July 31, 2007

Another sad farewell: Michelangelo Antonioni (1912 - 2007)

In the same day we receive the sad news of Ingmar Bergman's death, another legend of cinema passed away: Michaelangelo Antonioni. A figure of enormous importance in the history of Italian cinema, Antonioni will always be remembered for immortal classics such as "L'avventura" ("The Adventure"), "La notte" ("The Night") and "Blow-Up". Aged 94, BBC reports that Antonioni died peacefully, which probably is a good thing and we can only be thankful for his long and productive life. I must confess I'm not as familiar with Antonioni's work as I'd like to, but his death, together with Bergman's, certainly leave a void that will be hard to fill for the future generations of filmmakers. In less than 24 hours two giants of filmmaking. A sad day for cinema indeed.

Riposa in pace.

Janghwa, Hongryeon (2003)

In 1999, South Korea's renovated film industry got its first major success with "Swiri", a powerful action movie directed by Je-Gyu Kang which became South Korea's most successful movie in that year and brought worldwide attention to the country's new wave of cinema. Through the following decade, South Korean cinema has grown stronger, in an apparent renaissance that has resulted in a wide variety of high quality movies that show the enormous talent of Korean filmmakers. During this resurgence, Korean horror has also experienced an amazing development, as after being greatly influenced by the successful Japanese horror of the late 90s, it has given the Japanese style of horror stories a noticeable Korean touch, evolving into a style of its own, filled with its own themes and ideologies. Ji-Woon Kim's movie "Janghwa, Hongryeon" is a prime example of this, and a film that joins "Swiri" and "Oldboy" as masterpieces of South Korea's cinema.

Known in English as "A Tale of Two Sisters" (although it literally means "Rose Flower, Red Lotus"), "Janghwa, Hongryeon" is the story of Soo-mi (Su-Jeong Lim) and Soo-Yeon (Geun-yeong Mun), two sisters who travel to their family's country house along their father Bae Moo-Hyeon (Kap-Su Kim) after having spent time in a mental institution after their mother's death. At home, they meet their father's young new wife, Eun-Joo (Jung-ah Yum), but while she tries to act friendly and helpful to the girls, it is clear that she feels a lot of resentment towards them and starts to abuse of Soo-Yeon both physically and psychologically, taking advantage of her shyness and weakness. This only increases Soo-mi's hate towards her stepmother, and decides to fight back and protect Soo-Yeon; however, there is something else in the house that haunts Soo-mi's dreams.

Written by director Ji-Woon Kim himself, "Janghwa, Hongryeon" is loosely based on a famous Korean folktale of the same name that also deals with the difficult relationship between two sisters and their stepmother. However, this is not a direct adaptation, as Ji-Woon Kim has only used it as a basis to create a powerful character study that mixes horror, suspense and psychological drama in a cleverly devised plot that certainly offers more than the usual horror film. By focusing on Soo-mi's complex relationships with her family, Ji-Woon Kim explores themes of resentment, angst, guilt and loyalty with an eerie subtlety and great skill. Ji-Woon Kim's detailed development of his characters is also another of the story's strongest points, as it not only makes them truly believable, but also enhances the tense atmosphere between them, and the horrors that result from it.

Using an elegant and classy Gothic style adapted to its modern setting, Ji-Woon Kim makes his story come to life in a wonderful fashion, giving it a haunting ominous atmosphere that often seems to mimic the tense relations between the members of the Bae family. While the influence from Japanes horror seems obvious a couple of times, in "Janghwa, Hongryeon" the director takes the psychological aspects of the J-Horror style one step beyond and delivers a subtly ambiguous tale of horror, closer in spirit to Jack Clayton's "The Innocents" than to Hideo Nakata's "Ringu", as Ji-Woon Kim bases his movie more around the interactions between the characters than around the supernatural events that take place in the house. Considering this last element, Kim's directing of his cast becomes essential for the film's success and, being a former theater director, he doesn't disappoint.

While Ji-Woon Kim is famous for his stylish visual design, in "Janghwa, Hongryeon" he also displays his talent to direct actors, as he manages to get amazing performances from everyone in the cast. As Soo-mi, Su-Jeong Lim is pretty good, very natural as the strongest of the Bae sisters, completely determined to protect her sister. As Soo-Yeon, the weakest of the two, Geun-Yeong Mun delivers an impressive performance conveying a powerful image of fragility and shyness that contrasts perfectly with Soo-mi's more rebel nature. However, and while Mun's performance is certainly amazing, the highlight of the film is definitely Jung-ah Yum, who plays the sisters' cruel stepmother Eun-Joo. Yum is simply mesmerizing, and gives her apparently simple character a whole new dimension. While his role is considerably smaller, Kap-Su Kim delivers a subtle yet very good performance as the sisters' father.

A remarkably well constructed story of suspense, horror and psychological drama, "Janghwa, Hongryeon" is one of the best movies that has came out of the New Wave of Korean cinema. However, while essentially build around a ghost story, "Janghwa, Hongryeon" offers a higher complexity in its construction that may come as too difficult to get at first, as Ji-Woon Kim crafts his movie as a demanding puzzle without many clues for its solution. This is not exactly a bad thing, as challenging movies often result in great rewarding experiences, however, those expecting a more typical tale of Asian ghosts may find the movie a bit too complex for its own sake. Despite that, "Janghwa, Hongryeon" is a beautifully crafted movie that offers an interesting character study spiced up by a haunting atmosphere of dread that will definitely please fans of Gothic horror.

Those expecting another typical clone of J-Horror will be pleasantly surprised by "Janghwa, Hongryeon", as it truly adds a whole new dimension to the style of horror that the Japanese filmmakers devised in the late 90s. In fact, it could be said that modern Korean horror is a direct evolution of the Japanese style of horror. After decades of censorship, financial troubles and low production, cinema of South Korea is entering a new "Golden Age", and Ji-Woon Kim's "Janghwa, Hongryeon" proves that the horror genre plays an important role in that.


Buy "Janghwa, Hongryeon" (2003)

July 30, 2007

A giant leaves this world: Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

Few directors can be considered genious of their art, but Ingmar Bergman was one of those. The legendary Swedish director of immortal films such as "Det Sjunde inseglet" ("The Seventh Seal"), "Persona" and "Viskningar och rop" ("Cries and Whispers") has died in his house after a long life dedicated to cinema. The BBC doesn't mention a specific cause for his death, but it's kind of obvious that it was simple natural causes. While it is always sad that a master of his talent has left this world, we can be thankful for the many movies this incredibly talented filmmaker gave us during his long career. We can be sure now that Ingmar Bergman has found the answers to the questions he often pondered in his films.

Rest in peace, Master.

July 28, 2007

Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics (1911)

While better known for his enormous influence in the history of comic strips and comics in general, the now legendary American artist Winsor McCay also played an important role in the development of animated films in the U.S. when he began to put his talents in animated movies, creating classics such as 1914's "Gertie the Dinosaur", where he interacted with his animated dinosaur in ways that precede what Walt Disney would do decades later in "Song of the South" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit". Winsor McCay's first encounter with the movie industry happened in 1906, when his comic strip "Dream of a Rarebit Fiend" was adapted to screen by Wallace McCutcheon and Edwin S. Porter. Fascinated with cinema, McCay produced his first movie in 1911, the autobiographical short film titled "Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics", the movie that would contain his first 2 minutes of animated work.

In many ways, it could be said that "Winsor McCay and His Moving Comics" is a short biopic about McCay's decision to enter the field of animated films. The movie begins with McCay (playing himself) debating with a group of friends and colleagues (John Bunny and George McManus among them) about the possibility of using cinema to create animated movies. McCay explains them the process and his ideas to make it work in a way that the drawings move realistically. To his surprise, his friends laugh at the idea, thinking it's too laborious and complicated to create enough drawings to animate a cartoon the way McCay wants it. However, this only makes McCay more determined to prove he is right, so he bets that he can do a short film in a month. At Vitagraph studios, McCay works without rest, creating the four thousand drawings that will give life to his most famous creation: Little Nemo.

Written by Winsor McCay himself, the frame story for this wonderful "Little Nemo" animation is loosely based on McCay's real experiences with animation. While of course the plot about the bet is an exaggeration, McCay did face a certain degree of skepticism about the way he was planning to animate his drawings. It's not that animated films were new at the time, but the kind of movies McCay wanted to make were considered too difficult to create. In fact, even when McCay does joke about the amount of ink and paper used to make the animation, he really had to draw a lot to create the marvelous 2 minutes that make the last segment. Like in his comic strips, the "little Nemo" animation is a surrealist marvel in which McCay makes a brief introduction of his popular characters: Nemo, the Princess, the Imp, and of course, Flip.

While the animation segment was of course McCay's creation, the frame story was directed by J. Stuart Blackton, former employee of the Edison Production Company who in those years was one of Vitagraph's top directors. Knowing that the movie's highlight was the animation at the end, Blackton keeps a restrained style through his movie, although this doesn't mean he refuses to have fun, as he adds clever visual gags that keep the viewer's attention as McCay's story is told. His handling of the cast is also very good, although the credit for the film's natural and realistic performances must definitely go to legendary comedian John Bunny, who plays himself as a friend of McCay, and together with writer George McManus are McCay's main costars. Bunny's aid was certainly instrumental in helping McCay and McManus to look believable.

Now, as written above, McCay's animated segment is simply a masterpiece of animation, as he achieves a level of detail in his drawings that still few animators attempt to achieve. As in his comic strips, his use of perspective is remarkable, and the fact that here we see it animated just feels as if his drawings were alive. While short, 2 minutes are enough to present his characters, and he offers a small glimpse of what "Little Nemo" is about: a magical fantasy where like in dreams, everything is possible. A great detail about the animation is the fact that the same drawings he made during the frame story are the ones that eventually end up in his animation, enhancing this feeling of drawings coming alive by the magic of cinema. Even now it is truly a fascinating work of art.

"Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics" is an amazing mix of biopic, documentary and animation that definitely is an obligatory viewing for everyone interested in the history of animated films. It is truly amazing how more than 90 years after it was made the movie still looks beautiful and impressive. No wonder why Walt Dinsey liked McCay's work so much that it inspired him to make animations. It is truly a film that must be seen to be believed.


July 27, 2007

Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)

It was in 1963 when director Herschell Gordon Lewis and producer David F. Friedman decided to leave the production of nudist films and opted for making horror movies. In those years, independent cinema was on the rise and the two filmmakers took advantage of being out of the studio system to push the envelope further and give their audiences more in terms of violence and sexuality. With the release of "Blood Feast", Lewis and Friedman introduced graphic gore to American horror and inaugurated the "splatter" sub-genre, beginning a new style of horror that would become a staple of the drive-in theater market. While honestly "Blood Feast" wasn't really a well done film, it was only the beginning for Lewis, as 1964's "Two Thousand Maniacs!", Lewis' next venture in the horror genre, proved that there was real talent in the savvy businessman.

In "Two Thousand Maniacs!", Tom White (William Kerwin) and Terry Adams (Connie Mason) are traveling through the American south heading to Atlanta when suddenly they are lured into the small town of Pleasant Ville by the citizens, who want them to be the guests of honor in the celebration of the centennial of an important event in the history of their town. In Pleasant Ville, they find another two young couples who were also lured by the villagers, the Millers (Jerome Eden and Shelby Livingston) and the Wells (Michael Korb and Yvonne Gilbert). Together, the six guests are invited to participate in the town's festivities without any information about what exactly is the town celebrating, however, they find themselves seduced by the charm of the southern townspeople. But they don't know that as guests of honor, they'll become the victims of a town made up of two thousand maniacs.

As usual, the film's plot was conceived by H.G. Lewis, but this time he was also responsible of the screenplay, making "Two Thousand Maniacs!" probably a more personal job. As a writer, Lewis has certainly improved after his previous movie, as not only "Two Thousand Maniacs!" has a truly interesting and fascinating concept at its core, the whole development of the story is actually remarkable, with Lewis genuinely playing with suspense in a honest attempt to deliver something more than scenes of violence. Once again, Lewis adds a good healthy dose of his trademark style of black humor to the plot, which works perfectly when contrasted with the demented nature of the characters, and successfully plays with the typical southern stereotypes and the idea of the clash between urban society and rural society. Of course, everything is done in that campy over-the-top tone that makes the story extremely funny despite its macabre themes.

It seems that filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis not only improved his skills as a writer this time, as his work as a director is also considerably superior to what he did in "Blood Feast" too. While the movie is still done on a extremely low-budget and doesn't really have the most realistic effects in the world, Lewis manages to make everything work nicely by keeping the film moving at a fast pace as he balances comedy and horror with great skill. Using a raw style of cinematography due to budgetary reasons actually helps the film, as it gives it a gritty look that adds to the film's "southern charm". One thing that really stands out in the film is the way Lewis handled his actors this time, as while it is obvious that few of them are professionals, Lewis gets good performances out of them by keeping a lighthearted tone through the film and never taking the movie too seriously.

As written above, the cast delivers good performances considering their apparent lack of experience, as while obviously playing caricatures and stereotypes, they all seem to have good fun with it and that ultimately makes the movie look better. Lewis' regular collaborators William Kerwin and Connie Mason appear as the film's main characters, and both make good a job in their role. Kerwin always was the most talented of Lewis' troupe, and once again his talent gets shown. After her awful performance in "Blood Feast", it was good to see Mason improving her acting a bit in the film, giving a performance that if not good it's at least better than her last one. As the main "villians" we find Jeffrey Allen playing the mayor and Ben Moore and Gary Bakeman as his trusted henchmen; the three making the best of their comedic roles as the leaders of a town full of sociopath rednecks.

As a result of being made with an extremely low budget, "Two Thousand Maniacs!" has a lot of problems in terms of visual look and special effects. What I mean is that the movie looks certainly cheap and unrealistic as the production values weren't exactly high. However, those apparent "flaws" can be easily ignored as Lewsis manages to used them for the film's benefit, as the grittiness of the film adds lot of charm to the movie, fitting nicely in the campy tone Lewis uses in the movie. While "Two Thousand Maniacs!" is not exactly a scary movie in the typical way (it's more black comedy), there is a certain touch of malice that helps to make some scenes really suspenseful, that together with the grittiness of the cinematography makes the movie feel almost like a direct predecessor of 70s classics like "The Texas Chain saw Massacre" and "The Wicker Man".

Maybe due to Lewis reputation as maker of low-budget films, "Two Thousand Maniacs!" doesn't get the respect it really deserves, as this is truly an excellent movie that mixes horror and comedy in a perfect way. Like "Blood Feast", this movie would create the bloody path that future horror filmmakers would follow in terms of gory imagery. While often considered more a businessman than a filmmaker, "Two Thousand Maniacs!" proves that there was real talent in the hands of director H.G. Lewis, the Godfather of Gore!


Buy "Two Thousand Maniacs!" (1964)

July 26, 2007

Black Friday (1940)

The figure of the gangster in fiction has always been a very popular and fascinating image since the hardboiled crime fiction of the late 20s made the gangster a new model of antihero for the modern times. Through the decade of the 30s, gangster films and crime melodramas would become very popular among the audiences, culminating in the development of the Film Noir, the highly stylish kind of crime films that reigned supreme during the 40s and the 50s. Considering the popularity of gangsters in movies, it wasn't a surprise that soon they became used as characters in a wide array of stories, and horror films weren't an exception. Among the films that successfully mixed horror with crime melodrama, 1940's "Black Friday" was definitely one of the best. An often forgotten movie that had in his cast two of the most important figures in the horror genre: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

"Black Friday" begins on a Friday 13, with Professor George Kinglsey (Stanley Ridges) giving his last class of English literature at the University of his town as he has been offered a position in a different school. However, on is way to the train station, Kinglsey is ran over by a car, putting his life in serious danger. In a last attempt to save Kingsley's life, his good friend Dr. Ernest Sovac (Boris Karloff) performs an illegal operation: Sovac implants parts of another man's brain into the professor's. Fortunately, the experiment is successful and Kingsley begins to recover his health quickly. However, something has changed in his good nature, and soon Sovac discovers that the personality of the man he used to save his friends can take control of the professor's body. And the problem is that the man was Red Cannon, a notorious gangster who now wants revenge.

With a screenplay written by Eric Taylor and Curt Siodmak, "Black Friday" is essentially a modern reinterpretation of R.L. Stevenson's classic horror novel "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" with gangster Red Cannon acting as the movie's Mr. Hyde. Like Stevenson's story, "Black Friday" is an interesting character study about human morality; however, while the professor's split personalities do represent two extreme sides of the human nature, the real drama is on Karloff's character, Dr. Sovac, who is at a crossroads between his willingness to help his friend and his desire to use him to prove that his theories about the brain are correct. While it is not on the level of Siodmak's posterior work (his immortal "The Wolf Man" for example), he and Taylor make a great job in creating an interesting story and developing remarkably their main characters.

A seasoned director of low-budget crime melodramas, Arthur Lubin makes a very effective work at the helm of "Black Friday", and manages to give the film the exact kind of atmosphere that made gangster films very popular in those years. The great work of cinematography done by his regular collaborator Elwood Bredell plays an important role in this, and in many ways one could say that "Black Friday" is one of the direct precursors of the Film Noir style. Despite the low-budget, "Black Friday" has that very polished and elegant look that movies produced by Universal in those years had, although this film lacks the ominous Gothic atmosphere of the classic 30s horror movies, as it relies more on its characters than in visual style. As usual, Lubin's directing of his cast is remarkable, and he manages to bring the best out of his actors, specially of Stanley Ridges.

While acting alongside legendary icons such as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, it's hard to avoid being overshadowed, however, Stanley Ridges not only manages to do that, he also achieves to deliver the best performance in the whole film. In his dual role, Kingsley is simply amazing, going from the good hearted Kingsley to the sociopath Cannon with remarkable ease, making the two characters look as if they were played by two actors. Even though Ridges steals the film, Karloff is still great as Sovac, which is a slightly more complex variation of his trademark "Mad Scientist" character. Bela Lugosi is also wonderful as Cannon's rival Eric Marnay, although sadly his role is extremely small despite having top billing. Finally, Anne Nagel is very effective as Sunny Rogers, the classic femme fatal of the movie.

With excellent performances by an effective cast, as well as solid directing by Lubin, "Black Friday" is a very good movie for its time and an example of the kind of horror movies that would dominate the decade. However, in all fairness this movie is not exactly a masterpiece as a small yet important problem that prevents it from reaching its true potential. The main problem is the serious miscasting of both Karloff and Lugosi, who really seem to be in the wrong role. Don't get me wrong, both make a great job in their characters (Lugosi has a couple of amazing scenes), but it's difficult not to think that Lugosi is playing Karloff's character and vice-versa (apparently, Karloff was supposed to play Ridges' character). Another detail is that those expecting the classic Gothic style of Universal's horror films will be sorely disappointed.

In many ways it could be said that "Black Friday" represents the ending of an era for the horror genre, and the beginning of another. Karloff and Lugosi, the ones who started the Golden Age of Gothic horror in the 30s, appear here in a movie that forecasts the moody noir-influenced horrors of the 40s. While different to the rest, "Black Friday" is still an excellent horror and a chance to see Stanley Ridges in his best role overshadowing two icons.


July 25, 2007

White Zombie (1932)

One of the most important names in the history of the horror genre is without a doubt, Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian actor who in 1931 became an icon after playing the legendary Count Dracula in Tod Browning's adaptation of the film. Thanks to the powerful presence he gave to the elegant vampire, Lugosi became instantly famous and a major star for Universal Studios. Sadly, due to his heavy accent Lugosi wouldn't have much luck in finding roles for him, and eventually became type-casted as the obvious choice for playing sinister and classy villains in horror films, a problem that would take him from making movies for big studios to acting in low-budget independent films. However, the fact that such movies weren't big productions didn't mean that they were bad films, and this 1932 film is probably the best proof of that, as "White Zombie" is a classic as important as any film done by Universal in those years.

In "White Zombie", Neil Parker (John Harron) and his fianceé Madeline (Madge Bellamy) are traveling to a plantation located in Haiti to celebrate their wedding. Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), the owner of the plantation, invited the couple to his house after meeting them on a cruise ship during one of his travels, and not only he offered his plantation for the party, he has also offered Neil a highly profitable job in the island. However, there is a sinister purpose behind Beaumont's apparent good nature and friendly attitude: he is madly in love with Madeleine and plans to separate the couple before the wedding. To do this, he has asked the help of a man named Legendre (Bela Lugosi), a Voodoo sorcerer with the ability to create and control zombie slaves. But the zombie master has his own plans for the trio's souls.

Written by Garnett Weston, "White Zombie" is a very dark and atmospheric tale of horror and suspense partially inspired by the writings of traveler W.B. Seabrook, whose 1929 book, "The Magic Island", introduced Voodoo to American audiences. Of course, Weston's movie is a highly fictionalized account of Voodoo, but it was probably the first movie to introduce zombies to the horror genre. With a story that mixes romance, horror and melodrama, "White Zombie" is essentially a Faustian tragedy with a Voodoo setting, where a man's forbidden desire brings damnation to him and those around him. There is not really a lot of character development through the film, but that actually helps as "White Zombie" is more about the nightmarish experience of the three characters facing Legendre's sinister machinations than about their relationships.

The film's highlight is certainly Victor Halperin's directing, which in its cinematography (by Arthur Martinelli) shows a lot of influence from the German expressionist movement of the 20s and gives the movie an ominous surreal atmosphere. Due to the film's scarce use of dialogs, it would be easy to believe that Halperin wasn't interested in sound technology (new at the time), however, he does give an interesting use to sound in this film by using atmospheric sounds and Xavier Cugat's score to enhance the film's eerie ambiance. It is clear that Halperin was working on a very low-budget (sets were rented from Universal Studios), but his inventive use of camera effects together with Martinelli's beautiful cinematography truly give the film a special nightmarish look similar to Browning's "Dracula" or Dreyer's "Vampyr - Der Traum Des Allan Grey".

The acting is for the most part effective, although several members of the main cast give average performances that tend to diminish the power of the film a bit. John Harron is one of them, delivering a really weak performance as Neil, a shame as his character is essentially the story's protagonist. Robetr Frazer is a bit better as Charles Beaumont, although like Harron, he could had done a better job than the average performance he gave. Still, Madge Bellamy is remarkable as Madeleine, and is specially dreamy after falling under Legendre's spell. Now, if Bellamy is excellent in her role, Bela Lugosi is simply perfect as the macabre zombie master Legendre. Taking what he did in "Dracula" one step beyond, Lugosi appears here in what is probably one of the best performances of his career, literally becoming this embodiment of evil with his strong presence and sinister elegance.

Like the previously mentioned film "Vampyr", Victor Halperin's "White Zombie" seems to be a literal bridge between silent films and the sound era, as it keeps a lot of the silent style of film-making including the highly expressive acting and the expressionist visual design. Together with the movie's extremely slow pace, those elements enhance the whole surrealist vibe that surrounds the movie, making it look almost as the representation of a nightmare. However, this is a double edged sword, as certainly those elements may disappoint those expecting something more graphic and action-packed (it is nothing like the modern zombie films of Romero and Fulci), or at least, something similar to Universal's "Frankenstein"'s series. Don't get me wrong, this is still Gothic horror at its best, but it's definitely on a more serious tone than most Universal films.

"White Zombie" is a difficult film to watch, but certainly one that's very rewarding in the end. Its silent style feels definitely dated, but oddly, this only adds to that surreal atmosphere that Halperin was aiming for when making the film. Sadly, director Victor Halperin would never reach the mastery of this work, as if this was the movie he was destined to make. A very underrated classic of horror, "White Zombie" is another of the films that prove that there was more in Bela Lugosi than "Dracula", and it's a film that can proudly stand next to the Universal classics despite its modest and humble origins.


Buy "White Zombie" (1932)

July 20, 2007

The Adventures of Dollie (1908)

The year of 1908 was certainly an important one for a 34 year old playwright named D.W. Griffith, because that was the year he decided to try his luck in films with an adaptation of "Tosca" that he wrote specially for the new movie industry. However, success didn't came quick for the young writer, as literally nobody saw any potential in his work; the only one who saw any kind of potential in him was film pioneer Edwin S. Porter, but his eyes weren't in Griffith's writing skills, but on his acting, and send the young man with director J. Searle Dawly to make some shorts. While disappointed, Griffith kept acting to pay the bills, until later that year, he was finally hired for something other than as an actor: American Mutoscope & Biograph was looking for young directors and D.W. Griffith took the job. 1908's short film, "The Adventures of Dollie", was the humble debut of a director that would be known as a legend.

In "The Adventures of Dollie", a family of three goes out for a nice trip along the riverside during a sunny summer's day. A gypsy (Charles Inslee) walks by them, and attempts to sell his baskets to the family. The Mother (Linda Arvidson) doesn't want to buy anything from him, and attempts to move on, but this angers the gypsy, who begins to attack the mother and her daughter Dollie (Gladys Egan) until the Father (Arthur V. Johnson) appears and drives the gypsy off. Even more angered, the gypsy decides to kidnap Dollie and hide her inside of a barrel to be able to escape unnoticed. When her parents notice she's been kidnapped, they organize a rescue party, but it's too late: the gypsies have escaped and the barrel where Dollie is hidden is on their wagon. However, this is only the beginning, as the barrel falls from the wagon and falls into the river. Dollie's real adventure is just about to begin.

Written by Stanner E.V. Taylor (his first real work as a scriptwriter), "The Adventures of Dollie" is a very simple tale of action and adventure on a style that was made very popular in that year after the release of J. Searle Dawly's "Rescued from an Eagle's Nest" (the movie where Griffith debuted as an actor), in fact, the plot of both films are so similar that it's clear that this movie was made to cash on Dawly's success (both films are about kidnapped childs). Still, what made this movie a bit different was that this time the focus was on the kidnapped kid instead of the rescuers, as we follow Dollie (or better said, the barrel that contains her) through the film. Some have labeled the movie as racist towards the Romani people (gypsies), but I find such comments out of place as the story simply reflects the ideas of its time, as gypsies weren't seen on a good light because of their nomadic lifestyle.

In this his modest debut as a director, there are already some early touches of Griffith's genius through the movie. While an amateur following the conventions he has learned from his work as an actor (as well as from codirector and future collaborator G.W. Bitzer), Griffith already begins to show his ideas about storytelling in film and his creative use of editing to create emotions on the audience. The effective use he gives to Arthur Marvin's cinematography helps to keep the film dynamic, away from the theatrical style that was common in those years. True, the film is pretty typical and follows an already stablished ideas about film narrative, but credit must to Griffith for making such an accomplished film with almost zero experience behind the camera.

One of Griffith's most famous traits can also be seeing in this movie, and that is his great skill to get natural performances from his actors. As written above, the movie moves away from the stagy style of film-making of the time, and Griffith takes this ideal to his cast too, as he decides to get a more realistic approach in their performances. Arthur V. Johnson and Linda Arvidson (Griffith's wife) are good in their performances, although Johnson tends to overact a bit (understandable as he had little experience on film). Gladys Egan, who plays little Dollie is also very good, although her role is considerably simpler. As the gypsies, Charles Inslee and Madeline West are OK, although like Johnson, they tend to overact a little bit, although that would be natural, since they are playing the common stereotypes of gypsy people.

"The Adventures of Dollie" is not exactly a movie that one would expect from legendary director D.W. Griffith, but then again, most debuts tend to be mere shadows of the future ahead. Later that very same year Griffith would start making some serious experimentation on this very same plot line, and would create some really innovative films in a very short time. Movies like "The Red Man and the Child", "For a Wife's Honor" and "The Lonely Villa" would introduce new and highly inventive ways of storytelling that would further develop film-making as an art. While many of the techniques he used weren't exactly new, he combined them and put them together in a way that later would be considered as the definitive narrative language of cinema. While there are many better Griffith shorts (even from the same year), this movie is a must see if only because it represents the humble start of a master's career.


July 18, 2007

The Killer's Kiss (1955)

At the relatively young age of 23 years old, a promising photographer named Stanley Kubrick decided to try his luck at making movies after becoming fascinated by the inventive camera-work of Max Ophüls' movies. The young Kubrick had a promising start, as he quickly sold his first two short films (the documentaries "Day of the Fight" and "Flying Padre") to RKO Radio Pictures' newsreel division, a success that made him decide to quit his job at "Look" and become a full-time filmmaker. However, not everything was easy, as the critical and commercial failure of his first theatrical movie, 1953's "Fear and Desire", almost put a halt to the young filmmaker's career. After this failure, Kubrick decided not to give up and spent the following two years saving money in order to make another movie: "Killer's Kiss", the movie that would pave the way for Kubrick's future masterpieces.

"Killer's Kiss" is the story of Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith), a 29 years old boxer living in New York at the apparent end of his career. After losing another fight against a younger and better opponent, Gordon contemplates to retire and return to his uncle's farm in Seattle to work. However, everything changes when he notices that Gloria Price (Irene Kane), the young lady who lives next to his apartment, is being attacked by a man named Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silver). Gordon quickly intervenes and manages to scare Rapallo away, and this event makes him meet Gloria and discover her life. He finds out that she is a dancer, and that Rapallo is her employer, a violent man that owns the dance hall where she works. While Gordon is quickly falling in love with Gloria, Mr. Rapallo is planning his vengeance, as he is not willing to let Gloria run away from his hands.

With a screenplay written by Howard Sackler (who also helped Kubrick in "Fear and Desire"), "Killer's Kiss" was based on an original story by Stanley Kubrick himself (something he would never do again) that in many ways seems to reflect Kubrick's vision of New York in those years. Essentially a crime film deeply rooted in the film noir genre, "Killer's Kiss" deals with Gordon's adventure through the dark side of New York and his gazing into the morbid world of low-life gangsters. It's certainly a very simple story, and while the quality of the dialogs ain't really amazing, Kubrick and Sackler manage to add nice twists to the plot, a good dose of suspense, and specially, an interesting development of the characters and their relationships. They all seem very human and realistic, which together with the dark and gritty world they inhabit enhances the realism of his story.

While the story may not be of the quality Kubrick would achieve later in his career, visually "Killer's Kiss" is a joy. With a superb work of cinematography, Kubrick captures New York city at its darkest with a raw and gritty style that fits perfectly the tone of the film. His mix of light and shadows in the noir style is remarkable, and adds a lot of atmosphere to the movie. Taking a realist approach to the story, Kubrick seems to give a good use to everything he learned by making documentaries (the fight scene brings back memories from his first short, "Day of the Fight"), and it is in fact his dynamic camera-work what makes the movie special. Finally, the music by Gerald Fried (who also started his career in Kubrick's first short) is another of the highlights of "Killer's Kiss", subtly adding a morbid and somber tone to the movie's images.

Well, the acting is not exactly good, as with the exception of Frank Silvera and Jamie Smith, nobody in the cast was a professional actor at the time of making "Killer's Kiss". As boxer Davy Gordon, Smith is actually good and is very convincing as a fighter whose better days are in the past. While his character is a tough guy, Smith manages to give him an everyman look, making really easy to sympathize with him. Like Smith, Frank Silvera is also good in the role of Mr. Rapallo, the sinister owner of the dance hall, although at times he is not as convincing as Smith. However, Kubrick's screenplay makes Rapallo more human than the villain caricature that it could had been, and Silvera truly takes good advantage of that. It is Irene Kane as Gloria Price where the movie fails, as she seems unable to do with her character something more than looking great on film.

Sadly, the rest of the cast is actually worse, with the probable exception of Jerry Jarret, a non-professional actor who is very convincing as Gordon's manager. The bad quality of the acting truly diminishes the power of the writers' script, as while the dialogs aren't exactly good, the bad acting makes them sound even worse. Still, Kubrick's visual poetry is what makes the movie to stand out among the rest as despite its flaws it shows that the young photographer who made it was truly a promising talent. Shot in areas near the apartment where Kubrick lived on those years, "Killer's Kiss" is like an oddly attractive postcard of those sides of New York where nobody would like to get lost, as Kubrick makes this dark and gritty story a haunting portrait of his city showing its best and its worst faces at the same time.

While at first sight it may seem that the movie is important only because a young Stanley Kubrick made it, "Killer's Kiss" really has some interesting elements on its favor. Kubrick's powerful cinematography and skill as a storyteller are already displayed here, as well as his skillful use of music to add atmosphere to the scenes. While certainly weak in some aspects, "Killer's Kiss" is an excellent film noir that most importantly, would attract producers for Kubrick's first masterpiece: 1956's "The Killing".


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July 17, 2007

Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1908)

In 1908, a 34 year old playwright named D.W. Griffith was having little success with his plays and decided to try his luck in the newly formed movie industry with an adaptation of "Tosca" he intended to sell to the film studios of the Edison Manufacturing Company. The head of the studio at the time was film pioneer Edwin S. Porter, who wasn't really impressed with Griffith's work as a writer but, since Griffith was also an actor, Porter decided to hire him and send him to director J. Searle Dawley. A former theater director (he liked to called himself as "the first professional motion picture director"), Dawley immediately chose Griffith for the main role in his new film: "Rescued from an Eagle's Nest". It would be in this early adventure film where D.W. Griffith would have his first contact with the movie industry and where he would first learn the crafts that would make him a legendary filmmaker in the following years.

"Rescued from an Eagle's Nest" is the story of a woodsman's family and the extraordinary adventure they live one day while the Father (D.W. Griffith) was outside working. After the father leaves the house, the Mother (Miss Earle) begins her own housework and leaves the child (Jinnie Frazer) outside to play. While the mother is inside the cabin, a big eagle descends from the sky and takes the child away. The mother notices the eagle kidnapping the kid, but it's too late for her to save him, so she runs to the woods in order to tell her husband about it. After hearing what has happened to his child, the lumberjack and his mates run together to the mountains. When they find the nest, they discover that it's very difficult to reach it, so the Woodsman takes a rope with him and begins to climb down. However, before returning home he'll have to face the eagle that kidnapped his kid.

As usual with the early movies from the Edison Manufacturing Company, it can't be known for sure who exactly wrote the screenplay of the film, but considering director J. Searle Dawley's background, it is highly probable that it was all Dawley's creation expanding from one of his or Porter's ideas. The story of "Rescued from an Eagle's Nest" is pretty simple and has almost no characterization, focusing on the action and adventure that the Woodsman faces to save his kid. In this sense, the movie works like a folktale put on film, as it is concerned more about the adventure in itself than about the characters. While simple in its construction, the plot of "Rescued from an Eagle's Nest" remains so universal that is hard not to feel thrilled by the Woodsman's adventure.

In "Rescued from an Eagle's Nest", director J. Searle Dawley truly shows a better understanding of the new options that film offered him as a narrative language, and moves further away from the idea that movies were simply plays on film. The influence of Edwin S. Porter (who was in charge of cinematography in this movie) can be seen in many scenes as Dawley employs several of the editing techniques that Porter originated in his 1903 seminal classic, "Life of an American Fireman" (Techniques that Griffith would further develop in his own films). This is reflected in the very original ways the movie uses edition and its primitive special effects to play with action and suspense in order to thrill and surprise the audience. By our standards, the effects look poor and clichéd, but it was definitely a step ahead in its time.

As written above, the film focuses entirely on the family's adventure without leaving too much for character development, so it would be not only difficult but also unfair to judge the performances of the cast on those terms. So considering that they were playing basically archetypes, it could be said that the whole cast was actually good, as there rarely was any overacting (so common in the early days of cinema) and everyone seemed to know what to do. It is obviously interesting to see D.W. Griffith as the Woodsman, and his performance doesn't disappoint. His fight with the eagle is a very good scene that forecasts similar scenes in future action movies like the ones with Douglas Fairbanks. Even when she was not a professional actress (or probably because of that very reason), Miss Earle is very good and looks very natural in her concern for her baby.

While the film still feels stagy at times, it was a step ahead in the development of the language of cinema that spawned an entire series of imitators that further developed the adventure genre (even Griffith himself would use the same basic plot of a kidnapped child in his first movie, "The Adventures of Dollie"). To call this movie clumsy or uneven and judge it under our standards is criminally unfair, as while "Rescued from an Eagle's Nest" is not a perfect movie, it is not only actually very good for its time but it also helped to set the basis for the action and adventure films of today. "Rescued from an Eagle's Nest" is not only a must see for Griffith fans interested on his first work, it is also an amusing short movie for fans of early action movies and silent film in general.


July 16, 2007

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

The beginning of the 40s brought many difficult times for RKO Studios, as after the commercial failure of Orson Welles' films (worsened by Hearst newspaper chain's attacks over "Citizen Kane") and other artistically ambitious movies, the studio was facing bankruptcy and extinction. However, the studio would find a relief for its problems in its B pictures division, specially in the unit commanded by producer Val Lewton, who soon after his appointment as head of RKO's horror unit, released what would be RKO's greatest hit of 1942: "Cat People". Directed by French filmmaker Jacques Tourneur, "Cat People" revolutionized the horror genre with its subtle atmospheric style and the inclusion of psychological horror. After the enormous success of "Cat People", Lewton and Tourneur began working on their next horror movie: the noir-influence "I Walked with a Zombie".

In "I Walked with a Zombie", Frances Dee plays Betsy Connell, a recently graduated Canadian nurse who travels from Ottawa to the Caribbean after being hired to take care of a mental patient in the island of St. Sebastian. In her trip, she meets Paul Holland (Tom Conway), owner of the sugar cane plantation where she is going to live, and soon she discovers that her patient is his wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon), who has been in a catatonic state after contracting a fever at St. Sebastian. Intrigued by her patient's condition, Betsy attempts to find out a cure for Jessica working with Dr. Maxwell (James Bell), but her lack of success makes her begin to wonder if the rumors about voodoo and zombies that circulate among the island's population are true after all. As she goes deeper into the intrigues at the plantation, she'll discover the horrible true behind Jessica's condition.

Loosely based on Charlotte Brontë's classic novel, "Jane Eyre", the film's story was conceived by Val Lewton and Inez Wallace and further developed by Ardel Wray and the legendary Curt Siodmak (of "The Wolf Man" fame). It is Siodmak's style the one that is felt the most though the movie, as like most of his best horror stories, "I Walked with a Zombie" has that mixture of horror and melodrama deeply rooted in the complex relationships between his characters and the way they interact with each other. Playing with elements of tragedy and melodrama, Siodmak builds up an intelligent Gothic horror story where sadness and decay are the dominant themes, and that keeps the subtle ambiguous style of "Cat People". Like his screenplay for "The Wolf Man", "I Walked with a Zombie" is filled with extremely good dialogs that certainly give the film a personality of its own.

However, where "I Walked with a Zombie" truly excels is in the directing department, where Jacques Tourneur once again shows his enormous talent behind the camera and proves that B-movies can be highly artistic too. With an excellent work of cinematography by the experienced J. Roy Hunt, Tourneur expands on the style he developed in "Cat People" and creates in the perfect hybrid of Film-Noir and horror movie in "I Walked with a Zombie", where he gives a morbid ambiguity to Siodmak's script. Highly atmospheric and even surreal, the film showcases a wonderful use of light and shadows that increases the feeling of dread and decay that surrounds the story. Tourneur's use of music and sound is another of the elements that make this movie remarkable, as Roy Webb's score is impressively haunting and adds a lot of power to the film.

The work done by the cast in "I Walked with a Zombie" is very effective, with most of the actors delivering excellent performances in their respective roles. Frances Dee is remarkable as nurse Betsy Connell, believably conveying the necessary innocence and naiveté of her character without making it clichéd. As Paul Hollan, Tom Conway delivers a restrained and subtle performance, which suits his troubled character perfectly and adds a lot to the plantation's mystery. However, the highlights of the film are definitely James Ellison and Edith Barrett, the first one giving a very convincing role as Paul's alcoholic half-brother and Mrs. Barrett delivering the film's best performance as the mother of the two, managing to shine despite her limited role. Finally, Christine Gordon is simply gorgeous as Jessica Holland, the alluring beauty who may be possessed by unseen forces.

Being a subtle and almost melancholic film, "I Walked with a Zombie" is definitely less bombastic than its title (which Val Lewton hated) may suggest. And this misconception is probably the movie's biggest flaw, as while the movie is decidedly dark and morbid, it has nothing in common with the modern day concept of "zombie film" as reinvented by George Romero in 1968 (with "Night of the Living Dead"). Tourneur's film has more to do with the original Caribbean voodoo folklore about zombies than with flesh-eating mobs of living corpses, so those expecting something similar to the works of Romero and Fulci will be sorely disappointed. In this aspect, "I Walked with a Zombie" has more to do with Victor Halperin's classic from the 30s, "White Zombie", as not only both share the same background, but also have almost the same Gothic visual style.

While definitely not as influential as "Cat People", personally I find "I Walked with a Zombie" to be the best movie among the ones done by Tourneur and Lewton, thanks to its beautiful visuals and the power of Siodmak's story. A powerful and haunting story of horror and suspense, this classic from the 40s is a definitive must-see, not only for fans of horror and film noir, but really for anyone willing to watch classic cinema at its best.


Buy "I Walked with a Zombie" (1943)

July 15, 2007

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

After the successful release of Jacques Toruneur's "Cat People" in 1942, producer Val Lewton, head of RKO Studio's horror unit, found himself with the job of proving that this wasn't just a mere lucky strike, not an easy task to do. However, with films like Tourneur's "I Walked with a Zombie" and Mark Robson's "The Seventh Victim", Lewton consolidated his reputation as a successful producer and established a style that is now known among fans as "Val Lewton horror". While his horror films were doing well, Lewton wasn't entirely happy with being type-casted as producer of horror films, and by the end of 1943, decided to attempt something different. Working with writer DeWitt Bodeen, Lewton conceived a dark tale of fantasy about the horrors of childhood. Unfortunately, RKO wanted a more horror related story, so Bodeen ended up adding elements from his past work and "The Curse of the Cat People" was made.

In "The Curse of the Cat People", we find the characters from the original "Cat People" a few years after the evens of the first film. Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) are now married and live in a nice neighborhood with their young daughter Amy (Ann Carter). Amy is a very intelligent and imaginative girl, more adept to spent her time daydreaming than to make friends of her age. This worries Oliver extremely, who after experiencing the catastrophic results of the obsessive imagination of his first wife Irena (Simone Simon), fears that Amy is going to have a similar fate. Oliver's preoccupation increases when he discovers that Amy seems to have an imaginary friend: her dead wife Irena. While this seems beneficial for Amy, and even helps her to make real friends, Oliver can't stop remembering what happened to Irena and thinks this will only lead her daughter to a similar end.

While technically the movie is a sequel to "Cat People", DeWitt Bodeen's story is very different in terms of tone and thematics. While both films are dark psychological thrillers, "Curse" is completely based around the theme of childhood, its innocence and its horrors. Dealing with the troubled relationship between a highly imaginative daughter and her fearful, pragmatic father, Bodeen manages to create a beautiful story that perfectly captures the experience of being a child, as it keeps focused on Amy's view of the world. It also touches in a subtle way the concept of facing one's own demons, and despite the differences, complements "Cat People" in their treatment of loneliness and insecurity. While not exactly a horror film in the classic sense, "The Curse of the Cat People" is delightfully dark and even manages to be scary in several parts, although it is clear that fantasy is its real intention.

"The Curse of the Cat People" was initially directed by Gunther Von Fritsch, but several problems during production forced Lewton to replace him with editor Robert Wise, marking his debut on a feature length film. While he followed Lewton's style of film-making, in "The Curse of the Cat People", Wise shows a lot of the influence Orson Welles (Wise edited "Citizen Kane" among other films) had over him, including his very inventive camera-work. Like previous films produced by Lewton, the film is highly atmospheric, although this time the mood is one of surreal magic and dark Gothic fantasy, perfectly representing Amy's rich imagination. Nicholas Musuraca's amazing cinematography plays an instrumental role in this, as he manages to create some of the most beautiful images among Val Lewton's films.

Like the previous film, "The Curse of the Cat People" gets benefited by the talent of its main actress, in this case, the young Ann Carter, who as Amy Reed delivers an amazing performance, specially considering her young age. It is not a surprise that Carter had a good career as child actress, although it is a shame she decided not to continue as she grew up. Simone Simon returns as Irena Reed, and once again she is as gorgeous and alluring as ever. While her role is somewhat diminished this time (the movie is completely Carter's film), she delivers a terrific performance as Oliver's dead wife. Kent Smith is again the weakest link in the main cast, although it must be said that he fares better here than in the original "Cat People". The movie has excellent performances in the supporting roles, specially the ones by Elizabeth Russell, Julian Dean and calypso singer Sir Lancelot.

Definitely the movie's worst enemy (and perhaps biggest flaw) is the misleading title Lewton was forced to use, as by link it to the 1942 horror masterpiece it definitely creates false expectations of it being another classy horror film of the same caliber. While certainly filled with elements of horror, the movie works more as a dark and elegant fantasy melodrama than a straightforward horror film, so those expecting a direct sequel of "Cat People" will definitely be disappointed. Other than its misleading title, "The Curse of the Cat People" has very little problems, as despite some occasional weak performance and a pace at times too slow, the movie is almost flawless and an excellent example of dark Gothic fantasy. With excellent performances and the solid directing by Wise, "The Curse of the Cat People" lives up to its predecessor's name despite its differences.

"The Curse of the Cat People" is definitely one of the movies that better represents the darkness of a lonely and insecure childhood, as well as the vivid imagination that children posses. It may not be another "Cat People" in the strict sense, but this movie has that same kind of magic that makes Val Lewton's films so captivating. This excellent film would also be the beginning of Robert Wise's celebrated career as a filmmaker, so fans of his work must definitely give it a look.


Buy "The Curse of the Cat People" (1944)

July 13, 2007

Cat People (1942)

It was during the shooting of David O. Selznick's production of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" in 1935, when two young assistants named Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur met while working on several sequences of the celebrated film. In those years, Lewton was working as a jack-of-all-trades with Selznick, while Tourneur was a young assistant director still trying to make himself a name by directing short films for MGM. However, destiny had something better reserved for them, as when in 1942 Lewton became head of the horror unit at RKO studios, the first person he hired as a director was Jacques Tourneur. Together, they would revolutionize the horror genre with the subtle and highly atmospheric style of their movies, based more on suggestion than in direct shock. The first of the three movies Tourneur would do for Lewton, was also his debut on feature length films: the now classic 1942 film, "Cat People".

"Cat People" is the story of Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a Serbian fashion designer who has moved to New York and spends her free time watching the animals at the zoo. And it is at the zoo where she meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), a naval architect who gets fascinated by Irena's beauty and charm, and soon they fall in love with each other. But one element seems to be an obstacle for their happiness: Irena believes on an ancient curse placed on her town, which dictates that she'll transform into a murderous panther if she gets emotionally aroused. Oliver tries to help her, thinking it's just a psychological problem, and eventually marries her, hoping she'll get better. However, Irena's obsession with the curse makes her unable to be happy, and eventually this leads Oliver to fall in love with his coworker, Alice (Jane Randolph). This will have disastrous consequences once Irena discovers she is losing him.

As every movie Lewton produced, "Cat People" was based on an idea he had and further developed by one of his writers. In this case, it was DeWitt Bodeen's job to develop a screenplay out of the "Cat People" concept, and he truly created one of the most amazing horror stories ever put on film. Given their budgetary limitations, Lewton and Bodeen wisely chose to focus in suspense and mystery, adding a touch of psychology to their horror and putting a bigger emphasis on the melodrama and in the development of the characters. In the person of Irena, they have created one of the most complex and interesting characters in the history of the genre, one that certainly started the exploration of psycho-sexual themes in movies. And this is because "Cat People" is more than a tale of horror and suspense, it is a subtle metaphor about sexual repression and mainly, the fear of losing control over the passions of the body.

If the script is worth of praise, the directing by French filmmaker Jacques Tourneur is simply outstanding. Working in Lewton's unit, Tourneur found severe budgetary limitations, but also an enormous creative freedom that allowed him to develop in "Cat People" a style that later would be identified as "RKO's horror" and inspire other Lewton's protégés like Robert Wise and Mark Robson. This style would be highly influenced by the films noir that had began to appear in 1939, and in many ways, the RKO horror films done by Tourneur could be considered hybrids of horror and film noir (Tourneur himself would direct a classic of film noir in 1947, "Out of the Past"). With a high emphasis on mood and atmosphere, Tourneur plays with sensuality and subtlety in ways no other director had done before in a horror film, employing the power of suggestion to create fear instead of direct graphic horror.

Now, as written above, Irena Dubrovna is probably one of the best written characters in the horror genre, but it wouldn't had the impact it had without the remarkable performance by the beautiful French actress Simone Simon. As Irena, Simone really captures that mix of mystery and innocence that makes her character not only attractive and sympathetic, but also highly erotic without losing her class (effectively becoming both a Femme Fatale and damsel in distress at the same time). Her descent into madness as her obsession grows allows Simone to show off her enormous talent as an actress in one of the best portrayals of paranoia ever put on screen. While nobody else in the cast reaches her level of talent (Kent Smith is particularly weak), they are all very effective in their roles, with Tom Conway being remarkably good as Irena's psychiatrist, Dr. Judd.

While personally I consider "I Walked With a Zombie" as Tourneur's horror masterpiece, "Cat People" is probably the most influential film that came out of RKO studios during Val Lewton's years. Not only it is a beautifully crafted film (thanks in part to Nicholas Musuraca's cinematography) that successfully added Noir influences to horror, but also it changed the way thrillers were made with its inclusion of psychological tension and eroticism that, thanks to subtle touch of Tourneur, managed to pass through Production Code censors without problem. In a time when B-movies were often synonym of mediocrity, "Cat People" appeared to prove that the only thing a movie needed to be good was talent and dedication. While as written above, Kent Smith makes up a weak counterpart for Simone Simon, it is only a small and unimportant flaw in what is otherwise a perfect film.

In the end, Lewton's bet worked for the best and "Cat People" became the most successful film of RKO in the year of its release, saving the studio and consolidating Lewton as the head of its horror unit, effectively starting the age of what is now know as "Lewton horror". As one of the most influential horror films in history, Jacques Tourneur's "Cat People" is a definitive must-see.


Buy "Cat People" (1942)

July 12, 2007

Vámonos con Pancho Villa (1936)

1936 proved to be a defining year in Mexican director Fernando De Fuentes' career, as it was the year when he released the two most important movies of his career: the musical comedy "Allá en el Rancho Grande", and the war drama "Vámonos con Pancho Villa". Two very different movies whose results defined the future of De Fuentes' work. The last one to be shot, but the first to be released, "Allá en el Rancho Grande" became the most successful Mexican movie as the time, breaking box office records and receiving praise across the globe. On the other hand, the last part of his Revolution trilogy, "Vámonos con Pancho Villa", suffered a troubled shooting and awful reception at box office. These results would make De Fuentes to decide to focus on commercially successful movies from now on, however, time has proved that while a commercial failure, "Vámonos con Pancho Villa" was De Fuentes' true masterpiece about the Revolution.

The movie is the story of Tiburcio Maya (Antonio R. Frausto), Melitón Botello (Manuel Tamés), Miguel Ángel del Toro (Ramón Vallarino), Martín Espinosa (Rafael F. Muñoz) and the Perea brothers (Raúl De Anda and Carlos López), six very good friends who one day decide to participate in the Mexican Revolution by joining the forces under the command of General Pancho Villa (Domingo Soler), considered a hero by the group. Fighting alongside their hero, the gang begins to be noticed as a very skilled and brave team (earning the nickname of "Lions of San Pablo"), but while very exited at first, as the war goes on the gang begins to discover that war is not as glorious and fair as they thought it was, that courage and honor worth nothing in the battlefield, and that even history's greatest heroes can have very inhuman traits.

Based on a novel by Rafael M. Muñoz (who experienced Revolution first hand and also played a role in the film), the movie was written by Fernando De Fuentes himself with the collaboration of poet Xavier Villaurrutia. In a very straight forward fashion, the story follows the six friends and their misadventures fighting against the Federal government alongside one of the many Villa's squadrons. While De Fuentes' use of the six characters as one collective hero indeed does sacrifice some character development, he makes sure to establish a distinct personality for everyone to make up for that. Once again De Fuentes takes a critic position on the Revolution and instead of glorifying the war, he shows it as a corrupting hell where people is used like mere objects by those commanding the armies.

Film critic A.O. Scott once called De Fuentes "the Mexican John Ford", and this movie is quite probably the reason behind his statement. Finally working with a good budget, De Fuentes does an amazing job in recreating life during the Revolution complete with really good choreographed battles and an extensive care for historical accuracy. Visually, the film is a joy as De Fuentes' care for realism is wonderfully captured by the cinematography of the legendary Gabriel Figueroa (in of his first jobs) which together with De Fuentes' masterful domain of the montage techniques form a powerful and crude portrait of the war. In spite of the great technical merits of the movie, De Fuentes keeps the film focused on his characters and the crumbling of their ideals, effectively portraying the human side of the conflict.

In one of this earliest roles, legendary actor Domingo Soler plays the man himself, Pancho Villa, and as the general, Soler delivers a terrific performance that truly humanizes the figure of the general, avoiding myths and portraying him with all his virtues and flaws. While the "Lions of San Pablo" are our collective hero, some have more prominence than others. Antonio R. Fraustro makes an excellent job in his performance as Tiburcio Maya, the leader of the "Lions" and the one who idolizes Villa the most. Manuel Tamés is simply perfect as the funny Melitón Botello, showing not only his talent for comedy, but also a powerful dramatic presence. Ramón Vallarino plays "Becerrillo", the youngest of the gang, and while struggles a bit, doesn't do a bad job. The rest of the cast has lesser screen time, but there are good performances by Carlos López "Chaflán" and a very young Raúl De Anda.

At the time of its release, "Vámonos con Pancho Villa" was completely overshadowed by De Fuentes' other movie, as the public preferred the uplifting musical comedy over the grim and dark meditation on the war. The harsh criticism De Fuentes makes about the revolutionaries and the figure of Pancho Villa (who is shown as a man far from the heroic ideal) didn't help in this matter, and the movie ended almost forgotten. However, "Vámonos con Pancho Villa" is truly a monumental epic that shows the talent of De Fuentes as a director able to portray introspective human drama in an epic adventure, pretty much on the level of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah. Of course, when compared to his previous movie, "El Compadre Mendoza", the plot may seem simplistic, but De Fuentes never lets his story get boring or tiresome.

While many critics consider "El Compadre Mendoza" as De Fuentes' best movie, personally I think that "Vámonos con Pancho Villa" is the movie where his style is at its best as everything just fits nicely with his vision of the Revolution. Sadly, the poor results of the film almost ended De Fuentes' career, so he spent his following years making commercially successful movies without caring too much for the art. Still, this movie is a fitting ending for his Revolution trilogy, and a fitting closure to the first era of Mexican sound films as this film inaugurated the "Golden Age of Mexican Cinema".


Buy "Vámonos con Pancho Villa" (1936)

July 11, 2007

El Compadre Mendoza (1934)

Director Fernando De Fuentes' films about the Mexican Revolution are often recognized as classics in the history of Mexican cinema, and not without a reason, as not only they meant a big improvement in the artistic and technical levels, they showed a brave criticism of the often idolized Mexican Revolution. Of the three movies (which by the way, are related only in themes and setting), "El Compadre Mendoza", is widely considered as his best by many critics and historians, as it is not only a film of great artistic value, but also one of the movies where De Fuentes better employs a genre (melodrama in this case) to expose his interesting opinions about the Revolution as a social movement. However, it's worth to point out that this movie wouldn't have been possible without the economic success of his previous film, "La Calandria", starting De Fuentes' uneasy relation with box office results and his dependence of commercial movies to finance his most personal films.

"El Compadre Mendoza" is the story of Rosalío Mendoza (Alfedo del Diestro), the owner of a hacienda who has managed to keep his business during the Revoultion by winning favors from both sides. Helping both the Federal forces and the revolutionaries, Rosalío makes friends with both sides' generals and feeds their armies, however, his situation gets complicated when his friendship with Revolutionary general Felipe Nieto (Antonio R. Frausto) begins to grow more than he expected after Nieto saves Mendoza from a sure death the day of his wedding. General Nieto becomes such a good friend of Rosalío and his wife Lolita (Carmen Guerrero) that Rosalío asks him to be the godfather of his son, sealing their friendship by becoming Compadres (literally "co-fathers"). However, their friendship will be put to the test and Rosalío will have to make difficult choices when his friends in the Federal army discover that their biggest enemy, General Nieto, is Rosalío's Compadre.

It's worth to point that this movie marked the debut in films of two important writers who would later become legends themselves: Juan Bustillo Oro and Mauricio Magdaleno. "El Compadre Mendoza" was originally a short story written by Magdaleno that was meant to be adapted to theater by Bustillo Oro, but the two were convinced by De Fuentes to make the story a movie instead of a play. While set during war time, "El Compadre Mendoza" is not exactly an action movie, as it's more a drama about civilians caught in the middle of the conflict, and the difficulties of keeping friendships when loyalties get compromised because of the war. The plot is probably predictable as it follows the classic patter of tragic melodramas, but the excellent way the story unfolds and the remarkable development of the characters' personalities do make a difference between this film and other similar ones.

Not only Juan Bustillo Oro was in charge of the screenplay, he also shared the directorial seat with Fernando De Fuentes making his "official" debut at the job (he had only directed a short silent film before). This collaborative work proved to be enormously influential to both parties, as Bustillo Oro's experience in theater resulted in invaluable lessons for De Fuentes' direction of actors, making a notable improvement from his work in "El Prisionero Trece". In the same way, De Fuentes' mastery with cinematography and montage became a huge influence in Bustillo's later directorial work. "El Compadre Mendoza" shows the first success of this partnership, as it combines perfectly a wonderful visual style with a constant respect for the plot, keeping a balance between both aspects of cinema without one overriding the other.

In a character driven movie, the performances by the actors are of extreme importance, and in "El Compadre Mendoza" the couple of directors truly made the best of their talented cast. Once again, Chilean actor Alfredo del Diestro leads the cast as Rosalío Mendoza, delivering the performance of his lifetime as the troubled man caught between both sides. Del Diestro is simply top notch in the complicated role and carries the film with his powerful presence, making very easy to feel identified with the character. As the idealist General Nieto, Antonio R. Frausto is very effective, and his performance feels really natural, specially as his character becomes more complex as the movie flows. The same can be said about Carmen Guerrero, who despite being a bit overshadowed by her two costars, manage to deliver her lines with grace and dignity.

Among the films of De Fuentes' trilogy, "El Compadre Mendoza" is definitely the one which more easily one can feel identified with, as while the other two movies deal with the armies that fought in the war; this movie takes the the civilians who were caught in the middle of the conflict as main subject. Like in the other movies, the harsh criticism to the Revolution is present, as the theme of the movie is how war manages to corrupt and destroy everything, even something as valuable as friendships. Still, despite the strong moral message of the movie, De Fuentes avoids a heavy handed approach and deals with his themes in a subtler, more appropriate manner. Finally, if the movie has any flaw, is probably its low budget and the bad performances of some of the extras, other than that it's almost flawless.

Regarded by many critics as De Fuentes' best work, "El Compadre Mendoza" lives up to the high expectations build up around it and truly deserves its title of "Mexican classic". While personally I consider "Vámonos con Pancho Villa" as De Fuentes' best movie, this is a close second and probably his most personal work. An interesting take on the Mexican Revolution, "El Compadre Mendoza" is a must see for anyone interested in Mexican cinema. After this movie, the status of De Fuentes and Bustillo Oro as legends of Mexican cinema was a sure thing.


Buy "El Compadre Mendoza" (1934)

July 10, 2007

El Prisionero Trece (1933)

One of the most important and influential figures of the early years of Mexican sound films, director Fernando De Fuentes began his career in the film industry with the job of subtitling foreign movies for a chain of theaters, taking advantage of his knowledge of English. While having studied in the U.S. gave him good job opportunities, he decided to pursue a career in the young Mexican movie industry after the introduction of sound films, and his first job would be as assistant director in Mexico's first successful sound movie: "Santa". A year later, De Fuentes would find himself making his debut as a director with "El Anónimo", a typical melodrama (sadly now lost) that only found moderate success; however, his second movie, "El Prisionero Trece", would be the one that would show the magnitude of his rising talent, marking the beginning of what is now known as his "Revolution trilogy".

In "El Prisionero Trece", Alfredo Del Diestro plays Julián Carrasco, a soldier whose alcoholism has turned into a violent man. Unwilling to keep living this way, his wife Marta (Adela Sequeyro) leaves him and takes their son with her. Years go by, the Revolution starts, and Carrasco is now a Colonel in charge of arresting revolutionaries and spies. One night, his troops manage to arrest 13 members of the revolution, and the governor orders their execution; however, the family of one of them is very rich, and asks Carrasco for his freedom in exchange of a big sum of money. At first he is not convinced of this, but his good friend Zertuche (Luis G. Barreiro) convinces Carrasco to accept the offer. Knowing that the governor demanded thirteen executions, Carrasco orders the release of the thirteenth prisoner and the capture of a look-alike to replace him, but this proves to be a cruel and shocking surprise to the violent Colonel as the man chosen to replace the prisoner 13 is none other than his son Juan (Arturo Campoamor).

The movie was written by Fernando De Fuentes himself, with the collaboration of Miguel Ruiz, although judging by their future works, it's obvious that De Fuentes was the mind behind the script, as it sets some of the themes he would explore later in his next Revolution movies. As in a classic tragedy, the plot unfolds nicely as De Fuentes slowly puts all the elements of the story in their right place. While the movie is essentially a melodrama about sins from the past returning to haunt a character, De Fuentes uses this story to show his ideas about the government's actions during the Mexican Revolution, portraying in a very realist fashion the fears and paranoia of the urban populations in the years of the Revolution, as well as the fragility of morality in extreme circumstances such as a civil war.

Like many of the young Mexican directors of 30s, the greatest influence than De Fuentes received in those years was without a doubt the work of Russian director Sergei M. Eisenstein, who started visiting Mexico in 1930. However, De Fuentes also carried a big influence from the American style of film-making thanks to his work subtitling films, so his personal style developed from the mixture of both schools. The remarkable way De Fuentes uses montage and his fluid camera-work are direct results of those influences, and De Fuentes makes great use of Ross Fisher's (another important figure in early Mexican cinema) cinematography to tell his story. While a master of visual narrative, De Fuentes understood quickly that sound in films meant more than just being able to listen the dialogs, and so he was one of the first Mexican directors to use sound to build up suspense and enhance the atmosphere of the movie.

The cast is really effective, with those on the two main roles delivering excellent performances. In the role of Colonel Julián Carrasco, Chilean actor Alfredo del Diestro demonstrates an amazing talent that extends to more than an excellent domain of the Mexican accent, as his performance is simply breathtaking (he would also appear in De Fuentes' "El Compadre Mendoza", the role of his lifetime). Equally as good is Luis G. Barreiro as Zertuche, perfectly portraying the malicious man who serves as Carrasco's Mephistopheles in this tale. The rest of the cast is very good, with Adela Sequeyro (who later would become a director) being excellent as Carrasco's wife, and Arturo Campoamor delivering a very natural performance as his son Juan. De Fuentes' regular collaborator Antonio R. Frausto appears in a minor, but memorable role as one of the arrested revolutionaries.

One of the most notable aspects of "El Prisionero Trece" (and De Fuentes' Revolution trilogy in general), is the harsh criticism it makes to the war as a whole. While later it became common to portray the Mexican Revolution in an idealized way, De Fuentes movies avoids the romanticism and offers a crude, realistic vision of a country at war. This stance gave problems to De Fuentes as the government wasn't too happy about the movie's premise (as it showed the revolutionaries as willing to offer bribes to corrupt enemy officers in exchange of pardon) and demanded changes done to the epilogue, making it look like a cop out ending. On a different matter, a constant problem with this an other early Mexican films is the fact that due to the low budgets, most of the extras weren't trained actors, making their performances really bad in comparison to the rest of the cast.

As the first movie in the Revolution Trilogy, "El Prisionero Trece" is an excellent film to start discovering the works from the early Mexican cinema. It offers not only the first great work by a legend of film-making, but also an interesting point of view about the Revolution that few dared (and still few dare) to present. Powerful and brutal, "El Prisionero Trece" is definitely a hard film to forget, and it was only the beginning.


July 08, 2007

Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932)

While filmmaker Jean Renoir is usually considered among the most influential French directors of all time, it is common to find that discussions on his work tend to focus around his late 30s work, particularly in his movies "La Grande Illusion", "La Bête Humaine" and "La Règle Du Jeu". This is not really surprising, as those three are arguably Renoir's best films, however, while probably not as outstanding as those three, the rest of his work is of a consistent quality and of great importance for those interested in French cinema. This is specially true for his earlier movies, where Renoir was still developing his own technique and with it the style that would influence French cinema for generations. The 1932 comedy "Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux" is a perfect example of this, as while not really one of Renoir's best films, it is an enjoyable movie that is miles ahead most movies of its time.

"Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux", which literally means "Boudu Saved from the Water" is better known in English as ""Boudu saved from Drowning", as it is the tale of a tramp named Boudu (Michel Simon), who disenchanted with life after he loses his dog, decides to jump into the river Seine hoping to die. But Boudu's plan fails as he is saved by a gentle bookseller named Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval), who after reviving him decides to "adopt" the tramp in his family, with the hope of making a good gentleman out of the bum. However, Boudu proves to be a difficult case, as with his lack of manners and wild anarchism shakes the lives of those living at Lestingois house, causing a mess everywhere becoming the terror of Lestingoi's wife Emma (Marcelle Hainia) and a source of constant frustration for Edouard Lestingois himself.

Based on a play by René Fauchois, "Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux" was adapted to the screen by Renoir himself and the then-newcomer Albert Valentin, whom certainly took advantage of the different possibilities that cinema offered to expand on the anarchic humor of the play. As one can imagine, the source of most of the movie's comedy lays in the social differences between Boudu and the Lestingoi family, making fun the bourgeois values of French society without mercy and surprisingly, void of any moralist stance. It is a very modern movie in this aspect, as without any pretensions or false sentimentalism (he makes sure of not making Boudu a hero) Renoir makes a poignant social commentary that is as clever as it's funny. The excellent development of his assortment of characters is the icing of the cake in what truly is one of Renoir's best screenplays among his early works.

As written above, in his adaptation of "Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux" director Jean Renoir looked for a more cinematic approach to the play, avoiding the use of sets almost completely and shooting on location as much as possible. This use of natural landscapes and real locations, together with Renoir's smooth and skillful camera-work create a sense of realism that later would become Renoir's trademark. Giving excellent use to Georges Asselin' cinematography, Renoir uses everyplace he can as a stage for his film, literally taking us along with Boudu in his adventure inside the Lestingois house. This wasn't the first time Renoir worked this way, but "Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux" was a further development of this style, a technique that would find its higher point in the three masterpieces he made later on that decade. While not one of his classics, many of Renoir's trademarks can already be seen here.

One of the elements that make "Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux" so enjoyable is definitely the acting, as everyone in the cast is simply excellent. The highlight is of course the legendary Michel Simon, who as Boudu, delivers one of the best and funniest performances in his career. With delightful malice and a good dose of cynicism, Simon makes Boudu a complex character that can go from being the most sympathetic antihero to the most despicable human being in seconds, and always without losing that charm that helps him to carry the film. As the Lestingois couple, Charles Granval and Marcelle Hainia are certainly playing caricatures, however, with extraordinary talent these two actors make the most of their characters, making them more complex and very vivid. Finally, Sévérine Lerczinska makes a terrific scene stealing performance that makes one wonder why did her career on film was so short.

While a harsh critique on the self-righteousness of the French bourgeoisie and the differences between classes (often compared to Chaplin's work), Renoir never intends this to be a moral lesson, as unlike what happens in Chaplin's films, neither Boudu is completely good nor Lestingois is completely bad. Instead of the classic "rich = bad, poor = noble" archetypes, "Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux" shows a very natural balance between both social classes, making fun of the clash of both without sentimentalism and with subtle malice, as if Renoir was stating that neither are exactly good. Even when "Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux" and its style of anarchic humor may look dated now, the movie is still very fun to watch. It isn't a masterpiece of cinema, but still holds up today, more than 70 years after its release.

Lighthearted but clever, "Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux" makes a nice introduction to the work of Jean Renoir as it has many of the elements that would become the basis of his work but under a simpler, friendlier facade. "Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux" may look a bit slow and dated nowadays, but it's still as valid as ever and an excellent example of French comedy of the 30s. A very recommended film.


Buy "Boudu sauvé des eaux" (1932)