, too, are quite convinced of this truth and Hale’s deserved surprise when he sees the beautiful woman is wheelchair-bound.

After a time living with Mr. Brentman, Hale goes out of town and reunites with a friend, Whitey Lake (Paul Stewart). Here we get to some truth as we witness the men pull off an ambitious robbery of a mobster at his gambling den. Hale returns “home”, plenty of cash in pocket.

The man forces his presence on Elaine until she really starts to care for him. When things get too serious, however, she leaves town, but Hale remains faithful. The situation becomes complicated, however, when Whitey shows up at Hale’s house and stays awhile. He has blown all his dough and is fearful the duo will be hunted down, and indeed they are.

Walk Softly, Stranger is a decently written story. It has a nice dual plot as it could have been a good movie either as a romance between a man and his childhood sweetheart now in a wheelchair or as a suspense following a criminal’s attempts to go straight and keep hidden. As it happens here, the romantic plot serves to drive Hale’s desire to be good and convinces us he is genuine about the transformation as well. Valli brings the soft, sympathetic emotions out in us while Cotton drives our fear and anxiety about an uncertain future.

Both our stars, as well as Stewart and Byington, give suitable performances. We know who to like and who to think twice about. As mentioned, Cotton does a fantastic job of conveying trustworthiness and gentleness that make it difficult to picture him as a villain. He nevertheless fills the shoes of a card shark and thief well, although drawing plenty of sympathy in doing so.

Touch of Evil

Wowza!

Touch of Evil (1958)

It had been probably seven years since I had seen Touch of Evil, so when the opportunity presented itself to see it on the big screen, I said, sure, why not? I probably should have been shouting from the rafters because in the interim I had completely forgotten just how much of a masterpiece the picture is.

The Orson Welles flick is most commonly celebrated for its 3 minute and 30 second opening sequence. This long take weaves the camera through the streets of the Mexico border area that is our setting after we witness a bomb placed in the trunk of a car. The camera eventually unites us with stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, the newlyweds who are crossing into America. They pass over just as the ill-fated car does and are within view of the fiery blaze that occupies the screen after the movie’s first cut.

Heston’s Mike Vargas is a Mexico native and detective in that country, but the crime is sort of out of his jurisdiction because it happened on American soil. The American authorities, headed up by the grotesque Hank Quinlan (Welles), agree to work with Vargas because the bomb was planted south of the border. In the midst of this, however, Vargas has to find a place to keep the new wife, who is an American. Susan is too tough to spend the duration of the story in a hotel room, however, and the story follows her increasingly dangerous circumstances while Vargas is busy investigating.

The challenge Vargas faces is that Quinlan is far from an honorable cop in the typical sense of the word. He is well revered for bringing so many men to justice, but as the Mexican will eventually learn, he often goes outside the law to ensure convictions. Quinlan drills into a young Mexican man as his prime suspect for the explosion that murdered a construction magnate and his girlfriend. The man is dating the victim’s daughter, who would inherit her father’s fortune. Upon interrogation at the couple’s apartment, however, Vargas discovers Quinlan has planted the damning evidence but none of the American cops are willing to doubt their leader.

As Vargas digs into Quinlan’s corrupt past, Susan has already been twice threatened by a group of young Mexican greasers. The woman is being targeted to get to Vargas, although their motivation is not totally clear. Susan refuses to be frightened until she finds herself alone in a hotel complex. She is in desperate need of sleep, but when a group of party animals move in next door, she has more than exhaustion to worry about. What will transpire over the following day is more horrible than she could ever have predicted.

Touch of Evil was filmed almost entirely at night. The picture is incredibly dark and Welles uses the black and white film to his advantage in exuding a dark mood on all who watch it. Low-angle shots heighten the drama as we watch the shadowy faces of the unfriendly Vargas and Quinlan. Welles also uses sound to convey the solitude of night as our characters’ footsteps echo though streets and shadows run along walls. We have a sense that danger lurks around every corner, and are constantly on edge. Enemies attack from multiple angles as the American authorities offer no refuge from the Mexican criminals.

Welles might give his best career performance in Touch of Evil. Quinlan is such a despicable and powerful character and Welles is capable of intimidating the audience right out of their seats. I normally do not care much for Heston, but he is great as Vargas. His tan look, with dark hair and mustache, creates a convincing Mexican although he refrains from any accent. I think this helps to level the playing field between Vargas and the American detectives; although, we are still fully aware he is an outcast among this group. Leigh, meanwhile, has plenty of sex appeal and the sass necessary to make her arrogant enough to believe she is safe from harm. She reportedly broke her arm before filming and the cast was hidden during filming. During the hotel scenes, the cast was sawn off and her arm reset after filming.

Marlene Dietrich plays a small part as a gypsy to whom Quinlan goes for his traditional binge drinking. She delivers lines in her usual German drawl through a cloud of smoke she emits via the stogie on which she sucks. High-angle shots flatter her angular face while dark hair and lipstick transform her nationality. Welles alumnus Joseph Cotton appears in a tiny role, as apparently Keenan Wynn does, however, I did not spot him (so if anyone can tell me where he is, I’ll revisit the flick and find him!).

Touch of Evil is textbook filmmaking. It is artistic to the extreme while offering a riveting, convoluted story and powerful acting that has one biting his nails for half the feature. Seeing it on the big screen was a real treat, but it is a must-see movie no matter the venue.

Source: TCM.com

Cinematic Shorts: Gaslight

Wowza!

Gaslight (1944)

     Gaslight is one of my favorite movies of all time. I discovered it early in my classic movie foray because I was really into Joseph Cotton. The story is a wonderful mystery full of suspense and intrigue and really has all the markings of a Hitchcock film without actually being one. The director is instead George Cukor, who has more than enough experience to make such a masterpiece.

     The story is about Ingrid Berman‘s Paula and her husband Gregory, played by Charles Boyer, and the woman slow decent into madness. Paula’s aunt/guardian was a famous opera singer who was murdered by a thief hoping to seize some valuable jewels. Ten years later Paula returns to her aunt’s house with a new husband but starts having flashbacks to the terrifying past.

     Gregory presents himself as a creepy character from the start, always patronizing his wife into a submissive role. He pats her and tells her she confused when her items start disappearing. Paula has also been noticing a strange change in the gaslights in their London flat. The flames seem to go down as though someone has turned up the gas in another part of the home, except no one has. This does not help the woman’s mental state any, but she has one ally on her side: Joseph Cotton as a fan of Paula’s aunt who mistakes the young woman for her relative. He starts to gather that something sinister is afoot in Paula’s home and pokes his nose in enough to save the woman.

     The story for Gaslight is really fascinating and creative and the actual gaslights in the home make for such a cool device alluding to the answer to all of our questions. Bergman gave an Academy Award-winning performance as Paula as no one can deny how deftly she conveys a weakening of the mind. Besides Bergman, also nominated for Oscars were  Boyer and Angela Lansbury, who makes her screen debut as the cockney, sassy maid. The picture was also nominated for cinematography, writing, art direction and Best Picture.

     I think I could watch Gaslight every day and never be tired of it. Ryan and I love to imitate Boyer’s chiding utterance of “Paauullaa” in that French accent of his as it is both absurd and creepy. This movie sort of ruined Boyer for me as anything but a sinister actor, however. Watching him in Love Affair was a challenge.

"I told you, there's nothing wrong with the lighting, Paula!"

Hitchcock Blogathon #3: Under Capricorn

Dullsville

Under Capricorn (1949)

     Hitchcock had always been adverse to what he termed “costume” pictures, or period pieces, and Under Capricorn only served to prove his deterrence correct. I went to lengths to acquire a copy of this film years ago after seeing and old poster for it. This, perhaps, was my first lesson in “good casting does not necessarily make for good movies.”

     The plot reminds me more of a Tennesee Williams play than a Hitchcock mystery in that it contains secrets gradually revealed the viewer. Unlike a TW work, however, there are multiple secrets revealed fairly quickly that lack any sort of shock factor. The movie also fails to provide a real romantic plot, which is something Hitchcock always incorporated into his stories. The most we get is when Michael Wilding‘s character kisses Ingrid Bergman in her bedroom, seemingly only to give her “courage”. From then on out we are unsure if the man actually cares for the married woman in that way.

     Set in New South Wales, Australia, Wilding is Charles Adaire, cousin to the country’s new governor who both have just arrived to the continent. He quickly befriends Joseph Cotton‘s Sam Flusky who is a former convict we later learn was imprisoned for killing his wife’s brother. The wife, Hattie Flusky, played by Bergman, is perpetually “ill” but she really is just drunk and delusional. People in Sydney are afraid of the vast Flusky estate saying “something’s not right” there, but that is never really explained. Adaire, who knew Hattie when he was younger back in Ireland, moves into the estate and tries to get the woman back to her old self. There is lots of talk about all the Fluskys have been through and all that has come between them over the years. Despite killing her brother, Hattie had followed Sam to Australia while he was imprisoned because she actually killed her sibling, and the single woman had to endure questionable things to survive during that time. Despite not being the same people they were when Sam is released after seven years, the two marry because they are essentially indebted to each other.

     As part of her recovery, Hattie tries to take control of her household, which has been run by a nasty maid. She struggles to do so but eventually the maid opts to leave. Before she goes, however, the servant manages to plant the seed in Sam’s brain that something untoward happened between Hattie and Adaire when in the bedroom together. A row occurs between Sam and Adaire and the former accidentally shoots the latter. Because Sam would be a second offender in this case of “attempted murder”, he could be hanged whether the man lives or dies. Hattie confesses to killing her brother, which would mean Sam is not a second offender, but she cannot be tried without Sam’s statement to confirm the facts, which he refuses. And if that was not enough going on, we discover the maid had been planting a shrunken head in Hattie’s bedroom, thus causing her madness and “delusions”, and forcing her to booze up. She also attempt to poison her at the end.

     The story is a horrid mess. The part dealing with the maid and Hattie’s psychosis is poorly developed –toward the beginning she mentions seeing something on her bed but not until the end do we add on and conclude that plot– and the sinister nature of Sam is not well illustrated. The performances are not bad, and I could say if some aspect was better executed it would be a fine film, but I do not think there is any redemption for Under Capricorn. This, the second project under Hitchcock’s Transatlantic Pictures, bombed at the box office and rightfully so. One of the writers, Hume Cronyn, recalled a session working on the script with Hitchcock  when the director said, “This film is going to be a flop. I’m going to lunch.” Smart man that.

The MacGuffin: No MacGuffin here, which perhaps is another reason this film disappoints.

Where’s Hitch? At the start of the film he is in town square during a parade wearing a blue coat and brown hat. About 10 minutes later he is one of three men on the steps of Government House.

Source: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

I will be posting reviews of Hitchcock movies every hour ending at 8 p.m. today, but other members of the Classic Movie Blog Association, which is hosting the blogathon, have plenty to offer also. Links to their articles is up at the CMBA site. Check them out!

Feature: My Momentary Celebrity Obsession – Bette Davis

A fascination with an actress like Bette Davis is far from unique, but nevertheless, I cannot get enough of the essential classic film star as of late. My first exposure to her about five years ago was through the thriller Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, which I procured for Joseph Cotton‘s participation. The well aged star was such a fright that I instantly ruled Davis out as a horror to watch.

Bette Davis

My perspective was turned around a couple years ago when discovering TCM and a Robert Osborne “Essentials” night devoted to the star. After Jezebel, and Now, Voyager I was thoroughly convinced that indeed, Ms. Davis could be beautiful, nevermind the talent. Films like The Letter and  Dark Victory really showed her rigor as a performer. What I like about Davis is that she seemed thoroughly committed to putting her best work on-screen (even if she was fighting with the studio off-screen) and was less concerned with self promotion, letting her work speak for itself.

A Massachusetts native — born Ruth Elizabeth Davis – who got her start on the stage, Davis had a stellar career with Warner Bros. before going out on her own. She fought for loan outs to other studios and to improve her salary. She married four times, had a daughter and adopted a boy and a girl.

For her 102 films she won two Best Actress Oscars and was the first person to amass 10 nominations. There is no one in contemporary Hollywood who reminds me in the least of Davis. No one since her has really shown the same talent, gusto and lasting impression as Davis. Although her looks did not persist, she made many films later in life including the acclaimed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? She died from cancer at age 81 in 1989 in France.

Source: Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine

UPDATE: My list of Bette Davis Movies and my accomplishments so far is now available under the “Lists” tab.

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