Fall in Love with LAURA (20th Century Fox 1944)

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If you’re like me, you’ve probably watched LAURA more than once. It’s one of the top film noirs, indeed one of the top films period of the 1940’s. LAURA is unquestionably director Otto Preminger’s greatest achievement; some may argue for ANATOMY OF A MURDER or even ADVISE AND CONSENT, and they’re entitled to their opinions. But though both are great films, only LAURA continues to haunt the dreams of classic movie lovers, its main themes of love and obsession transferring to its fans even 73 years after its initial release.

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Preminger, along with scenarists Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhart, weave an intricate, sinister tapestry around the violent death of beautiful New York ad exec Laura Hunt. Cynical police detective Mark McPherson is determined to solve this particularly gruesome murder; Laura was killed at close range by a buckshot-loaded shotgun blast to the face. McPherson begins by questioning Waldo Lydecker, the acerbic newspaper columnist who relates via flashback how he “discovered” Laura and became her mentor, aiding her career and introducing her in high society circles, circles that contain lowlifes like the freeloading Shelby Carpenter, living off Laura’s Aunt Ann’s ‘generosity’ while becoming Laura’s fiancé.

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McPherson grills both Shelby and Ann, as well as Laura’s loyal housekeeper Bessie. He reads her intimate diary and letters from admirers, immersing himself in Laura’s life so deeply he becomes obsessed, falling in love with the dead woman. Waldo calls him on it, and McPherson lets on he’s uncovered Waldo’s own obsession and outright jealousy through the letters. McPherson gets drunk, falling asleep in the chair under a huge portrait of Laura.

Then Laura Hunt walks through the door, alive and well, and his entire world turns upside down….

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Now the fun really begins, as McPherson must discover who the dead girl was, and who knew what. The first comes easy, the second a bit more complicated. In the midst of all this mystery, McPherson and Laura fall in love, and the killer shows his hand in the exciting conclusion. LAURA has more twists than a pretzel, and is twice as tasty in its unfolding of the tale. The dark, moody cinematography by Joseph LaShelle deservedly won the Oscar that year; LaShelle was also nominated eight other times for films like MARTY, THE APARTMENT, and THE FORTUNE COOKIE. David Raskin’s haunting score includes Laura’s theme, which became a 40’s juke box hit with added lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Louis Loeffler’s skillful editing aids in ratcheting up the suspense.

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Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are the most romantic couple in noir, and both became genre icons. The pair again teamed with Preminger for 1950’s WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS. Vincent Price is the sleazy gigolo Shelby, and Judith Anderson is good as Ann. But it’s Clifton Webb’s portrayal of the acid-tongued Waldo Lydecker who walks away with acting honors. The columnist “with a goose-quill dipped in venom” is simply stunning to watch as a man obsessed, going to any lengths to make Laura his and his alone, resorting to murder to achieve his goal. Webb had appeared in a handful of silent films, but this was his first foray to Hollywood since 1930, and he totally dominates every scene he’s in. He was nominated for, but did not win, Best Supporting Actor; the Oscar went to Barry Fitzgerald for GOING MY WAY. But LAURA put Webb on the map in Hollywood, and he went on to star in films like THE DARK CORNER,   THE RAZOR’S EDGE, TITANIC, THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN, and his signature role as Mr. Belvedere in three film beginning with SITTING PRETTY.

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LAURA was also nominated for Preminger’s direction, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Black & White Art Direction, for a total of five. It should have won more, but Leo McCarey’s sentimental GOING MY WAY dominated the Oscars that year. Both are classics, but for my money LAURA’s the better film, its dark look at love, lust, and obsession way ahead of its time. This is Otto Preminger’s masterpiece, a true cinema classic that stands up to the test of time and deserves its reputation. Definitely must viewing for readers of this blog!

 

 

 

Cheers for THE LAST AMERICAN HERO (20th Century Fox 1973)

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The world of NASCAR racing takes center stage in THE LAST AMERICAN HERO, a fictionalized biopic of legendary driver Junior Johnson. But this isn’t just a film about stock cars; it’s an extraordinary character study of a young man from the backwoods of North Carolina who discovers himself and what’s important to him. Jeff Bridges is outstanding in his first full-fledged starring role, demonstrating at age 24 the acting chops that have carried him to a long and prosperous film career.

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Junior Jackson hauls moonshine for his Daddy on the winding backroads of  the Carolina hills, his tactics eluding the cops at every turn. He’s cocky and confident, and pisses the local law off so much they bust up Daddy’s still and send him back to prison. Junior decides to use his only marketable skill to raise money for the family while Daddy’s away – driving. He enters a demolition derby, using an illegal railroad tie to batter his opponents, and badgers promoter Hackel (Ned Beatty in another fine performance – why hasn’t this man ever won an Oscar???) into letting him enter a ten-lap preliminary race, which he wins.

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Junior knows how good he is, and his talents take him to the top of the sport, encountering along the way characters like stock car groupie Marge (Valerie Perrine) and macho driver Kyle Kingsman (a swaggering William Smith). But the center of his universe is his family. Daddy Jackson (Art Lund) doesn’t know any life other than making moonshine, and wants better for his son. When Junior expresses his desire to race, he tells his son, “Damn foolishness to one person is breath of life to another”. Mom (Geraldine Fitzgerald) worries about the dangers of the racing life, and brother Wayne (pre-stardom Gary Busey) is both antagonist and supporter, as most brothers are. The Jackson family isn’t portrayed as just a bunch of hillbilly moonshiners, but real flesh and blood people, and it’s refreshing to see.

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Director Lamont Johnson is another of those that had more success on television than film. He did eight TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, including the classics “Nothing in the Dark” and “Kick the Can”, and won Emmys for WALLENBERG: A HERO’S STORY and LINCOLN. His big screen output ranged from okay (YOU’LL LIKE MY MOTHER, CATTLE ANNIE AND LITTLE BRITCHES) to atrocious (LIPSTICK, SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE). THE LAST AMERICAN HERO is without question his finest feature. The exciting action on the oval is well captured by DP George Silano, and skillfully edited by the tandem of Robbe Roberts (BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA) and Tom Rolf (TAXI DRIVER, THE RIGHT STUFF). William Roberts (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ) based his screenplay on an Esquire Magazine article by Tom Wolfe.

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THE LAST AMERICAN HERO doesn’t make many critical discussions about great films of the 70’s, but I believe it deserves to be in the conversation. Not just another slice of Americana pie, it’s a well-constructed story expertly told, with exciting action, a great ensemble of actors, and a star turn by Jeff Bridges. It should be on your watch list. As a bonus, the movie’s theme is “I Got a Name” by the late, great Jim Croce, which didn’t even get an Oscar nomination, but should have (“The Way We Were” won that year), so to close this out, here’s Jim Croce:

 

 

The Roots of STAR WARS (20th Century Fox 1977)

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It had to happen sooner or later so, with the new ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY being released tomorrow, I figure now is a good time to take a look at one of the biggest films of the 1970’s, STAR WARS (retitled A NEW HOPE for you revisionists, but to me it’s still just STAR WARS). I’m pretty sure everyone reading this post is familiar with the story, so rather than rehash the plot, I’m just going to dive right into some points of interest for classic film fans.

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First off, the movie was originally imagined as a loving homage to serials like FLASH GORDON and BUCK ROGERS. Writer/director George Lucas originally intended to remake FLASH, but couldn’t obtain the rights, so he created his own space opera universe, cobbling bits and pieces from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Joseph Campbell, The Bible, and other sources, including the movies he grew up with and admired. There’s a definite John Ford feel to much of STAR WARS, especially THE LOST PATROL  (the droids trekking across Tattoonie) and THE SEARCHERS (Luke discovering the fate of his aunt and uncle). I’d swear Ford himself was calling some of the shots, the composition is that close. Being a huge Ford fan myself, I’m always pleased when someone decides to “borrow” from the old master!

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Sergio Leone  also gets some love, during some of the action scenes and use of close-ups. Another Italian director who doesn’t get mentioned when STAR WARS influences are cited is Antonio Margheretti, whose 60’s low-budget sci-fi lunacies sprang to mind as I rewatched the movie. And everyone should be aware of the influence Japanese director Akira Kurosawa has on this film. I do know the scene where a man’s arm is cut off by light sabre, and again where Han Solo is offered “Two thousand now, plus fifteen when we reach Alderaan” are direct references to Kurosawa’s classic YOJIMBO.

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I’ve not seen Kurosawa’s THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, so I can’t comment on the correlation between the characters in that film and the banter between CP3O and R2D2. I can say with some certainty the two loveable droids have a direct lineage to classic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy , with a dash of Abbott and Costello for good measure. CP is obviously modeled after Rotwang’s creation Maria in Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS, while R2 resembles nothing less than a sentient vacuum cleaner! R2 does have a moment when he gets zapped by Jawas that brought to mind FORBIDDEN PLANET (which itself was a heavy influence on another space opera franchise- STAR TREK !).

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The evil Lord Darth Vader was so malevolent it took two actors to portray him! Well, not really, the truth is physical presence Dave Prowse’s heavily accented voice didn’t fit the character. Lucas wanted Orson Welles to provide Vader’s ominous tones, but went instead with James Earl Jones, who does a superb job. Prowse had once played the Frankenstein Monster alongside Peter Cushing in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, and the two are reunited here as the great Mr. Cushing plays equally evil Gran Moff Tarkin. I couldn’t help but wonder what the film would’ve been like if Lucas had chosen Christopher Lee to portray Vader, and gave us fans another chance to watch Hammer Film’s two greatest icons together!

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The light sabre duel between Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) is no doubt inspired by the grand final battle between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD . Sir Alec himself thought the movie was a lot of “rubbish”, but lends a dignified presence to the proceedings. Some of the films he made with British director David Lean, mainly LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, cast a large shadow over the look of STAR WARS. War films as a whole play a part in influencing the movie, as Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor was behind the camera for THE DAM BUSTERS, the attack on the Death Star was pretty much lifted from 633 SQUADRON, and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE has also been cited as an influence.

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I could go on and on, but you get the picture. As much as STAR WARS has influenced a generation of filmmakers, the original itself has its own roots firmly in the cinema of the past. There’s the James Bond-ish battles between the Stormtroopers and the Rebels, the old “walls-closing-in” gag, the opening shot recalling 2001, the CASABLANCA like bar scene, the cocky Han Solo echoing both Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster… and I’m not 100% certain, but when Leia calls Chewbacca a “walking carpet”, is that a reference to THE CREEPING TERROR?? Only George Lucas knows for sure!! Lucas took the futuristic visual aesthetic of his THX-1138 , combined it with the full-blooded teen angst of AMERICAN GRAFFITI and his love of film, and gave us an adventure that’s truly stood the test of time. So when you all rush out to see ROGUE ONE tomorrow night, remember without classic films past, there is no STAR WARS. And maybe, just maybe, this little post will persuade a few of you to revisit some of those thrilling films of yesteryear, made long ago, in a studio far, far way…

Rockin’ in the Film World #8: BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (20th Century Fox 1970)

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Sex and drugs and rock and roll!! That about sums up BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, a lightning-fast paced Russ Meyer extravaganza covering the end of the decadent 60’s with a BANG… literally! The movie was originally intended to be a sequel to 1967’s soapy and sappy VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, but Meyer and screenwriter Roger Ebert (yes, THAT Roger Ebert!) changed course and concocted this satirical, surrealistic saga that skewers Hollywood, rock music, the sexual revolution, and anything else that got in its way.

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Like the original, the story concerns three nubile young ladies trying to make it out in La-La Land (that’s Los Angeles, folks), only this time they’re a Midwestern rock power trio named The Kelly Affair. Kelly (Dolly Read, former Playmate and soon-to-be wife of comedian Dick Martin), Pet (model/actress Marcia McBroom), and Casey (Playmate Cynthia Meyers), along with Kelly’s boyfriend and band manager Harris (David Gurian), hit the big city, where Kelly’s sexy Aunt Susan (Phyllis Davis of VEGA$ fame) bequeaths a third of her fortune to her only living relative, much to the displeasure of slimy lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod).

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The trio attend a hipster party thrown by record producer and scenemaker Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (a completely over-the-top John LaZar). The promoter digs their sound and look, rechristens them The Carrie Nations, and they zoom to the top of the pop charts. Kelly’s ego gets the best of her, and soon she demands half of Susan’s dough, thanks in part to hustler Lance Rocke (Peter Fonda lookalike Michael Blodgett), who worms his way into her, uh, good graces, leaving Harris out in the cold. Porn star Ashely St. Ives (the immortal Edy Williams!), who gets horny when the wind blows, then sets her sights on Harris’s fresh meat, and what Ashley wants, Ashley gets!

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Drummer Pet (and why is the drummer always black in rock films?) hooks up with earnest law student Emerson (Harrison Page, later of TV’s SLEDGE HAMMER!), but strays with World Heavyweight Champion Randy Black (Blaxploitation/Exploitation fixture James Iglehart). Bassist Casey quickly gets hooked on booze and downers, ends up pregnant by Harris, has a (then) illegal abortion, and falls into the arms of designer Roxanne (Meyer vet Erica Gavin). All these shenanigans wind up in a private party at Z-Man’s, where the peyote-laced wine takes things from love-in to freak-out as Z goes psycho and starts a bloody killing spree…

This delightfully demented cautionary tale moves at breakneck speed, and there’s never a dull moment as we follow the band on their sordid rise to the top. It’s funny right up until things take a dark turn as Z-Man reveals his true nature and, his mind blown from all the drugs, starts chopping off heads and blowing people’s brains out! Ebert’s script is a psychedelic trip through the sleazy side of Hollywood, filled with in-jokes (Porter Hall was a 30’s-40’s character actor specializing in weasels), thinly disguised characters (Z-Man= Phil Spector, Randy Black = Muhammed Ali), and nods to classic film genres. Rated X when first unleashed, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS contains plenty of nudity but no explicit sex scenes. The rating was bestowed more for the bombastic, gore-filled ending, coming so soon after the Tate-LaBianca Manson murders that scandalized the country.

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The Carrie Nations aren’t the only rock band featured here. The psychedelic sounds of Strawberry Alarm Clock can be heard playing at the party, including their #1 smash “Incense and Peppermints”. The band had also appeared in AIP’s hippie drama PSYCH-OUT, a Dick Clark Production, making them the only rock band in history to hold the distinction of working for both Clark and Russ Meyer! Folky singers The Sandpipers (of “Gunatanamera” and “Come Saturday Morning” fame) warble the title song, while blues rocker Lynn Carey (daughter of actor Macdonald Carey) dubs Kelly’s vocals. Composer Stu Phillips (known for his TV scores on THE MONKEES, GET CHRISTIE LOVE!, and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, among others) fills the film with groovy period music, and The Carrie Nations’ songs were written by Bob Stone (Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps, & Thieves). I really dug the hard rocking “Sweet Talkin’ Candy Man”!

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BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS probably isn’t for everybody, but it’s a delicious treat for many, especially Grindhouse fans. It’s a wild ride to Hollywood’s dark side, filled with sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, and for my money you can’t beat that!

BONUS! Here’s Strawberry Alarm Clock doing their hit, “Incense and Peppermints”!

Halloween Havoc!: MAN IN THE ATTIC (20th Century Fox 1953)

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The story of notorious 19th Century serial killer Jack the Ripper has been told countless times on the screen. The case has never been officially solved, and there are probably more theories about Jack’s identity than there were victims. Author Marie Belloc Lowndes wrote “The Lodger”, a speculative fiction novel based on the Ripper murders, that was in turn made into a silent film by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock  in 1927. The film was remade in 1932 with the same star, Ivor Novello, then again in what’s probably the most famous version, 1944’s THE LODGER , starring Laird Cregar, Merle Oberon, and George Sanders. Almost a decade later, the tale was again remade, this time with Jack Palance as the mysterious MAN IN THE ATTIC.

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Fog shrouded London’s Whitechapel District is being terrorized by a fiend known in the press as Jack the Ripper. Scotland Yard is baffled, police patrols have been doubled, and the female populace is in fear of their lives. It’s during this time Mr. and Mrs. Harley advertise for a lodger, and Mr. Slade answers the ad. Slade tells them he’s a pathologist working odd hours, and rents not only the room, but the attic room above, so he can conduct his experiments in privacy. The Harleys also house their niece Lily, a music hall actress about to make her stage debut.

Lily’s visited backstage by Anne Rawley, former star now working as a prostitute, offering her best wishes. We then see Lily perform a musical number, while Anne meets her doom at the hands of the Ripper. Inspector Warwick questions Lily about the visit, and states there’s a witness who describes Jack as wearing an Ulster (top coat) and carrying a black bag. Coincidently, this also describes Slade’s attire. Aunt Helen begins to have suspicions about her new lodger, but Uncle Henry dismisses them as feminine nonsense.

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Slade opens up to Lily about his childhood. His mother was an actress who cheated on his father and ended up a prostitute. Lily feels sorry for him, and thinks he’s innocent, even after he’s caught burning his bag and Ulster. Inspector Warwick doesn’t, and when the Ripper strikes again, he leaves a thumbprint in his victim’s apartment. Warwick wants to use the new technology to compare it with Slade’s prints and, while in the lodger’s room, discovers a picture of Anne Lawrence, first victim of the Ripper. After another musical number (a Can-Can dance!), Slade appears in Lily’s dressing room, asking her to run away with him. When she rebuffs his advances, he pulls a knife, revealing himself to be Jack the Ripper after all.Warwick and the police arrive and bust down the door, but the Ripper escapes, commandeering a carriage, careening down the streets of Whitechapel with the police in hot pursuit. Slade walks out into the river, and a search proves fruitless. Jack the Ripper is dead… or is he?

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Jack Palance gives a creepy, understated performance as Slade, and in fact saves the film from the doldrums, for MAN IN THE ATTIC isn’t all that suspenseful. There’s really no doubt he’s the Ripper, mainly because there are no other suspects. Palance was fresh off his success as the gunslinger in that year’s SHANE, and this low budgeter was his first starring role. He illicits some sympathy as the lonely, isolated Slade, though his Scottish accent comes and goes.

Hey, it's Aunt Bee!
Hey, it’s Aunt Bee!

It’s a rare chance to see THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW’s   Frances Bavier (Helen) play something besides Aunt Bee, but if I told you I didn’t think of Mayberry’s favorite aunt while watching I’d be lying. Character actor Rhys Williams does well with the part of Uncle Henry, but the two young leads, Constance Smith (Lily) and Byron Palmer (Warwick) leave much to be desired. Quite frankly, they’re both boring, even during Lily’s musical numbers. Horror vet Lester Matthews (WEREWOLF OF LONDON, THE RAVEN  ) has a small part as Warwick’s superior, while other Familiar Faces include Sean McClory, Lillian Bond (THE OLD DARK HOUSE), Harry Cording, and Isabel Jewell.

Director Hugo Fregonese had more success in Europe and his native Argentina then he did in Hollywood, due to the lack of quality scripts he received in America. There are some atmospheric scenes here, but they’re few and far between. MAN IN THE ATTIC isn’t the best adaptation of THE LODGER (that would be the ’44 version), but it’s not the worst. That dishonor goes to the 2009 remake, updating the story to modern-day LA, with a copycat Ripper on Sunset Strip. It’s just kind of bland and mediocre, and if you’re not a big Jack Palance fanatic, there’s no reason to watch this one.

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE FLY (20th Century Fox 1958)

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THE FLY is one of those films you’re probably familiar with if you’re a horror/sci-fi fan. I’ve seen it many times, but was under the impression it was a black & white movie (probably due to early viewings as a young’un, deprived of color TV). So when I rewatched it again in glorious Technicolor, I was pleasantly surprised. This tale of science gone wrong has held up well, and its iconic scene of The Fly’s unmasking still manages to jolt the viewer (even if you know it’s coming!).

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The film’s framing device finds us witnessing Helene Delombre murdering her husband Andre by squishing his head and arm under a huge hydraulic press (and it’s a pretty gruesome demise), then calling her brother-in-law Francois to tell him. Francois is stunned, to say the least, and gets ahold of his friend Inspector Charas. They drive over to the Delombre Freres (the movie’s set in Montreal) factory, where they discover the grisly scene. Francois is only able to identify what’s left of Andre by the scar on his left leg.

Helene calmly confesses to the murder, but refuses to say why she did it. Francois and Charas go down to Andre’s lab hoping to find some clues, only to discover the place has been totally trashed. Helene, meanwhile, is oddly attracted to a housefly, and becomes hysterical when a nurse swats it. Son Philippe tells Uncle Francois about a funny looking fly with a white head and leg that appeared when “daddy went away”, and the brother-in-law lies to Helene that he has it. Relieved, Helene finally tells Francois and Charas the whole shocking story…

Andre had been conducting experiments in molecular disintegration/reintegration, able to “transport matter at the speed of light”. The experiments worked fine with inanimate objects, but when he tries it on the family cat, the feline’s atoms scatter into the stratosphere. Undaunted, Andre makes some adjustments and tries it on himself. But there’s a fly in the ointment, literally: a common housefly enters the molecular chamber with him, causing a disruption that gives him the insect’s head and arm, and vice-versa!

Andre can only communicate through written notes, and pleads with Helene to find the white-headed fly, so he can try to reverse the process. Her attempts prove fruitless, causing Andre greater frustration. Now comes the scene where Helene unmasks the hooded Andre, reminiscent of the scene in 1925’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. We watch in horror as Helene recoils at the sight of her husband, and we also get a fly’s-eye view of her terror:

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Losing his grip on sanity, Andre goes berserk, smashing up his lab equipment. Realizing there’s no hope, and fearful of what he’s become, Andre asks Helene to assist him in committing suicide. They go to the warehouse the press is located in, and Helene does the job, where the film began.

Francois then admits he doesn’t have the fly, and Charas, thinking her story preposterous, books her on a murder charge. She freaks out in terror, begging them to find the fly. Charas says she’ll probably be declared insane, while Francois holds out hope in finding the fly and exonerating her. As the ambulance arrives to cart Helene away, Philippe tells his uncle the funny-looking fly is trapped in a spider’s web. The men run over to it and find the insect, with Andre’s head and arm, screaming “HELP ME! HELP ME!” as the arachnid is about to chow down on him. Charas, in shock and horror, smashes it with a rock to put it out of its misery. He realizes he’s now as much of a murderer as Helene, and the two concoct a story claiming Andre’s death to be a suicide, freeing Helene and shielding the world from the dark secret of Andre Delombre.

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The cast does a terrific job of keeping the fantastic tale believable, including Al Hedison as the doomed Andre. Hedison would soon change his name to David and gain fame as the Seaview’s Captain Crane on TV’s VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. The movie really revolves around Patricia Owens as Helene, a 20th Century Fox contract player known mainly for this and 1957’s SAYONARA. Vincent Price gives a restrained performance as Andre, unlike his usual scenery-chewing horror roles, and is quite effective. Herbert Marshall (Inspector Charas) was a veteran character actor who played in classic films like Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, THE LETTER, and ANGEL FACE ; his genre credits include RIDERS TO THE STARS and GOG. Child star Charles Herbert (Philippe) is familiar to horror/sci-fi fans for COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, 13 GHOSTS, and the TWILIGHT ZONE episode “I Sing Thee The Body Electric”, based on Ray Bradbury’s short story. Familiar Faces include Kathleen Freeman and Torbin Meyer, and yes, that’s Queen of the Hollywood Extras Bess Flowers sitting in the balcony with Andre and Helene at the ballet.

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Kurt Neumann was one of those directors who’d been around Hollywood for years without ever cracking the big time; THE FLY is probably his best known work. Screenwriter James Clavell was responsible for THE GREAT ESCAPE, KING RAT, and TO SIR WITH LOVE before publishing the mega-popular novel SHOGUN, made even more popular when it became a TV miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune. L.B. Abbott’s special effects are great, featuring some cool futuristic lab equipment. Kudos also goes to the sound department, adding to the film’s creepy atmosphere.

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THE FLY is a bona fide horror classic, and produced two sequels (RETURN OF THE FLY with Price again and CURSE OF THE FLY). It was also remade by David Cronenberg in 1986 as an AIDS allegorical tale, one of the few instances where the remake is as good as the original. Those of you who haven’t seen 1958’s THE FLY (is there anyone who hasn’t?) should add it to your Halloween viewing list. Those who have… well, you already know!!

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Lucille Ball: THE DARK CORNER (20th Century Fox 1946)

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Having grown up on endless reruns of I LOVE LUCY (and her subsequent variations on the Lucy Ricardo character), I’m not used to watching Lucille Ball in a dramatic role. In fact, I think the 1985 TV movie STONE PILLOW is the only time I’ve seen her play it straight until I recently watched THE DARK CORNER on TCM, a minor but enjoyable noir with Lucy headlining a good cast in a story about a private eye framed for murder. And since today marks the 105th anniversary of the redhead’s birth, now’s as good a time as any to look back on this unheralded hardboiled tale.

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Lucy, looking mighty sexy at age 35, plays Kathleen Stewart, secretary to PI Bradford Galt, recently relocated to The Big Apple. He’s got a secret past that’s dogging him, and a shady man in a white suit following him. Galt confronts the tail, who claims to be a fellow PI named Foss working for Galt’s old partner Jardine. Kathleen’s sweet on Galt, but he keeps warning her to get out while she can. He finally reveals his deep, dark secret to her: Jardine was a blackmailer of women and embezzler who, when Galt found out, set up the detective on a manslaughter rap, earning Galt two years in stir.

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Jardine’s chummy with art gallery owner Hardy Cathcart, a sarcastic sophisticate married to Mari, a much younger woman. Slimy Jardine’s up to his old tricks, wooing Mari under Cathcart’s nose. But the cagey codger knows what’s up, and he’s hired a hitman (Stauffer, using the alias Foss) to kill Jardine and frame ex-partner Galt for the murder. Stauffer does the deed, and winds up getting shoved out a 30th floor window by Cathcart for his troubles. Jardine’s body is found under Galt’s bed, and now he and Kathleen must work diligently to solve the mystery before Galt ends up in the electric chair.

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Lucy’s good as Kathleen, working as Galt’s partner rather than just a mere secretary. Her banter with the PI is cute in a non-cloying way, and it’s not spoiling anything to let you know she gets her man in the end. Miss Ball was freelancing at this point in her career, no longer under contract to RKO or MGM, and she was getting a reputation as strictly a B-movie queen. A savvy businesswoman, Lucy moved to radio and starred in a hit sitcom called MY FAVORITE HUSBAND. That new-fangled medium television came along and, with a switch of leading men (Richard Denning to real-life husband Desi Arnaz) and change of titles, the show debuted on October 15, 1951 as I LOVE LUCY. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Mark Stevens plays tough-guy Bradford Galt, and though he’s a bit stiff, he’s  better here than in BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN . Clifton Webb is the acerbic, lovelorn Cathcart in a part very similar to his Waldo Lydecker in LAURA. The always reliable William Bendix is Foss/Stauffer, adding his particular brand of menace to the film. Kurt Kreuger, usually an evil Nazi, is the suave but just as evil Jardine. Reed Hadley keeps popping in and out as a police lieutenant keeping a sharp eye on Galt. Cathy Downs (Mari) was once the sweet title girl in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE , later costar of THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN. Familiar Face spotters will want to keep their eyes peeled for Constance Collier, Ellen Corby, Molly Lamont, Donald MacBride, Matt McHugh, John Russell, and Charles Wagenheim.

Henry Hathaway keeps things taut for the most part, though for me the film dragged in some places. Hathaway was one of those Hollywood directors not noted for any particular genre, but always managed to make good movies. Some of his other noirs were the classic KISS OF DEATH, THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET, 13 RUE MADELEINE, and NIAGRA. He worked with stars like Gary Cooper (seven times!), Randolph Scott, and Mae West (GO WEST YOUNG MAN). He’s mainly regarded for his Western work, and guided John Wayne through his Oscar-winning performance in TRUE GRIT. Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography is appropriately dark and atmospheric.

THE DARK CORNER is not a great film, but it gives fans a great chance to see Lucille Ball act in a dramatic role. The girl was good, no doubt about it, and should have spread her thespic wings more often. But once she hit the small screen, everyone just wanted to see the lovable redhead clown her way through one madcap adventure after another. Happy birthday, Lucy.. we still love you!