Wednesday, September 20, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for September 23-30

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
September 23–September 30

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON (September 26, 6:45 am): While not a great film, any movie starring Joseph Cotten and George Sanders is worth seeing. The storyline, based on a Jules Verne book of the same title, has its moments. The bitter rivalry between greedy munitions maker Victor Barbicane (Cotten) and holier-than-thou metallurgist Stuyvesant Nicholl (Sanders) provides a nice give-and-take for the two screen legends. Barbicane's latest explosive, the ominous-sounding Power X, is met with skepticism from Nicholl, who bets it can't destroy his invention, the world's hardest metal. The metal gets blown up, but it's also converted into a super-strong and super-lightweight ceramic. So what's next? A trip to the moon, of course, with the spaceship made of the ceramic. It has some silly scenes, but Cotten and Sanders worked well together and turned a weak script with bad special effects into an enjoyable film.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (September 28, 6:00 pm): This 1957 film, directed by Billy Wilder, is one of the best suspense movies you'll ever see. The story takes many interesting twists and the acting is outstanding, particularly Charles Laughton as an ill, but still brilliant, barrister who takes the case of a man, played by Tyrone Power in his last role, charged with murder. All of the evidence points to Power's character, Leonard Vole, as the killer, but Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) can't resist defending him. Things take a turn for the worse – or maybe it doesn't – when Vole's wife, played by Marlene Dietrich, is called as a witness for the prosecution. The ending is so unexpected and executed exceptionally well by all parties involved in the film. It is a shock that's heightened by the closing credits asking moviegoers to not reveal the ending to anyone who hasn't seen it. 

ED’S BEST BETS:

LA BETE HUMAINE (September 25, 2:45 pm): Jean Renoir wrote and directed this masterful adaptation of Zola’s novel of the same name, setting it in modern times. The focus of the film is train engineer Lantier (Jean Gabin), who, while waiting for his train to be repaired at the Le Havre station, witnesses a murder committed by the station master, Roubard (Fernand Ledoux). Roubard, realizing Lantier saw everything, encourages his wife, Severine (Simone Simon) to become Lantier’s lover in order to buy his silence. Needless to say, this results in tragedy. Gabin is mesmerizing in the role of Lantier, who turns violent whenever he has an epileptic attack. And it’s good to see Simone Simon, who most American film fans know as the doomed Irina from RKO and producer Val Lewton’s Cat People. This film is a must for those who would like to see the earlier Simon and for anyone who loves the films of Renoir, as I do.

WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? (September 29, 3:45 am): A surprising look into Hollywood that been unjustly overlooked after the release of A Star is Born, which it inspired. Lowell Sherman is unforgettable as the dipso director whose career has sliding into oblivion with Constance Bennett shining as a waitress whose ambition is to be a movie star, a goal she fulfills with the help of Sherman. With Gregory Ratoff and Neil Hamilton. A must see for all movie fans.

WE AGREE ON ... STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (September 25, 4:30 pm)

ED: A+. This is a wonderfully perverse tale of murder and compulsion from Hitchcock. It is perhaps his best American film, thanks to a bravura performance from the talented Robert Walker as the psychopath Bruno Antony. Bruno doesn’t have the stones to kill his hated father, but a chance meeting with tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) aboard a train inspires him. Knowing that Guy cannot marry Senator Morton’s daughter Anne (Ruth Roman) until he frees himself from an unhappy marriage to wife Miriam (Laura Elliott), he proposes a plan for a perfect murder: two strangers, who each want someone in their life eliminated, swap murders. Thinking Bruno is nothing more than a harmless kook, Guy tells him offhandedly the plan is viable and departs the train at his home town of Metcalf in the belief he has seen the last of Bruno. But Bruno takes Guy’s offhanded estimation of his plan as approval and kills Miriam, expecting Guy to return the favor and kill Bruno’s father. Bruno has become the ultimate piece of gum on the sole of Guy’s shoe; try as hard as he might, he cannot rid himself of the the crazy Bruno, who fully expects Guy to go through with his part in the scheme. Though the climax of the film is the celebrated runaway merry-go-round, the real highlight is the performance of Walker. As Pauline Kael notes, it gives the movie much of its character and peculiar charm. It’s interesting, but we never seem to think about a particular actor’s performance in a Hitchcock film. We usually recall some bit of business, such as the stump finger in The 39 Steps, the Salvador Dali dream sequence in Spellbound, the color red in Marnie, the windmill turning the wrong way in Foreign Correspondent, etc. But without Walker, the film lacks the punch that makes it so enjoyable.


DAVID: A+. The premise is very clever, but the acting and directing of the movie takes it to another level. Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) wants his father dead. While on a train, he meets a stranger – tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) with a similar dilemma. Haines wants to get rid of his wife so he can marry another woman. Bruno comes up with the idea that these two "strangers on a train" will do each other's dirty work and no one will suspect them. Guy brushes it aside, but when the psychotic Bruno kills Guy's wife, he expects his "co-conspirator" to respond in (not so) kind. The interaction between Walker and Granger, two highly underrated actors, in this film is outstanding. Alfred Hitchcock did a fantastic job – which he so often did – building tension and drama. This is Walker's finest role and sadly he would die a few months after the film was released. He plays a psychopath perfectly: he's detached yet pushy and is always one step ahead of Guy until, of course, the very end. My favorite scene in the film is his cool, calculated murder of Guy's wife, Miriam (Laura Elliot). Bruno follows her – and two of her boyfriends – around an amusement park, making eye contact with her on occasion but keeping his distance. When she and the boyfriends get in a boat on a "tunnel of love" ride that takes them to a makeout beach, called Magic Isle, Bruno casually follows in a separate boat. Once at the beach, he goes to strangle Miriam, but the way the scene is filmed is extraordinary. During the struggle, Miriam's glasses fall off and we see the strangulation in the reflection of her glasses. It's almost like seeing murder filmed as a work of art. One interesting note is famed writer Raymond Chandler gets a writing credit for the movie's screenplay even though hardly anything he contributed was used. Chandler and Hitchcock not only didn't agree on much of the film's storyline, but personally didn't like each other. However, Warner Brothers, which distributed the film, insisted that Chandler's name be used in the credits as he was a big name.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Deadly Mantis

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

The Deadly Mantis (Universal, 1957) – Director: Nathan Juran. Writers: Martin Berkeley (s/p), William Alland (story). Narrator: Marvin Miller. Stars: Craig Stevens, William Hopper, Alix Talton, Donald Randolph, Pat Conway, Florenz Ames, Paul Smith, Phil Harvey, Floyd Simmons, Paul Campbell & Helen Jay. B&W, 79 minutes.

In the world of ‘50s science-fiction films, two trends were popular with moviegoers: big bug films and prehistoric monster films. Along comes The Deadly Mantis, blending these two sub-genres into an unsuccessful concoction that leaves us disappointed and wondering what could have been if a little more time was taken and a little more money was spent.

The big bug movies, so profitable earlier in the decade, were winding down at the box office. Universal was running out of ideas for plots and the return on the films was not worth the cost of making them. So it was decided that if costs could be reduced in some areas of the film, then the special effects would not have to be trimmed as well.


The film opens with a rather awkward pan around a giant wall-map of the world before stopping on a tiny island above the Antarctic circle just long enough for narrator Marvin Miller to solemnly intone “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” We quickly move to footage of a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific followed by a jump more stock footage of icebergs crumbling into the ocean up near the North Pole. Then we see a close-up on a praying mantis, frozen in what appears the ice as we cut to the title superimposed on the image, followed by the cast and crew. 

After about five to ten minutes spent on stock footage the movie begins to take off. At one of the front-line stations, known as Weather 4, a huge blip comes on the radar screen, followed by a loud droning and the collapse of the station.     

Red Eagle One, the home base, tries to contact Weather 4, but to no avail. The base commander, Colonel Parkman (Stevens), flies out to investigate. Everything’s in ruins and there is no sign of the two men who worked there. It looks as though the building was hit by something big. But there’s nothing except a set of long parallel tracks in the snow.    

After Parkman returns to the base, a C-47 cruising along meets that same fate as the weather station. Again Parkman investigates. The same strange tracks are there, along with something new: an object about five feet long that comes to a point like a knife. Parkman decides to turn it over to CONAD (the Continental Air Defense Command at Colorado Springs). They, in turn, send it on to the Pentagon.        

At the Pentagon, General Ford (Randolph) and a room full of scientists are trying to determine what the strange object could be. The consensus is that they don’t know, but they agree that it comes from a living creature. As to what that could be, they are stumped. It’s suggested that Dr. Nedrick Jackson of the Museum of Natural History, the foremost expert in the field of paleontology, be brought in.

At the museum, we meet Dr. Jackson (Hopper) and Marge Blaine (Talton), a former reporter who edits the museum’s magazine. General Ford calls, requesting Dr. Jackson’s presence at the Pentagon.

Jackson determines that the hook is made of cartilage. After a discussion it’s determined the hook’s origin lies in the insect kingdom. Dr Gunther confirms from a blood test that the object is from an insect. It is eventually narrowed down further by Jackson, who shows the others an illustration of a praying mantis in a book. Says Jackson, “In all the kingdom of the living, there is no more deadly or voracious creature than the praying mantis.”

Ned is sent to see Col. Parkman at his base, Red Eagle One, for further investigation. He learns that Marge – to no one’s surprise – has managed to get permission from General Ford to accompany him as his photographer. Meanwhile the mantis has struck again, wiping out a village of Eskimos.

Once Ned and Marge arrive Parkman flies them to the site of the C-47 crash, shows them the strange skid marks and notes that they found the same marks at the weather shack and the Eskimo village.    

As they return to base to figure everything out, we see the mantis has landed outside the base and is slowly making its way to the main building. Jackson is going over notes in an office, trying to determine the size of the beast, when Marge and Parkman enter. As he talks about how huge the creature might be Marge walks over to a shelf to examine a couple of things. Outside the window we see the mantis creeping closer.       

Marge asks if the creature is as big as Ned thinks, then why hasn’t anyone seen it? Ned replies by saying that all who have seen are dead. By this time the mantis is practically against the window and we can see parts of its enormous head and eyes, much like a similar scene in Tarantula where the spider does the same thing. At that instant Marge turns, sees it, and screams. The mantis begins breaking through the roof as the red alert is sounded. Two soldiers armed with a flame thrower manage to drive it off before much damage is done.     

Back at the base reports come in that the mantis has been spotted at the Mid-Canada radar fence and the Pine Tree radar line. The creature is definitely heading south. Ned, Marge and Parkman prepare to head to Washington.   


General Ford appears on television to assure us that the mantis is not a hoax and the military is doing everything it can. He introduces Parkman, who tells of his encounter with the mantis and then assures us that the Civilian Ground Observer Corps is on the job and will spot the creature next time it appears. Parkman and Jackson display the spur and compare an enlarged photo of the mantis to a model of a C-47 to illustrate how big the creature is and so everyone on the ground will know what to look for. Parkman reminds everyone to listen for the loud drone produced by the mantis.     

Finally the creature is spotted and a squadron of jets launch to intercept it. This, of course, means even more stock footage. They fire missiles at the mantis, but the mantis vanishes below the cloud layer after being hit and a kill cannot be confirmed. 

At the Pentagon, Ned and Marge are plotting the locations of any strange events on a map. As it’s after midnight, General Ford orders everyone home for rest. As Parkman is driving Marge home in a thick fog, a report of a train derailment comes over the radio. As it’s nearby they go to investigate, but it looks like just another accident and they drive off, failing to notice the skid marks on the ground.     

Elsewhere in the fog, a bus stops to discharge its passenger. The driver tells his passenger to be careful out there in the fog and drives away – right into the path of the mantis. Parkman and Marge hear the report of the incident over the radio. The announcer goes on to report that, including the earlier train accident, this makes seven accidents in the area within the last 24 hours.

Parkman turns the car around and heads to the scene of the bus accident. A crowd is milling around with the cops trying to comfort the woman who witnessed the attack. Parkman asks one cop what happened and he says that he doesn’t know, but it looks like something lifted the bus and smashed it. Guess who? The cop turns away the guys from the coroner’s office as there are no bodies to collect. Parkman overhears a report coming in over the police radio that the mantis has been sighted over Washington. He and Marge quickly leave.     

We see the mantis fly over the Capitol building and land on the side of the Washington Monument. As it slowly climbs up the side we see two frightened watchmen inside watching as it passes. 
   
Later in a control room General Ford, Ned and Marge watch as the mantis is tracked toward Baltimore, and the order is given for ground-based artillery to shoot at anything not identified as friendly. As the mantis nears Baltimore, the army starts firing everything they have at it. The bug drops too low for radar to pick it up, but Ford notes that one of the ground observers will pick it up. The ground observers relay information that allows Parkman to track the mantis. The planes spot the beast and begin firing. Parkman, in one of the planes, collides with the monster, and is forced to eject and safely parachutes to the ground. The mantis vanishes and they later learn he is trapped in the Manhattan Tunnel right below the Hudson River.     

We see that the entrance to the tunnel has been portioned off with large tarps and smoke being pumped in the tunnel for cover if troops need to be sent in. Parkman arrives, dressed in a containment suit. He tells General Ford everything is go at the Jersey end as the tarps are holding in the smoke. Ned and Marge arrive with Ned saying that the mantis is mortally wounded. If they can keep it inside the tunnel long enough, it will die. Worried that the mantis may break through the tunnel walls and cause a flood, Ford allows Parkman to go inside and confront the beast.   


The colonel and a small group of soldiers go inside the tunnel and eventually spot the mantis among a group of wrecked and overturned vehicles. After bombarding it with chemical grenades the mantis collapses and dies.     

After the tunnel has been cleared of smoke, Parkman leads the others – including Ned, Marge and Ford – inside. Ned points at the dead mantis and tells Marge right there is the cover for next month’s magazine. As Marge snaps her photos, the giant foreleg of the mantis is rising up behind her. Parkman sees the movement, runs and pushes Marge out of the way as the giant leg drops back to the ground. For some reason, Parkman feels it is necessary to lift her up and carry her away from the mantis. Marge and Parkman kiss as Ned snaps a photo of them, and we get one last shot of the mantis as it lies there dead.

Afterwords

What ultimately does in The Deadly Mantis is its stultifying docudrama style combined with the excessive use of stock footage. To accommodate this something must suffer, and here it’s the almost casual neglect of the hows and whys of the story. It’s the hows and whys that make a sci-fi film interesting, especially one that has such an excellent monster as this does. The film is also handicapped by lack of urgency. We have a monster on the loose and it seems as if everyone’s taking their time about it. Given the 78-minute running time there could have been more put into the script along the line of how and why.

The movie adheres to the standard sci-fi plot line of its time: (1) There is a mystery involving missing people. It deepens as more people vanish and strange clues are found. (2) Specialists are called in to determine the nature of the threat. (3) The monster makes its appearance and goes on an unstoppable rampage. (4) After repeated failed attempts at stopping it, a lethal formula is finally arrived at and the monster is killed. 

If this is done with care we get classics like The Thing From Another WorldThem!, and Tarantula. But done poorly and without care (no matter what the budget) we get Attack of the 50-Foot WomanBeginning of the End, and The Giant ClawThe Deadly Mantis falls somewhere in the middle. It has much to recommend it, such as a solid cast, a great monster and, for the most part, a good plot. Never mind that the basic premiss, that of a huge insect, is impossible. These things have never mattered in sci-fi films as long as there can be the hint of plausibility and a decent monster. The Deadly Mantis has both. Face it, the reason we watch is to see a giant insect and no matter how ridiculous that idea is we will gladly suspend disbelief as long as the thing in entertaining.

What we end up with is a film top heavy on stock footage. Most of the first act is taken up with borrowed footage, mainly from an Air Force short titled One Plane - One Bomb. Additional footage came from Air Force shorts Guardians AllSFP308, and even a Universal adventure drama titled S.O.S. Iceberg, made back in 1933 and starring Rod LaRocque, along with Leni Riefenstahl, of all people, before she became Hitler’s favorite auteur.

The film takes about ten minutes to get the plot going. Until then we are regaled with uninterrupted stock footage accompanied by Our Narrator about the construction, placement and value of the three radar “lines” along with the constantly vigilant personnel who keep America safe from nuclear attack by Godless Communists. I felt as if I was back in grade school watching one of the educational films that only served to break up the boredom of the school day, as I learn the difference between the Pine Tree radar fence, the Mid-Canada radar fence, and the Distant Early Warning System, otherwise known as the DEW line. I also learn that, somehow, all this is very important. 

When Colonel Parkman mentions sending the insect part to CONAD, we get even more stock footage, as Our Narrator explains that, “The focal point of the supersonic shield that guards the North American continent,” and “A shield that could mean the difference between life and death for millions of Americans.” 

Inside, four telephones lined up on a desk, each one a different color. But these are not just ordinary phones. Oh no. “These are hot phones,” says Our Narrator. “Using them it takes only 15 seconds to talk to Alaska, 10 seconds to alert Newfoundland, 5 seconds to contact DEW, 3 seconds to reach the Pentagon command post.” Do we really need to know all this? The last phone rings and is answered by General Ford (Randolph). The way the scene is set up, its seems as if he was sitting there waiting for the call.

Later we cut to even more stock footage as the mantis attacks the Eskimo village. We see the villagers suddenly taking to their kayaks and fleeing from their village. This is the footage taken from S.O.S. Iceberg. But it occurs to us: why are the men suddenly fleeing and leaving the women and children behind? That makes no sense, unless it’s some sort of Eskimo cultural ritual, which it isn’t.

Honestly though, I don’t know what’s worse – the stock footage or the scene at the base’s recreation hall when Parkman takes Marge there. The men are busy dancing with each other to a record playing in the background as Parkman and Marge enter. Immediately the men become utterly entranced by Marge’s presence, like a pack of dogs staring at a package from Omaha Steaks. “A female woman,” says Parkman’s aide (Smith), “I thought they stopped making ‘em.” He walks over clumsily and asks Marge to dance, leading her to the dance floor.

Marge, for her part is there simply as the romantic attraction, and from the minute she meets Parkman, we know romance will be in bloom. Her task is to fill the role of the female in these pictures: a strong, self-sufficient professional who still needs a man to save her and make her life complete. She goes where’s she’s not supposed to go, she charms everyone with her intelligence and the fact she’s a babe, and she’s the best screamer. And let me tell you, Marge screams really well.


Other than the dumb scene in the rec room, the acting is better than this sort of film deserves. Leads Craig Stevens and Alix Talton (a former Miss Georgia) give decent performances. The original choices to play their roles were Rex Reason and Mara Corday. Reason dropped out saying he’d rather not (“I knew that the monster would be the star, and I knew I was worth a little more than just to support a praying mantis,” he said in an interview years later) and Corday was busy at the time being embarrassed by Sam Katzman in The Giant Claw. However, William Hooper often seems like he’d rather be anywhere else, and Donald Randolph as General Ford also seems out of place somehow, like we can see he’s not really a military man. 

One of the film’s lesser highlights is the mantis flying past a superimposed montage of newspaper headlines – Mantis Reported Over Bangor, Curfew Ordered In New Orleans,  Congressman Calls Mantis “Hoax.” The last one is really great, as Congress can always be counted on to be stupid.

When the Civilian Ground Observer Corps is mentioned we are treated to even more stock footage, with shots of people on beaches, in watchtowers and on ships at sea, all staring into the sky and watching for the mantis. When the bug drops too low for radar to pick it up, Ford notes that one of the ground observers will pick it up. That’s the cue for even more stock footage, this time of the ground observers as the mantis flies through the clouds and fog. Say what you want, the people in the Observer Corps are diligent.

The best scenes in the movie are when the mantis comes down in Laurel, Maryland. Parkman is driving Marge home in the fog and making like an octopus at the traffic light when the report of the train derailment comers over the radio. Set in the fog, it makes for an eerie scene, especially when we see they overlooked the mantis’ skid marks. Later, when it attacks the bus, the scene is well done and shocking, especially the passenger who just got off and witnesses the whole thing.

The other effective scene is where the mantis climbs up the Washington Monument. This was achieved by filming a real mantis climbing and combining it with shots of the scared crew inside the building watching it go past. This is the only time a real mantis is used. In the other scenes a 200-by-40-foot-long papier-maché model of a mantis – with a wingspan of 150 feet and fitted with a hydraulic system – was used. Two smaller models, one six feet long, and another, one foot long, were used for the scenes where the mantis walked or flew.

The ending, with the mantis stuck in the tunnel, is a let down. At this point, after the goings-on in Laurel, we were expecting more. Instead we learn that the bug is mortally wounded, it’s trapped in the tunnel, and all Parkman and his gang have to do now is go in and finish it off. 

In the final analysis, the film just seems tired. Perhaps it was the timing. The film was produced at the end of the era. During its heyday, William Alland produced the films and Jack Arnold directed them. Films like It Came From Outer SpaceCreature From the Black Lagoon, This Island EarthTarantula, and The Incredible Shrinking Man were excellent examples of their teamwork. For The Deadly Mantis the director’s chair was turned over to Nathan Juran. This was his fourth picture and his first in the science-fiction genre. The fault for the failure of the movie did not lie with Juran. The blame for this was on the studio for making a film on a cut-rate budget and substituting lots of stock footage for plot and action to save even more money. 

Trivia

The end credits contain the following written statement: “We gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the Ground Observer Corps.”

The Deadly Mantis was released in May 1957 as part of a double bill with the spy film The Girl in the Kremlin.

In February 1997, The Deadly Mantis was featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000

William Hopper served in World War II as an underwater demolition expert in the Pacific Theater. His hair turned permanently white by the stress and terror of his job.

Memorable Quotes (all from The MST 3000 Version)

[The movie opens with a review of North American defense monitoring stations.]
Narrator: Another radar fence stretches across the long, unfortified border between the United States and Canada...
Servo [as Narrator]: Canada, our mortal enemy.
Narrator: ... the Pine Tree Radar Fence.
Mike [as Narrator]: The natural radar of pine trees protects our northern borders.

[A museum guard salutes Dr. Jackson]
Mike: Uh, you don't need to salute the paleontologist.

[Parkman’s aide, the Corporal at the Arctic base, acts like he's having a nervous breakdown after Marge Blaine appears.]
Crow: Yeah, I think this guy's familiar with dishonorable discharge.

[The rather effeminate-looking General Ford explains to the media that the mantis is real]
General Ford: I want to say at the outset that, contrary to rumor and certain newspaper headlines...
Crow [as Ford]: I'm not gay!

Crow [as Col. Parkman with Marge in the car]: But I've got a mantis in my pantis.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Annabelle: Creation

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Annabelle: Creation (New Line Cinema, 2017) – Director: David F. Sandberg. Writer: Gary Doberman (s/p & characters). Stars: Anthony LaPaglia, Samara Lee, Miranda Otto, Brad Greenquist, Lulu Wilson, Tabitha Bateman, Stephanie Sigman, Mark Bramhall, Grace Fulton, Philippa Coulthard, Tayler Buck, Lou Lou Safran, Joseph Bishara, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Lotta Losten. Color, Rated R, 109 minutes.

Sometimes you get lucky and see a prequel before the sequel. But have you ever seen a prequel to a prequel?

Annabelle: Creation ends pretty much where Annabelle (2014) begins and that sets the scene for The Conjuring (2013) and The Conjuring 2 (2016)The Conjuring series is based on the real life cases of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. And, if you missed any of these movies, there are two spinoffs in the works. Hopefully they don’t involve the creepy doll.

This film starts with the creation of said creepy doll by master dollmaker Samuel Mullins (LaPaglia) whose dolls are much in demand. In fact he’s just finished an order of 100 dolls (hopefully not the same as the star of this movie). It’s 1943 and Sam, his wife Esther (Otto) and daughter Annabelle “Bee” (Lee) get stuck on the way home from church by a flat tire. One of the lug nuts rolls into the road, Bee goes after it and is run over by a speeding pickup truck.


It’s said love can make one do stupid things. Apparently grief can perform the same function. Sam and Esther make a chance acquaintance with a demon spirit they think is their lost daughter. It convinces them to let it inhabit a creepy doll with a porcelain face and over-sized staring eyes. When they finally realize that it’s not their sweet “Bee” they lock it in a closet under the stairs wallpapered with pages from the bible.

But the stupidity doesn’t end there. Twelve years later (1955) they think it’s safe enough to allow Father Massey (Bramhall) to bring Sister Charlotte (Sigman) and six orphaned girls: Linda (Wilson), Janice (Bateman), Carol (Fulton), Nancy (Coulthard), Kate (Buck), and Tierney (Safran) to live in their home. This is exactly what the demon wants and he selects poor Janice, who has been crippled by polio. Linda is Janice’s best friend and hopes to get adopted with her someday. The rest of the girls are just there for the ride and the screaming.

If some of the special effects in this movie seem familiar it’s not surprising. We’ve seen levitations, bodies being thrown into mirrors, victims being dragged by their ankles while they claw at the floor, victims being shot straight up in the air and faces changing from innocent and cute to evil, charred black and fanged with a turn of the head.

I was pleasantly surprised that I was not able to predict the outcome of one climactic scene toward the end of the movie. Rather than a spectacular special effect, Janice/Annabelle disappears and is adopted by Pete and Sharon Higgins. The film advances another 12 years and the direct link to Annabelle.

Most of the film is silly (a couple of times I thought, “Don’t go in there!”) but I did get chills up my spine in several places. Anthony LaPaglia and Talitha Bateman are tied for the best acting jobs, followed closely by Lulu Wilson. The rest were only so-so. For a horror thriller, the gore factor was amazingly low and the gross-out factor almost non-existent. I applaud that. Though it will never become a classic, it was entertaining.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Scarlatto
250 West 47th Street, New York

Scarlatti is marked by bright red banners and white lettering on the entrance. Though a little bit obscured by New York’s proliferation of scaffolding, the red was still visible.

Inside are open brick walls, white tablecloths over the blue checked ones and peaked napkins. Traditional carafes of oil and vinegar stand ready on each table. As restaurants go, Scarlatto is quite large (about 30 tables) and the theater crowd occupied most of them when I arrived.

I was seated at a table in the back near a charming fireplace, from which I could see the 2012 five-star Diamond Award plaque for hospitality on one supporting column and a black and white framed poster of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday on the adjacent wall.

I ordered my favorite martini from my server, Ricardo. Though not served in the traditional stemmed glass, it was close to perfect. Another server brought the bread basket with an herbal, basil-flavored tapenade on the side.

For an appetizer, Ricardo recommended the Burata (fresh Italian cheese served with tomato slices), but I went for the Caesar Salad instead. It’s been a while since I had one, and the menu didn’t mention anchovies,  which ruin it for me. It was fresh-tasting and crisp but it severely needed the main ingredient, garlic. Ricardo solved the problem by bringing a small dish of freshly sliced garlic cloves to mix in.

Many of the wines on Scarlatto’s list were reasonably priced and I was delighted to find two of my favorites. I chose the 2012 Franco Amoroso Barolo. Made from nebbiolo grapes, it has a full-bodied flavor, excellent deep red color and aromatic nose. This is a wine that can stand up to Roman Italian flavors.

Ricardo told me that they don’t do half-orders of pasta, making the gnocchi too heavy to order. Instead, I chose the Tagliolini all’ Agnello: a fettuccini-like pasta with lamb ragout. It was al dente and savory and Ricardo made sure to sprinkle some freshly grated cheese on top. The portion size was exactly what I wanted.


Even though the lamb Osso Buco was calling my name, I decided to go with another favorite entrée, the Vitello Saltimbocca – veal loin, Prosciutto, sage fontina, and sautéed spinach. This dish is different every time I have it. The cheese completely obscured the pounded, tender veal and prosciutto beneath it and the spinach peaked out when I cut slices to eat it. A very good dish; the Barolo made all the flavors bounce.

Ricardo came around when I had finished everything and announced, “Now it’s time for the best part.” I thought everything was pretty good already, but then I was served Scarlatto’s tiramisu. Almost three inches high, it was undeniably homemade and fresh. The double espresso was an afterthought in comparison. Very good coffee, but just a side-kick to the dessert.

Over its 12-year history, Scarlatto has received raves and jibes to both ends of the scale. I was fortunate to be there on the cusp of the theater crowd attendance and learned how the service improved when they were not being harried. Even the second martini improved. I had good food, great conversations with Ricardo, a wonderful wine and a laugh with the two ladies at the next table. What more could I ask for?

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Cinéma Inhabituel for September 16-30

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

NOTABLE

September 17: At 2 am it’s Roberto Rossellini’s excellent historical drama Socrates. The 1971 film focuses on the last days of the famous philosopher: his trial, imprisonment and death. Featuring a French and Spanish cast and shot in Spain due to the source of his financing, Rossellini, as with his other historically based films, stays close to the facts, only straying occasionally for dramatic effect. In this case Rossellini went straight to the source: the Dialogues of Plato. When I first saw the film on TCM I noticed Rossellini made parallels between Socrates and Jesus, almost interpreting the philosopher from a Roman Catholic viewpoint. His students, who are referred to as “disciples” in the film, call their teacher “the good shepherd” and even share a cup with their teacher that reminded me of the chalice Jesus shared with his disciples. What amazed me about the film was the close to the vest view it gives us of Socrates and his activity in Athens, conversing with nearly anyone and more privately with his disciples. Even more astounding was the screenwriters inserting arguments summarized from several of Plato’s dialogues. Those looking for an accurate portrait of the philosopher couldn’t do better than that. Though the film won a special award at the Venice Film Festival, it didn’t do well with either audiences or critics. In recent years, though, critics and film historians are taking a fresh look at this film and the rest of Rossellini’s later work.


September 21: During a morning and afternoon devoted to films about India, Jean Renoir’s exquisite drama, The River, is being shown at 4:30 pm. It’s a gentle, touchingly moving adaptation of Rumer Godden’s novel about English children growing up in Bengal, along the Ganges River. 12-year old Harriet (Patricia Walters) is the oldest of five daughters and a son of a British owner of a jute factory (Esmond Knight) and his wife (Nora Swinburne), while the nanny, Nan (Suprova Mukerjee) looks after the children. Renoir provides us with a thoughtful meditation on life as seen through Harriet’s experience with first love that occurs when the family's neighbor invites his cousin, Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), to live with him on his plantation. When John arrives, the girls discover he has lost one leg in the war. Despite his handicap, his abundance of charm and a sophistication that surrounds him has all the daughters smitten. They issue a formal invitation in writing to a Hindu celebration, hand-delivered by Harriet. Harriet, totally taken with Captain John, even shares her diary with him in an attempt to bring them closer. His reaction is more kind and fatherly than what she might be expecting from a suitor. It is when she sees Captain John locked in a passionate embrace with her best friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri) that Harriet is crushed. Her reaction goes to the extreme, but she is saved in the nick of time. It is an awe-inspiring look at the clash of cultures and a child’s-eye view of it, aided by sumptuous photography and Harriet’s narration.

September 24: Director Kenji Mizoguchi made many a fine film in his career, but none better, or sadder than his 1952 masterpiece, The Life of Oharu, which airs at 2:00 am. Roger Ebert called this “the saddest film I have ever seen about the life of a woman.” I have to agree. It’s a simple story: a 50-year old prostitute named Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) looks back on her sad life in flashbacks. We learn that she was born into a respectable family in Edo-period Japan and was a lady in waiting at the court when she and a young page named Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune) fell in love. This was forbidden. Katsunosuke was sentenced to death and Oharu and her family were exiled. Her father never forgives her for what happened, especially now as, because of the scandal, she is considered unworthy to wed in respectable circles. Her father sells her as a concubine to the household of Lord Harutaka Matsudaira (Toshiaki Konoe). Her duty is to bear him an heir. Once she does, she is sent back to her family. Her father tries selling her as a courtesan, but when she refuses, sells her into service as a maid. She loses the job because one of her employer’s customers recognizes her from her time working in the red-light district. From here on it gets no better, as Oharu suffers one insult after another, and we arrive back to her current life as an over-the-hill, poor prostitute.

Although this sounds extremely lurid, Mizoguchi avoids taking advantage of these sensational episodes in her life. No one but Oharu knows what her life has been; society judges her as an immoral and detestable woman, and we come to realize this is the role society has assigned her to play. But though this is the case, Mizoguchi assigns no villain, not even the father. Rather, he shows that the men are simply acting within the boundaries of their assigned roles and traditions in Japanese society.      

Mizoguchi made prostitutes a frequent subject, as in his 1956 Street of Shame (1956). He was a frequent visitor at brothels, not merely to purchase sex, but to fraternize with their workers and learn from their points-of-view. He also had a personal stake in the drama in an episode that had a great impact on him: his sister, Suzo, who raised him, was sold by their father as a geisha.

September 25: At 11:30 am, The Great Train Robbery, from director Edwin S. Porter in 1903, will be shown. It’s a simple, one-reel story of a gang of outlaws who rob a train and are hunted down by a posse, but it’s one of the milestones in cinema history. It was the first film to tell a story, and contained many roughly defined characters, used several settings, and, most radical of all, used editing to move the narrative along from one scene to another in rapid succession. What we take for granted today was not the case when the film was made. Those who took an introductory class in film have seen the film, as it is a staple. But for those who never got around to taking such a class, sit back and prepare to be amazed.

September 30: As long as we’re on the subject of Japan, I’d like to note that one of the greatly overlooked war movies in playing at 5:15 pm. That movie is Tora! Tora! Tora!, a docudrama from 1970. It is an excellent factual account of the events that led up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and brought America into World War II. It is an exquisitely balanced film, looking at both sides. It was mostly panned by critics on release as dull and uninspired, lacking the “action” a blockbuster should possess, with too many scenes staged in war rooms and among military planners from both sides. Yes, there is not a lot of action until the final act, but what doesn’t work in theaters works superbly well on television, where we can sit back and reflect on the drama portrayed on the screen. Those interested in history will find the film quite edifying. Care was taken by the studio, Fox, to insure accuracy. Richard Fleischer directed the American sequences while Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masada handled the Japanese sequences. Akira Kurosawa was originally hired to direct the Japanese sequences, but after he tried to copy Erich Von Stroheim, the studio let him go. Among Kurosawa’s Von Stroheim-esqe antics included painting a Shinto shrine aboard a battleship numerous times because he wasn’t satisfied with the shade of white, and replacing the books in a library with those from the period even though they were barely visible. As for the critics who panned the movie upon its theatrical release I can only say to be careful what you wish for, as the 2001 release of Pearl Harbor can attest.

GARBO


September 18: A morning and afternoon of Garbo films that should satisfy her fans. Included are such silents as The Temptress (1926, 6 am) and The Mysterious Lady (1928, 10 am); Pre-Code faves such as Grand Hotel (8 am) and Queen Christina (4:15 pm); and the rarely shown dramas Romance (1930, 11:45 am) and The Painted Veil (1934, 1:15 pm), in addition to Billy Wilder’s wonderful Ninotchka closing out the day at 6 pm. But perhaps the most unusual film of the day is the German language version of Anna Christie from 1930, which airs at 2:45 pm. Germany was one of Hollywood’s largest foreign markets, and in the early days of sound, the norm was to take “important” films (films the studios saw as appealing to foreign audiences) and remake them in foreign language versions. The films were usually made after hours on the same soundstage with a different cast, but because of Garbo’s impact in Germany, it was decided to make the German language film directly after filming wrapped on the English version on the same sets, but with a different supporting cast. Later, when the technology improved, subtitles and dubbing came into being, and the days of the separate language version came to an end. 

PRE-CODE

September 16: At 12:45 am Joan Crawford and Clark Gable star in MGM’s 1933 Dancing Lady. Look for Fred Astaire and the Three Stooges.

September 21: Son Of India, a 1931 film from MGM starring Ramon Novarro as a rajah’s son who falls for an American woman (Marjorie Rambeau) touring India, airs at 7:00 am.

September 25: Murder in the Private Car (MGM, 1934), starring Charles Ruggles, Una Merkel and Mary Carlisle airs at 7:15 am. At 1:15 pm comes Danger Lights (RKO, 1931) with Louis Wolheim, Robert Armstrong and Jean Arthur. If you’re a train buff you don’t want to miss this one.

September 28: Ladies of the Jury (RKO, 1932) starring Edna May Oliver and Jill Esmond is scheduled for 6:00 am. At 9:00 D.A. Walter Huston must protect a family that witnessed a gangland killing in Star Witness (WB, 1931).

September 29: In an evening that features all three versions of A Star is Born, stick around until 3:45 am (or better yet, record it) and watch the film that helped inspire them all, What Price Hollywood? (RKO, 1932), starring Constance Bennett, Lowell Sherman and Neil Hamilton.

PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B-HIVE

September 16: Boston Blackie becomes the prime suspect when a pearl necklace he’s been hired to guard is stolen in Trapped by Boston Blackie (1948) at 10:30 am.     

Archeologist Charlton Heston discovers his daughter is possessed by the malevolent spirit of an Egyptian queen in 1980’s The Awakening at 2:30 am. Following at 4:30 am, Hammer gives us practically the same plot nine years earlier in Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb (1971). Given the choice of the two, I’d go with the Hammer version.

September 21: TCM’s Special Theme for September is “Counter Culture Classics,” and it begins at 8 pm with the concert film Monterey Pop from 1969. At 9:30 pm comes Don’t Look Back (1967), a record of Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. At 11:45 it’s the Maysles Brothers’ classic 1970 documentary Gimme ShelterWoodstock: The Director’s Cut follows at 1:30 am, and the night closes out with the documentary Jimi Hendrix (1973) at 5:30 am. 


September 23: Bumbling press agents Brown and Carney run into Bela Lugosi in 1945’s Zombies on Broadway at 6 am. The Boston Blackie films come to an end with Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture (1948) at 10:30 am. 

Nature strikes back beginning at 2:00 am with Of Unknown Origin (1983), followed by Rattlers (1976) at 3:45 am.

September 25: Herbert Lom is the crazed composer in Hammer’s version of Phantom of the Opera (1962) at 9:45 pm. 

September 26: An entire morning and afternoon of psychotronic films is on tap, with the best bets being the underrated World Without End(1955) at 8:30 am and the wonderfully ridiculous Queen of Outer Space (1958), starring the one and only Zsa Zsa Gabor, at 4:30 pm.

September 28: The TCM Special Theme on “Counter Culture Classics” continues, with The Love-Ins (1967) at 8 pm, starring Richard Todd as a former college professor who becomes a messiah for a cult and avails himself of the women there. At 10 pm comes Sam Katzman’s 1967 Riot on Sunset Strip. Laff Riot is more like it, as LA detective Aldo Ray’s juvenile delinquent daughter Mimsy Farmer falls in with a gang looking for “kicks.” 

At midnight Al Pacino has his first starring role as a small time crook who introduces his girlfriend to heroin in Panic in Needle Park (1971). His performance helped convince Francis Ford Coppola to cast him in The Godfather. The film was considered strong stuff when originally released and packs a powerful, if forgotten, performance from leading lady Kitty Winn. 

At 2 am it’s another viewing of The Big Cube (1969), followed by Barbet Schroeder’s tragic look at a young couple (Mimsy Farmer and Klaus Grunberg) who fall into the drug culture underbelly of the hippie movement in Europe in More (1969). It was Schroeder’s first film.

September 30: Glenda Farrell, Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill star in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) at 10:30 am. Made in two-strip Technicolor, it still holds up well today, with Farrell giving a great performance as the intrepid reporter.  


At 2:00 am comes David Lynch’s weirdly compelling Eraserhead, his 1977 feature directorial debut. A filmed nightmare, the plot of which defies any semblance of description, revolves around Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) who exists in a totally bleak urban environment of industrial surroundings. One night he’s invited to meet the parents of his fiancee, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart). After repeated interrogation by Mary's mother (Jeanne Bates) and dining on a dinner of miniature chickens that squirt some form of black goop, he's told that Mary has given premature birth. He must immediately marry her and bring her to live with him in his apartment. The marriage lasts only a few days, as the mutant child’s non-stop crying frays everyone’s nerves, Mary leaves Henry and leaves their child in his care. This leads to a series of even stranger events – one with the hooker across the hall (Judith Roberts) and a bizarre woman who lives in Henry’s radiator (Laurel Near). The child itself reminds one of Prince Randian, the human torso in Tod Browning’s 1932 Freaks. As nothing that happens in the movie is explained, we are left to draw our own conclusions. To quote Michael Weldon in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (p. 219), some “will identify with the completely alienated, sexually retarded characters. Many viewers (usually female) walk out of the theater in disgust. Many others watch it faithfully every week at midnight showings. You probably wouldn’t feel comfortable alone in a room with one of the frequent viewers.” It took Lynch, who described the movie as “a dream of dark and troubling things,” five years to finish it with partial financing from the American Film Institute. It made a splash on the Midnight Movie circuit, hailed by critics such as J. Hoberman, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Danny Peary. David Bartholomew in Cinefantastique described it as “a true rarity, an original work that seemingly has no antecedent in the horror genre. It is not abstract, but it defines a coherent plot description, in fact it defies description of any kind.” The only advice I can give is to watch it and decide for yourself, but keep in mind that it’s the movie that propelled Lynch to bigger and better things, such as The Elephant ManTwin Peaks and Blue Velvet.