A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
July’s TCM Spotlight for July is 50 Years of Hitchcock, and they’re showing just about every film the director made over the course of his career. Which films do we recommend? Why, all of them, of course. This is not to say that Hitchcock ever made a bad film. He did. Plenty of them. But a director’s bad films can be just as interesting, and can sometimes provide more insight into his inner workings. There are some of his silent works scheduled, especially for this fortnight, and we know that for some, silent films are anathema. Frankly, I have never understood it. There are also those at the opposite end on the pole who insist that not only are silent films superior, there has never been a bad one made. This argument, like the one some Pre-Code film fans give for their favorite, is pure fantasy. There are good and bad films in all genres, all styles of filmmaking. To deny this is to deny the power of film itself.
However, there are two shorts Hitchcock made in 1944 for England’s Ministry of Information. The first is Aventure malgache (Madagascan Adventure), airing at 4:30 am July 7. While preparing backstage, one of The Moliere players tells a castmate that his face reminds him of an opportunist turncoat he knew when he was in the Resistance. He then relates the adventure that he had in the Resistance, running an illegal radio station and dodging the Nazis in the Axis-controlled French colony of Madagascar.
The second short, Bon Voyage, immediately follows at 5:15 am. A young Scottish RAF gunner has made it back to England and is debriefed by French officials about his escape from occupied territory. In particular the officials are interested in one person who may or may not have been a German agent. Both shorts are directed in the immaculate Hitchcock style and are captivating to watch. Our advice is to record them for later.
As for Hitch, the schedule for this edition is July 5, 7, 12 and 14, all beginning at 8 pm.
July 2: At 2:30 am comes I Knew Her Well (1965), a story about a naive country girl (Stefania Sandrelli) who comes to Rome hoping to become a movie star and instead finds herself ignored, used and made fun of as those she meets hoping to get ahead only see her as an exploitable body. Sandrelli is amazing, injecting the part with passion and a knowledge beyond her years (she was 18 when she made the film). Think of La Dolce Vita without the Dolce. While she tries her best to socialize and befriend people, the results are disappointing and frustrating, as people ignore her, use her and make fun of her while exploiting her body and her good intentions. No one even grants her the small favor of taking her seriously. This could just come off as another girl comes to the big city and gets abused flick, but director Antonio Pietrangeli shoots the film in such a style that we fell as if we’re right there alongside Sandrelli. Mario Adorf and the versatile Jean-Claude Brialy co-star, but Sandrelli’s the show.
Speaking of Jean-Claude Brialy, Le Beau Serge (1958), the directorial debut of Claude Chabrol, follows at 4:45 am, a hell of a time to watch this engrossing drama. Record it, you won’t be sorry. Brialy is Francois, a sickly theology student who returns to his hometown for a recuperative rest only to find his best friend from youth, Serge (Gerard Blain), has become a drunkard trapped in a bad marriage. To make matters worse, Francois learns that his son was born a mongoloid, living just a short time, and his wife is pregnant again. The film is generally considered the first official film of the French New Wave, a point that is hotly debated, but the most important thing is that it is a riveting drama about a man who finds he cannot go home again. Shades of Thomas Wolfe.
July 9: A double feature from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki features two of his wry comedies: Shadows in Paradise (1986), at 2:00 am, followed by Ariel (1989) at 3:30. The first concerns Nikander, a garbage man (Matti Pellonpaa) who falls head over heels for Ilona, a grocery store cashier (Kati Outinen). Their first date is a crashing bore for both, but when Ilona is fired and steals the company cash box, the only person she can think of for refuge is Nikander, and so she moves in with him, starting things off as a romance of convenience. But as time passes, feelings deepen into a love that transforms them both.
Ariel is the story of Taisto Kasurinen (Turo Pajala), a northern Finnish coal miner whose depressed friend gives him his old Cadillac just before going into the toilet and blowing his brains out. Taisto drives down to southern Finland, where muggers quickly relieve him of his life savings. He gets a job as a laborer, procures a bed in a Skid Row mission, and later strikes up an instant romance with a metermaid, who decides to toss away her parking tickets and go for a ride with him in the Cadillac. While meeting the metermaid may be seen as a stroke of luck for Taisto, life has other ideas, and film sees him suffering one misfortune after another. Think of a Finnish version of Detour, only not as optimistic.
July 8: The evening is devoted to one of my favorite directors, the brilliant James Whale, with four of his features. We begin with The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) at 8 pm, which is being shown on The Essentials. This should give fans a chance to decide on what the bigger horror is: Karloff and Lanchester or Essentials hosts Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey. We recommend using your fast-forward button to cut through the useless blather and get to the film, which is seen by many critics and historians alike as the greatest horror film ever made. And the irony is that it’s really a black comedy, with Whale taking jabs at religion, science and society in general. It was a film he wasn’t all that keen on making, fearing that he was being typecast as a horror director. But horror was where he shined, another irony. Watch for the amazing performance of Ernest Thesiger, who walks away with the film. And also look for a marvelous inside joke when Dr. Pretorious shows Henry Frankenstein his creations.
At 9:45 airs a film Whale was keen to make: The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). Based on the last of the D’Artagnan–Three Musketeers books by Alexandre Dumas, this story of a despotic king, his wronged identical twin brother, and the four heroes who devise a plan to free him from prison and place him on the throne has been filmed multiple times over the years, but Whale’s version may well be the best one. Louis Hayward does double duty as Louis XIV and his twin brother, Phillipe, while Joan Bennett plays Maria Theresa. Warren William is excellent as D’Artagnan, with Alan Hale as Porthos. In the hands of the stylish Whale, the film shines with vivid period detail, not to mention the many exciting moments.
At midnight it’s a film many would never associate with Whale: Show Boat (1936). But this is a film that benefited from the meticulous attention to detail and style that was a Whale hallmark. Irene Dunne and Allan Jones star, but the real star – and soul – of the movie is Paul Robeson, especially his stirring rendition of “Old Man River.”
The evening closes out at 2:15 am with Whale’s sardonic version of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (1933). In a typical Whale irony, it marked the first starring role for Claude Rains, who wasn’t seen until the last few seconds of the film, being invisible up till then. Despite this, Rains was brilliant, expressing himself solely through the use of his voice. It’s one of my favorite films and one I can watch again and again.
On July 10, the day is devoted to John Gilbert. The morning begins at 6 am with Gilbert and Renee Adoree in La Boheme (1926). Adoree is a seamstress in love with would-be playwright Gilbert among the downtrodden in 1830s Paris. At 8 am, A Woman of Affairs (1928), with co-star Greta Garbo. At 10:45 am it’s the film that made Gilbert a star: King Vidor’s World War I drama, The Big Parade (1925). One of the best films ever made about “The War to End All Wars,” Gilbert is an innocent enlistee who learns about the horrors of war firsthand. Adoree is the French farm girl who loves him. Forget about it being a silent. Tune in for some of the most realistic battle scenes ever filmed.
At 1:30 pm comes the first of two talkies on the bill. Way For a Sailor (1930), sees Gilbert as a dedicated sailor torn between his love of the sea and his love for Joan (Leila Hyams). As Leonard Maltin says in his review, it’s mainly for fans of early talkies.
Ah, but following right after, at 3:00 pm comes my favorite Gilbert film and the one I think is his best. In Downstairs (1932) he’s a heel chauffeur who sleeps and schemes his way from one wealthy household to another. His performance should put the lie to the oft repeated accusation that Gilbert wasn’t made for the talkies. It was studio politics that did Gilbert in, not the tenor of his voice.
Closing out the day at 6 pm is Gilbert’s first pairing with Garbo, Flesh and the Devil (1926). Reputedly, the scene at the train station was the first time Gilbert had ever laid eyes on his co-star and it was love – hot passionate love – for both at first sight. That day he decided to leave his wife. And if you want to see chemistry, take a gander at this film. They weren’t faking it.
July 12: For those enamored with Pre-Code movies, who think nothing was as honest or daring, I invite you to take a look at Way Back Home (1931), airing at 10:30 am. Starring Phillips Lord as Seth Parker and based on his cracker barrel drama radio show A Prairie Home Companion, it is insufferably dull, filled with homespun honor that wasn’t funny back then. Look for Bette Davis (her fourth film) in a minor role as Seth’s neighbor. I expect the Pre-Code junkies to write in and defend this as great cinematic art.
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B HIVE
As always, there’s a good selection of psychotronic films.
July 1: A morning double-feature of The Mummy (1932) with the one and only Karloff at 6:30 am, followed by Charles Laughton in 1933’s Island of Lost Souls at 7:45 am. Following at 10:30 am is Chester Morris as Boston Blackie in The Chance of a Lifetime (1943), Blackie helps ex-cons adjust to life as defense workers. But always something goes wrong...
July 8: Boston Blackie helps the police recover a stolen Egyptian diamond in One Mysterious Night (1944). For those having trouble sleeping we have just the remedy: Gymkata (1985), starring the unforgettable Kurt Thomas, will be showing at 3:45 am.
July 13: An entire day of psychotronic films begins at 6 am with Peter Lorre in Mad Love (1935). Following at 7:30 am is The Hidden Hand (1942), a send-up of old dark house mysteries concerning a group of greedy heirs called to the mansion for the reading of the will. At 8:45 am comes Bela Lugosi’s only color film, Scared to Death (1947). Bored to Death would be more like it. It’s as lifeless as the corpse around which the plot revolves. At 10 am come one of Val Lewton’s best: The Seventh Victim (1943), centered around a Satanic cult in Greenwich Village and a young woman’s search for her missing sister. At 11:15 Boris Karloff and wife Catherine Lacey live vicariously through decadent playboy Ian Ogilvy in The Sorcerers (1967). Worth a watch.
The afternoon kicks off with one of the strangest films ever made: The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962). Filmed in 1959 but not released (or escaped) until 1962, this is a genuine laff riot. Demented doc Jason (Herb) Evers, racing to his mountain hideaway with fiancee Virginia Leith, ends up in a car crash that decapitates his fiancee. Clutching her head in his jacket he makes like O.J. Simpson for the house, where he puts her head in a roasting pan supported by wires and tubes while he goes out looking for a suitable body. Meanwhile his monster – kept in a closet – is getting antsy. The best version is the MST 3000 version, but for those who like their crap straight, this will do fine.
At 2:15 comes Christopher Lee and Betta St. John in Horror Hotel (1960), followed by another Lewton production, The Leopard Man (1943) at 3:45 pm. Closing out the day is the Australian horror, The Plumber (1979) at 5:00 pm, followed by Karloff and Jack Nicholson in Roger Corman’s lethargic The Terror (1963) at 6:30 pm.
July 15: Boston Blackie Booked on Suspicion (1945) airs at 10:30 am, while Hammer’s excellent Five Million Years to Earth (1968) is scheduled for 6 pm.
At 2:30 am Stacy Keach and Jason Miller star in The Ninth Configuration (1980), followed by Peter Breck as a reporter who feigns insanity to solve a murder committed in an asylum in Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963).