The Main Event: Kirk Douglas in CHAMPION (United Artists 1949)

Kirk Douglas  slugged his way to superstardom in director Mark Robson’s CHAMPION, one of two boxing noirs made in 1949. The other was THE SET-UP , helmed by Robson’s former RKO/Val Lewton stablemate Robert Wise. While that film told of an aging boxer (Robert Ryan) on the way down, CHAMPION is the story of a hungry young fighter who lets nothing stand in his way to the top of the food chain. The movie not only put Douglas on the map, it was a breakthrough for its young independent producer Stanley Kramer .

Douglas is all muscle and sinew as middleweight Midge Kelly, and a thoroughly rotten heel. He’s a magnetic character, a classic narcissist with sociopathic tendencies drawing the people around him into his web with his charm. Midge has no empathy for others, not even his loyal, game-legged brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy in a solid performance), after he gets what he wants. And what he wants is the respect and admiration of the world, his bravado but a mask for his deep-seated insecurities brought on by his childhood poverty and abandonment issues. He treats the women in his life like dirt, seducing pretty waitress Emma ( Ruth Roman ), leering to her at the beach, “Well, shall we get wet?” (and how THAT quote got through the censors is a miracle!). Forced into a shotgun marriage by her father (Harry Shannon), Midge leaves her to hit the road to boxing glory. Later in the film, after Emma asks for a divorce to marry Connie, Midge brutally rapes her, then violently shoves down his own lame brother when confronted. Yes, Midge Kelly is a total shitheel, and Douglas’s acting will keep you riveted to see what new depths he’ll go to next. It’s a no-holds-barred performance that deservedly won Kirk his first Oscar nomination.

Emma and Connie aren’t the only victims in Midge’s merciless rise to the top. Fight manager Tommy Haley ( Paul Stewart ) takes the creep under his wing and trains him in the pugilistic arts, only to be first betrayed when Midge refuses to dive in a Number One Contender’s Match, then unceremoniously dumped for the lure of big money manager Jerry Harris (Luis Van Rooten) and femme fatale Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell). Harris isn’t exempt as Midge seduces his young wife Palmer (Lola Albright), a naïve sculptor unaware she’s being used until Harris teaches her a valuable lesson. Midge even abandons his own mother ( Esther Howard ), arriving too late to visit her before she dies.

Carl Foreman structured his screenplay in circular fashion, with an extended flashback relating the bulk of the story. Foreman, who got his start working on Bowery Boys programmers,  and producer Kramer teamed for some great films: HOME OF THE BRAVE, THE MEN (Marlon Brando’s film debut), CYRANO DE BERGERAC, and the classic Western HIGH NOON, but the writer’s former Communist affiliations got him blacklisted by HUAC. Foreman won the Oscar for 1957’s superb war drama BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, though the statue was given to credited author Pierre Boulle (this was corrected 27 years later, the year Foreman died).

CHAMPION was nominated for six Oscars, including Douglas, Kennedy, Foreman’s screenplay, Dmitri Tiompkin’s  score, and Franz Planer’s cinematography, winning for Harry Gerstad’s stellar editing job. The ultra-realistic boxing scenes were staged by former Light Welterweight champ Mushy Callahan, who trained Douglas for the film. Midge Kelly is a repellant character, but Kirk Douglas makes him fascinating to watch, and as in all good noirs, he receives his just desserts in the end, a victim himself of his own lustful machinations. It’s a knockout of a film that pummels the viewer with a barrage of body blows before delivering its fatal punch, and is highly recommended.

Halloween Havoc!: GHOST SHIP (RKO 1943)

gs1

Val Lewton produced some of the most memorable horror films of the 1940’s, moody, atmospheric set pieces noted for their intelligent scripts, chiaroscuro lighting, and eerie use of sound. CAT PEOPLE, THE BODY SNATCHER,  and THE SEVENTH VICTIM  are just three that spring to mind when I think of Lewton movies. GHOST SHIP is one of his lesser known films, a psychological thriller about a sea captain obsessed with authority who goes off the deep end, and while it’s not supernatural as the title implies, it’s a good film worth rediscovering.

gs2

A blind street singer on a fog-shrouded corner gives an ominous warning to 3rd Officer Tom Merriam, about to embark on his first voyage aboard the S.S. Altair, captained by veteran sailor Will Stone. Stone is stern but friendly, eager to teach Tom the ways of the sea, and implement his view’s of the captain’s authority. A crewman dies just before they’re about to set sail, victim of an apparent heart attack, and Stone, claiming “he was an old man”, launches without a replacement. A freshly painted grappling hook is left unsecured by the captain’s orders, despite Tom’s protestations. When the Altair hits rough seas, the crew risk their lives to secure it, and Tom learns his first lesson about questioning the captain’s authority.

When another sailor has an appendicitis attack, radioman Sparks puts in a ship-to-shore call to a doctor. Stone is unable to perform the delicate operation, and has Tom take over. Loyal officer Tom gives Stone the credit, as the captain explain he has the power if life and death over his men. We can see the cracks in Stone’s armor are beginning to show.

gs3

Crewman Louie (an uncredited Lawrence Tierney ) dares to question Stone’s authority when he complains about being down two crewmen now. Stone once again offers an explaination for his actions, telling Louie before he leaves, ” There are some captain’s who’d hold this against you”. Later, Louie is down in the hold as the crew drop a massive chain down, and Stone locks him in, causing the sailor to be crushed to death. Tom sees him below, and accuses him of deliberately killing Louie. An inquest is held at the port of San Sebastian, and the sailors all side with the captain, even ‘The Greek’ who praises Stone for saving his life during his medical crisis. Tom is crestfallen and plans on leaving the Altair and settling up in San Sebastian.

gs4

But Tom is knocked unconscious while break up a fight with the sailors in front of a bar, and shanghaied back to the Altair. Stone offers him the ship’s  hospitality, but reminds his former 3rd officer, “There are some captain’s who’d hold this against you”. The crewmen all give Tom the cold shoulder, even his friend Sparks. Tom returns to his quarters to find his door lock’s been tampered with, as well as his porthole. A wire comes through asking if Tom’s aboard, and when Stone tells Sparks to reply “no”, his supicions are aroused. Tom heads to the gun cabinet only to find Stone waiting for him. “Authority cannot be questioned”, says the unhinged captain. A wire comes through asking if Tom’s aboard, and when tone tells Sparks to reply “no”, the radioman’s suspicions are aroused. Sparks goes to Tom and says he’ll help him, but he’s intercepted by Stone. The captain then asks Tom to help send a wire, informing the shore that Sparks has gone overboard. The two men fight and the crew breaks it up, with orders from the captain to restrain and sedate Tom. The mute seaman Finn (whose inner thoughts we hear throughout the film) finds the wire and shows it to his mates. Stone overhears the men talking about the situation, and he completely snaps, hearing voices in his head saying “Maybe the boy is right”. He grabs a cutlass and heads to Tom’s cabin, murder in his eyes…

gs6

The horror is strictly psychological here, there are no demons, zombies, or cat people, only the psychotic Captain Stone. Veteran actor Richard Dix (the Academy Award winning CIMARRON, THE WHISTLER series) gives a Queeg-like performance as the sea captain slowly descending into madness. Russell Wade(THE BODY SNATCHER) is fine as Tom, and Lewton regulars Edith Barrett (the only female in the cast), Ben Bard, Dewey Robinson, and calypso singer Sir Lancelot are also in the cast.

This is the American debut of actor Skelton Knaggs, playing the mute Finn. Knaggs had the creepiest looking face this side of Rondo Hatton, resembling a living skeleton, and has a long list of small but pivotal roles in horror films: THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, ISLE OF THE DEAD, HOUSE OF DRACULA, TERROR BY NIGHT, and BEDLAM, usually uncredited. He’s one of those actors whose name you may not recognize, but that face is unforgettable:

gs5

Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography is outstanding as always, and Mark Robson’s direction keeps this GHOST SHIP taut with suspense. Most readers are familiar with Lewton’s greatest hits, but this quiet, gripping little film is worth seeking out. While GHOST SHIP isn’t out-and-out horror, I think you’ll find it quite a treat for your Halloween movie basket.

Master of Horror: Boris Karloff in BEDLAM (RKO 1946)

 

bedlam1

(This post is part of the TCM SUMMER UNDER THE STARS blogathon hosted by Kristen at JOURNEYS IN CLASSIC FILM! )

bedlam2

Boris Karloff made a trio of films for producer Val Lewton in the mid-40’s: THE BODY SNATCHER , ISLE OF THE DEAD, and BEDLAM. The Old Master of Terror was given the opportunity to show off his acting prowess in these dark, psychological horrors. Freed from the restraint of playing yet another mad scientist or creature, Karloff excels in the roles of murderous Cabman Grey, plague-ridden General Pherides, and here as the cruel martinet of Bedlam, Master George Sims.

bedlam3

Lewton cowrote the script with director Mark Robson  , “suggested by” William Hogarth’s 8th painting in the series “A Rake’s Progress”. There are a lot of sly references to Hogarth in BEDLAM, and the artist even gets a screenwriting credit. It’s 1761 London, and the class struggle between rich and poor rages (the more things change… ). One of the inmates of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum (known to the locals as Bedlam) attempts to escape via the rooftop, but a guard stomps on his fingers, plunging him to his doom. Corpulent Lord Mortimer (Billy House) calls Master Sims, the “apothecary general of St. Mary’s” and noted poet, on the carpet for the death. The unctuous Sims, who’ll do anything to keep his position, offers to amuse Mortimer by having his “loonies” put on a performance for the Lord and his upper crust cronies. Mortimer’s “protégé” Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is appalled when one of the inmates, a young boy gilded in gold paint, dies while doing a recital.

bedlam4

Nell tours the asylum, and is further dismayed at the squalid, deplorable conditions the inmates are forced to live in, and at Sims’ cruelty, referring to them as animals and even keeping some in cages. “They’re all in themselves and by themselves”, she says, and gets Mortimer to agree to make changes. But the wily Sims appeals to Mortimer’s pocket book, and Nell leaves the Lord in a fit of pique. Sims and Mortimer conspire to have Nell committed to Bedlam, and she lives in fear for her life as she becomes a prisoner of Sims’ house of horrors.

bedlam5

BEDLAM is more costumed drama than out-and-out horror, though there are more than enough shocks to satisfy genre fans. Director Robson made his first five films under Lewton’s aegis, and along with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, conveys a sense of dread throughout the film. Of course, the fact they had horror’s King Karloff as Sims didn’t hurt. Boris gives us a restrained depiction of evil as the master of Bedlam, his purring voice belying the corruption that lies within. He’s subservient to Lord Mortimer, his rich and powerful benefactor, and takes out his self-loathing on those less fortunate, the “loonies” in his charge. Sims will do anything to retain his minute amount of power, and gets no sympathy when he gets his comeuppance at the film’s powerful conclusion. It’s a bravura performance, and alongside Grey in THE BODY SNATCHER, Boris’ best of the 40’s.

bedlam6

Anna Lee had played opposite Boris before, in the 1936 British horror THE MAN WHO LIVED AGAIN. She became a favorite of John Ford , and was featured in seven of his films, including HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, FORT APACHE, and THE LAST HURRAH. Miss Lee was also in the horror classic WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, and known to millions as Lila Quartermaine on the long-running soap GENERAL HOSPITAL. She goes toe-to-toe with Boris here, and her transformation from silly plaything for the rich to enlightened woman is a good job of acting itself.

Billy House (Lord Mortimer) was an old burlesque comic who transitioned into a fine character actor, particularly in Orson Welles’ THE STRANGER. The rest of the cast isn’t well-known, but Richard Fraser does well as a Quaker who aids Nell. More Familiar Faces to film buffs include Ian Wolfe (a standout as a former lawyer, now an inmate of Bedlam), Jason Robards Sr, Elizabeth Russell, Skelton Knaggs, Ellen Corby, Tommy Noonan,  and future horror/sci-fi star Robert Clarke.

bedlam7

This was the last of the Lewton/RKO entries, sending the series of intelligent psychological horror films out on a strong note. Karloff lovers won’t want to miss this one, as Boris adds another fine portrait to his Rogue’s Gallery. He wouldn’t get as good a role as Master Sims until the monster revival in the 60’s, and it’s his last great film of the classic horror era. BEDLAM does with its modest budget what many bigger films fail to do, sending a potent message while entertaining the audience at the same time.

sound + vision: THE SEVENTH VICTIM (RKO 1943)

sev1

Producer Val Lewton revitalized the horror film during his tenure at RKO Studios in the 1940s. Working with a miniscule budget, Lewton used the power of suggestion rather than monsters to create a body of work that’s still influential on filmmakers today. Studio execs came up with the sensationalistic titles (CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) and gave the producer free rein to tell the stories. Using shadows, light, and sound, Lewton’s quiet, intelligent approach to terror was miles ahead of the juvenile (but fun) stuff cranked out at Universal and Monogram.

THE SEVENTH VICTIM could be considered lesser Lewton. It’s  not seen as often some of his other classics, and that’s a pity, because it’s superior to many of the better known horror movies of the era. This quiet psychological thriller with its civilized satanic cult was a rarity for its time. Only Edgar G Ulmer’s 1934 THE BLACK CAT dared to tackle this kind of material before. In fact, I’m surprised the Production Code didn’t cut this one to shreds, with its devil worshippers and barely concealed lesbian subplot.

Continue reading “sound + vision: THE SEVENTH VICTIM (RKO 1943)”