For Reel

I Love a Mystery (1945)
July 16, 2017, 11:03 pm
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Director: Henry Levin
3.5 Stars
I Love a Mystery.jpgPremiering in 1939, the “I Love a Mystery” radio series was a much-loved hybrid of mystery and horror, often involving investigations into the supernatural. With horror movies having undergone a revival thanks to films such as those by Val Lewton, the film adaptation of the series seemed like a sure bet, especially as the similarly dark The Whistler series translated capably to the big screen just two years prior. The first film in this short-lived series is delightfully bizarre—within minutes of the opening credits, a decapitated head is played simultaneously for shock and humor, establishing a tone that toys with the tropes of horror without undercutting them entirely. Jim Bannon and Barton Yarborough play the lead detectives, however the film’s lack of success might have something to do with how passive they are in the plot. Whereas many mystery series’ brand themselves on the detectives themselves, Bannon and Yarborough hardly leave an impression—if the latter’s Texan drawl distinguishes him from similar characters and he generally seems comfortable on screen, the former is instantly forgettable. Regardless, it’s the performance of George Macready, the paranoiac whose head is a prized possession of a local cult, that sells the tone of the picture, which plays as almost Lovecraftian in the way it deals with cults and madness.

The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)
January 29, 2017, 3:24 pm
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Director: Richard Thorpe
3.5 Stars
the-thin-man-goes-homeThe Thin Man Goes Home marked a significant shift in the series in its penultimate outing. While the film is often regarded as lacking the charm of its predecessors, it should be applauded for attempting to alter the formula that the previous four entries had relied on. For starters, this entry places Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) in suburbia—a location far removed from the high society social circles that would make up the first few films in the series. It is also a location that allows Powell to bring a certain vulnerability to Nick that had not been seen up to this point. Nick, so desperately afraid of his father, attempts to kick his cocktail habit in order to please him. When he fails almost immediately (due to a comic miscommunication), he resigns himself to afternoons in t-shirts on a hammock until a murder kicks the plot into gear. Seeing Nick “regress” to a childlike state allows Nora more authority than in previous entries—her confidence in dealing with Nick’s parents is met by his anxiousness. If the film’s mystery is as messy as the series produced by this point (the appearance of a character named “Crazy Mary” (Anne Revere) reveals much about the level of thrills the film is dealing with), it is brilliantly tailored to bringing more to Powell’s Nick Charles, who in the previous picture had been treading water in his characterization.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
January 16, 2017, 8:58 pm
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Director: Peter Godfrey
4 Stars
christmas-in-connecticutThis underrated screwball comedy is intelligently cast and subversive enough to work as both a wholesome holiday movie and as an argument about the insincerity of the Christmas season. Barbara Stanwyck plays a Martha Stewart type who is forced by her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) to host a war veteran (Dennis Morgan) at her ideal farm home. The film’s post-war contextualization adds a level of cynicism to the conception of the American home—that is, men in uniform were returning to a dream that never really existed. For Stanwyck to play a con artist makes good on the image she’d often returned to over her last decade in film (in classics like The Miracle Woman and The Lady Eve), that of a sophisticated and ultimately duplicitous rogue. Better yet, Greenstreet carries the weight of his histories as heavies in noirs and lends a imposing authority to his role. He is obnoxious and nosy as a guest, and the tension of each screwball situation often hinges on the fact that there is an implied horror in how Greenstreet might react when he realizes everything has been a rouse. The film overstays its welcome, but the sociopolitical context that it places its games of deception in warrants a discussion—unlike films like Woman of the Year, Christmas in Connecticut doesn’t argue that Stanwyck is incompetent for not being an excellent home-maker, rather the film suggests that the idealized image of a housewife is a media construct to begin with.

Blithe Spirit (1945)
February 17, 2016, 12:16 pm
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Director: David Lean
3 Stars
Blithe SpiritNoël Coward’s Blithe Spirit was an enormous stage hit during the war years, running for a record-breaking 1,997 performances in Britain in addition to a successful Broadway run. In his essay on the film for the Criterion Collection, Geoffrey O’Brien notes that the material, “may be defined as a very British sort of resistance literature, encouraging resistance to encroaching catastrophe by blithely ignoring it.” Indeed, the most radical thing about the film is its nonchalance in dealing with death and the loss of loved ones–as Londoners were mourning the loss of thousands, Coward has the gull to manifest ectoplasmic spouses that have only furthered their ability to nag. This David Lean adaptation was largely dismissed by those working on it, with Coward famously scoffing at it and star Rex Harrison claiming that Lean had no sense of humor. Even if the immediacy that critics talk about when writing about Coward’s stage plays is missing from the film–the repartee doesn’t so much come naturally as it feels calibrated–it does compliment the material with some extraordinary visual touches. Most memorable of all is the phosphorescent appearance of the dead–a preternatural jade green only offset by red lipstick and nail polish, with Charles’ (Harrison) first wife Elvira (Kay Hammond) looking like a posh Wicked Witch. Additionally, while the séance held by Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford) is wrought to appeal to Rutherford’s bumbling sense of comic timing, Lean and cinematographer Ronald Neame stage it with a genuinely ominous quality, with Rutherford’s commanding shadow and eery levitating tables actually evoking a feeling of the uncanny.

Isle of the Dead (1945)
November 1, 2015, 10:52 pm
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Director: Mark Robson
4.5 Stars
Isle of the DeadDeath casts a heavy shadow over each of producer Val Lewton’s terror films, suggested in the appearances of supposedly supernatural beings (I Walked With a Zombie, Cat People) or the characters’ slow crawl into a darkness that will consume them (The Body Snatcher). None of the nine horror films that Lewton produced is quite as grim as Isle of the Dead, which reeks with the stench of the dead. If deaths in Lewton’s films are often quick and vicious, Isle of the Dead concerns characters who are slowly rotting away, both in a very literal sense and psychologically. As General Pherides, whose primary motive is to protect (which becomes perverted as the film goes on), Boris Karloff brilliantly descends into madness while maintaining a beautiful sense of tragedy. Ardel Wray’s screenplay concerns itself with conversations regarding faith–whether the suffering on the island is due to an ancient vampire-like being or by something with a messier, less clear answer. The General turns to superstitions, seduced by a native woman’s (Helen Thimig) reasoning, and is met with the deadly “resurrection” of the girl he buries. If Isle of the Dead is somewhat ponderous and shapeless in parts, it is Lewton’s most brutal, oppressively hopeless endeavor.

Hangover Square (1945)
September 2, 2015, 1:25 pm
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Director: John Brahm
4.5 Stars
Hangover SquareAnxious to capitalize on the success of The Lodger, 20th Century-Fox cast Laird Cregar in this film noir curiosity in which he plays a sensitive composer who is driven into a murderous frenzy at the sound of dissonant chords. Cregar was eager to adapt his image into one of a romantic leading man, and he mostly succeeds–behind the large frame is a man of great sensitivity, a Vincent Price predecessor without the sardonic wit. Director John Brahm and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle use the elegant camera movements that one might expect of a gaslight drama but undermines the beauty with an incredible violence. In the opening scene, the camera cranes from the Edwardian street, through a second-floor window, and to a point-of-view shot of a murderer stabbing a woman and setting her house ablaze. Fire is a key motif that bookends the story, a physicalization of the intensity of Cregar’s rampages. Who better to score the picture, then, than Bernard Herrman, whose “Concerto Macabre” is the accompaniment for a stunning climax?

A Thousand and One Nights (1945)
August 17, 2015, 4:00 pm
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Director: Alfred E. Green
3.5 Stars
A Thousand and One NightsMedieval swashbucklers had been plentiful in the 1930s and would arguably find their greatest success in the early 1940s, but the release of The Thief of Bagdad in 1940 did have a significant effect in turning Hollywood’s eye towards Middle Eastern mythology once again. A Thousand and One Nights not only capitalizes on the genre with an A-budget (including lavish sets and an impressive array of colorful costumes) and a focus on the fantastical, but serves as a direct parody of The Thief of Bagdad–a fact made quite clear when Rex Harrison shows up as the same Giant he played from the previous film. As with the Bob Hope-starring The Princess and the Pirate from the previous year, the film is a visual marvel and nicely straddles its genres. Although some viewers will be irritated by the antics of Phil Silvers (who plays an anachronistic character “born 2,000 years early”), Cornel Wilde plays Aladdin straight and finds some success in his agreeable blandness. The real star of the picture, however, is Evelyn Keyes as the genie who falls hopelessly in love with Aladdin. Her jealousy causes much of the dramatic conflict in the latter half of the picture, but her facetious treatment of the character always favors well-meaning snark over what could have been an indignant, misogynistic creation.

Having Wonderful Crime (1945)
August 6, 2015, 2:09 pm
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Director: A. Edward Sutherland
2 Stars
Having Wonderful CrimeMystery novelist Craig Rice (a pseudonym for Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig) appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1946, the first of her genre to achieve such as distinction. Her novels were set apart by their particular brand of zaniness–they were detective stories with a screwball sensibility. It comes as some disappointment, then, that an RKO adaptation released at the peak of her popularity is such a slog. The team of Pat O’Brien, Carole Landis, and George Murphy form the rare detective trifecta, with O’Brien playing the exhausted straight man caught between the bickering couple. It’s a fresh concept to interrupt the crime solving couple with a third party (imagine if Nick and Nora Charles never had the luxury of a moment alone), but unfortunately most of the comedy in the picture doesn’t play. Director A. Edward (Eddie) Sutherland evidently didn’t have the faith in the screenplay to carry the tone and employs Leigh Harline’s obnoxious, persistent score, which serves as the equivalent of a slide whistle that underlines the lame gags. Gloria Holden (most famed for Dracula’s Daughter) brings her uniquely icy screen presence and Carole Landis reminds one of the career that she might have had, but the picture doesn’t do anything to capture what might have made the novelist so successful in her time.

Zombies on Broadway (1945)
June 29, 2015, 7:05 pm
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Director: Gordon Douglas
3 Stars
Zombies On BroadwayThe most enduring element of Zombies on Broadway might be that irresistible title, but the picture is actually a nice treat for fans of the horror classic I Walked With a Zombie. Returning to the screen are the calypso singer Sir Lancelot and the unforgettable Darby Jones as a towering zombie with bulging eyes. Even Bela Lugosi shows up to the further delight of genre devotees! Stars Wally Brown and Alan Carney were RKO’s answer to Abbott and Costello, only they didn’t have the same charm or chemistry. What this film gets right, however, is very much in predicting the formula of Abbott and Costello’s later horror pictures (this one actually predates Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). The horror elements are played straight, with the bumbling comedians mostly reacting with fright to the undead monster lurking in the jungles. Bob Hope’s dalliances with the genre better captured the horror aesthetic and even found genuine scares, but this is a surprisingly watchable effort from the forgettable team–perhaps because they have more reasons to keep their mouths shut!

Those Endearing Young Charms (1945)
May 30, 2015, 9:37 am
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Director: Lewis Allen
2.5 Stars
Those Endearing Young CharmsAs Those Endearing Young Charms begins, Helen Brandt (Laraine Day) is being courted by the boyish, over-eager Jerry (Bill Williams), who seems like a thoroughly respectable kid but has little romantic or sexual charm–he might as well be played by Mickey Rooney. It’s no surprise, then, that an Air Force cad played by Robert Young is able to quickly divert Day’s gaze from Jerry to himself. Young was never particularly good at playing characters that were anything but genuine–even when playing a heel (such as a Nazi party member in The Moral Storm), he played them rather directly. But the ever-reliable Day is right for the doe-eyed, sympathetic lover whose naïveté comes from her optimism rather than simple foolishness–can one be blamed for falling prey to a liar? Lewis Allen, who directed the terrific ghost story The Uninvited the previous year, lends uninspired direction in this case, but at least he has the sense to shoot the expressive Day in lingering close-ups. Ann Harding returned to the studio that made her a star to play Day’s mother and brings her talent for understatement to a role that neither Allen nor the writers (Edward & Jerome Chodorov) know what to do with.