For Reel


The Body Snatcher (1945)
February 24, 2015, 9:03 pm
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Director: Robert Wise
3.5 Stars
The Body SnatcherA beggar woman sings while roaming down a street after dark. Her voice is accompanied only by the sound of the horse and carriage following behind her. She disappears into the blackness, then the carriage does, and with an abrupt gurgle followed by silence it is clear that she has been murdered. The camera remains still on the shadows that have just enveloped the figures. This shot in The Body Snatcher is demonstrative of everything that made horror icon Val Lewton so successful. It both revels in the atmospheric tone–the street with few light sources, the music being sung like a sort of funeral march–and suggests unspeakable horrors without showing anything. Although, like all of the pictures shot by Lewton’s unit, the budget is low and it was shot quickly, this effort does have the signification of starring horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (albeit in a bit part). Karloff gives one of his best performances as a terrifying, thoroughly unpleasant cretin who revels in the hatred he inspires. Furthermore, while many of Lewton’s films were set in modern times, The Body Snatcher does much with its period detail, fulling bringing alive 19th century Edinburgh.



Lady on a Train (1945)
December 25, 2014, 4:48 pm
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Director: Charles David
3 Stars
Lady on a TrainAt the time of Lady on a Train’s release, Deanna Durbin was the highest paid female star in the country and remained Universal Pictures’ biggest asset. Having made her name in light musicals in which she played a youthful sweetheart, she had started reaching for more challenging roles that would adapt her image to something more decidedly mature. Lady on a Train preserves her sense of youthful naiveté while placing her in a sinister environment. The opening scene is a masterpiece of the era–an economical hook that establishes the tone right off the bat. In close-up, Durbin is speaking of a murder that she’s witnessed, only then it is revealed that she has been reading aloud from a mystery novel. Just a moment later, fiction becomes reality when a murder transpires just outside of the train car that she’s seated in, as if it were summoned from the page. The film never recaptures the simple greatness of the sequence–instead, it spins its wheels with lengthy set pieces, including one in which Durbin has to play the part of a singer at a nightclub–but it’s elevated by the impressive cast. Ralph Bellamy and Allen Jenkins deliver their dependably excellent work, but Dan Duryea is the biggest surprise. He often played darker, more menacing characters, and although the film plays with that expectation quite a bit, in the end he’s a charming, genuinely caring man.



Detour (1945)
November 15, 2014, 10:20 pm
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Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
5 Stars
DetourA true miracle of filmmaking with paltry resources, Detour amplifies the darkest thematic characteristics of film noir–the fatalism, the depravity, the sadism–and creates as hellish a nightmare as has ever been put to screen. The down-on-his-luck Al Roberts (Tom Neal) narrates a story in which he is involved with several deaths, extortion, and the relentless berating of a mercilessly cruel hitch-hiker (Ann Savage). Reflecting on his string of bad luck, he grumbles, “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” Director Edgar G. Ulmer’s limited budget aids the nightmarish quality of the picture–the cheap sets (much of the film takes place in a car with poor rear projection) and continuity errors feel uncanny, especially with the inventive camera angles and radical lighting choices complimenting them. One might imagine that Detour in the hands of a studio director and a big budget might have been a disaster, but the gritty atmosphere that Ulmer brings to the material is the perfect fit.



Dead of Night (1945)
November 4, 2014, 3:29 pm
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Director(s): Alberto Cavalcanti, Robert Hamer, Charles Crichton & Basil Dearden
4.5 Stars
Dead of NightThe enduring reputation of Britain’s Ealing Studios may be inextricably linked to its post-war comedies, but one should not overlook their involvement in the most revered of the horror portmanteau films: Dead of Night. While the picture is not completely humorless (one of the sequences is almost exclusively comedic), the film largely succeeds through its growing sense of dread. In the framing story, a man has the uncanny feeling that he has experienced the happenings of the story before in a nightmare. Usually in this type of narrative, the return to the storyteller relieves the audience of the tension that is built up in each of the episodes. That is, the familiarity of the real, present world is meant to be welcoming. Having the framing plot in this film involve an impending horror–a horror which all of the characters are aware of and openly discuss–means that the tension is unrelenting. In this instance, then, each of the disturbing tales are a distraction from the true horror of the situation. The way that the sense of anxiety escalates in this context is rather brilliant, and the climax that it all leads up to doesn’t let down.



The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945)
September 26, 2014, 4:49 pm
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Director: Raoul Walsh
3.5 Stars
The Horn Blows at MidnightJack Benny turned his last starring picture into a sort of legend by often citing it as the flop that ruined his movie career. Some report that The Horn Blows at Midnight actually did turn some profit, however not quite what might have been anticipated–being released just a week after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and near the end of the second World War may be responsible for the lack of audience interest in this rather cynical farce. If none of its jokes are particularly memorable, it has charm to spare and Benny is well-cast as the kindly but bumbling angel who has been assigned the task of bringing about the end of the world. What Benny brings that a Bob Hope or a Red Skelton couldn’t have is his comparative demureness–he is perfectly suited for the naive, fish out of water role. When he informs passersby that they need not worry about what troubles them because the apocalypse is only hours away, it doesn’t seem to be done in a taunting manner, rather as a sort of sweet gesture of empathy. Improbably, the picture was directed by Raoul Walsh, but one can see his mastery of space and scale during the climactic scene in which Benny dangles from a giant coffee cup.



And Then There Were None (1945)
August 8, 2014, 1:28 am
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Director: René Clair
4.5 Stars
And Then There Were NoneThe best-selling novel by the best-selling novelist has been adapted and reimagined countless times since its publication in 1939, but perhaps no version is better loved than René Clair’s 1945 original. For good reason–like the other great films that the French master made in Hollywood (including I Married a Witch and It Happened Tomorrow), And Then There Were None is a well-paced genre picture that is elevated by an extraordinary cast and consistently inventive, dynamic visuals. Take the outdoor scenes, for instance, in which the strangers survey the island in search of the absent Mr. Owen. Clair often shoots the cast from a low angle and has them occupy only the bottom half of the frame–although the angle might suggest their power in conventional film language terms, the vast sky is actually the oppressive force, suggesting their powerlessness. That this is a film very much about voyeurism and paranoia also gives Clair a number of opportunities to play with the idea of spectatorship. Most memorably, he films one character looking through a keyhole, only to pull the camera back and reveal that another character is looking at the first character through a different keyhole, and so on. The cast is stacked with great supporting players, but perhaps the most memorable performance is Richard Haydn as the bumbling butler who takes great offense to being considered a prime suspect early in the investigation.



The Enchanted Cottage (1945)
March 18, 2014, 12:09 am
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Director: John Cromwell
3.5 Stars
The Enchanted CottageArthur Wing Pinero’s 1923 play on which this film is based was originally written as a spiriting morale booster for disabled troops returning from the war. It is fitting, then, that its second adaptation would come to audiences early in 1945, when again soldiers were facing a similar crisis. The story concerns a pair of outcast lovers–she, a homely maid riddled with insecurity (Dorothy McGuire); he, a veteran who becomes suicidal when he returns disfigured (Robert Young). Together, in the cottage of the title, the two come to find love and see the true beauty of their partner. Although Pinero had his heart in the right place, the story is problematic–he wants the audience to be glad that these self-hating individuals have found each other because only together can they feel beautiful. It says nothing about overcoming one’s own self-doubts, rather being entirely dependent on a partner for a sense of self-worth. Regardless, the production is an impressive one–Roy Webb contributes a haunting score, and Ted Tetzlaff’s cinematography evokes the eerie atmosphere of a cottage which may or may not be magical. It is through him that the setting becomes a character–watch, for instance, the transformation scene in which the camera (in soft focus) pans in a circle around McGuire as she sits on the piano bench. Not only does the movement evoke the change that is occurring, it places the cottage itself as a sort of voyeur that coexists with and even directs the two lovers.



The Southerner (1945)
March 12, 2012, 5:28 am
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Director: Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir was never a great fit for Hollywood – in France, he essentially worked independently of studios, whereas the moguls of Hollywood didn’t have the patience to allow him the level of control that he needed to be satisfied. Of the five features that he made in America, Renoir later said in interviews that The Southerner was the only picture that he was happy with. Adapted from George Sessions Perry’s novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, the film concerns a tenement farmer forced to brave the uncooperative elements in order to provide for his family. Joel McCrea was originally pegged for the lead, but the role went to a cast-against-type Zachary Scott. Although he typically played smarmy, affluent types, Scott’s own upbringing better mirrored the character, and to the patriarch he brings a tremendous level of sympathy and a persistent heroism. Whereas agrarian locales often serve as the purest and most idyllic of landscapes in many American pictures, Renoir captures the grind of the fields, as well as the rot of the almost beyond repair shack that the family must call home. As grueling as farm life is depicted, however, and how devastating it is when it is all destroyed by a particularly violent storm, Renoir ends with a transcendent, optimistic note, suggesting the importance of community in the aftermath of a trauma. Released in 1945, one would be hard-pressed to find a more poetic appeal towards post-war Americans.



Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)
January 30, 2012, 8:57 pm
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Director: Robert Bresson

In his second feature, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, Robert Bresson engaged with the conventions of the kind of populist cinema that he would later work in opposition to. He uses chiaroscuro lighting to suggest the deviousness of the scorned woman, a romantic score to fabricate passion, and professional actors who speak often and directly. It is a picture, with its lush costuming and visual elegance, that easily could have been made at Paramount in the 1930s or 40s. And yet it is distinguished by Bresson’s already refined talents – his ability to illustrate ideas, whether that be simple narrative progressions; allusions to a character’s interior world; or the imposition of an omnipresent moralistic judgment, skillfully with understatement. The film is also a significant point of interest when considering Bresson’s cinema as one can see the development of several thematic concerns that he would later expand upon (more memorably, in many critics’ eyes). In its third act, the picture challenges the prideful, upper-class Jean by forcing him to suspend his prejudice and continue to consummate a relationship with the tragically weak-hearted Agnès, whom he learns to be a prostitute. In overcoming his narcissism and accepting her past, Jean’s character is so thoroughly transformed that it is quite literally life-giving. Though the melodramatic function is improbable, it nonetheless is a graceful moment of transcendence, an escape from both a shame-induced imprisonment and the clutches of death.



Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945)
January 17, 2012, 1:57 am
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Director: Roy Rowland

Having established himself as the prototypical screen gangster in Little Caesar, it is unusual to see Edward G. Robinson take on such a wholesome, patriarchal role, as he does in Roy Rowland’s Our Vines Have Tender Grapes. Though the picture is exceedingly mawkish, it retains its interest not only through the talent of its performers, but by Dalton Trumbo’s fascinating script. Famously among the Hollywood Ten, the picture was the last that Trumbo had written before the contemptible HUAC trials. It would be naive to suggest that the film doesn’t contain what could be perceived as being communist ideas – it is a picture entirely about communal sharing and, the one time the seemingly infallible Margaret O’Brien is punished, it is because of her selfishness. There are some further allusions to the communist party, such as a sequence in which O’Brien accidentally kills a squirrel, which, for the entirety of the picture, is referred to exclusively as a red squirrel. O’Brien’s pal quips, “Shucks, it’s only a red squirrel! They’re bad!” It is absurd to suggest that the ultra-liberal content could have had any negative effects on the well-being of the country, of course, but, as spoken by a Newspaper editor in the picture, “Funny how different the same words can sound to two people.”