For Reel

Weird Woman (1944)
July 5, 2017, 1:00 am
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Director: Reginald Le Borg
3 Stars
Weird Woman.jpgThis second film in the Inner Sanctum Mystery series was adapted from a novel by Fritz Lieber, and with that competent foundation it is superior to its predecessor. As in Calling Dr. Death, Lon Chaney stars as a tortured man whose anxieties are often demonstrated through hushed voiceovers. This internal narration is the driving gimmick of the series, and fortunately this installment finds Chaney’s dilemmas more complex. Whereas all he had to consider in the first film is what he may or may not have done, here his whole logical, reasonable way of looking at the world is threatened by his wife’s continued dalliances with witchcraft and the “coincidences” that result from it. The wife is played by Anne Gwynne, who is as wholesome and innocent as it gets and yet is bizarrely cast as a woman who is wrought with an air of mystery and danger around her. The dissonance between actress and part only adds more to the bizarre tone, and director Reginald Le Borg indulges in a number of moody dream sequences and super-impositions that set a genuinely unsettling tone. As nice as it is to see Chaney in a role that affords him more authority, he is hardly convincing as the ultra-charismatic professor, while the female cast (including Evelyn Ankers and the striking Elizabeth Russell) is uniformly excellent.

Destiny (1944)
September 3, 2016, 4:30 pm
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Director(s): Reginald Le Borg & Julien Duvivier
2.5 Stars
DestinyThis hugely bizarre drama was originally imagined as the first of four stories in Julien Duvivier’s Flesh and Fantasy. That audience’s responses were so favorable to the film and this chapter in particular inspired Universal Pictures to expand on the short and release it as its own feature, enlisting director Reginald de Borg and screenwriter Roy Chanslor for the task of fattening up the paltry material. Duvivier is such a specific and deliberate visual stylist that the scenes he originally shot are completely apparent—a climactic nightmare sequence is staged in the tradition of French impressionism, recalling Jean Epstein’s emphasis on the fury of natural forces at the end of the The Fall of the House of Usher. Unfortunately, what is evident as being the added material plays as little more than unneeded fluff, attempting to flesh out Alan Curtis’ fugitive with little success. There is an undeniable pleasure in the way Duvivier stages the supernatural qualities had by Gloria Jean’s blind girl (animals literally flock to her at every opportunity), but both the lengthened first act and a hilariously inappropriate tacked-on ending do much to break the spell. John Cromwell’s The Enchanted Cottage is a better place to look if searching for a blend of the fantastical and everyday, also involving a supernatural intrusion into what otherwise plays as a romantic melodrama.

On Approval (1944)
July 14, 2016, 12:25 pm
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Director: Clive Brook
4 Stars
On ApprovalLike fellow countryman Charles Laughton, Clive Brook only made one foray into directing, and the resulting picture shows such a careful love of the medium that one is left to reevaluate an entire career. On Approval was adapted from a beloved and hugely risque 1926 stageplay and is noteworthy for featuring one of the few screen appearances of Beatrice Lillie, a stage actress with comic gifts that have become legendary. While Britain had an enormous comedy boom in immediate post-war era, this Victorian-set farce came out right in the thick of it—in fact, the opening sequence involves a bait-and-switch that fools audiences into thinking they’ll be seeing, “another war picture.” Interestingly, Brook sets the film even further back in history, also declaring that the immediate pre-war era was similarly loud and mannerless. It seems a perfect setting for a story that is largely about how intolerable relationships can become when sex isn’t involved—the most Victorian of repressions! Brook’s experimentation with newsreel footage and a persistent quickness in montage is matched by a Looney Tunes-esque nightmare sequence late in the picture (including Lillie gearing up to smash Brook’s head with a sledgehammer), suggesting that lunacy is ironically born from characters trying their damnedest to be polite.

Hollywood Canteen (1944)
May 25, 2016, 6:01 pm
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Director: Delmer Daves
4 Stars
Hollywood CanteenAlthough it plays as a typical revue spectacle, Hollywood Canteen is among the most compelling propaganda films of the 1940s. The gist is that the film captures the famed venue that saw Hollywood actors “giving back” to soldiers, and therefore the picture involves a number of the top stars of Warner Brothers appearing as themselves and humbly showing their gratitude to everyone around them. It is at once both a hugely charitable endeavor and entirely self-serving—because the film is about Hollywood’s support of the soldiers and ignores the rest of the general public, it has a slightly tacky self-congratulatory feel. And yet, the film shows a great intelligence about what movie stardom is and it knows how to capitalize on the fantasies that the viewing audience revels in. As the audience’s cipher, Robert Hutton plays a soldier who becomes a celebrity amongst the ruling class, earning respect from legends like Bette Davis and even having Joan Leslie fall in love with him. There’s a great sense of magic in the combination of the everyday and the glamorous—director Delmer Daves knows the power of Barbara Stawyck’s image, and he presents her rather matter-of-factly, engaging in a menial task and occupying only a short amount of screen time. With this strategy, Daves gives audiences the understanding that surprises are around every corner, and they’re not going to be telegraphed. That an “ordinary man” experiences a world in which Hollywood stars treat him as a peer and pine for him gets at a primacy in film escapism—rather than asking a viewer to get lost in a narrative, Hollywood Canteen nakedly invites one to imagine themselves participating in it.

The Suspect (1944)
August 31, 2015, 5:58 pm
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Director: Robert Siodmak
3.5 Stars
The SuspectCharles Laughton gives one of his finest performances as the warmhearted tobacconist driven to murder in The Suspect. Bertram Millhauser’s screenplay often rehashes Philip Marshall’s (Laughton) very ordinariness–in the opening sequences set in Edwardian London (on “an unpretentious street with a pretentious name”), Marshall greets his neighbors with pleasant chatter about the weather and lovingly wishes his son (Dean Harens) off as he leaves the nest. Naturally, when it is surmised that Marshall is the prime suspect in the murder of his domineering wife (Rosalind Ivan), an investigator of Scotland Yard (Stanley Ridges) muses that he is, “not a killer by nature, but a man like you and I.” Director Robert Siodmak’s obsession with failed heroes turning to extreme actions is illustrated brilliantly in Laughton’s portrayal, where his dormant rage unburdens itself in moments that appear to startle even Laughton himself. Released a year before Fritz Lang’s Scarlett Street, The Suspect similarly demonstrates a fascination with what could lead an essentially decent man to crime. As Laughton warns early in the picture, “It’s the first step that counts, after that it all becomes too easy.”

Ministry of Fear (1944)
August 18, 2015, 2:25 pm
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Director: Fritz Lang
5 Stars
Ministry of FearEarly in Ministry of Fear, Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) demands to a fortune teller that she should, “Forget the past, tell me the future.” It’s a perfect sentiment for a film devoutly paranoid, where even an inspector of Scotland Yard is initially rendered as a frightening suspected Nazi. For Neale, the past is not only one that is horrifying to him–he has just been released from a mental asylum after mercy-killing his wife–but something that is completely knowable. Thus, his interest in the future is both a search for a “fresh start” and as a means of escaping these holds from the past, but meanwhile it is also an inherently troubling unknown. Unfortunately for Neale, the fortune teller is the first step in what will be a nightmarish journey where things are almost never what they seem. A blind man is faking his condition, the old fortune teller later appears as a beautiful woman, and Dan Duryea plays two separate characters who both have death scenes. In addition to characters changing their very identities, director Fritz Lang plays a game with darkness–oftentimes, lights will go out at a pivotal moment to obscure the action. At the end of the film, the lights flicker in a stairway as the Nazi villains are gunned down by the approaching inspector, who again is represented as an image of fear by his being obscured in the darkness. Even the salvation of the protagonists is presented as something suspect. Ministry of Fear was hated by both director Fritz Lang and author of the novel Graham Greene (in addition to the divided response of critics), but it is not only an exemplary tome of Lang’s style and narrative concerns but a masterful work of paranoiac surrealism.

Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944)
July 28, 2015, 4:05 pm
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Director: Gordon Douglas
3 Stars
Gildersleeve's GhostGildersleeve’s Ghost was the last in a series of four B-pictures that were based on the popular The Great Gildersleeve radio program. As is expected of any series of its ilk, part of the amusement of each installment was in seeing which direction the characters would take. While not as genre-hopping as the Maisie series, Gildersleeve’s Ghost certainly points in that direction by having very little to do with previous installments and instead following the model of classic scare comedies like The Ghost Breakers and Hold That Ghost. The plot is as baffling as they get–Gildersleeve’s ancestors return from the grave in spectral form and wish to aid in Gildersleeve being elected as Police Commissioner. Their plan? To release an ape from a mad scientist’s lair, which would lead him to said scientist and his plot to perfect an invisibility potion that would threaten the world. It’s a convoluted excuse to utilize a number of the familiar gags in which a real ape and a character in an ape suit are confused, as well as the ghostly cinematic tricks that would be seen in The Invisible Man and Topper films. As a lustful showgirl who can vanish and reappear at will, Marion Martin steals the show, channeling Ginger Rogers with her sassy deliveries. Nicodemus Stewart has a stereotypical role as the easily scared black chauffeur (a role that actors like Willie Best made famous), but he shows great comic timing and is given a substantial amount of screen time. This last installment is certainly the most absurd of the series, but fans of this hybrid genre will find it mildly amusing.

Girl Rush (1944)
June 29, 2015, 6:07 pm
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Director: Gordon Douglas
2 Stars
Girl RushThe wild success of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in the 1940s led to a number of imitators that yielded mixed results. While Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson were brought back to Hollywood for Universal and filmed the memorably frantic Hellzapoppin’, RKO’s short-lived answer in the pair of Wally Brown and Alan Carney was not particularly successful. Girl Rush finds Brown and Carney as a couple of traveling vaudevillians who struggle to make a buck because many of their potential audience members have left to prospect for gold. Eventually, they find their way out west and acquire the enthusiasm of a town that enlists their services… only the predominately male townsfolk are far more interested in the chorus girls than the comedy routines! It’s hard to pinpoint what about the team doesn’t quite work–comparing them to their predecessors, Brown is too incompetent to be the straight man, and Carney isn’t quite loony enough–but regardless, the writing doesn’t do them many favors either. The only saving graces are the delightful Frances Langford and Robert Mitchum in his first role at RKO Pictures, the studio that would launch him to stardom. In the film’s climax, Mitchum dons a drag outfit. True to his cool nature, he seems unfazed by his bonnet and smirks his way through the sequence.

The Whistler (1944)
November 29, 2014, 3:19 pm
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Director: William Castle
3 Stars
The WhistlerColumbia capitalized on the success of the popular radio series The Whistler by basing a series of eight films on the mystery anthology starring Richard Dix. The connective tissue that brings all of the stories together is the omniscient narrator of the namesake who stalks the street with an eerily foreboding catchphrase in, “I am the Whistler and I know many things, for I walk by night.” This first installment sees Dix play an industrialist who has lost the will to live after failing to save his wife. He hires a hit man to kill him… but it turns out that his wife is still alive, and he can’t get back in touch with the man who pursues him! Horror legend William Castle directed the production, which has a fitting thematic similarity to his later gimmicks in that the killer (J. Carrol Naish) is convinced that it’s possible to scare a victim to death by stalking him. The film is a creepy, extended cat-and-mouse chase–Dix walks through hallways and hides out in bars, delaying his inevitable doom. It’s not a particularly great performance until the very end, in which Dix’s ailing physicality is startling. While he remains rather stoic throughout most of the picture, by the end he becomes a paranoid neurotic, sweating profusely and nervously fidgeting due to the knowledge of his forthcoming death.

The Uninvited (1944)
November 4, 2014, 3:05 pm
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Director: Lewis Allen
4 Stars
The UninvitedGail Russell first came to stardom with The Uninvited, a rare ghost film of the period in which the supernatural is taken seriously. She was said to be so uncomfortable on screen that she began drinking to calm her nerves during the production (a vice which would lead to her tragic early death). It might be this very tension that contributes to the greatness of the performance–it’s a dynamic one, proving that she was far more than just a pretty face. Her character must navigate the fallout of her mother’s gruesome death, and Russell demonstrates her relationship to the past by simultaneously being terrified and eerily calmed by the spirits that haunt her. She’s aided admirably by Ray Milland, who similarly had a tense demeanor about him in his best roles despite his calm, cool exterior. Perhaps no contribution is greater to The Uninvited than the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Charles B. Lang, however, who gives as much attention to sunlight as he does the absence of it (for a horror film of the period, it’s surprising that the location is so idyllic). The scene in which Milland investigates a mysterious weeping coming from downstairs is absolutely chilling–a testament to Lang’s use of light and framing, conveying Milland’s sheer vulnerability in a house that now seems far from hospitable.