Rage in Heaven

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Rage in Heaven (1941)

Rage in Heaven (1941)

Rage in Heaven has the distinction of a stellar cast and a clever and enticing plot, but it stops short of being a terrific movie merely by virtue of the time it puts into telling its story. It is not that the film feels rushed by any means, but it could have packed a bigger punch for audience members if it had drawn out the action and put more time into letting the narrative sink in. At around 85 minutes in run time, the picture definitely could have elongated its duration.

The story opens at a French mental asylum where a patient named Ward Andrews –whom we do not see– escapes. He suffers from a personality disorder that makes him emotionally detached and potentially capable of murder. In the next scene, we see one Ward Andrews, played by George Sanders, encounter his childhood and longtime best friend Philip Monrell, played by Robert Montgomery. The two reignite a friendship and Monrell invites his pal to his mother’s English estate where he is returning after some time in Paris, from where Andrews is also returning.

Upon arrival at Mrs. Monrell’s (Lucile Watson) home, Philip first encounters is mother’s new companion/secretary Stella Bergen, played by Ingrid Bergman. He is immediately captivated by her. The scene also alludes that Mrs. Monrell is anything but well. She convinces her son that he must finally take a role in the family-owned steel mill.

During the brief time Ward spends at the Monrell home, Stella becomes quite enthralled by him but declines to indicate any willingness to enter a relationship. When Ward leaves, followed by Mrs. Monrell’s retreat to a better climate, Philip works to convince Stella to marry him.

The couple are quite happy at first, but Philip becomes apparently upset by any creature that siphons away any affection Stella could instead shower upon him. He kills a kitten given to her by Ward, making it look like an accident but flying into a rage at the slightest suggestion by household staff that the circumstances seem odd.

At some point during the story it becomes plain that Philip was in fact the man in the French asylum, who assumed his friend’s name while there. His dispassionate personality and growing jealousy about his wife’s relationships –particularly her fondness for Ward– play out to an increasingly frightening degree. Philip invites Ward to visit and offers him a job as his chief engineer at the steel mill, only to attempt to kill him. The danger escalates for Ward and Stella and the plot takes an unexpected turn that puts Ward on death row.

Rage in Heaven does a great job of gradually revealing Philip’s insanity. What it does not do is draw out the suspense and drama associated with the twist in plot, which I am loathe to discuss here and spoil for those unfamiliar with the story. Suffice it to say, the movie would have been an excellent one if the last quarter of the film had been elongated.

Montgomery does a fantastic job; however, for those unfamiliar with his work, he might come off as a boring actor. Montgomery –who made a plethora of movies in the roll of wealthy playboy– is certainly cast against type here and pulls off his role by playing with a completely flat personality. The upbeat and sometimes zany performances we usually get out of the man are absent here as he works to play the emotionally bereft psychopath. So to the unknowing viewer, Montgomery’s performance might seem lackluster next to the typically stellar Bergman and Sanders.

At the close of Rage in Heaven, I could not help but think it would make an excellent remake. The story could be translated into modern times; however, there is a certain haste about the end of the story and the attempts to save Ward from his death that would be lost given modern technology. Still, a new version set in the 1940s would make for a delightful rendition, given certain changes to heighten the drama.

Yo Yo

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Yo Yo (1965)

Yo Yo (1965)

I often marvel at Charlie Chaplin’s ability to find success with silent pictures after the close of the silent era. When 1929 rolled around and with it the sound technology, all studios realized in order to compete they must produce talking pictures. Chaplin nevertheless issued City Lights and Modern Times with no spoken words after the end of the era in which he reigned supreme.

Fast forward to the 1960s and a French actor/movie maker repeated Chaplin’s success. Pierre Étaix with a background in film and clowning wrote, directed and starred in Yo Yo.  The black and white movie begins in 1925 and is absent any dialogue –emulating a silent film by including intertitles. His unexpressive face reminds us perhaps more of old Stoneface Buster Keaton, but his movements emulate the great silent comedians and we cannot help but laugh at his movements and lifestyle as a lonely millionaire.

The scenes are not absent all noise, however, with the sound of a squeak toy used for the opening and closing of every door and the opening of drawers, etc. The sound effects alone drive many laughs. But the picture does not remain dialogue-free. Come 1929, the intertitles tell us talking movies came in, perhaps as a way of justifying the new presence of spoken words. The stock market crash is the next historical event to affect the picture, sending our millionaire into poverty.

The man reunites with his ex-lover, a bareback rider (Luce Klein), and their young son (Philippe Dionnet) –of which the millionaire was unaware–and joins the traveling circus that employs them. The son, Yo Yo, maintains a photo of his father’s mansion and dreams of restoring the wealth he witnessed there. Time goes on and Yo Yo grows up (also played by Étaix) and becomes a star of stage and screen. When he finally secures the old mansion and throws a party for his parents, they refuse to enter, preferring instead to stay in their trailer and with the circus, thus leaving Yo Yo as alone and miserable as his father once was.

The films of Étaix have recently become available after a long-standing legal dispute with his distribution company. The man is wonderfully entertaining to watch and it is delightful to see a filmmaker embrace the silent way of life as late as the 60s.

The Unknown

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The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown (1927)

Despite how harsh I came down on circus movies in my last post, I recently enjoyed a very old but very good flick that falls in the sometimes successful circus-as-horror category. The Unknown pairs silent screen great Lon Chaney with a woman with a couple dozen silent movies to her credit: Joan Crawford.

The plot is a great one that scares and upsets the viewer with what is ultimately a very sad story. Chaney is Alonzo, the armless man at the circus. His lack of arms does not hinder him, however, because his feet have become substitutes adroit with such everyday activities as lighting a cigarette.

Also working for the circus is Crawford’s Nanon, who is the pretty girl who has knives hurled at her by thrower Malabar (Norman Kerry). The beautiful Nanon, whose father owns the circus, has had a past filled with the groping hands of men. The occurrences were so disturbing to her that she now fears the hands of all men. Although Malabar is in love with the girl, he sends her running in horror every time he touches her.

It’s no wonder then that Nanon is so fond of Alonzo. There is clearly a stark age difference, but the man has been in love with the girl for years. She seems to cling to him as a sort of fatherly figure, however. One night after Malabar has put his hands on Nanon to her dismay, Alonzo leaves his trailer to teach the man a lesson. We have seen him free his hidden arms from a corset device and now is fully equipped to take on any man. But the person who actually discovers his secret is Nanon’s father Zanzi (Nick de Ruiz). Alonzo strangles him to death, revealing to us why he hides his arms–a genetic defect that has given him a double thumb and can tie him to a variety of thefts.

With the circus disbanded, Alonzo takes Nanon away from the life she has known and tries to start his progression towards a relationship. He ultimately learns, however, she will care for no man with hands. This sparks the idea to have his arms surgically removed. In a very creepy, dramatic scene, Alonzo instructs a surgeon –whom he has coerced into the deed– as to where to remove the limbs. Once he has healed, Alonzo returns to find Nanon has warmed to Malabar and no longer fears his hands. The intertitled dialogue only further drives a stake into Alonzo’s heart as he realizes his grave mistake.

The costuming for The Unknown is magnificent and expertly hides Chaney’s arms from sight while the man is clothed. Chaney plays the part wonderfully, making us feel his anger, his dark side and his anguish. The close of the picture features the actor laughing maniacally as he realizes he has removed his arms for nothing and still has been rejected by the girl he loves. His face is so full of emotion that we can understand without hearing it that his laughter is not driven by joy. Chaney accomplished all of the feet-as-hands action with the help of an actual armless man, who lent his legs for the scenes. Chaney nevertheless is perfectly in synch with the movements so that they do not appear to be coming from two separate bodies.

Crawford really proves herself to be a talented actress in this silent flick. You might not recognize her if you weren’t looking for her, but she makes for a very lovely young woman. Crawford’s character is a sympathetic one, so we hold no malice against her when she opts for the other man.

Source: Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces documentary

A Ticket for Thaddeus & It’s a Most Unusual Day

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It has been some time since I enjoyed the half-hour “Screen Directors Playhouse” movies created for television airwaves in 1955 and 1956. The shows used big-time directors and often big-name actors to create the mini movies and many have proven to be quite good.

Among the great ones is Director Frank Borzage‘s “A Ticket for Thaddeus”, a drama about a Polish immigrant and his fear of law enforcement. It is evident from the first few minutes that this Thaddeus (Edmond O’Brien) connects all uniformed men with the Nazi soldiers who took him to a concentration camp when he lived in Poland. His wife (Narda Onyx), who was not sent to a camp, assures him America is different, but his fear persists.

After picking up an old dresser for repair, the carpenter collides with an oncoming car that has swerved into the wrong lane of traffic. The other driver, Bowen (Alan Hale Jr.), sees his convertible considerably damaged and accuses Thaddeus of trying to run from the scene because he did not initially stop. Thaddeus is terrified when Bowen says he will call the police and insists the accident was his fault and that he will pay for the damage. When the police arrive, the Polish man is handed a request to appear in court.

Thaddeus assumes the worst –that he will be sent to a concentration camp. He finishes his work on the dresser and packs his suitcase, leaving a note for his wife expressing his expectations. When he appears in court, Thaddeus tells the judge he is guilty, but a police officer provides evidence from the scene of the accident that proves Bowen was driving well over the speed limit and had crossed the center line. Thaddeus is sent home.

The extent and absurdity of Thaddeus’ fear of uniformed men and what he believed his fate to be are comical on paper, but the way O’Brien plays the part gives and entirely different mood to the episode. His performance is stellar and we feel his fear and sympathize with his past and the resulting phobia. The ending is somewhat touching in his exchange with the judge and the spilling of his suitcase of clothes he brought to accompany him to a concentration camp. It is easy to laugh and say, how ridiculous that he would think such things happen in the U.S., but it’s very sad at the same time.

Half-hour TV movies directed by Hollywood's best.

On a much lighter note is Director Claude Binyon‘s story of a romance as recalled through the songs of Jimmy McHugh –“It’s a Most Unusual Day”. The story is told in a manner reminiscent of Penny Serenade with the couple listening to the songs at a night club and recalling in flashback certain parts of their relationship. Fred MacMurray plays husband to Marilyn Erskine. The songs recall their early relationship in college when MacMurray’s Peter confesses a desire to marry Margie.

Next we see the effect of the Great Depression on the couple after two years of engagement. Peter wants to transition from being an auto mechanic to something bigger, and in the next flashback we see him running a trucking company and being seduced by another woman. The story goes on in this fashion until the couple’s son arrives to join them for dinner. We learn he intends to propose to the girl he as brought and the parents initially object to the lack of financial stability their boy can offer. He then reminds them –as the flashbacks have also done– that they also started their life together on the down and out.

The biggest hindrance to “It’s a Most Unusual Day” is MacMurray’s age. He was 48 when the episode aired, and so the flashbacks to his days as a college football player and young mechanic are difficult to see as anything other than a skit put on by the older versions of the characters. Erskine make the transition a bit easier with sometime age-appropriate attire and changing hairdos, but she comes off as not liking her husband all too much.

The best part of the episode are the songs. McHugh –who appears in the episode behind the piano and introducing the songs– was responsible for a number of well-known ditties including “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer”, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me”, “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby”, and the title song.

Shadow of the Thin Man

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Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)

The sleuthing team of Nick and Nora Charles were bound to find themselves in the midst of a gambling racket at some point in their on-screen careers. As movie history teaches us, gambling and bookies only lead to murder and further crimes, and in Shadow of the Thin Man our favorite detective comes out of retirement yet again to solve the convoluted case.

It is a wonder the writers at MGM could come up with a new and enthralling murder case for each of the six Thin Man movies, yet they do it again here using the same formula as the others. The key to the stories is the overabundance of characters, which in some cases are difficult to keep track of, and a mystery that gets further compounded with subsequent murders and crimes to the point that no viewer can deduce who the one culprit is. But that is why we have Nick Charles.

A portion of the comedic enjoyment of Shadow of the Thin Man is that although Nick (William Powell) is again insisting on his retirement from the sleuthing business, he happens to keep finding himself at the scenes of the crimes. At the start, the Charles’ are at the racetrack where a jockey is found killed –a jockey who was asked to throw the race. The press jump to the conclusion that Nick is on the case because of his proximity, but he denies any involvement. Later, while at a boxing match, Nick is again just a floor below another shooting murder of an unscrupulous reporter and his assault on an honest journalist.

The Charles’ are friends with the honest newspaperman and Nick agrees to get involved in part to prove this Paul (Barry Nelson) is innocent of the shooting of reporter Whitey (Alan Baxter). As the case progresses, complete with untrustworthy women and hoodlums, Nick discovers the first murder was not what it seemed, but he won’t let the public know that. His shrewd technique leads to the familiar ending with the entire cast of characters in one room, waiting for the guilty man to reveal himself and to try to kill Nick.

I have noticed as progressing through the Thin Man movies that Nick has become and increasingly bad alcoholic. At the start of Shadow of the Thin Man, Nick is out with Jr. (Dickie Hall) in the park across the street –reading him the racing form. Looking to get her husband home, Nora (Myrna Loy) starts shaking a cocktail mixer. This causes the distant Nick to remark: “Nicky, something tells me that something important is happening somewhere and I think we should be there.” The maid also notes that Nicky is becoming more like his father everyday: “This morning he was playing with a corkscrew.”

Nick’s drunkenness is always inserted for comedic relief and usually peters out as the story goes on and the stakes become more serious. Nevertheless, I don’t think I am stretching the truth in saying our favorite crime solver was often the worse for wear and not in an admirable sense.

  • Shadow of the Thin Man is set for 1:30 p.m. ET Dec. 18 on TCM.

Assignment–Paris

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Assignment–Paris (1952)

If we are to believe old movies, the occupation of a reporter was essentially synonymous with that of a detective. It’s the whole investigative journalist angle that often landed newspapermen in a heap of trouble trying to snare a story a.k.a. find the culprit. In Assignment–Paris, however, reporters go one step farther and become, in a word, spies.

George Sanders leads the pack of reporters in a story that if I hadn’t told you their occupation, you would think the characters are government agents. The paper in question is the New York Herald-Tribune’s Paris edition. Sanders as the editor in chief Nick Strang is finding out his new import is a bit of a wildcard but a great reporter. This Jimmy Race (Dana Andrews) tries to secure an interview with the Hungarian Ambassador at the same time the lovely Jeanne Moray (Marta Toren) is doing the same. Race is unaware she works for the same new outfit.

Race opts to romantically pursue Jeanne, who has declined to answer a proposal from Nick, but that is not what this story is about. Jeanne is a Hungarian who has just returned from Budapest on Nick’s request, but she leaves before she could get her hands on a photograph that is the only proof of a meeting between Hungarian Prime Minister Andreas Ordy and Yugoslavia’s President Tito. Jeanne is being followed by Hungarian agents, however, who suspect she has such evidence.

The plot also surrounds the spy trial of an American named Anderson, who is convicted and recorded admitting his crime in Hungary. Race is sent to Budapest to investigate further, and through clandestine means, ascertains that Anderson is dead. He cannot freely relay information back to Nick and instead telephones a coded story with the news. Race also manages to get his hands on the damning photograph. He is arrested by Hungarian authorities and tormented in days-long interviews. His words are recorded and edited to make it sound like he admits to being a spy.

The Hungarian authorities are also after a man in hiding in Paris, Gabor Chechi (Sandro Giglio), an escaped Hungarian national. In order to save Race, Gabor Chechi and the newspaper must make sacrifices.

Assignment–Paris is quite the exciting plot. It can be on the convoluted side, but keeping track of all the mentioned and actual characters is not as difficult as it might sound. As in most of these reporter-as-detective stories, both Jeanne and Race act like their duties come as no surprise and don’t differ from their usual activities. Being something close to a spy comes easily to Race as he finds a way to relay the photograph back to Paris.

The story is a bit much if we are to believe we are watching newspapermen. Sanders behaves as a top government official would, ordering his agents here and there to do more than objectively discover the truth, but to root it out to the ruin of a nation’s leaders. I’m not sure we ever see an actual newspaper with Race or Jeanne’s stories in it, further diluting their roles as reporters. I am not complaining, though. The high-stakes story is enthralling and goes miles beyond what reporters do today, not that I am advocating for their integral involvement in international politics.

The performances are excellent. Andrews is probably less sexy than some of this other roles, but he is still a great performer. Sanders is his usual, professional type character, but Toren brings the spice. This Ingrid Bergman-like exotic is gorgeous and captivating and does a great job as both a strong professional and a desirable woman. TCM has her listed as only appearing in a dozen movies, this being her third to last, which is too bad; she was quite a treat to watch.

The Devils

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The Devils (1971)

When the Hollywood decency code lifted and opened way for the rating system we have today, the 70s became flooded with naked flesh. During that time, nudity used in an unsexy or unartful way often was the reason a movie was considered a horror film. The Devils is such a case.

The true story is a drama about the extent the Catholic church under Cardinal Richelieu went to remove a priest who also had control over the one town blocking the cardinal from taking over all of France in the 1630s. The only reason I can see the flick being relegated to the horror genre is because of scenes featuring a large number of nude nuns. The movie was considered, and perhaps still is, highly controversial because it also features the top sister at the church sexually fantasizing about Jesus/the priest.

The Devils is actually a very well made movie with fantastic sets and a wonderful performance by Oliver Reed as the priest, Father Grandier. At the picture’s start one cannot help but loathe his character. Although the head of the church in Loudon, Grandier is depicted as very lustful, with one of the town’s young women pregnant after an affair with him. Grandier dismisses her concerns and tells her to bear her sin with religious fortitude(Georgina Hale).

The man nevertheless finds a plain, pure woman that he marries in lieu of an affair. The girl, Madeline (Gemma Jones), is considering entering the nunhood, but he persuades her otherwise, hoping to find salvation in the love of a good woman. The marriage, however, enrages the head nun, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave). This hunchbacked woman is highly sexually repressed and cannot stifle her love and obsession with Grandier.

Her rage leads her to tell authorities that Father Grandier has had a sexual relationship with her in her dreams, which leads to questions of possession of the nun by Satan. With all the women of the church now suspect of possession by the devil, they relish in the opportunity to run about naked, acting crazy and enduring exorcisms. The king calls Grandier to the capitol and is set on destroying him. Grandier became Loudon’s ruler when the governor died and has refused Richelieu’s demands to tear down its walls and forfeit its independence. Having been accused of outrageous crimes, Grandier can nevertheless not prove his innocence and he is put to death for his alleged crimes.

The story is a very frustrating one as Grandier becomes a largely sympathetic protagonist under a system of guilty until proven innocent. It is remarkable, however, that the plot is written to shift our character preferences around. Although at first Sister Jeanne seems like a sad character worth our affection, she soon becomes increasingly sinister while Grandier’s offensive lifestyle is shadowed by the wrongs committed against him.

The Devils is a great movie, but not a terrifying experience like those you might be seeking this time of year. It has its unsettling moments, but it is more a quality drama with a degree of controversial nudity.

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