For Reel

Calling Dr. Death ( 1943)
July 5, 2017, 12:58 am
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Director: Reginald Le Borg
2 Stars
Calling Dr. DeathThe first in a series of films inspired by the Inner Sanctum Mysteries radio program, the inappropriately titled Calling Dr. Death stars Lon Chaney as a psychologist who fears that he murdered his wife during a blackout. Chaney, who nervously sweat as well as any actor, again plays a man defined by his powerlessness. The screenplay by Edward Dein imagines Chaney frequently mulling over his guilt through a series of whispered voiceovers—the effect is suitably eerie, if overdone. Director Reginald Le Borg doesn’t quite know what to do with the quirk, however there are a few inspired touches in Virgil Miller’s cinematography. In several scenes, the characters speak directly to camera, as if attempting to make the audience share in the guilt with the presumed killer. Rather than the voiceover and said direct addresses bringing the audience further into the character’s head, however, they conversely have a distancing effect. That is, as Chaney’s character becomes further lost in his own thoughts, the narrative banishes just about everything else to the periphery. Had the guilt been wrought with more complexity, the intensely focused study might have worked. As it is, however, the sense of dramatic stakes are only established through Chaney’s monologues, which tell so much that the film has almost nothing of interest to show.

Ghosts on the Loose (1943)
October 30, 2016, 5:07 pm
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Director: William Beaudine
2 Stars
ghosts-on-the-looseGhosts on the Loose was a transitional film for the East Side Kids, who were ditching their “juvenile delinquent” roots for broader, less specific comic personalities. Leo Gorcey’s malapropisms come to the fore, Huntz Hall firmly takes his place as the second lead, and this would be the last film to star personalities like Sunshine Sammy Morrison, arguably the highlight of the group’s horror comedy outings in the early 1940s. Unfortunately, although the title and the reteaming of the gang with Bela Lugosi show potential, the film barely qualifies as a horror picture—Lugosi plays a Nazi spy who attempts to scare the men out of a mansion largely through the use of rotating paintings. Director William Beaudine has a fine sense of tone and sustains a few suspenseful sequences due to the pacing, but the screenplay simply isn’t inventive enough to keep much interest. Worse yet, the plot simply takes too long to get going—about a third of the film is spent at a wedding, free of genre thrills and a discernible lack of narrative progression. Later horror-comedy pictures from the team, including the enjoyable The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters, display a better understanding of the genre hybrid by not skimping on the inventive horror elements.

Flesh and Fantasy (1943)
September 3, 2016, 4:28 pm
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Director: Julien Duvivier
3.5 Stars
Flesh and FantasyThe accomplished French auteur Julien Duvivier had a short-lived stay in Hollywood during the second World War, with his anthology film Tales of Manhattan being his most well-remembered effort. This later film is the better assemblage of stories, largely due to a more consistent tonal and aesthetic cohesion—if Tales of Manhattan feels like a gimmick, Flesh and Fantasy plays like a poet riffing on the idea of fate. Each of the three stories involves an ironic twist that recalls O. Henry (in actuality they were pulled from various sources, including Oscar Wilde), but Duvivier’s dealings in darker subject matter with an expressionistic visual strategy amplifies the gothic, supernatural qualities of ironies involved. The best of the pieces follow Edgar G. Robinson as a man who becomes obsessed with controlling his own fate when a fortune teller informs him that he will kill somebody. Initially shocked and resistant to the accusation, his method of coping to the information is not to avoid violent situations, but to actively commit the murder on his own volition, as if to get it out of the way. Similarly, the final segment involving Charles Boyer and Barbara Stanwyck describes a man’s fixation with what he presumes to be his destiny, only the ambiguous ending supposes that fate may or may not be at play in his life. The stories are provocative, but Duvivier’s imagining of scenes such as the demonic costumes at a Mardi Gras celebration are the highlight—the way he uses both visual effects and elaborate lighting set-ups provides the perfect compliment to a script that fixates itself on the uncanny.

Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event (1943)
June 21, 2016, 12:59 am
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Director: Leslie Goodwins
3.5 Stars
Mexican Spitfire's Blessed EventThe last entry in the Mexican Spitfire series is a bittersweet farewell to the eight-film farce, which recycled its jokes shamelessly but coasted by due to the talents of Lupe Velez and particularly vaudeville talent Leon Errol. It would be the penultimate film of Velez’s career (her last Hollywood film) before she took her own life after an out-of-wedlock pregnancy left her in shambles. Fortunately, she goes out on a high point—whereas many installments of the series relegated her to a supporting player, Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event gives her a few memorable moments and more of a consistent purpose in moving the plot forward. The picture’s games of misunderstandings begin when Carmelita tells Dennis (now played by Walter Reed) about a “blessed event”, which he mistakes as an announcement that she’s with child. For the first time in the series, there is a concerted effort to have both of Leon Errol’s characters appear on screen together—earlier installments have largely used cheap-looking tricks to create the illusion, whereas this picture uses green screen and other camera tricks to have the two interact at length. Despite the new insistence on having Errol due double duty within a single frame, however, the picture withholds the bulk of the Lord Epping schtick until the latter half of the picture, therefore feeling like one of the better balanced entries in the series. If Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event doesn’t take the series much farther, it nonetheless is a terrific distillation of the films at their best—the familiar gags are performed well, the miscommunications are particularly funny, and Velez and Errol are at the top of their game.

The Youngest Profession (1943)
May 25, 2016, 5:55 pm
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Director: Edward Buzzell
2 Stars
The Youngest ProfessionThis dramatization of teenage fan culture in the 1940s is benefited by the appeal of seeing MGM stars play versions of themselves, but a dead in the water subplot involving an affair drags down the level of fun considerably. Virginia Weidler plays the president of a movie fan club who will get the opportunity to meet Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, and other MGM notables of the time. Whereas films like Hollywood Canteen had the stars play more down to earth images of themselves, the cameos in The Youngest Profession involve the actors essentially playing their star persona, with all the glamour and sophistication that it entails. While MGM might have not been keen to present their roster as anything else, the end result is that none of the celebrities actually seem radically different than they would be in any other film. Still, they are the highlight, and the film does a fairly good job at being impressed by each of their appearances—when Robert Taylor appears at the door, the picture just about stops to savor in his image. Weidler is fine in the role, but watching her attempt to save her parents’ marriage is depressing at best. Jean Porter has a great energy in her performance (her reactions sell the surprise of seeing each of the stars), but otherwise the picture is largely a bore.

The Outlaw (1943)
March 27, 2016, 11:59 pm
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Director: Howard Hughes
2.5 Stars
The OutlawWatching The Outlaw—a film that spurred major controversy due to Howard Hughes’ insistence on exploiting the breasts of the newly discovered Jane Russell—it becomes readily apparent that the ad campaign was more salacious than what is actually in the picture. Although Russell’s bosom is undoubtedly a focal point throughout the film (she’s also the victim of an uncomfortable rape scene and later on kisses the camera in order to completely fulfill the male audience’s fantasy), her hyper-sexualization only serves to amplify what plays like a closeted gay love triangle between Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell), Doc Holliday (Walter Huston), and Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel). In the latter’s case, at one point he’s content with giving up the woman for a horse that he prefers. While the traditional masculine values featured prominently in many old westerns lends credence to gay readings (which ultimately becomes lazy criticism), The Outlaw‘s desire to be a “sex western” makes the dynamic between the men all the more apparent. Russell is set dressing, and the real heartbreaking happens between the cowboys. Despite this curiosity, the film is largely an overlong slog—save for a few key moments, it is far from cinematographer Gregg Toland’s best work, made even less dynamic by Hughes’ dull stagings and very literal approach to the drama. Huston is the standout, and Mitchell does seem to enjoy his role, but Buetel is a blank slate for them to play off of.

The Constant Nymph (1943)
March 12, 2016, 2:42 pm
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Director: Edmund Goulding
3 Stars
The Constant NymphJoan Fontaine often championed The Constant Nymph as the favorite film of her career, which is unsurprising given how it compares to the types of entertainments she was making at the time. Unlike the films she made with Hitchcock or forgettable supporting roles in pictures like Gunga Din, The Constant Nymph provided a very particular challenge in having the then 25-year-old play a bubbly young teen. If the performance plays as a distracting gimmick in the early goings–Fontaine’s exuberance might be a bit much, as she skips and hops around the house and squeals with glee–it is undeniable that there is a certain appeal in watching Fontaine self-consciously toy with her own image. Her feminity was often played as almost royal in her restraint, and just as she explored femme fatale roles in later years, here she embraces the innocent side of her screen image. Unfortunately, it’s about the only thing about The Constant Nymph that is memorable, particularly because only four years later Fontaine starred in another film that involved a woman’s infatuation with a man in Letter from an Unknown Woman. Director Edmund Goulding was a respectable director of melodramas (he was behind the camera in the women’s pictures that certified Bette Davis’ stardom), but as a storyteller he was rather literal. That the outdoor scenes play on a readily apparent soundstage is the exception that works to the film’s benefit–its false perfection resembling the dreams of the young protagonist. But as the love interest, Charles Boyer is miscast, given that Fontaine’s wholesome performance isn’t cohesive with Boyer’s cynical image. It is unthinkable that such a bouncy young woman would develop such an obsession with a passionless, even depressed musician. But there are nice moments here and there, the best of which tend to involve Alexis Smith as “the other woman” that Boyer marries and eventually regrets having done so. When Smith admits defeat, the scene plays as rather tidy but also as a tremendously sincere moment of empathy from one woman to another.

Heaven Can Wait (1943)
February 5, 2016, 8:03 pm
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Director: Ernst Lubitsch
4.5 Stars
Heaven Can WaitHeaven Can Wait
plays as both a typical confectionary delight from director Ernst Lubitsch and something more obscure and mysterious. The bookending sequence is undeniably memorable, wherein recently deceased Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) resigns himself to a fate in Hell, recounting his life story to a man known simply as His Excellency (Laird Cregar). There’s a profundity in Van Cleve’s resignation–he is in good humor about his new endeavor, utterly convinced of his fate due to his unending shame. If these sequences feel dreamlike in both the narrative content and in the magnificently spacious art deco environment, so too does the rest of the film, which travels through decades in a series of flashbacks. Screenwriter Sam Raphaelson’s script brilliantly deals with ellipses in time–often, years will have passed off-screen, and only through conversation do we learn of a significant character’s passing. Lubitsch’s most profound illustration of this transience is the revealed fate of Martha (Gene Tierney), told in voice-over as the two life-long lovers dance in a ballroom to themselves. For a film that deals consistently with death and even a sense of self-hatred (Van Cleve’s shame being so severe he literally volunteers himself to damnation), it is strangely reassuring and beautiful in the way that it details the life of a more-or-less ordinary man who lived purely for pleasure without doing anything of much substance. It is Hollywood’s only biopic without pretension–the “big” moments don’t play as such because they mark a historical turning point, but because they play as the defining resonances of a life fully lived.

The Leopard Man (1943)
November 1, 2015, 10:48 pm
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Director: Jacques Tourneur
4 Stars
The Leopard ManIn the most memorable scene from The Leopard Man, a young girl (Margaret Landry) confronts and is brutally mauled by a black panther. The sequence plays out with a thick level of paranoia–the girl has heard stories of the loose animal, and has even been teased by her family that it is not something that should concern her. When she meets a railroad overpass, she hesitates for an inordinate amount of time, looking behind her and back towards the darkness, slowly succumbing to its pull. In the way that the girl has the foresight to know the dangers that might lurk beneath and finding herself unable to resist confronting her fears and crossing anyway, the moment is evocative of everything that makes Val Lewton’s films remarkable. She is not ambivalent towards death, but she is seduced by it. And, although little more is seen of the actual cat than what a young boy has shadow puppeteered on a wall (a black figure, a symbol of death), the use of sound and shadows evokes unspeakable horrors. If The Leopard Man doesn’t quite live up to director Jacques Tourneur’s masterpieces with Lewton (Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie), it is not far behind. The narrative is loosely structured around a series of killings as if in a slasher film, but Tourneur’s transitions and handling of the material is remarkable. Before the story shifts to the young girl running groceries, Tourneur’s camera has followed a local dancer (Margo) walking down a street, her castanets echoing through the girl’s home. Their interconnectedness points to the screenplay’s fascination with a sense of fatalism, echoed most blatantly as characters ponder a ball bouncing on top of a fountain as a metaphor for man’s obliviousness towards the forces that pull them.

The Seventh Victim (1943)
September 16, 2015, 9:12 pm
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Director: Mark Robson
4 Stars
The Seventh VictimEarly on in The Seventh Victim, Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) encounters Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont), a man that she learns to be her missing sister’s (Jean Brooks) boyfriend. He reveals that although her sister spoke much of suicide, he believed that she wasn’t actually serious about it and that it was he who bought the rope that she meant to hang herself with. This is a world of dread and death, where menace lies in the everyday and suicidal tendencies are almost expected (fittingly, the last line of the film is from poet John Donne: “I run to Death, and Death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterdays”). Even if The Seventh Victim is tough to classify as a horror film, there are terrors that lie in the incongruities of its world. A room doesn’t house the missing woman, rather a lone noose. A drunken man on the subway is actually a corpse. And, of course, Greenwich Village is populated by a group of Satanists known as the Palladists. That the Palladists are represented as an everyday bourgeois entity–like anyone else, they have a well-defined code with which they approach the world–is demonstrative of the film’s dark oppression, where even a seemingly typical urban environment contains a cafe grimly called Dante’s.