A stiff police/FBI procedural, The House on 92nd Street (1945) chronicles the search for a Nazi spy ring operating in the U.S. prior to WWII. Someone is smuggling parts of the formula for Process 97 (the Atomic Bomb) out of a top secret facility and the FBI, led by Agent Briggs (Lloyd Nolan) wants to find out how. The bureau has recruited Bill Dietrich (William Eythe), a German national, also recruited by German intelligence, to infiltrate the ring, pass information to the FBI, and identify the ring’s leader. Known only as Mr. Christopher, the Nazi leader has thus far eluded detection and his identity remains a secret until the end of the film. Dietrich, faked CV in hand, presents himself to the front men for the spies as a radio engineer who will pass intel to and from Hamburg. Directed by Henry Hathaway, The House on 92nd Street also stars Leo G. Carroll, Signe Hasso, and Gene Lockhart. Though not as exciting as The Naked City or He Walked by Night, or even 13 rue Madeleine, 92nd Street tells an interesting story efficiently and the actors, especially Hasso, Carroll, and Lockhart acquit themselves well.
Archive for April 2014
Based on The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and written for the screen by Nelson Gidding (Andromeda Strain, Odds Against Tomorrow) The Haunting tells the story of a disparate group brought together in a long unoccupied New England mansion by Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) to discover whether or not spooks reside there. The actual house was Ettington Hall in Warwickshire, England and is now the Ettington Park Hotel for those who dare to stay there. Anyway, the house has seen its share of mysterious deaths and weird occupants over the years and the locals won’t go near it. Markway’s archaeologist/parapsychologist wants to prove places can retain the spirits of people and their actions and proposes an experiment. He and a hand-picked group of people with histories of psychic ability will inhabit the manse, study its original owners, the late and somewhat sadistic Hugh Crain and family, and report any ghostly happenings thus justifying Markway’s career choice to his conservative family and possibly securing him a government grant.
Markway’s serious and academic demeanor lends the expedition gravitas and makes the coming events seem that much more real. Julie Harris as the put upon Eleanor Lance gives a terrific performance. Her character narrates the film and her interior dialogue delves into her thoughts without being overly expository. Claire Bloom as Theo, the clairvoyant, gives a layered performance which could easily have descended to mere snarkiness, but shows some real vulnerability and empathy. Russ Tamblyn, as Luke, a playboy related to the wealthy owner of the house, goes along to protect the house from damage, both physical and moral. The owners hold little stock in Markway’s spiritual phenomena. Tamblyn surprised me with the humor, subtlety, and believability of his acting.
Together this motley crew of paranormal researchers begin what they think will be a painless week in a great house. Needless to say, Hill House holds many secrets and, as Eleanor points out, “This house. You have to watch it every minute.”
The Haunting’s main attraction, its cinematography by Davis Boulton (Brighton Rock, Night Train to Munich) gives the house a sinister quality. Gorgeous angles and ominous shadows abound and the direction by the always fantastic Robert Wise fills each scene with a sense of doom. After each frightening encounter, the director cuts to an odd angled shot of Hill House’s exterior, letting the viewer know the house is always watching.
I love The Haunting. It’s one of my favorite films of any kind and you can’t beat it for atmosphere. If you’re looking for a literate, atmosperic haunted house film done in beautiful black and white, pop some corn and watch The Haunting.
Based on a pulp novel by Jim Thompson and adapted for the screen by Donald Westlake, The Grifters tells the story of three con artists, their ways of getting on in the world, and the often tragic ways their lives intersect. Lilly (Anjelica Huston) works for a mob guy back east decreasing the odds on long shots at the race track in La Jolla. Whenever she sees long odds on a horse, she puts money down on it thus decreasing the odds and therefore the pay out. Lilly decides to visit her son Roy (John Cusack) in Los Angeles just in time to save him from a life threatening injury and put her in danger of one from her boss, Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle in a scary and effective role). Lilly and Roy have an odd, hinted at relationship so when Lilly meets Roy’s love interest, Myra (Annette Bening) sparks, albeit understated ones, fly. Roy keeps his livelihood a secret from the two women, but the audience knows he’s on the grift as well. He makes his living nickel and diming bartenders while presenting himself as a good citizen. Mom knows he’s no salesman and Myra suspects, but neither can prove it until Roy and Myra, who’s no saint herself, take a trip to La Jolla and Myra sees Roy in action. She confronts Roy who admits he’s a con man and then asks him to go in with her on a big con. Myra recounts her experience with major league grifting and thinks Roy would make a great partner. Myra’s description of her former life stars the always fantastic J.T. Walsh and is easily the best part of the film. Roy won’t bite though claiming the fact that he’s small-time and has no partners has kept him alive and out of jail. Myra is convinced that Lilly’s dislike of her keeps Roy from the big con so she sets out to take Lilly out of the picture. What happens next pits the three opportunists against each other in a fight for survival.
Set in late 1980s California, The Grifters could easily take place in the 1940s or even in ancient Greece with its Oedipal twinges and tragic events. The characters are world weary and tough and exist in boarding houses, race tracks, and bars. Despite their living outside the law, they live within the law of their own society and know the penalties of transgressing there. A host of tremendous character actors including Eddie Jones, Charles Napier, and Henry Jones gives this film the atmosphere of a classic noir despite its setting. Directed by Stephen Frears and produced by Martin Scorsese, the film’s glossy look contrasts starkly with the dark lives the main characters live. The Grifters is a well done neo-noir which combines the intricacy of a good con artist film with the brutality of a more modern crime drama. The only fault I find with the film is that it didn’t delve deeply enough into the lives and crimes of its characters. Perhaps giving us only a glimpse into these lives was the point though because it made me wonder about what happened before and after this episode. I enjoyed The Grifters overall and I’m glad I finally got around to seeing it.
Have you ever wondered what intrigue lurks behind the calm façade of the average middle class home? According to the makers of Wicker Kittens, in some cases, it’s competitive jigsaw puzzling. You heard me. What Spellbound (2002) did for spelling bee contestants, and Wordplay (2006) did for crossword puzzle aficionados, Wicker Kittens does for jigsaw puzzle speed demons.
The film follows four teams of competitive puzzlers as they talk about their love of jigsaw puzzles, show us their vast collections, and prepare for the largest jigsaw puzzle competition in the country. By day, the people sell insurance, raise kids, one is legislator from Iowa, but for fun they do jigsaw puzzles…lots of jigsaw puzzles. They get together in kitchens and dining rooms, spread the pieces out, and strategize. Do we sort? Edges first? They’re all business too. The chatting and snacking go on before and after the puzzling, but not during. The only conversation is puzzle-related. They move quickly and efficiently in teams of four. The teams highlighted in this film work like well-oiled machines. They also have fun. Competitive and focused, these teams want to win, but they’re never rude or mean-spirited about it. They’re just really nice people who have taken a casual leisure activity to the next level.
Director Amy C. Elliott (World’s Largest) made a pleasant documentary about pleasant people. No one gets killed or has an affair. No one is even impolite. Elliott doesn’t poke fun at them either. It’s not a snarky commentary, but a true documentary. She stands back and observes people enjoying their hobby and getting genuinely enthusiastic about it. The title, by the way, refers to the fact that so many jigsaw puzzles involve kittens in baskets.
I enjoyed Wicker Kittens. It showed me something I never knew existed. It’s a slice of the lives of people I will probably never meet and it’s done well. Often amusing, but never tongue-in-cheek, Wicker Kittens was a pleasant way to spend 52 minutes. It could have gone longer, but director Elliott wanted to leave us wanting more. She succeeded.
I saw Wicker Kittens as part of the Independent Film Festival of Boston 2014.
Set in the mythical Miskatonic Valley like many of H.P. Lovecraft’s tales, The Dunwich Horror revolves around Dean Stockwell in a role even creepier than the one he plays in Blue Velvet. Stockwell’s Wilbur Whately lives in Dunwich, Massachusetts with his raving grandfather Sam Jaffe, and where the natives, who often speak with southern accents, avoid them. Anyway, Wilbur Whately wants Ed Begley’s Necronomicon so he can summon some of his buddies from a parallel universe to come and play with him and Sandra Dee. Sandra digs hanging with Wilbur because he adds copious amounts of hallucinogens to her tea which make her woozy and dream she’s watching a revival of Hair. I won’t spoil it for you but the trippy lighting and creature effects and projections onto canvas gave the film a distinctive look and the breathy heartbeat sounds added to the spookiness factor. Along with the cast I’ve mentioned, Lloyd Bochner, 70’s staple, and Talia (billed as Coppola) Shire also appear in small character roles. I haven’t read the original Lovecraft story but I know many of them take place in a fictionalized version of Wilbraham, Massachusetts (the real home of Friendly Ice Cream) which sits about 160 miles inland so the ocean puzzled me a bit but no matter. It was a fun 60s, 70s, witch hunt, hippie, parallel universe, Satanic ritual, acid flick.
Ryan O’Neal drives a mean getaway car. His talent for eluding police creates a following on both sides of the law. Gangs want him to drive for them while the LAPD, especially detective Bruce Dern, wants him to do time. In Walter Hill’s (The Long Riders, The Warriors) spare crime film, we see O’Neal, The Driver, as a professional who lives by a code of ethics. He chooses who to work with based on this code, then delivers. Dern, billed as The Detective, is his polar opposite. Arrogant and sleazy, Dern proposes a deal with the leader of a second rate gang. In exchange for dropping the charges on a botched robbery, Dern wants the gang to rob a bank, hire O’Neal to drive, and then set him up to get busted. The gang Dern chooses has a violent streak too and as the bodies pile up we’re left wondering who the real bad guy is. The Driver boasts some great car chases and the director has fun panning from O’Neal’s deadpan expression back to his passengers’ panic stricken faces as he careens through the busy streets of Los Angeles. Stark and emotionless, The Driver shows an honorable man retaining that honor despite pressure to give in. The two female characters also fight coercion to turn stoolie. Both Ronee Blakley, The Connection who brokers The Driver’s gigs, and Isabelle Adjani, The Player who refuses to identify The Driver in a line-up, are morally superior to Dern’s dishonest cop. I liked this film. It reminded me of good modern architecture. It had clean, simple lines but never looked sterile.
Rick Turner (Robert Alda) has a problem. Despite being engaged to the sweet and lovely Donna Trent (Ariadna Welter), working a job with a future, and wearing a series of hideous sweaters, he has disturbing dreams about a beautiful woman which keep him up every night. During one of his insomnia induced walks through the city, he comes upon a doll shop and spies a doll which reminds him of his dream woman. The next day, Rick and Donna visit the shop and meet the proprietor, creepy to the extreme Francis Lamont (Neil Hamilton-Yes! Commissioner Gordon!) who tells Rick he ordered the dream woman doll and must bring it to Bianca Milan (Linda Christian). Rick has no memory of this but brings the doll to Bianca anyway. He falls in lust at first sight and blows Donna off completely. If that weren’t bad enough, poor Donna suffers in a hospital bed with a sudden heart ailment brought on by Francis’ sticking a pin in a doll with her likeness. Moments after they meet, Bianca tells Rick he must renounce all goodness and virtue and join her cult which worships Gamba, the devil god of evil. Since he has nothing else planned, he agrees and goes with Bianca to a meeting of the cult in the back of the doll shop. I have to say that an evil cult meeting in the back of a doll shop does not surprise me. The Kerry Scale of Creepy rates clowns as the most creepy. After clowns come dolls that look like you, regular dolls, and ventriloquist dummies. Please consult the following chart.
Kerry’s Scale of Creepiness
|Totally Effing Creepy||Very Creepy||Creepy||Less Creepy||Awkward||Benign|
|Clowns||Dolls that look like you||Dolls in general||Ventriloquist dummies||Taxidermied horses||Puppies|
I hope that clears things up.
Rick flourishes using Gamba’s evil and soon he has money, a cool car, and a far more fashionable wardrobe. Donna’s still in the hospital with a pin in her doll’s chest. Rick lusts after Bianca and they share a few sexy kisses. The movie hints at sex, but Rick still goes home and sleeps in his little twin bed. Anyway, we get to see a few Gamba Book Club cult meetings where people dance to bongo music and cult members sit on pillows and watch each other tested for loyalty under a knife-filled light fixture. Commissioner Gordon officiates over these meetings speaking with the same voice you use when you’re a kid having a fake séance and wears a natty smoking jacket/bathrobe over his shirt and tie. It’s a lot of fun really. Obviously the halcyon days of Gamba can’t last forever and since this stuff happens in a movie, it all has to come to a conclusion they’ll love in Peoria. I liked The Devil’s Hand. It boasts cool Misirlou-like tunes, weird cult scenes, Isadora Duncan dream sequences, and Commissioner Gordon as a weirdo with a doll shop. Jo Heims, who would go on to write Play Misty for Me and Dirty Harry wrote the screenplay and William J. Hole, Jr. (Highway Patrol, 77 Sunset Strip TV episodes) directed this fairly odd story well. All hail Gamba!