Monday, April 1, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for April 1-7

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea 

Well, once again we go from feast to relative famine with this week’s offerings, though there are several gems in among the bunch. 

April 2

2:30 pm Born to Kill (RKO: 1947) Director: Robert Wise. Cast: Claire Trevor, Laurence Tierney, Walter Slezak, Phillip Terry, Audrey Long, and Elisha Cook, Jr. B&W, 92 minutes.

Based on James Gunn’s novel, Deadlier Than the Male, this is a dark item from the ‘40s partially redeemed by an incredible performance by Laurence Tierney as a sullen psychopath killer that marries the insecure Long, but just can’t stay away from her divorced sister (Trevor). Tierney gained cult status thanks to his role in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), and this film benefits from that status, becoming a cult item itself. Despite the cast and director, the film is let down by its inferior screenplay.

Trivia: Deadlier Than the Male was Gunn’s first novel and was written as an assignment in a literature class.

April 3

8:00 pm Henry V (Two Cities, 1944) Director: Laurence Olivier. Cast: Laurence Olivier, Robert Newton, Leslie Banks, Renee Asherson, and Ernest Thesiger. Color, 137 minutes.

Olivier takes Shakespeare’s patriotic play and turns it into a great moral picture. It was also the first of the Bard’s films to win critical and popular acclaim.

Concerned about how to handle the play’s theatricality on film, Olivier hit upon the idea of beginning it at the Globe Theatre, with the Chorus and other actors on the stage until the action carried them out into the world. They then returned to the stage for the final scene, in which a boy would play Henry’s betrothed, Princess Anne, in keeping with the fact that in Shakespeare’s time, boys played women’s roles.

Trivia: Olivier wanted his wife, Vivien Leigh, for the small role of Princess Katharine, but Leigh was under exclusive contract to David O. Selznick at the time and he refused to release her for such a small role, even going so far as to threaten legal action.

1:15 am Richard III (London Films, 1955) Director: Laurence Olivier. Cast: Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Claire Bloom, Cedric Hardwicke, and John Gielgud. Color, 161 minutes.

Having scored at the box office and with the critics with his previous Shakespearean efforts, Olivier tried again with his adaptation of Richard III. He kept many of the mannerisms and much of the makeup he had previously used when performing the role on stage in 1944. Olivier had originally modeled his Richard on Broadway producer Jed Harris, who Olivier considered one of the most evil people he had ever met. His physical transformation was remarkable, from the limp that made him even more evil, to the tapering appendages that gave him the appearance of having rat-like fingers. In addition, Olivier also gave Richard a charismatic bent, luring us into worrying about his fate before committing his most heinous crimes, including the murder of the two young princes who stood between him and the throne.

Until this version, the story of Richard III had been the fodder of horror films, the most notable of which was Rowland V. Lee’s Tower of London for Universal in 1939. Basil Rathbone starred as the king with Boris Karloff in practically a co-starring role as the king’s executioner. Roger and Gene Corman remade this in 1962 under the same title with Vincent Price as the murderous monarch. Price had played the Duke of Clarence in the 1939 version. In 1995, Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine updated the original Shakespeare play and set it in 1930s Great Britain.

Trivia: When Olivier had trouble with financing the film, Sir Alexander Korda agreed to provide the necessary funds, with the promise that if the film did well at the box office, Korda would also finance Olivier in an adaptation of Macbeth. Unfortunately, Korda died shortly after the release of Richard III. Mike Todd then offered to take over the financial reins, but he was killed in a plane crash shortly before the deal was to be signed, so Macbeth never got off the drawing board. No wonder theater people refer to it as “the Scottish play.”

April 4

1:45 am A Run For Your Money (Ealing, 1949) Director: Charles Frend. Cast: Donald Houston, Meredith Edwards, Moira Lister, Alec Guinness, Hugh Griffith, and Clive Morton. B&W, 83 minutes.

Houston and Edwards are two Welshmen from Hafoduwchbenceubwllymarchogoch who win a contest sponsored by a newspaper. They win 100 pounds each and choice seats to a rugby match in London between the Welsh and English all-star teams. It’s the first trip to England for the country boys, and they are to be met at the station and escorted around London by the paper’s garden columnist, Whimple (Guinness). But when the boys become separated, each falls in with people that can do them no conceivable good, and the fun begins.

Trivia: The film was roundly panned in Wales for what was termed its “stereotypical” depiction of Welshmen as cheerful, sentimental souls who never pass up a drink or a chance to sing, and burst into tears at the very sound of a harp.

April 5

7:45 am The Vampire Bat (Majestic, 1933) Director: Frank Strayer. Cast: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas, Dwight Frye, and George E. Stone. B&W, 65 minutes.

This poverty row quickie is notable only for the presence of future star Douglas, proving that we all gotta start somewhere. (This despite the fact that he had some previous good roles with Swanson at Goldwyn, Garbo at MGM, and for Whale at Universal.) Atwill is our typical mad scientist seeking blood to feed the living blob he keeps in a glass case in his basement lab. Frye is the nutzo batkeeper the villagers suspect of being a vampire in a copy of his role as Renfield in Dracula (and who steals the movie). Fay is the Pretty Young Thing who is Atwill’s secretary and Douglas’s love interest. And Douglas is Our Hero, the indomitable Inspector Brettschneider. Though the film certainly does have its atmospheric moments, the effect is ruined by the sloppy continuity between new scenes and inserts from previous silent films.

Trivia: The producers obviously wanted the audience to think the movie came from Universal instead of little known Majestic. (Majestic itself hung around until 1935, when its debt forced it to be incorporated into Herbert Yates’s new Republic Pictures.) The town is the village of Frankenstein, Atwill’s house was used in James Whale’s The Old Dark House, its furnishings come from the mansion in the 1927 horror thriller The Cat and the Canary, and the morgue was previously used as the huge win cellar from the castle Frankenstein.

April 6

9:30 am The Little Shop of Horrors (Filmgroup, 1960) Director: Roger Corman. Cast: Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Dick Miller, Myrtle Vail, and Jack Nicholson. B&W, 72 minutes.

Corman’s quickie about a hapless bozo and his rapidly growing carnivorous plant has achieved cult status mainly because of an early performance by Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient. If your taste extends to cult films, or bad psychotronic films, this is one to see. If not, then avoid, unless you’d like to see the genesis of the successful off-Broadway show and later big-budget musical.

Trivia: The film was shot in only two days at a total cost of $27,000.
April 7

2:00 am The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (Continental Films, 1942) Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot. Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Suzy Delair, Jean Tissier, Pierre Larquey, and Noel Roquevert. B&W, 84 minutes.

Clouzot made this little comedy/mystery/thriller about a serial killer who leaves a calling card on his victims. The case is assigned to the dapper Inspector “Wens” Vorobechik (Fresney). Tagging along is his girlfriend, Mila Malou (Delair), a struggling actress who gets the idea that by helping her beau with the case she’ll get some needed publicity. Learning that he is looking for a suspect named Monsieur Durand, the Inspector further learns that this Durand is hiding among the eccentric tenants of a boarding house at No. 21 Avenue Junot. Wens rents a room there disguised as a Protestant minister, and Mila soon follows as the minister’s wife, ostensibly to help him along. The problem for Wens is that each time he arrests a suspect and puts him in jail, another murder takes place.

Trivia: After the liberation of France, Clouzot and several other directors and actors were tried in court for collaborating with the Germans and forbidden from ever setting foot on a movie set again. However, after protests from such noted filmmakers and writers Jean Cocteau, Rene Clair, Marcel Carne and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others, the sentence was reduced to a two-year ban. Clouzot would go on to make several financially and critically successful films, including The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955).

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