Film Review: High Sierra (1941)

Release Date: January 23rd, 1941 (Los Angeles, Louisville and Providence)
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Written by: John Huston, W.R. Burnett
Based on: High Sierra by W.R. Burnett
Music by: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Alan Curtis, Arthur Kennedy, Joan Leslie, Willie Best

Warner Bros., 100 Minutes

Review:

“Of all the 14 karat saps… starting out on a caper with a woman and a dog.” – Roy Earle

High Sierra came out just before The Maltese Falcon, which is one of the films from 1941 credited with the birth of the film-noir style. However, like a few other Humphrey Bogart crime pictures before it, High Sierra is very much film-noir.

The story sees an aged criminal named Roy Earle get out of prison, only to plan one big retirement job so that he can give himself a big nest egg before he hangs up his criminal ways for good. Along the way, he meets the young Velma and her family. Velma needs a surgery to give her back her mobility. Earle, falling for the young girl, has plans to do the job, pay for the girl’s surgery and then ride off together in the sunset. But a lot of curveballs are thrown and Ida Lupino’s Marie has her eye on Earle.

Even though Bogart plays a criminal, planning a big heist, he is a likable and charismatic character, often times acting with his hearty instead of his head. Watching the film, there is a part of me that felt that he was a character that could redeem himself by film’s end. But being that this is noir, bad things happen to people that don’t walk the straight and narrow.

The performances from all the main players were really good in this movie. Bogart and Lupino had fantastic chemistry and I feel as if the world should have seen them play off of each other more than what we got. I loved Lupino in this and Bogart was typical badass Bogart.

I also liked the dog that always tried to save the day and Willie Best’s character Algernon was a delight.

The movie has a sadness to it because you are pulling for Earle to make it out of this thing unscathed but you also know that it’s not possible.

The big standoff in the Sierras was really well shot and executed. Raoul Walsh was a fine director and his work here was no different. Also, he was working off of a script form John Huston, who would become a great filmmaker in his own right.

High Sierra is a very layered film with a lot of emotional depth from it’s two top players.

All in all, a great early film-noir with powerful leads and a good amount of energy and emotion in the big finale.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other Bogart noir and crime pictures: The Maltese FalconKey Largo, Dark Passage, etc.

Film Review: I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

Also known as: Hot Spot (working title)
Release Date: October 31st, 1941
Directed by: H. Bruce Humberstone
Written by: Dwight Taylor, Steve Fisher
Based on: I Wake Up Screaming by Steve Fisher
Music by: Cyril J. Mockridge
Cast: Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Laird Cregar, Elisha Cook Jr.

20th Century Fox, 82 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.” – Ed Cornell

Coming out in 1941, this was a film slightly ahead of its time. Film-noir really hadn’t taken off yet but this certainly fits within the framework of the style in both the narrative and visual aspects.

There is a murder of a rising starlet. The situation pulls in her sister, her former manager and everyone else that floated within her orbit. There’s even a hulking cop that takes tremendous liberties with his job in an effort to try and pin the crime on the former manager.

This picture’s plot is well structured and it’s not an easy one to figure out. One line of dialogue tipped me off to who the killer was but I still wasn’t sure and even that was followed by a lot of twists.

The film was really carried by the acting talents of both Betty Grable and Victor Mature, a guy whose work I always want to see more of. I really loved both actors in this and Mature was superb at coming off as a bit sleazy in the beginning but slowly evolving into a lovable and romantic hero.

Carole Landis was also great as the sister who ends up murdered. While I think that Grable was definitely the show stealer, Landis held her own and to be frank, the two ladies are absolutely gorgeous in that old school Hollywood way that will just never exist again.

The film was directed by veteran H. Bruce Humberstone, who wouldn’t do much in the noir genre after this but certainly made his mark with this picture. He had a great eye for mise-en-scène and also had the help of cinematographer Edward Cronjager, who would go on to do the noir picture Desert Fury, as well as some notable westerns. But Cronjager also had dozens of pictures to his credit before this one. In fact, he was one of the more prolific directors of photography in his day with 117 credits.

The only thing that works against the film is the score, as a lot of the music is recycled from other films. There’s even different instrumental versions of “Over the Rainbow” sprinkled throughout the picture, which just felt strange and out of place. But that song predates The Wizard of Oz even.

I Wake Up Screaming definitely had an impact, even if it’s not so well known today. It was remade in 1953 as Vicki, which wasn’t as good as this but was still pretty solid.

This is an underrated film that probably should have a bigger light shown on it. Solid work by everyone working on it at every level, minus the score.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Other noir pictures: The Glass KeyThe Blue Dahlia and This Gun for Hire.

Film Review: The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

Release Date: December 25th, 1941 (New York City)
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
Written by: Josef von Sternberg, Geza Herczeg, Jules Furthman
Based on: The Shanghai Gesture play by John Colton
Music by: Richard Hageman
Cast: Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Victor Mature, Ona Munson

Arnold Pressburger Films, United Artists, 99 Minutes

Review:

“The other places are like kindergardens compared with this. It smells so incredibly evil! I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination. It has a ghastly familiarity like a half-remembered dream. Anything… could happen here… any moment…” – Poppy

The Shanghai Gesture is a very early film-noir, as it came out the same year the genre was considered to be born: 1941. The same year that the world got to experience Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon for the first time. This isn’t as good as those motion pictures but it is still enjoyable enough.

Now a lot of critics and fans of noir hold this in pretty high regard. While I like the film, I don’t really think of it as a classic in the style.

It’s a slightly better than average romantic drama with some mystery and an exotic location thrown in. It also stars Gene Tierney, a few years before capturing the hearts of men in Laura. With Tierney in the forefront, there is a certain level of legitimacy added to this picture, due to her talent.

The technical side of this film is pretty impressive. The casino, where a big chunk of the film is set, was designed to resemble Dante’s Inferno – sort of mirroring the fall of man and in many cases with this film, the fall of woman. The other sets and the costumes also have a real opulence about them.

Additionally, the film is well shot. It doesn’t quite have the stark chiaroscuro cinematography that would become the norm in film-noir but it had a similar tone without strictly adhering to what most associate with the genre’s visual style.

Gene Tierney put in a solid performance as a young rich girl who arrives in Shanghai and quickly falls from grace thanks to becoming an alcoholic. She had help in her fall from Ona Munson’s “Mother” Gin Sling, who wanted to ruin the girl as part of a revenge plot against the girl’s father, an ex-lover.

Ultimately, this is a morality tale but what wasn’t back in the 1940s?

The Shanghai Gesture is a pretty picture and it has some good acting, a visual elegance and nice cinematography but I did find it to be fairly boring. It’s a good technical achievement for the time and it advanced the career of Tierney but I just didn’t find a lot to get excited about.

Rating: 6/10

Film Review: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Also known as: The Gent From Frisco, The Knight of Malta (both were working titles)
Release Date: October 3rd, 1941 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: John Huston
Written by: John Huston
Based on: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Music by: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr.

Warner Bros., 101 Minutes

Review:

“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” – Sam Spade

I remember seeing the poster for The Maltese Falcon in a Hardee’s fast food restaurant near my house when I was a young kid. It was on a wall that was also decorated with posters from The African QueenCasablanca, Key Largo, The Big Sleep and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Whoever the franchise owner was, they must have been a big Bogart fan. Something about that Maltese Falcon poster just grabbed me though. I wouldn’t see the film until years later but I always remember eating breakfast in a dining room surrounded by Bogart’s manly mug.

As I got older, I too became a big fan of Humphrey Bogart. In fact, he is my favorite big wig actor alongside Orson Welles. The Maltese Falcon was also a film that drew me in and lived up to the hype of this poster that had a profound effect on me, as a kid just discovering his love of motion pictures.

The film features another actor I am a huge fan of, Peter Lorre. Seeing Bogart and Lorre together was a treat. While I was a fan of Lorre due to his later horror pictures, where he was often times playing opposite of Vincent Price, Boris Karloff or Basil Rathbone, seeing his work when he was younger, is still a lot of fun and he holds his own among the heavyweights.

The acting in this is some of the best put to celluloid but that is just about every Bogart picture. The guy just had an uncanny and almost magical way in which he commanded the audience’s attention and transcended the screen. With Lorre, their scenes in particular are some of the best in Bogart’s legendary career. Mary Astor, Gladys George and Sydney Greenstreet also add a certain level of quality to the picture. Elisha Cook Jr. also showed up with his best foot forward.

Most film-noir experts credit this picture for giving birth to this genre that no one realized was a genre for a few decades. It is distinctly noir in its twists and turns and its femme fatale. It uses a high contrast visual style, similar to what was seen in German Expressionist pictures of the 1920s. But there is just something pristine about this movie’s visual presentation. It has a silvery and majestic allure.

At the time of The Maltese Falcon‘s release, quality mystery films were most associated with British directors like Alfred Hitchcok and Carol Reed. This proved that Hollywood could hang with the genre and as was stated in the last paragraph, this was a film that birthed a storytelling and stylistic movement in American motion pictures.

Coming out the same year as Citizen Kane, these two films redefined how filmmaking techniques could evolve. Pictures would become more artistic and less straightforward. John Huston, like Orson Welles, gave the world something unique and new.

The Maltese Falcon is a near perfect picture. It falls short of Citizen Kane when looking at the best pictures of 1941 but in any other year, this could easily be the best film. It boasts technical prowess, dynamite acting and as cool as Bogart was, he was never as cool as he was here, as Sam Spade.

Film Serial Review: Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

Release Date: March 28th, 1941 (first chapter)
Directed by: William Witney, John English
Written by: Ronald Davidson, Normas S. Hall, Arch B. Heath, Joseph Poland, Sol Shor
Based on: characters created by Bill Parker, C.C. Beck
Cast: Tom Tyler, Frank Coghlan, Jr., William Benedict, Louise Currie, Robert Strange, Harry Worth, Bryant Washburn, John Davidson

Republic Pictures, 216 Minutes total (12 episodes)

Review:

Captain Marvel, often times erroneously called Shazam, was a hero very similar to Superman. He also shares his name with several Marvel Comics characters. He is, however, a creation by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck and was originally published by Fawcett Comics from 1939-1953. He was resurrected by his new owners DC Comics in 1972, where he is still a major presence today.

In 1941, not too long after his comic book debut, Captain Marvel was adapted into a serial by Republic Pictures.

In this serial, we see our hero take on the Scorpion, an evil masked villain hellbent on ruling he world. But wasn’t that every villain in every serial?

Young Billy Batson finds himself on an archaeological expedition trying to discover the lost secret of the Scorpion Kingdom in Siam. Mainly, they are looking for a device, the Golden Scorpion. Billy reads a warning, not to enter the crypt where the device is. When the scientists enter the crypt, the device shoots a beam, resealing the entrance. Because Billy heeded the warning, he is chosen by the wizard Shazam to be given awesome powers. As the buff and manly Captain Marvel, Billy saves the scientists from danger and thus begins his adventure.

Following the cave mayhem, the scientists divide up the lenses from the Golden Scorpion device between them. In the meantime, the villainous Scorpion steals the device and then sets out to acquire all the missing lenses. So what you have now is a race against time, as the Scorpion will most assuredly get all the lenses from the wimpy scientists unless Captain Marvel rushes to stop him before he succeeds and rebuilds the Golden Scorpion.

Adventures of Captain Marvel is a good mix of superhero fun and an Indiana Jones type of story. It is like a classic Iron Fist tale but the Iron Fist is more like Superman.

In regards to filmmaking quality, it is consistent with most of the other Republic Pictures. The cinematography is decent but nothing exceptional, the directing is good and the acting, for a serial, isn’t half bad.

The one really big positive, is that above all else, this serial is just fun and engaging. I owned this on VHS with a couple other serials when I was younger and this was the one I probably watched the most. I’ve just always liked archaeological adventure stories and this has enough of that to whet my palate.

Adventures of Captain Marvel is one of the better serials of its day. Check it out if you’re into these things, which if you’ve read this far, you probably are.

Film Review: Citizen Kane (1941)

Release Date: May 1st, 1941 (Palace Theatre premiere)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Music by: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Agnes Moorehead, Paul Stewart, Ruth Warrick, Erskine Sanford, William Alland

RKO Radio Pictures, 119 Minutes

citizenkaneReview:

Citizen Kane is considered, by many, to be the greatest film ever made. I wouldn’t consider it the best but it is certainly an amazing motion picture, nonetheless.

I guess the most incredible thing is that Orson Welles directed, co-wrote and starred in the picture at the age of twenty-five. It is uncanny that someone so young would have such a grasp on what life would be like for a man who becomes fantastically rich and unbelievably powerful and how that would drain on his soul over a lifetime.

One can’t deny that Citizen Kane is a fantastic picture, especially for its day. The story is compelling and well orchestrated. The cinematography is breathtaking to the point that some shots are still mesmerizing, even in modern times where CGI can try and wow an audience in any way imaginable. Watching the film, it is easy to see what techniques, employed by Welles and his crew, became regular approaches to filmmaking.

It is impossible to even begin to list the countless pictures that were influenced by Citizen Kane. Stylistically, it is superb. Compared to other films of the era, it isn’t hard to understand why and how this captivated audiences and critics and how it still has a grasp on the minds of young filmmakers today.

While Kane is a fictional character, the movie plays like a really well done biopic of a true historical figure. There are several famous people in politics and media that you can associate with the character to the point that the film even feels a bit prophetic. Ultimately, it is a stern warning about the human soul and how it can become corrupted by money, power and fame.

Citizen Kane is a tragedy in the best sense. It feels Shakespearean, even in its late 1800s to early 1900s setting. It could possibly be the best tragedy not written by Shakespeare. While there have certainly been pictures and stories like it, since 1941, there is only one Citizen Kane.

Welles deserves the legendary status that this film brought to him. Again, he was twenty-five years old and made a beautiful and nearly flawless work of cinematic art that people still hold in the highest regard almost 80 years later.

Film Review: Universal Monsters, Part V – The Wolf Man Series (1935-1946)

I’ve now gotten up to the Wolf Man’s series of films. Only two films here actually feature that character: The Wolf Man and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. So in addition to that, I am also reviewing the two other werewolf films put out by Universal during this era. Plus, they are also included in the Wolf Man collection of my Universal Monsters DVD box set.

The Wolf Man character was a late bloomer in the Universal Monsters franchise. Granted, he beat the Gillman of Creature From the Black Lagoon by more than a decade but unlike the Gillman, at least the Wolf Man got to mix it up with Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula a couple of times.

The Wolf Man (1941):

Release Date: December 12th, 1941
Directed by: George Waggner
Written by: Curt Siodmak
Music by: Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers

Universal Pictures, 70 Minutes

the-wolfmanReview: 

In The Wolf Man we are introduced to Larry Talbot, played by the great Lon Chaney Jr. Chaney’s interpretation of this character is almost heartbreaking at times, as he really connects with the audience and conveys real genuine emotion as the tragic title character of this film. In fact, the Wolf Man is probably one of the top five most tragic figures in film history. And without Chaney in the role, chances are that the Wolf Man would’ve been just a pretty one-dimensional monster.

In quality, this film really could rival the James Whale films Bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, as well as the first Dracula film under the Universal Monsters banner. The Wolf Man like every other first film in each of Universal’s classic horror series was the pinnacle and a great kickoff to what would become a reoccurring character in the larger shared mythos.

This film also gives us two other horror icons: Claude Rains and Bela Lugosi. Rains plays Larry Talbot’s father, Sir John. Bela Lugosi plays the gypsy man who is the werewolf that infects Talbot. Lugosi was awesome in this role and it is my favorite thing that he did for Universal after Dracula.

There isn’t a lot that anyone can criticize this film for. It is a classic horror gem and still plays well today, over 70 years later.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943):

Release Date: March 5th, 1943
Directed by: Roy William Neill
Written by: Curt Siodmak
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: Hans J. Salter
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Ilona Massey, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Dwight Frye

Universal Pictures, 74 Minutes

frankenstein_meets_the_wolf_manReview: 

This is my favorite of the Universal Monsters team-up or versus movies.

It truly is a Wolf Man movie that Frankenstein’s monster just happens to appear in but isn’t much of a focal point, as Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as Larry Talbot takes over this film.

The film follows Talbot, who comes to life in his tomb after being disturbed by grave robbers. Coming to the realization that he cannot die, he seeks out the legendary Dr. Frankenstein in hopes that he can find a way to euthanize him by scientific means.

Dwight Frye from Frankenstein and Dracula shows up in this film in a minor role. Bela Lugosi returns again but this time as Frankenstein’s monster.

This film is awesome and it feels like a true sequel to The Wolf Man, as opposed to just a crossover film. It is much less of a sideshow attraction than the films that followed it: House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula.

Werewolf of London (1935):

Release Date: May 13th, 1935
Directed by: Stuart Walker
Written by: Robert Harris, John Colton
Music by: Karl Hajos
Cast: Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson, Lester Matthews, Spring Byington, Clark Williams, Lawrence Grant

Universal Pictures, 75 Minutes

werewolfoflondonReview: 

This is not part of The Wolf Man storyline and is its own film. In fact, it came out before the Lon Chaney Jr. masterpiece. The Wolf Man’s adventures continue in the films House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, which I already reviewed in my pieces about the Frankenstein and Dracula series of films.

Getting into this film, it is well done and the special effects are great. This was Universal’s first werewolf film and this was a good early version of the effects they would employ in later werewolf films.

This film works all on its own and in fact, is considered a classic in its own right, regardless of The Wolf Man being more popular and launching its own mini-franchise.

I love this movie. It is real good classic Victorian horror and it has a lycanthrope in it. What’s not to love?

She-Wolf of London (1946):

Release Date: May 17th, 1946
Directed by: Jean Yarbrough
Written by: George Bricker
Music by: William Lava
Cast: June Lockhart, Don Porter

Universal Pictures, 61 Minutes

shewolfoflondonReview: 

As a stand alone film, this thing is pretty good. As a horror film, it is pretty bad.

The marketing for this film was all wrong. With the title of this film, it was trying to tap into the previously released Werewolf of London. However, don’t watch this expecting some werewolf action. What you get is a mystery film with some suspense and a not so ingenious plot.

The acting of June Lockhart and Don Porter was top notch but it didn’t save this film from being poorly marketed and being represented as something it is not. I say all this so that if someone is to watch it, they don’t go into it expecting the Universal Monster supernatural horror formula.

One more Universal Monsters review is coming. Next up will be the Creature From the Black Lagoon series.