For Reel

The Sea Wolf (1941)
October 26, 2016, 10:57 pm
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Director: Michael Curtiz
4 Stars
the-sea-wolfWolf Larsen might be the most savage character ever brought to screen by Edward G. Robinson, who made a name for himself by playing heavies. Robinson’s terrific gift as an actor was that he could balance a character’s savagery with an understood level of character complexity—his heavy in Little Caesar was an ambitious brute, but tragic in his own ways. The Sea Wolf doesn’t ignore Robinson’s thoughtful, intellectual side, but rather exploits it to create a Nietzchean sociopath who proudly declares that it is, “Better to reign in hell then serve in heaven!” Director Michael Curtiz was no stranger to an open sea setting, but here he doesn’t show the heroics of a swashbuckler actioner. Instead, as Larsen slowly descends into madness, the protagonists don’t intend to overthrow him but rather to escape—heroism is ignored in favor of self-interest, with criminals played by John Garfield and Ida Lupino trying to find a way out rather than try to create social change upon the vessel. Memorable as Robinson’s performance is, the cinematography by Sol Polito and art direction by Anton Grot just about steals the show from him. Filmed on a sound stage absolutely bathed in fog, the film’s high-contrast black-and-white imagery recalls the back alley streets of a typical period noir, with the setting of the ship adding to the sense of claustrophobia and paranoia.

The Walking Dead (1936)
November 29, 2015, 12:16 pm
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Director: Michael Curtiz
4.5 Stars
The Walking DeadWarner Brothers didn’t take as quickly to the horror genre as other studios, and when they did the films were grounded in a sense of contemporary America, their mysteries always left somehow explicable. The Walking Dead finds its horror elements sandwiched between a more typical Warner Brothers gangster melodrama (the presence of character actor heavies like Barton MacLane only amplifies that feeling). In the first third of the film, Boris Karloff serves as a sad, highly empathetic patsy. This film, as all of Karloff’s films inevitably are, is about eyes–it is remarkable in true Kuleshovian fashion that Karloff’s eyes could be rendered as either menacing or empathetic depending on the context. Once he is resurrected as the film’s “monster”, he is more in line with Frankenstein than a typical undead villain. Watch the series of murder scenes in which Karloff confronts the men who had him framed. He arrives on the scene first menacing, confronting the men with the question, “Why did you have me killed?” When his adversaries, in a fit of terror, stumble into their own accidental demises, Karloff’s face turns to absolute horror–he is not a brute, and even as the deaths are caused by his will, he serves as a conflicted agent of fate and justice. Cinematographer Hal Mohr’s expressionistic lighting grounds the film in the haunting, gothic tone that one would expect from the first wave of horror pictures in the 1930s, and significantly it uses Karloff’s ever-transforming face as a brilliant canvas. When the undead Karloff roams a cemetery near the end of the film, the image is at once familiar of Universal monster pictures and devastating in its own right–it is not an vision of ghostly menace, but rather one of a lost, broken man with no place else to go.

Bright Lights (1930)
June 27, 2015, 11:50 am
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Director: Michael Curtiz
2.5 Stars
Bright LightsBright Lights is a standard pre-Code backstage musical, elevated on occasion by its bizarre production numbers and the reliably lively performance from Dorothy Mackaill. She plays Louanne, a successful actress who is set to marry a rich bachelor instead of the man that she truly loves (Frank Fay). In a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that her socialite past was an embellishment, and instead she made her living as a showgirl at a series of shady venues. From there, the plot gets so convoluted that a murder is lightly taken as an afterthought. The original technicolor print of the picture was lost, and one gets the sense that the film was made very much as a showcase for the technology. Mackaill’s blush stands out as particularly dark, and Fay’s face is caked in makeup–small aesthetic touches that would have looked very different in the color prints. Regardless, there are a handful of enjoyable production numbers, including one in which Mackaill performs in drag as a “man about town”, and another in which she sings, “I’m crazy for cannibal love!” in full jungle attire. Fay, a star of vaudeville and the man who brought Barbara Stanwyck to Hollywood, doesn’t translate particularly well to film. His rendition of “Nobody Cares If I’m Blue” rids the song of all of its aching. It could have been a moment that earned empathy for his character, but instead his instinct is to play it ironically.

Goodbye Again (1933)
March 28, 2014, 1:55 am
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Director: Michael Curtiz
3 Stars
Goodbye AgainThis proto-screwball comedy stars two of the most indispensable stars of the 1930s: Warren William and Joan Blondell. Often dubbed “King of the Pre-Code”, William is endlessly debonaire and slick–a lovable asshole who shamelessly gives into every pleasure, while Blondell has a world-weary edge and fiery determination that leads to her often sparring with and out-witting her male co-stars. William stars as Ken Bixby, a successful romance novelist who is pursued by a now-married old flame (the delightful Genevieve Tobin) who believes she was the inspiration for many of his stories. While Bixby hardly remembers the girl, he’s more than eager to participate in the affair that transpires, much to the chagrin of his secretary (Blondell). William is sillier than one is accustomed to seeing him–it’s an absurd comedic performance, one that culminates with him childishly teasing his own suicide just to earn Blondell’s affection. That doesn’t take away from the picture’s sexiness, however, with the love-struck Tobin pawing at him by firelight in one particularly unambiguous scene. This is Blondell’s movie, though, who lays the sass on thick and comes off as simply too strong to be merely jealous that her boss is engaging in an affair with another woman. More than anything, she seems angry that the dope doesn’t understand that all he wants is right in front of him. Although the picture is not without its pleasures, however, it runs out of steam in the final act, which somehow manages to get less funny just as things gets more absurd.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
January 1, 2014, 9:51 pm
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Director(s): Michael Curtiz & William Keighley
5 Stars
The Adventures of Robin HoodA relic from an era when action adventures could still be colorful and unabashedly fun, The Adventures of Robin Hood has maintained its reputation as Hollywood’s most beloved swashbuckler and for good reason. Perhaps the most indispensable reason is Errol Flynn in his most iconic role. Flynn himself admitted that he wasn’t an actor of much range, however few actors could look so charmed by the very act of performing–his Robin is surely among the most joyous of screen characters, which is quite the surprise given a troubled production process. His charisma and winning smile removes him from the dour cynicism of later adaptations of the material (including Ridley Scott’s dreary retelling from 2010). He is well met by the ever-spectacular Claude Rains as Prince John, who plays the traitor with self-amusement and a defined effeminacy. On the page, the picture is a scrambled mess that pulls from various sources without much to hold it together, however what is remarkable is the way that directors Michael Curtiz and William Keighley (who was fired halfway through the production) efficiently breeze through one episode to the other, keeping each as exciting as the last. The climactic duel between Flynn and the treacherous Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) is an oft-cited masterpiece of swordplay, with the towering shadows of the combatants creating a dread-inspiring atmosphere for their deadly confrontation.

Doctor X (1932)
July 7, 2012, 6:53 am
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Director: Michael Curtiz

A cannibalistic murderer is on the loose, and conveniently several members of the titular Dr. Xavier’s medical academy have a history of consuming flesh. Ridiculous and overlong even at 76 minutes, Doctor X nonetheless provides pleasures as a cult film, in addition to serving as a showcase for famed makeup artist Max Factor and set designer Anton Grot. Moreover, it stars the wise-cracking Lee Tracy, whose charisma as a performer more than compensates for the corny gags he’s given (though a sequence in which he riffs with a prop skeleton does provide genuine laughs). The picture was one of the last that was made using the two-color Technicolor process, which produces mainly orange and green hues. In a key transformation sequence, color is useful to enhance the grotesque imagery, but elsewhere it is largely expendable – the shadows necessary to contribute to the mood of a horrific setting are at odds with the full potential of color cinematography. Creaky as the film is in its early goings as it introduces a series of suitably creepy suspects, it begins to produce genuine suspense when Xavier utilizes his preposterously convoluted method of finding the suspect.

The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932)
April 12, 2012, 6:01 am
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Director: Michael Curtiz

Ann Dvorak was one of the great stars of the pre-Code era. Most known to audiences today as Tony Camonte’s sister in Scarface, she later appeared in a number of quality early women’s pictures, such as Three on a Match, in which she steals the film from Joan Blondell and Bette Davis. The Strange Love of Molly Louvain is a tremendous showcase of her talents, a drama in which she brings to her character a satisfying complexity whilst flaunting her very modern beauty. As Louvain, she is almost deliriously self-hating – when she comes to the realization that her life is taking her down the same path as the absent mother whom she deeply resents, she doesn’t attempt to reconcile her behavior, but rather resigns herself to her fate. Her lack of self esteem is the direct result of the abusive men in her life – Ralph, the man who gave her a baby and ran off; Nicky, the thief who takes advantage of her fragility. As much as early Hollywood pictures tended to treat women with condescension and men as the ultimate care-givers (and this film is certainly not perfect in that regard), the tragedy of Louvain is that the men she encounters are more often than not predatory and opportunistic. Second billed behind Dvorak is Lee Tracy, a fast-talking journalist who spits out repartee with the police officers across the hall. The audience instantly pegs him as a crude womanizer, however in several scenes he briefly reveals his humanity – including a confrontation he has with with Louvain’s nice guy admirer, played by Richard Cromwell – and successfully enriches his character with new dimensions as the plot progresses.