Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Man on a Swing

Frank Perry | 1974 | 110 mins | USA

Director Frank Perry followed up '72's awesome Play It As It Lays with this strange thriller, loosely based on a true story. Originally, the chilling real-life tale was written up as the non-fiction book "The Girl on the Volkswagen Floor" (a considerably more sensible title - even after watching the entire film and seeing the 'man' on the 'swing' mentioned in the title and visible on the poster, I have no idea why the film was called that - Frank Perry's own esoteric reasons, no doubt). The few changes that were made in the adaptation to film didn't help the story much, but screenwriters have their own mysterious motives, I suppose.

A small town police chief (Cliff Robertson) is investigating the murder of a young woman found on the floor of her VW Bug, in the parking lot of a mall. There are few leads and even fewer clues, until a strange man (Joel Grey) claiming to be a clairvoyant comes to the cops offering help. His spastic trances, intense visions and eerily accurate details about the crime provide help at first, but ultimately make him the chief's prime suspect.

In the original story, the man investigating the crime and delving into the mysterious realm of the occult is a reporter, which actually makes a lot more sense than making the guy a police chief, who would hardly be able to take off from his job for days at a time to go chat with occultist professors about ESP. Still, in spite of the inconsistencies and loose ends that never quite get tied up in the story, Man on a Swing is a compelling and creepy thriller.

The film's appeal is owed almost entirely to Joel Grey's over the top, terrifyingly bizarre performance as the spindly little psychic in the white suit. His near-epileptic fits and feverish pronouncements keep you guessing until the end, exactly as the tag line on the poster predicts:



Murder By Death

Robert Moore | 1976 | 94 mins | USA

There appears to have been a strange and mysterious time in US history when Neil Simon could just write anything at all and it would instantly turn to gold. Perhaps this Midas touch made it impossible for his contemporaries and fans to imagine that one day we would look back on some of that work and think "what the fuck, 1976?" Still, here we are.

The mysterious happenings in Murder By Death take place in a gloomy old castle, perpetually shrouded in fog and thunderstorms, at the end of a long and winding road and on the other side of a rickety bridge. The doorbell sounds with a piercing woman's scream. The butler (Alec Guinness) is blind, the cook is deaf and dumb, and the eccentric millionaire host, Lionel Twain, is a sinister fiend. In the '30s, he was arrested for smuggling a truckload of rich Americans into Mexico to pick melons! Har har har.

The guests to this mysterious party are a familiar bunch - spoofs of the world's five greatest criminologists. They include Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), the famous Chinese detective; Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) the hard boiled San Francico private eye; Milo Perrier (James Coco), the fat Belgian sleuth; Miss Marbles (Elsa Lanchester - a.k.a. the Bride of Frankenstein), the tweed-swathed English granny; and Dick and Nora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith), cool as cucumbers and never without a martini in their hands.

After the detectives and their companions (assorted chauffeurs, secretaries and adopted sons) arrive at the creepy castle, the purpose of their get together is revealed. The occasion is murder!

It seems that the eccentric host (played by none other than Truman Capote) of the night's festivities has planned a crime so brilliant that he didn't think a motley crew of the greatest detectives in the world would be able to solve it, so he brought them all together to prove a point.

The idea of a parody of the pulp crime novels and films of the '30s and '40s is compelling, but its execution in this film is at times shockingly unfunny. Full of so many bad puns and lame gags, the whole thing is saved from being a total fiasco by the performances alone. Peter Falk's Bogart impression is impeccable and his straight talk is a welcome breath of fresh air among the otherwise stuffy Brits (and, oh yeah, the "Chinese guy"). Alec Guinness is terrific as the blind butler. In fact, everyone in the absurdly stacked cast does a great job. It's too bad the script is such a groaner.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Statue

Rodney Amateau | 1971 | 84 mins | UK / USA

David Niven plays Alex Bolt, a stuffy British linguist who's just been awarded a Nobel prize for his work on an Esperanto-esque universal language called "Unispeak". Virna Lisi is his hot Italian wife, Rhonda, an internationally renowned sculptress who's been commissioned by an ambitious U.S. diplomat (Robert Vaughn) to create a statue for a London square which will honour her husband's achievement.

Rhonda, upset that she's only seen her busy husband "eighteen days in the last three years", decides to sculpt an 18-foot nude, giving it Bolt's face but someone else's you-know-what.

Believing that she's been unfaithful, Bolt goes on a jealous rampage across Europe to find the man who modeled for the statue. Cue an hour or so of wacky sex comedy involving a stiff-upper-lipped David Niven trying to see a variety of mens' peckers by trolling bathhouses, sending sexy dames to seduce temperamental painters and sneaking around in a generally unseemly manner.

Of course, we never get to see the contentious member (though we do get to see a pair of boobs or two), because the prudish film is like a barely modernized update of a century-old sex farce. When it comes time for the grand reveal, you pretty much know what's coming, but it's so silly anyway that it doesn't really matter.

Worth it for the very young John Cleese in a small part as Niven's friend - a psychiatrist who hates psychiatry and wants to be an advertiser.


Stanley Donen | 1969 | 96 mins | France / USA / UK

A late '60s comedy about a gay couple who run a hair salon together, take care of their beloved aging mothers (one in an old age home and one in the couple's spare room), and constantly fight about everything under the sun.

Harry (played by an uncharacteristically dowdy Richard Burton) is sort of round-ish, fussy, dour and has his head constantly swathed in an unflattering bandage, an odd accessory for a hair stylist, to say the least. Charlie (a dandied-up Rex Harrison) is in his fifties, still handsome in an aged-leather sort of way. He's a bitchy queen in tight pants and mascara. "I'm wearing tight Italian pants on the inside", Harry tells him at one point, lamenting the loss of his own girlish figure.

Casting the former Julius Caesar and Marc Antony as a bickering pair of decaying lovers in a dingy East London flat was an inspired but perhaps misguided choice on Stanley Donen's part. Putting the Hollywood heavyweights in this otherwise humble adaptation of Charles Dyer's play makes the whole endeavour seem more campy and ridiculous than the premise and script would have on their own. Still, Staircase has its glimmering moments of pure genius, and it's so bewilderingly funny, besides.

The storyline here concerns the mounting tensions between the two men as they await a summons for Charlie to appear in court on a charge of behaving "in a manner calculated to bring depravity" - that is, performing in drag at a nightclub called "Adam's Apple". As they wait for the important piece of mail to arrive, they go on with their daily drudgery - working at the salon, taking care of their mothers, and spewing vitriol at each other for the "30 turgid years" they've spent together.

Dudley Moore's sparse score underlines the film's subtle sadness with clever uses of old hymns (most memorably "All Things Bright and Beautiful" being sung by a grave digger and his young son, down the street from the pair's hair salon). Dyer's script is acrid and vitriolic, but deep down you know Charlie and Harry love each other too much to ever stop being such mean jerks.

Really worthwhile, but essentially impossible to track down (it's never been released on DVD and VHS copies are rare at best) except through a few torrent sites specializing in obscurities.

My favourite line (uttered by Harrison to Burton): "If you don't shut up I'll stick a skewer in my ear and go to hell as a kebab!"

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

How to Murder Your Wife

Richard Quine | 1965 | 118 mins | USA

Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon) lives the perfect bachelor lifestyle. He's a successful cartoonist whose rough and tumble hero Bash Brannigan leaps from adventure to adventure (each storyline meticulously tested by Ford in real life). He's got a luxury townhouse and the world's best full-time valet, Charles. He works out at a men's club every day, wines and dines a variety of women every night, and is quite deliriously happy to be unmarried.

When Stanley wakes up the morning after a very boozy stag party to find that he's married to the knockout who popped out of the party cake, he assumes he can quickly take care of the boo-boo at his lawyer's office. Unfortunately, the new Mrs. Ford (Italian sexpot Virna Lisi) doesn't speak a word of English, and as it turns out his lawyer is delighted to see that Stanley's finally settling down.

Pretty soon, Bash Brannigan has gone from daredevil crime fighter to fumbling family man. The female readership of the strip is skyrocketing, Ford's publishers are ecstatic, and even poor Stanley is slowly and reluctantly adapting to the married life. Determined not to slip too far into marital comfort, Ford cleverly hatches a plot to murder his wife, which plays out step by step in his comic strip. The problem is - will his wife (or his readers) take the story too seriously?

This is the kind of gender-relations comedy that would never get made in the present day. There's something about a man convincing a jury of his peers that he should be acquitted of murder because wives kinda deserve it that wouldn't fly anymore, but it's fantastically hilarious when Jack Lemmon does it. How to Murder Your Wife is a fun and sexy romp, and if you're a Jack Lemmon fan, let me tell you this - he's brilliant in it, but relative unknown Eddie Mayehoff (who plays his lawyer, Harold) steals the show from him a couple of times, and it's worth watching for those moments alone!

Time Walker

Tom Kennedy | 1982 | 83 mins | USA

This film is about a time traveling mummy. Need I say more? Actually, yes I do, because that thumbnail sketch (exciting though it may sound) doesn't truly do this weird '80s sci-fi horror justice.

An Egyptology department at some miscellaneous university gets a mummy from King Tut's tomb. They begin by X-raying the mummy, which leads one student to discover a stash of crystals buried deep within the sarcophagus. Thinking they might be priceless gems, he tries to pawn them, but when the shop owner declares them to be worthless junk, he sells the five stones to his buddies to give to their girlfriends as gifts.

This careless theft of some ancient artifacts might even have gone unnoticed, if the mummy itself didn't disappear from its resting place the following day. Assuming it was stolen by some frat boys on a dare, campus police (and the university president) approach the investigation as a prank gone too far. Little do they know that the previous day's X-rays woke up the old guy, and he walked out on his own mummified legs.

Of course, campus party animals respond to the mummy "theft" scandal by throwing an Egypt themed party, oblivious to the fact that the mummy is walking around among them, searching for his lost crystals.

The crystals seem to be the only thing our mummy needs in order to complete an elaborate and mysterious machine, some sort of "communication device", our clever investigators eventually figure out. As the mummy's rampage gets more and more dangerous, the professor and his crack team of cops and students get closer to discovering the unbelievable truth about this traveler from another time.

Director Tom Kennedy never directed another film. In fact, other than two or three editing gigs in the '70s, Time Walker was the only film he ever worked in, in any capacity. I can't quite decide whether that fact is significant or not. All I can tell you is, he managed to include the following joke in his masterpiece:

Q: Do you know what happened to the girl who went into King Tut's tomb?
A: She came out nine months later and she was a mummy!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Terribly Happy [Frygtelig lykkelig]

Henrik Ruben Genz | 2008 | 90 mins | Denmark

Terribly Happy is loosely based on some very grizzly real-life events, and it's the kind of story that would have been adapted into a gritty, tension-soaked crime drama anywhere else in the world. In Denmark, though, they turn it into a tension-soaked, nearly Twin-Peaks-esque black comedy, which actually rescues it from being a so-so drama and turns it into a truly eerie thriller.

Robert (Jakob Cedergren) is a policeman with a shady past who's been reassigned from Copenhagen to a quiet provincial town surrounded by grim expanses of grey clouds and muddy swampland. The townsfolk are predictably suspicious of the prim, proper, by-the-book young man, and soon local customs and disturbing secrets start to come knocking on the cop shop door.

The "everything's ok down here" facade of the creepy little town begins to crumble pretty much the second Robert moves in, when we see him walking down the desolate, rain slicked streets of the town, observed by a small, lone girl walking a squeaky (and empty) baby stroller. Robert soon finds himself pulled into the orbit of the local beauty, Ingelise, who needs his protection against her abusive husband - the most dangerous man in town.

Robert arrives in the south Jutland community as a good cop and a good man who's trying to sort out his own life while injecting a little bit of civilized order into a place that's too set in its weird ways. Instead, our hero finds himself being changed by the place and its inhabitants - bit by bit, but irrevocably.

Based on an Erling Jepsen novel (he also wrote The Art of Crying) and apparently on a true story before that, Terribly Happy is a surreal and spellbinding nightmare about a world so realistic and similar to our own that the slight differences are all the more horrifying and grotesque. The churning bogs that hide a bubbling mass of dark secrets create an atmosphere so oppressive that it's hard not to worry from the start that Robert has accidentally stepped outside of time and into a forgotten place that one cannot easily escape from.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Dracula's Great Love [El Gran amor del conde DrĂ¡cula]

Javier Aguirre | 1972 | 85 mins | Spain

It's hard to say what you see more of in Dracula's Great Love, boobs or candelabras. But the combination of the two definitely sets the tone of the film - gloomy, gothic, brimming with forbidden desire.

I thought this was going to be a very different kind of movie during the opening credits, which repeat a sequence of a man falling down some stairs in slow motion about 20 times. The sequence became so abstract and near psychedelic by about the 15th repetition that I wondered if the film itself would get all kooky and trippy with ye olde dracula. In fact, even though there's more sex in this than in the average Hammer film, it otherwise feels quite the same.

Four young women are stranded when their carriage loses a wheel (and a driver) on an isolated patch of woodsy road, and are forced to stay the night at the deserted and spooky old sanatorium where a young, handsome-but-strange doctor lives. One by one, they fall for the doctor and meet their inevitable fate: becoming hot vampire bitches.

A trio of vampire babes go on a rampage around town, capturing young maidens for the doctor, while he earnestly attempts to woo the final (and most innocent) of the girls. His ultimate goal is to enact some ancient ritual in order to revive his long-dead daughter, who is buried in a tomb under the sanatorium. But love might just make him rethink his priorities!

Paul Naschy is the sensitive doctor, perhaps the most Emo Dracula ever to grace the screen. His shocking finale in this film is touching enough to make you believe in love again.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Harry and Walter Go to New York

Mark Rydell | 1976 | 115 mins | USA

I love Elliott Gould more than could be expressed in a simple blog post. I'd rather watch him on screen than the vast majority of actors in Hollywood, so when I discovered that he once starred in a wacky caper / heist comedy with James Caan and Michael Caine, I thought "this is going to be 100% pure solid gold".

I was wrong in so many ways that it's hard to count them all. There was nothing the absurdly star-studded cast (which also features Diane Keaton, Carol Kane, Lesley Ann Warren, Jack Gilford, Burt Young and many others) could possibly have done to rescue this bizarre period clunker from a grim death. Actually, I think the film probably had a chance at a life as a cult favourite if it weren't for the unfortunate musical number featuring Elliott Gould in blackface.

In case you're thinking "Heist comedy? Blackface? Gould and Caine facing off mano-a-mano? What doesn't sound awesome about that?", let me clarify.

Gould and Caan play Walter and Harry, respectively. They're a pair of small time shyster Vaudevillians who get caught stealing dough during their phony fortune teller act and end up in the same prison as the notoriously wealthy, classy and powerful bank thief Adam Worth (Michael Caine). When the two hapless would-be criminals discover Worth's scheme to break into the world's most impenetrable bank vault, Harry convinces the reluctant Walter that they should try to beat him to it.

The film isn't bad because of the dumb plot, the casual racism, the excessively wacky slapstick sequences that go on too long, or the repetitive and too frequent Vaudevillian musical numbers. It's bad because in spite of all of the above (which you'd think would at least make it a hilarious thing to watch while you're drunk on a Friday night), it manages to be kind of slow paced, plodding and dull. Even Diane Keaton manages to be so shrill and annoying that it's hard to believe Annie Hall would make her a universal love object for nerds only a year later.

The one fascinating thing about this debacle is Caine's character, Adam Worth, who was based on a real 19th century thief known as the "Napoleon of crime". One of William Pinkerton's worthy adversaries ('scuse the pun) and allegedly the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes great nemesis, Professor Moriarty, Worth would make a better subject for a movie than Harry and Walter do. Apparently, a fictitious one was already made starring Christian Bale in the title role. Someone should make a real one.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Road House

Jean Negulesco | 1948 | 95 mins | USA

No, this isn't the Patrick Swayze film by the same name. This is another Ida Lupino gem that I discovered recently on my Noir kick. This time, she plays a tough lounge singer from Chicago named Lily Stevens who takes a six week gig at a backwoods road house owned by rich boy Jefty Robbins (Richard Widmark). It's not quite clear why Lily takes the job at first, but she obviously needs the dough, doesn't want any funny business from Jefty, and probably thinks it's none of your damn business why she took the offer anyhow.

Jefty's manager and lifelong friend Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) assumes Lily is just another pretty face with no talent that Jefty has dragged in to seduce until he tires of her. Instead, Lily's cigarette-soaked voice and melancholy air charms not only the road house customers, but Pete Morgan himself.

When Jefty leaves Lily in the care of his trusted pal while he's on a business trip, the inevitable happens. The two argue so much that they end up falling in love with each other, and are left with the considerable problem of what to tell Jefty when he returns.

The last couple of Ida Lupino films I've seen make me wonder if she had it in her contracts that she had to be smoking in every scene because she couldn't do otherwise in real life. Her hauntingly hoarse voice and dazzling outfits certainly thicken the atmosphere, but what really makes this an effective thriller is Richard Widmark's remarkable transformation from affable (if spoiled) playboy to menacing psycho who will stop at nothing to squash his former friend's every chance at happiness. Teetering on the edge between hatred and insanity, Widmark's Jefty is dangerous, volatile and relentless in his drive to get what he wants and ensure that nobody else does.

Plus, the film is almost worth watching just for the brilliant misty-woods set in which the grand finale takes place. It's an example of the kind of perfection that makes you not care that the forest was built in a studio lot somewhere, because it looks better than real woods anyway.

While The City Sleeps

Fritz Lang | 1956 | 100 mins | USA

I'm not sure if this Fritz Lang gem is "little known" or if I've been under a rock lately, but I'd never heard of While The City Sleeps until tonight, when my Noir mood led me to it.

Dana Andrews plays Edward Mobley, a Pulitzer prize winning reporter who works on the TV portion of the media empire of Amos Kyne, an aging mogul who kicks the bucket just as a hot news story comes in about the "Lipstick Killer" who's been offing young single girls around New York.

Kyne's wastrel son Walter (played with an impecably smarmy tone by Vincent Price) takes over the family business and immediately sets about pitting the top men in the office against each other for a spot as his right hand man. The news wire chief, Mark Loving (George Sanders), the managing editor John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) and photographer 'Honest' Harry Kritzer (James Craig) are in a race against time to catch the killer before he strikes again, and snag the coveted Executive Director position. Meanwhile, Mobley just tries to keep his fiancee Nancy (Sally Forrest) happy while fending off the advances of womens' columnist Mildred Donner (hot hot Ida Lupino).

Of course, it's all really up to Mobley (a man without a lust for power) to find the killer, save the media empire from falling into the wrong hands and restore peace to his relationship. It's a tough job, but if anyone can do it surely it's a smooth talking, hard drinking newspaper man.

While the City Sleeps isn't more newspaper-romance than it is a mystery story, but it's still fun, fast paced noir thriller with plenty of razor sharp banter and sexy dames. Oh, and John Barrymore Jr. is fabulous as the menacing, silent 'mama's boy' killer. Don't worry, that's not a spoiler. You get to see him in action before the opening credits even roll.