Category Archives: Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema

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.”

EDGAR G. ULMER’S BLUEBEARD (1944)

 began his career at Max Reinhardt’s theater, became an apprentice to F.W. Murnau on the director’s masterpiece Sunrise (1927), and received a commission to direct Universal’s two new horror icons, and Bela Lugosi, in their first co-starring film. With The Black Cat (1934), Ulmer secured an enviable budget and practically carte blanche. The Black Cat may not have had much to do with Edgar Allan Poe, but the legendary 19th century writer would have loved Ulmer’s deliciously black deco homage. 1934 critics and audiences most certainly did, making it a bona fide hit. Ulmer’s idiosyncratic cult film remains the two stars’ best film together. The director was at the top of his game and looked to have a long and successful career ahead. By all rights, Edgar G. Ulmer should have had a career and body of work that could be placed alongside the films of  and Tod Browning. Then, Ulmer screwed up.

Universal was a family-run studio when Ulmer decided to have an affair with the wife of a top-ranking Universal studio executive. Ulmer was fired and blacklisted, by the major studios, for life. Believe it or not, Hollywood once had a sense of morality. Ulmer was reduced to working for the poverty row circuit, namely PRC Studios. He later claimed that this was his artistic choice to do so, because it gave him greater creative freedom. He lied. Ulmer loved European culture, art music, and was known to discourse fluently on the aesthetic process with actors (Karloff was delightfully challenged by Ulmer). Many of Ulmer’s contemporaries freely acknowledge that Ulmer was also a pathological liar. Of course, this only makes him more interesting. He consistently exaggerated his background (when he didn’t need to), padded his resume, and made outrageous claims about himself. Despite all of that, Ulmer had a unique aesthetic sensibility and conscientiously tried to inject  that into his films, even in scripts that could only pass for excrement.

Ulmer struggled as much with PRC as he did with Universal. It was the classic case of artist vs. executives. Ulmer lost far more battles than he won, although he naturally fared best when he was allowed to act as his own producer. Ulmer desperately wanted to make a film of the Bluebeard story for 10 years. Originally, it was supposed to star Karloff and would be his follow Continue reading EDGAR G. ULMER’S BLUEBEARD (1944)

DREAMCHILD (1985)

Gavin Millar’s Dreamchild (1985) received critical accolades upon its release. It was written by one of the most impressive of television writers, Dennis Potter, and features some of ‘s most impressive work in his renditions of ‘s Wonderland creatures. The film received scant distribution upon its release and, additionally, sat unreleased on DVD until 2011. Far from jettisoning of the darker, surreal elements of “Alice in Wonderland” (as happens in Tim Burton’s neutered version), Dreamchild does not flinch from the nightmarish qualities in this famous tale. Like its source inspiration, Dreamchild remarkably manages to evoke a darker milieu, while retaining warmth and wit.

That is not to say this is a perfect film. It dwells upon the contrast between English sophistication and American crassness a bit too much (even if it is spot on), and a romance between a reporter (Peter Gallagher) and Alice’s ward, Lucy (the quite good Nicola Cowper) is an intrusive misstep. Yet, along with Henson’s vividly designed vision of life below the rabbit hole are two stunning star performances. Most critics rightly singled out the performance of Coral Brown as Alice Hargreaves (formerly Alice Liddell). But, equally impressive is ‘s eye-of-the-hurricane performance as Lewis Carroll.

Carroll (whose real name was Charles Dodgson) was a latent pedophile. Although it seems likely that he never acted upon his desire for underage girls, he did photograph many of them in nude poses. Those photographs have come to light since Carroll’s passing. Alice Liddell, his inspiration for the Wonderland Alice, was not among Carroll’s models. Apparently, Alice’s mother quashed the relationship between Rev. Dodgson and her daughter, deeming it potentially improper.

Still from Dreamchild (1985)Potter’s depiction of that relationship stops short of lewdness, and that was a wise choice. The film opens with a view of a surreal and dark ocean. Atop a rock the aged Alice discourses with two spectral characters: a self-pitying Mock Turtle and the Gryphon. This is hardly the Muppets!

Later, in another world, the 80-year old Alice is sailing to America to receive an honorary doctorate on the centennial of Lewis Carrol’s birth. She is aghast at American commercialism and constantly berates her young ward. Initially, Alice is not altogether sympathetic. But, through flashbacks, we discover that her role as the inspirational source of Carrol’s famous tale has left her, in her advanced age, caught in a flood of nightmarish memories.

Caught in the recesses of her past, the characters of Wonderland imbue terror in her, and at the seedy center is the shy, awkward Lewis Carroll. For the young Alice, Carroll is a source of ridicule, curiosity, and devotion. Holm invests into Carroll such an introverted intensity that this performance calls to mind some of the great character acting from the likes of Montgomery Clift and James Mason.

Although Carroll’s attraction to the young Alice is outwardly platonic, his twitching giddiness from her mere embrace reveals a disheartening adoration. Yet in spite of  that salaciousness, Holm makes us care for this literary misfit.

Alice’s ominous visions of the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar, and Dormouse prove to be minuscule compared to her memories of the man who made her famous. This is an instance in which a very brief exposure in life proved to have a long-lasting impact.

The aged celebrity treats her ward and the American paparazzi with the same Victorian contempt in which she once treated Lewis Carroll. Yet, she is better than her worst moments. In the eventual realization of her life’s arc, Alice again becomes the girl who inspired a great writer. Brown’s performance is admirably intelligent and touching. It borders on criminal that the late actress did not receive a single award for her role.

A small, but perhaps apt trivia note: Jane Asher here plays the mother of Alice Liddell. Although Asher has no scenes with the grown Alice of Coral Brown, she did previously act with Brown’s husband, Vincent Price, in Masque of the Red Death (1964).