August 29, 2008

L' Homme à la tête en caoutchouc (1901)

In less than 5 years, the cinema had made a gigantic jump from the short "documentaries" of the early pioneers (Le Prince, Dickson and the Lumière brothers) to the amazing Cinemagic of french director Georges Méliès, who became one of the first filmmakers to focus entirely in making fiction movies. Ever since he watched a movie for the first time (as a member of the Lumières' first audience), Méliès was convinced of the enormous potential of the new invention as a form of entertainment, as as soon as he could he started to make his own films. By 1901, stage magician Georges Méliès had already 5 years of making films and experimenting with special effects, and his movies were well-known around the world as the finest films of his time. With his many discoveries in the field of special effects, Méliès was able of making films that looked like real magic, and his movies became more complex with time, and even more fascinating.

"L' Homme à la Tête en Caoutchouc" (literally, "The Man with the Rubber Head") is another one of Méliès' many "trick films", which were short movies that showed him making an impossible magical trick. In this movie, an alchemist (as usual, Méliès himself) is preparing a strange experiment in his laboratory. The alchemist puts an odd devise on a table, and connects it to his bizarre creation: a living copy of his own head (Méliès again) that stands over the table without a clue about what will happen to it. Using an air pump he connected to the head, the alchemist begins to blow, and the living head begins to increase its size as if it was a balloon made of rubber. The head reaches a gigantic size, but the alchemist decides to release the air from it as he fears the head may explode. Proud of his invention, the alchemist decides to show it to his assistant (quite probably played by his wife Jeanne d'Alcy, but this is not confirmed), but the assistant may not be as careful as he was.

As in many of his early shorts, this movie is a "gimmick film", in other words, a movie devised around a special effect in order to show it like a magician would make a trick. In this case, the movie combines an excellent use of multiple exposures and editing to create the two heads, and a remarkably creative use of zoom to create the illusion of a head increasing its size. While a quite simple trick to our modern standards, the effect achieved is one of Méliès' most amazing and better done special effects, making "The Man with the Rubber Head" one of the best "gimmick films" in the Cinemagician's career. However, this short is more than an excellent gimmick, as what makes "The Man with the Rubber Head" different from his earlier films (and the similar movies of his competitors) is the care Méliès put to create a "story" to his trick.

While in his first films he simply appeared as a magician doing his show, in this movie there is a set build for the scene (instead of a simple circus stage), and while simple, the movie is clearly set in the middle ages. This gives the movie a distinct atmosphere, and already shows the path that Méliès was taking at that stage in his career, as that very same year he would start making his now famous series of fantasy films, which would be far more complex than his "gimmick films". One can say that it was with in those movies where Méliès tested his craft before making his masterpieces like "Le Voyage Dans la lune" the following years.


August 25, 2008

The Evil Dead (1981)

If there really is a decisive factor in the making of a movie, without a doubt that would be creativity, because as in every art, on creativity depend the way the other available elements will be employed. For example, the way budget will be spent will depend on it, and therefore whether a desired effect for a scene will get done with what the budget allows. And while it could be assumed that creativity is an integral part of the film-making process, there are times when it seems as if literally there had not been any drop of creativity in the whole movie; but of course, there are also movies in which it's pretty noticeable that at the time it was done, a marvelous overdose of creativity filled the film's cast and crew. Sam Raimi's feature length debut, "The Evil Dead", is one of those movies. After nearly 4 years of shooting with limited budget, producer Robert Tapert, director Sam Raimi and actor Bruce Campbell created "The Ultimate Experience In Grueling Terror", still one of most influential horror films of all time.

"The Evil Dead" is the story of five friends, students at Michigan State University on a trip to a cabin in the woods for a weekend of nothing but fun. Everything seems to be going nice until they stumble upon a bizarre looking book and a tape recording while searching the basement of the cabin. Out of curiosity, they decide to play the tape, not knowing that this event will unleash powerful demonic horrors from the woods as the book happens to be a legendary black arts grimoire named The Book of the Dead, and the tape contains the incantation to resurrect demons. The forces of evil begin to terrify the youngsters, determined to kill them and possess their bodies. At first everyone is in disbelief, but after one of the girls, Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), is brutally attacked by the woods, her brother Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his best friend Scott (Richard DeManincor) begin to take the spirits more seriously. However, the night seems eternal and Cheryl is now possessed by the Evil.

Written by director Sam Raimi, "The Evil Dead" had its origin in "Within the Woods", a previous short film done by Rami (also with Tapert and Campbell) about students fighting demonic possession deep in the woods. In "The Evil Dead", Raimi keeps the same basic premise, but fleshes out the story with the addition of an interesting mythology centered around the quite Lovecraftian concept of the Book of the Dead (the sequels would reinforce this by naming the book as Lovecraft's "Necronomicon"), which opens the door to fantasy elements and allows Raimi to go wild with many imaginative concepts that result in making "The Evil Dead" more than the typical story about demonic possession. And while at its core the plot is truly simple (and the characters are also pretty basic), the movie's mix of horror and black comedy truly works, mainly because it never takes itself too seriously and always keeps a sense of self-awareness without becoming a parody of itself.

Now, while the story may not be the most complex or profound, the directing of the film is truly where the film shines the most, with Sam Raimi's highly inventive camera work using the camera to not only create the proper atmosphere, but as a character itself, making it the point of view of the unseen forces that lurk in the woods. Using this style, Raimi toys with suspense in great fashion, once again proving that sometimes "less is more". Nevertheless, "The Evil Dead" is not exactly a subtle horror film, as while the atmospheric camera work plays a big role in the movie's success, most of the film's charm really comes from its wild scenes of shock and gory horror. Tom Sullivan's impressive makeup is another of the film's highlights, as he made wonders with the shoestring budget the crew had to work with; and finally, the special effects by Bart Pierce (and Sam Raimi himself) are, while dodgy and somewhat poor, very well done for the budget and more important, in harmony with the non-serious tone of the film.

The acting isn't really anything special, and some would even say it's downright poor, but personally, I think it's not exactly bad, just plain average, in the sense that it just what's necessary to get the job done and nothing more. In his first time in role that would give him cult icon status, Bruce Campbell is very effective and gives one of the best performances in the film. Always with the tongue firmly in cheek, Campbell makes a good "hero" and it's no wonder that his cool yet sometimes silly Ash J. Williams would become a legendary character in the sequels. Ellen Sandweiss is also great as Cheryl, a character that has to endure a lot of what Raimi and company prepared for the film. The rest of the cast is probably less lucky, but actually not that bad. As Scott, Richard DeManincor has some good moments and while probably of a less shocking nature than Sandweiss' scenes, Betsy Baker and Theresa Tilly also made a good, albeit somewhat restrained job.

It's fair to point out that given the long production time the film had, many actors weren't available through most of the shooting (only Campbell was consistent), so many times someone else (among them Dorothy Tapert and Ted Raimi) would step into the role. While the acting may feel at times amateurish (it's perhaps the worst thing about the film), the cast always seems to be having fun, which I think it's something that helps the movie to keep that campy tone. Like the acting, the special effects aren't exactly top notch, but again, Raimi uses this to the film's advantage and just keeps everything very surreal, on a fantasy level that allows him to take this liberties. Drawing inspiration from many sources (zombie films, the Three Stooges, Lovecraft's books and Jack Woods' 1970's film "Equinox", among others), Raimi conceived a roller-coaster of horror and gore (and goo) that despite its many shortcomings, it's simply very entertaining, and I guess that in the end it's that what really counts.

I guess "The Evil Dead" is truly one of those cases when one either loves a film or completely hates it, but no matter how one feels about it, I think it's hard to deny that what Raimi, Tapert and Campbell (and their crew) pulled off with their very limited budget is nothing short of amazing, in the sense that with nothing more than their creativity and willpower, the three friends created a film that had more ideas than what's usually seen in independent horror (even today). "The Evil Dead" marked the beginning of Raimi's career, and while he became a major director thanks to the great commercial success of his "Spider-Man" films (20 years after unleashing the Evil in the woods), to many horror fans and aspiring filmmakers, his "Evil Dead" is still the proof that sometimes all a movie need is heart.


Buy "The Evil Dead" (1981)

August 19, 2008

Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero (2008)

Life in pro wrestling is tough, as even when the show has a heavy dose of melodrama and elements of performing arts, it's still a very demanding sport that can have several damaging (physically, mentally and emotionally) consequences for the wrestler, and not only because of the injuries the body receives during a match, but also because of the pressure of the business. And this is something that Ian Hodgkinson, better known as Vampiro, knows better than anyone. Hodgkinson, a young Canadian man with the dream of becoming a wrestler, decided to travel to Mexico in the late 80s to follow his dream, and suddenly he found himself being one of the country's biggest pro wrestling stars of all time thanks to his unusual style and looks. But after being a popular icon of Mexican wrestling, life would take "El Vampiro Canadiense" ("The Canadian Vampire") to experience more than one real life body-slam. And this is what Lee Demarbre's documentary, "Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero", attempts to capture.

In "Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero", Demarbre showcases the human being behind the Vampiro persona, following him in the European tour he made in preparation for the opening of his own company, "Revolution X"; and then remains close to him as Vampiro prepares the very first event his company is going to produce: a big match in Guadalajara, Mexico, the city he now calls home. At the same time, "Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero" explores Vampiro's past, including interviews with his family, friends and the people who has known him since his humble beginnings in Ontario, Canada. Revolving around this three main "storylines", the film uncovers the wrestler's atypical life, including the story of how a young Canadian man ended up being Mexico's biggest wrestling star in the early 90s. Finally, through the eyes of Ian Hodgkinson, "Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero" gives insight about the business and the life of pro wrestlers in general, which isn't always as fun as the show may lead one to believe.

An interesting feature of the film is that, while Demarbre's frequent collaborator Ian Driscoll worked as a writing consultant, there isn't any voice over to narrate what's going on other than Vampiro's musings as he leads the crew across his everyday life. Not even even when dealing with Vampiro's past Demarbre uses this resource, as he just lets Vampiro and his other interviewees narrate the story in their own words. This approach creates a more intimate look to the topic at hand, as through the stories one is able to discover Vampiro's different sides, offering a window to his mind without glamorizing him (although certain sentimentalism crawls into the picture at some points in the film). Demarbre makes a great job in bringing the real Ian Hodgkinson, the real Vampiro, to the screen, as even when he had not been able to avoid acting out a bit (as a natural performer like him would do), a real feeling of truth embodies the film most of the time, specially during the chronicle of "Revolution X"'s first event.

A consummated fan of Mexican wrestling (as one can notice in his wildly funny feature length debut, 2001's "Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter"), director Lee Demarbre manages to give the film that mystique that surrounds Mexican Lucha Libre; and while Vampiro isn't exactly the typical fighter of Mexican pro wrestling (his look and style are definitely different from the one of classic legends such as Santo or Blue Demon), the whole audiovisual style, including Michael Dubue's great score (mix of surf rock and Spaghetti Western music) and Petr Maur's art direction, is quite fitting. The leaps in chronology, while probably a tad confusing at first, are well handled, and serve to add variety and a sense of suspense to Vampiro's odyssey as an independent promoter. Demarbre's film-making has matured and grown a lot since his "Harry Knuckles" days, but this movie proves that he has kept that freshness and good humor that earned him a name in the independent film circuit.

Overall "Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero" is a remarkable documentary, but by no means is a perfect movie. Personally, I think that the film's biggest flaw is that despite consciously (and constantly) trying to avoid the romanticization or glamorization of Vampiro's life-story, at times it gets a bit too sentimental for its own sake. It could be that such thing it was unavoidable, given the hard times and difficulties Vampiro really has had (and still has) to overcome in his life, but still at times that bit of melodrama manages to creep into the film. Still, the way Demarbre keeps the most emotional elements for the last act really help to keep the balance of the film. Other than that, the movie is pretty much a very complete documentary about Ian Hodgkinson, "El Vampiro Canadiense", and the very unusual story of his life; as well as about the many difficulties wrestlers in general must face after their time at the top of their popularity has passed.

Gritty, hard, tough, but always with a good sense of humor (like Vampiro himself), Lee Demarbre's "Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero" is probably one of the best documentaries about pro wrestling ever done. While it offers a really inside look at the way matches are prepared and choreographed, it never loses the respect for the sport and the athletes that perform in it. Through the film, one ends up with the feeling of having met an old friend in Vampiro, which for a documentary about somebody's life is probably the main goal. So this angel, devil, hero really wins the match. Hopefully, future will be bright, not only for filmmaker Lee Demarbre, but for Vampiro as well.


August 13, 2008

Happy Birthday Hitch!

A day like today, 109 years ago, one of the my most favourite filmmakers of all time was born: Alfred Hitchcock, the one and only Master of Suspense. I remember vividly the first Hitchcock film I saw, "Psycho", his most popular movie. I was 14 years old and dissapointed with what cinema offered at the time, decided to give old movies a try and rent a few thatlooked interesting (or that I had previously read about them) for a weekend. My three choices for that weekend were Tod Browning's "Dracula", James Whale's "Frankenstein", and Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho". The Hitchcock film was the one I saw first and I was just hooked by the very beginning. The powerful musical intro by Bernard Herrmann together with Saul Brass' visuals was just unlike anything I had seen before. I had seen my fair share of old classics, but this was different. Maybe I had matured, but that was the first time I saw cinema as an artform, not just enterteinment. And the film was glorious. Still is. It's probably th emovie that I have seen the most times (saw it three times that first weekend. Now I see it religiously at least once every year).

I bought the film as soon as I had the chance. And kept hoping that one day I could see more of the Master's work. After "Psycho" and that powerful Universal Horror combo, I became a cinephile, and began the travel through the past, discovering and rediscovering cinema, as I saw it now under a new light. Movies I liked before now I loved even more, and some I liked were now dissapointing. But the magic could be present everywhere. Later, when DVD became more accesible, I saw the chance of finding more from Hitchcock and yes, with the release of his most famous American films by Universal and Warner Brothers, I finally was able to discover what was so mysterious about uncle Charlie, why was Guy Haines so afraid of Bruno Anthony, what was the meaning of the plane dusting crops, and how beautiful a woman named Grace can be. Despite his disdain for actors, Hitchcock introduced me to some wonderful one, such as the above mentioned Princes of Monaco, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Peter Lorre, Teresa Wright, Henry Fonda, and many, many more. I still have more films by him to watch (his early British period, but hopefully I'll watch them soon), and I'm sure the trip will be interesting.

In a way, my whole cinephilia exists thanks to the day I put the "Psycho" tape on my VHS. For that and more, today this humble blog remembers Sir Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, who would be 109 years old if he was alive today. So like any respectable cinephile would do, I present now my list (oh, the lists!) of favourite films, by the legendary filmmaker:

5) "Psycho" (1960)

Even when the plot and twist is so deeply ingrained in our collective mind, it STILL is a powerful experience. With self imposed limits of budget and resources, Hitchcock proves that a low budget horror b-movie can be a masterpiece, with the proper directing. A landmark of horror (it played a key role in the developing of the slasher subgenre, as well as inspiring the filmmakers of the 60s and 70s), "Psycho" may not be really perfect (not even on its initial release), but it's so enjoyable that it feels perfect in every way.

4) "Strangers on a Train" (1951)

Two men meet on a trip by train and one comes up with a novel idea: one man will kill the other's "biggest problem", and since they are not related, it'll be a perfect crime. Suspense is the key here, as while one (Guy Haines, played by Farley Granger) of the two refuses the proposal, the other (Bruno Anthony, a marvelous Robert Walker) won't take a no for an answer, and so a battle of wits between the two begins, with Bruno Anthony haunting the Guy's world, and consuming every piece of it. And it all started with the meeting of two strangers on a train.

3) "Rope" (1948)

Hitchcock famous "one take" experiment is often labeled as a merely a gimmick (because of the film's concept of attempting to look as if no editing had been done, with everything in an apparent one long take), however, "Rope" is one marvelous film, gimmick or no gimmick. What I like the most is the dynamics between Dall, Granger and Stewart, and the subtle (ok, not so subtle) hints of homosexuality that Hitchcock managed to put in fron of the censors... and they didn't notice it.

2) "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943)

A dark story about the horrors at home in the story of the visit that the favourite uncle, Charlie, pays to a quite dysfunctional family. Everything looks fun, but as time goes by, the young daughter, also named Charlie (who idolizes her uncle), begins to suspect that her favourite uncle may actually be a serial killer. I love everythign about this, but most of all, it's gorgeaous Noir look, and the whole concept of horror entering a small town in order to corrupt it. And the whole suspicion thing, which just works perfectly. I must admit I fell in love with Teresa Wright in this one.

1) "Rear Window" (1954)

Probably the film that best captures the Hitchcock style of black comedy. Sure, he made "The Trouble with Harry" as a straighforward, in-your-face black comedy, but I feel that it is here where it works the best, as part of a bigger story, the story of a man paralyzed in his apartment, who begins to suspect that his neighborh has killed his wife. The whole thing about vouyerism is just marvelous, and well, what can I say about Jimmy Stewart and the beautiful Grace Kelly. Just perfect.

August 11, 2008

George Lucas in Love (1999)

Director George Lucas is without a doubt one of the most important filmmakers of the 70s, as while his body of work is often considered of lesser quality then the work of other members of his generation, it is by far the most influential in the field of science fiction thanks to the creation of "Star Wars", the epic saga of fantasy and sci-fi that changed the way people looked at sci-fi movies. With "Star Wars", Lucas created not only one of the most bankable franchises in history, but also a story that has inspired countless sci-fi aficionados across the world. Since "Star Wars" is nowadays a defining element of pop culture, it is not a surprise that it is often referenced in other works, sometimes as a homage, others as a parody, and sometimes as both. Joe Nussbaum's short film "George Lucas in Love", is probably among the best of the homages/parodies "Star Wars" has received across its history.

Set in 1967, "George Lucas in Love" is the fictional story about how Lucas created "Star Wars" during his last year as a student at USC. Lucas (Martin Hynes) is suffering from writer's block as he tries to shape his still unnamed space opera. Lucas has only three days to finish it or he won't graduate, but he is unable to begin writing as he can't make it work. He tries desperately to find inspiration in college, and even asks for advice to his odd professor (Patrick Kerr) but nothing seems to work, until he meets Marion (Lisa Jakub). Marion is a young girl (with a strangely familiar hairdo) who admires Lucas' previous shorts, and thinks that he is talented. Lucas finds his muse in Marion as she encourages him to write about what he feels and just follow his inspiration.

Written by Nussbaum himself along with Daniel Shere and Timothy Dowling, the film is of course a spoof on the premise of 1998 film "Shakespeare in Love", a movie detailing William Shakespeare struggle with writer's block. Filled with countless references to "Star Wars"' first film (as well as other works by Lucas), the screenplay is very well-developed for an 8 minutes short movie. While of course there are a couple of plot holes in the story, they are devised that way to be more funny references to Lucas' legendary space opera. The story unfolds nicely in its short time and always remains focused on its spoofed themes. Unlike most similar parodies, it never relays on cheap attacks and takes its subject with a very fresh intelligence.

It is worth to point out that director Joe Nussbaum shows his love for the "Star Wars" movies without being too respectful and staying true to his comedy roots. Working nicely with both visual gags and jokes referencing Lucas' biography (and future filmography), Nussbaum creates a very creative movie and showcases his very promising talent for comedy. He also knows the limitations of his medium, and exploits the joke to the most without making it boring or tiresome, and always keeping that light hearted approach that gives the movie a really appropriate touch of sweetness. True, the film shows some of the common problems of short films, but the movie shows that Nussbaum truly put a lot of work in this "calling card" that it's not a surprise to discover that he has started a career as director of comedies. To tell the truth, Nussbaum manage to do more in 8 short minutes than many filmmakers do in 90.

The cast if truly effective and one of the reasons the movie works so nicely. Martin Hynes is excellent as George, playing him as an intelligent writer, but lacking a bit in his social skills (without a doubt a play on the stereotype of "Star Wars" fans). Lisa Jakub is not only beautiful as Marion, but also adds a lot as one of the most experienced members among the cast. The rest of the cast appears briefly, but most tend to leave a lasting impression as not only the script allows them to shine, they truly make the most of their small roles. Particularly funny is Patrick Kerr (another of the experienced members of the cast), as Lucas' professor who may be the inspiration for a character famous for its odd way of speak.

"George Lucas in Love" is definitely not the work of a genius, but it's truly amazing when one considers it was conceived as a student film. Nussbaum finally began his professional career as a director in 2004 with the teen comedy "Sleepover". Story says that the success of this modest short film played a major part in he being hired by Dreamworks, and personally, I wouldn't be surprised if that were true, as this movie is definitely something special. Hopefully Nussbaum will deliver another comedy as good as this short, as "George Lucas in Love" seems to be only the beginning of a very promising career.


August 07, 2008

Mad Love (1935)

The legendary Karl Freund is definitely better known for his highly innovative work as director of photography, resulting in an extensive career (spanning across 5 decades) of beautiful and pioneering cinematography. With a body of work as impressive as his (ranging from Lang's "Metropolis" to TV's classic "I Love Lucy"), it is understandable that Freund's work as a director gets so easily forgotten. The fact that he only directed 10 films in his career also plays an important factor in this, however, at least 2 of his directorial efforts easily rank among the best horror movies ever made. The first one of the two (incidentally, his first work as a director in America), 1932's "The Mummy" is really the most popular, given that it is also one of the best performances by horror icon Boris Karloff; however, it is in the second one where Freund's talents really shine, making this last movie as a director his final masterpiece.

Loosely based on Maurice Renard's novel, "Les Mains d'Orlac" (literally, "The Hands of Orlac"), "Mad Love" is the story of Dr. Gogol (Peter Lorre), a brilliant surgeon deeply in love with a beautiful theater actress named Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake). When season ends, Yvonne announces her retirement, and this prompts Gogol to finally meeting her. Unfortunately for Gogol, Yvonne tells him that she is actually married to concert pianist Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive). Saddened, Gogol leaves, but a bizarre turn of events will make him meet Yvonne one more time: Stephen has lost his hands in a terrible train accident and only Gogol's expertise will be able to save him. While he saves Stephen's hands, the operation begins to have serious side-effects, not only in Orlac, but also in Gogol.

While the screenplay was written by P.J. Wolfson, John L. Balderston and the usual assortment of contributing writers, the movie is mostly the work of Guy Endore and Florence Crewe-Jones, who made the adaptation from the French novel. Endore was a regular writer for MGM at the time, and helped to write other MGM's horrors like "Mark of the Vampire", "The Raven" and "The Devil-Doll"; it is his style, mix of Gothic and pulp novel what flows through the movie, although he remains true to the essence of Renard's classic horror novel. Renard is often credited as being the "inventor" of the Mad Scientist archetype, and truly gives a great use to it in his novel; appropriately, "Mad Love" keeps this psychological drama between characters and brings it to life, spending considerable time detailing the characters and their relationships, building up the necessary tension for the grandiose finale.

After directing several melodramas and comedies in a row, "Mad Love" allowed Freund to once again return to his expressionist roots and create a haunting tale of horror and madness in almost the same vein as his earlier classic, "The Mummy". Unlike what would be expected of a cinematographer, Freund dedicates as much attention to the non-visual aspects of the film as he does for the visual imagery, playing with the many different elements that form the bizarre love triangle of the film. The story itself focuses a lot in psychological themes, ranging from neurosis and hysteria, to compulsive obsession and dangerous psychosis; Freund makes great use of this themes across the movie, although it is obvious that he prefers the character of Dr. Gogol to the other protagonists of the film. Like Im-Ho-Tep the mummy, Dr. Gogol is driven by the mad love he feels for a woman, but unlike with the mummy, Freund makes sure to never fully transform Gogol into a monster, making him very human and frighteningly realist.

Peter Lorre's acting is essential for this last element in Gogol's persona, and he delivers one of this most amazing performances in his career. While lesser known than his characters in "M" or in "The Maltese Falcon", Dr. Gogol is certainly an iconic Lorre character that truly showcases Lorre's versatile talent. Frances Drake is surprisingly great, showing great emotion and excellent domain of the scene, giving her best to avoid being overshadowed by Lorre in their scenes together. Colin Clive, who would become famous as Dr. Victor Frankenstein in James Whale's films, delivers a truly effective performance as Orlac, but I found that Freund seems definitely much more interested in Dr. Gogol and his antics than in the pianist's neurosis, leaving few space to Orlac's growing insanity. Still, Clive does a very good performance despite the limited screen time his character receives when compared to Gogol.

It is probably this last point what truly stops this movie from being a classic of horror, as with a runtime of barely 68 minutes, it feels too short and gives the feeling that something was missing (perhaps a few more scenes with Colin Clive) in this psychological thriller. It's not really a big flaw in the end, but I truly was expecting to see the wonderful story being explored a bit more, as personally I felt it somewhat incomplete. On a different business, and as expected in a film by Karl Freund, the cinematography is simply brilliant, Chester A. Lyons and Freund's protegé, Gregg Toland (who would become a legend on his own), are in charge of it and devise one of the most beautifully looking horror of the 30s, easily on par with Freund's job for Universal.

It's a shame that studios were more interested in Freund's work as a cinematographer than as a director, because "Mad Love" proves that there he truly had talent as a consumated filmmaker too. Who knows what would had Freund directed after this movie, specially considering the great improvements in cinematography he went on devising through his long and successful career (his work on the popular TV-series "I Love Lucy", creating the simultaneous three-camera way of shooting, revolutionized Television and still is the de facto standard for sitcoms). As it is, "Mad Love" is the final statement of a master who simply wasn't allowed to make more films (although who knows, probably he wasn't interested in directing), but it is nice to see him retiring with a top notch masterpiece.


August 02, 2008

Dial M for Murder (1954)

After earning an Academy award nomination for her performance in John Ford's 1953 tale of romance and adventure, "Mogambo", the beautiful actress Grace Kelly proved that she was way more than just a pretty face and that there was real talent behind her image. However, what truly took her career to new levels were three now classic films she made directed by the legendary Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Under his direction, Kelly made an integral part of the Master's films, becoming the perfect embodiment of Hitchcock's idea of a female protagonist. While Kelly debuted two years earlier in the classic Western "High Noon", one could say that it was Hitchcock who really introduced the beauty and talent of Grace Kelly to the world. "Dial M for Murder" was the first of Hitchcock's films with Kelly, and a movie where once again the Master returns to a familiar theme: the perfect murder.

The movie is the story of Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), a former tennis player married to the beautiful and wealthy Margot (Grace Kelly) and living in an nice apartment in London. Life is good for Tony, until he discovers that his wife is cheating on him with an old flame of her, famous crime novel writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). After that discovery, Tony spends a whole years plotting the perfect way to murder his wife in order to inherit her money, carefully planning every detail of the crime. When Mark visits London again, Tony finds the perfect chance to set his plan in motion, and as planned, he recruits Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) to kill his wife. However, bad luck and a sudden change of events will test Tony's plan's infallibility as, just as Mark points out, human action can originate flaws even in the most perfectly devised plan.

Like most Hitchcock's films, "Dial M for Murder" was an adaptation of another art-form, this time a popular play by Frederick Knott. As Knott was also the writer of the screenplay, the movie remains extremely faithful to the play, although of course, not without its differences. Knott's script is wonderfully constructed, as like in the play, the dialog is witty and simply captivating, with many twists and turns that spiced up the complex plot and keep it from being boring or tiresome. An interesting feature of the movie is that oddly, there are no black and white morality in the characters, and it's easy not only to sympathize with Margot (despite she being cheating on her husband) but also to sympathize with Tony (despite he wanting to kill his wife), as the characters are wonderfully developed with very detailed personalities.

It seems that Hitchcock's knows that the dialog is the highlight of the play, as he deliberately focuses on his actors and uses an elegant camera-work to frame the whole movie inside the apartment. The movie literally is shot entirely in one single room (only two other sets are used, and only briefly), but Hitchcock's classy way of using the camera allow a highly dynamic flow that never lets the movie be tiresome. This is also very helpful as Hitchcock just lets his characters keep speaking, carefully describing actions and events (when other directors would use flashbacks) in a similar way to a what the real play would be. While this approach could easily get boring, Hitchcock's use of colors and overall visual imagery simply creates the perfect medium to allow Knott's dialog to shine.

Without disrespecting John Ford or Fred Zinnemann, I think that it was Hitchcock who finally could allow Kelly's talent to shine beyond her physical beauty. Grace Kelly makes her character shine with her subtle and restrained performance, specially showing her skill in the second half of the film. While often Kelly receives top honors in this movie, it is actually Ray Milland who makes the whole movie work with his suave and charming "villian". Milland's performance is simply terrific, making his character nice enough to win the sympathies of the audience, yet still frighteningly intelligent as the mastermind of the plot. John Williams appears as the Inspector in charge to solve the complex puzzle, and delivers a classic performance as the Enlgish gentleman decided to find the final answer. Only Robert Cummings seems miscast as Mark Halliday, although a lot of his weak performance could be blamed to Milland, Kelly and Williams overshadowing him with their excellent work.

In many ways, "Dial M for Murder" shares many things with "Rope", as not only the two films are based on successful plays, they are also about committing the perfect murder and oddly, they are both "experiments": while "Rope" was conceived as a "movie in one take", "Dial M for Murder" was done as 3-D movie. Sadly, the interest in 3-D was dying when the film was released, so few theaters carried the movie complete with the gimmick; a real shame, as Hitchcock's use of the technology, unlike most 3-D films of its time, was conceived as a way to enhance the claustrophobia of the Wendices' apartment instead of using it to merely shock the audience with "stuff coming out of the screen" (as seen in for example, "House of Wax"). While not too fond of the gimmick, Hitchcock truly gave it a good and intelligent (albeit subtle) use to it.

"Dial M for Murder" is probably less celebrated than the Master's most famous movies, the fact that it came out the same years as "Rear Window" (again with Grace Kelly) may have had something to do with it too. While a subtler and more restrained tale of suspense, this is still the Master at his best, as the movie proves that when he was at the top of his game, no other director was comparable to him.


Buy "Dial M for Murder" (1954)