Tuesday, August 7, 2018

THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY (Terence Fisher, 1959, UK)

"Let me please introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste, And I laid traps for troubadours, who get killed before they reached Bombay" - Sympathy for the Devil

Captain Lewis isn’t a man of wealth and taste:  he’s the conscience of the British Crown who must fight against not only a mysterious Cult but the ignorant nepotism of his own Empire. Terence Fisher deftly directs this savage adventure story about the Thuggee Cult of Kali in 80 minutes, wasting little time with exposition and establishing shots and instead focusing upon exploitive violence and caricature.

Captain Lewis is a British officer and a truly good man (exceptionally portrayed by Guy Rolfe) who demands Justice for the missing native Indians and protection for the merchant caravans. Lewis becomes even more personally involved when his house servant Ram Das goes missing while in search of his (Ram Das’) brother. This becomes a crucial plot twist later in the story. Frustratingly for Lewis, Colonel Henderson brings in a familial appointee to investigate the disappearances instead of allowing Captain Lewis to continue his research.  Of course, this new officer, Captain Connaught-Smith is a stuck-up arrogant incompetent buffoon who treats the natives with contempt and bigotry. Lewis eventually takes matters into his own hands while resigning his commission.

Fisher films in black and white Scope which actually gives a mundane and realistically grimy appearance to the story. Fisher balances the frames well and his attention to detail is noted. For example, the British officers are seen in medium shot and close-up sweating profusely and wiping their brows while the native Indians are often relaxed and quite adjusted to the climate. This is never noted in dialogue and a nice touch that is more subliminal than liminal. The violence is rather extraordinary even for Hammer: eyes burnt out with an hot iron hook, flesh seared as part of a ritual, multiple strangulations with silk garrotes, severed hands, corpses being gutted so they don’t swell in the heat, and even the villain being burned alive. Gruesome stuff for a B-movie fable for kids!

Captain Lewis is vindicated in the fiery finale and even though Ram Das is dead, his little brother saves the day and himself. There is a major plot hole/contrivance that makes the viewer scratch their head in wonder but the film rockets along at breakneck speed (literally) until the brutal climax. Captain Connaught-Smith makes his grave and lies in it too.  


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

CASH ON DEMAND (Quentin Lawrence, 1961)

A man must suddenly face his trial balance, his viperish authority now reduced by fear and crushing anxiety, an automaton now unable to suppress his human nature. Quentin Lawrence directs two of Hammer’s most elegantly acerbic and witty actors in Peter Cushing and Andre Morrell, as they duel with words and morals that begin to decode the enigma of complex ethics and sacrifice for duty.

The plot is a basic heist case that focuses upon a bank manager Fordyce (Cushing) and a thief Hepburn (Morrell) masquerading as a security director from the “home office”. But the story eschews genre tropes and becomes a paranoid and focused character study of the uptight and airtight banker Fordyce, locked in his own vault of personal horrors. Fordyce is an arrogantly small man who rules his staff with clockwork precision and attention, a micro-manager who is as infuriating as he is dull. Fordyce doesn’t demand respect since he doesn’t care what his staff thinks of him, he demands absolute obedience. He looks down his raptor-like nose at his employees, treating them with disdain and contempt. However, Cushing is able to mold his character into a complex human being, as the dark waters of neurosis boil to the surface. We see the man beneath the stoic mask. Hepburn is the gentlemanly and roguish thief, one who is seemingly driven to crime by the sheer pleasure of pulling off the perfect caper, but also a blunt man who will victimize for profit.

The film utilizes a static location to great effect, mostly set within the confines of the manager’s office, like a shrine to a peon, where a man over time has been reduced to a phantom haunting his own life, ethereal yet ghastly to his subordinates: it is the environment of a dead man who has yet to surrender the ability to breath. Hepburn is the devil with the details, he is the catalyst for Fordyce to recognize his weaknesses and offers him salvation. Though Hepburn is a thief whose intent is the 97,000 pounds, he seems just as interested in cursing his nemesis in order to save his soul. This is reflected in the final scene when Hepburn makes his confession and absolves Fordyce of sin. In this case, the profit belongs to Fordyce but not in a measurable way that can be jotted down in a accounting ledger.

Final Grade: (B+)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

THE FULL TREATMENT (Val Guest, 1960)

A race car driver finds his life stuck in neutral after a terrible crash on his wedding night, his emotions twisted metal and impotent rage. Val Guest directs this thriller with the accelerator pushed firmly to the floor, a narrative that races through red flags towards a surprising climax.

Alan Colby is a world famous race car driver who can no longer run at full speed, suffering post traumatic stress that relegates him as a passenger to his docile wife. He must conquer the consuming fear of loss of motor control as his hands become weapons, murderous entities that seemingly act of their own accord. Unable to be physically aroused by his beautiful bride, he lashes out with unbridled violence, nearly strangling her with intimacy. Denise sticks by his side and seeks the help of a psychiatrist, but first Alan must swallow his pride and purge his guilty conscious.

Val Guest imbues the film with a riptide of dialogue as the characters trade barbs and malicious tirades, or collapse into crippled silence worn out from the maelstrom. Overlapping conversations heighten the sense of dynamic tension as Alan spins out of control while his wife stands by her man. Dr. Prade utilizes psychiatric gimmicks that would make professionals cringe (oxygen deprivation, drug therapy, hypnotic regression) that works well as a plot device, and finally gets to the root cause of the association between the crash and his urge to strangle his wife. It’s a clever link in the chain of events, as Alan is a man who controls his life with his hands, thundering horsepower his heartbeat…and it’s his hands that betray him. The suspense mounts between the trio: will Alan be cured, are Dr. Prade’s intentions therapeutic, and is Denise faithful?

Though the story relies on pop psychology (but so does Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND) the final suspension of disbelief becomes refreshing and enlightening. The film begins with a car crash and fortunately doesn’t end as one.

Final Grade: (B-)

Saturday, November 25, 2017

MANIAC (Michael Carreras, 1963)

A young girl is sexually assaulted by a stranger and her father tortures the perpetrator, losing his mind in the emotional conflagration. Years later, an unlucky American finds a place in this broken home and suffers the fiery consequences. Michael Carreras’ proficient thriller may be lacking in internal logic but burns like an acetylene torch.

Paul is a young American, exiled to a small French village after settling affairs with his girlfriend, where a stiff drink leads to his dropping a stiff in the drink, so to speak. He flirts with Annette, the beautiful waitress whose dark eyes mirror her troubled past but Paul is seduced by her Mother-in-law Eve, who owns the bar. This ménage a trios is a triple threat and Paul soon follows his heart instead of his morals. After discovering the dark family secret (Eve’s husband is sentenced to an Asylum for murdering the rapist who molested Annette), Paul decides to help Eve with a plan to help her husband escape and start a new life. Paul even balks at the idea since he’s sleeping with a married woman, and he knows Eve's husband doesn’t take to having his family ‘spoiled”, but Eve convinces him that the marriage is mutually ended. Why Eve doesn’t just legally divorce her husband is never explained, but Paul’s good intentions pave the road to hell and brimstone.

The black and white cinematography is exceptional adding to the gritty realism with Cinemascope compositions shot on location, and chiaroscuro effects that deepen the suspense. The film slows considerably when the inspector appears and spouts exposition like a narrator, insulting the audience’s temperament. Carreras smartly cuts away at the film’s explosive nexus of events though the surprise is properly foreshadowed, and the last scene utilizes oblique angles and dizzying heights that bring the thrilling climax crashing to the ground.

Final Grade: (B)

Thursday, November 9, 2017

FANATIC (Silvio Narizzano, 1965)

A cat and mouse game played in the confines of an Victorian mansion, as a young femme feline is hounded by religious dogma. Richard Matheson adapts Anne Blaisdell’s novel NIGHTMARE but embellishes the story with his palsied humor ripe with pre-marital strife, a union falling to pieces before it even joins in holy matrimony.

Patricia decides to visit to her ex-fiancé’s mother-in-law, to pay her final respects to the memory of the man she once loved, to ease the suffering of a woman who has lost both a son and potential daughter. Pat is a fiery American Girl, raised on promises and the spirit of independence, whose vexing relationship with her new lover is apparent from the outset: Patricia takes accelerates towards her fateful destination. She soon learns that Mrs. Trefoile (a wonderfully zany and overwrought performance from Tallulah Bankhead) is a religious nut who has finally cracked, surrounding herself with servants who exploit her madness in hopes of an inheritance, with a minor appearance of Donald Sutherland as Joseph, a mentally challenged handyman.

The film can be read as a treatise on religion when scripture supersedes law and human rights, whether screeched by the extremist or preached by the conservative. Mrs. Trefoile condemns the wicked Patricia because she isn’t pure and has tainted her son’s everlasting soul, and locks her up until she can be spiritually cleansed. The story also becomes a conflict between beauty and the beast: in other words, youth and old age. Patricia is forbidden from wearing makeup and wearing red (the Devil’s color) so she can be a sexless form of clay and mud. But Mrs. Trefoile was once a refined beauty, revealed in her secret room dominated by a painting of her deceased son, painted shortly before his death.

Patricia attempts escape after escape and is never willing to compromise her life, and spends most of the film in bondage, slapped around, and verbally abused. Mrs. Trefoile does god’s work and punishes her perverted servant, and suffers the consequences of trusting a backstabbing maid.

Final Grade: (B)

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

THESE ARE THE DAMNED (Joseph Losey, 1963)

Our future contained in a stone prison, the progeny not of dividing cells but splitting atoms. Director Joseph Losey’s science fiction film is anathema of a future age, where black leather is no protection from deadly radiation. Losey’s bipolar narrative begins like contemptuous proclamation against the wicked and bored youth before splicing into a cautionary tale about cold war ethics.

The title creates a false expectation that the motorcycle gang, led by the charismatic King (an exemplary performance by Oliver Reed, perhaps a future echo of Kubrick’s bratchny protagonist), are the generation cursed. Contrasted with a girl on the cusp of womanhood coupled to an older man, and her incestuous brother dressed in cruel black leather, the roaring engines become the scream of predators looking for their next victim. Losey’s art house style is a cross between Godard and Brando, allowing the camera to linger upon sculptures, twisted like bodies pulverized by radiation, while Reed ruptures with hipster rebellion.

Suddenly, the story takes a turn for the surreal as the characters inadvertently stumble into a secret government compound and discover a terrible secret: children, isolated from the world since birth, are part of some mysterious experiment. These children thirst for physical contact, never having known their parents, their only contact with adults through closed circuit TV. But their love kills the very ones who desire to save them, their touch venomous, their fate unkind.

The group attempts to escape and lead the children from their prison, but these mutants are bred to survive a nuclear holocaust, to carry on the English Way through an irradiated winter…and beyond. This secret devours all who become tainted with the knowledge, gunshots the epitaph for the unlucky. And as the film fades to black, a child begs for help from within stone, screaming for release, but their time will come when the world is dead.

Final Grade: (B)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

SCARS OF DRACULA (Roy Ward Baker, 1970)

A young woman suffers impingement of her exterior jugular vein, ragged scars an evil testament to the awakening of the Baron of Blood. A giant rubber bat vomits forth a clotted prayer and resurrects its master, who haunts an ominous castle and preys upon the supple buffet of women who inhabit the nearby village. Roy Ward Baker’s tale is both deadly serious and darkly humorous, walking that nebulous boundary between camp and convention.

The Count rises from the ashes and soon terrorizes the local village. After the murder of a young woman, the locals set fire to the castle but Dracula survives…because stone castles don’t burn so well. Some time later (time is a mystery here, could be weeks or years) Paul, a womanizer on the run from the cops, has the unfortunate luck to escape the town elder and meet the elder undead. His brother Simon and Simon’s fiancée Sarah soon discover his fate and must destroy the evil that now lurks in the darkness.

The story seems to refute the basic vampire mythology since every person bitten by Dracula dies instead of rising as a minion. A female vampire is briefly introduced and seduced by Paul but is actually murdered by being stabbed to death…with a knife. Dracula still retains an aversion to the Christian cross but fortunately has a slow but tenacious bat that not only murders a church full of women, but is dexterous enough to chew a necklace from between bulging cleavage. The story is London in the raw set in the 19th century, with swinging singles and free love facing the consequences of impulsive behavior.

Religion falls victim to the carnivorous Chiroptera, since it leaves its doors open to all who enter. Hint: when hiding from a giant bat…close the fucking doors! Simon has the final word with shocking results proving that vampires are inflammable, after all.

Final Grade: (C)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

THE GAMBLER AND THE LADY (Patrick Jenkins & Sam Newfield, 1953)

Now this is film noir! The opening sequence shows a man bleeding from a gunshot wound stumbling down a dark alley. As he steps out into the street a pair of headlights speeds towards him and he’s run down. As the title splashes across the screen and the music reaches a crescendo we are utterly on the edge of our seats wanting to learn about this man and why someone wanted to kill him! Co-Director Sam Newfield is a veteran of the American B-movies and it’s most likely his influence that infuses this story with it gritty noir style.
The plot is rather interesting especially for a Film Noir: it’s about American gangster Jim Forrester seeking to quit his life of crime and be accepted in British High-Society. Of course, this will lead to his downfall when he sells his small gambling empire and is himself defrauded by a rich man’s racket. One of the underlying themes of the story is that the wealthy are as crooked (maybe more so) than the hard working gangsters who pulled themselves out of the gutter.
Forrester is dating the dancer in one of his nightclubs who becomes jealous when he falls for a Socialite. Lady Susan Wells turns out to be a decent loving person and is the one who rescues Forrester at the end while it’s the dancer who runs him down in a rage! But the plot turns on a fired henchman who is hired by the competition after Forrester loses his temper and beats him up because he didn’t follow orders. This guy’s vendetta leads to a nasty shootout in the final act. This causes Forrester’s wounds and his trek down a dark alley which brings the story full circle.
Once again, the British perspective transforms the genre into something unique: Forrester, though a man who operates outside of the law is the protagonist and is presented as a flawed but honest and loyal boss. One scene shows him being tutored in British table manners and dinner etiquette and his clumsiness and American accent makes it both funny and a bit embarrassing. Another scene at his nightclub shows Forrester trying to “speak the language” of the Socialites who are celebrating a birthday and it’s uncomfortable to watch him struggle to fit in and be patronized by these elitists. Lady Susan admonishes her friends and brother for their condescending behavior and she soon becomes the love interest. The entire cast is excellent from American actor Dane Clark to the sniveling henchman who betrays his boss (focusing Peter Lorre). The final scene of Forrester’s loyal friend carrying his unconscious body carries some emotional weight.  
Shootouts and barroom brawls to learning which is the proper glass to pour champagne, THE GAMBLER AND THE LADY is an entertaining marriage of British mores and American morbidities.

Final Grade: (B-)