All posts by Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker is the director of Jesus and Her Gospel of Yes!, voted Best Experimental Film in the 2004 New York International Film and Video Festival (which can be downloaded from DownloadHorror.com here), and the feature W the Movie. He writes the column "Alfred Eaker's Fringe Cinema" for this site, covering the world of underground film, as well as regularly contributing essays on other subjects.

THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)

When  discovered that RKO was saddling him with star  for a three picture deal, Lewton was not at all happy. The producer had wanted to veer away from the Universal monster-mash factory, which he naturally associated Karloff with. A meeting between Karloff, Lewton, and  changed all that. To Lewton’s surprise, Karloff was seeking a change of pace and a return to more literate acting. By the end of that meeting, both Lewton and Wise were charmed by the actor and enthusiastically looking forward to a fulfilling artistic collaboration. Karloff did three films with Lewton, the other two being Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946) both directed by Mark Robson, a stock RKO director. Lewton should never have hesitated. The Body Snatcher is, easily, the best of the three starring Karloff and the actor almost single-handedly redeems the two Robson films.

Shortly after securing Karloff  for The Body Snatcher, RKO signed  to the film and ordered Lewton to create a role for the former Dracula star. RKO was bound and determined to replicate a Universal horror star extravaganza. Lewton was just as determined to give them something better. Karloff graciously accepted working with his former co-star (this would be their last teaming) and would prove helpful to Lugosi during shooting. While Karloff proved as rewarding an actor as Lewton and Wise hoped he would be, Lugosi’s casting proved problematic. Although Lugosi did turn in one of his few good latter-day performances, the actor’s mental and physical health (a combination of age, drugs, and alcoholism) was a considerable obstacle.

Robert Wise co-directed Curse of the Cat People (1944), but The Body Snatcher was his first solo effort. The film features two superb star performances and several very good character performances, including Lugosi’s. The Body Snatcher, in its pronounced literalness, may lack Lewton favorite ‘s poetic aesthetic, but Wise’s fleshier terrain gleans benefits.

Body Snatcher is an adaptation of a Robert Louise Stevenson short story which Val Lewton scripted (under his pseudonym, Carlos Keith) with Philip MacDonald. The film is inspired by and loosely based on the infamous Burke and Hare murders.

Karloff’s performance here is, rightly, one of his most critically acclaimed. Henry Daniel, one of the great character actors, is precision par excellence. The Body Snatcher is an actors’ film, and the two character stars deliver.

Still from The Body Snatcher (1945)Cabman John Gray (Karloff) and Dr. Toddy McFarland (Daniel) are the ambiguous antagonist and protagonist. McFarland is essentially moral, socially accepted, but chillingly cold and obsessively driven to criminal activities. Gray is a social outcast. He is malevolent, manipulative, capable of brutality, blackmail, and murder. Yet, he has a fire in his heart that McFarland lacks.

It’s not even quite that cut and dry. This is Edinburgh in the Victorian era, when celibacy was proof of vocational dedication. McFarland’s celibacy is a facade. He has a secret wife, Meg (Edith Atwater), who poses as his maid. Meg is a seer, with the gift of vision and fire in her bosom. This relationship, so subtly presented, is the heart of McFarland’s hypocrisy and tragedy.

Gray is equally complex. He savagely brings a shovel down on the skull of an interruptive dog, yet is capable of tenderness when caressing the cheek of his horse, or petting his cat (after committing murder). Gray has affection for a crippled girl but, without an iota of remorse, murders a blind balladeer (an effective scene, shot in Lewtonesque shadows) to supply the cadaver for the girl’s much-needed surgery.

Lewton and Wise astutely play to Lugosi’s limitations, taking advantage of his language difficulty. Lugosi, as the blackmailing servant Joseph, is slow-witted, slow of speech and slow to grasp what’s happening. Lugosi’s best directors played to his awkward delivery. Some have criticized the brevity of Lugosi’s role here (including Lugosi himself). But it is that brevity which gives power to Lugosi’s role.The role Joseph stands alongside the actor’s best character work. Lugosi’s death scene with Karloff is expertly directed and acted.

Atwater projects strongly in her role. Hers are the needs of a fully rounded woman, her passions and visions aflame underneath the icy exterior McFarland demands of her. She fulfills that role without complaint, self-pity, or self-deceit.

However, the film falters considerably in the roles of McFarland’s assistant Fettes (Russell Wade), the crippled girl Georgina (Sharyn Moffett) and her mother (Rita Corday). These are contrived, saccharine characters.

The finale, straight out of the Stevenson story, is harrowing and sears the conscience.

Next week: Tourneur’s evocative I Walked With A Zombie (1943).

CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)

RKO was both surprised and elated over the success of Cat People (1942). Predictably, they ordered a sequel, and handed the title to producer: Curse of the Cat People. Lewton, eyes-rolling, took the assignment, but said: “What I’m going to do is make a very delicate story of a child who is on the verge of insanity because she lives in a fantasy world.”

Even today, viewers are split about the sequel. It’s akin to  delivering a prequel to Aliens without a plethora of H.R. Giger monsters. The bourgeois genre fanboys, wanting only the familiar, will aggressively bellow like the unimaginative and artless Neanderthals they are when confronted with something as fresh as Curse of the Cat People (1944). Although flawed, Curse is a haunting, sublime, cinematic dreamscape.

Irena’s widower from Cat People, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), is even duller now that he has been married to Alice (Jane Moore) for several years. Upsetting poor Ollie’s Hallmark view of the world is a highly imaginative young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter), who is the occupant of a surreal interior terrain.

Still from Curse of the Cat People (1944)Oliver Reed may well serve as a metaphor for a conservative fan base, executive film producers and Promise Keepers. Ollie’s reaction to Amy’s fantasies is archaic hostility. Amy’s preoccupation with the magical constitutes all that is a threat to Ollie. Amy is fully effeminate, artistic, independent, free of the binding status quo.

First, Ollie attempts to mold Amy into a socially acceptable child. Highly introverted, Amy is spurned by the potential friends Ollie tries to force upon her. When chasing after those who reject her, Amy stumbles upon the garden of a faded, elderly actress Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean). Slowly, Amy befriends the lonely woman. Amy reminds Mrs. Farren of a deceased daughter. Mrs. Farren has a grown daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), but Barbara is consistently rejected by her mother. Mrs. Farren, in a mentally deteriorated state, imagines Barbara to be an impostor and rejects her, withholding maternal love. Barbara, jealous of the attention her mother is showing the stranger Amy, reacts with jealousy.

Amy discovers a photograph of Irena (). Shortly afterwards, a wishing well grants Amy a new friend: Irena. Amy’s garden shimmers with Debussian light when the radiantly passive Irena enters and is welcomed into a picturesque domain.

The edginess of childhood is not glossed over, and a retelling of Irving Washington’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” offers a memorable moment of adolescent dread. Amy’s further descent into the magical sends Ollie into a machismo fit. The artistically bankrupt office manager reacts by administering a thrashing. Eventually, Ollie and Barbara accept Amy. Irena has fulfilled her function.

RKO, predictably, reacted to the film with Oliver Reed-inspired hostility and mandated ill-fitting sequences. Gunther von Fritsch, the original director, was replaced by a young Robert Wise, working on his first film. While Curse lacks ‘s assured touch, it is, together with The Body Snatcher (1945, also directed by Wise), the best of the non-Tourneur Lewtons.

The great critic James Agee championed Curse of the Cat People. Captivated, Agee wrote that Lewton’s films “are so consistently alive, limber, poetic, humane, so eager toward the possibilities of the screen, and so resolutely against the grain of all we have learned to expect from the big studios.”

Curse of the Cat People was another unexpected critical and box office hit. Yet again, RKO was dumbfounded. Hit or not, they felt betrayed by their producer and Curse, inevitably, served as a prominent nail in Lewton’s RKO coffin.

Next week: The Body Snatcher (1945).

JACQUES TOURNEUR’S CAT PEOPLE (1942)

RKO Studios, grumbling over their great misfortune with and Citizen Kane (1941), hired  to produce nine low budget horror films. The executives handed Lewton a list of idiotic titles and told him to make some “horror pitchers” that could make money. The RKO execs were looking and hoping for a cheap hack in Lewton. What they got instead was an erudite artist. Numerous directors have imprinted their body of work with their own personality. Few producers have. Val Lewton, did and he began with a film which highlighted two of his own phobias: cats and the fear of being touched.

Cat People (1941) is the first and probably best of Lewton’s nine RKO films. It was directed by. Tourneur’s entries undeniably stand out among the Lewton series, much like Terence Fisher‘s films did with Hammer Films. For the starring role of Irena, Lewton and Tourneur chose the diminutive beauty and temperamental imported French actress . Simon found Hollywood distasteful, and she remained a perennial outsider.

Simon was the perfect choice for Irena. Much Freudian babble has been written about the film, usually focusing on the fear of sex. Undoubtedly, that is an element in Cat People (one that was vapidly intensified in ‘s 1982 glossy MTV-styled remake). However, Irena’s brooding complexity, amidst a world of two-dimensional bores, is the driving impetus. Predictably, the dullards demonize Irena.

Still from Cat People (1942)Her husband, Oliver (Kent Smith) is the worst of the lot: banal, hopelessly bourgeois, unimaginative, and attached to hyper-realism: the impotence is on his part, not Irena’s. Oliver can only wither in the company of such fiery intricacy.

Irena’s psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) tries to convince her that her world is a hopeless fantasy and that she merely needs a real man to show her the light. Irena’s response is to dim her countenance, brandish her claws, and catapult the condescending idiot into oblivion. Good for her.

If only she could have dispatched Oliver in a similar fashion. Marrying the vacuous, phony puritan Continue reading JACQUES TOURNEUR’S CAT PEOPLE (1942)

IDA LUPINO’S THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)

Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953) is the first and only classic film noir directed by a woman. Lupino began her career as an actress in notable films such as They Drive By Night (1940), High Sierra (1941) (both costarring Humphrey Bogart), and The Hard Way (1943). She earned a reputation as a “hard luck dame” and “the poor man’s Bette Davis.” Lupino refused to be defined by categories and ventured into directing. Her first film as a co-director (uncredited) was Not Wanted (1949), a stark and candid film (for its time) about an unwed mother. While on suspension (for turning down too many sub-par roles) Lupino and her husband started an independent film company, The Filmmakers, producing several films which she wrote and directed. As a director she was dubbed “the poor man’s Don Siegel,” which goes to show that sophistic labels die hard.

Lupino’s status as a pioneer for women filmmakers cannot be underestimated. She wrote and directed B-styled films which often focused on serious feminist themes. Her Outrage (1950) brutally dealt with the topic of rape (sadly, the film remains unavailable, but Mike Lorefice’s review should certainly be read).

Lupino ended her directorial career in television, and among her credits in that medium are memorable episodes of Thriller (starring ), The Untouchables, and The Fugitive.  Lupino’s innovative and daring success as a Hollywood filmmaker inspired an homage by jazz musician Carla Bley; it is a composition which has been much performed, most memorably by Paul Bley (Carla’s ex-husband) on his album “Open to Love.”

Lupino’s most acclaimed film is probably The Hitch-Hiker. Distributed by RKO, it is inspired by the true story of early 1950s serial killer Billy Cook. Lupino (who co-wrote the screenplay) creates a confidently bleak, taut atmosphere in The Hitch-Hiker. The pacing is psychologically relentless, and Lupino masterfully takes full advantage of claustrophobic compositions (in a car), an expansive, arid landscape, and the noirsh city at night.

Still from The Hitch-hiker (1953)On the run, killer Emmet Meyers (William Talman) kidnaps the two fisherman: Roy (Edmund O’ Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy). Talman (best known as the nemesis of Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason) gives THE yardstick performance of unadulterated sadism.

Fortunately, Lupino does not succumb to exploitation-movie sermons: she does not take time to, filling the film’s 71 minute length full of exposed nerves. Lupino handles the material with astute sensitivity, directing three male actors without ever resorting to displays of chest beating machismo. The building tensions between the three men were unsettling enough that RKO head Howard Hughes denied original story credit to the (supposed) leftist writer Daniel Mainwaring. Hughes was convinced the story was a parable about Cold War paranoia and McCarthyism. Leave it to Hughes to be paranoid about depiction of paranoia.  The Hitch-Hiker quickly became a cult hit for a reason: it is simply one of the best examples of Hollywood film noir.

Next week: Cat People begins our coverage on the films of Val Lewton at RKO.

EDGAR G. ULMER’S THE MAN FROM PLANET X (1951)

‘s The Man From Planet X (1951) was the first released movie depicting an extraterrestrial visitation. Although it was shot for peanuts, this Mid Century Films production is a lesser known cult entry in the sci-fi genre. Being the first of its kind, The Man From Plant X established many archetypes to come.

The studio wanted an exploitative film, tagging their alien invasion opus as “the weirdest visitor the earth has even seen!”  True to his nature, Ulmer instead delivered a tight little mood piece. It does have a (considerably) weird alien, but the finished film is probably not what the studio anticipated. Ulmer douses the film in glowing mist, dim lights and masterful compositions (his expressionist roots are still intact).

Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond) and his daughter, Enid (Margaret Field, mother of actress Sally Field) have set up shop in a Scottish castle to monitor UFO sightings. Journalist John Lawrence (Robert Clarke) is on hand when an alien craft lands on the moors (the ship is patterned after much in 1930s modernism).

Still from The Man from Planet X (1951)The first appearance of the E.T. is a jolter. Ulmer’s eerily mute, Bauhaus alien looks like it might have been designed by Oscar Schlemmer. It is a masterfully surreal design; a gnomelike child that is simultaneously benign, fragile, and aggressive. The alien from a dying, freezing planet pre-dates Nicolas Roeg‘s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976).  Sci-fi fans may see the influence Planet X had on later films like Invaders From Mars (1953), War of the Worlds (1953), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), to name a few. The alien is vulnerable, falling prey to a faulty breathing apparatus, which puts him at the mercy of the quietly malevolent Dr. Mears (dependable character actor William Schallert). Human avarice rears its ugly head and reaps havoc. The alien is exploited and provoked, the military called in, and…

Plot-wise we have seen it a hundred times, but it was done first here. The main difference is that Ulmer tells his tale without bells and whistles. With the exception of Schallert, the cast is unexceptional. However, Ulmer’s protagonist (Clark) is commendably intelligent and genuinely moral.

There is no cinematic chest-beating here. With meager shells, Ulmer and company produce a film adorned in his usual themes of ambiguity and self-destruction. Stylistically, The Man From Planet X  is dreamy and understated. Perhaps too understated. Despite some beautiful shots (alien in the moors, intense close-ups) and (now) familiar elements (the alien can only communicate via musical sounds, can control minds, and plots an invasion) The Man From Planet X is a commendable, atmospheric entry in the science fiction genre, but little more. Ulmer does wonders without a budget to speak of, but is clearly hampered by the six day shooting schedule. Pacing issues are not resolved and the film has little flow.

Next Week: Ida Lupino’s noir The Hitch-Hiker (1953).

EDGAR G. ULMER’S DETOUR (1945)

Reviewing ‘s Detour (1945), critic Dennis Schwartz wrote: “For some, being outside the system is as natural as walking in the fog.” That about sums up Ulmer. It also sums his Detour star, Tom Neal. Ulmer was an aesthetic outsider who made poor choices in his personal life but tried, sometimes in vain, to bring an artistic sensibility to everything he worked on. Neal was an outsider of a different sort. Despite having received a law degree from Havard, Neal turned to amateur boxing, which only partly satisfied his extremely violent temper. In 1951, that temper and jealousy got the better of him with in a tussle with actor Franchot Tone over the affections of actress Barbara Payton. Tone received a brain concussion, and Neal was permanently blacklisted by Hollywood. The actor was reduced to restaurant work and eventual bankruptcy. In 1965, Neal took a gun to the back of his wife’s head and shot her to death. Incredibly, he received a mere six-year sentence, but he died within a few months of his release from prison in 1971. His son, Tom Neal, Jr. attempted to follow in his father’s thespian footsteps, appearing in a remake of Detour (1991) that no one seems to have seen.

Shot on the quick and cheaply, Detour defies the rules of Poverty Row aesthetics. In his review of Ulmer’s Detour, critic Roger Ebert acknowledges the film’s flaws: “Detour is a film so filled with imperfections that it would not earn the director a passing grade in film school.” And yet it is greater than the sum of it’s parts, defying the “aesthetics only” art school rule. Ebert adds, ” Yet, Detour lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir.”

The pessimism of Detour drips into the nitrate of Ulmer’s bubblegum Shakespearean saga. Al (Neal) is a pianist who prostitutes his art in dives. Ulmer symbolizes this in idiosyncratic fashion by Al’s transformation of a Brahms piano piece into a grotesque, possessed, populist parody. Picasso once said that all art, regardless of subject, is self-portrait. Al eerily mirrors Ulmer in the portrait of a highly cultured artist who is reduced to a career gutter through his own missteps. It is little wonder that Detour was Ulmer’s favorite of his own films.

Still from Detour (1945)Fate is an ambivalent, malevolent force relentlessly and unjustly dogging Al. He responds with self-pity tightly wrapped in ten cent philosophy. Al, like Bluebeard, is waxing bitter over a woman. His curse is to be in love with the ambitious Sue (Claudia Drake). Sue’s dreams of a successful Hollywood career provoke jealousy within Al and serves as a biting reminder of his own failed career. She departs and settles, albeit uncomfortably, in the land of opportunity. Although destitute, Al vows reconciliation and embarks upon a thumbed journey to Continue reading EDGAR G. ULMER’S DETOUR (1945)

EDGAR G.ULMER’S THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946)

The recently departed critic Andrew Sarris recommended further study of  when he amusingly wrote: “Yes, Virginia, there is an Edgar G. Ulmer, and he is no longer one of the private jokes shared by auteur critics, but one of the minor glories of the cinema. Here is a career, more subterranean than most, which be signature of a genuine artist.” 1)All Sarris quotes come from Andrew Sarris, “The American Cinema: Directors and Direction. 1929-1968.”

Writing in the Village Voice, Sarris’ criticism had developed Truffaut’s “auteur” theory, which holds that a film is the personal vision of the director. The director, therefore, is the primary author, the “auteur.” Sarris’ adherence to this theory inspired ridicule from Pauline Kael, who argued that film, being a collaborative medium, is multi-authored. While Kael respected Sarris, she found the theory absurd.

Sarris often used Ulmer as an example of this theory: “Most of Ulmer’s films are of interest only to unthinking audiences. Yet, anyone who loves the cinema must be moved by Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, a film so atrocious that it takes forty minutes to establish that the daughter of Dr. Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr. Jekyll. Ulmer’s camera never falters, even when his characters disintegrate. When his material is less impossible, his reflexes are still sharp. That a personal style could emerge form the depths of poverty row is a tribute to a director without alibis.”

Poster for The Strange Woman (1946)Strange Woman (1946) was a rarity in Ulmer’s oeuvre: he had a worthwhile budget, a script based off a best-selling novel. an accomplished cinematographer (Lucien Andriot), and a topnotch cast, headed by a star actor (Hedy Lamarr, who also produced). The result was a hit upon its release, yet it has become one of the more obscure Ulmer films; perhaps, because it is typical of the 1940s femme fatale melodramas and cannot compare to the likes of the better known Gilda, which was released the same year.

Lamarr, who had been a childhood friend of Ulmer’s, personally chose him to direct. Ulmer repaid the favor with sensual close-ups of the beautiful actress. Her performance as Jenny ranks with similar evil gal performances by Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck. Strange Woman is, easily, Lamarr’s best screen work, since she was normally used as mere decor. Lamarr would have been a bigger star if she had continued in similar projects, but her Continue reading EDGAR G.ULMER’S THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946)

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1. All Sarris quotes come from Andrew Sarris, “The American Cinema: Directors and Direction. 1929-1968.”