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-) 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

STOLEN FACE (Terence Fisher, 1952)

Dr. Ritter falls in love with a beautiful blonde concert pianist and when she leaves to marry another man his morals take a vertiginous turn for the worse. Terence Fisher’s film is a starting point for VERTIGO, filmed years before Hitchcock; after seeing this, you’ll appreciate the Master of Suspense even more!
Once again, the British prove that they don’t quite have the hang of the Film Noir genre. The film begins with a romantic score that seems more adapted to a sappy melodrama or serial than a bleak world of cynicism and despair. The first two acts set up the third but drag on too long. In the first act, we learn that Dr. Ritter performs plastic surgery on criminals because he believes it’s their deformity which can cause a person to resort to a life of crime and recidivism. He is scheduled to rebuild Lily’s face, a once beautiful young girl whose horrible facial scarring causes her to be a social pariah and kleptomaniac. But the good Dr. is overworked and goes on vacation where he falls in love with Alice a beautiful professional pianist. Of course, she fails to mention that she is engaged and the week ends in broken hearts and promises. Dr. Ritter returns sullen and hurt and rebuilds Lily’s face into an exact replica of Alice!
The second act shows an obsessive Dr. Ritter taking Lily out to be fitted for new gowns and having her hair cut and dyed, reminiscent of Judy Barton from VERTIGO. The actress who plays both parts (Alice & Lily after the surgery) is strikingly similar to Kim Novak too. A different actress played Lily before the surgery so we need to stretch our disbelief a bit to accept the complete transformation into another visage including Alice’s throaty and seductive voice. But at least Lily still retains her Cockney accent. Hammer regular Andre Morell has a small role as Alice’s fiancée who is kind enough to break off the engagement when he suspects she is still in love with Dr. Ritter. It’s a breakup that is way too kind and gentle for a seedy film noir! But this leads to confrontation in the third and final act.
The story finally gets around to becoming interesting and generating some suspense and emotional friction. Alice returns to proclaim her love for Ritter and discovers his strange marriage. Unperturbed, she’s soon convinced that Lily wants to murder him and inherit his fortune. Lily may have a new face (more borrowed than stolen, really) but she still retains the same criminal mind…and criminal friends. The film ends aboard a train as a drunken Lily attacks Alice and accidently falls to her death from the moving train. To be clear, there is no mistake that her fall is accidental. Fisher fails to grasp the ambiguities inherent in the genre and the complex moralities often at play. But here Dr. Ritter and Alice are saddened by the death and walk away together into a brighter future.

STOLEN FACE has a very interesting premise (Hitchcock made it the best film ever made!) but Terence Fisher fails to explore the secret depth of Ritter’s character. The story is written blandly and the characters perform as an upright audience would expect. It’s not a terrible film by any means but could have been so much more subtle and devastating.

Final Grade: (C-)  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

MAN BAIT (Terence Fisher, 1952)

Terence Fisher's Hammer debut is a melodrama that masquerades as film noir. The existential moral landscape of the American crime genre is replaced by forthright British mores, as even the Femme Fatale is re-written as the Homicidal Homme. The film's poster shows a seductively stacked Diana Dors in a pink bra and proclaims Blonde Blackmail! Alas, the poster is much more titillating than the film itself.  

Terence Fisher sets up the story like a typical British stage drama as he introduces characters and conflicts with curt efficiency all contained within the confines of one set: the bookstore. His camera setups and lighting are too proper and conventional to reflect the bleak and gritty reality of the noir-ish underworld. Even the characters fit within typical conventions of the average sitcom where good and evil are easily discernable. Ruby is played with a seductive naiveté by Diana Dors (not in a pink bra sadly) but is ultimately revealed to be a victim too and not the temptress leading the cynical protagonist towards certain doom. Actually there is very little that is cynical or emotionally chiaroscuro in MAN BAIT where even the title lacks verisimilitude.  

The moral crux of the narrative is in Ruby's apparent blackmail of her boss John Harmon after they steal an embarrassed kiss together one night while working late. But Ruby is no seductress and is clearly being led astray by her new acquaintance Jeff Hart, who bullies her into writing a letter to John's wife which results in her death. Hell, it’s not even suggested that Ruby and Jeff have a sexual relationship just a mere fondness for one another. When John gives Ruby the money out of grief and desperation, she is accidently murdered by Jeff who then hopes to frame John. But John Hartman's secretary Stella was also his nurse during the War. She cares for him a great deal and conspires to clear his name and reputation. This is where the film fails mostly as a film noir because the characters' intentions are too clearly defined as either good or bad: John is the manager of the bookstore and War veteran; Stella his faithful servant; the wife crippled and lovingly dependent upon John; Jeff just released from prison and shady; Ruby the beautiful young lass easily manipulated and regretful. Director Terence Fisher also fails to utilize the deep shadows and skewed compositions which help to define the genre, or the lurid slang and jazzy music that can transform original sin into enchanting vice.  

Though the first two acts (thus, most of the film) are dreadfully boring; the final act displays some of the budding talent and promise that Fisher would bring to some of the later Hammer classics. He films one scene in a bombed-out cathedral as the sweeping stone arches and columns support nothing but the leaden sky, and the empty windows which once supported stained glass saints now perceives only dead gods. Since this was shot only a few years after World War II the scars of Hitler’s airstrikes and V-2 rockets have yet to heal entirely. In another scene Fisher utilizes a jump-scare to great affect with shadowy lighting and perfect timing as a face suddenly appears from behind a bookcase for a shocking reveal! The effect is more horror than noir and it’s no wonder Fisher went on to direct the most popular horror films for Hammer. The fiery climax is also well conceived as the actors must physically navigate through the conflagration for a dramatic rescue.
MAN BAIT is mostly a bore as it ends with a somber and unambiguous finale as each man gets his just rewards.

Final Grade: (C)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

CAPTAIN CLEGG (Peter Graham-Scott, 1962)

This is one of the best Hammer films! CAPTAIN CLEGG was re-titled NIGHT CREATURES for US distribution and this gives a false impression of it being just another horror or monster movie while in fact it is a swashbuckling adventure film. It's a shame that this was Director Peter Graham-Scott's only foray into the Hammer oeuvre because he captured the pure essence of child-like excitement balanced with very adult themes of crime and punishment. 

The story begins with a Pirate ship bobbing on a gloomy sea with an inter-title declaring the Year of the Lord as 1776. Cut to: Captain’s Quarters as a huge man (addressed to disparagingly as Mulatto) is being held down and accused of “attacking the Captain’s wife with the intent to assault and murder her”. He screams in defiance as his punishment is read: “Ears be split and tongue cut-out and left on the nearest uninhabited island with neither food nor water and left to die!” The camera pans in to extreme close-up of his eyes full of burning rage. He is then left tied to a post to slowly wither and die of either blood loss or starvation, as he grunts and screams in terror. This may be the greatest opening in the Hammer canon. Who wouldn’t want to keep watching? 

There is much left unsaid in this preamble: was the “Mulatto” given a fair trial? Did he actually attack the captain’s wife or was he falsely accused? We only see pronouncement of punishment and the sentence being carried out. He seems to want to speak and offer an explanation but his mouth is quickly covered. I believe it’s no coincidence that this biracial sailor is being judged harshly without trial at the same time as another population, a melting-pot of people, is also fighting for freedom from an unfair British Rule of Law. Also, the Pirate Captain himself flees pursuit of the British Navy for, as we later learn, freeing slaves from British ships presumably traveling to this New World. CAPTAIN CLEGG can thus be seen as a metaphor for the tyranny of British rule when the accused has no recourse to basic Rights or Rule of Law. Interestingly, the Captain is both victim and prosecutor under this reading which creates a complex and quite human characterization nobly embodied by Peter Cushing.  

After the opening credits, superimposed upon an eerie scarecrow under dark stormy sky, the camera focuses upon Captain Clegg’s grave marker: hanged at Rye 1776. The camera then pans skyward upon the bell tower of a church and gives us the story’s present tense of 1792. The church is dark and foreboding. We then get an omniscient narration and text crawl stating that the Romney citizens are a proud and independent people, sparing no love for the governments Revenue Men. It ends warning of the legend of the Marsh Phantoms. We then see the skeletal steeds, ghost riders in the darkened sky, as they pursue a lost wanderer through the marsh. These phantom riders seem one with their ghostly steeds, and their glowing bones seem to radiate their own ghastly light. They chase their prey into a literal dead end, where the swamp becomes his watery grave. His last breath bubbles to the surface upon the brackish waters which transitions to the church’s stained-glass window under which a preacher sermonizes. This is Parson Blyss and his bored but dutiful flock.

Soon, the Parson must deal with the Government Revenue men who are investigating claims of these marsh phantoms but which Captain Collier (the story’s antagonist) believes is a front for smugglers. The rest of the film contrasts Blyss and Collier, two men with different goals but are much alike, both moral yet violently punitive: Blyss seems indifferent to the man at the beginning being murdered to prevent their secret from escaping and Collier allows his men to torture Harry (Oliver Reed) in order to get him to reveal the secret hideout. Both men seem to feel that the ends justify the means 

As the clash of personalities escalates and the mystery is on the verge of being solved by Collier, another very interesting plot thread develops. Note that the mystery is revealed very early on to the audience: Blyss and the townsfolk are smuggling wine to bypass the King’s taxes. The secondary plot involves the Mulatto escaping and what it inadvertently reveals about the girl Imogene (Harry’s love interest) and her and Blyss’ lineage. After a paper is uncovered stating that Imogene is the daughter of the Pirate Clegg, Harry rushes to Blyss and together they seek to suppress the information. The Mulatto attacks Blyss after earlier acting hostile towards him, and Collier suspects the Parson may not be whom he seems. When it is revealed that Blyss is indeed Clegg and Imogene his daughter (as confidant, Harry already knew) it is interesting to ponder her age. The bountiful Yvonne Romain obviously looks older than fifteen but Clegg’s harsh treatment of the Mulatto now makes sense: Imogene was the product of that vile rape in 1776. The fate of Clegg’s wife is never mentioned but one could assume her death after childbirth from injuries sustained during the assault…either physical or mental. It adds another layer to this rip-roaring adventure story that doesn’t relent for its 80 minute run time!  

Michael Ripper portrays one of the major characters and is excellent as Mipps, Clegg’s faithful cohort and friend. He actually has more than a few speaking parts (not as much as in THE MUMMY’S SHROUD) and carries on with a snarky yet honest demeanor. Oliver Reed also elevates his minor part as Harry into a powerful performance. He is able to express sarcasm and resentment with subtle expression and body language. And Peter Cushing gets to kick and fistfight with his mountainous nemesis, getting thrown around and jumping through a burning window! He’s an action hero!   

Director Peter Graham-Scott paces the film with perfect timing and precision as there’s not a moment wasted. He also takes the film out of the usual Hammer backlot and into open fields and swamps, so the locations seem fresh and daring. Graham-Scott also films in natural light giving the film a more realistic or historical texture.  

CAPTAIN CLEGG ends without addendum like most Hammer films, as Blyss/Clegg is murdered by the Mulatto and his faithful companion Mipps fires truly and kills the behemoth. Mipps carries his friend to the grave of Captain Clegg, pried open earlier by the Mulatto in his quest for vengeance, and lays him down to sleep forever. It is both sad and full of pathos as one wonders what Collier will do next: arrest Mipps and the townsfolk or consider the case closed. At least Imogene and Harry escaped to begin a new life together…perhaps under that newly created Democracy in a land far, far away.  

Final Grade: (A)       

Monday, August 4, 2014

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Terence Fisher, 1962)

Hammer’s rather dull and boorish remake of the classic Universal 1943 version invokes more violence and bloodletting but excises romance and sentimentality to bring the whole affair to a yawning conclusion.

Director Terence Fisher films in splendid saturated colors to bring this turn-of-the-century Victorian horror tale to half-life. Fisher utilizes some of the largest set-pieces ever seen in a Hammer film by filling the Opera House with hundreds of extras and hiring a full orchestra for the opera scenes. The opera within the film is SAINT JOAN (never mind that Joan of Arc wasn’t canonized in 1900) and is solidly staged and acted with grand designs and bombastic score: it is often more interesting the story we’re watching! The film does look wonderful and seems that Fisher realized the story’s innate weaknesses so he dressed each scene with rich period details as eye-candy. There are some nice transitions such as the actress (who would be replaced by our heroine) turning to see a dark figure in her room which briskly cuts to clashing symbols. Herbert Lom as the wicked and betrayed Phantom is perfectly cast; he can show maddening violence checked by his sympathy, an artist whose very heart pumps musical notation, his very lifeblood sucked dry by the despicable Ambrose D’Arcy. Unfortunately, Michael Gough’s performance as D'Arcy is so evil and spoiled that it unbalances the film because the romantic interest, Edward de Souza (Harry Hunter) is rather bland and uninteresting. Even Christine Charles in the lead role of Heather Sears is nothing more than a meek and reactive child, a one-dimensional cipher for the film’s virtually static drama. She isn’t terrible, she’s just….there.
The story itself is rather weak and leaves one with some unanswered questions. The narrative unfolds as the lead actress in SAINT JOAN quits the opera after a murder/suicide during a performance. It is never explained why this poor soul was murdered: was he somehow in league with D’Arcy? We never discover if he deserved this cruel fate. We are then introduced to Christine as she auditions. After accepting the role she begins to hear a taunting voice. As she and Edward investigate and begin to uncover the mystery, a rat-catcher is also murdered in the Opera House with a gruesome pick in the eye! There is no explanation forthcoming for this act and we are later left to forgive the Phantom and his animalistic sidekick.

Soon, Edward discovers that a writer named Petrie actually wrote the opera SAINT JOAN and D’Arcy stole it from him. This resulted in a fire at a local printers and Petrie being scarred by acid and disappearing, presumed dead by the police. But he floated into a storm drain and into the underground lair beneath the Opera House. We are then left to suspend our disbelief that Petrie/Phantom moved a giant working organ and his many peripherals to this bunker and has not been discovered in ten years! When he captures Christine he cruelly forces her to accept his tutelage as if he can train her in a few days. Though D’Arcy gets his comeuppance it’s not severe enough: he just runs screaming when he sees the Phantom’s scarred face. It’s also never explained who gets credit for the opera: is it Petrie, de Souza or still the knave D’Arcy? It’s difficult to find sympathy for Petri as we never know why he sold his lifetime’s work for such a small sum of 50pds. We also have to forget the innocents murdered (such as the hanged worker at the beginning and the rat-catcher)during his reign of terror even if his companion did the dirty work.

The denouement seems tacked-on or made up at the last moment. The Phantom is given a heroic ending that fails moral judgment. Perhaps if he were to revenge upon D’Arcy and they both perished it would have felt more justified. Finally, it happens that during the final scene of the opera, the hunchback companion is discovered watching from the rafters above. As he is chased by stagehands he accidently causes the huge chandelier to crash upon the stage. The Phantom jumps to save Christine and pushes her out of the way and is killed instead. Fade to black.

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA isn’t a very good film as its slow pace and thin characterizations make for an often boring 84 minutes. The flashback in the final act brings any suspense to a complete standstill as it then finishes with a dull thud. However, the film does look beautiful and one can admire the grand set designs and brilliant colors. Herbert Lom is also wonderful though we don’t see enough of him. I recommend this film for Hammer completists only.

Final Grade: (C-)

Sunday, July 27, 2014


The swashbuckling hero Kronos and his affable and intelligent hunchback companion Grost are called to a small rural community to solve a series of mysterious murders. They discover a gruesome attribute as the victims were not just murdered but had their vitality literally sucked from their bodies with a spot of congealing blood upon their lips. With the help of Dr. Marcus and the sultry Carla they finally confront the living dead.
Director Brian Clemens helms one of the last great Hammer films with visual flourish, turning a simple vampiric “whodunit” into a Technicolor spectacle haunted by dark shadows. The film opens with a close-up of a silver cross upon the breast of a beautiful young lady. She’s sitting under a tree primping herself in a handheld mirror as her friend stands nearby. Clemens shoots over the shoulder of the sitting girl to catch the reflection of her friend in the mirror as they talk; a stylistic signature that he will use throughout the film. As the friend runs off to collect flowers Clemens gives us a strange POV shot that moves slowly toward the sitting girl. We suddenly see over the girl’s shoulder and into the mirror; this time, we see a reflection of a dark cloaked figure. Her look of horror slowly turns into one of longing as she reaches towards the figure in a loving embrace. The mirror now discarded shows the reflection of the dark figure picking her up. Clemens pulls focus from the mirror’s image slightly to show blood dripping upon its clear surface. Her friend stands dazed as a rider (Dr. Marcus coincidently) stops and calls out. As he approaches the standing girl Clemens begins the shot at her feet and slowly rises to eye level; we see her staring as if mesmerized towards her friend who is seemingly just sitting under the tree as before. Clemens gives us another tracking POV shot matching the first but this time it belongs to Dr. Marcus. In one shot the POV tracks towards the girl as everything seems normal until she turns her head to the right and stares directly into the camera: she is now a violently aged woman with blood upon her lips. We get the Doctor’s reaction shot then jump into the opening credits. It’s a very good stylish opening that catapults us into the story. Clemens will continue to use reflections, POV shots, and long takes to engage the audience in an otherwise straightforward plot.
The acting is competent without being over-the-top or campy which plagues some of the contemporaneous Hammer films of the 1970s. Horst Janson plays the titular character with aplomb and level-headedness while his cohort imbues the hunchback companion with a learned dignity, Watson to Janson’s Holmes. Caroline Munro regrettably is nothing more than window dressing and hardly speaks at all. It’s a shame that Kronos doesn’t even offer her a change of clothes as she wears the same ragged dress the entire film.
The most impressing scenes are the sword fights. The first one is too quick to be seen; just two slashes, blood spattered upon the wall and then three men fall dead. The second happens in a grave yard during the daytime as a group of villagers seek to avenge Dr. Marcus’ death. Clemens frames this fight mostly in medium close-up as Kronos swirls and jabs, knocking the villagers down without killing them. Though Clemens doesn’t resort to quick cuts (haha) he angles the camera enough to create the illusion of actual swordplay. However, the final confrontation is excellent as Kronos and the villain stab and kicks each other in long shots which makes each leap and slash much more realistic. It’s an epic battle as it seems obvious that the actors are actually doing the fighting! Clemens only resorts to close-ups of injury and bloodletting and lets the action hold in these long takes with minimal editing.
Captain Kronos ends in atypical fashion. Most Hammer films end immediately after the denouement but here we get a brief coda as Kronos bids farewell to his lovely maid Carla. He and Grot then ride off to hunt down evil wherever it may rise. Unfortunately, this film never spawned a sequel or series and remains Captain Kronos’ only adventure.  
Final Grade: (B)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

HANDS OF THE RIPPER (Peter Sasdy, 1971)

A young woman is possessed by the sins of her father as a Psychiatrist attempts to exorcise these inherited demons. Peter Sasdy directs a competent and gruesome thriller with lush interior and exterior set designs and a cabal of actors who deliver the Victorian line-readings with veracity and efficacy.
Sasdy begins the film with torch-bearing townsfolk chasing a cloaked figure through the darkened streets of London. He cuts to an interior shot of a young woman clutching a small child to her breast as firelight flickers through the drapes. The man comes crashing into the room and the woman looks relieved instead of terrified, contradicting our expectation. She recognizes her husband and is relieved that he is safe since Jack the Ripper has struck once again. The man throws back his cloak and we see a horribly burned face. Her sudden epiphany is literally cut short as he plunges a knife into his wife’s chest. The child, peering through the crib-like bars of her prison witnesses the brutal violence. Her mother’s breast which a few moments ago was a place of serenity and comfort is now a crimson smear. The firelight flickers upon her face with a hypnotic intensity as the scene fades out.
Sasdy sets up the narrative in the opening sequence which foreshadows the conflict between science and superstition to come. Dr. Pritchard rescues the child Anna, now grown into a beautiful young lady, from being prostituted by her guardian, a fake Sear who forces Anna into acting as the spirit voice of deceased loved ones in order to fool wealthy clients. When Anna is incarcerated under suspicion of murder, Dr. Pritchard becomes her legal guardian in order to examine her psyche to reveal the sickness that leads to violent acts and intent. Anna looks like a porcelain doll, precious and fragile but we witness her transformation into a crazed killer, her hands blistered and palsied and her eyes void of cognizance. As the killings mount Dr. Pritchard makes excuses for her violent impulses while attempting to cure her, believing in the power of psychoanalysis over seance.
Sasdy introduces two supporting characters in Michael Pritchard (the Dr.’s son) and his blind fiance Laura. Though primarily utilized to heighten suspense in the final act, the characters also lend a competing model of a traditional Victorian relationship that repudiates his father’s almost incestuous fascination with Anna. Also of note is the fact of Laura’s blindness is not seen as a handicap as she is portrayed as a strong and independent character. Her blindness plays a role in the final scene in the Whispering Gallery but it’s not entirely relevant to the denouement: I would argue that the ending works regardless of Laura’s ability to see. Blindness is a key concept to the story but it’s not Laura’s handicap…it’s Dr. Pritchard’s! 
The Dr. soon realizes his impotence in treating Anna and is forced into seeking the aid of a Psychic; He despises the idea since he is a man of science but quickly succumbs to this spurious revelation. The plot revolves too easily around this point and his pursuit of Anna into Whitechapel after a grisly murder. It stretches credibility to believe that the Dr. so easily accepts the psychic’s strident pleadings. It is also rather humorous that as he races to find Anna he should so easily stumble into her in the crowded streets of Whitechapel within minutes of diegetic time.
HANDS OF THE RIPPER is really a misnomer since it really isn't Anna’s hands that are possessed; it’s her spirit. Though her hands are shown to become physically altered, her hands don’t act independently or follow some contradictory dreaded impulse. Sasdy doesn't shy away from a blood-spattering arterial spray or hatpin to the eye which makes this one of the goriest in the Hammer archives. Dr. Pritchard’s Freudian analysis can be applied to his own fate as he is impaled by Anna with a large sword. Far from misogynist, the subtext of the film seems to imply the power of femininity over authority, or at least reveals the nasty consequences of a patriarchal society. In the chase sequence, Dr. Pritchard runs by graffiti scrawled on a wall that proclaims the right for women to vote. Here, both of Anna’s “fathers” bear the burden of moral blame and she becomes victim of their indulgences. After all, is this not the historical thesis for the need of sexual equality?

Final Grade: (B)   

Sunday, July 21, 2013

TASTE OF FEAR (Seth Holt, 1961)

Penny is seemingly a young girl whose thoughts are worth a great deal more than a copper cent, her dexterous mind imprisoned in a crippled tomb of flesh and bone. Seth Holt directs a deft little thriller whose labyrinthine twists led through a Gothic mansion of murderous intent and end upon the crashing surf.
Holt begins the first act with a dark haired young girl being pulled from a lake, the Alps rising above the scenario like some Olympian requiem. Her dead face remains hidden, a claw like hand groping towards the heavens, her identity revealed as only a shock of black hair sticking out from under a tarp. Holt then jump cuts to a jet plain landing in France and we witness out protagonist, a raven haired beauty confined to a wheelchair. This ambiguity propels the story: are we seeing a flashback that will lead to her demise, the plot now concerned with the facts of the possible crime?
Douglas Slocombe’s striking cinematography creates an eerie disjointed atmosphere and helps the mystery enter deep waters, utilizing deep focus to highlight foreground elements while revealing subtle information in the background: Strange candles whose light flickers like demon tongues, triptych compositions that in retrospect contain key objective evidence and underwater photography whose ghastly elements shock and awe. The soundtrack is embedded with the annoying habit of chirruping crickets and singsong birds, helping the audience to delineate night and day in this colorless film. In one indoor scene, Penny and her Stepmother are having dinner and their contentious conversation ebbs to reveal crickets…inside the house. The acting is first rate with Christopher Lee subverting expectations, and Susan Strasberg perfectly capturing the dichotomy of emotional reactionary and masterful pro-activity.
The narrative is awash with red herrings but remember: in water, no one can hear you scream!

Final Grade: (B+)

Thursday, June 13, 2013


A stolid group of British POWs must contain an explosive secret from their captors or suffer the fallout. Val Guest directs this grimy sweat-house potboiler with a straightforward capacity of violent perception, as the ignoble Japanese soldiers are relegated to brutal masters without humanity, an insufferable truth averred to by survivors. 

The violence begins as a skeletal soldier digs his own grave and is then machine-gunned into oblivion while the entire camp is forced to watch. The Japanese Major laughs and rebukes the British prisoners; this is a man without heart or conscience. He is opposed by a British Major who knows the score (and it’s not in their favor) and motivates his men to survive day by day, hour by hour, to do their duty in order to live…because the alternative is to die at the hands of savages. 

Here in this dank sepulcher of razor wire choked by the endless jungle, faith becomes as useless as coded verse; war’s hellish parable. Make no mistake, this is a tale told from one perspective, the Japanese relegated to caricature and the captives portrayed as heroic though still humanly fallible. David Lean’s epic BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI is a drama of men playing at war with its morality firmly displayed on a tattered sleeve; Val Guest’s film depicts desiccated and shriveled men refusing to die who have realized that war is no game. 

Final Grade: (B)