By Ed Garea
Below is a guide for the rare and the unusual movies shown on TCM for the week of September 1 to 7. Some are chosen for what might be called their “uniqueness.” Others are chosen because they rarely appear on the channel, and when they do, they are stuck in the late-night or early-morning slots, when no one is watching save our DVRs. As we expand in the future, offerings on other channels will be noted. But for now we will focus on TCM.
7:45 am The Black Cat (Universal, 1934) – Director: Edgar G. Ulmer. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, David Manners, Jacqueline Wells.
Besides being the directorial debut of Edgar G. Ulmer, this is the first film to team Lugosi and Karloff. (At this time Boris was still being billed as simply “Karloff”). The screenplay by Peter Ruric bears absolutely no resemblance to the Edgar Allen Poe story, but rather with a pair of newlyweds on their way through the Hungarian countryside. After their taxi crashes, they make their way to the castle of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), and become pawns in a weird game between the Satanist Poelzig and Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), whose wife and daughter Poelzig has stolen and who is out for revenge. Watch it for the bizarre sets and the way Ulmer handles such material as Satanism, sadism and necrophilia. Made before the Code was enforced, it moves at a crisp 65 minutes with no dull patches. Also look for Universal regular Harry Cording as Thamal, Poelzig’s manservant.
9:00 am Thunderbirds Are Go (U.A., 1968) – Director: David Lane. Featuring the voices of Sylvia Anderson, Ray Barrett, Alexander Davion, and Peter Dyneley.
Remember those great Thunderbird movies where puppets saved the world from various enemies? Based on a 1964 Saturday morning kiddie show called Thunderbirds, the film was released at the height of the James Bond craze and became a huge hit, spawning several sequels. In the film, the Hood, who is the Thunderbirds’ arch nemesis, attempts to destroy the Zero-X, the new Mars explorer craft, but fails. The rest of the film is concerned with the Tracy family’s exploration of Mars, where they encounter some goofy looking rock monsters (Shades of Missile to the Moon!), and help people in trouble. Whether it’s delivering the antidote for a deadly disease or simply retrieving a pair of eyeglasses from a fish tank, no job is too big or too small for the Thunderbirds. It was still popular enough to spawn a 2004 parody from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. Titled Team America: World Police, it was a wonderful parody of the Thunderbirds and actually demonstrated the naughty bits between the puppets we all imagined while watching the chemistry between the Thunderbirds characters.
12:00 pm Jungle Jim (Columbia, 1948) – Director: William Berke. Starring: Johnny Weissmuller, Virginia Grey, George Reeves, and Lita Baron.
Think of Tarzan in khakis with a pith helmet and more to say and you have Jungle Jim. Weissmuller made 16 of these low-budget films based on the comic strip from 1948 to 1955, followed by a short-lived television series. The initial film is rather a muted affair with Jim helping Virginia Grey, a scientist seeking a drug to cure polio. Future Superman George Reeves plays well as the villain. Jim has a pet crow named Caw-Caw and a dog by the name of Skipper. He traded them in at the pet shop the first chance he got for a familiar chimp.
9:45 pm The Beast With Five Fingers (WB, 1947) – Director: Robert Florey. Starring: Robert Alda, Andrea King, Peter Lorre, J. Carroll Naish, and Victor Francen.
Lorre is great in this screenplay from Curt Siodmak as the secretary to wheelchair-bound pianist Victor Francen, who has the use of only one hand. When Francen dies mysteriously in a fall down the stairs, his will stipulates that his estate is to be given to his nurse, Andrea King. Murders suddenly begin to take place and an inspection of Francen’s body shows that his good hand has been severed and in missing. More murders and near murders take place and the severed hand appears to be the main suspect. Lorre is also a suspect and the scene where the hand strangles him and him nailing the hand to a board are the highlights of this strange and wonderful film. Trouble is always telegraphed when we hear the hand playing the Bach Chaconne in D minor and Lorre’s descent into madness is riveting.
2:45 am Spirits of the Dead (Cocinor/AIP, 1969) – Directors: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini. Starring: Vincent Price, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Philippe Lemaire, Alain Delon, Terence Stamp, and Brigitte Bardot.
Hiring three great European directors to each bring a Poe story to the screen is a great idea, even if the results are less than sparkling. The best segment of the three is Fellini’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” with Terence Stamp as a cynical alcoholic star actor lured to Rome to make a film with the promise of a Maserati automobile. Fellini populates the segment with his usual grotesque characters and his black sense of humor as Stamp’s character meets his doom while attempting to jump his new car over a ruined bridge. Malle’s segment is based on Poe’s “William Wilson” and is a haunting tale of a sadistic Austrian student (Delon) with an exact double whom he later kills. He also does such things as place a schoolmate in a tub of rats, operate on an unwilling young girl, and flog his partner (Bardot) after losing a card game. Vadim’s segment, “Metzengerstein,” is the weakest. Jane Fonda is a countess who loves to stage orgies. When her cousin/neighbor (Peter Fonda) resists her advances, she burns his stable down and kills him, but he lives on spiritually as a wild black stallion with which Jane becomes obsessed. Jane’s costumes make this segment worth watching. Vincent Price narrates all three segments.
4:30 am Orlando (Sony Pictures Classics, 1992) – Director: Sally Potter. Starring: Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, Lothaire Bluteau, John Wood, and Quentin Crisp.
Tilda Swinton is one of the busiest and most recognizable actresses in movies. Working mainly in television and on stage, this was her first big break and she made the most of it. Based on Virginia Wolff’s novel about changing genders, Swinton plays Orlando, born as a boy into an Elizabethan aristocratic family. As a young man, Queen Elizabeth I (played by Quentin Crisp!) takes a shine to young Orlando and bequeaths him a large estate and a generous monetary gift. He can keep the estate forever, but only if he remains young. He becomes an ambassador to Constantinople and is almost killed in a dispute.
Waking the next morning, he discovers that he has become a woman overnight. He also gets the wish to be forever young and immortal. But now his life now radically changes, as he no longer enjoys the freedoms and privileges he had enjoyed as a male. Being a woman, he no longer has a right to any portion of his estate and royal inheritance. As she travels through the centuries the film makes several observations about life and the changing roles of gender in society. It can be difficult to keep up with at times, but director Potter does a good job of keeping the viewer in the story.
9:00 am Behind the Rising Sun (RKO, 1943) – Director: Edward Dmytryk. Starring: Margo, Tom Neal, J. Carroll Naish, Robert Ryan, Mike Mazurki, and Gloria Holden.
Now here’s a strange gem indeed. After making the lurid and hugely profitable Hitler’s Children, director Dmytryk and writer Emmet Lavery made this follow-up of sorts about the enemy on the other side of the Pacific.
It’s the tale of a Japanese newspaper publisher (Naish) and his Cornell-educated son (Neal). Dad forces sonny boy to join the Japanese army against his will and the experience both changes and hardens both men. The film shows the terrible atrocities committed by the Japanese against Chinese civilians and Americans. Look for the fight scene between American boxer Ryan (who was a real-life boxing champion at Dartmouth College) and Japanese judoka Mazurki. It’s based on a real life pre-war incident where the boxer won. Also note that none of the major Asian roles are played by actual Asians, typical of Hollywood.
6:00 am Pressure Point (U.A., 1962) – Director: Hubert Cornfield. Starring: Sidney Poitier, Bobby Darin, Peter Falk, and Carl Benton Reid.
It’s the ‘60s and liberal sentiments are seeped deep into Hollywood, especially concerning race relations. It must have seemed daring at the time to cast Poitier as a prison psychiatrist who agrees to treat a young racist Nazi-supporting Bobby Darin, who’s looking to excise the demons that keep him awake at night.
It doesn’t take Poitier long to get at the root of Darin’s problems: a weak victimized mother and a brutal, distant butcher father. Darin’s feelings of powerlessness manifest themselves in hatred of Jews and minorities. Though we can see every plot point coming from a mile away, there are still some powerful scenes, thanks to a terrific performance by Darin as the young Hitler wanna-be. For instance, the scene where Darin and several construction workers under his sway and vandalize a bar: the fashion in which they terrorize the bar owner and his wife is still enough to make the viewer very uneasy, and Darin’s performance here is riveting. Later, is if we didn’t already get the analogy, Darin and his followers trash a kosher butcher shop and throw a carcass into the street. (So there, Dad!)
It’s dated today, but watchable because of the subject matter. The film cannot be done today outside of a television movie because the subject matter is too profound for today’s young audiences. (Hey, there’s no car crashes.) So watch it as a relic from a bygone era.