For Reel


The Unknown (1946)
July 16, 2017, 11:10 pm
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Director: Henry Levin
4 Stars
The UnknownThis final film adaptation of the “I Love a Mystery” radio series (credited as a partial inspiration for Scooby Doo, Where Are You!) elevates the material significantly to near genre masterpiece. Detectives Jack Packard (Jim Bannon) and Doc Sloane (Barton Yarborough) this time find themselves in a decaying mansion where Nina Arnold (Jeff Donnell) reunites with her now deranged mother. The details of the setting are familiar of a number of “old, dark house” pictures, but director Henry Levin grounds the genre spooks in the Southern Gothic plot, involving lost loves and dark family secrets. Henry Freulich’s cinematography makes the nearby mausoleum and requisite hidden passages suitably eerie, and although Karen Morley’s performance is big, it suits the maddening claustrophobia. Director Henry Levin, who capably balanced the tone of Val Lewton-like psychological horror with a traditional noir in the previous two entries, furthers his experimentation here with haunting bookending sequences in which a dead woman provides a voiceover. The film was an unqualified failure and was generally disliked by its stars, but many of its images—the brick-and-mortar burial that echoes “The Cask of Amontillado,” the doll with its voicebox removed—are hair-raising.



The Devil’s Mask (1946)
July 16, 2017, 11:06 pm
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Director: Henry Levin
2.5 Stars
The Devil's Mask.jpgThe second in a series of adaptations of the popular radio series “I Love a Mystery,” The Devil’s Mask moves with a pace just as quick as its predecessor, with a plot twist happening at least once per reel. As a narrative, it’s a bit of a mess, but director Henry Levin’s concerns with tone are more fully realized than in the previous effort (the ultimate realization of this atmospheric blend of horror and noir would happen in the largely unsuccessful final film). Just as in the prior film, this entry contrasts the familiar streets of a film noir with the exotic—the jungle artifacts collected in the workspace of a local taxidermist include everything from a live leopard to a glass case complete with shrunken heads (continue the series’ fixation with the theme of decapitation). The detectives played by Jim Bannon and Barton Yarborough are just as unmemorable as they were in the first film, with the peripheral characters taking most of the spotlight. This is worth watching for the hugely bizarre final act, with the reveal of the murderer’s identity leading to a hugely creative final standoff.



Terror by Night (1946)
August 20, 2016, 12:10 pm
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Director: Roy William Neill
3.5 Stars
Terror by NightBasil Rathbone had been feeling his career was limited by the Sherlock Holmes series by the mid-1940s, and during the production of Terror by Night he knew it would be his penultimate representation of the character. That fans of the film series applaud this installment as one of the best might have to do with a newly enlivened Rathbone—a man who not only saw the light at the end of the tunnel, but one who wanted to go out on a high point. It helps that the dramatics are limited to the confines of a train and in a brief sixty minute running time. The suspense levels are high and the story pushes forward at a nice clip. Director Roy William Neill takes a moment about halfway through the picture to explain who the main suspects are by providing each with a close-up and a brief description—if it’s gimmicky and even insulting to a perceptive audience, the technique actually works quite well not because it narrows down the field of potential suspects, but allows each of them to occupy a similar weight. If the ultimate reveal and a few late coincidences are overwrought (the film was loosely adapted from bits and pieces of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories), there are a few effective setpieces along the way, such as an attempted murder on Holmes in which he is shoved from an open train door. Alan Mowbray lends support as Watson’s friend and is quite good at both casting suspicion and quelling it in equal measure.



Badman’s Territory (1946)
July 9, 2016, 2:23 pm
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Director: Tim Whelan
3.5 Stars
Badman's TerritoryThe 1940s in particular were a year in which the western genre, which had its foundation in the most literal black-and-white sense of morality, explored situations that were slightly more ambiguous, where heroes and villains tend to be complicated because of the nature of what exactly is right. Badman’s Territory is very much about how one’s personal code fits into the world around them, and particularly how a social morality must be achieved to bring order—in the outlaw town of Quinto, the good citizens request a lawman so as to have protection from one another. Randolph Scott plays the local sheriff who finds his way to Quinto when pursuing the gang that helped his brother recover after a shootout. When Scott comes face-to-face with the famed James gang, it is somewhat of a surprise that he is so cordial and thankful—even if they are criminals, the charitable act from the Coyote Kid (a delightful George “Gabby” Hayes) shows they are not soulless. Badman’s Territory is at its best when it indulges in the episodic, day-to-day life of the town and the people therein, including a horse race, a dance, and the shy courtship between Scott and a local printer (Ann Richards), however the action sequences are also well-choreographed.



The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
January 31, 2016, 11:43 pm
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Director: William Wyler
5 Stars
The Best Years of Our LivesIn the opening scene of The Best Years of Our Lives, returning veterans fly above Boone City and comment on what it is like to look at their hometown from a bird’s eye view. Even when the men aren’t surveying a field full of bombers, the tension is clear–these men converse about how different things look from above, making literal the fact that their homes and community have become only vaguely recognizable. A rare Hollywood prestige picture that is able to overcome being saddled with that burden, The Best Years of Our Lives is as empathetic as the movies get–not only are these characters wrought with their fragilities foregrounded, but they show remarkable love for one another as they try to adjust back to living in a world that has become impossible to return to. One of the most striking shots of the film involves a disheveled Fredric March holding a photograph of his younger self and surveying the physical differences in the mirror. The image carries a certain fascination for confronting celebrity so directly (and admitting that a famed actor now looks considerably older), but there’s more to it than that. Superficially, it considers the effects of aging, but it also suggests a transition in cinema itself. March’s portrait (taken sometime in the 1930s) reflects the actor at the height of his fame, during an era when Hollywood was defined by the escapist epics, screwball comedies, and genre pictures that he was known for. Now, audiences are confronted with the actor as a confused, chronically depressed veteran in a grimly realistic drama. The concerns of audiences and filmmakers had indeed changed, and this one simple image uses March’s performance, his filmic image, and the weight of the picture’s consideration of veterans as a means of remarking on the ungodly difference that a decade had made in our nation’s history.



Bedlam (1946)
November 1, 2015, 10:56 pm
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Director: Mark Robson
3.5 Stars
BedlamIt is more than a little unusual that the title cards of Bedlam refer to the shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill in the eighteenth century. This justification for a film seems absurd–the war had just ended, so certainly there were more pressing social issues to discuss than centuries old psychiatric facilities? But mental health reform is largely a MacGuffin in Val Lewton’s most overtly feminist film, which casts a strong heroine (Anna Lee) who has the gull to speak out against a largely male institution and finds herself–well–institutionalized for it. Her adversary is brilliantly played by Boris Karloff, who must have appreciated having someone to go toe-to-toe with. The best element of the film is that Karloff becomes increasingly obsessed with testing Lee’s convictions, suggesting that she is a hypocrite when she spends her time in the facility staying far away from the more disturbed inmates and instead mingling within the upper class of the madhouse hierarchy. Bedlam itself is memorably rendered–the straw floor, the endless wailing of those suffering within its walls–but the film’s horrors are more linked with social injustice than the supernatural, deathly kind of Lewton’s other productions. The film flounders in the early goings and Mark Robson’s direction is not particularly inventive, but even if it is perhaps the least of the Lewton pictures, it is still damn good in its own right, if only for the fireworks between Lee and Karloff.



The Big Sleep (1946)
June 25, 2015, 1:14 pm
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Director: Howard Hawks
4 Stars
The Big SleepAt about the halfway point of The Big Sleep, private investigator Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is paid off by his employer and told to back off the case that he’s been following. He simply can’t. When asked why he keeps prolonging his involvement, he sighs, “Too many people told me to stop.” And so he presses on, even as gun-wielding mugs continue to emerge from the shadows, the newest pieces in a neverending web. The audience has an especially rough shake because, in addition to keeping track of an ever-growing cast of characters (including some who are spoken of but never seen), Marlowe keeps his distance. Predicting his next move is impossible. The film’s labyrinthine narrative is indeed one of its joys, but The Big Sleep makes a pretty convincing case that the plot simply doesn’t matter. In fact, there’s a murder that not even director Howard Hawks or Raymond Chandler (the author of the novel on which the film is based) can explain. It’s a film of moments and atmosphere, filled with irresistible one-liners and seductive glimpses of a salacious underworld. Bogart has the expected chemistry with Lauren Bacall, but some of the most enjoyable moments of the picture involve his dalliances with the other women who find themselves equally unable to resist his charms, including the naughty daughter of his employer (Martha Vickers, stealing the film only five minutes in) and the lusty proprietress of a bookstore (a young Dorothy Malone).