Tag Archives: Joseph Cotten

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA, PART THREE

Part I of the Mario Bava retrospective is here, and part II is here.

With A Bay of Blood (1971, renamed from the better-titled Twitch of the Death Nerve), we again find a film serving as an influential blueprint for countless hacks to imitate. Here, Bava set down the bullet-point checklist of slasher conventions that Wes Craven outlined in his pedagogical parody Scream (1996). At an isolated estate, a greedy count slips a noose sound the neck of his wheelchair-bound wife for her fortune, but then is butchered himself himself by an unknown assailant who drags the body off to places unknown. Later, a group of thrill-seeking young adults visit the count’s property, camp out in his dilapidated estate, and engage in sins of the flesh, unaware that they are being watched by a mysterious killer. One by one, they become victims of a murder spree, each dispatched by unique weapons and methods, all filmed from the killer’s POV. Naturally, there’s a lake (no, its not Camp Crystal) and rest assured one young lady (Brigitte Skay) is doomed when she goes skinny dipping (nudity and/or sex equals death). One unfortunate couple even gets speared while doing the nasty. The red phone of death returns for a cameo, ringing us with a warning of the grisly carnage ahead. Thunderball Bond girl Claudine Auger stars.

Baron Blood (1972) is one of Bava’s most critically maligned, yet most financially successful works. Most of the complaints registered against it center around the director’s “narrative deficiencies,” although expecting the plot to be a priority in a Bava film borders on foolishness, since, for him, it is merely a single element of a compositional whole (and a diaphanous element at that). Working with architecture student Eva (), Peter (Antonio Cantafora), a descendant of the evil Baron Blood (), resurrects his Vlad-the-Impaler-styled mass murderer ancestor and regrets it. In the parallel role of crippled alter ego Alfred Becker, Cotten seems to have an agitated attitude of slumming it. Sommer as an architect is as credible as Denise Richards as a scientist, but she makes a decorative scream queen when fleeing the stylish stalker in a shimmering micro-mini. Rafa Rassimov shines as the tragic clairvoyant. The end result is an unevenly acted, spirituous spectacle with Bava’s trademark tinted hazes, exquisite fetishistic set pieces, and a hair-raising scene of dogged pursuit.

With the surprising success of Baron Blood, Bava was essentially allowed to do whatever he wanted. 1973’s Lisa and the Devil amounts to a personal dream project, and it’s not surprising that it was Bava’s favorite among his own films. It was shown at Cannes and predominantly met with critical success. However, as an idiosyncratic love story, it was declined by American distributors, and it’s failure reportedly crushed Bava’s spirit. Per the request of producer Alfred Leone, it was reedited in 1975 with new footage (shot mostly by Bava’s son, Lamberto) to capitalize on the success of The Exorcist and released in the U.S. under the title Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA, PART THREE

CAPSULE: PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948)

Where I come from
Nobody knows
And where I am going
Everyone goes.
– Young Jennie (Jennifer Jones)

DIRECTED BY: William Dieterle

FEATURING: , , Ethel Barrymore,

PLOT: A struggling painter has an artistic breakthrough when he meets a precocious girl whose very presence seems supernatural.

Still from Portrait of Jennie (1948)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jennie has unusually fantastic subject matter for its time, and uses novel visual techniques to set a mood. However, the supernatural twist is an end to itself, the tone is reverential to the point of pretentiousness, and ultimately its gimmicks are not enough to shake off the slow pace and lack of real heat.

COMMENTS: Many a romance has been driven by the efforts of a pair of lovers to overcome some major obstacle to their destined love. There’s a subset of said films where the obstacle is time itself, a group large enough to be recognized as its own subgenre. Portrait of Jennie is an early iteration of these tales, a story of an artist whose muse (and love interest) comes to him from across the boundaries of time.

Audiences today are well-versed in this kind of fantasy premise. Clearly, this was not the case in 1948, as the film carefully walks its protagonist through a full investigation into the mystery of Jennie, a young girl who magically appears one evening in Central Park to inspire the artist and returns several times, significantly older on each occasion. The script— five separate screenwriters were tasked with wrestling the story into cinematic form—takes great pains to explain how the charming young lady we meet could actually have come from decades in the past. (The movie is less concerned with why Jennie is making these occasional skips forward; it’s just simply where she’s supposed to be).

Portrait of Jennie’s flirtation with weirdness takes two forms. The first is in style, with director William Dieterle and cinematographer Joseph August employing a number of tricks to create an unsettled, fantastic atmosphere. Establishing shots are often treated with a filter to create the impression of a painted canvas, alluding to both the hero’s profession and to the way in which art traps a moment in time. Jennie herself is frequently filmed emerging from or disappearing into bright light, accentuating her role as an angel from beyond. Most noteworthy are the filmmakers’ experiments with color. While mostly monochromatic, Jennie plays with tinting deep into the third act, bathing the screen in the angry green of a cataclysmic storm and a warm amber sepia for its aftermath. And of course, the final shot revealing the painter’s masterwork is presented in vibrant three-strip Technicolor.

But to what end? Seeing the portrait in full color puts an exclamation Continue reading CAPSULE: PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948)

CAPSULE: THE LAST SUNSET (1961)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Aldrich

FEATURING: Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone, ,

PLOT: Lawman Stribling (Rock Hudson) tracks killer O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) into Mexico; upon finding him they agree to defer their confrontation so they can drive a herd of cattle to Texas with female rancher (Dorothy Malone) and her husband.

Still from The Last Sunset (1961)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I suppose this is one of those cases where the subjectivity of weirdness comes into play. The Last Sunset strikes me as a fine, but generally conventional Western with some unexpected philosophy and Freudian melodrama thrown in. You have to squint too hard to find the minimal surreality here.

COMMENTS: The Last Sunset has cattle drives, desperadoes, macho posturing, runaway chuckwagons, Indian attacks, and a final showdown between a protagonist in white and an antagonist in black. Despite all the standard outfit trappings, however, Sunset is not a formula oater; it peels off the weathered exteriors of its cowboy archetypes and uncovers layers of pent-up, illicit passions underneath. Although Rock Hudson’s strict law-and-order Marshall Stribling is the putative headliner, Kirk Douglas’s O’Malley is by far the dominant character. O’Malley is a morally complex antihero, a whistling killer with a romantic streak who earns free drinks at saloons by spontaneously composing poetry. In fact, he may be too morally complex—the scene where he strangles a dog for growling at him seems terribly out of place (the cur later forgives him, like nothing ever happened). O’Malley’s in love with Dorothy Malone, who is married to the much older, alcoholic, presumably impotent Joseph Cotten. To make things even more complicated, Stribling, who has sworn to hunt down O’Malley for killing his brother-in-law, also falls for Malone, and Malone’s teenage daughter falls hard for the outlaw. And, quite naturally, O’Malley and Stribling develop a grudging respect and admiration for each other, which complicates things when it comes time to fulfill blood oaths.

The Last Sunset was one of the first scripts wrote under his own name after the Hollywood blacklist ended (1960’s classic Spartacus, of course, being the very first). The plot effectively merges Western conventions with elements of Greek tragedy and melodrama a la Douglas Sirk, although reportedly the suddenly busy Trumbo short-shrifted the project because he was more interested in writing Exodus for .

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the more ambitious and offbeat Westerns of the early sixties, THE LAST SUNSET (1961) is an odd duck… Even Leonard Maltin in his capsule movie review for his popular guide calls it ‘Strange on the Range.'”–Jeff Stafford, Movie Morlocks

(This movie was nominated for review by “The Awful Doctor Orloff” [who later wrote reviews here under the name Otto Black], whose explanation for his suggestion is so detailed we will list it in full here as a counterpoint to this review:

“On the face of it, this is just a bulk-standard horse-opera; the studio certainly thought so or they wouldn’t have made it. It’s ‘weird’ because writer Dalton Trumbo, annoyed by a pretentious magazine article suggesting that westerns were written by macho hacks who unconsciously riddled them with Freudian imagery, deliberately wrote a western containing as much screamingly blatant ridiculously over-the-top Freudian symbolism as he could possibly cram in short of calling the hero the Oedipus Kid!

Dorothy Malone is turned on by a herd of stampeding bulls with luminous horns, Joseph Cotten is forced to drop his trousers in a crowded saloon, and best of all, Rock Hudson and Kirk Douglas debate the merits of Rock’s great big gun versus Kirk’s tiny little one! (Robert Aldrich recycled that idea when he co-wrote ‘A Fistful Of Dollars,’ hence Ramon Rojo’s very Freudian dialogue concerning his rifle). And after that it gets even worse… OK, it’s only borderline weird, but it’s certainly very unusual, and more than slightly surreal.”

Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Fuest

FEATURING: Vincent Price, Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, , , photographs of Caroline Munro

PLOT:  Dr. Phibes, a mysterious, organ playing supervillain, kills off doctors in bizarre and ritualistic ways as Scotland Yard races to find the pattern to the crimes and the identity of the killer.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Dr. Phibes, the supervillain, is pretty damn weird, from his obsession with acting out 1920s torch songs to the audio jack in his neck that he connects to a phonograph when he wants to speak.  Dr. Phibes, the movie, is somewhat weird, though less so than its central character. Doubtlessly, the proper but incompetent Brits who are perpetually one step behind the bad doctor would term the goings-on here “decidedly odd.”  We’re not sold that Dr. Phibes is weird enough to make the List on a first pass, but we’re not comfortable writing it off, either, so it will sit in the Borderline category.

COMMENTS: The first scene of Dr. Phibes wisely spotlights the film’s keynote set and admirably sets a tone of ghoulish whimsy.  Organ music swells as the camera travels up a marble staircase until it reaches an odd atrium.  In the center sits an organ with a fan of pipes glowing with subtly garish yellows, pinks and reds.  Flanking this centerpiece are trees with stuffed birds of prey perched on their dead limbs.  At the organ sits the hunched, hooded figure of a man, who sways as if possessed and theatrically throws up his arms during  random passages as he plays.  After the opening credits fade a longshot reveals there is more to this room: there’s a clockwork band of automatons in tuxedos.  The hooded figure finishes his dirge, steps away, winds a crank and begins conducting the stiff figures as they belt out an impossibly lush big band ballad.  On a balcony above a door opens and out steps a beautiful brunette, Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)